1.09.2010

One of my favorite jobs of all time.


I was doing a little pro-bono project last wednesday when the agency doing the design work mentioned a paying job that might entail shooting at a print shop.  We chatted about it and I told them about this job that I did in New York City back in the 1990's.  An agency up there hired me to come up and do my signature available light style to document a specialty printer, step by step.


I kept it as simple as I could.  A Hasselblad and three lenses.  Three or four film backs, all filled with 400 speed Tri-X  (as opposed to the professional 320 variety).  A stout tripod and a light meter.  We might have gotten fancy and used a little pop up reflector from time to time.  The way the job work was that I'd walk around and look for interesting stuff to shoot.  Then I would set up my camera and shoot.


I think the client was nervous when I showed up with only one assistant and no entourage.  In New York in the middle of the 1990's most jobs were filled to the brim with assistants, make-up people, stylists, craft service people and other support crew.  That doesn't even begin to include art directors, account managers, product managers and production managers.  I think that's why the agency hired me and flew me up from Texas.  I had developed somewhat of a reputation for cutting through the silly stuff that had nothing to do with the way I shot and just getting my style of shooting done.


In the end the client really loved the images and used them to do a display for a trade show at the Jacob Javitts Center.  The images were used about ten by ten feet.  I sent a collection of the images to the present day account and they were pretty amazed.  Not that the photos were good or bad but that they looked so different from the homogenous digital images that they see so often on the web and in portfolios.


Having used Photoshop since the early 1990's I know that I might be able to take a digital capture and emulate the effects I got in the prints from the film negatives but there is a difference.  I've come to the conclusion (and so have several of my friends...) that film captures and digital captures are two totally different media.  I love the dimensionality of the prints and I'm not sure I can duplicate that.  And I've already written enough about the loss of potential that instant feedback creates.  So I'll just say that each media has its strengths and weaknesses and these strengths and weaknesses may be very counter intuitive.  I guess the thing I love about film is the same reason why people like to wrap presents:  It's fun to be surprised.


One of the main reasons I like shooting with both the regular 4:3rds cameras and the micro 4:3rds cameras from Olympus is the ability to set the format to a square.  I'll even admit to using a few of the "art filters" like the pinhole filter and the monochrome settings.  But they are all "looks" I could easily get in the darkroom.

Speaking of the darkroom, it's interesting to remember that there were so many steps in film jobs.  First we'd shoot, then there was a certain creative craft to developing film for the right look and the right contrast.  Then we'd try to make contact sheets that were as beautiful as the final prints.  After the client made "favorites" selections we'd make quick, 8x10 "work prints" so I could get client feedback on cropping (where appropriate), burning, dodging, contrast and other considerations.  Finally, for premium projects, I'd spend days in the darkroom, sometimes going thru a full box a paper, just to get exactly the right look and feel in each print.  The back end of the job was a very important part of the art process.   And remember, we'd work hard to get it right in the camera since there was little economic recourse for post process saving.

I love it when work from the distant past magnetically attracts future work.  I probably won't shoot the present day job on film.  The current economy and the level of fear in the advertising community probably mitigates against taking risks.  But we'll soon be back to the a heathly creative environment and hopefully ad people will have the courage to differentiate and create.

It's a new year and I'm throwing out old files and re-dedicating myself to pure photography.  I hope to stay media agnostic but you probably know that I'm fickle and mercurial.  I'm currently working with the Olympus EP2 to do a whole series of black and white portraits that I'm going to share with you in a few weeks.   Stay warm and keep shooting.  The rewards seem to go to the people who work all the time.  Might as well get into the habit.

Quick request:  I know that many of you have purchased one or more of my three books in the last year. If the spirit moves you, it would be wonderful to see a few more reviews of each book over at Amazon.com.  Just suggesting.  Helps my self-esteem.  Makes me write better blogs faster......




1.07.2010

When I think "toe freezing" cold I think of ballet in St. Petersburg


The Kirov Ballet at the Mariensky Theater. February 1995.


It's breathtakingly cold in Austin, Texas today but nothing like mid winter up in St. Petersburg,  Russia.  They know how to do a real winter.  It's odd the places that photography will take you.  Back in 1995 I found myself spending ten days in Russia with a group of architects, philanthropists and Russian art lovers.  We were working on an ambitious project.  Here's the background:

Everyone seems to know about the Catherine Palace in the city of Pushkin, just twenty miles from St. Petersburg.  But nobody seems to remember the Alexander Palace which sits just four hundred yards away.  It was the very last palace of the Czars.  The site where the royal family was alledgedly executed in the bloody revolution that marked the start of the Soviet Union.  The palace was a mix of deco, Byzantine and several other styles of architecture.  The problem we were there to solve was that the Palace had been used as the headquarters of Soviet Naval Intelligence for seven decades, it was falling apart and the Soviets didn't have a spare ruble to throw at a renovation.  That's when the World Monuments Fund stepped up to the plate and offered to help.  Funds were raised and a team was put together to do a site survey and estimate what would need to be done to restore this interesting monument to the past.

A friend asked me to join the team and it was an adventure I didn't want to pass up.  I headed to Whole Earth Provision Company to buy some winter clothes and then did my research to prepare for the trip.  Shooting in winter meant short days and low light.  I would need to do interior and exterior architectural shots, document art treasures and paintings and still be able to shoot the random human.  Since we had certain budget restraints I chose to shoot on medium format color negative and color slide film instead of 4x5 sheet film.  I packed three Hasselblad cameras.  Two 500 CM's and one SWC Superwide.  A camera with a fixed 38mm Zeiss Biogon lens on the front.  Other lenses included:  50mm, 60mm, 80mm, 100mm,  135 Macro Planar,  150mm and a 180mm.  I brought along six film backs and two Polaroid backs.  I also packed a stout Gitzo Carbon Fiber Tripod.

Since we'd be flying and going in and out of the cold I chose not to take studio strobes, instead opting for a box full of Lowell DP, Omni and Tota lights.  I changed out all the 120 V bulbs for 240V bulbs and bought plug adapters that would convert my American two blade plugs into Russian standard plugs.  I also packed a few extension cords and five or six light stands, a smattering of umbrellas and reflectors and plenty of spare lamps.  With the right filters I could mix the lights with the weak daylight.  But in most locations I was able to use the tungsten lights with no filters as the outside light was so weak.

I flew in with three cases of equipment and an associate who helped me handle all the stuff.  Now that we do digital I find that quantity of gear a bit humorous but it does serve to remind me that this used to be a professional that used to require a creative point of view and a knowledge of the right tools for the right job.  In retrospect my choices were good ones.  I also took a Contax ST SLR camera and two lenses, the 35mm 1.4 and the 85mm 1.4 for my personal use.

Most days were well below zero when we started out.  When I finally got permission to photograph the exterior of the Alexander Palace I stood with my camera and tripod hip deep in snow as I waited for them to move the T-72 battle tanks from the front of the building.  When we went out at night we dressed in layers and layers.  Nothing new if you live up north but very strange for central Texans.

I met an incredible number of nice people on the trip and saw some incredible art in the Hermitage Museum but I think the high point of the trip was an evening at the ballet.  Since we were guests of the Naval Intelligence Service, and since their stomping ground was St. Petersburg, we were treated to the best of everything.  Including seats for the ballet.  Our bodyguards and the military attache who served as our host led us down a long hall before the start of the Firebird and opened the doors to the Czar's box seat.  The balcony extended right up to the edge of the stage as you may be able to tell from the photo above.   During the intermission we were led back up the hall to the private dining room for the Czar where there were tables set with wonderful food and an assortment of wines and Champagnes.

When we returned to the ballet I wanted to take a photo or two and my body guard signaled me to follow him to an area just to the other side of the box, obscured by curtains from both the audience and the box seat.  It was the perfect spot from which to shoot.  My body guard was an avid amateur photographer and I tipped him liberally at the end of my stay with all my unused film.

When we left the theater that night we had to wait for our cars to arrive and we stood outside and watched the fattest snowflakes I've ever seen drop down in such quantity that visibility was maybe twenty feet.  I learned that the temperature dropped to around minus 25 degrees farenheit that evening. In my thick, black, dress leather shoes I could feel my toes slowly freezing and they only warmed up after twenty or so minutes in a hot shower.

There are so many stories I remember from that particular trip.  I'll look through the film files and digitize a few of my favorites and then post them in a few more segments.  But for some strange reason whenever it gets really cold I have an instant vision of the cold, crisp night at the theater in St. Petersburg.  The project was successful.

1.05.2010

Moving Thru LIfe. Graceful Moments.

Roman Couple sitting in front of the Pantheon.  1995

It's safe to have a routine that you follow.  Oatmeal and coffee for breakfast.  A day in the office.  Home to the wife and kids.  Dinner.  Television.  An hour or two looking at websites.  And then the same thing all over again.  And then you die.  And you haven't really lived a bad life.  But did you engage?

I'm as guilty as everyone else of giving in to entropy.  There's a tremendous comfort in routine and knowing with fair certainty what will happen tomorrow and the day after.   But I resist.  I want to be out watching the world happen.  I want to actually see those moments they work so hard to replicate on TV to tweak our emotional longing in the service of some product or pharmaceutical.  I want to see people in love.  People who've lost hope.  People who are trying hard to eke out some shred of happiness.

And I can't do that by staying home or showing up to the office.  I have to be where the last of the real people are.  Out in life.  In the flow.  On the street.  In restaurants and in bars.  Falling in love and then being disappointed and falling out of love.  Dressing up for someone.  Waiting. Anticipating.

I took some time off to go to Rome by myself.  I took what many would consider to be an inappropriate camera.  A Hasselblad 500 CM with an old, brassed 100mm f3.5 Zeiss Planar.  I carried a pocket full of black and white film with me in my jacket.  And I would just wander around looking at life.  The camera wasn't a tool, it was an excuse to drop into the river of life and swim along with people who'd disconnected from boredom and routine and who were living life as fully as they could.

I sat down to have a cold drink and looked forward to see this couple.  They were totally engaged in each other.  When she reached out to touch him with her right hand the gesture was so wonderfully real that I was compelled to take a photo.

When I closed down my darkroom in the late 1990's I lost the negative to this image.  I've never felt a keener loss for an object.  I don't think a week went by when I didn't think of the negative.  I have a large print of the image in my house but the thought that I'd never be able to make another print, would never be able to share this image gnawed at me.  I felt the loss so keenly.

Last year I was clearing out old negatives and throwing stuff away.  I found this in a folder of corporate images from a company that had long since gone bankrupt.  I usually throw away whole folders but some instinct pushed me to take a look through before tossing the folder in the trash.  And there was the strip of images.  A beautiful strip of four frames of this couple.  Sitting in chairs at a McDonald's in the eternal city.  And, no kidding, I found myself tearing up with joy.

For one more brief time I felt myself connected to that river of life.  And it's a reminder to leave my routine and venture out.  Even if it's just a Sunday afternoon walk across town.  Because when I'm out I know I'm watching real life and not some facsimile on TV.  The camera is just an excuse.

And so what works and what doesn't work?



This is an image of my son, Ben when he was just two years old.  It works for me but does it work for anyone other than me and his mother?  It's hard to say.  I love the pose and the way the light comes through the big double french doors that face north.  I love the way his left arm supports him.  I love the way his toes look and the intent engagement of his eyes.  But is there something universal about the image of a child?

The image was shot with a 45mm lens on a Contax G2.  I used a 400 ISO black and white film and I'm certain I shot this at f2 or f2.8.   The images was grainy to begin with and this is a scan of a Fuji die sublimation print.  Does the look and feel transcend the technical limitations?   Would this be a better image if I'd shot it with a D3x or a Canon 5d mk2?

Sometimes too much knowledge is a dangerous thing.  What if I brought an Elinchrom strobe in a big softbox outside the window and pulled a fill card into the other side?  What if I shot with a camera that had no noise?  It's all academic because I didn't do any of these things and yet, I still have this image tacked to the way behind my monitor where I can see it any time I look up.  And what I see reflected is calmness and content and potential.  He's 14 now and the print endures.  It's a reminder of the arc of my life.

When I look at the wall behind my monitor it has photos that mean something to me.  A print of five year old Ben at a coffee shop with a hot chocolate.  Ben in a big chair at Starbucks.  Ben as the smallest kid in the line of kids waiting to race at the swim meet.  A photo of his mother with the same calm and content look.  My friend, Anne Butler, looking timeless and regal.  A fireman holding his small baby in his arms.
Do these images mean anything to anyone else?  Does it matter?

I read on forums where people ask "What should I shoot?  I'm bored..." and it amazes me.  There is so much beauty everywhere.  Who has time to capture it all?


                      

1.02.2010

Getting Wet. A quick look at a fun shoot.


If you've read my previous posts you'll know that I shoot the advertising materials for Zachary Scott Theater here in Austin, Texas.  This year we did a season brochure project that called for images from each of the upcoming productions.  One production is an incredibly interesting play, called Metamorphosis, which combines ancient mythology with modern psychiatry. The play will take place in a round pool of water that the theater will build on stage.

We wanted to show the protagonist standing in the soaking rain to give potential audiences a glimpse of what was to come.

To backtrack for just a second, the overall project called for 36 different shots.  This is not the kind of shoot that you just show up for with a shoulder bag full of Vivitar 283's and the best of intentions.  It calls for a sense of continuity between the look and feel of all the shots that will be used together.  It requires the scheduling of 50-60 people as well as the efforts of costuming and prop professionals.

Since many of the supporters and other non-actors that needed to be included in the brochure were politicians, people from large corporations and sought after professionals we needed to set aside a number of alternative days to accomodate everyone's schedules.

We met with the marketing staff several times to trade collaborative ideas about lighting, background and the general visual direction of the materials.  When the time came to do this shot we'd already done six other principal shots that day and had plowed through several thousand digital captures.  But we were prepared and ready.

My background is thirty feet from the camera position.  The spot on the background comes from a focusable spot light.  It's a Desisti fixture with a 300 watt bulb.  This is not a flash.  It's a continuous tungsten light.  The main light is a 1000 watt tungsten light from the Profoto company, called a ProTungsten.  It's one of the few fan cooled continuous lighting fixtures I know of.  We used a Magnum reflector to spread the light evenly over an 84 by 84 inch Photoflex panel with a translucent white diffusion cloth.  The diffusion panel was as close to our actor as we could get it but our light was a good 8 feet from the opposite side of the panel.  This ensured that the spread of light was optimum.

We did get a little spill from this main light toward the camera position but we created a "barn door" with pieces of Black Wrap (a heavy duty, black anodized aluminum foil used by the film industry) clamped on to the magnum reflector with small, metal clamps.  You have to plan for these kinds of contingencies and pack everything that you "might" need because the schedule is not flexible enough to be able to send out for stuff in the middle of a tightly scheduled day.

We created rain by taking a large gardening water can filled with warm water up a 12 foot ladder and just pouring it on the actor.  We tried it again and again and again until the distribution of drops was just right and coincided with the perfect expression.  This is my select from the shoot but it might not be the one that ended up in the brochure because the marketing director knows his final audience better than me and chooses images accordingly.

So,  why continuous lighting instead of flash?  Easy, I wanted the drops of water to elongate over time and give a much more immediate impression of rain drops.  Flash would freeze the water too well and it would look different than the way your mind would envision rain drops.  I also wanted the option to shoot this shot and several others at five frames per second.  Impossible with flash over the course of a long shoot.

This shot took about an hour from start to finish.  When we were done I shook hands with the actor then jumped in to help clean up the mess and reset for the next session.

Our clients in this case were true professionals.  There were trays of cheese, crackers, fresh fruit and other snacks for people who might arrive early for their sessions.  There was also wine, water, sodas and coffee for the talent and the crew.  Video interviews were done with each principal actor.  (Another reason to use continuous lighting......thinking in advance of need).  Every prop was ready and standing by.  They booked multiple make up artists so we could have one on set for touch ups while another readied the next talent.  The scheduling was immaculate.

When I go into a shoot like this I want to feel a real collaboration between myself, the subjects and the marketing team.  We all leave our egos at the front door.  The objective is not to win awards (although many of our past brochures have won Addy awards) the objective is to put paying audiences in the theater seats over the course of a year.  Everyone needs to be clear about that from the beginning of the project.  I ask for what I know we will need and not one inch more.

Each of the shots in the project were done with two or three lights.  The example above is done with two lights and a white, foam core reflector panel to one side.  Metering is always done with a Sekonic incident light meter.  In this case the image was created with a Nikon D700 camera and an 85mm lens.  We shot large, fine jpegs.

When you do a job like this you may be on your feet from the set up in the early morning until you pull the last case back into the safe confines of the studio, after dark.  But you have to approach each component shot with the same focus and commitment at each moment of the day.  The reason is that the energy of each shot will be directly comparable by the final viewer and it must be consistent.  The shot at the end of the day must be as polished and emotionally connected as the first.  Not easy to do without lots of practice.

When I walk into our house at the very end of the day I am sometimes too tired to talk.  I've been entertaining, cajoling and pushing people all day long.  I've been making constant decisions:  Should I go lighter or darker?  More fill or less?  Push for an over the top smile or go for the subtle nuance?  Laugh at the 20 or 30 times people say, "I hope I don't break your camera!" Or, commiserate with the ten or so who, "Hate the way I look in pictures!"

And when the sexy part of the shoot is over and everyone has toasted the effort with Champagne and then gone off for an early dinner my assistant and I are the ones who spend the next hour or so knocking down the set, packing the lights, labeling the envelopes with the memory cards in them and then packing everything into the car(s).

And when I've had a good night's sleep I get up the next morning, grab my coffee and then head into the office because there are 6,000 files that need to get off the memory cards onto a hard drive, edited, burned to an archive disk, then sized and prepped for initial delivery.  That's another day.  And when the client makes final selections the real fun begins as I sit down for a day long session of correcting contrast and color for each chosen file.  Some will have notes attached that ask me to do "just a little" retouching on an actor's face or because of some sort of costume or prop failure.

It just goes with the territory.

People ask me if I can't just farm out all of the post production and I guess you could if your clients had the time and you had the budget.  But in the real world you get to do all the "butt" work.  And that's the anatomy and overview of the shot above as part of a bigger project.  Just thought you'd like to know.

Edit. 01/03/2010:  Some people have asked for a link to more zach photos from this project:
http://www.zachtheatre.org/stages/09_10_season.html
Near the top right hand of the page is a link to a pdf for the entire brochure.

New Year's Walk. Getting into the new decade.


     Tree in Zilker Park.  EP2 with kit zoom.  Handheld.  Tree lit by a street light.


I don't know about you but I think best when I'm out walking around.  Can't imagine spending the first day of the new decade sitting in front of a television set watching sports.  At some point, if you've watched hundreds of football games on TV, don't you feel like you're a participant in that Bill Murray movie, Groundhog Day?  Excuse the digression.

I spent the morning doing a ritual celebration with some of my swim friends.  We'd done a 6000 yard swim on New Year's Eve and we celebrate the next morning by heading to Barton Springs Pool to jump into the chilly, spring water and swim around.  There's a group of swimmers that starts each year with a nude swim (only in the middle of Austin) at 6 a.m.  but we get there at a much more civilized 9 a.m.

After we swim around and dive off the diving board we all bundle up and head over to a friend's house for waffles.  A local coffee shop of note sends over a barrista and the appropriate equipment so that every swimmer and attendant family member can enjoy the city's best coffee, made to order.  After the waffles and coffee we all float off and do whatever else it is people do on New Year's Day.

For me it's all about grabbing a camera and lens and walking around the city.  If you've followed my blog recently you know I'm captivated with the Olympus EP2 and whatever lens I feel like sticking on the front.  Yesterday it was still the little 14-42mm zoom.

     Holiday Decorations on cactus in Clarksville Neighborhood.


I set off from the middle of the old Clarksville neighborhood and headed at a leisurely pace over the several miles to downtown.  I stopped to see what was new at the flagship store of Whole Foods and wandered past the weird furniture store on W. Sixth Street that sells sculpture and Elvis figures.


I loved the juxtaposition of this bizzare bronze in the foreground and the statue of the Virgin Mary in the background although I can't really say why.

I should note that I shot a lot of raw files yesterday and processed them in Lightroom 2.6.  I don't go in for much sharpening, and God forbid I should abuse the clarity or shadow and highlight sliders.  What I usually do is to correct the white balance to make the images pleasing.

I think it's part of the pathology of photographers, no matter what their typical personal style, to not be able to pass up bizzare images of Elvis Presley so, of course, when I saw a figure of him behind bars I snapped a few frames of the "The King".



I'd set my ISO to 800 or 1600 during the waffle bacchanal and had forgotten to change it back to my usual default of ISO 200 but I don't think it made much difference in the enjoyment of the images for me.  I contend that, as a result of only looking at images on computer screens people have become much to sensitized to the "horrors" of electronic noise than they need to be.

After I left Elvis I moved on toward downtown and didn't really see much I wanted to shoot.  There were the many new high rise condominium towers in various states of completion but I felt I'd covered them pretty well in my last long walk.  Instead I went looking for close ups like leaves with Lady Bird Lake in the background.  And, for a few minutes, I understood the motivation of some landscape photographers.  Then I realized that I was just having a viceral response to the beauty of the fresh, clean, late afternoon light that was rubbing it's golden glow over every object it could find.  The light was just shamelessly beautiful yesterday from 4:30pm on.  My first regret of the new year was that I didn't have a beautiful model in tow.  This was the kind of light that could make any photographer look good so long as he or she pointed their camera in the right direction.



I went through downtown and along the Lake toward the pedestrian bridge.  Since it was New Year's day all the overweight resolution makers crowded the hike and bike trail running along with the daily regulars who run year in and year out.  Brand new shoes, brand new running apparel and uneasy looks of discomfort shining in their faces.  Over the bridge and into South Austin where I cut past Zachary Scott Theater and up the road to Flip Happy Crepes.  The light was directionless and liquid at this point and I saw this pile of rocks on one of the picnic tables.  Not sure why I thought it was so cool at the moment but the rocks stopped me while the stacks of brightly colored, incredibly weathered, folding metal chairs kept me shooting for a while.




I walked on past restaurant row.  Past Chuy's Tex-Mex restaurant and into Zilker Park.  By this time the sun had set and I was walking the dark trails with the aid of occasional street lights.  I kept shooting just to see what the EP2 and the Image Stabilization would get me.  Most of the time I'm shooting wide open on the camera so it's probably not a fair test of lens quality but what the hell do I care?  I'm just shooting this for my self and, for the most part, I really don't care just how sharp this or that photo is as long as I enjoy taking it and subsequently looking at it.  Face it, most of us take images to remember how things looked and what we felt at the time, not as a test for some silly testosterone contest.

As a portrait photographer I spend too much time already trying to walk a line between bringing down too much sharpness without calling attention to the technique of degradation required to render things the way I really see them.

So  I kept shooting stuff like this next  image until the battery indicator in the camera told me to quit shooting now and the air temperature told me to go home.


The Olympus EP2 handheld.  800 ISO.  Tree in Zilker Park.  New Year's Day 2010.

So I'm walking around for four hours and I've hit the hills in Westlake to get home and now it's time to summarize in my own head all the things I thought about during my first stroll of the new decade.  I thought about my friend, Russell Secker's new book, Running Across Countries.  He's an ultra marathon runner who wrote and self published a book about his run across Europe.  His book is available as a "print on demand" book at Amazon.com.  After my experiences creating photographic books I've come to believe that we're about to turn the book publishing industry upside down.  I think ebooks, with video components, will be launched first and then made available as "print on demand" physical books instead of the other way around.

Why eBooks?  Because the markets and the technology and, of course, the products change so quickly that the old method which involved taking a year to come to press squanders some of the potential that the information contains by dint of books trailing innovation instead of helping to grow it.  I'd like to do a book teaching digital photographers important techniques about video.  About lighting and movement and scripting and creating a solid narrative.  The market is here.  Now.  Today.  It is resident in nearly every camera bag that contains a new Nikon, Canon or micro 4:3rds camera.  But traditional publishers will give a nod to the trend when it goes "mass acceptance" instead of getting the book now.

I thought about moving images and how people are using photos in today's life.  The big, framed, posed portraits of yesterday seem dated.  The iPhone snapshot seems triumphant and yet I think portraits that transcend widely done styles from the past and step into the realm of fine art will still have a market.  The model is Jock Sturges and Sally Mann.  Richard Avedon and Irving Penn.  The vanishing market belonged to the carefully airbrushed or photoshopped, posed portrait with the family in matching clothes and each subject carefully lit by four or five not altogether convincing light sources.  Art and craft have to intersect to make good work going forward.  Formula will no longer do the job.  Not for my corporate clients and not for your retail clients.

Finally, I thought about how lucky I am to have such good friends and such great family.  No matter what the economy ultimately does, going forward, we'll weather it with the insulation of love and friendship.  And we'll measure value by happiness and sharing, not by acquisition and hoarding.

At this juncture I've written over 120 blog posts and gotten some good feedback.  If you have a moment to make leave a comment I'd love to hear from you about three things:

1.  I would really like know what you think about the future of book publishing.  Do you buy eBooks?  Would you? What would you like to see?  2.  I'd also love to hear from you about your ideas for the perfect photo workshop.  What would you like to learn?  3.  Are there subjects that you wish I would write about that I've not done previously, here?  Let me know.  The comments cost neither of us anything so if you have the inclination then let it rip.

Thanks for tuning in and supporting my writing.  I appreciate the "con" comments as much as I appreciate the "pro" comments.  I am rarely 100% right and it's good feedback to get called on it.

Here's hoping we all have a great new decade.  Kirk


12.31.2009

Good Riddance to 2009. Here's to fun photography in 2010



I can't imagine many years more screwed up for more reasons than 2009.  What a hard stop to a frenetic decade.  As my friend, Steve, reminded me this morning all decades seem wild and crazy while we're living through them.  Over time you realize that every year is strange and the ones that aren't strange are strange by virtue of not being strange.

It was a year that saw turmoil in every industry and the photography industry certainly was not spared.  While the economy was a major driver I do feel that the change is more systemic and long lasting.  When the economy recovers the photo industry may look entirely different and the opportunities may be initially hard to divine.

I have a few predictions for 2010 and beyond but first I want to comment on the sometimes vitriolic responses to yesterday's blog.  Many assumed I was attacking specific Flickr groups or leveling criticism at some of the luminaries who highlighted various trends.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  The guts of my argument was that you don't learn anything from mindless imitation.  And that a tidal wave of homogenous images does not move the ball forward for anyone.  I'm calling for people to create and define their own individual styles and not to conform like automatons to groupthink when it comes to imaging.

People think this all happened when we achieved digital saturation but I think it happened when digital camera manufacturers took away aspect ratio choices and aimed for accuracy in their color rather than differentiation.  Digital limited our choices while making us learn new ways of doing things and many ran for cover in the safety of copying successful work.  There's nothing wrong with Flickr.  And there's everything wrong with the idea of Flickr-ization.  Use it as a tool.  Not as an crutch for uninspired creative process.

To all the guys making a living teaching people stuff.  More power to you.  To all the people who think our intellectual properties laws are outmoded constructs I hope one day you are able to create something exciting and new after years of experimentation and hard work.  Then you'll understand that intellectual property wants to have value.

Okay.  The hell with all that.  Here are my predictions:

1.  2010 will be a much better year economically than 2009.  Just feel it in my bones.

2.  Video, as an adjunct to a photographic business will be a non-starter but as an adjunct to existing
      video production companies the adaptation of cameras like the Canon 5D mk2 and the
       Panasonic      GH1  will mean that they will start to offer clients still images in addition to video.
       It's going to get interesting.

3.  Instruction photo books will start to fade as a profitable market since the industry and the tools are
     moving so fast.  People will be drawn to e-books on platforms like the to be announced Apple
     tablet because updates will be included in the selling price and will become available instantly.

4.  The workshop craze will continue with greater and greater emphasis on "hands on" shooting for
     participants but the workshops will be taken over and run by savvy event companies and
     individual teachers will be co-opted in to the system.

5.  This will be the year that millions of photographers will reject heavy, last century DSLR models
     and embrace new paradigms like Olympus and Panasonic's Micro 4:3rds format cameras.

6.  Story telling will challenge individual, stand alone images.  This will require pre-planning, writing
     conceptual thinking, and effective image editing.

7.  Large corporations will use more blends of still and digital video imaging.  Large video displays will begin to totally replace conventional, printed signage.

8. The commercial photographers who are successful will learn how to compete against the concept of stock and will revitalize high end assignment photography.  Companies will demand it as they attempt to differentiate their messages.

9. Labs will finally figure out how to monetize regular post production just like they learned to
    process film and contact sheets.  This will free up creators from the routine work of correcting files
    making web galleries and burning DVD's.

10.  We'll learn to monetize content on the web and make money beyond the "click thru" advertising
      model.  As someone said,  "make something people really want and they will buy it."

Me?  I think great portraits will always be a marketable niche.  I'm up for more swimming, more portrait shooting and new breakthroughs in the generation of better and better coffee.  I'm writing one more photo book.  After that I'm concentrating on doing my art.  And doing my vision better than any one in the world.

Whether you agree or not I hope you have a great 2010 and that we all kick off a decade of happiness, growth, kindness and understanding.  I hope that we all learn how to be nicer on the web and in real life.  Finally, I hope we all learn that photography is almost never "life and death" and maybe we should all just lighten up and have fun with it.  Competition is so overrated.  Happy New Year to everyone!

12.30.2009

The Flickr-ization of photography

Caution: This image may not be acceptable for discussion on some Flickr groups. It's not trendy enough, doesn't use small, battery operated flashes for its main lighting and doesn't show an over lit female model in revealing wardrobe. Moreover, it doesn't list the make or model of a flash trigger. Finally, it's an image that might actually be used by a paying client.




Something evil is happening to Photography (with a big "P"...). It's becoming homogenized by high priests of specific styles. And while homogenization is arguably good for milk and some cheeses it really sucks when it comes to arts and crafts. The problem is that when a style is promoted by one of the "strong influencers" on Flickr people ask for the technical information behind it. In the interests of keeping information free (and driving more and more traffic to their site to get some "click thru's" for advertising revenue as well as justifying display space on their sites.....free?) the influencers eagerly divulge lighting diagrams and step by step instructions. No problem with that but what happens next is the "relentless repetition tsunami". Many people who crowd around cult-like figures tend to be very literal so they end up copying the original image without adaptation or interpretation. As the acolytes spread these copied images they create "laws of creation" that are pushed by the sheer momentum of logarithmic image growth. Laws that decree: 1. Every photo must be lit with flash. 2. Every flash must be battery powered. 3. Every flash must be used off camera. 4. Every portrait must have rimlight or strong backlight. 5. Every photo must include a woman in some peculiar stage of undress or an older person with hopelessly chiseled features. HDR (high dynamic range imaging---sometimes referred to as "Technicolor Vomit"....) seems to still be optional but highly suggested!  All composition must be regimented.

Currently discouraged are images with content, soft skin tones, elegant lighting from large sources and other distinctly anachronistic approaches.  Subtlety has definitely been put off limits.  As has light motivated by reality.

Now, I don't blame the originators of the images. They're just following a business model that brings people in the (virtual) doors to stoke up the furnaces of e-commerce. Their intention is to put another paying butt in a folding workshop chair or sell another DVD to an audience that believes technique is content. When HDRi takes hold the game plan is to become an expert in order to sell knowledge to less gifted

Why should we care? Of what significance is all this to any real photographer?

Why indeed.  I suspect that the trend is harmless for the most part but it creates an unreal idea of the value of raw technique.  Throughout the history of advertising (and that is the primary target for commercial images) the goal has usually been to differentiate your client from the pack by differentiating their public face from the mass of competitors.  It was usually done by taking contrarian positions or showing product or services in a new way.  In a new style.

When Richard Avedon took models into the streets of Paris in the early 1950's it was to differentiate the new face of post war fashion from the pre war convention of the studio.

When Nike began running ads that consisted on a brilliant photo with a discrete logo and nothing else they plowed through a mass of competing shoe ads that showed "scientific" drawings of arch supports and sported wall to wall psuedo technical copy.

When Annie Leibovitz took prominent artists and politicians out of the studio and put them on the beach or in unusual situations for American Express she changed the way people thought about credit card ads.

But, when everyone rushes in the same direction the signal to noise ratio hits 1:1 and it's impossible to tell why any of the images has meaning to their audiences.  In a word, the style has been "Flickrized" and when everyone gets around to doing it the style is already dead.  The leaders have moved on to another style, another technique and another workshop.

I could tell people to be original till I'm blue in the face but to the hobbyist it's meaningless and to the hack it's just another thing to learn.  I can hardly wait to see the workshop that professes to make people more original and more creative.  I'm sure someone will sell it just as sure as I know someone will buy it.  Then originality will be all the rage and everyone will copy the same style of originality.

That's okay with me.  Now, where's that HDR action button again?  New bumper sticker:  "Technical Mastery is Not Art."


12.28.2009

The EP2, San Antonio Fun shoot, shake out, field test, fun color stuff.

http://gallery.me.com/kirktuck#100182&view=mosaic&sel=0


Olympus EP2,  50mm f2 Olympus Macro Lens.


Wow.  I'm in love all over again.  A little background:  I dumped ten years worth of other system cameras and bought a modest amount of Olympus e-series gear this past Summer.  I liked the stuff.  When the EP2 came out I thought the combination of features, the usability of existing Olympus e-series lenses and the similarities to my old Pen FT system were too much to pass up.  Little did I know that I would fall in love so hard for this little micro 4:3rds system.

If I could do all my assignments with the EP2 I would get rid of everything else in a heartbeat.  If I assume the role of "practical businessman" I'd quickly tell you that this is a camera for the pro that already has a systems he or she is happy with.  At the moment there are too many gaps in the system and gaps in the operating capabilities to make it your one, "go-to" camera.  But that doesn't negate my belief that this is the funnest camera to shoot on the market today!  My e3 focuses better.  My Nikon gear did stuff faster.  But none of them are as much fun to shoot during a day of walking around in a visually resplendent city with a pocket full of cards and a good friend.

We're between jobs and my good friend asked me to go shoot with him in San Antonio.  I figured it would be a great venue for shooting with the new EP2 stuff.  We left Austin at the crack of dawn and hit SA early in the morning.  We hiked and shot from the area around the Alamo to the area round the Mercado.  It was crispy and fresh outside and the big jackets felt good.  We were both carrying the EP2 and extra batteries and memory cards.  Otherwise we traveled light and easy.  Here's my take on this camera system:


     Olympus EP2 with the kit zoom lens.  14-42mm.


Let's start by looking at the metering.  Just like any camera on the market you can fool it's light meter with scenes that have small points that your want right surrounded by bigger areas of opposite tonality.  Most camera have conventional viewfinders that can't show a preview.  They can show a review but by then you've already snapped a shot and perhaps the moment is already gone when you've reviewed the results and have decided to shoot again.  In the EP2 (and also in the Panasonic GF1, G1 and GH1) when you look through the electronic viewfinder you are seeing the image from the main processor with all the Jpeg settings incorporated into the scene.  In other words you are usually looking at exactly what the photo will really look like when you press the shutter button.  The colors are a match.  You can preview what the exposure settings are giving you and you can watch the screen as you make changes.  When you see just what you want you trip the shutter.  Amazing that point and shoot people have done this for years but to us DSLR shooters it's a new method.  A new feature.

The EP2 has a wonderful EVF finder.  Right now it's impossible to buy the camera without one and that's a pretty good thing.  It's one of the best EVF's I've ever used.  There's no lag and the colors and the resolution of the screen mimic the clarity of a good quality optical finder.


  St. Joseph's Church.  ISO 1000.  Hand held exposure at 1/13th of a second.  Kit Lens.


Let's talk about image stabilization for a moment.  Since the camera does not have a moving mirror and has good mass for its size it already does a good job of providing a steady platform for hand held photography.  The in body stabilization is the gravy.  And it is delicious gravy.  I am consistently able to hand hold the kit lens at its longest focal length at speeds of down to 1/10th of a second.  Reliably.  And it's a feature that works even with the lenses I play with from my old Nikons, via an adapter.  Is it the best in the world?  Is it better than Panasonic's in lens IS?  Don't know and don't care.  It does a fine job and helps me get stuff that previously would have required a tripod.

A few words about various ISO's.  I generally shoot with the camera set to ISO 200 and leave the lens set at its widest aperture, changing just the shutter speeds to control exposure.  The Olympus cameras have one difference vis-a-vis Nikon and Canon.  The camera comes with the ability to control noise reduction.  You can set it on high and see smooth photos with the detail smeared out of them and you can also set it to off and see amazingly sharp and detailed images with a lot of noise, even at 200 ISO.  Canon and Nikon don't give you the "off" option.  Everything seems a bit cleaner but you lose the option of getting exactly what you want from the N & C cameras.  I guess they think their customers are too dumb to leave setting the right noise reduction to....  But, and here's the fatal flaw, Olympus has one other setting that effects noise in their cameras and that is an auto gradation setting.  When this is set it lets the camera boost the darker areas to give the appearance of more detail in the shadows.  But it comes at the expense of a big jump in shadow noise when it kicks in.

If you use the "no" setting on noise reduction and also leave "auto gradation" as the default you'll see big noise in frames from 400 ISO on up.  There's a simple cure.  Set the gradation to "normal" and you'll have no big problems.  I want control over my noise stuff.

That said, I am happy with noise performance up to ISO 1000 in low light settings and up to 1600 when there is enough light to slightly overexpose my files. (There's headroom in these Jpegs that is quite good).  I'm happy to stick to 200 most of the time but I never fear faster speeds, where necessary.  These cameras won't compete in the noise department with Nikon's D3 series or Canon's 5Dmk2.  Don't expect them to.  But if you shoot what I shoot you probably don't need to go much over ISO 800 and in this range don't expect to see any difference between your demure and discreet Olympus versus that big hulking brute of a D3.


Park Custodian.  San Fernando Cathedral. Early Morning.


So, the finder works and the metering is reliable (if not spectacular) and the IS is great.  The ISO range is ample and well matched to the price point of this system.  But what about the color and integrity of the files that come squirting out onto the SD memory cards?  Well, when I shot Nikon I pretty much shot in raw.  I wanted control because the metering would occasionally burn me and the mid tones would go dark and the shadows, when corrected, would sit on the verge of banding.  I profiled my D700 and made custom curves but I was still never reliably happy with the jpeg files I got straight out of the camera.  That's okay.  Raw programs are really speedy these days.  But when I started playing with the EP 2 I noticed that the color and the tonal curve of the camera looked great in just about every jpeg I pulled out.

Now that I can have "what I see is what I get" control via the preview in the electronic viewfinder I choose to shoot mostly in the large super fine jpeg setting and see now reason to lash myself to the computer to convert raw files.  The tonal curve shows a much nicer distribution of mid tones than most other cameras I've used.  The contrast at defaults is just right and flesh tones work well.  Raw is beginning to remind me of the early days of digital when getting good exposures and colors out of the primitive cameras was really hard and demanded some skills.  Now it's more a hang on from those days....if you are a careful worker.  You'll need to get the images right in the camera but once you do you free up so much space on your card when compared to raw files.

What people say about "Olympus Blue" is correct.  Somehow they have tuned their color algorithms to produce very deep and natural blues that take additional saturation gracefully.

Here's how I set the camera up to shoot:

I set the camera on "natural" color.  I use single shot.  Evaluative metering (corrected by experience).  Aperture priority or Manual.  And I set the white balance for each type of lighting.  I use the camera's aspect ratio settings to show me a square composition in the finder.  If you shoot raw you'll see a square in the EVF and you'll see the full frame with a square imposed to show the right cropping when you shoot raw.  If you shoot raw you can always go back and try a different crop from the available full frame but I think that's cheating.  We Jpeg shooters burn our bridges and there is no turning back for the life jackets once you commit.....

If I'm shooting for hot color I'll set the color settings to "vivid" and go to town.  I've used the info control to show me a finder that has no extraneous information on it.  It's just not necessary.

One of the coolest things about using the EP2 and the Panasonic equivalents is that their short "flange to sensor" distance allows the use of a very wide range of lenses, all with infinity focus.  I've used the kit lens that came with the camera (and is small, light and sharp enough for most work) along with most of the Olympus e-series lenses.  I've also used a Nikon 50mm 1.2 with an adapter.  My friend Paul is using his Panasonic GF1 with Leica M series lenses.  And I'm also waiting for the Olympus Pen F half frame to micro four thirds adapter to come.  Those lenses should be really wonderful on this descendant of their body buddies.

When I use a manual lens like the Nikon I set up the info window to show the green box that indicates the position of the chosen focus area in the EVF.  I push the center button on the back mounted wheel control to show me a 10X magnification of the shot for fine focusing.  I push the button again to see the full frame for composition and shooting.  Unless your subject moves around a lot you'll only need to fine focus after you or your subject changes position.  It's easier to do this procedure than to write about it and it is much quicker.

At first I thought I would get a lot of use out of the various adapters but I've come to find the kit lens good for most applications and am loathe to remove it unless I need more reach.  I've found that my second most used lens is the "pancake" 25mm lens for the regular Olympus e system.  It is small and light and doesn't overwhelm the ergonomics of the camera body.  It's also a good lens and a good value.

Am I happy?  Very.  I've found a wonderful camera I can carry and use almost everywhere without the big camera stigma.  Will I give up my regular cameras?  For assignment?  No.  But I'll rue the weight and size and lack of preview every time I do a jobs.

Anything else?  Yes.  I've shot some video but I'm not ready to post any examples.  The video is good 720p stuff with lots of detail.  And thankfully, unlike the Canon 5dmk2, the Oly people gave us total manual control over exposure and focus while doing video.  It's a great "combo" camera for those making that step.  If only they would rush me out a microphone adapter!!!!!!!!! Dammit.

Thanks to my friend, Keith, who got me out of the house at 6 am to do this fun "walk around" project.  He was also shooting with an EP2 but, since he is much less lazy than me he was pretty persistent in shooting with adapter equipped Nikon lenses.  His stuff looks great.

That's it.  Go to the link to see everything but I'm throwing one more picture in at the end.  I don't get paid by Olympus to use or talk about their stuff.  I bought my own camera and lenses.  But I do have some books for sale at Amazon.  Full disclosure strikes again!

Thanks, Kirk



Wait staff and mural at Mi Tierra.  Kit lens.  Hand Held.

12.24.2009

A great article by Ken Rockwell. Really.

http://www.kenrockwell.com/tech/simplicity.htm

I get that a lot of photographers consider Ken Rockwell to be irrelevant at best and a source of wild and unsubstantiated craziness at his worst, but I've come to find the core of many of his arguments to be quite valid.  If you read the article I linked above you'll find some great reasoning for becoming conversant with one lens and one camera body.  Hopefully the least complicated body you can find.

I've written similar essays and I've come to the same conclusion:  More gear = less good photos.

The image above is of Sarah L.  I wanted to use her on the cover of my third book but my publisher and I didn't see eye to eye on that one.  When I shoot portraits I generally shoot them with the same lens and the same settings.  Even the light is largely the same.  That's because the portrait is about the subject and not about the technique.  If the technique is the first thing you notice in one of my portraits that means I've failed.  Miserably.  The camera is out of focus and Sarah is in focus.  And that's the way I meant it to be.

Give Ken his due.  He gets it right more often than a lot of would like to admit.