3.29.2014

How good does "good" have to be?


This has been a month of contrasts and it makes me wonder at times just how good "good" has to be. What do I mean by that? We tend to carry around presumptions about professional photography that were true in the days of print delivery but may not be true in today's practice. I shot a job in the Fall that entailed shooting many interiors in a period ranch house outside of Fredericksburg, Texas for a magazine dedicated to historic homes and crafts.

When I first started working for this magazine in 1979 we aimed to make every shot a cover shot. The magazines were printed on the best paper the printers could find and no expenses were spared in the color separation stage either. In those days it would have been unthinkable to shoot the assignments with anything less than a 4x5 inch view camera. Partly for the quality of the image latent on the very large piece of film but just as importantly for the image controlled provided not only by tilts AND swings but also for the ability to do perfect double exposures (this comes in handy if you'll be doing one exposure for the interior and a second exposure for the exterior on the same piece of film---we call that smart man HDR).

Over the years the content and the production quality (not the design quality!!!) have undergone changes. Many pages in the magazine are no longer on a glossy stock. The printing has been economized in order to match budgets. The images are used smaller. And the new style is to ask for more images from a day's shoot on location which means there's no time to do the painstaking lighting set-ups we used to do as routine. The bottom line is that clients tasted the Kool Aide of no film costs and no Polaroid costs and no separation costs and they won't go back so they made a bargain with themselves that they would forgo the advantages of film and the flexible camera movements (plural) and all the other trappings that made our old way of working able to turn out such perfect images.

Once you abdicate full view camera flexibility with all focal lengths and once you bid big film goodbye you are already in no man's land. When we worked for the magazine in the early days of digital they were delighted to use the files we sent them from six megapixel Kodak DCS 760's (shot scrupulously at ISO 80) and then images from the Fuji S2 with its fake 12 megapixels and then they were happy with the 12 megapixel Nikon D2X images and finally, they were happy last fall with 16 megapixel images from a Panasonic GH3 and a 12mm lens.

But I hear from so many people that we must pursue perfection at any cost. Really? Even when we're being paid less for each working day than we were ten years ago? Even when the perfect images will end up on imperfect paper, on an imperfect press? Even when the usage size renders all files more or less equal? Interesting bargain we seem to be making. We maintain our part of the "ultimate equation" while the rest of the transaction mutates and flails to our disadvantage around us.

In the effort to pursue a perfection, most dubiously "required", many are rushing to buy the highest pixel count cameras they can get their hands on. Maseratis and Aston Martins for the daily commute on the over-crowded freeways. Nikon keeps selling D800s and Sony is making progress (but less than they'd like...) with the A7r. Both generate giant files. Files that will be reduced, converted to 8 bits, rendered into CMYK and then subject to the tender mercies of digital printing. Each step tossing up a lowest common denominator filter which makes all technically proficient files equal to each other; regardless of the cameras that spawned them.

I'm heading out this month to shoot another assignment for the magazine. I'll do it again with the GH3. I'll do most of it with a Panasonic 7-14mm lens. The client will most likely have warm and fuzzy feelings about the images for several reasons: 1. The camera and lens combination is head and shoulders better than the ones from the early days of digital. 2. The 7-14mm used at 5.6 and f 8.0 will yield a remarkable depth of field which will allow readers to see whole rooms in good focus, letting them make a detailed inspection of all the fun artifacts and nuances. 3. Much of the quality of the work depends on my point of view, my composition and my lighting skills and these have not diminished since 1979 but, in fact, have improved---- a lot. And finally, the client will like the take because they will get a great selection of images for the same budget which used to yield "only" 8-10 good images a day.

If the images exceed the threshold of my client's needs (by a good margin) when using an inexpensive camera that is fun and convenient to use then it's good to remind ourselves that there won't be more budget coming along if we choose to buy and use a more expensive camera. And, you never know, we might want to shoot some video content while we're there....and what better camera could you want than the GH3 for those multiple uses?

So, how good does good have to be? Does every assignment need to be a re-painting of the Sistine Chapel ceiling? Even at house painter rates? Does every image have to have the potential to be printed 8 by 10 feet at 600 dpi to have value? Do we need to kill ourselves financially in order to assuage our egos and our need to present status to our peers?

I think not. Times have changed and it's good to know how the x/y axis of performance and return really work for our businesses. A case in point is the video project I recently completed. In my earlier career in advertising the shoot would have been done on 16mm file and necessitated a crew of six to ten people. It would have taken twice as long to produce. And the only place it could have played was in an auditorium with a projector or as a iteration on a VHS tape. And we all know it would have been disseminated on the VHS tape.... seen on a 20 inch CRT. With tinny little speakers....

Now the job was done with the assistance of one 18 year old person (with an exhaustive knowledge of film production) and an animator. Potentially viewable on millions of screens of various quality, certainly viewed by thousands on three 50 inch HD monitors at a trade show and all at much higher image quality standards. We did it with less than $10,000 worth of equipment= from camera to final edit. And we did it in less time too. Could we have done a better project with an Arriflex Alexa, a truck full of lights and crew of dozens? Maybe the production values of the final presentation on the big 50 inch screens would be marginally better but would the enormous increase in budget passed the client's assessment of the x/y axis curves of (marketing) performance versus financial spend? And if they won't pay for it we certainly won't show up and add gratuitous layers of "production quality" and complexity just for the heck of it.

Perhaps a new mantra for projects is to right size the tools to the job and not try to size the jobs for the tools. Invest in what you need to do the job. Disregard the gear's peer-to-peer blingization.