Even seasoned professionals make mistakes from time to time. That's why one needs to create a mental checklist.

One reader of my previous blog, about the importance of getting started and being open to failure, tallied up my article and basically said, "these are human errors and have nothing to do with technology." Well....exactly. Bold scores for reading comprehension. But there was one piece he did not acknowledge and that was the part of human nature that just assumes everything is working as it should (or as we believe it should). I have no problem with the mistakes I routinely make because every time I do falter it reinforces my need to bolster my mental checklist. The one which prompts me to double check the things that can go wrong.

But even seasoned professionals screw up from time to time. Here's my experience with one screw up from last Summer. We were on our last day of a video shoot. We'd been in the studio for a couple of days. In a funny twist of fate I was the talent on the shoot instead of the technical guy or the camera artist. I was giving a video class about studio lighting and I was delivering the content without a teleprompter or a written script. The producer much preferred that I just deliver the content in a conversational way instead of getting stiff and sticking to a literal script. A bit scary working without the net.

Working that way takes some practice. First there's practice of organizing the cogent thoughts in your head. Then there's the practice of trying to walk from point "A" to point "B", turn to the correct camera, do you introduction and then proceed to smoothly deliver content. Many times it doesn't work and often you try a scene several (or more) times until you actually get lucky and nail it.

At any rate I had been working with a really great team of professionals who did this kind of studio work every day and, in some cases, had done so for decades. On this particular scene they were using three cameras that all ran into a switcher. One camera was set up high and gave us a wide view of the entire set. The other cameras showed closer angles and the method in editing would be to switch from one camera to another to add visual interest. I was also asked to start the scene by entering the wide frame while introducing the course segment. I would continue walking and talking toward camera "A" and then I would stop, turn to face camera "B" and continue presenting the course material for the segment.

The problem is that I'm just a photographer, not a professional actor, and I can hardly walk and chew gum at the same time much less walk and talk and hit marks in a studio....

I muffed a few takes and we took a break. During the break someone re-adjusted my lavaliere mic and reoriented the transmitter on the radio link in my back pocket. Then we started again.

I walked into the scene, walked to my first mark without tripping or giggling, hit my second mark, turned to the camera and delivered the most incredible take I had ever managed. The words sounded good in my head and, more importantly, they made perfect sense to the producer/director. Every one gave me a thumbs up and we started breaking down the lights and cameras from that scene to set up for another one.

At some point the editor went back and checked the files. He was looking to make sure the visuals were good and the audio was perfect. And then he checked again and then he stopped everyone. There was a problem. My mic had been inadvertently muted during the "perfect" take. My only perfect take...

The consensus of the crew was that we had a safe back up to fall back on. There was a boom mic that usually sat just above me on the set, pointing down as a safety for the lav mic. The only problem was that in order to do the scene with a wide camera angle the microphone had to be moved way back to get it out of the shot and that made its audio unusable as well.

There was some discussion of using cutting edge science to fix the audio from the shotgun microphone that had been moved back but in the end all of the professionals knew where we were heading. We reconstructed the lighting and the cameras and we did the scene over again from the top. While I never hit the heights I had attained earlier I was able to pull off a decent performance and we moved on.

But the very bottom line is that we were, for a time, undone by the simplest of things: the "mute" button on the wireless microphone's transmitter. Now checking the "mute" button is part of my check list for audio. And, like the switching editor, checking the takes for audio and video quality before leaving a location (or ending a shooting day) is now permanently on my check list.

Stuff happens. When it hurts a bit it makes an impression in a different way than "learning" the same stuff on a website. When you have your time or pride or skin in the game and get a little burned it reinforces the lesson. That was the lesson readers were supposed to take away. Maybe I didn't write it correctly the first time around.

Sorry, I am relatively new at this blogging thing and I'm still making mistakes. Still learning. I should have it pretty much nailed down in another 1836 blog posts....

Photographing Art Historians.

I was asked to photograph the art history faculty for the University of Texas College of Fine Arts. I did. This is one.


My belief that "getting started" trumps waiting until you are "ready."

Are we busy getting ready or should we just dive in???

Earlier today I posted a link to a video about the tyranny of choice. The idea of tyranny of choice is that when presented with more than a few choices we become paralyzed by having to choose rather than being joyfully enabled. But I want to talk about something else that seems to happen to most of us at one time or another and that is the overwhelming desire to become thoroughly prepared before starting something new. Now, let me be very clear that in many fields I agree with the need to be well prepared. 

I want the person who might be doing surgery on me to have studied and practiced (on someone else) many times and under much supervision before I place myself in their hands. I feel the same way about the engineers who design airplanes and the architects who design all of those high rise buildings. But, in the field of Art, a field in which few are killed or even inconvenienced by the artist's lack of preparation, I think being too well prepared before engaging in the process is very counterproductive for the artist. 

I learn more when I learn new lessons in a hands-on situation. My ability to learn well seems to correlate with how many new things I try and fail at much more so than how much stuff I read on the web, and try to digest, and add to, in anticipation of actually trying something real outside the virtual reality of the screen and the web.

Here is my example: A few weeks ago I became interested in a big, complex wall filled with graffiti. I photographed the wall but I felt like photographs weren't an immersive enough solution for such a big project. I decided I'd do a personal video project about it. I used my new Sony RX10 and filmed the whole project handheld. And in the process I failed at many, many aspects of the project. Really abject failure---

And I learned things through hands-on failure that burned the lessons into my brain in a way that just reading, watching videos and thinking about the process would never have accomplished. 

The first day I went out I tried doing a couple of interviews with a small, shoe-mounted, shotgun microphone. I presumed the microphone would work as required even though I intellectually knew of twenty or thirty theoretical reasons why it might not. I forgot to bring along a set of headphones. I shot two interviews and I was very excited about them because the people I interviewed were working on great art and they said stuff that sounded smart and original. When I got back home I checked the audio only to find that there was none. The culprit? A dead microphone battery. I could swear I changed it only a few weeks earlier.....

I learned this for all time: Bring extra batteries. Watch the sound level meters on the camera.  Check the sound as I go by using headphones. 

So, I went back and I put a new battery in the microphone (and a back up in my pocket)  and grabbed  a set of headphones and I tried again. This time I could tell that the mic in the hotshot was a non-starter after listening to a few interviews and even though I didn't have an assistant I wanted to get that little sucker off the camera and closer to the subject for better sound. I did that with a small cord. But when I got back to the studio I listened to the audio and there sure was a lot of background noise that I didn't like. I learned the hard way so that the next time out I would take a set of wireless lavaliere microphones and attach them to the person being interviewed for the best audio. Either that or I'd get a person with experience to come along with me and operate a shotgun microphone on a boom pole.  Part of learning the hard way is learning the lesson up front and then having it reinforced for you when you sit down with your inadequate results and try to edit something together....

So, back to the project and my next basket of mistakes. On my first foray I set the exposure the way I thought it should be and liked the way it looked on the tiny monitor but I didn't pay enough attention to the flashing "zebras" that were trying to tell me that my highlights were burning out. Looked pretty good on the monitor but back in the studio on the big monitor I cringed when I saw some of the shots.  Another lesson learned. Now I watch the zebras and stop trying to convince myself that some burn out will be okay. Which led me to another issue. I decided that I wanted to film at 24fps because that seems to be what all the cool kids on the web do. But the exposures were getting pretty hot on my second time out so I compromised and set the shutter speed to 1/125th instead of 1/60th of a second. I understood, intellectually, that the lack of blur in the frames would make the footage look jerky or choppy but I only understood it intellectually since I rarely shoot client footage in full sun....or even outdoors.

It looked okay on the tiny monitor on location but again, when I got back to the studio and started looking at the footage on a large screen I was horrified. When I go back and shoot again I'll set the camera for 60 fps and limit myself to 1/125th as a top speed. At 24 fps I should have limited myself to 1/50th of a second to prevent the "choppies." But really, until you've screwed up and seen it in the cool light of the editing software it all seems like opinions and theory. In messing up, profoundly, you learn a lesson that stays with you like a bad prison tattoo. 

Okay. So that's it. Right?  Nope, my hubris and stupidity knows no bounds and so we come to the whole idea of hand-holding the camera to get the footage. I'm guilty of reading many articles about just how great the IS is in current cameras (the Olympus OMD EM-1 being the current king) and I've read about just how good the IS is in the RX10. So I put it into the active mode and went for it, certain that the web learning would not fail me and that the camera would smooth out my trembling transitions. It did not. No camera can really do that, unaided, during takes that are longer than a few seconds. But I didn't believe that until I put my hands on the process and gave it a go. Now I know why we spend tons of money on tripods and sliders. And fluid heads and dollies.

I threw aways many, many minutes of unwatchable footage that flickered and slithered and bumped kinetically across my screen. And, for the most part I didn't subject my audience to much of it at all. Editing breeds humility, at some point. 

You would think I've been confessional enough at this point but no. I want to talk about another mistake I made. I think you can hand hold stuff if you are willing to shoot wide and practice a great deal, and you are calmer than the Buddha. But it's doubly impossible to hold a camera steady when you insist on shooting at the telephoto end of your camera's lens. Yes, I know it magnifies every movement but it all sounds so theoretical until you actually come back and look at the long shots, handheld on the big screen. You may think you are steady in the moment but one look at a big monitor tells you that you've got all the stability of a car barreling down a bumpy road with no shock absorbers. 

Lastly, in a final guilty purging, I must admit that while I know I'm supposed to write a script or at least have a good idea of the story I'm going to tell with a video camera I ignored all that and considered the motion camera as just an extension of still photography and decided to shoot "interesting" opportunities as they presented themselves. And they didn't. Ever. 

What a waste of time? Hardly. 

Think of all the things I learned in a way that hardwires them into my brain. Everything I failed at was a valuable lesson learned indelibly. I won't make the same mistakes again. Not if I can help it. But the whole process of trying and failing had at least one very positive function. It got me up off my ass and into the field to experiment on my own dime with all the stuff I'd studied and read about. It got me to acknowledge the stuff I need to work on and the stuff I need to ask for help with. It got me energized about making video projects because for every failure I could see flares of fun and visual wonder in the footage. By pushing the "go" button I got past the resistance and inertia that holds us back by telling us that, "You are not ready yet."  

But the truth is that you are never "ready." All art is work in progress and it's important, if you really want to learn in an impactful way, to start now. To initiate. To stop warming up and get down to the business of actually running a few races. Because it is in the actual doing and failing and doing and learning that we start to understand what we really want from the process, from the medium, and we learn to make it our own. 

I have known people, smart and creative people, who are afraid to start without the full encyclopedia in their heads. They don't want to embarrass themselves. They are afraid to fail, especially publicly. They want their first project out of the gate to be a perfect project. But the cold reality is that they are paralyzed by their need to perfect their knowledge, or to acquire the gear they feel they need to use, until it's too late and so many opportunities for fun and growth have passed them by. They need to launch themselves and their projects now, today. And to fail means they'll learn better. 

When I started writing this I was still thinking about the idea of the paralysis of choice. And how our need to have the perfect gear is part of the intellectual process of research that keeps so many of us paralyzed and unable to get after the stuff we know we want to do. I could easily convince myself that 4k video is the future and anything I learn or do today in 2k is pointless. I can convince myself that I should wait for the Panasonic GH4 or the Black Magic 4K in order to do this right. But if I convince myself that this is true I'll just put off the necessary failures that lead to success until another time in the future. A time when I may not have the energy and resources to fail quite as profoundly and as well as I can today. 

I shared the Graffiti Wall video with you all not because I thought it was great art but to show where I was with the gear in hand. And with the idea of one man guerrilla video. But in truth I was also showing you my failures in order to start a conversation that culminates in some of us learning from people in the audience who know more, who've already made the same mistakes. The ones who know where the potholes in the road are. 

I got a lot of great feedback and most of it was from the shy folks who preferred to take the conversation offline. But I love that they spoke to me and poked (nicely but firmly) holes in my techniques and approach. Through failing so publicly I learned much more than I would have had I spent another thirty days watching instructional videos on Lynda.com (which were useful...) or on the various web forae having to do with digital video. Most of the stuff on the web (outside of Lynda and a few others) is really much better at teaching you (theoretically) about what additional gear you need in order to be successful and not so much about how great it is to fail. 

Now, on client projects when I don't know something I tend to hire the people who do. I am conservative when other people's money is involved and try not to learn in the same way on someone else's dime. I hire an editor. I hire a sound person. I use art directors. I work to a script. And maybe that's why failure is so important to me in my personal work. I get to try stuff that may not work and then figure out what I should have done...

I really do believe that if you don't start you'll never fail and if you never fail you'll never really learn.  So, with that written, I'm off to fail again with my little video camera. And some extra microphone batteries. And a fluid head tripod. And some headphones. And an outline. And.......

A TedX video on too much choice....

One of our readers, Bruce, sent me a link to this particular Ted Talk by Barry Schwartz. No matter how you rationalize our search for the "perfect" camera or camera system you'll probably take away some value from this fun and insightful presentation:


Yes...but what about the new version???


But how do those color portraits look in black and white?

about like this.

Are you ever just fascinated with the same object over and over again?

I've probably walked past this construct a couple hundred times as I go downtown to the convention center for various events. I have no idea what its original purpose was but it has advertising for P.F. Chang's on one side...

It looks different all the time. I like the color and I like the angular arrowhead pointing up into the sky.  I tried to make it look different today. I like the swirl of the clouds. It would be fun to find out that it's got a ladder inside the main column and that you might be able to go up to the top and sit in a chair and watch the people come in and out of the neighboring bars and steakhouses during a warm, spring evening.

Today it was a willing subject for my nerdy camera test. It passed and my camera passed. 

Giving some more love to the Panasonic G6. But really, any camera would have worked...

I've been pounding out work lately and I spent my morning retouching portraits. Yep. Sitting in front of the computer ironing out a few wrinkles, taming some fly-away hair and liquifying a few double chins. All part and parcel of the portrait photography trade. But after I uploaded the images, in various file sizes, and I put away all the cameras in the tool boxes I really felt the need to get outside and recalibrate the old eyes for infinity and beyond!

I wasn't too intent on taking photographs so I wanted to travel light, camera-wise. I sorted through the stack and found the best weight to IQ ratio and committed to it. The Panasonic G6 is lightweight but packed with just about everything I want. Mostly that's just a decent sensor and a nice electronic viewfinder. The lens that was on the front when I pulled if from the stack was the Panasonic/Leica 25mm f1.4 so I let the fates decide and left it on.

I stuck the camera in "A" mode and dialed in f5.6. with an ISO of 160. Worked for everything I wanted to shoot today. Bright sun to open shade. And I think the files out of the camera looked darling. Now, darling is not a term in common use at DXO but it refers to the well behaved and endearing nature of a lens and sensor combination. This one worked for me.

So, I make it a point never to tell people what to do with their lives but...wouldn't it be cool to leave the office a few hours early and walk down some of the streets in your town and just let your eyes soak up some infinity and some local color before heading home to the loved ones? Just a thought.

Austin, Texas. The fastest growing city in the USA. Four years in a row.

Here's why it's fun to be a photographer or a video producer in Austin, Texas: There are over 4,000 high technology companies currently located here. There are major offices here for Apple, Google, IBM, Dell (HQ), Silicon Labs, Intel, AMD and a zillion more. These business are currently expanding, growing, spinning off more companies and most importantly----spending money.

More metrics: 70 people per day are moving here. Over half the people who move here have four year college degrees. Of the adult population already here 38% have four year college degrees. It's a nice place to live but mostly talent attracts talent.

The building in the foreground (photo above) is another high rise, luxury condominium tower. Within a square mile radius there are already eight such buildings with four others under construction. And that's just in a small area of downtown.

It's fun to be a photographer here because people are highly creative and they are into collaboration. And everyone is busy starting a company.

The downside of all this success is that of the 70 people who move here everyday probably half of them are photographers---- (insert smiley face).  Every one of those 70 people has a car and wants to drive it instead of riding on a bus or light rail. That ten minute drive across town is now an hour. If the roads ice up be sure to take along a good book. With ice any drive is a four hour drive...

And we haven't talked about Summer yet. One apocryphal story: The reason why people keep moving around in Austin in the Summer is that we all live in fear that if we stand in one place for too long the soles of our shoes will melt into the asphalt on the roads or parking lots and we'll get stuck and burn up in the sun....

But right now I wouldn't trade it for any other big city in the country.

Life in the time of selfies.

A quick note to my professional friends: A blurry photo, taken with a shaky cellphone, featuring a shocked and grinning expression taken at table in your favorite dive may be just the thing for your anonymous feed at Tumblr but you may want to reconsider using said selfie for your "best foot forward" business portrait on your company's website or on your LinkedIn page.

You will spend more money on a real portrait but your avatar will serve as a better front man and you'll probably make the short, happy list of some clients who might have chucked you in the "freak" category when glancing quickly at your previous snap shot.

Funny to think that those little photos that go next to your comments on Twitter or the hundreds of other places on the web are quickly becoming your first impression to potential business clients and partners....

But that's okay. We can fix that.

Naomi. Samsung Galaxy NX camera.


Some times I feel like I've spent large parts of my life making white backgrounds for advertising photographs.

The Lazy, Digital Age way to light a white background depends on post production.

Here's the correct way to light for a white background:

I go through white, seamless paper faster than you can believe. I think I'm in the roll a week club. Back in the heydays of film photography I was a master at lighting stuff against white. And I don't mean just the easy stuff like black audio components I mean white dresses with white pearls on a pale model on a white background. But man, it took time and careful lighting. And sometimes a little darkroom masking.

Today we did an easy one. It was emotive images of Jaston Williams (of the Greater Tuna and A Tuna Christmas fame) for an upcoming show at Zach Theatre. No white-on-white. Nothing tricky, just a white background the designers could easily drop out.

The image above shows the basic lighting for the background. I'm shooting a wide shot here from the final camera position but instead of a 24mm lens I used a much longer focal length for the actual shots.  It may be hard to see in this shot but there are 400 w/s lights on either side of the seamless paper. Each one is aimed at the opposite side of the paper to ensure and even wash of light and each one is gobo'd by a solid flag which you can see clamped to stands just inside the two background lights. The flags keep spill light off my portrait subject so I don't get unwanted highlights or weird shadows.

My main light is a 500 w/s mono-light   firing into a 24 by 36 inch soft box, up and to the left of the frame. You can see it up at the top. Not shown (because it is behind the camera position) is the 60 inch umbrella, used at low power, for just a hint of fill lighting. Very simple set up. But effective.

So, I'm sure that the theatre will choose different images and I'm sure they won't follow my desaturated, high sharpness post processing but I'm sure they'll find a number of images that will work well for them. Here are a few of the images that I really liked and spent a few minutes playing with:

It's fun to have a full plate. Shooting for clients every day makes me more and more relaxed because everything becomes so practiced and natural and there's a flow that moves shoots along. I've been pressing more and more flash back into service just to freeze motion and match daylight and, just like riding a bicycle, it only takes a few minutes to get back into the flash groove. But practice makes it almost transparent. Yesterday I shot with the Ranger RX pack. Today was all mono lights . 

I've also been vacillating between cameras. Some shoots I'm doing with 24 megapixel, full frame Sony cameras while on other shoots I'm choosing the G6 camera or the Sony RX 10. They all work so well. Especially with flash at ISO 125, 160 or 200. 

The thing I always forget when we have dry spells in the market or when I've been shooting with available light is just how much gear I like to have around when I do studio set-ups. I was pissed off today that I didn't pack the Westscott FastFlags because I wanted to totally control the background light and, in truth I would have like to have screen off the non-image forming light that was coming back into the camera from the background. 

But as it was I was packing seven light stands, a background stand set, a long roll of white seamless paper, five Elinchrom mono-lights, a bag full of umbrellas and soft boxes and enough heavy electrical cord to grab power from anywhere. The cameras? They were the least important of the load. I had my two cameras in my little moss green Tenba backpack. It was almost weightless. 

I love working with talent like Jaston. He is so expressive and so full of energy. He's also wonderfully fun to be around. I didn't even mind missing lunch...

Guess the camera? Just for fun?

Article supports VSL practice of lighting from the left with subject looking to their right. Read all about it.

Click this link to read the article where I found it, on F-Stoppers:
Visual Science Lab Portrait Lighting Style Gets Science.

Revisiting a classic lighting concept...


Revisiting the Panasonic G6. On stage (or near the edge of it...) at Zach Theatre.

Thing One from "The Cat In The Hat."

 I had all these great intentions to shoot this kid's play with the big ole Sony full frame cameras till I remembered how much better the Sony RX10 nailed the colors and the exposures last time I shot a dress rehearsal. I had almost made up my mind just to go with the RX10 and keep the big cameras in reserve when I literally tripped over the Panasonic G6 and 25mm Pana/Leica Summilux I'd left on the floor the day before. So I scooped it up and dropped it into the camera bag next to the Sony cams. 

When I got to the theatre I pulled out the RX10 and set up all the controls the way I like them.  I find that it's important to go through and make sure you set the stuff that's germane to the shoot at hand. The last time I used the camera was for video and I'd turned off stuff like IS and set the focus differently. Oh, yeah...and the ISO and the color balance....

I knew the theatre lighting in the smaller stage pretty well and I knew that the play would be a fast moving one so I set the ISO to 1600. That meant I could stop down to f4.5 (the absolute sharpest f-stop for the Zeiss zoom lens) and still get shutter speeds in the range of 1/200th for most of the well lit scenes.

Once I got my primary camera set  up I grabbed the little Panasonic and set it the same way. And in a daring break from my traditional theatre shooting practice I set both cameras to RAW. 

I knew I'd get good files from the Sony. At 100% there would be a pattern of monochromatic "digital grain" but at any size that the theatre might want to use the images the noise would be mostly invisible. I had previous experience shooting this camera at those settings and I knew we could pull it off. 

But I wasn't so sure about the Panasonic G6. Subconsciously I'm sure I'd bought into the anti-hype I'd read or stumbled across on the web. The take on that camera is that the sensor is one generation older and it is rumored, conjectured or believed to have less dynamic range and more noise than "modern" cameras. But I'm obstinate so I decided to look for myself. 

When I compared the raw files, head to head, in Lightroom (current version) I found that the "digital grain" more or less matched. The G6 was perfectly fine to shoot with. And while the color rendering was a little different between the two cameras I would be happy with either. 

I ran into one problem with both cameras. I ran into the buffer. I was shooting full raw files (there's no option for a c-raw or compressed raw...) and I found that after the first six or seven quickly shot files the cameras both slowed down. They process quickly so they recover quickly but it took me a while to get used to the cadence. When I shoot Jpegs I never seem to have an issue with either of the camera's slowing down. 

Both cameras were great at nailing the exposure and when I disagreed with the cameras I was forewarned by the miraculous technology of the EVF and I could easily tweak exposures with top mounted, direct, exposure compensation controls. The feedback loop, incorporating good EVFs made the shooting much more reliable than any set of cameras I have previously used, including the Sony a99. 

Above, I have included a hand-held (no image stabilization in the G6 with the Leica lens...) fast action shot from the play.  The aperture is nearly wide open. The shutter speed is nicely fast. The AF locked on like a badger.

The top shot is the full frame and the bottom shot is a 100% crop of the top shot. For ISO 1600 with moving objects in contaminated light I think the G6 is a rocking good camera. I'm currently waiting for those genii at Amazon.com to lower the price back down to the $495 at which I bought my first one so I can buy a back up. While I'm almost certain that a G7 is in the wings I'm happy enough with the performance of the current camera to not wait around betting on the future. 

The play was fun. The photography was fun. And just to shake things up, when I left the theatre and went to shoot my next job...a corporate job....I tossed the little cameras into the trunk of the car and used the Sony a850 for all my afternoon shots instead. All at ISO 160. All with fast primes. Oh my. My world is upside down...

But the cameras don't seem to mind. They seem not to be judgmental.