Just kicking back and enjoying the D700 and a little handful of cheap lenses.

As you may remember I picked up a Nikon D700 a couple weeks ago with the intention of seeing whether or not I was missing something distinct or magical from the old days. Was there something in the older cameras that was basically right but then got ameliorated by our mindless lust for resolution? I've had lots of other stuff on my mind but I've been systematically mixing the D700 and some vintage Nikon lenses into my work mix (golf pro last week, studio portrait of doctor this week) and today I had time to step away from work, and family administration, and just go for a walk with the camera and one lens. The lens I chose today was the 85mm f1.8 AF-D lens. It's a lens many of us have owned, either in the digital age or in the days of autofocus film Nikons, and it has a solid reputation as being fairly good at the wider apertures and very good at f5.6 and beyond. It's one of the noisy autofocusing lenses that uses a little screwdriver drive cam to move the lens elements. Being an older prime it has no image stabilization.

In contrast to the mirrorless cameras and lenses I normally use the D700 feels at least twice as heavy and the lens is heavier that the Sony counterpart as well. It always takes me a while to dial in my subconscious understanding that the image in the finder is NOT what the final image will look like once it's been through the exposure and digital processing chain so chimping is a more frequent practice in actual use, as is making iterative exposure and color adjustments. 

All in all the camera and lens are well balanced and fairly compact (especially compared to the D2XS) and they didn't constitute any real burden over the course of a two hour walk through an urban landscape. 

I'm always surprised when I get back home from a walk with a vintage camera. I think I am expecting a much more primitive or less complex file with which to work. But lately, with either the D700 or the D2XS, I am surprised at just how modern, detailed and rich the files I'm getting seem to look. I did a color check with a vector scope on the Atomos monitor and in the "neutral" profile setting the colors were remarkably accurate. Much more so than similar test shots done on a much newer Sony A7Rii. Kind of amazed that two cameras that are each over ten years old nailed the basic color science to a more accurate degree than a much more recent generation competitor. Almost makes me want to try the same test with a Canon 5D mk2.....

I shot mostly at f3.5 and was surprised to see again just how shallow depth of field is for that particular optic when combined with a full frame sensor. 

How well have I filled out my (totally) vintage Nikon system? Well, I always want two bodies so I have a useful back-up that takes the same lenses, so I have the D700 and the D2XS. I like the color and file depth (richness) out of both of them. They both need more sharpening than the current cameras I am used to but once post processed from RAW they look very competitive if I stay in the native file sizes. I'm guessing the need for more sharpening comes from the use of stronger anti-aliasing filters that were required because of the lower pixel resolution and the danger of moire.

Here are the lenses I have sourced to date (all locally, from Precision Camera): the 24mm f2.8 AF-d, the 28mm f2.8 ais (manual focus), the ancient 35-70mm f3.5 ai lens, the 55mm f2.8 ais micro lens, the 85mm f1.8 AF-d lens, the 105mm f2.5 ais lens and finally, the 70-210mm f4.0-5.6 AF zoom lens (which I have owned before and found to be quite good; it's a push pull design with auto-focusing). 

Were I just starting out I believe I could handle most photo oriented jobs with just this small assemblage of gear. While none of it is "stellar" (with perhaps the exception of the 105mm) it's all very workable and all the bodies and lenses deliver acceptable results. No one will write home to glorify the high ISO performance of the D2XS but isn't that why the photo gods invented flash?

Will this assemblage morph and grow to replace the Panasonic GH5s and assorted lenses? Not likely. The Panasonic collection is too insanely good at video to even think of jettisoning. And it does a better job in most respects for still imaging than either of the ancient Nikons. If I were to consider a switch I'd have to give the D850 a workout, only for its potentially good 4K video performance. But then I'd be back down the rabbit hole spending more on individual lenses than I've spent so far on my entire collection of old, used stuff. Total system expenditure so far for the vintage Nikon collection is less than $1800. The flip side of that reality is that either camera could give up the ghost at any moment and would cost more to revive than to replace.... The 55mm micro already is showing intermittent signs of sticky aperture blades; a known flaw.

Whether or not owning the aging Nikon gear is sensible is something I'll leave to each of you. I love the nostalgia of it and the surety of it when I use it within its performance envelope. They are not, in this day and age, anywhere near the ultimate performers but then again they are not nearly as far behind as I would have imagined before going back and re-testing. See the images for more subjective evaluation.

If I were starting out, young and broke, today I think a couple of D700s or Canon 5Dmk2s and a handful of older lenses would be the best use of limited funds for me. And a useful introduction into the basic work life of most photography. It's an interesting option versus newer and more consumer oriented base model cameras, and certainly more cost effective than some of the mirrorless options out on the market. Sure, there's no video and no EVF but $$$ for $$$ this old stuff is as basic as a good hammer. It's usable and gets the job done. You can always ask for more, the question is whether you really need it or just want it. 

Funny, Austin is an MSA (metropolitan survey area) with nearly 2 million people and yet there was almost no one on the streets of downtown today. I guess they were all hunkered down in coffee shops, fearful of the rain and the chilly 70 degree temperatures....

The last remnants of "old" Austin. A window A/C unit at the #1 Fire Station. 

A forgotten "packing for a job" video. Just for fun. It's pretty low key....


What does Kirk sound like? How does he pack for Zach shoots?

To understand where commercial advertising photography is going you also have to understand what's happening to advertising agencies and their cousins, in-house marcom teams.

Amy and Renae. 

It's entirely disingenuous to talk about commercial photography without acknowledging that a part of our momentum and trajectory as artists derives from what's currently afoot at advertising agencies and other clearinghouse constructs for our commercial (non-retail) photography. From what I can see the agencies have been locked in what is more or less a losing battle with themselves. They used to be in the business of doing research about consumers and interpreting that research, translating it into visual and verbal concepts that used creativity and a unique visual DNA to motivate audiences to buy goods and services from the agency's clients.

About twenty years ago we started to see a new trend, motivated somewhat by the dropping price of computer and software tech. Clients had the perception that about 50% of the money they spent on creative advertising campaigns actually worked while 50% was just wasted effort and resources. The number jockeys convinced the clients (and a huge portion of executives in agencies+ in-house MarCom) that they could create programs that would measure the correlations of expenditures and results and divine a new and better formula that would make ad spending more effective and better targeted. In some sense this was done so clients could figure out some way to profit from "free" advertising like social media, YouTube, Instagram, blogs, and affiliate associations.

Chasing the numbers has become the "Holy Grail" or "Magic Bullet" of the advertising industry and every big agency that deals with clients who are converts to the cult of measurement spends more and more time and resources figuring out where their advertising dollars should be spent while spending less and less time considering the (powerful and vital) content that ultimately drives consumers. They believe it is more important just to show up than to show up with something exciting and compelling for potential customers.

Ad metrics can point to where and when advertising should appear but statistically have been largely blind and deaf to what sort of creative content ultimately drives consumer behavior. We know this to be true when we listen in on endless agency debates on how to make something go viral.... ( sorry guys, it's a Zen thing. The harder you try the more elusive the target becomes....). 

 Most agencies have largely given up trying to create brilliant content. They seem to find it easier to sell things like SEO Management, Social Media Ad Targeting, and tossing money at whomever is leading a large group of people on Instagram which matches their numerical client profile.

If creative content is consistently deemed to be secondary to measurements and audience profiling (hi Facebook! We see you!) then the value of new and exciting content drops in the eyes of the clients and the people making the measurements. To admit that, almost inevitably, the ad with the best content draws the most eyes and the most buys, would be to admit that the metrics of advertising are in no way infallible and so they agencies (and the clients' own chief marketing officers) have been selling clients a bill of goods. Or, at best, a half finished product. They're building cars without decent engines. They are delivering the equivalent of cold pizza.

I watch as more and more agencies depend on threadbare stock photos because they fear having to sell their clients a better solution, albeit at a higher price. I watch more art directors pick up (as source material) the homogenous ads of everyone else in a given field and ask their creative partners (copywriters, photographers, illustrators) do do work in the same vein and with the same currently popular colors, visual stylings and verbiage. Is it any wonder that the results are uniform in most industries and that success and failures for the companies involved are less driven by their marketing than the ability of smarter executives to be more efficient and less prone to hubris and waste?

The bright spots for us as photographers are the clients who want to build unique identities or visual branding. These can be smaller, regionally based companies and a fair number of start ups. Often they'll come to us because they've seen personal work that we've shown out in the market that seems to resonate with their brands and represents a good differentiation from the routine visual work being done in their industries. A strong style, when working with these kinds of clients, is a definite plus.

Everything in the marketing business (every business?) seems to be ins service of either parabola based or cyclically based industries. In the parabola model a completely new industry is created to meet a contemporary (not pre-existing) consumer need. Over time the need peaks and then, ultimately, the product is fully replaced by a newer technology or need. See the video rental industry. See the pre-commodity market for desktop computing. See CD-roms. The velocity and size of the ascendant curve in a parabola market is just about equal to the rate and size of the eventual decline. A smart company sees the impending collapse and rushes new products and new stuff to market. Sometimes it works and sometimes you are Blackberry.

A cyclical market is a long term and sustained industry that seems to be consistently needed or wanted by consumers. Think housing inventory, cars, medical insurance, clothing, television sets, food and, to a certain extent, entertainment. The cycles result from the overshooting of production capabilities which causes a flooding of markets with an oversupply of products or services which causes profits to fall or vanish, which causes a strong pull back in the markets, which is almost always overdone, and pushes some companies to fully exit falling markets, only to over-correct into scarcity which drives the next increase in the markets. It happens cyclically in housing. It's the same in the oil and gas industry. Even the entertainment industry has cyclic corrections. The cycle were the genesis of car rebates and after holiday sales...

Parabola business models ( no one ever goes into this sort of model on purpose ) represent good clients for visual artists while the industry is ascendant because the client and artists are working together to invent a look and a point of view for something that never existed before. Because of that all the work can be fresh and innovative. It's only when the vertex of the parabola for the industry is reached that fear grips the guys in suits and a call goes out to make "safe advertising." That's when the creative teams start getting replaced by the metric minions. That's when you know you are heading for the shuttering of your VHS rental facility.

The cyclical industries tend to have longer lifespans and over the course of their tenure advertising is made more and more bland and routine. One has only to look at the average ad for a pick up truck from Ford or GM to understand how reticent these dinosaurs are to embrace a more challenging market evolution. The creative people servicing these industries at the top are doing well financially but there's no longer much creative fire to their work. They are copying what's been done before, just with better technical tools.

In our individual photography businesses we need to focus on creating messages that sell our most compelling feature set; our ability to visual differentiate the work we provide from our clients' competitor's work. It's the ability to do work that separates our clients from the crowds in their industries that make our work valuable. We need to be less like the legions of order takers and more like the creative directors. We can push stronger for a certain vision. We can show our clients (and their clients) the value of "new and different."

It's not about gear or building giant teams or finding new software actions. It is about growing a mindset that gives priority to a creative spirit. We need to re-understand that a unique vision has the power to move the needle for our clients. Our work should never be a commodity or an afterthought to an SEO calculation. It should be the reason the metrics and SEO exists in the first place.

We help clients make their best first impression. Research and numerical algorithms have their benefits but they will always be limited or enhanced by the value of the content they deliver.

Bottom line? If you do this as a business you need to find the people with the courage to make good, original and thoughtful creative work. Everything else is secondary.

Shorter version? Stop looking at what everyone else is shooting and follow your own vision.

I do see a consistent and constant erosion in the business. More and more content is being replaced by video. More campaigns are created by committees. It's a change. But it's also a cycle. The problem with this cycle is that the parameters for financial success dissipate with each turn of the cyclic screw. The remedy is to figure out what is next and to be standing in the right place at the right time.

I see photographers becoming more like ad agencies. Not that we'll be buying ad placement or calculating the CPM of our client's ad buys but we'll function more like the creative agencies of the 1960s and 1970s; focused on creative solutions in collaboration with larger partners. Tight teams with designers, photographers and videographers who combine to create a uniform creative approach that leverages the strength of a team totally focused on creative solutions without compromise.

That's the promise the creative future in a time of relentless homogenization of public visual dialog. 

Romanticizing the Excess. An Occupational Hazard for the Sentimental.

I've taken a week off from blogging but I didn't get any smarter. I missed the daily routine of grappling with words and sentence constructions. I missed the pithy comments of my regular readers and the inanities of the more casual visitor contributions. But I did more thinking than usual and I keep coming back to the same ideas. I've come to disregard photography (for most practitioners) as an art and I'm coming around to the idea that it's more like playing poker or sports. It's fun to do while you are doing it, the stakes can be as high as you like, you're playing against yourself as well as against all the people who also practice the kind of work that you do. If you are really good at it you may beat the "house" from time to time. At other times it seems like you are betting the house...

I've also done some thinking exercises that, to me, prove my point that we've moved past the pure art of unique creation and into the realm of entertainment and sport. Here's how I think about it: When people first started making photographs in earnest, after the invention of flexible film, there were scant, and highly time-delayed, feedback loops which prevented, in a way (or for a span of time), the relentless copying and referencing of an individual style or way of working. In all likelihood a photographer like Paul Outerbridge ( you look it up and link it, I'm busy writing....) worked for years in his quiet darkroom to perfect his skills as a dye transfer printer. His subject matter was considered prurient/taboo at the time and so he didn't display his work publicly during most of his working life therefore his very unique vision, subject matter and processes weren't accessible for others to copy or imitate until years or decades after he made the works. 

In the same vein, most photographers who worked outside the news and advertising fields during the film years labored for months or years on styles and subject matter selection before finding an audience for the work, or a platform on which to show the work. In a sense there were very few data points to use for making references to other contemporary work. This low density of accessible examples, by extension, meant that the average art worker (photographer) could either craft their own style (or copy) based what they saw in the photography magazines of the day or use their own compass but because of the sparse access most people had to  the bulk of contemporaneous work the notion of exacting copying or close derivation was less practical. And less practiced.

Making cohesive re-constructions of prevailing styles becomes easier and easier when more and more data points became available recently; in the web age. This enormous data pile creates a faster and more direct feedback loop or accession loop for the less gifted. In turn it engenders more copying and process duplication. We've gone from an early age where trial and error was the currency of the day, and an age in which one could spend a lifetime using one camera and one kind of film, to a much different age; one where everything is presented in almost real time and then ruthlessly and relentlessly copied, referenced, homaged and replicated around the world. A piece that trends well on Instagram from a photographer in Kansas will be seen nearly globally, and, in the course of only hours will be assimilated into the millions of carbon copies and billions of data points about the practice of photography, and then regurgitated in countless micro-tangential facsimiles. Once we hit the access point to billions and billions of data points, along with the conjoined how-to-do-it videos explaining every nuance of technique we, as a cultural force, will have effectively destroyed the concept of the singular artist and replaced it with an interconnected global hive which replicates and publishes, in real time, just about everything imagined in the moment in visual culture. Our craft moves from the slow singular vision of the cave painter to the relentless assimilation and distribution of the Borg. (See Star Trek Next Generation to understand Borg reference).

What's left of individual vision? Not much. 

In the world of commercial photography now it's mostly a game of the clients approaching the photographers after having seen thousands and thousands of profoundly similar works in a popular style and directing the photographer to make yet more work in that same homogenous style, rationalizing that, since the style is popular with a large subset of audiences it's a good bet that it will be popular with that art director's target audiences and so by doing more or less a straight replication of styles (think out of focus backgrounds behind fill-flashed blond beauties in bikinis on white sand beaches, or cute kids with pigtails working on melty ice cream cones...) the art director surely feels that being in the middle of the herd is much, much safer (economically) than being an outlier, separate from the herd. In the design world it's analogous to everyone using Helvetica type for everything all the time and then, when some lone, anonymous "pilot fish" abruptly changes direction a massive "school" of graphic designers shifts on a dime and uses nothing but Palatino type for everything. And so on...

And I'd conjecture that at this point, like a star collapsing, or uranium rods melting down, that the process of relentlessly making the same photograph over and over again in a prevailing style is an ever-accelerating, continuously tightening and unstoppable spiral. 

How then do we re-enjoy our chosen art form? By making it into a game or a sport. That seems to be the way of western civilization. How fast can you shoot? How big is your file? How long is your lens? How low is your noise? How sharp is your image?  Etc. Etc. We walk around our towns hunting for things to shoot because we crave the meaningfulness of activity but are more or less un-selective about what we shoot as long as it feels like something we've seen before and to which we're adding our own (micro-)subtle appreciation and twist via some small variation of technical parameters. 

Think if paintings could be made in seconds rather than in days, weeks or months. What if our days were filled with countless contacts with paintings? What if everyone painted? The vast majority of paintings, like photographs, would be entirely derivative of each other because of the current synchronicity of human existence. We're all wired together. We're only hours away from seeing a style change build momentum like an overpowering wave. We ride the wave. We, along with myriad other photographers, master the wave and add minutely to the wave as it manifests everywhere with an effect that seems globally spontaneous. If everything is a copy of everything else how can anything be individual and unique? It's now like playing poker. There are 52 cards. There are a finite number of card combinations. The play is a matrix of probability. Only the mixed drinks, cigars and table chatter add an individual signature to the mix. Same. 

But that doesn't make the process or the game less fun. It only changes our philosophic perception of unique creation as we move from singular image predator to participant in a giant ant colony.

"Style and fashion are the tip of conformity's sharp spear."  -Charlie Martini.

Graffiti above from the Hope Outdoor Gallery in Austin, Texas.