What's missing from the current practice of photography.

History is a story with no ending.  You read it from the past to the present.  
Then you make history.

Funny thing happened on the way to educating our country.  We lost track of how important history is and we lost sight of what it really means to be educated. Somewhere along the line we decided, as a culture, that the only really important thing was to have a career and get a job and make money and be comfortable.  In order to do this most efficiently we took our universities, which previously had subscribed to a mandate that good education meant well rounded education, and turned them into big trade schools. Mostly for the benefit of big business.

Each "discipline" narrowed down its focus to transmit only the rawest and coarsest base competencies.  Engineering students learned their math and physical sciences but lost the institutional mandate that required what used to be considered basics.  Things like literature and a foreign language became roadkill for the sciences.  Business majors never see the inside of a philosophy or art history classroom on their rush to riches.  Our forefathers knew that it was in our society's best interest that people understand the value of good novels and poems, become civilized by appreciating important and time tested music and also to understand the arc of art history and art in general.

It has been said that "Art tells us what it is to be human."  And I would say that any society that doesn't value it's art will soon cease to be creative, cease to produce truly creative products and will live a meaner existence. To not know history is to be doomed to endlessly repeat it.

Many people flock to photography and practice it as a hobby or a business but so few of them know anything about the history of the art.  Or the history of its technology.  Without knowing the rich past of photography we have no base line to understand its arc and its depth.  And we're left with a generation of photographers who are re-interpreting the same wheel in the same (concurrent) time period, over and over and over again.

No wonder people are fascinated with Instagrams and Hipstergrams.  It's just a recycling of Polaroid SX-70 manipulations and Polaroid transfers.  Most of the current practitioners weren't old enough to have been around for the first iteration but its aesthetic has been kept alive by advertising references and rehashes for decades.  Would the new iterations be anywhere near as popular if the people doing it now knew that their parents and grandparents did the same thing, analog style, so many years ago?  Probably not.  They would shun it and perhaps go in a new direction.  They might seek new ways to speak with their cameras instead of copying stuff that their aunt did when she was their age.  ( And, by the way, Ben Lowy's work is interesting because of the content, and context, not the trendy presentation.....)

Would the photographers who think they are being cool by taking images with their tiny cellphone cameras be surprised to see a portfolio of Helmut Newton's fashion work done on a beach with a 110 (mini-film) interchangeable lens camera from Pentax back in the 1970's?  It was primitive and the film was primitive so it was all about the talent of the photographer.  Would people be as impressed by Chase Jarvis's oh so kinetic Ninja shoot if they had already seen the work of Phillipe Halsman's Jumpology from (gulp) the early 1960's?  Would they be amazed by the Photoshop work of hundreds of thousands of worker bees if they had spent time looking at paintings by Salvatore Dali or even Brueghel's Tower of Babel ?

And who doesn't understand that our modern ideals of beauty were invented and presented by painters Botticelli and Michaelangelo and especially Leonardo Da Vinci?  And that no one has created a more beautiful three dimensional work in all of human time than Bernini's Apollo and Daphne?

Our rush to decimate all of the non-essentials of learning in exchange for training will eventually destroy our entire culture because it takes away the reasons and rationales for all of the hard work we, as a culture engage in;  to be captivated, enchanted and mesmerized by art and music and poetry, romance and all the things we do because we love them, not because they bolster some bottom line.  How do you put a financial value on falling in love with the lines of a poem?

Photography is interesting today in that we are constantly obsessed by the availability and constitution of the tools. We spend all of our time on the equipment and none of it learning the stories and legends and motivations of the guiding lights and historical figures of our own art and craft. We know nothing of the great works and the struggles against all odds that produced them.  We say "good capture" to the weekend warrior who goes on a photo walk and takes a sharp picture of a cat but we've never learned of the struggles of the Civil War photographers (Matthew Brady: Sketchbooks of the Civil War)  who had to coat glass plates in the field for film and then make sharp images with long exposures on cameras that weighed over 50 pounds and had no functional controls.  People made exposures then by uncapping a lens, counting down and estimating exposure times and then recapping the lens.  The chemicals that made the final images were often times toxic and deadly and yet, the artists were still able to make images that would shame all but the greatest photographers of our current time; if we could distill our current masters from the vast fields of chaff....

Are we so smug and spoiled and narcissistic that we can't value the history and the past glory of our own craft?  We are so busy honoring our current "teachers"  that we can't even see around them to the incredible contributions that came before.

I wrote a book on lighting with small flashes.  It sold well.  People were ready to hear the message.  David Hobby preached the same message on his website.  And the vast majority of our customers and followers wrongly give us credit for "inventing" small flash photography or, in David's case, Strobism.  But the reality is that our work, for the most part is a shallow scoop into the work done by a person who was there before us named, Jon Falk.  He wrote a book back in the 1980's called Adventures in Location Lighting and he let us in on the secrets of using radio triggers, optical triggers, external battery packs, minimalist light stands, all kinds of flash modifications and much more.  He was an amazing source of information about all this stuff. (Thanks Jon!!!).

And I have no doubt that his knowledge was built on the information and inspiration that came from the generation just ahead of him.  And then all the way back to Dr. Harold Edgerton.

The primary difference is this:  His generation invented stuff to be able to say what it was they wanted to say. They had a mission.  It was to get a certain style of image.  Now the mission is to play with the gear. When is the last time someone told you about a subject they were intent on capturing in a new way?  And when did they tell you about their new lens/camera/flash?

Let's save the creative spirit of photography by learning what's come before us and let's see how the styles we leverage were created.  The same ones we build on today.  By knowing the past we can prevent spinning our wheels by reinventing them over and over again.  By studying the history of photography and the history of art we'll all benefit by being able to create new work that inspires a new generation.  Otherwise, to use a musical analogy, we'll just be stuck in the same elevator listening to the same Muzak version of Hey Jude  by the Beatles, over and over and over again until we die or photography becomes so stale and self referential that it dies.

So, you went to school and you got the job and you're financially successful.  Now plow some of that capital back into some important continuing education:  Dig deep into art and art history and you'll be rewarded beyond your dreams.  You'll actually learn how we fit into the rich and endless swirl of history instead of just watching "what's cool right now" being recycled on the web.

If you're going to tell me that you copy all of the current stuff in your own work as some sort of learning process I'll tell you that you're copying the wrong stuff.  Go for the classics.  That's where the magic is.  And the chicks will dig you more...

So many people work so hard only to come to the realization that they didn't make time during their working lives for the things that make us part of the human continuum.  The shared joy of our art and culture.  That's why so many older people take up painting, photography and expansive learning.  Easier to do it all along.  And, like compound interest, more valuable.

This is my 1,000th Published Post.  And it was finished at 9:30 pm on Weds., May 2nd 2012.

my favorite post: http://visualsciencelab.blogspot.com/2011/11/meaning-of-life-is-to-make-life.html

A similar post, suggested by a reader:

I'm going to get geeky and talk about an actual job.

This is an image we shot years ago on an Olympus e300 and the 11-22mm lens.  It holds up fine because I shot it on a tripod at a useful ISO.

I've had two remarkable days of photography this week.  I've changed everything I do.  Everything.  Up until a few years ago everything in my universe revolved around shooting with flashes.  Big flashes. Little flashes.  Remote flashes.  Flash on a wire and flash on a radio trigger.  I wrote a book about getting the most out of small flashes.  But for the last two days everything I've shot has been done with two relatively small LED panels on very small, lightweight lightstands.  And the most elaborate light modifier I've used is a rickety old, shoot thru umbrella which has a pencil taped (splint style) onto one of the struts that got bent in an unfortunate packing accident.

The panels cost me about $160 dollars each, require no electrical cords, don't need to be triggered by anything and can change output color temperature with the twist of a knob.  But this wouldn't have worked nearly so well for me if there hadn't been huge advances in digital cameras in the last couple of years. Clean files at 800-1600 ISO mean I can integrate my LED lights with existing lights and still get exposures with enough f-stop and shutter speed to stop the slow action I usually shoot.

The next big thing that synergistically moved the ball forward for me was the introduction of high quality, electronic viewfinders.  If you still think you'll never use one then you are already becoming one of those lunatic curmudgeons who rant and rave about cellphones not being real cameras.....(Hmmmm.)

I became aware of the fluidity of lighting and shooting with the this combination of tools in mid-shoot yesterday when I found myself looking through the finder of a Sony a77 and watching the color of a light source change as I twisted the knob on the back of a light unit.  I watched the scene and the light source get closer and closer to the same color temperature and then----they merged.  No iterative testing.  No hysterics.  Just dialing in the matching color temperature as though we'd always been doing it this way.  That's an amazing transformation.

People are writing about the Nikon D800 as a game changer because it does high resolution files and good dynamic range but we've got to admit that we've had access to that in medium format digital cameras for years.  But cameras with high enough quality EVFs to judge color are real game changers in the literal sense because now we can do stuff that we never used to do before with cameras.  We can dial in exposures and color temperatures and effects in real time.

One feature I'm starting to use more and more often (though not in the candy/clown way that we think of with this technique) is in camera HDR.  I'm using it to open up shadow areas in scenes so I only have to add small amounts of fill light.  I know that this is something many cameras now feature but it's amazingly useful in commercial shoots.  And, with my eye pressed to the finder it's easy to see just what the camera has done and whether I like it or not.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.  I wanted to talk about my new workflow so that's where I'm heading.....

I packed up to shoot some "editorial/corporate PR" at a restaurant on Monday.  Had it been an advertising shoot we'd have gone there when the restaurant was closed to the public and we'd have cleaned and styled and lit and tested and gotten all sorts of advertising agency approvals.  But in PR and editorial, especially if the location is not the client, you go when it's convenient for the people at the location and you shoot around the edges so you don't run off customers or inconvenience the staff.  I knew I didn't want to run electrical cables and have flashes going off so I packed just two Fotodiox AS 312 (two tone) LED panels, some lightweight light stands and a shoot thru umbrella.  That was it for the lighting.  Except for the big Sony flash that lives/hibernates in the big black Domke camera bag...

When I got to the location I checked in with the manager who gave me carte blanche. I shot some images in each of the dining rooms to start with.  I would set my Sony a77 on a sturdy tripod, line up my shot with the built in, two axis level and then shoot with the HDR engaged at a low level.  Most times the dynamic range was perfect but once or twice I needed just a bit more fill light in the shadows so I would put an  LED panel up high on a stand and dial it up (quantity) just so I didn't cast any additional shadows and then I'd dial in color temperatures (between 3200 and 5600K) while looking thru the finder to see when the colors matched.  Once they matched I shot.  I rarely did more than two images of any one scene because......why?

Since I was working with a tripod I could do all of the shots that didn't include people at ISO's like 50, 64,80 and 100.  The files (currently embargoed) are flawlessly smooth, detailed and sharp.  I think the HDR process works somewhat like another setting called Multi Shot Noise Reduction in that it stacks the frames and kicks out the noise components (which are random).  However it works it delivers ultra-clean files.  All of these images were shot as Jpegs which meant that the camera did the processing to straighten out the barrel distortion and vignetting of the 16-50mm lens, automatically.

After I shot all the stuff without people I ventured into the kitchen to shoot the important shots for the clients.  There was light from florescent fixtures with three different kinds of tubes and some light from skylights overhead.  It didn't bother me.  I rolled up the ISO to 1600 because I'd be shooting a cook,  and set up two of my LED panels for effective fill light in the darker corners and the background.  Then I did a custom white balance in the area of the kitchen that was important for the shot.  I knew that if I blew it I could color correct areas of the outlying quadrants in Lightroom or Photoshop.  I couldn't use the HDR setting because of possible movements but I was able to use the camera's DRO or dynamic range optimiser to bring up the shadow areas, albeit with a bit more noise.

After I shot some exteriors, with and without HDR, and with or without some flash fill, I headed home to post process and recharge my batteries and the batteries in my lights and cameras for a shoot that would start the first thing, next day.

Post processing goes like this for me:  Ingest images from card to Lightroom 4.1. Before ingestion but on the import page I do a rough edit and dump anything I don't like.  If the client doesn't see it they never know it existed.  During the ingestion I add the job name to the front of each file and have the program copy the files onto two different hard drives.  Instant critical short term back up.
Once ingested and previews rendered I sit down and do a vicious, take no prisoners edit.

Then I color correct and contrast correct in small batches.  If the job is small I also use gradients, retouching tools and whatever else the image needs.  If it's large I wait until the client picks the keepers to fine tune files.  Once I've made sure they all look very acceptable I output all the files as smaller jpegs and then upload them all to a password protected gallery on Smugmug.  I've used Smugmug since 2006 and currently have over 120,000 smaller (2000 pixel wide) files on their servers.  I send the client the link and the password and then I crank out an invoice.  Some get mailed and some get e-mailed.  Clients who are prone to losing invoices get both as well as a follow up e-mail...

When they make selections I do the necessary retouching and send them an additional bill for the post-processing and any additional totals for usage of additional images.  Then I sit around on my yacht and wait for quick payment.

The day after I shot at the restaurant I was engaged to shoot for a company that has a series of medical labs sprinkled all over Austin.  They do all kinds of tests including MRI's, CT Scans, PET Scans and other kinds of imaging.  Working with a great art director from their internal marketing department we spent a full day setting up shots with doctors, technicians and mock patients.  Most of the photos incorporated a million dollar+ machine in the shot.  Since time is money when it comes to high value, high investment diagnostic machines part of our brief was to be in and out of each location pretty darn quickly.

When I first started working for this company we'd come in and do the shots using electronic flashes. Usually monolights on big stands.  A typical location would require several lights with softboxes for the main lighting and then several smaller lights to put illumination on the backgrounds.  We'd set up and break down the gear at each location because it wasn't safe for the patients and staff to have us lurching down the narrow hallways with three foot by four foot softboxes on eight pound monolights on top of big lightstands with cords and extension cables in tow.

As soon as the digital cameras got better with low light we moved to replicate what we were getting from the big lights with a set of smaller, battery powered lights like Nikon SB-800's and the like.  We switched from predominantly using soft boxes to using more umbrellas because they were so much quicker to set up and take down.  I like the ones with black backing so I can control the spill light when I need to.

Now we're almost entirely using small, battery powered LED lights for a number of reasons. (Which I'll discuss below).

Our modus operandi for yesterday was to go into a room, figure out the action, line up a good shot, figure out the prevailing light, figure out if it needed to be improved, filled or transformed and then move in our small light panels and even out the lighting landscape.  We'd shoot fifteen or twenty shots and then try another angle and then another.  Three workable angles for each set up was pretty much the norm.  Then the lights would come down and into an Airport Security Think Tank roller, camera and tripod under one arm and off to the next location.

The downside of using the LEDs is the relative inability to freeze fast action (and that means anything that can't be reasonable halted by a 1/90th of a second shutter speed.  The second downside is that if you are going to shoot into a window there's not enough power to match sunlight, even through darkened glass.  Finally, the way to use LED's is to augment existing light instead of totally nuking the ambient light and replacing it with all new light.  Flash is not always practical when you have to show screen information and what not, and match illumination levels.

But the upsides are, for me, pretty compelling.  The lights are small, light and easy to place.  The fact that they don't flash is actually a big positive thing for me.  I'm working in what we'd call "practical" locations.  Real workplaces with loads and loads of non-professional talents.  I've come to understand that the flash of a flash is like a signal that something out of the ordinary routine is happening.  The flash attracts people like moths to a flame.  Everyone sees the flashes going off and they cruise on by to see what's happening.  Very disruptive.  And even more disruptive for the amateur talents who are already nervous and had to be cajoled into being in the shot.

And flashes make every gawker into a stand up humorist.  "Don't break the camera with that face of yours!!!!"  "Action!!!"  "What are you guys doing? Making a movie?"  With continuous lighting there's no repeating signal that says, over and over again, "Action over here. Come look."  Don't discount what a powerful time savings this is.  No one is really interested in anything that doesn't flash.  The camera isn't compelling.  The set up isn't compelling and that weak light on a stick is nothing much to write home about.  Can you hear it around the dinner table?  "Someone came into the office to take a photograph today.  The lights just stood there.  They weren't very bright.  They didn't flash."  Not a compelling story.

It's a lot easier than trying to keep your talent from being self-conscious as his or her work mates walk by to thrown in their two cents worth.  Another good thing about continuous light is that lack of anticipatory blinking that seems to happen with light sensitive people in front of the camera.

The second thing that's good, not just about LEDs but about all continuous lighting is that you can see all the little reflections and "gotchas" that are so hard to find when your flash is firing at 1/1500th of a second.  Really.

So, the combination of the Sony EVF and the Fotodiox variable color temperature LED panels helped me move through two projects more quickly that I could have done in the flash days and that's better for me and the client.

The workflow is, for me, so much more efficient that shooting/chimping/fixing/shooting/chimping fixing.  I know you think EVFs aren't for you and that's okay.  This story is about my use of the EVFs.  They make photography a hell of a lot more fun for me.  And that's all I really care about.