Walking back a commitment to digital imaging.

The latest Photokina and the showing of new product from the makers of medium format digital gear started some discussions around the web on just how different current medium format digital cameras are from 35mm sized digital cameras. And that led, on most of the forums that deal with the arcane world of cameras costing over $10,000 to a rather logical discussion of just what might be the differentiators between the current state of MF digital and all the more "plebeian" format such as m4:3, APS-C and 24x36.

Here's how I parse it all: Until the launch of the Nikon D800 the medium format market dominated the highest image quality tier because of the enormous resolution advantages and the true 14 or 16 bit depth per channel. Holding the line at 6um pixel sizes also yielded advantages in overall dynamic range. There was also the presumption (or prejudice) that CCD sensors looked better than CMOS sensors and all of the MF digital backs and cameras used CCD sensors.

When Nikon (Sony) showed up with the 36 megapixel chip and it turned out to be really, really good it naturally eroded a lot of the imaging quality advantages.  Now the MF crowd are starting to source CMOS sensors to answer two of the vexing issues facing MF camera users: 1. Being able to accurately focus the systems, via live view and getting meaningful previews. So now the perceived advantages of the CCD sensors will be eliminated as well (holy homogenization!).

Where that leaves most medium format digital users who are in the financial "nose bleed" section is with camera backs of about 40 megapixels with a total sensor geometry that's about 50% bigger than a competing 24 by 36mm sensor.

None of that really matters to me. The thing I want when I look to medium format is that wonderful size different that we had between 56 by 56mm film and 24 by 36mm film.  Being fractionally bigger doesn't convey the optical difference in depth of field or rate of focus fall off the way X times bigger does.  What's the difference in surface area? How about 864 versus 3136? Roughly a 4:1 difference.  The difference between a Leica S sensor and a Nikon/Canon/Sony sensor? Roughly 1:1.5.  Hmmmm.

In the old days of film we came to MF for the resolving power but we stayed for the smoother tonal transitions and the smoother, more elegant and faster transitions between in and out of focus.  
And to a large extent that's one of the critical looks that's been missing from the tool box/ammunition dump of expressive photography since the early part of the century. We throw aesthetics out when we chose mindless convenience.

( Sarcasm alert: Yes, I'm sure you can put a fast lens on the front of your small digital camera and emulate the look of an older, square format camera with a long lens exactly..... )

Some of my photographer friends have been mystified by my acquisition of two nearly brand new Hasselblad 500 series cameras this year and I am sure they will be equally mystified by my acquisition of a lightly used 180mm f4 Zeiss Sonnar but I'm here to tell you that the look is different. At least it is to me and it's my pervasive sense of reality that I have to deal with, not anyone else's.

I actually did a private portrait session recently for a client who also thinks they can see the difference. While I'm sure it's a tiny niche market I'm equally sure that portraits done on full frame, medium format film can be a profitable niche in higher end markets. The more things are automated the more it seems that people are drawn to original works with mature and archival materials.  I guess we'll see we'll see what the market will bear.

The image above was done years ago with a Hasselblad ELX and a 180mm Sonnar f4. It was a very sharp and flare free lens that used to cost an arm and a leg. It can now be had for less than the price of a small sensor camera body. I go both ways. I have a Sony Nex system and I've used so many different professional and quasi professional digital systems that I could have saved the money and shot everything on film for the last 12 years. 

Digital has it's place. It's good for most stuff. But there are areas in which the bigger film size of 6x6 has clear aesthetic advantages to me. And if we're trying to market images without compromise why wouldn't I want to be able to work with the tools that match one vision? After all, someone has to work in that last 5%. (Remember all that stuff about "raising one's game?).

Staying focused on the work.

I think one of the interesting aspects of modern life is the push to turn everything we do into experiential entertainment and "group participation" exercises. You see it everywhere. In the 1970's we ran for exercise, now we run to participate in 5k's, 10k's, mini-triathalons and charity events of all stripe. It's not enough to own a cool car anymore, now you have to belong to a car club and write about your car on a forum.  As a working photographer it's the path of least resistance to do a workshop, a photo walk, a forum chat or work on your brand (whatever that means...). All of those things are generally focused on becoming more popular or more integrated with other photographers than they are focused on getting more work or doing more art.

The real work of all photographers is to do their work but being surrounded by other photographers slows down the process and dilutes most photographers' focus on their own individual point of view. Coffee and conversations about cool gear seem more fun than trudging around alone, looking for your kind of subjects or building a collection of images. Teaching workshops is a two fold reward equation. As a photographer you are getting paid for your efforts which is more and more necessary for people who are unable to move their shooting careers forward with real clients. But there is also the emotional reward of feeling wanted or needed by eager students. It can seem like a validation of your worth as a photographer.  

Likewise, frequent photo gatherings, be they workshops, coffees, photo walks, lectures and gallery visits also help people feel connected and as though they are learning more about their art, and moving their game forward.  In a sense the fully engaged workshopographer and his student counterpart have made a separate social activity of the idea of photography.  And it's a universe in which everyone seems to win and everyone gets a trophy for playing.

But it has little to do with the actual process of creating great photography or getting paid for it. 

Good photography comes from pursuing good pictures, not pursuing good reviews from non-professionals. But it's so easy to get sidetracked by the comfort and inclusion of the social process. Of the entertainment side of photography. And it's newest entertainment outlet, the stage show.

I feel it every time I'm asked to give a talk about some aspect of photography. Speaking about LED lights is not something that moves my creative vision for photography forward. Nor is talking about small flashes or electronic viewfinders. I'm repeating what I already know over and over again and many times to the same audiences. While fewer people would know who I am it would be more productive for my art to spend that time working on the work.

As a working professional and aspiring artist there are two groups of people I do need to surround myself with in order to be successful and neither group includes other photographers. One group is clients. Not workshop clients (unless I plan on changing careers, like so many of my peers, and start "teaching" full time. Oh crap, let's be honest. Entertaining full time ) A working photographer needs real clients. These are the owners of businesses, the marketing directors of corporations, the creative departments of advertising and public relations agencies and other people who need, as part of their jobs or the promotions of their businesses, to contract for the creation of images.  These are the people who license our work for money.

The last four years has been hard sledding for many commercial and editorial photographers but there is work out there. Magazines still publish. Products still launch. Press releases still go out and websites still get built-----a lot. But it's been harder than before to compete. The low hanging fruit got picked a while ago.  To many teaching a workshop or giving a speech or guiding a tour of wannabe wild life photographers seemed like a bright spot for previously working photographers in the midst of a cloudy business forecast. But, if you want to do advertising photography you have to find clients who will pay your invoices.  And if you want to lecture about current practices in commercial photography you pretty much have to be doing it contemporaneously.

Your business of licensing images depends on non-photographers being a large part of your universe. And it's their language you need to master. Not the language of the teacher.

Likewise, writing books for other photographers might be a great full time job for a writer who is keenly interested in photography but I think it's a sidetrack for someone whose life is about making great images. While sharing your knowledge, in books, about lighting, composition and even inspiration can return income it's nowhere near the income stream that one derives from successfully participating in advertising and commercial photography if you are able to compete. My books don't speak to my core audience (see: ad agencies and business, above) they speak to other working photographers and people with a keen interest in photography.  As such they do nothing to leverage my interface with my primary audience but they do create momentum that pushes me to do social marketing and blogging to effectively transform them into a profit stream which validates the time I spent on the books. It just doesn't move forward the actual work at the core of my vocation and avocation. 

I don't regret the writing because on several levels it sustained my interests and aided me financially during an altogether bleak period for the commercial arts. But I am ever cognizant that the book publishing process retarded my personal momentum in photographing for myself and it took time away that would have been well spent pursuing the kind of clients who represent my core business.

The other other group I need to access in order to continue to have real success as a photographer are gallery owners and curators. If you make the presumption (and who doesn't?) that your personal work has value you need a conduit to buyers who would want to acquire prints for collections and the decoration of their homes and offices. The gatekeepers to the real money in this field are the gallery owners and curators. Every jovial afternoon spent with the local camera club traipsing around "mentoring" amateurs and feeling wanted and needed by receptive and welcoming photographers is one less slot of time to spend researching and meeting with people who can move your career forward in a different way.

When you become ancient and you are wearing your trousers up under your armpits and combing what little is left of your hair over the bald spot on your shiny head you will still be able to work your camera and pursue your vision. But you will no longer be on the highly transitory "A" list for the next generation of camera buffs looking for a charismatic teacher who will lead them out of darkness and into strobism, one light-ism, zone-ism, and all the other offshoots of  the photo entertainment industry.

Better to make art and make the connections to sell art, and the connections to sell to commercial clients, right now so that you can afford to enjoy your photography on your own terms as you head to your dotage.

Staying focused on the core requirements of your commercial work means identifying the best markets for your work and connecting with as many members of those markets as you possibly can. Money is the reward for properly connecting with this market, not the adoration of your peer group.

Staying focused as an artist is harder. It's harder because it's not collaborative. It's not about consensus and it's not done in a group, jockeying to get a shot of the same subject from a slightly different angle. It means spending time alone coming to grips with what visual nutrition sustains you. It means spending time honing your craft. It means time spent actually doing the work. If you are a portrait artist it means time spent finding just the right subjects and convincing them to willingly bend to your ideas of what a portrait means. If you are a landscape photographer it means getting up early to get where you need to be when the light is right, and being willing to return to a spot again and again until the light is right.

If you work in the street it means working up the courage to engage people and jump on chance. Which means you have to be open and ready for chances, not engaged in a heartfelt discussion of the edge sharpness of the latest boutique optique.

But if you really want to do the art or anything it means you have to be committed to spend the time to work all the way through the process. If a print is your final  espressive product then you work from idea all the way through to the print and beyond. And at each step you have the choice of doing it your own way or getting all collaborative and share-y.  No great art is ever done by committee. No great art is a result of sharing with your team. And no great art can be learned, wholesale, from your mentor of the week or that class on creative imaging you take on the cruise ship.

The inspiration comes from many avenues but the realization comes solely from the artist. Staying focused makes the art focused. Too much discussion with peers and playmates during the gestation process just dilutes the original inspiration and makes it more group accessible. It's the latest creative battle: How to make art that you love while resisting the lure of being about art for entertainment's sake.

I'm not saying the equation needs to be all or nothing but I think we've become like aspiring film makers who've been to way too many movies. Spent too long on the learning curve.  We've seen every great film ever made and make time to watch movies almost continuously and, as a result, we never have time to make our movies....

That's okay if you are a movie critic but it's tough sledding if you really want to produce your own film.

I guess the real key is moderation.  Moderation in everything except the creation of your art....