A reader wrote to ask me what my solution for printing is these days. I hardly know what to tell him...

This image is one I did last year. 
It was printed on an oversized postcard by the client, 
Zach Theatre. (they sent it out to a digital printing company)
 I got a credit for the photograph.
They probably sent out 30,000 to my local market.
That's the kind of printing I like best. 

At the dawn of inkjet printing on the desktop I think a lot of us thought this would be the golden age of the digital darkroom; an invention that would free us from the drudgery of working with nasty chemicals while laboring under the dim red glow of a safe light.

I bought into it hook, line and sinker. At one point many years ago there were multiple printers strewn about my office. One for printing 17 inch wide color prints, another festooned with six different tanks of black, gray and other gray ink, and dedicated to black and white (excuse me!) monochrome prints, and several others that were either dedicated to printing office correspondence and contact sheets or waiting to be discarded due to their velocity toward obsolescence.

I had one particular printer which nearly drove me mad (not a far drive according to our collective mental GPS....) because it was so well reviewed by online writers and yet so nasty, costly and ineffective in person. I won't protect anyone here because there isn't an innocent party. It was an Epson 4000 printer and was, perhaps, the most dreadful and financially ruinous piece of "photographic" gear that I think I have ever purchased. And I've purchased a lot of gear.

The ink was more expensive and addictive per ounce than pure cocaine and about as therapeutic. The printer couldn't go a day without a cleaning cycle which helped spray away hundreds of dollars a week of ink printing fractured test patterns on white paper. Once in a while it would relent and turn out a decent print for me. I'd pick myself up off the floor (collapsing from the excitement of a rare moment of success) and rush to print more before the fickle machine did its schizophrenic about face and plunged me back into despair. That one could conceivably make any money using this printer in a for profit business was and is so laughable to me that I still have trouble understanding how Epson stayed in the printer business. (See quotes from P.T. Barnum).

I hear that in other, more civilized countries, the use and ownership of an Epson 4000 printer is actually the punishment for crimes like shop lifting and "creating a public nuisance". I know that a fan or two out there will write to tell me that I should have dedicated a humidifier to its area of the office but I'll sneer at them and match them two humidifiers and one tank of pure oxygen ( the idea being that maybe regular air conditioned air was not good enough for such a printer and perhaps its best work could only be done under hyperbaric conditions).

This started my downhill slide where dedicated photographic printers are concerned. I have one now but I only use it for printing the few invoices I still send to some clients in the mail (most accept pdf files attached to e-mail). The idea of having to print a portfolio, or even worse, a print for a valued client, sends chills up my spine and makes me feel as though the doors of my business will soon be closing.

So, what do I do when I need to give a client a print?

Hmmmmm. That hasn't really come up in a long time. Before the days of the iPad Pro I used to carry around a printed portfolio. I still have plenty of them here in the office.... Now, when I go out to show work it gets passed around as an iPad screen and it looks fantastic. Clients can even zoom in if they want to check details. My "portfolio" fits in a backpack and I can easily take it with me on a plane.

No single commercial client has requested a print from me in nearly ten years. None. Never. If one did come to me requesting a print (of any size) I would most likely send the file to the folks at our long lived commercial lab here in Austin called, Holland Photo. Under the watchful eyes of Brian, the owner, the staff would no doubt churn out nicely crafted prints that I would be happy to send along to our clients. But I'm not sure what our clients might do with them.

We used to do event work where prints were the final result of days of shooting. I'm remembering an awards show for Broadwing Communications that we did in Palm Springs back in 2001. I was tasked with photographing about 250 people as they walked across the stage and were handed an award. I'd take second shot when the awardee shook hands with the CEO. At the end of the evening I was tasked with running out to a lab, with which we'd contracted in advance, that would soup the rolls of color negative film I'd shot and print a 5x7 inch color print of every frame. I dropped the film off after the show at 11 pm and the client expected and got the prints back at 7 a.m. the next morning so we could sit around in the press room and stuff the prints into presentation folders.

I'm not going back to that. Not ever.

At one point in the roaring 1990's we had a client who will remain nameless who wanted to have images taken of their guests in western wear on bales of hay next to rustic fencing in the ballroom of a five star hotel in downtown. They didn't want the prints the next day they wanted them right now. And they wanted them sepia toned to match the event theme. We decided to do them with 4x5 Professional Polaroid film. There were 800 couples attending and each couple would be photographed. I did the math and figured we'd need four shooting stations in order to get the project done in one evening (please don't make me set up next to the cover band ever again!!!!!). That meant four 4x5 inch view cameras with which to take the shots; each outfitted with a Polaroid back. Three additional photographers to make the photographs. An assistant for each station to time the Polaroid before peeling it apart. Four studio lighting systems to provide needed and ample photons in a cavernous ballroom. And two more assistants to accelerate the drying of the "instant" film and insert it into theme specific presentation envelopes. We had to special order the sepia version of the Polaroid film by the case....

It all went off without much of a hitch. But I think the whole grinding experience soured me on mass Polaroid until such a time as they discontinued their instant film business. That job paid for a BMW automobile...

Until recently I would send over files for my personal work to Costco. If you took the time to download the printer profiles they provided you could get great 12x18 inch prints for about the price of a Coca Cola. Those are now going away because.....nobody wants prints anymore.

Instead of prints from events we put up huge galleries of images shot during trade shows, conventions and other events and the participants are invited to download or share whatever they want. I suppose we could add an "order a print" component to the service but I think we tried that a few times five years ago and out of 2700 people two ordered one 5x7 inch matte print....each.

I'm sorry to say (because I truly loved the black and white prints I used to spend hours and days producing in my cozy darkroom) but I think prints are all but dead. The screen is the center of all corporate communications. Even magazine and other print work is a small fraction of corporate marketing output these days compared to e-screen publishing.

The latest numbers I've seen from the advertising community suggest that 80% of all people get their information (and entertainment, and news, and advertising) from screens. Of those screens over 60% are attached to those things we used to call phones. Each generation of phones results in a bigger and more beautiful screen. You can view photos in a dark room because the phones provide their own illumination. You can take them anywhere. They are more or less indestructible and, if you do lose your phone you can buy a new one and reload all your backed up photos to it in no time at all....

It makes me wonder why anyone anywhere is printing anything at all.

I think it's a generational thing. I love prints. I still print stuff but only because I've been sensitized to the argument about archival printing and long term keeping. I just send a batch of sized files to the folks at Holland and accept whatever they toss back to me. If they ever go out of business then I think we will have hit the end of the print and we'll move on and become nostalgic for something else.

The real magic of photography is not HOW it is shared but that it IS shared. Paper or screen is immaterial except this one thing: 25 years ago I could print and print, and perfect and re-print and get maybe 12 prints that were good enough to put in a show. I'd pay enormous amounts of money (for a young photographer) to get them matted and framed and then beg a gallery, or a friendly restaurant, to let me have a show for a month.

Over the course of the month maybe 100 people would see the work at a gallery. Or maybe 500 people would glance at my work as they were being shown to their table at the restaurant. It was rare that anything sold. Now I can post a photograph on the web, on my own blog site, and have the reasonable expectation that in the next 24 hours 4,000+ people would see the work and many of them would share it with their audiences. My financial investment would be nil but my exposure would be orders of magnitude greater. And across so many more markets. That same photo might form the content for an e-mail blast to my client mailing list meaning that another 1,000+ people would see the image. If I added it to my LinkedIn profile perhaps another 2,000+ people would see it. In short order.

And with repetition I can actually make a photograph seem ubiquitous to large numbers of people.

Sharing. An Audience. An Art Form. Isn't that why we do photography? Shooting well trumps printing well. I'll spend my time shooting and continue to outsource any printing that seems necessary.

And that's how I'm handling my 2019 printing needs.... thanks for asking.

It's officially perfect swim weather in Austin. Yesterday was amazing.

It was an early morning yesterday. My kid, Ben, is now all grown up, working for a public relations company, and traveling frequently for business. Since he's only been in the workforce since last August he's still living at home and saving up $$ resources. He needed a ride to the airport for an early flight and since neither of us really trusts Uber, Taxis, etc. I volunteered to get up at the ungodly hour of 5 am to drive him there.

On the way back home I grabbed some breakfast and coffee and spent an hour reading the news on the computer in my office. At 6:45 am I headed to the Western Hills Athletic Club pool for the 7:00 am workout. It was still dark but it was in the high 60s with a soft breeze coming out of the west. The water was about two degrees cooler than the day before and, while it's a little tougher to make that first jump in, the cooler water (within reason) generally means a faster, better workout.

There was the usual contingent of young (mid-20's to mid-40's), hard charging swimmers training for stuff like triathlons and USMS nationals, and they were frothing it up in the fast lanes (100 repeats on 1:05 to 1:15). I'm looking for a bit more moderation and 100 yard repeats in the 1:30 to 1:35 range. Yes, as I've gotten older I've gotten lazier. And a little bit slower.

When we started workout it was still dark and about halfway through there was a most glorious sunrise. I switched to backstroke for a number of laps just to look at the clouds slip through the rose sky turning to deep blue.

I headed home around 8:30 for a scheduled call that never happened. Seems my corresponding call "partner" is based in Colorado and was snowed in by a blizzard and unable to get to her office. I sat on the back deck of the house, sipped a cup of fresh coffee and pondered the reality of current life.

Everything swirling around us on the news is bad and tragic and sad and frustrating but when I close the lid on my laptop and turn off the feed I realize that so much of my life is so good that it's almost unbelievable. After a half hour of sitting quietly and savoring every sip of coffee I had the thought that the saying from an early Star Wars movie might be right. "Your focus determines your reality."

If that's the case then I choose to focus on swimming more, hanging out with friends and family more, and using the cameras I find to be the most fun. You'll have to find your own formula...

Why I think the Fuji XT30 will be a game changing camera in today's personal imaging market.

Fuji is doing something interesting which has its roots in the camera market from the film camera days. It's delivering the same image quality in an affordable camera as it does in its top line camera and it's not limiting the imaging feature sets for photography or video to compensate for the cost difference. In the 1990's you could buy a Nikon F5 that was the company's top line camera. The image quality was not dependent on that body but by the film you used and the lenses you put on the front of the camera. That meant that "top" image quality could have just as easily been a much less expensive FM or FE body, or even one of the entry level cameras of the day. The two critical components were always the film (sensor) and the lens you used. A more expensive camera offered faster frame rates, better build quality and features aimed at specialists. But a more expensive film body did not, de facto, produce any better image quality than the less expensive camera bodies in a maker's line-up.

Since you could achieve the same level of technical quality with a $350 Nikon FM that you could get with a $1995 Nikon F5 even entry level photographers were limited only by their ability to afford the right lenses and by their own vision and skills.

Last year Fujifilm introduced the third generation of their XT(single digit) cameras; the XT-3. It was an evolutionary step. A progression from the 16 megapixel XT-1 to the 24 megapixel XT-2 and the newest model, the XT-3 came with a new sensor design which now delivers 26+ megapixels of resolution.

The XT-3 delivers more than just a (very small) megapixel resolution bump. It's inner guts have been radically improved where focusing and video are involved. The sensor is a BSI design which enables faster data throughput. The camera's other processing hardware is vastly improved. Focusing, even face/eye detection, is now much more robust and the camera feels faster; more responsive. Indeed, it was so much improved that more than on experienced reviewer called the XT-3 the APS-C camera of the year.

I know most photographers might not care but the biggest improvements (my opinion) are in the video department. While in the past the XT-x cameras from Fuji were not particularly well provisioned for video the XT-3 is a totally different animal. The ability to shoot 400 mb/s in camera at 4K, to do 4K at 60 fps, and to do it with class leading color science is causing filmmakers to look to the XT-3 not as a stop gap video solution but a solid contender in the 4K filmmaking marketplace. Filmmaker and camera reviewer, Jordan Drake (late of Camera Store TV and now featured on DP Review) even praises the XT3's microphone pre-amps, which is usually a weak spot for hybrid cameras...

These are all good things if you are already shooting with a nice collection of Fuji lenses and you are financially comfortable spending about $1400 on the new camera. But what if you want all the imaging quality and processing goodness at a lower price? What if your appreciation level is unmatched by your bank balance?

Fuji, it seems, have endowed their new XT-30 with the same imaging pipeline found in the big brother. Not similar; the same. The new, under $1,000 camera uses the same sensor, the same color profiles and the same video guts and delivers an image quality that should be identical to the company's more expensive model. The major let down is that the new camera only uses UHS-1 cards and so the video throughput is limited to 200 mb/s second instead of the 400 mb/s of the XT-3. (offset, mostly, by the ability to record 10 bit 4:2:2 into my Atomos recorder. The new camera even supports F-Log for color grading masochists....).

The photographic imaging capabilities are, as far as I can tell, in no other way crippled to protect sales of the more expensive cameras in Fuji's line up (the XH-1, the XT-3 and the X-Pro-2). From a photographic point of view it joins the XT-3 in providing 14 bit raw files!

You will give up some camera body size (a plus for some, a detraction for others) the bigger viewfinder of the more expensive camera, along with the weather sealing and overall robustness of the XT3. If you have big hands the smaller camera may be less comfortable in everyday use. But if you are entering the business of video services and need to get your feet wet with a capable movie making tool then the XT-30 may be the best under $1,000 option in the video world today. At the same time it matches the XT3 for overall photographic image quality and does so with no technical compromises.

Most camera makers seem to design limitations into base model cameras to protect upstream models. The lower priced units get an older, less capable sensor. They might get limited video data rates and no access to things like clean HDMI output to digital recorders. They generally get only 8 bit imaging options while the XT30 can record DCI 4K at 10 bits with 4:2:2 color into an external recorder. The XT30 does limit 4K recording, in camera to 10 minutes and does limit 4K to 30 fps instead of 60 fps. If you want to attach a microphone there is a 2.5 mm port (instead of the industry standard 3.5 mm) and if you want to monitor audio with headphones you'll need an adapter for the USB 3.1 port to make them work.

But where the rubber meets the road, in image quality, both in photographs and video (at equivalent frame rates and data rates), there is purported to be no difference between the XT3 and the XT30. That's pretty cool.

For an experienced photographer who mostly does non-video assignments this means that, if image quality is the only reason you buy certain cameras, you may now be able to do all the work you would have done with the more expensive model on the XT30.

Of course, if money is no object and you aren't firmly in the philosophical club that believes smaller and lighter photo gear is always better you will find the XT3 to be more refined and perhaps more capable of taking the daily beatings of photography more gracefully. (Important in the old days of long term camera ownership but perhaps much less important in an age where cameras are changed out frequently for newer models). The XT3 also has a better finder, bigger controls, both standard microphone and headphone jacks and a bit more depth to the video files by dint of its UHS-2 capabilities (speed and throughput) and dual card slots.

Prior to the introduction of the XT30 I was considering buying another XT3 as a back-up camera but would now consider the XT30 as a good back up and at a reduced cost.

Am I running out to buy an XT30? Not likely this year. I've accumulated three of my favorite Fuji cameras now (in addition to the XT3) and am absolutely thrilled with what I am getting from them. But if I was just sticking my toe in the water (as in: last Fall) and wanted a second camera, or even a primary camera in a new system, the XT30 would be/would have been on my radar.

My favorite heavy duty workhorse Fuji camera? Coming up in a future post....

Re-orienting client expectations. Developing methodologies that work for you. And them.

Family, clients, friends, and that beautiful woman you met at the local coffee house; the one who loves your work. All of them probably share one or two traits; they aren't practicing photographers and don't understand what goes into making the difference between a merely functional "headshot" and an intriguing, satisfying portrait. Usually the expectation from any of these groups of people is that you will lean in and snap a few frames of the smiling subject, without any preparation or requirement beyond focusing your "pro" camera, and a few minutes later everyone will be on their merry way. 

The incidences of thoughtful, constructed (well lit?) portraiture are becoming so rare amongst most of the public that many times now, when I set up a few rudimentary lights on light stands, and use an umbrella or two, my portrait subject enters the room, looks at the set up and says something like, "Wow! Look at all the equipment! I didn't know we were making a movie!" Which I interpret to mean that their expectation for the session was quite different than mine. That they considered a portrait to be a quick, simple, and uncomplicated process that could be done with a phone camera but could maybe be done a little better with a fancier camera. 

To be fair, most people don't spend much time as photographic subjects and the little time they do spend generally consists of: smiling at the camera at someone else's wedding, standing on the yellow line and getting a photograph made for a driver's license, snapping a selfie at the beach, at the bar, at the tourist attraction, when confronted with a chance encounter with a celebrity or, in the current milieu, when they are getting their mugshot made after being arrested for lying to Congress. 

Even people who spent a fortune to have their own wedding captured probably didn't encounter much more than a hot shoe flash with some trendy modifier hung on the front, waving around at the top of a stick, while their drunk friends yelled at them to "Do your duck face!!!" Little wonder that they are unfamiliar with what might go into what we might consider a real portrait session. Especially a session done for the joy of the art and not on the tight time constraints demanded by most commercial enterprises. 

The modern history/legends about corporate photography are always replete with the weathered old pro telling a group of newly minted, future competitors: "You have to be incredibly experienced and talented to photograph CEOs because you'll only get five minutes of their time. And that's if you are lucky. Which you will not be. Sometimes we get ten frames before the publicists run us off like beggar children on the streets of Paris." 

The idea being to aggrandize the amazing depth of knowledge and talent that the "old pro" must possess in order to excel at such a precarious game. Which, of course is mostly... bullshit. 

What's really required of us is to understand that we're dealing with people who need to be educated. Not educated about how some famous photographer shoots, or how they did it in the old days, but educated by you about how you and they can collaborate to be as successful as possible. That education should start when you propose a shoot to a friend, or when you first talk with potential clients. 

The "feature" is that you will take your time to do your process the way you think it should work. The "benefit" is that the client will emerge from your session together with a better portrait than they would otherwise get. And so will you.

When I approach a friend with the idea of doing a portrait (mostly because I think they have an interesting face, and they are flattered to be asked, but on some level presume that they'll be getting an industry standard headshot in return....) I go into detail about what I'm trying to do. I show samples of what I want to do. I talk about the time commitment. I talk about my desire that they wear certain styles and colors of wardrobe and shy away from others. I talk about my desire that they either wear no make-up or very, very subtle make-up. But most of all I let them know that we'll spend at least an hour getting a portrait that I like and that I think they might like. 

If they are game then we are on. All we really have to lose is our time. 

When approaching business clients (the ones who seek us out and pay us for our time and the right to use the portrait we'll create for them) I go through a process of qualifying them to better understand both what they think they want and what their expectations are. If they want a quick, cheap headshot I can suck it up and do that. But if we can refer to work I've already done, and they appreciate the look, then I can walk them through a similar process to the one I described for friends, above. 

The important point is to set the expectation that you'll need X amount of time with the subject, and X amount of set up time to design the look you want (and hopefully the client wants as well). I talk details. I want them to know I'll probably shoot upwards of 250 to 300 frames. That we'll spend time talking. That I'll get rid of every frame I don't like before they get to see a gallery of what I've shot. I even explain to them how I retouch and why. By the end of the discussion the client understands the process I want to pursue. They understand what it will cost them in time and money.  They either come along for the ride or we default to a more ordinary headshot. In rare cases we just can't find any common ground and we choose not to work with each other. 

That, in itself, is a management of expectations. 

The image above is of my friend, Renae. I spent the better part of an hour setting up the lighting I wanted to use to create this image. I didn't have a "cookbook" of styles to reference. I knew the "look" I wanted. The chair Renae sat in was one she and I propped for a previous shoot but one which we both agreed worked well. Over the course of an hour we tried many expressions and poses. Most predicated by conversations about life and photographic aesthetics. 

At the end of the session I had at least a dozen rolls of film which I souped by hand and then made contact sheets. We looked at the sheets together and made little boxes around the images we liked on the contact sheets with a China marker (wax pencil; usually red or orange). I went back into the dark room to make work prints on resin coated paper. I hung these on the wall in front of my desk and soaked them in over the course of a few days (maybe a week) and then one day when I had the energy I headed into the darkroom and spent hours and hours printing variations of all my favorite frames on 11x14 inch, double weight, Agfa Portriga paper. Once they were toned and washed we looked at them all over again. 

It was a process and one that I'm not recommending in the age of digital. Not quite. You can remove all the darkroom drudgery and the parsimonious use of film stock. But the things you might consider keeping would be the time spent thinking about lighting and posing, and creating a real collaboration. 

I added the image below to this tattered essay because I wanted to relate the mindset of re-orienting client expectations with a shoot for a paying client. 

It's a location shot of a real radiologist in a real location but none of the staging, lighting, etc. are as we found them when the client's marketing person and I walked into a dim and windowless basement room in a local hospital. This was the last of maybe a dozen shots in a dozen locations we'd done that day. Most of the previous photos were easy and quick to do because the lighting in most of the locations was conducive to either an available light shoot or, at most, the addition of one or two speed lights. I knew that if we were going to make something usable out of this location I'd need to spend time to do so. I also knew that I'd be mixing flashes with the light coming from computers screens and that my subject, the radiologist, would have to hit poses and become still, stationary, to prevent blurring and unsharpness. 

My first task was to explain to the marketing person why this shot was different, why it would require more attention and why it might take half an hour or so to complete. She got it. She explained to the (tightly scheduled) doctor who shifted to another process while we took apart the closet-like reading room and re-imagined it for the photograph. 
My expectation and the client's expectation was that we'd get a shot that was usable for the project at hand. We set up and shot a number of frames and this is the one I liked best. It's a shot that the large medical practice at which the doctor is a partner still uses this image in some of their marketing over ten years later. Had I not changed gears and explained my expectations for this location we might have defaulted to bouncing a speed light off the ceiling, taken refuge in flat non-offensive light, and moved on. 

Once your process gets explained and you have the client (and subject if they are not the same person) on board it makes the rest of the work easier. If we have time I always want to push the envelope a bit further. That works best if everyone is happy to come along for the ride. 

As to the mythology surrounding the photographing of CEOs and other people with expensive schedules.... My experience is that in 2019 most executives in high level positions, within modern companies, understand (mostly through experience) that they need to invest time in making images if they are to leverage the images into positive media placement properly. They will give you time if you let them know what it is that you need to do in advance. It may mean pushing back. It may mean making more time to explain to a team what your process is. But if your work, your style, is what the client wants then my experience is that most times you'll be met with cooperation and a more satisfying acknowledgement of the skills you bring to the relationship. 

My expectation is that I'll be treated like a professional artist. I expect cooperation. I expect to get paid. And I love it when clients have the same expectations. But the responsibility for educating them about your role and how you do it is entirely up to you. No assumptions, just education.