Why looking at the best work in the world is important. And fun.

You may or may not remember that several years ago my friend, Will, and I were engaged to make a video about the Magnum Print Collection. The occasion was the long term loan of the collection to the Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin by Michael and Susan Dell. Here is the video featuring then curator, David Coleman, and a selection of original prints: http://visualsciencelab.blogspot.com/2010/03/video-about-magnum-print-collection.html

That was in 2010. Just this month the HRC opened a show with several hundred wonderful prints made by the legends of the Magnum photo agency over a period of years from about 1955 to about 2008. There is work from Henri Cartier Bresson, David Seymour, Josef Koudelka, Phillipe Halsman, Constantine Manos, Raymond Depardon, and many others. It's an amazing show both for the breadth and for the almost uniform high quality of both the seeing and the prints. If you are a photographer and you live within a day's drive from Austin you owe it to yourself to come and see the show. It's free and open to the public. (Check the hours before you drive in from El Paso...).

I was particularly stunned by how good the technical quality of the photography was, given the allegedly inferior equipment and "image sensors" the master of photography were using sixty or so years ago and yet many of the images seem head and shoulders better than the vast majority of the work I see all over the place today....including work lauded by all the usual sources.

There is one image of three people in a small room by Josef Koudelka that riveted me. I devoured it with my eyes for five long minutes and then returned to it two more times before I finally exited the museum. It's an interior, available light shot of three "Gypsies." A young woman, an old man and an old woman. The composition is perfect. The young women is to the right of the frame and in a plane closest to the camera. She is gazing directly into the camera. Over to the left of the print is the old man with a hat. He is looking at the young woman but he is in a plane behind her which adds a wonderful depth to the image. In the center of the print, in a third plane even further removed is the old woman, bent over a primitive stove. And behind her is the intersection of the two walls of the room and the ceiling which creates soaring diagonals that come forward toward the two other subjects. The effect is full of energy and endlessly compelling. It's a wholly self contained narrative about existence.  And the print is better than 99% of all the digital prints I've seen since the dawn of the digital age. Effortlessly better. Not bigger. Just better. 

Did photographers see better in the 1960's? Was the act of committing precious film ( and miles and days away from more film....) a consideration that drove photographers to a higher level of attention and intention? Pondering this caused me to question almost every piece of photographic art I've seen since 2000. You may not agree with me. You may not like Koudelka's work. But the act of communal viewing in a darkened space with perfect light, with the object of your observation unencumbered by your screen and its limitations may provoke you to experience art at a different level than the screen will ever allow. At least that's been my experience. The print is still relevant. Come see them while you can.
It's a different and wholly inferior art form when confined to an electronic screen. Honestly.

Bonus blog over at RIPE CAMERA: http://ripecamera.blogspot.com/2013/10/the-complete-rationale-for-buying.html


Every now and then old gear MUST get cleaned out to make room in my brain.

I know, I know, you are a genius and able to compartmentalize everything in your life so that no sub-routine in your brain intrudes on any other. I'm not wired that way. There's a part of my brain that keeps track of where every piece of gear I own is right at this moment, what state the batteries are probably in, how long it's been since I shot with said gear and approximately how much money I've made (or lost) shooting with each camera and lens. It's a blessing and a curse. More of a curse if someone moves one of the cameras or lens to a different place. But the biggest problem with gear that spans technological generations is that each piece in some way or another anchors my brain into a magnetic logic that keeps me from thinking totally in a new way.  I can remember almost every minute of shooting with the Kodak DCS 760 in the image above. I did some remarkably fun print campaigns with that camera and several campaigns we did made use of the images for large display graphics. Big lifestyle shots that were used as large as five feet on the long side.

But as long as those older pieces of gear remain in inventory there's a mischievous part of my psyche that wants to pull the stuff out and do jobs with it just to prove how good we were and how much we were able to squeeze out of these cameras. The problem for me is that in some instances the tools start to mould the way I would shoot a job. I self limit. And just having these objects in the space seems to fence me in creatively. I keep reaching back to the way we used to style something or the way we used to solve a problem.

I hit a tipping point this morning and I started going through the drawers and pulling stuff out. Digital Photography machines I hadn't used in years (in one or two cases, literally a decade...) and I started matching up batteries, chargers, lenses, owner's manuals and accessories. A partial list of stuff that left my orbit today includes: The Kodak DCS 760, the Kodak DCS SLR/n, a Nikon 900, Nikon 950 and a Nikon 990. I got rid of two Sony APS-C cameras today, the a58 and the a57. I got rid of a stack of dedicated APS-C cropped coverage lenses from Sony, Tamron and Sigma. All of the Sony Nex (four bodies and ten lenses) equipment is gone. All that remains  of the Hasselblad equipment is a 150mm Sonnar that I use with an adapter on the full frame Sonys. Gone are all the assorted battery powered flashes that no longer fit any of the cameras I owned. Gone are the first and second generations of LED lights. A Nikon 200 body I forgot I had and several older, less productive lenses that I had squirreled away for it. It wasn't a Spring cleaning, it was a purge. A palace insurrection.

What have I ended up keeping in the studio? What's my plan and what am I using? Might as well go over that as well.

I have two Sony a99's and one Sony a850. I have some groovy, full frame competent lenses from Sony and Sigma for those cameras. I have a Pentax K-01 for pointy shooty art stuff. And I have a loaner case of Samsung stuff that doesn't really count because I'll probably have to give most of it back when I'm finished doing my evaluation and tests.

That's as light as I've been on cameras since.....well, since I started shooting twenty five or so years ago.

What am I planning to add? Well, of course there is the second Pentax K-01 that's coming tues. but that hardly counts because it's cheap and silly and fun. And they are as much art as they are tools.

The one addition I did make today was to buy a Panasonic GH3 and a 25mm Leica lens to go with it. I bought it for video projects. My friend, Frank, bought one and used it to shoot some video projects and the imaging is  much better than what I've seen from the Sony a99 and the Canon 5D3 (unhooked) that I felt like I was buying a video production camera and not another still camera. That and the fact that we've still got a drawer filled with juicy Pen F lenses and adapters standing by.

Well. There it is. A giant purge. A feeling of freedom and fewer subroutines running in my head.  Staying current is good. Collecting depreciating stuff with decaying batteries and slowly deteriorating capacitors and oxidizing circuit boards is so last century...

A video project that the Visual Science Lab worked on...

This is a promotional video for Zach Scott Theatre's production of Les Miserables. I lit, sound engineered and shot the interview footage with the director. Colin Lowry shot the live stage footage and David Munns edited the piece together.

It's a really great musical and Zach has done an amazing job with the production. Just wanted to share some work stuff....


All gear all the time.


I don't know if you read this one a while ago but some people found it helpful....

What am I expecting to see at PhotoPlus?

I'm heading up to PhotoPlus in two weeks. It's a big photographic tradeshow/gathering held every Fall at the Javits Center in NYC. I've been thinking about the show and the huge and pervasive yawning sense of apathy that seems to have settled over the photography industry in the last few months. I think we're going to see a lot of re-hashed product, hear a lot of seminars about how to get ahead "in the new economy," and every once and a while we'll be surprised by an announcement we probably didn't see coming.

To start off with I think that Samsung will make big waves with their new Galaxy NX camera. It took me a while to understand the value proposition of its features but now I get it. I'm starting to see it through the lenses of younger generations. The camera is either getting better and better to shoot (could be firmware updates that happen automatically when the camera is in a wi-fi network) or I'm finally getting comfortable with the new ( to me ) control interface. The sensor is good, the lenses are good and, for people who need quick access to.....everything current sharing technology has to offer... it's the only game in town. I'll be demonstrating it along with Philadelphia photographer, Nick Kelsh and we won't just be shooting nice images of beautiful models----we'll be putting all of the connectivity features through the wringer.  But it's certainly not the only game in town.

I'm especially interested in what Sony will be announcing. Those guys are nearly as fickle as I am! If the rumors on the web are true we'll be seeing the introduction of a Nex-styled, full frame camera for under $3,000. But this makes me a little bit nervous since I have a lot of resources tied up in what we've been calling "Alpha" stuff. I thought the product line was split between the DSLT's (Alphas) and the mirrorless offerings (Nex) but lately Sony's been slapping the Alpha signature on everything, including the little piece of cr*p camera they are calling the a3000. Does the introduction of a full frame Nex mark the incipient demise of the traditional camera line? Will my a99 be obsoleted and abandoned? Will the a850 become even more obsolete? Will we be howling in the wilderness looking for bodies to mate with our orphaned lenses? I guess we'll find out at the big show.

I hope someone at Sony has done their market research and not just taken notes over at the DPReview Sony Nex Forum....Even if they throw all their resources into the Nex style line of cameras and abandon our last century configurations I'm sure the Sony engineers have figured out how to make cute and expensive adapters for our full sized Sony and Zeiss lenses.... But, I'd rather have a choice and be able to get cameras that still have some real estate for my hands and enough build to hold big flashes up and big lenses in some sort of balance. Are you listening Sony?

Is anybody going to show any new studio flash products? Oh, I'm sure there's going to be some new cosmetic touches on existing technology but I sense that the high end studio lighting market ( focus on professional studio use) is falling through the basement floor and rapidly being replaced by more and more, small, light lithium battery powered options that allow flash anywhere.  The focus on flash lighting that was aimed at perfectionists is being disrupted by the reality that so much of the market has moved from making art to making consumables. Not works meant for the test of time but images that have a "use by" date measured in hours and days instead of months and years. No one working for those markets (outside a small circle) really cares about that last 1% of UV light suppression or 1/10th of stop consistency on the 900th pop...

I'm sure we'll see lots and lots of cr*ppy LED lights that are rushed to market for low price points but I hope we'll see some really good, new stuff from Fiilex, Lowell, Arri and others. I am still a big proponent of LED lighting. I may have been a year ahead of everything I wanted coming to market when I wrote the LED book but when I look at my newly repaired crystal ball, five years from now, I'm seeing LEDs routing flash in many, many current applications. What am I looking for at this show? A fresnel, focusable spot LED with a whisper cooling fan for the electronics and enough oomph! to bounce into a big diffuser and give me enough shutter speed and f-stop to rock even a portrait with some movement in it. And, call me "crazy" but I'd like to get it into my studio for less than $1,000. Three in a nice case for $2,500? Keep the cheesy stands and just give me the good stuff....

What will Nikon and Canon show? Probably not much. This show is out of sync from their typical schedule of product announcements. Nikon seems to be flailing and I'm not sure the new D610 is a confidence builder. Rather than looking at DSLRs the real logic for Nikon is to do something great for their mirrorless line. The V cameras could use a new body that's aimed at enthusiasts. If Fuji can iterate three or four mirrorless bodies in the space of a year I would think that Nikon could pop out a rangefinder style variation of the V bodies with the updated sensor without breaking a sweat. If it's good and fun and priced right it might sell. As long as it doesn't spray oil all over the place....

I noticed that Canon withdrew their horrible EM mirrorless camera with very little fanfare. Apparently the critics did not appreciate its operational nuances. Wouldn't it be nice if they re-entered the space with a camera that could focus in fractions of a seconds instead of haltingly and in slow motion? That might sell too. And the prices that the camera finally sold for proved that every camera can be successful once the accurate value proposition is rationalized.

The company that once made the greatest compact camera ever (the Canonet QL 17) should be able to go toe to toe with Sony and their RX1 and if they could do a well designed product that competed for a much lower price they would doubtless have success in that market as well. Canon needs to launch a prime lens camera with a 35mm focal length and a full frame sensor that's as well designed as the old Canonet and nearly as accessible. Wouldn't it be great to see an f2.8 model for under a grand? And the heck with AF. If real rangefinders are good enough for Leica then they should be good enough for Canon.

I think the real news at the show is going to be in technology and sharing. One of the reasons the iPhone quickly became the most popular camera in the world is that it not only took reasonably good photographs but that the images could be worked on, in camera, and then shared instantly. Look for the market to reverse polarity and start pushing easy sharing right back up the camera hierarchy. There will be legions of "experienced" curmudgeons who will denounce any additional features in a camera. Look at the venom thrown at video implementations in DSLRs. People are fond of saying that the camera makers could have made the cameras cheaper if they made them without video, but from the camera makers' points of view the inclusion more than outweighed the sour grapes of last century enthusiasts by opening up a potentially huge new market of people who would have previously skipped still cameras altogether and just bought video cameras.

Adding wi-fi sharing or NFC sharing to a camera can't be that costly and if it attracts a whole new generation to consider a camera in lieu of a cellphone for their work then that's an enormous (if temporary) benefit to camera companies.

Finally, I expect to see a bunch of new monitors, screens and televisions aimed at the emerging 4K sector. Not just in video but also for photographic presentation. We'll be shooting images and showing them on large 4K TV's and we've been discussing the need to shoot at full res in order to utilize the full power of the screen resolution. We are at an inflection point where framed art on the walls of homes, businesses and stores is going to be replaced by large screens. The ability to go back and forth between motion and still, and at enormous resolutions (which give our images much better and richer tonality) is priceless: both from a marketer's point of view and also from the consumer's point of view. The experience will be enhanced and everyone's photos will look better (or worse) than ever before.

We're moving toward a ubiquitous screen experience. That's the real message I keep taking away.


What role will instant access have in the working lives of photographers?

It's no secret that I've been playing with a camera that is nearly always connected to the web, if I want it to be. And it's forced me to start thinking like a 17 year old instead of a 57 year old. To wit, what will the next generation of cameras bring me when it comes to workflow, efficiency and value to my clients, if anything? I've more or less come to grips that it's really all about changing my mindset.  I think there are rewards for being in the forefront of new ways of delivering images. That's why I'm exploring them.

I grew up in the golden age of traditional photography and made a relatively quick and easy transition to digital in the late 1990's. The technology isn't an issue but the baggage of "how it's done" is almost a crushing burden. If you started out with black and white film in your hands and the print was your target then speed wasn't the real driver, just getting through the process correctly and with a good end product was the driver. We came to value craft and repetition as the secrets to making uniform products that we could sell, lease or license to our clients. We were creating artifacts. We were creating physical products. But that really isn't the world I live in today. Now we're making Virtual Consumables. And part of the consumable ethos is relentless freshness. We're now creating images to consume rather than images as permanent artifacts. At least commercially...

It's the same in parts of my photo business as it is in my blogging. If I don't provide timely new content for the blog the audience falls off in some sort of mathematically proscribed fashion until we hit single digit readership. The fresher and more relevant the content the more readers and the more growth the site enjoys. In making and disseminating images I'm finding that more and more clients are using the content on their sites they way I am using content on this blog. They are looking not for news but certainly for fresh. I'm not at the point yet where all my clients want everything right now buy we're getting closer and closer as our businesses get more intertwined and collaborative.

When I worked for Dell, Inc. at their Worldwide Conference last year there were parts of our shooting that required immediate turn around. When I photographed President Clinton with 60+ different people one morning part of the brief was that I would hand off a copy of the images to his public relations people before they left the building. And they were leaving the building about five minutes after the shoot. I brought along a computer and a couple of flash drives and we transferred as fast as I could. We made the deadline, but just by a nose hair.

As I worked with the new, wi-fi and cell enabled camera I've been tested it dawned on me that I could have set up a folder in DropBox and sent each image to the folder as I was shooting at the Dell Event. The client would have their copies in the cloud immediately. And in a format and "place" where everyone in their team could have nearly immediate access.

Then I started thinking about the basic format of shows and the need to send images to so many people. I would be shooting one part of an event and get an urgent call from someone in another department who had an immediate need for photography we'd taken a little earlier. If we were constantly streaming into a shared folder I could take myself out of the equation and let the PR people handle the access to the images internally.

When I started down that line of reasoning I immediately thought of our shoots for the theater. We end up shooting dress rehearsals the day before the first openings and the PR folks need images to send to websites and press first thing in the morning after the dress rehearsal. Our routine is to shoot, head home, download, back up, do a rough edit and then put all the images on a portable hard drive and either deliver them to the theatre or have them picked up by a harried marketing person from the theater.  Wouldn't it be much cooler and less agonizing to start uploading images to a shared folder from the very beginning of the show? Depending on the speed of the network the camera would inevitably get ahead of the upload but it would catch up during intermission and on the drive home. Maybe the final files would load from wherever I left the camera (in my own wi-fi or cell zone) when I went to bed.

The delivery is happening during the process. If time is of the essence a marketing person could be sitting in the office reviewing the images as they populate the folder and do a rough edit and cull. Once I hit the house I can head to bed. Later on I can go back to the shared folder and download all the images in order to back them up or I can go "old school" and back them up from my cards.

I have a client in California who hires me to shoot portraits of her company's executives here in central Texas. How great it will be to start sending test images as we set up and wait on make up and all the rest of the pre-production. I could get immediate approval or input on lighting design and the overall look.

But even thinking more traditionally, Wi-fi networks and NFC (near field communications) networks can be much quicker to use for virtual tethering than actual tethering or FTP based sharing systems. Make one shared folder and invite everyone to share via tablets or even phones and you can do a big production shoot with everyone collaborating and sharing.

All this stuff is scary for me but it works. It's not scary for people who never shot film and who grew up interfacing with screens and menus all day long, all life long. And they are our competition going forward. I'm not sure I want to be left out just to be a champion for the "the way we've always done things." I don't want to be in that part of the graph with the people who were sure that color television would never catch on. And I don't want to be the last guy selling color prints to people whose wall space is a big monitor. I'm not willing to sacrifice my access to a new generation clients just to bolster and defend an anachronistic set of traditions.

I know that a lot of my readers have been perplexed by my decision to accept and embrace this learning experience, especially given my long history of being a curmudgeon and a person who pushed back on trends. But the bottom line is that this is a business where you learn, grow or fade away and take early retirement. My CFO counsels me that the last choice isn't an option for at least the next four years so I've made the conscious decision to swallow my pride and step up to look through the window and see what the future is delivering right now. And to find a use for it or even reject it totally. But even if I reject it I owe it to myself to understand it.

Who would have thought we'd be shooting digital video? Or sharing work and production in the cloud. In a few years most cameras will probably also be communication hubs and resources. I'd rather learn about it all in the front end and be able to pick and choose how I want to use the new technology. It was sad to watch the last hold outs of digital trudge through the well worn path so many had already passed by before them. Change is scary. Not changing can be even scarier.

Note that this particular blog is not about a specific camera. There are several companies doing wi-fi capable cameras. The whole point is finding the sweet spot of the technology and deciding where, if anywhere, it fits into your business instead of waiting and letting it blindside you.

If you do this for fun instead of as a capitalist enterprise you really needn't worry about the subject. But you might find it interesting. First thought my amateur brain had was "instant back up of travel images from anywhere in the world. No computer required." Just food for thought.


Getting back to basics. It's all about the portrait.

Jacob is an actor and next week he's moving to NYC. I've seen him in several productions at Zach Scott Theatre and when he asked me if I'd work with him to create some new head shots to take along I was both flattered and thrilled to work with him.  I set up a simple lighting design in the studio and we concentrated on getting fun expressions and a lot of range so that we could pick and choose.

The main light is a 184 cm white umbrella with black backing used over to the right of frame. The bottom of the umbrella is just a bit above Jacob's chin level. The background light is a a small 12 by 16 inch chimera soft box. The fill (when used) is a 4x4 foot Chimera white reflector to the opposite side.
The lighting for this set up is powered by an Elinchrom Ranger RX AS unit with two flash heads.
The A/S stands for asymmetrical. The head on the background gets 1/3rd of the output while the main light gets 2/3rds of the output.

All the images started life as large, extra-fine color Jpegs but, on a lark I decided to toss them into DXO Film Pack 3 and make them into Tri-X wannabes.

I shot with the Samsung Galaxy NX because it's a fun camera to use in the studio. I love the big screen and being able to touch the point I want in focus and then tap to shoot is kind of intriguing. The camera is extremely responsive to screen taps and the process of shooting reminded me of shooting with my old Hasselblad. There is value, I am finding, to the new, hipster way of composing on a two dimensional screen. I do pay more attention to composition. You might not appreciate that here as I've waded in and cropped the images with impunity. The star of the shoot (besides Jacob) was the 60mm f2.8 macro lens I've been using with my camera. It's like a 90mm lens with a full frame camera and that's right at my sweet spot for portrait lenses. This one is sharp and focuses quickly and surely.

After we shot I dumped all the files into Aperture, edited out the blinkers and stinkers and exported them as smaller Jpegs, destined for a Smugmug gallery. Once that was done I started doing my own edit (see above) and corrupting the images via DXO's black and white conversion program.

Someone is sure to ask about the color images so I'm including one below.

One last word: All studio cameras should have big screens like this one. It makes instantly reviewing with clients or art directors a LOT more rewarding. And I can see the images well even without my reading glasses. Sorry, no connectivity features were used on this project....