12.15.2014

Learning to use my cameras to make better images for my clients. Reaching back for proven methods.


I've come to notice that I sometimes work too quickly with digital cameras. I understand that part of their appeal is the tight feedback loop that the review image on the rear screen gives and also the ability to shoot with a degree of abandon with the assumption that small glitches and technical wobbles can be fixed right up in post processing. But the things that can most generally be fixed are exposure and color and the things that are harder to fix are flawed compositions, non-optimal exposures and basically bad ideas. The last three parameters are the ones which would always benefit from me slowing down, thinking more and pushing the button on the camera less frequently. 

I did what is probably the last job of 2014 for my business on Thurs. last week. I am of course welcoming all stragglers and procrastinators to bring me "emergency shoots" between now and the end of the year but really, my clients rarely work that way. At any rate I was booked to go to a custom framing shop that services clients in both gallery businesses as well as large scale hospitality clients (big hotels around the country). I was working with a good art director and we'd scouted the business a few days earlier, which is always a more effective way to work. I've enjoyed working with the Nikon cameras in the second half of the year so I packed a Think Tank Airport Security case (the original) with a D7100 body and a D7000 body and a bunch of new and old lenses. 

The new lenses were the logical ones to use but something (just the right focal lengths? Just the right visual signature?) kept me using the handful of manual focus Ais lenses I'd packed. Maybe I just liked the feel of focusing for myself after a long year of snappy autofocus.

When we set up the first environmental portrait, using a Fotodiox LED panel (the 508AS) blowing through a large, one stop, collapsible silk diffuser, I was thinking about how we used to do this with slow, medium format cameras and even slower medium format lenses and how we used to confirm focus with a flip down magnifier in the waist level finder. At that moment something clicked and I decided to use the D7100 as a slow, medium format camera instead of a "do everything for you" camera of the new century. 

I switched out the new 85mm 1.8 G lens with 60mm macro and stuck the camera and lens into the manual focusing mode. I grabbed a Hoodman Loupe out of a pocket of the camera case and popped the camera into live view operation to fine focus the lens at high magnification. When I nailed the focusing down I took some time to look at every square millimeter of the scene in front of my camera and starting actively looking for ways to improve the whole shot. We moved out a small plant ( I don't like houseplants in photographs) we moved the subject over to one side a bit so his head fell into a dead space that needed filled in the background. I spent time moving to and from the camera correcting the subject's pose and posture. I set a custom white balance with a Lastolite gray target.  When everything was just right I used an external, incident light meter to set the manual exposure.

It was a more involved process than putting the person's face under the correct little, illuminated focusing square and trusting to the camera's measurements and the life jacket last resort of PhotoShop but what this more extended process seemed to allow my was more time to really concentrate on what I was doing. My mind was guided by the process to slow down and think better. When we stopped to review the images I'd taken I was pleased in a way I haven't been lately with my photographs. I'd gotten into the bad habit of taking to many shortcuts and using my camera's potential for automation to disengage from some of the more important parts of the process. 

When we made very good images in the past there were some denominators that were common in each engagement. We started from a steady base by using a tripod. We started with a steady conceptual base by understanding what we wanted to end up with before the camera even came out of the case. And by necessity, we got all the little steps right which slowed down the procedure and gave our brains some breathing space to be more critical, more focused on what was happening right there in front of us. Too often now we're already thinking of how we'll fix something in post as were shooting instead of slowing down and fixing the things we need to fix now. The ounce of prevention instead of the multi-hour engagement in a our troll-ish computer caves, cloistered away from friends and family and good influences. 

Today I'm heading out to shoot some fun stuff for myself but I'm taking a tripod and a loupe and I'm going to try and up the ante and start treating this APS-C sensor-ed camera like a mini-view camera. Setting it up, leveling it and choosing the perfect aperture of the scenes I hope to find. It's not that the tools are somehow in decline that's devolved photography as much as it is our collective abrogation of responsibility at nearly every step that has been the dangerous and damaging to our creative processes and the intellectual qualities of our photographs. But this is an easier fix than we imagine. It just requires that we re-engage holistically in the process instead of letting our cameras Phone it in.

Don't forget those special photographers on your list who are just pining away for their own copies of "The Lisbon Portfolio." My mom finished reading her copy yesterday and said the story was filled with action and lots of fun. It's my hope that you'll think so too. 

paper back.

kindle version

And if you are working on a last minute Christmas/Holiday gift list consider heading to Amazon.com from my site. I'll get some site sustaining referral fees from Amazon.com and you'll not pay a cent more for your purchases. A smile for everyone...

7 comments:

Patrick Dodds said...

Hi Kirk, can you elaborate on the dislike of houseplants in photographs? It is an intriguing aside.

Peter E. said...

Kirk, are you saying that you made the woman's portrait with the just the 508AS?

MartinP said...

Obviously, the houseplant problem is due to them growing during the exposure and causing motion blurring . . . . or not?

Phil Stiles said...

I find the section of forearms cut off at the bottom of the frame quite distracting, but if I zoom into a head and shoulders crop, it's an arresting portrait. Was this deliberate?

Art in LA said...

I'm not sure if you're a Gen X'er or boomer (I'm on the cusp myself), but I do feel we live in the "accelerated culture" that Douglas Coupland described in his book "Generation X". As a culture, we do need to slow down and enjoy the process ... "slow photography" is akin to the current "slow food" movement. Happy shooting!

Kirk Tuck said...

First, let's tackle houseplants. For some reason the organic plants seem awkwardly juxtaposed to the straight lines of architecture. Second, the green leaves always record darker in photos than our eyes see them and they mostly come into the frame in fragments which is distracting and disturbing. Get rid of plants in your interior photos and at least I'll be happier.

Second, the portrait of the woman at the top of the article is just an illustration for the article and has nothing to do with what I shot last week. It's not an environmental portrait.

Third, the cropping. Yes, it was intentional as it adds a tension I wanted in this image. Crop if you like but I'll take mine straight up.

Finally, late cusp Baby Boomer but heavily into the slow movement.

jason gold said...

Tripods have always been a mainstay of very successful photographers.
Taking one's time to it right, there and then. No playing hours on PC to fix quick stupidity.
i am always stumped by the need to hurry.Digital while wondrous has this big pitfall, of now, no yesterday.