Preferred camera of the day. Olympus OMD EM-5 with the Sigma Art Series 60mm f2.8 lens. Yummy.

It seems like an eternity since I've been downtown for a good Sunday walk through the city. After a nap with Studio Dog I headed to the studio in the early afternoon to go through the ritual of choosing the "camera of the day." We used to think of cameras as precious items that were costly and more or less permanent choices. Now I think of cameras as parts of life that are as interchangeable as your jacket or your favorite pair of pants. You like them but you get bored using them all the time. You crave a little diversity, some spontaneous choice. At least I do. I spent my last weekend with the GH4 camera and the impressive but boringly perfect 12-35mm lens. I pressed the newly re-appreciated Nikon D7100 into service all during the work week. I was ready for a change. A realignment of sorts. 

I pulled the black Olympus OMD EM-5 out of drawer number three and clicked on the Sigma 60mm lens. Nice and long. So different from the wide orientation I played with in Saratoga Springs and, even with the battery grip attached, the camera seemed tiny compared to the "work" camera. 

I had one interesting insight about this camera today. I had the EVF set to high refresh rate on all three of the EM-5 bodies and it reduces "lag" to the point that I can't see it but I realized that it does so by reducing the overall resolution of the screen. Since I don't do a lot of (any) fast moving action with my cameras and I'm not a sports photographer I changed all the cameras back to normal and the big difference in image quality that I'd been seeing lately between the EM-1's I've been playing with and the EM-5 seemed to subside into a much vaguer and subtle difference. Not so much to get all fired up about. 

I dragged the camera all around town and shot sparingly. I met a VSL reader out on Congress Ave. He was sporting a Panasonic GX7 and was obviously having a blast. We chatted for a block or two and then, true to our concept of "Lonely Hunter, Better Hunt" We split up and went our own ways. 
After visiting a pristine small town in the northeast Austin all of a sudden seems so downmarket. So shabby and grungy. Sixth street seem to swell today with drunken football fans lurching from seedy bar to seedy bar while the ever increasing bands of street people seemed more aggressive and pungent. I remind myself that every big city has nice spots and not so nice spots but it's a bit embarrassing that our downtown has become so "low rent" especially so given the high rents...

But I am hardly a social anthropologist so I just looked for things to shoot that seemed interesting to me. 

The building frenzy continues unabated. Condos everywhere. Two of them opening within spitting distance of Barton Springs. But the cranes look so dramatic against the blue sky. 

This is a new, giant condo building across the street from Whole Foods on Sixth and Lamar. Do you think adding several thousand new tenants will increase downtown traffic? At what point does growth strip away everything that made a city special in the first place? Time to head to the next cool spot?

I love street art. I'm so happy someone found this particular spot to put up this particular piece of art. Just in time for the "Day of the Dead." It sits in a window opening on the old Children's Museum building. Nice.

It seemed like the camera and lens could do no wrong today. Everything I pointed the combo at seemed fun to me. And the in body IS makes this particular cheap lens sing. 

Tomorrow is my birthday. I think I'll start out with a swim at Barton Springs followed by coffee and a bowl of Cheerios and walnuts. Maybe a run up to the camera store to see if they have any more used EM-5s. Some strategic future planning with Studio Dog. Coffee with Frank.  And then dinner at Asti Trattoria with Belinda. That should make for a nice day. Especially so if I can bargain for a great price on yet another camera.....

......it never stops.

If it was your birthday and you could rationalize getting another camera for less than $1,000 (and your spouse didn't need to know...) what would you buy?  No lenses please! That's too personal. But I would love to hear what camera has you interested right now.  In this moment. Hypothetically. Just for fun. Go ahead. Post it in the comments. It would be nice to hear from you on my birthday. 

A different look from the same session. How I shoot as an "amateur."

People ask from time to time just how a portrait session progresses for me in the studio. I thought I'd answer that not from a commercial work perspective but from a shooting for the fun of it perspective.

Here's how my session with Fadya time-lined yesterday.

I started cleaning up the studio space right after morning swim practice. It's a routine I seem to do over and over again generally because I sometimes book too many shoots in a row, I'm tired when I get home from a project, and almost never use the same gear for two projects in a row. That means cases and gear tend to get dropped into the middle of the small studio space and stay there until their low priority rises to the top or until someone is coming over to be photographed in the space.

At noon I started setting up the background and lights I'd be using. Two HMIs, four different panels which included four light blockers, one double clothed diffuser, and a small net assemblage for controlling the level of the background light. I selected a tripod and head to work with form the stack and pulled the camera and lens out of one of the bags. Why a particular camera? Most probably because it had completed its cycle from used, ignored and neglected to "hey! isn't that the camera we shot X with? I loved that image." At which point the camera is resurrected or, politically rehabilitated.

I rough out all of the lights; their heights and relative positions, and set my diffusers to the spots they seem to need to be in. Everything will be finally adjusted when Fadya sits down and we get to shooting.

I try my best to be finished fifteen minutes before my subjects walk in because I hate to be fiddling with anything other than a meter when they arrive. I think the busy work of setting up mechanical stuff deflates the "theater" of the encounter.

Fadya came at 1:30 and we hugged and hung up her wardrobe on one of the Metro shelves. Then we went into the house to make her a cup of tea. She likes to calm down and separate from the rest of the day when we do photo sessions and the tea is in service of that. Belinda was home so the three of us talked in the kitchen for a bit. Then we headed out to the studio and started shooting in earnest around 2 pm.

Now, when I'm making portraits for fun I don't push the process quickly. I like to take time and really work on stuff. But the biggest task is for the sitter and the photographer to be on the same wavelength and that takes catching up and sharing stories and listening and hanging out together. The technical considerations of a shoot are almost invisible for the rest of the day. We may take a break and move a light or add a scrim but there's no urgency to it and I never convey that exactness is critical. Lighting should be more like hand grenades than lasers. You just need to be in the general ball park to make it work.

We talk about everything under the sun and I try to be observant and find the tilt of her head, the random expression, the eye-line or small, warm smile that works and to be diligent to look for those things as we proceed down the road of the session. If I see Fadya do something that makes her face light up or look otherwise interesting I'll interrupt our conversation and ask her to re-do that thing and then, when it's photographed, we'll continue.

While it sounds like it might be non-stop chatter in the studio there are many times when we both just feel right and in the flow and we stop talking and just shoot. I'll give short suggestions like, "just rotate your face a tiny bit toward the light." Or, "just tilt your chin up slightly and hold that." And we'll shoot and make tiny changes and improvements to a largely static pose. Working in small increments from a static pose allows me to find overall looks that I like and then to experiment with small adaptations or changes that I think might improve it.

All feedback is encouraging. How could it not be when our shared intention is to make beautiful images together?

All sessions that I've experienced go through a parabola of sorts. You both start out the session rusty and halting and the you progressively slide into a more and more comfortable give and take. At a certain point everything seems to click, the world outside is progressively shut out, and your creative instincts focus down into tighter detail. You're still sharing conversation and you're still making suggestions but you start to notice a softening and deepening of your subject's expression and for a moment or two everything is in perfect balance and you shoot and say, "Yes, that's perfect!" a lot.

After that moment you notice that things start to look like they are repeating. Similar poses, similar expressions and similar exchanges. You try more stuff and move the lights around but you probably both know that you hit a peak during the session and now you are winding it down.

After that, if you are friends and interested in each other's careers and lives, you spend some time with the camera down, just sharing fun information. Learning more about each other so that the next session is even smoother and more revealing. And by revealing I mean that both people work to make an emotionally safe space to share expressions and looks that may be dorky or may be amazing. There's no guarantee.

We shot about 400 big raw images, we drank tea, we talked about our kids and our careers. Fadya is a therapist. She specializes in addictions. She's got lots of interesting psychology information to share. It's stuff I find fascinating. We spent another half hour camera less,  sharing and catching up and aligning our experiences.

It was sometime around five when I walked Fadya up the long drive way to her car. We both had fun. I have enough images to work on to keep my hobbyist side busy for a while. I'll make a gallery for Fadya and when she chooses some images I'll do my best to make them really good. That's how I spend an afternoon in the studio having fun. Photography is a wonderful excuse just to be curious. Friendly portrait sessions are a great time to experiment with new gear and new techniques.

It's a day later and the gear is still all over my studio. The lights are still set up. The camera is on the camera pile and I've moved to the next one in the queue.

Now I'm thinking about how to improve the lighting for next time. One more HMI lighting head will help...

It takes time to get a camera and lens and specific lighting zeroed in. It's not an automatic function. At least not for me...

I love mixing up all the variables and starting from scratch. Move to a new type of light and it brings along its own influence on style. Change camera formats and you see your approach to shooting change. Work with a new lens and for a little while the novel new way of seeing the same subject means you compose a bit differently. 

On recent jobs I've been shooting with zoom lenses on an m4:3rds format. For the last week I've been shooting most things with the D7100 and the 85mm 1.8 lens. It's always fun to stir up the recipes. So, what have I noticed? Well, when shot at base ISO the Nikon has a smoother skin tone rendition than either the EM-5 or the GH4. I can duplicate the effect to a certain extent by using noise reduction sliders in Lightroom while adding some high frequency sharpening. At f2.8 with the 85mm I get backgrounds to go out of focus more quickly. The above image is pretty much out of camera. I did a slight amount of shadow recovery but no tonal changes or work on the background. What I'm seeing is a very nice rendition in the out of focus areas in the background. Also, the background is just eight feet behind Fadya and, at f2.8, is completely out of focus. I'm sure I can accomplish the same thing by shooting my 60mm m4:3 lens at f2.0 or nearly the same effect by shooting the 45mm 1.8 wide open. 

Also interesting to me is how well the above image handled high ISO. When I started my session with Fadya the camera was set to auto ISO with 3200 as the top end and 1/100th at the minimum shutter speed. This was not intentional. There are two different places in the Nikon menu that have to do with ISO and I just changed ISO to 160 in one place without remembering the Auto-ISO implementation. Since we were shooting in ambient light and locked to 1/100 as a minimum the camera defaulted to ISO 3200. I caught my mistake after a number of frames.

I presumed that the frames would be relatively unusable for my needs by decided to do a quick post process just for the heck of it. Apparently, starting with 24 megapixels helps in the grand scheme of things because after introducing a bit of noise reduction (and the noise at 3200 is just like the noise from the GH4 = tight, small black grains with no apparent color sparkles) and a bit of compensatory sharpening I was very happy with the overall quality of the file even at 100%. Interesting for me. 

While Fadya and I were playing around in the studio I did notice how quickly I kept hitting the buffer in the D7100. I'm used to the GH4 which slams out raws with wild abandon. The D7100 is pretty much locked into about seven frames before hitting the wall. I was shooting what I would consider worst case= that means auto distortion correction on, 14 bit file depth enabled and lossless compression set in the menu. While I am mentioning it here and it seemed to be a throw back to me I do have to make two points. The first is that the files are pretty enormous. Not "D810" enormous but the total amount information data tends to cube rather than double as resolution increases. Secondly, after having shot medium format film for years and having shot with four different medium format digital cameras (with one frame per second performance) the reality is that the D7100's pace is totally serviceable for a studio portrait artist. One just has to master one's cadence in shooting. And if you are doing it correctly there is a rhythm to every shoot. You just have to listen for it...

So, nice files with lots and lots of detail and (when the photographer sets the camera correctly) the wide dynamic range of the sensor means lifting shadows and keeping detail in skin highlights is that much easier. But what about my strange choice of lights?

If you've followed the VSL blog for long you'll see that I have an innate prejudice toward shooting portraits with continuous light sources. Until very recently I was pressing LED panels into service where possible. Last year I added four much more powerful fluorescent fixtures to the lighting collection and I've enjoyed using them. It takes a room with controlled lighting to pull the most out of the them because of the color mismatch with daylight and tungsten but as a primary light source for still portraits and video production they are a good addition. But the "holy grail" for continuous lighting buffs is a light source that really kicks out efficient light that's so close to average daylight that it's intermixable without heroic filtration. You want a light that does what the old fashion tungsten movie lights could do. That's to give you the flexibility of shooting with sharp, highly focused light or having enough power to pop the light through big diffusers and still get usable levels. 
In that way you get to choose between hard and soft. Something that's almost impossible to do with fluorescents and requires big expenditures to get with LED.

The lights I used with Fadya were the K5600 200 watt HMIs. Normally when I'm using continuous lighten the studio I block the outside illumination with black foamcore panels over all of the windows. This means there are no unexpected color shifts and it also means a total control over lighting contrast. With the HMIs I left the windows unobstructed. This allowed soft, non-focused light to come through. The HMIs were two or more stops brighter on Fadya but the combination of instrumented light and window glow lowered the overall contrast of the lighting and softened the effect on Fadya's skin. Interesting to me was the fact that the measured color temp. of the HMIs was 5400 + minus 4 green. That's pretty much nailed into accurate color. The percentage of green could be camera to camera variation as much as anything else (I have not had time to do an exhaustive profile of this particular camera yet...). 

Why continuous light instead of industry standard flash? I like the control that the continuous light offers and it is much easier on the subject as well. There's no constant flash to cause the photographer or subject's irises to continually stop down and re-open, which causes most of the fatigue experienced in a session. At slower shutter speeds there's nothing to freeze micro motions induced by breathing and the mobility of facial muscles. This leads to less clinical sharpness but a more realistic depiction of a subject. It's more in step with how we actually see and experience our external world that slices of unnaturally frozen and sharp flash work. Certainly, if you shoot dancers in mid-leap or fast moving children or some aspect of sports that might require (and accept) flash, you'll have different parameters to master. But photographing complicit adults is a whole different thing and one area in which the strengths of accurate revisualization, and lighting that's effectively ignored after a few minutes are good things. As is the slight softening of some details. 

HMIs are interesting to work with. You would think they are exactly like tungsten lights only balanced for daylight. But that's not exactly the case. They don't work by super heating a metal filament. Where tungsten lights (incandescents) work by apply current across a metal filament and heating it up till it glows HMIs work by creating an arc between two tungsten electrodes in a  high pressure atmosphere. They are much more efficient and generate much less heat. 

But they do require a "ballast" which is basically a box filled with electronic components that regulates current and voltage supplied to the electrodes. The ballast makes the whole construct much, much more expensive than conventional lights but the advantages are that you get a more comfortable working environment, daylight balancing, and higher output per watt of energy consumed. All the control of spot lights and other time honored tungsten constructs but with the energy efficiency and lack of heat that makes it a pleasure to work with for all parties. Is it any wonder that movie productions moved to HMIs decades ago? 

When I get my lights set up I turn on the switches on the electronic ballasts and it actually takes times, in fact several minutes, until the lights warm up and the arc becomes fully implemented and ready for shooting. It's novel to watch the warm up process as the lights go through color spectrum changes and go from vague and weak to full ready. 

The set of HMIs that I'm currently playing with are 200 watt fixtures. One is a fresnel spot light and the other is an open face.  Each accepts barn doors and a selection of different front lenses that can change the spread and the effect of the light. By changing the lighting pattern and by controlling spill with the barn doors the lights become very surgical and controlled in use. As I mentioned I used the open face light through a big diffuser for my main light and depended on the daylight coming in behind me and bouncing off the ceiling and walls as general fill. I used the fresnel spot (Alpha 200) as a background light, throwing a tight round pattern with very soft edges onto the dark gray canvas I used eight feet behind Fadya. 

There are differences that flash shooters will notice that take a little time and practice getting used to. The biggest difference is that there are no "level controls" on these lights. You have two settings: On and off. In the set up with Fadya the background light was to powerful compared to the main light. With a flash moonlight you would just turn down the power of the back light. What I had to do is cut the power of the back light using a black net. It took four layers of net to get the level that I wanted. Why didn't I just cover the light with diffusion material? Because it would have changed the spread characteristic of the light and made my tight spot into a broad flood. By using nets or screen material I am able to lower the overall level without changing the spread or the character of the light source. 

You make allowances for the tools you want to work with. I am awaiting the delivery of a third light this coming week. With the extra fixture I'll be able to do more complicated lighting set ups more easily. I'm also laying in a supply of metal screen material for additional level controls. One Tues. one of my good friends is using the lights to do production on some video interviews. It should be interesting to get his take on their performance as he's worked with these kinds of lights almost from the beginning of his career. 

I'm taking two of the lights with my on Thurs. for the start of a four day long assignment with lots of moving pieces. All Thurs. morning we're shooting more executive portraits in areas of flowing daylight. At some point the daylight moves and we need continuity. The HMIs in some giant diffusion should be just what the lighting doctor ordered.

I haven't done very much post processing to the images posted here of Fadya and I'll chalk that up to a busy schedule and re-entry into Austin this past week. But I'm pretty sure that you can see the effects I was working to get: A great smile, perfect eyes and the diminution of extraneous visual junk. 
Continuous lights and a different camera. Things that keep me from getting bored with the technical side of photography...


Color matched, continuous light sources can help you make images that look like there were captured candids.

Fadya, mid-sentence, lit by two HMI lights.

Can you tell lit from unlit? The better the lighter the fewer the cues...

Portrait made while playing with K5600 HMIs. Fun with friends.

I photographed Fadya several years ago for illustrations in my LED Lighting book. We worked well together and I loved her look. Last week I was sitting around the studio playing with my two (on loan) HMI lights from K5600 Lighting. I'd pressed them into service earlier in the week to light a CEO portrait and also to do some technical product shots. In those two situations I could not have asked for more. The lights kicked out ample continuous light and did so with perfect, daylight balanced color. Post production was quick and easy. And, as I unpacked from other photo adventures I found myself wishing for a patient, attractive person with whom to give the lights a really good workout. 

A few hours later, out of the blue, I got an e-mail from Fadya  asking if I wanted to get together and make more portraits in the studio---just for fun. We agreed on a time and date. 

I cleaned up the studio as well as I could right after swim practice this morning. I set up one 200 watt Joker HMI light head firing into a double diffused, Chimera 4x4 foot light panel as my main light. I used the Alpha 200 fresnel HMI light as a background light. And I used two, black fabric covered Chimera panels for subtractive lighting, both over head and to the opposite side of Fadya to deepen the shadows and control spill light from the white ceiling. 

I shot with the Nikon D7100 camera and the Nikon 85mm 1.8G. Just because. The files were 14 bit raw, lossless compressed. So, why shoot with HMIs instead of flash? Well, the HMIs are a continuous light source with a very, very high CRI (color rendering index) which means one can light by looking instead of lighting via iterative testing.  There's no: Pop. Pop. Pop. bursts of light, just a continuous flow which people seem to get used to very quickly. Since I started working with continuous lights I've had very few problems with people anticipating the exposure and blinking. A big contrast with my years as a flash photographer....

Fadya came over, we had tea and chatted with Belinda and then headed out into the studio to do some real work. She sat on the posing stool and we started talking and shooting. There are always long pauses as we catch up, share stories and generally get into the moment. She knows my preference for little to no make up and minimal jewelry and she outfitted accordingly. We both are of the opinion that a portrait session is best done as a collaboration between no more than two people. We settled into the rhythm of the extended session the way one settles into a wonderful conversation over drinks at a bar. Inhibitions on hold and ready to be silly if it meant taking a better image. 

Now I am sure the big question on some people's minds is probably, "Why the hell were you shooting with the Nikon D7100? Didn't you try to dump it for an Olympus OMD EM-1 just this past Wednesday?" 

Well, life is weird. Photo life is even weirder. When we last left off on my D7100 rant I had decided to keep the camera and try to come to grips with it. So I took it on a shoot Friday morning to make marketing photographs at a private school in west Austin. That's the only camera I took into the location. I did leave another camera in the car, just in case of catastrophic equipment failure. You've got to be responsible to your clients....

Well, I photographed a mass service and a bunch of candid schools shots with the Nikon D7100 and the 18-140mm lens but after I'd covered the images on the client's "want list" I decided to just poke around and see what I could get. One of the classes was doing a monarch butterfly release and I followed them to see if there was the possibility of a good image. A little girl pulled a monarch butterfly out of a screened enclosure in order to release it. The butterfly hesitated and then sat on her outstretched finger for a little while. I snapped away with the Nikon camera system and a ttl flash in the exterior location. The combination of the technical quality of the capture and the priceless expression of joy and wonderment on the young girl's face was utterly amazing. A perfect image. Easily the best photograph I've made in two or three years. Really. 

Next up I went to the art class where a group of first graders were learning to work with clay. Two kids were working at a table lit by soft, indirect light and more direct sunlight that was being bounced off the table tops on which they were working and into their faces. I shot individual images of each child. At one point the little girl looked up at me with awesome, confident, crystal blue eyes and I snapped a portrait that I'll still be showing to art directors and art buyers twenty years from now. It was elegant, gorgeous and riveting. The lighting was perfect as was the expression and the composition.  It was shoot at f2.8 about 1/640th of second at ISO 240. When I saw it on the 27 inch screen I almost fell off my chair. When I showed it to Belinda she basically said that every mother of every girl in first grade would look at that image and want that school for their kid. It was that amazing. 

Now I know that a lot of the magic of the photo was being in the right place at the right time. Another big part was the luck of having such a beautiful child as a model. But the camera has to count for something. So now I am temporarily convinced that the D7100 is a miraculous image making machine and I'm pressing it into every shoot. Don't worry, I'll change my mind soon enough. But for right now I'm enjoying using last century camera technology to make art. It seems to work well.


When it rains it pours. The perpetual motion of running a business and trying to do art on the side....

Renee Zellweger from the old days. Just a nod
to unalloyed beauty. 
Back in the day we colored black and white prints for fun...

I got back into the office on Monday and it's been a marathon ever since. We're currently booked solid between now and about the 11th of November. Shades of the late 1990's. I had a fun time yesterday. I shot a portrait of a CEO in a small conference room. I lit him by blasting a 200 watt HMI light through a 4x6 foot diffusion scrim from one side. That was the whole lighting rig. Oh yeah, I did have to tape some black cloth on the wall opposite the light to bring down the shadow side of his face just a bit... It was beautiful. And the color on the files was just what I wanted. 

When I finished photographing the executive we bounced one HMI off the ceiling and another one off a white board positioned right behind camera, directly in front of the products and then proceeded to photograph six or sever servers, a couple of cool circuit boards with sexy heat sinks, and some interesting connectors, on a white sweep laid out on top of the big conference room table. I shot yesterday with the Nikon D7100 partly because I am a glutton for self-inflicted punishment and partly because I have to admit that the ISO 100 files, when created by an old, 55mm Micro Nikkor, are richly detailed and easy to grind through the raw processing software on their way to becoming advertising materials. 

I hated using the Nikon live view on the camera so much that on the way home I dragged the case with an assortment of lenses and the offending camera into Precision Camera to see how much I could get for the lot in trade for an Olympus OMD EM-1. Not enough to make it worthwhile. It's worse than cars now. Shoot with the stuff for four months and it's nearly worthless for resale. So I decided to work harder on liking the camera and the lenses. And being one of those guys shooting four mismatched systems deep.

I drove out to Johnson City today. Birthplace of LBJ. That president. I needed to quickly scout a location for several shoots that are coming toward me at speed in November. I was there for thirty minutes and then back to Austin in time to spend the entire afternoon and part of this evening retouching and creating clipping paths and masks for the product images I shot the day before. I was going to pace myself and do some of the work on Friday but my very helpful iCalendar reminded me that I'd booked most of tomorrow to shoot marketing images on location at a private school. When we wrap that up I need to head back downtown to attend an advertising agency open house for a firm I work with regularly. If the economy is still bad these folks haven't heard about it, this will be their third move, driven by quick expansion, in three years. Cocktails and face time from five till eight. 

I'm pressing the HMI's into everything. On Saturday one of my favorite people and models, Fadya, is coming over and we're going to spend the afternoon making HMI driven portraits. I hope I can find time somewhere in the schedule to clean up the studio....

As business gets more compressed and frenetic I'm gravitating more and more to using the GH4 as my primary production camera. It's quick and easy to use. The files are great and the lenses are wonderful. I'm smitten by the look and feel of the Oly EM-1 but my comfort zone is definitely in the Panasonic camp. 

No Lawn Jockeys in my area of Texas. It makes me smile when I see this image.

Finally, a wonderful sign of the times in business: I did a major job the week before Belinda and I went to Saratoga Springs. I was half way into the trip before I realized that I hadn't sent the client a bill. I hadn't even written one. That's unlike me since I'm always trying to bill quickly to get the payment clock running. I put that piece of billing on my "to-do" list and was all set to get busy doing paper work when we returned.  But first I checked my mail. There was a check from the client. Issued two days after the job wrapped, before the agency post production had even begun. They paid the full amount of the estimate. And there was a little note attached. The accounting person wrote. "This is the amount we had on the estimate. If there are other charges we need to pay please let me know and we'll send out a second check....."  Nice.

Something is wrong with trees in the north. The leaves become discolored and fall off. 
I hope it isn't some sort of wilt or blight.....

Nature planted these trees too close together. 
Which one am I supposed to focus on?


Brick Wall with Windows.

 Saratoga Springs, N.Y. 2014

Lots of changes coming up. On Monday (10/27) I turn one year older. I'm setting goals for the year: Swim better, swim faster. Shoot tons more photographs. Write the next book. Make more portraits. Meet more and more interesting people. Socialize more. Use smaller cameras. Make more friends. Play more. Share more. Blog more.

If you can help me with any of these goals jump in and let me know.

Tech notes: Taken after drinking Brazilian Santos coffee. Panasonic GH4. 12-35mm. Ektachrome.


The rewards for stumbling around the back streets with a camera can be silly or startling. I like the surprises I find off the beaten paths,

Like any old city Saratoga Springs has its share of attractions. There are the springs, of course. Then there's the oldest thoroughbred horse racing track in the U.S. and, of course the shopping and architecture. Let's not forget Yaddo, the writer's retreat. But I am loathe to tromp through where so many have tromped before me. I'm always on the look out for the interesting Kitsch that makes life feel like it's got an ample dose of whimsy and cerebral clumsiness. 

I headed west from downtown and found lots to look at. One place that was particularly fun with Saratoga's Florist. In a side yard adjoining the flower shop was a cacophony of visually engaging relics. Saints and naked nymphs frolicked together in the fenced in, open air, warehouse and I was able to move through with my little camera and try to pull out things I liked as visual candy. 

My favorite was the vaguely Medusan flower pot shown above in black and white. Just sitting there on the ground in front of colorful lawn fdic-frac decor and just behind a rickety cabana table. Now that's what I'm looking for when I'm roaming with a lens....

"Adoration of  naked breasts."

Shooting houses and landscapes makes me nostalgic for the era of the 4x5 inch view camera...

...but  when I remember the workflow without the overlay of nostalgia I realize that I wouldn't have gotten very many photographs taken in the time allotted. When I first had the thought that it would be fun to make images again with transparency film and a Linhof, equipped with my favorite Zeiss 250mm f5.6 Planar lens the memory all seemed so---magical. So I did what I usually do when I remember optimistically, I dissected the process in a step by step fashion to help me rationally remember what a pain the ass it really was. 

To take the image above I would have had to extend the legs of the Gitzo tripod I used out to the sides in order to get the head and hence the camera close enough to the ground to get this comp. That presumes that I would be carrying my 18 pound 5 series tripod with me. Yes, it was required. I would have assembled the camera from its carrying case and mated it to the tripod. I would open up the lens shutter and open the aperture and then crouch behind the camera with a dark cloth so I could evaluate the image on the ground glass screen. I would figure out how much tilt I needed to add (positively) to the front standard and how much to detract (negatively) from the rear standard to use the Scheimpflug  principle to distribute the plane of sharpness correctly. 

Since there was no efficient way to correct for color temperature with transparency films (and many times we needed to send original transparencies to clients or magazine....) I would pull out the Minolta color temperature meter to figure out what combination of Wratten gel filters to put over the front (or the rear) of the lens in order to get the right color in the final image. Of course, I would pull out a different meter and use the incident dome to get a preliminary reading of the overall exposure. 

Since I am within 10x the distance as a ratio of the lens focal length I would have to modify any meter reading with a bellows extension factor. I'd want to verify that by using a Polaroid test or two. While I was waiting for the Polaroid to time out and to dry a bit before evaluating I would simultaneously be praying that the lighting would not change. That no clouds would come by and mess up both my exposure readings and the color temperature readings. A big change would require a "recalibration" and maybe a new set of filters taped to the front of the lens. 

Once we got all the metering just right I'd hop back under the dark cloth one more time to put a loupe onto the ground glass, stop down to the taking aperture (so I avoid focus shift) and then fine focus at the taking aperture before cocking the shutter.

When the stars all lined up I would grab four film holders from the case and proceed to do a bracket in 1/3 stops. Two exposures over. One exposure under and one right on the money. Then I would reverse the process, making sure I'd flipped the dark slides before re-seating them in the film holders, taking the camera apart and putting it into the case and an then gathering in the tripod. Sounds easier when you write it but I'd guess that each of the shots would require about 30 minutes after you discovered the subject and angle you wanted. The move to the next subject would most likely involve putting all the gear into the trunk of one's car and driving to the next location. Back then, on a good shooting day with a view camera we'd be happy with six of seven good images for consideration. And we would have truly earned anything we shot. 

The reality is that for most of our current presentations the image quality of the m4:3 or APS-C cameras we have at our disposal are nearing the same technical quality that we would have gotten from all the hard work back then but the time period from recognition of the subject to final shutter click could be measure in dozens of seconds rather than in dozens and dozens of minutes. 

And, of course, the image on the transparency was only share-able with one person at a time. Maybe two. It would still have to be printed in the darkroom or scanned and uploaded to achieve sharing "parity" with modern images. Ah. The large format image. A romantic memory of a process that was, in reality, fraught with hard work and, at times, heartache. I think I'll stick with digital for right now. 

We don't see many lawn jockeys in Texas. 

I'm sure the natives thought it funny to see an person bent over their camera and fixated by a lawn ornament. But that's really the nature of cross cultural explorations. 

The One Camera, One Lens Weekend. Just Making Snapshots in Saratoga Springs.

Ben made it into the college he wanted. They like him, he likes them. We went up to see him last weekend and I took along one camera and one lens. The camera was a Panasonic GH4 and the lens was a Panasonic G Vario 12-35mm f2.8. It's a lovely combination. Not too heavy and not too big but packed with features that help it compete with bigger sensor cameras. Usually when I'm shooting images for myself (non-client work) I shoot jpeg files. For some reason I decided I'd spend this weekend shooting in raw.  I also decided to set up the profile in the camera to be pretty flat. I used the shadow/highlight curve settings to make a custom curve that brought down the highlights and boosted the shadows. Then, in post production I brought the contrast back up, selectively. It seemed to work well for me. 

As we all know, the benefit of using one card, one camera and one lens is that you never really have to make a choice when you head out the door of your hotel. Oh sure, you may decide to set the camera up to shoot black and white or something but in general you've already made your choices and now your real choices are: what to point the camera at and when to push the shutter button.

I was amazed yet again at the stamina of the Panasonic battery in the GH4. I brought along a spare but I may as well have left it at home. I was able to do over seven hundred raw files before the first indicator on the battery icon (menu screen) disappeared.

I had fun making photographs in the northeastern United States. The leaves were turning. It looked like daytime fireworks in the trees. I enjoyed the weather too. It was in the 60's during the days and the upper 40's at night. Perfect for a photographer acclimated in the Texas summers. 

We stayed in Saratoga Springs while we were up north. The only thing I really knew about Saratoga Springs, NY came from reading the James Bond book, Diamonds are Forever, by Ian Fleming. In that 1950's book Ian Fleming writes about the mob connections in Saratoga Springs. The main attraction of the town at the time was horse racing (which is still enormous there) and James Bond was sent there by the mob to get paid off for smuggling diamonds into the U.S. The chapters about Saratoga Springs are like a time machine snapshot of 1950's Americana. Go back and read the book. It's so different from the later James Bond movie by the same title that was produced much later...

I think it would be fun to be an architectural photographer in rural New York state. A lot of the houses and buildings have their own history and their own aura generated by sheer temporal endurance, but the neat thing is the way the buildings are situated in their space. They've mostly been there long enough for nature to have settled in comfortably around them. It's a nice look. Maybe I just feel this way because it looks so different to me, having come from flat, quick, rudimentary Texas.

Here is the view from the penthouse floor at Ben's dorm. In every direction you look you see nothing but an ocean of tall, majestic trees. When you look directly north you see a view of the southern edge of the Adirondack Mountains. The land undulates and then sweeps up to the mountains just a few miles away. 

Yes, I know it gets incredibly cold there in the winters. We had many lighthearted and serious discussions about it and when I miss the kid I reflexively order him insulated hiking boots and extra extreme gloves from Amazon.com. They generally arrive two days later just in time for northern style heat wave (that's when the mercury vaults up to the high 70's (f)). 

When I think about my young Texan living so close to the Arctic Circle I remember something he told me after his initial visit to the campus during a cold snap last Spring:  "Dad, all the buildings there are heated. Get over it."  We'll see who has the last laugh..

I'd like to thank a VSL reader who prefers to remain anonymous. This gentleman answered my query a month or two ago when I asked if I had any readers who lived in this area. We corresponded and he sent me good information about the town and the logistics of getting there. Then he offered to pick Belinda and me up at the airport in Albany, drive us over to Saratoga Springs and then give us a wonderful insider tour of the area. He and his partner are wonderful and we look forward to spending time with them during every visit over the next four years. His generosity made our trip so enjoyable and worry free, and knowing that he's close by to my kid also calms my opportunistic anxiety. Dear Anonymous, Thank you very much!

Finally, I want to make one more observation. Based on the three meals we shared with Ben on campus a lot has changed since I was a student at college. The food has gotten really good. Beyond restaurant good. On the way home to Austin I was musing that after Ben finishes and moves on Belinda and I should register to go back to school there. One can always use another degree or two and the food might just be worth it. 

We're getting back into the flow of work here. I got a swim in today. I had a meeting with a colleague about upcoming collaborative projects, a meeting with seven people to map out the hour by hour agenda for next weekend's four day shoot and I've lined up yet another CEO portrait for tomorrow afternoon. This Saturday I'll be shooting a portrait of one of my favorite talents, Fadya. Only this time I'm planning on shooting with the K5600 Lighting HMI units (a third fixture is on its way to me) and I might even get around to borrowing my friend's Leica S camera to see what all the MF fuss is  about. We're back in God's country, back in the saddle, all caffeined up and ready to go. Stayed tuned and we'll talk. 


Moving past career paralysis. Pro or Amateur.

I thought I hated traveling but I've found recently that I only dislike traveling when I don't have a good reason in my head to go. Last week we took a couple days off, added them to the weekend and went off to visit the boy at college. His mom and I wanted to see how he was doing. Neither of us had seen the college he chose so we were doing that "anxious parent" thing of making sure he was safe and well. We needn't have worried. He seems to have made a series of good choices.

But the trip served to take me past traveling just for client service or with some sort of art mission in mind. I was traveling for non-photographic reasons probably for the first time in 25 years or so. Because of that I took only one camera and one lens. That's also very unusual for me. I usually take at least a back up body and a secondary choice of lens.

I made due with a Panasonic GH4 and the 12-35mm. I only shot when I wanted to. I depended on Belinda to do most of the "Ben in dorm room, Ben in dining hall, Ben with friends" shots and I pulled the camera out sometimes mostly just in response to things I found beautiful.

I felt blocked in my career lately. I was suffering from the paralysis that comes from, "been there, done that" syndrome. In a nice way taking a break from the expectation of photography helped me see more clearly the deep rut I'd allowed myself to fall into and the quick method of course correction for rut stuck people. It's to stop working and to start playing. 

That's it. That's all. By subjugating the camera to the reason for my travel (to see Ben and his new environment) I was able to defuse the single-mindedness of the relentless photographic process and use it the way I used to. And that was to make photographs that I liked of things that seemed important or beautiful to me.

Traveling with no photographic purpose is a way of letting go for me. Fewer cameras and fewer expectation of photography served to distill the pleasure into digestible little doses and helped me stop being obese with imaging.

Less investment of purpose. More enjoyment of being in the moment. Photography in the service of what I love instead of being in love with photography and scrabbling to find ways to express that misguided love. Who knew?