9.01.2016

Does Experience Offer Value to Customers? As soon as we have our first gray hair should we float out to sea on a burning raft and vanish from the market?


It's painfully interesting to grow older in what many people believe to be a young person's career. I have been practicing photography with a mostly serious intent since 1978, which means that I've already had image making experiences that cover the span of 38 years. In those years I have learned a tremendous number of technical facts about photography and, more importantly, have tested every thing I've learned. While most people are trying to accrue their 10,000 hours of practice on their road to mastery my ledgers show that I'm closing in on ten thousand projects; not just hours. Thousands of times at practice, mostly under the watchful eyes and high expectations of clients.

I'm not alone. There are many people out there in my industry who learned their craft in the days of black and white, re-learned it for color, and learned it yet again with our conversion to digital. If their arc has been the same as mine we were not foot dragging latecomers to digital imaging and technology. I've had digital cameras in my hands for more than two decades and have been working in PhotoShop even longer. I lived with PhotoShop when there were no layers and no "undos."

It's humorous to see well regarded contemporary photographers who profess to be "natural light photographers." I wonder if that means they failed to learn how to light at all.  Professionals of my generation can do natural light too. And very well. But we can also light with electronic flash, tungsten movie lights, LED panels, Kino Flos and even the light from our iPads. We don't depend, opportunistically, on nature to have everything lit for us when we arrive on a location, we can actually create light in many different ways. And we can do it repeatedly because we both understand the theory and have honed the needed skills in endless practice. Many clients don't have the time or budget to wait for the light to get neat. It's nice to know we can produce good light on demand....

But it is not just technical ability and practice that more seasoned practitioners bring to the mix. They've been through all the variations and pitfalls in the process of making art for clients. They've learned (sometimes the hard way) how to do effective preproduction. They've learned when to turn over specialized tasks like intricate retouching to specialists. They've learned how to create curiosity-safe sets for their art directors and clients. They've learned how to collaborate and how to subdue their egos in the pursuit of a shared success. They've learned how to manage business so they have cash flow to produce jobs and make them successful.

One argument in favor of much younger art workers might be the idea that they bring new ideas and new approaches to the table but that rings hollow in most cases as each generation steals and borrows lavishly and shamelessly from the masters who came before them. One only has to look to the fashion industry to see that most people practicing today (whatever their ages) are totally in debt to Francesco Scavulllo, Irving Penn, Richard Avedon, Chris von Wagenheim, Art Kane, Victor Skrebneski,  Guy Bourdin and Peter Lindbergh (just to name a few). Hard lights, ring lights, soft lights, spot lights, desert light, etc. It was all done before the Kinder-digi cut their first teeth and, in most cases, done with more finesse and control.

There is nothing particularly different about the styles we can all bring to the table. Many times we are incorporating looks and feels dictated by our clients and our art directors. In those cases the years of experience pay extra dividends since the constant practice across the years means we can more quickly hone in to the methods needed to serve the style. Having lived through so many styles most experienced photographers can adapt styles to clients instead of being one trick, trend ponies.

We were mostly all younger photographers at one time. We all learned by making mistakes and figuring out how to fix them. We are all marketing (in certain niches) to the same clients. Each generation has marketing strengths. I am not at all convinced that enthusiastic and cheap beats experienced, proven and reliable. And thank goodness that my clients haven't rushed to that conclusion either.

There is space for both. But not on the same caliber of jobs.

My generation is facing an interesting social shift. Where our parents were already worn out from twenty or thirty seemingly endless years at the same job, and ready to retire as they hit their 6th decade, many of my contemporaries have lived lives filled with exercise, re-invention, better nutrition and continued re-training. If you are in the cohort that pushes career boundaries, runs, swims, bikes, participates in triathlons and marathons, and you are in your 50's or early 60's, you may have more physical ability and endurance than the video game/couch pilots of the generations that follow you. If you've read the same magazines and websites that they've grown up with (as far as the photographic industry goes) you are leaving nothing on the table when it comes to delivering current styles of work and the understanding of visual trends -- in fact, a wider range of global experiences in life will probably make your vision richer and even more valuable.

For a photographer who fits the above description the idea of quietly exiting the stage because a few hairs have turned gray shouldn't be on the radar. As long as we're able to grab a couple of cases of photographic gear and make it up a few flights of stairs, and still make great photographs, we will continue to stake out our territory and compete with the best of our competitors. Press them hard with the added layers of experience  and skill....and make them cry like babies.

I guess this is a call to reject the "common knowledge" that the business of photography is only a young person's game. I'm sure some will interpret it as a variation of, "You darn kids get off my lawn!" But I like to think this is a declaration of intent to keep doing what we love and what we are good at with no regard for discrimination against tenure and experience.

If you love it, do it.

I have not yet designed my Viking raft for the journey to Photo Valhalla. I'm still having too much fun taking photographs. Hold off on the flaming arrows.







Welcome Back to the Visual Science Lab Blog. I Missed My Daily Keyboard Exercise. My Mind Got Flabby Too.

Selfie in a mirrored window. 

I wish I could say I got a lot done during my almost month long Summer vacation but the truth is that I spent most of it swimming, running, hanging with my (incredible) kid and going out to our family's favorite restaurants. I read four or five novels, watched movies and even spent some time meditating. I'd like to say that I am now relaxed and mellow but the truth is I'm no more or less cynical and opinionated than when I last hit the keyboard. And not much more relaxed than at any other time. Only now I am a month behind...

To get everyone up to speed I have to say that I did not buy any new cameras or lenses during my hiatus. I'm still working with the Sony cameras and I'm still finding the various strengths from model to model. Current favorite combinations include using the a6300 with the older Olympus 60mm f1.5 lens. Mix in focus peaking and focus magnification and the lens just becomes twenty years better and sharper. It's as good as anything I can buy new today. If you find one of these lenses in good shape be sure to grab it. Better still if it's cheap!

I am having fun shooting the A7ii as though it was a 1970's SLR. I toss a manual focus 50mm lens on the front and I am more or less transported back to 1978, only with an EVF and a bunch of information in the finder. Oh, and no film to buy and soup. It's like the cameras we all used to wear to school every day, just in case we ended up meeting a very, very cute woman on the way to or from class and she needed to have her portrait made. It's small, discrete and mellow. Kinda like a Nikon FM. Or an Olympus OM-1.

The camera that gets most of my attention is still the Sony RX10iii. It's so fantastic that I try to use it for everything. If I ever perfect a PhotoShop methodology for getting a narrow depth of field look with that camera then everything else goes off to the consignment shelf at the store and we pick up an extra RX10iii as a back up. With that one exception (shallow depth of field) it is the ultimate working camera for me. Too bad the A7ii is more fun (ergonomically) to carry around, and comes stock with the kind of depth of field control that is in fashion and addictive. 

The odd man out of the whole collection seems to be that poor A7Rii which sits alone in a drawer, in a neoprene pouch, waiting for the next, big paying job to roll around. Don't get me wrong, the camera is pretty amazing. Files are beautiful whether you are shooting stills or video, but unless you're working on a massive print project, or need very clean high ISOs, the A7ii works just fine, is less dear to lose or damage, and gives me a good compromise between file size and "ultimate" image quality. 

Of the three subsets of Sony that I own the a6300 and a6000 are the least necessary to me. I like using the old Olympus lenses, or the new Sigma 30mm f1.4 DN, on them and pretending I'm shooting with an old Leica but my brain always reaches for the RX10iii or the A7ii well before any of the APS-C, mirrorless Sonys. 

In other news: My world class assistant for the Summer (Ben) is packing up and heading back to school in New York this week. He hits the Austin airport early Saturday morning and I already miss him. So much so that I've already got airline tickets and hotel reservations so his mom and I can head up and visit in October. The member of the family who will be most devastated by his leaving will be Studio Dog. She'll mope around for weeks. She loves to torture me in the times after Ben goes back to school by walking down the hall in front of me, as we head out for a walk, and stopping in front of Ben's room and looking it over. Then she turns her head towards me and makes the world's saddest dog eyes. It's just pathetic. And no matter what I have scheduled I stop and play with her for the next half hour. 

During the break I've spent some quality time learning more and more about microphones, their placement and their pre-amps. I've picked up some extra microphones and now, officially, have more than I need for anything short of a TV quiz show production. I'll talk about them in the near future...

Finally, my goal for the Fall is to start every blog post with a new portrait. If no one is around to collaborate with you'll either get a new self portrait or another stunning image of Studio Dog. Since I have no immediate interest in adding to my camera inventory we may just have to go crazy and talk about actual photographs. Welcome back! Happy coffee. 

Dog cooling butt on a hot afternoon.

My favorite view from Town Lake

Dog piloting boat while human enters self-induced cellphone coma.

Preparing to dock. 

A quick tech note about the bottom four photographs in this blog: They were all done with the Sony RX10iii. The first one, of the sitting dog, was done at some intermediate focal length but the wide shot of the Lamar Bridge was done at the widest focal length (24mm equiv.) while the bottom two were done from hundreds of yards away with the fully extended 600mm focal length. I am consistently amazed at the performance of that lens and sensor combination. Just amazed. 


Welcome back to the blog! It's time to get back to work. And play.

R. Zellweger by Kirk Tuck. The pursuit of your passion defines your destiny.

Hey! We're all back, let's dive right in. I've spent August trying to figure out why some people have long and happy careers as photographers (both amateurs and professionals) while others have trouble getting off the ground or burn out and walk away from what should be an almost infinite source of fun and self-expression. There's been a lot of news and gnashing of teeth over the last month about the closing of Brooks Institute and other "for profit" photography schools and it begs a metaphorical question: How long can we keep listening to Beatles tunes in elevators as background music? Everything changes. Everything moves on. 

Looking at Brooks, historically, shows me that what Brooks did  really well was to unlock the secrets of lighting and exposure, and show students how to focus this knowledge, along with the cumbersome photographic tools of the day, to make good quality photographs. During most of the school's long tenure these were necessary secrets to unravel and acquire. There was much more than nuts and bolts configurations in their teaching; more than just concepts of lighting, exposure and how to pose a model. My friends who attended Brooks in the 1970s really do understand (with great competence) the details of view camera movements and how these movements impact final images. The students absorbed helpful technical knowledge that was oh so relevant in the heady days of film photography--- stuff like reciprocity failure and exposure corrections required for close up work and macro imaging. They could calculate "bellows factors." They learned how to develop (in actual chemicals) films in all sizes, from 35mm to 8x10 inch sheets. They even learned the finer points of selenium toning double weight, fiber papers.

And guess what? We taught the same basic curriculum at the University of Texas at Austin, in the college of Fine Arts. These technical classes were described in the (printed) course catalog as "Commercial Photographic Illustration."  Very few of the now arcane film techniques have relevance for photographers working today.

Digital imaging has mostly obviated the need to learn anything but