And then there's Irving Penn...

Still Life : Irving Penn Photographs, 1938-2000

Irving Penn and Richard Avedon are two of the five monolithic and critical photographers of the 20th century. Both were masters of portraiture and fashion but while Richard Avedon focused like a laser beam on making images of people Irving Penn was also a dominating presence in the world of still life photography.

This book contains a comprehensive look at some of the best still life work in each stage of his life as a photographic artist. It'll cost you eleven venti lattes at Starbucks (or the equivalent) but if you have not seen his still life studio work before it will change your perception of studio photography, design and creativity. I collect Penn books like other people collect parking tickets and I am happy to have a book about Penn that is so tightly focused on one important aspect of his work.

That guy you're following on (fill in the blank website)? Chances are most of his work is somehow informed by Penn. So skip all the imitations and "homages" and go to the source. You will not be disappointed.

Still Life: Irving Penn Photographs, 1938-2000

Another Look at Richard Avedon.

©Richard Avedon

We can argue all day long about this but I think Richard Avedon was one of the five greatest photographer/artists in the entire 20th century and I think, in an almost subversive way, his intellectual and visual impact is still being felt by, and inspiring, enormous numbers of photographers around the world. So I was delighted to see this new book on a friend's desk last week.

Like most of the Avedon books this one is big, well designed and well produced. It features performers and performances (in the studio) that cover over 50 years of work.  The book is called, simply: Performance: Richard Avedon.

In addition to the great images of instantly recognizable (by any one over say, forty) stars and performers, there are several great essays including one that talks about being invited to dinner at Richard Avedon's place. He served very simple baked potatoes but then he brought out some garnishes for the baked potatoes including "about a pound of Beluga caviar..." 

If you don't have a Richard Avedon book/portfolio in your collection this is a fun place to start. At only around 12 Starbucks venti lattes (my preferred exchange rate. Almost as universal as the dollar but corrected for inflation....)  I consider this book to be a bargain.  It's a well printed and wonderfully entertaining volume that is also a small and tangential slice of what the cooler parts of the last century looked like through the eyes of one of the century's pre-eminent artists.

©Richard Avedon


So, who are the other four?  More to come.


Dialing in your camera at the opera. The Sony a77 does Pagliacci.

"The Jpeg engine! The Jpeg engine! Nothing good can ever come from the Jpeg engine!" Hmmm. I always wonder when I hear people trash or praise the Jpeg performance of their digital cameras whether or not they ever took the time to do a little fine tuning. While manufacturers work hard to make their Jpeg files one size fits all it's dawned on me over the years that the same manufacturers would not have gone to all the trouble to wedge in parameter fine tuning controls and different color palettes if they didn't understand that everyone wants something different and they can actually get it with a little metaphorical elbow grease.

I'll admit that the Sony a77 Jpeg files were giving me some issues in the early days. The contrast was a bit wonky, the noise reduction too severe and the saturation was a bit much. Mostly my fault, I can see in hindsight, for slavishly setting the camera in Jpeg beginner mode: Standard, and just hoping things would turn out the way I wanted them to. The reality is that using a digital camera in the Jpeg file mode is a lot like shooting slide film. You're locking in settings while you are shooting.  If the color is a little off you'll need to correct it in post but you'll find that you degrade the files a bit every time you make a change.

My thinking on working with Jpeg files got changed when I started shooting more video in DSLRs and when I started trying to color corrected the video I'd shot in Final Cut Pro X. If you set the sharpening in your files too high (because it looks nice on the LCD screen) you'll regret it in editing because there's no way to turn it back down again and bad sharpening looks worse and worse as you go along.  Same thing with contrast.  And same thing in spades with saturation.

From everything I've read on video production sites, in conversations with DP's and directors who work with digital video files, everyone has the same suggestions: Turn down the contrast, the saturation and the sharpening and add them back, to taste, in post processing. To this I would also add: Get your color balance as close as you can. Since these guys can only do limited global corrections in video post production it make sense and I've been zeroing in my working methodology for using Jpegs using this idea of turning everything down for a while now. It works.

At this point someone with way too much time on their hands will chime in and tell me that everyone should just shoot RAW. While it's a nice option it does take a lot of unnecessary resources (most importantly, time) and it's not always necessary. Figure it like this. I shot 1500 files at the Austin Lyric Opera dress rehearsal of the opera, Pagliacci, last night. The newspapers and arts websites are anxious to get some pictures in their hands.....today.

If I'd shot RAW files with my Sony a77's each file would be around 25 megabytes. That works out to about 37.5 gigabytes of information that needs to be ingested into Lightroom from multiple cards, Lightroom needs time to render standard previews and then, after a much slower process of file cleaning and enhancement, it will take hours to output one or two megabyte Jpegs that the media will want to use. Honestly, newspapers and web masters aren't looking forward to getting 16 bit, 70 megabyte tiff files. Probably would not even take the time to open them....

If I shoot large/fine jpegs I'm looking at around 6 to 7  megapixels per file or around 10 gigabytes of images to work with. I was able to do all of my post production and outputting in a couple hours this morning. And the files look great. They all have been downsized from 24 megapixels to  a little bit bigger than 12 megapixels. I applied a bit of sharpening to the files which they accepted very gracefully. In fact, I am so much happier with my flesh tones and noise reproduction that I'll try to shoot most of my fast breaking projects this way.  So, how did I shoot last night?

I set up my cameras to work in Jpeg using the largest files size and "fine" quality. There is one step above fine called, "extra fine" and I'm sure that if you run the files through a thorough diagnostic test you'll see a difference on the charts and graphs. Will you see a difference on the web or in newsprint? Highly unlikely.  This setting gives me almost 1,000 potential shots on an 8 gig memory card. It also saves on battery power since it requires more electrical juice to write the large raw files.

I set the Jpeg "creative" setting to standard and then I go into the menu and dial the contrast and saturation both to minus one. While I used to shoot my Jpegs with a +1 sharpening setting I've dialed back to zero and I add a bit of sharpening in Lightroom. The next thing I do is to make sure I'm in the right ballpark vis-a-vis color balance. Not necessarily for accuracy but for pleasing colors in the output. The lighting designer used a very blue palette for several parts of the opera and I wanted to keep that psychological effect but I wanted the scenes to render a bit warmer so I set a custom K temperature while looking at the scene in the EVF. Using the EVF instead of analyzing stuff on the rear LCD means I can block out the ambient light that will effect my take on the color. I worked mostly in the range of 4200K to 4400k to make the colors more neutral. While I liked the cool blue washes in the actual show I would hesitate to send files that were as blue to editors since they would see very monochromatic in print.

I've also started to always use the high ISO NR in its lowest setting. At anything under 1000 ISO it looks great and doesn't give me the plastic look that too much noise reduction generally imparts. This makes the a77 an ISO 800 camera for me. I'll go to ISO 1600 in a pinch but 800 is perfect. And perfectly usable. With good stage lighting my spot lit principals were usually in the f3.5 at 1/160th range. Seems just right for shooting a stage show.

Getting your Jpegs into a good flow helps you be a bit more disciplined in shooting RAW as well. Recent Jpeg images we've provided to another client in town recently were used highly cropped on large posters and I was amazed at just how well they worked. There's so much we see on 27 inch screens that's just not relevant to the way images are routinely used.

Finally, if you have the ability to do a micro focus adjust on your lenses by all means, take advantage of that and do it right. My 70-200mm f2.8 G series lens has become a brand new optic for me after half an hour of adjustment and testing. All in all I'm happy with my new Jpeg shooting routine, my lenses and my a77 bodies.  Good to have stuff dialed in.

Finally, if you are willing to go into each color setting and do some manipulation with the color controls it's very likely that you can get close to the overall color palette of most camera families. The tend to put all these controls on the cameras so you can have your images pretty much the way you want them. Might as well use em.

Did I enjoy this rendition of Pagliacci?  Yes, very much. The people at the Austin Lyric Opera did a fabulous job. This is a great opera for beginners. It's very much fun and very accessible. If you are in Austin pony up for some tickets and give it a shot. I can pretty much assure you that you won't be disappointed. Culture. Have some.

In other breaking news of vital importance to our Canadian readers: You now OWN the copyright to the images you create, commissioned or not!!! Read more: http://www.petapixel.com/2012/11/07/canadian-photogs-now-officially-own-the-copyright-to-all-of-their-photos/


Just in time for Thanksgiving. The Nex-6, body only, is now in stock and shipping!

I'm pretty happy that Sony and Nikon are announcing product and then getting it out the door quickly. I've got several friends who are trying to decide whether to get the Nex7 or the Nex6 as upgrades from their Nex5n's. It's an interesting trade off. The Nex 6 sensor seems to be a better performer in low light and the on sensor phase detection should help speed up auto focusing, a lot. The only other positive I can see with the newer camera, for some people, is the inclusion of wi-fi for quick sharing. But God help you if you're trying to upload RAW files on a wi-fi connection....

In the plus column for the Nex7 is the robust construction, the Tri-Navi operational controls and the world's best low ISO 24 megapixel APS-C sensor (yes, I am biased).  

I'm happy to see the simultaneous release of both the camera with kit lens and the camera as a body only product. A lot of people have Nex-7's and may want a back up. It would be a shame to have to buy another kit lens in that case. Too many other mirrorless camera companies seem to want to force their customers into buying kits if they want the opportunity to buy their cameras in the first few months after the introduction. Points to Sony for letting us go both ways.

My recommendation? Get the Nex6 body only, add the 19mm Sigma and the 30mm Sigma along with the Sony Nex 50mm 1.8 and you have yourself a lightweight, high performance kit with all primes. Expand from there.

If I were starting my Nex system from scratch right now I'd probably go with the Nex6. As I'm already half a year into using my Nex 7 I'm more inclined to have a second one as a back up so I can set them identically and go back and forth, using each with a different lens. Sometimes it's great not to have to stop and change lenses in a fast moving event or on a dusty day...

Reaching back thirty three years with my Epson V500 Scanner.

I don't know if everyone else thinks the same way but I find that I like to go back to stuff I did a long time ago and see how it compares to the stuff I'm doing now. In many instances I'm disappointed with what I'm doing now when I see the images I made when I was just 24 and very new to the field of photography.

This image shouldn't look as good as it does. I shot it in my first, tiny studio using just the light coming in from a smallish window. I used color negative film in a very old and beaten to shit Mamiya 220 that I bought already quite used. The lens on the front was a 135mm f5.6 of questionable repair. Sometimes the shutter would stick.  I had the camera stuck on the world's rickety-est tripod. It was the only one I could afford at the time and I found it on the "bargain" table of an ancient photography store on Congress Ave. that was in the process of going out of business.  As bad as it was that tripod made my hand me down meter look good.

Finally, I was given to believe two things that have turned out not to be true. One is that C-41 color negative film from the late 1970's would not keep. The pundits of the day estimated that it would fade over time and become thin and unusable. This negative is still lively and effulgent. The other thing I had been led to believe, throughout the last decade, is that decent film scans just could not (for many arcane, technical reasons) be created on cheap, consumer flatbed scanners.

In spite of, or perhaps because of, all these things I never expected to like the final image as much as I do. Of course, part of that appreciation of the image is just the habit of being in love and the critical blindness that ensues.

With no doubt, my favorite portrait. Would I have done better with the latest digital wunder-kamera? How would you measure "better"?

Post Swim Photo. Yes, this one is on film too.

Sarah is an amazing painter who is also a distance swimmer. Her paintings revolve around water. After we swam together at Deep Eddy Pool one day I asked her if she would mind coming over to the studio, getting spritzed in the face with warm water and getting repeatedly flashed with bright lights while standing around in her swim suit. Of course she said she'd be happy to.

My cataloging of technical information is starting to sound like a broken record but here it is:
Camera: Hasselblad 500 series. Lens: 150mm Carl Zeiss Planar. Film: Kodak PMC 5069 color negative stock. Scanned on the reliable Epson V500 flatbed scanner. Lit like most of my images with a big softbox on one side and a weak fill card on the other.  A second light with a medium sized softbox down near Sarah's feet is lighting the background

Part of being an interesting portrait photographer is going out to meet people and convince them to come back to your studio to collaborate with you. A little portfolio you can carry with you is a very good ice breaker. If you can show people kind of what you want to do with them it's a lot quicker to get them to buy in.

on an unrelated note: I'm going to see Pagliacci tonight at the Austin Lyric Opera. I'm photographing tonight's production for advertising and public relations uses. I can hardly wait.


Happy Birthday to Renae.

The most beautiful, talented and brilliant business partner and assistant ever in the history of the world. Really. Happy Birthday!  xoxo

Sometimes everything comes together just right.

Sometimes everything comes together just right. It was a cold and rainy day when Michele and I made this image. I was in the downtown studio and we could hear rain and sleet rattle against the window outside. The studio was very large. I was able to put the background as far away as I wanted and still have room to stand back and use the perfect focal length lens.

The main light was a 54 by 72 inch softbox over to the right. About 45 degrees of center and up enough so that the bottom of the box was high enough to cast a shadow under her chin. There was a white fill card somewhere to the left of the camera but not very close in. The ceiling was 18 feet high and painted matte black. The background was a gray seamless paper and it was lit with  one flash head modified with a broad grid.

We worked casually then. There was no make up person or stylist. No assistants lurking in the shadows. Just a model and a photographer.

For some of the shoot I used an old Rollei twin lens but for this image I switched to a Pentax 645 camera and one of the inexpensive 150mm f3.5 lenses Pentax made. The focal length with this film format was near the 95-105mm that I think makes portrait subjects look best.

At some time after this shoot I bought a Marty Forscher Polaroid back (with a fiber optics bundle that positioned the focus in the correct plane) but on the day this was shot I just used a handy light meter in its incident (as God intended) mode.

I never printed this particular negative but today I was sorting out envelopes in a filing cabinet while also trying to pay attention to some enormously detailed conversation on the phone with an art director. That's when I found about twelve pages of these negatives.

I scanned them in the good, ole Epson V500 Photo flatbed scanner in the nothing special required setting, followed by a few minutes in Photoshop to knock the dust spots off and....ta da. My favorite photo of the month.  One of my long term goals? More like this.

Comments welcome.

Portrait. In the studio.

Love shooting portraits and I tried something a little different with my lights during this session. I used a smaller softbox and put it directly over my models face and slightly in front of her.  Pretty much standard beauty lighting. My subject is sitting at a portrait table and there's a white card laying on the table to provide enough fill back onto her face. Uncharacteristically, I used a hair light (also in a small softbox) and, of course, there is soft gridded background light directed up from a low angle behind my subject's chair onto the canvas background.

I worked at f5.6 on my Zeiss 150mm Planar because that aperture seems to be the perfect intersection of sharp and shallow. And by that I mean that the facial details are sharp where you want them (eyes, nose, mouth) but the depth of field is shallow enough to drop the background detail out of your brain's discomfort zone.

Although most of our portrait work is (by client request) in color these days we do have clients who see the big, square black and white portraits on my website and request that we do old school portraits. This is something I'm nearly always happy to do, unless a short deadline is part of the mix.

There is something very visually comforting to me about composing within the confines of the square. Faces just seem to fit better.

I'm setting up the studio right now (in between writing this blog and going out to eat Mexican food for lunch...) to shoot a series of test portraits on black and white film. I'm using big banks of LED lights punched through really nice diffusion because I want to see how the color curve of the light sources effects the panchromatic response of the film. I'm curious to know if the non-linear nature of the light source will have pronounced effects on the rendering of skin tone and the contrast of the overall image.

It may be silly to want to know about techniques that soon may be irrelevant but that's one of the many little quirks of personality that I live with. If the skin tone rendering is good I'll be interested in shooting more black and white film. I still have three or four hundred rolls in the fridge.

On a topical note...

Swim practice was wonderfully neutral and calm this morning. We have a hard and fast set of rules, learned and implemented for over two decades, of absolutely no political discussions before, during or after swim practice. We love everyone we swim with too much to let our personal opinions about politics and political parties to intrude. But that still leaves us a lot to talk about. Not everything requires a continuous dialogue... Having safe zones from all the contention keeps us all a bit healthier.

And finally, Thanks to reader, Frank, for helping me edit down a recent post. His input was valuable to me and probably added to your enjoyment as a reader of the VSL. A tip of the coffee cup to him.