4.07.2010

Ah, the source of our freelance pain revealed.....

The last wooden slats in the Paris Metro.

I hear a lot of people talk about how digital is changing everything.  The premise being that a lot of newbies have flooded into the market and they are actively stealing the work from seasoned pros.  I've been nosing around. Free people aren't stealing our work. I've been meeting with clients and friends in the ad and corporate worlds. They aren't hiring cheaper photographers. They're just not hiring anyone.

Here's supporting evidence. Sales tax revenues in Texas (a state LEAST affected by the depression) has seen double digit declines in the sales tax rate since last March. April 2010 and March 2010 are the first two months since then that have ONLY shown single digit declines in sales tax revenue. Which means spending is still dropping. Only when sales tax rev heads to positive growth will we see any of the peripheral (discretionary spending) markets recover.

Now I see why it feels like a I've been baling a boat with a thimble. The leak is bigger than I thought. But none of this means that cheaper camera dudes are stealing our work. Just ain't none to steal.  But it doesn't mean that photography will never be profitable again!

Hold on. We'll make it.

4.05.2010

It's all about the happiness.

No matter where you are right now in your occupational journey I can pretty much tell you that you'll never be satisfied. Work isn't like that.  You don't do the big project and then stand back and go, "Tada!"  If you are like most of us you say, "Cool.  That's done.  What's next?"  All the sturm und drang over the economy and the decimation of the photo industry mostly affects those who fear change.   And most of those who fear change are rooted into their fear by their own desires.  Bust up the feelings off desire and you break the cycle of soul decay and unhappiness.  It's like flossing.  You keep breaking up plaque deposits so the gum disease doesn't get you.

If your biggest desire is a good cup of coffee life will accommodate you pretty well.  If you must have a jet and a super model spouse and an island then desire might bitch slap you until you die.

In a post I put up several weeks ago I mentioned the Ruby Slippers.  At our core we are not photographers we're artists who've chosen, for now, to express ourselves with photographs.  The power comes from within.  Even if the media changes the art doesn't.  We just adapt to the new media.  We've had the power all along.  We just need to click our heals together and stop listening to the man behind the curtain.  We need to stop being paralyzed by the wicked witch of the west.  We need to stop looking for outside help and switch on that power.

I talk a lot about equipment but this whole game is really about seeing and sharing.  The equipment can make barriers.  The desire for equipment can make more barriers.  Just the right equipment can be transparent.  I'm migrating toward cheaper and cheaper gear because I believe more and more in my own power and less in the magic of the tool.  It's like learning to swim and slowly getting rid of the water wings.

The only real lessons I've ever learned are these:  Kindness matters.  Happiness comes from within.

Someone posted yesterday that even though I had a financially sucky year in 2009 that I was so optimistic.  Having made less money in 2009 sure gave me back a lot of my own time.  And I spent it in the pursuit of happiness.  Nice bargain, yes?

Edit:  Adding gear note:  Joe's coffee shop on South Congress Ave.  A small Mocha with whole milk.  Oh,  the camera?  That's an EP2 with an old 38mm 1.8 Pen F (film) lens from the late 1960's.

4.04.2010

Some thoughts about the future of photography as a business.

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/30/business/media/30photogs.html?adxnnl=1&emc=eta1&adxnnlx=1269907243-yZ/jjtLNoyncbflgnXJBKw

The above link is to an article that ran last week in the New York Times.  It paints a bleak picture for the future of commercial photography or indeed, the ability to make any money in photography other than by making equipment and peripherals.

The article's two pronged contention is that with "everyman" embracing stock photography and driving the cost down to zero, (or near zero) and with the rise of the amateur who is willing to work local markets at a loss, the previously lofty market for photography is heading for harder and harder times for those who've chosen to work in the industry as full time professionals.

I get it.  Moms who have the ability to stay home, out of the traditional 9 to 5 workforce are making a dramatic impact on traditional children's portrait and low end wedding markets.  Fields that once supported small studios across the country.  In many cases the amateur's work is as good as the professional work that had dominated the field.

And I get in on the commercial side as well.  Over the years commercial photographer's incomes came from a mix of tough, cerebral assignments interlaced with fairly straightforward documentation of products, properties and archetypes.  Now even my best friends who are art directors reach for stock and microstock for images that are generic.  Why wouldn't they?  It's a quick and efficient way to stock up their websites and brochures.  The price keeps clients from just saying, "Fuck it.  We'll save some money and do the whole project in-house."  The AD's fear that their turn is coming next as America (and perhaps the world) accepts that "good enough" is good enough for now.

But is it as bad as the article makes it out to be?  I would say, no.  Just because McDonald's has 60 or 80 franchises in our area and there are probably hundreds of other Taco Bells and Wendy's and Cheap Chicken places doesn't mean that stellar restaurants like Jeffreys or Treo at the Four Seasons or Sullivan's Steakhouse have been closed down and are relics of the past.  They thrive and they've thrived throughout the bust.  I was in Marathon, Texas recently and the Gage Hotel restaurant was doing great business, selling a $48 ribeye (a la carte).  Champagne seems to keep selling even though cheaper prosecos proliferate.

Millions of Honda Civics, Hyundai Rio's and Toyota Corollas get sold every year and yet they haven't been able to knock off the luxury brands like Mercedes and BMW or even make a dent in their own vertical offerings such as Camry's and Lexus or Crosstours and Accuras.

My experience tells me that all the stuff we used to do that was basic bread and butter is gone.  The cheese has been moved.  But top executives and their marketing staffs still call in the pros for high profile portraits.  My friend Paul got to shoot in Italy for a month in the midst of the worst year for the economy any of us has ever seen (2009)  and his business here, shooting high end commercial and residential architecture, has barely slowed down.

I still get calls to shoot higher end advertising where the products are unique or the ideas proprietary.  I also know that my friends at the high end of the wedding and portrait business are still booking the very top of the market.  Do we miss the bottom foundational layer? Yes, it was a nice source of income.  Do we miss the bread and butter?  Yes, because we could always try to up sell from there.

I'll be frank, 2009 was a financial disaster.  Not just for photographers but for just about anyone who was self employed at the time.  Or anyone who was trying to rent out commercial property.  My fee income from assignment photography dropped nearly 50%.  But we quickly moved to supplement the shortfall with more paid speaking and workshop engagements and more book assignments.  The royalty stream from earlier books kicked in.  I wrote stuff for advertising clients.  From time to time I leaned on the savings account.

But we can't judge our industry by 2009 and 2008.  That would be like judging all boat safety just from the example of the Titanic.  The whole economy got clobbered.  For the most part we are more of a discretionary market than a staple like diapers and milk.  But the flipside to that is that when time are good we are usually able to charge a premium.

If you were a professional who predicated your business success on the microstock industry you probably didn't do due diligence when you started out.  You would have seen the trajectory.  Everyone else did.  You can point to the handful of people who work 80 hours a week shooting thousands of photos they don't really care about who make a great living in the micro stock market but the reality for most people is that the only people getting rich from small sales of stock imagery are the owners of the stock agencies.

If you are competing with the moms with a camera who want the bottom end of the market you'll probably want to re-vamp that whole idea as well.

The trickier part of the market is the middle (yes, everyone will write that the middle sucks and you should only deal with the Buffetts and the Gates families but that's silly.  The middle is where all the volume is and a great chunk of the value).  This is where the people with full time jobs come poaching, looking to score ego points by getting published.  Think of the IT guy who offers to shoot corporate events or the electrical engineer who volunteers to do the company product shots with his new Nikon D3x.  The marketing team would be nuts to not take him up on the offer.  But he may not be a sustainable source.  The economy is recovering in many sectors and at some point the engineer will be too busy or his time will become to expensive.

We need to understand that our markets are changing.  I can't speak to your market but I know I've got to reposition myself to go after more and more high end portraiture.  So many of my competitors who did this kind of work in addition to weddings and babies have gone out of business and there is share there to be had.  I need to take the film making and video skills I learned years ago and repurpose the knowledge to corporate clients who want to move marketing into web based video.  And I need to better communicate my value proposition as a writer for the same industries.  I conjecture that the person who writes the script makes at least as much as the guy running the camera so why not have both fees?

Will we erode other people's market share?  It's inevitable.  They will erode ours as well.

But not to get lost in all this is the understanding that the big jobs will be back, in one guise of the other.  The budgets will come back because the upside for marketers is too big to not do great advertising.  The competition too fierce to stick with "good enough" as a long term strategy.  In the years going forward the rewards will go to two camps:  Those flexible enough to keep up with the fashion and the technical revolution our field enjoys and suffers from, and those whose vision has value and who have not devalued that vision by dropping their prices through the floor.

A final example that bears inspection is Apple.  They've not dropped the prices on their laptops or their high end computers like the rest of the industry which participated in a race to the bottom.  As a result their equity value increased by a factor of 400% in just the last year and a half.  By contrast the winner of the race to the bottom saw the value of their company drop precipitously.  Apple showed product and vision flexibility:  They supplemented the traditional business with other technologies like the iPods and the iPhones and now, the iPad.

We need to embrace this model.  Keep our value intact.  Keep our key product prices and fees high.  Find new ways to grow the business.  If you need to sell a cheaper product find a cheaper product to sell.  If your premium product is location lifestyle photography for ad agencies, don't erode your value/pricing model on that product.  Find a product like studio head shots that you can offer at a lower price point and maximize the potential of that market.  If you do head shots in the studio as your primary product then explore buying into the market for consumer experiences and create a product like location fashion shoots for everyday consumers that you can package as a step up or up sell.

Everyone always suggests that photographers write more or do video but I would also suggest that you understand leveraging content into visual metaphor and might want to explore ways to leverage those skills.

Bottom line:  The NYT article was a casual look at the most obvious trends.  Predicated to sell papers.  The reality is more complex.  After any cataclysmic event like the melt down of 2009 the ground is prepared for a new revolution and, even in existing businesses there is pent up demand for products and services.  Identify.  Price them.  Sell them.  Now is not the time to stay in the bunker.

It's funny to me.  I wrote a book about how to use battery powered flashes.  It's still a best seller in its category.  I wrote a book with lots of research about how to make photography profitable and that book languishes.  That's good for some of us because it shows me that people entering the field think technical knowledge is more important than marketing and business knowledge.  That's why I'm
optimistic........


      

4.03.2010

It all came together on Saturday afternoon. Beyond lens lust.

Okay.  So it's a couple of branches.  So what?  Well it's also a wide open shot done with a 60mm Pen (film version) f1.5 lens from the late 1960's.  On a Pen EP2.


Let's get this out of the way up front:  I love the new micro Four Thirds cameras.  I think they are great and for the kind of contemplative photography a lot of people do I think they are better than traditional DSLR cameras.  There.  I said it.  Better.

Here's why:  You get to look through an electronic finder and watch as the exposure, DOF and color are shown to you in a real time preview.  Like what you see?  Go ahead and push the shutter button and you'll most likely get an image that's exactly what you saw.  It's so different than an optical finder that you have to try it out to understand how much different it is in real life.  I can hardly wait until the bigger cameras like the Olympus e30 types (and the Nikons and Canons) lose their mirrors and go all EVF.  And I predict it will happen sooner rather than later.

But there's a second reason I like the little Pens.  I can put just about any lens on them.  But what lenses work best?





































Here's the same shot at around f 5.6 and a half.  The background is coming in....

You can't just put any lens on the front of these cameras and be absolutely happy because most older lenses for bigger format weren't really designed to be high enough resolution to put enough detail into the dense and condensed area of pixels wedged into these 12 megapixel 2X crop cameras.   I've tried older Nikon lenses and they work okay but they really didn't do anything that the meager collection of dedicated m4:3rd lenses couldn't do.  I have used the Nikon 50mm 1.1.2 lens but wide open the sharpness suffers.  And the bulk of the lens makes the whole camera package unwieldy.  In fact, using big lenses cancels the whole system out.  If you put a two or three pound lens in front of the tiny camera you might as well just use a big camera to begin with......

The dream for many micro EVIL users is to have a handful of small, super fast primes that were computed for the smaller frame size and can be mounted without issue on the front of a Panny or Pen.
Well, I'm here to tell you that they exist and they are superb.  Something new from Korea?  No.  How about something quite old from Japan.  I'm talking about the jewel-like interchangeable lenses originally made for the Pen F film cameras from the 1960's and the 1970's.  They are out there on the used market and they are gorgeous.  Computed to cover a half frame of film with high contrast and resolution these Olympus optics have been in my equipment drawer since the mid 1980's just waiting for the right opportunity to shine.

A street shot of my friend Emily.  Shot today on Sixth St. in downtown.  f2.8.  No lighting.

The first lens I'm testing is one of my favorites from yesteryear.  The 60mm 1.5 is small, relatively light. The manual-only focus ring is like butter.  You can set infinite intermediate aperture values and watch the exposure subtly change through the finder.  The lens is a bit less contrasty than modern lenses but seems to have greater resolution.  I'd read a technical paper about lens design in the late 1970's which basically said that you can either have very high resolution or you  can have very high contrast or some compromise between the two but not both.  I think, given the high contrast of films back when this lens was designed, coupled with the small frame target that the Olympus engineers gave the nod to resolution.  Happily we live in an age of Photoshop (tm) wherein we can change the mix between the two parameters to meet our own tastes on every shot.  I added about 5% contrast to the image above before converting it to a web sized version.

Here we're at f8 and I'm seeing incredible detail and a tenacious grasp of shadow detail. (Sounding like a wine critic today......)  Look at the detail in his hair and shirt.

Here's the other thing I like about shooting with manual focus primes,  once you focus you can recompose till the cows come home without worrying about "locking" focus.  Small, light, sharp, detailed, lack of flare,  single focal length lenses blow zooms and Rube Goldberg/big fat lenses with adapters clean away.

Do I need a caption for this?  It's the same building I seem to shoot for all my lens tests.  But every lens is different.

I learned an interesting thing about fine focusing today.  I had been setting up the display setting so that when I shot with non-dedicated and purely manual lenses I would get the screen with the green square in the middle of it.  (This is with the EP2).  If I pushed the "OK" button in the middle of the four way controller it would magnify the image up to 10x and allow me to fine focus on small details.  Excellent way to manual focus by the way.  But today I noticed that when I achieved sharp focus (without the magnification) I would see an interference pattern of the details of the image.  It would shimmer in and out as I changed focus.  If I shot on the shimmer everything was incredibly sharp.  It was a cool phenomenon and I tried the high magnification focus to check what I was seeing.  Yep.  It works.  Look for the shimmering interference pattern in the fine details and you are fine focused.

Every lens has it's own look unless it's been homogenized by its maker.  I think the combination of color and contrast from this lens references the popular look of lenses from the 1960's.  It's so "NASA".

In order to make all of this work you'll need to order a Pen F to Pen adapter.  This will fit between the lens and the body and will give you a lens that focuses perfectly, to infinity and beyond.  It will also operate seamlessly in the "A" (aperture) mode.  The only place I've found them is from a supplier on e-bay.  They run around $65.  I think they ship them from China because it takes about ten days to deliver.

Mine is all black and fits perfectly.  Not too snug, not too loose.

One of the coolest things about a lens of this speed and ths focal length is the ability to drop backgrounds out of focus.  This is the 85mm 1.2 of the micro four thirds world.  And, amazingly for a 1960's optic, it seems to be very, very sharp even when shot wide open.  I picked mine up in 1985 for the whopping big sum of $65.  I think they've gone up since then but they are still less than a quarter the price of the Canon 85mm 1.2 and, if you have nimble fingers, I bet it focuses faster too.

Thumb your nose at this new format to your own peril.  I think this is a fun view of the future.  And, in light of the desperately depressing article about the state of the commercial photo industry that ran last week in the NYT, why the heck would you want to spend more for photo equipment anyway.  The consensus is that most things are going to the web.  Do you really thing we'll see the difference there between 24 megapixels and 12 megapixels?  I think we're much more likely to see the difference between about $1200 bucks for the above described rig versus a cool $10,000 for a Canon 1ds3 and the 85mm lens............

The snarky ones out there are always dissing the limited ability m4:3rds users have to limit depth of field.  You wouldn't know it from some of my samples today.  Seems pretty convincing to me.

I whole heartedly endorse the use of the 60mm 1.5 on the EP-2 (and by extension, all the other small crop cameras in the family).  The next lens to go under the microscope will be the 38mm 1.8.  But I may need to talk about inspiration before we get back into the nuts and bolts.  I'm still feeling the reverberations of my trip to the west.

One more thing:  I heard the UPS truck roll up on Fri.  I was hoping it was free camera equipment.... but that never happens....instead it was a box full of my new book on Lighting Equipment.  If I got 12 books I'm sure Amazon will get theirs soon.  It's a pretty darn good book if you want to delve into lighting equipment.  And what red-blooded photographer doesn't?  I put a link below.  Check it out.  If you pre-order it now you won't be disappointed when it sells out and you don't have one.......(smiles...).

Hope you have a great Easter.  Or just a nice Sunday.  All the best, Kirk

4.01.2010

Breaking secret news about new Olympus Cameras!!!!!

I can't show you a photo because I've already sent the box full of beta test gear back but I talked to my legal counsel and we decided, "What the hell.  Let's scoop all the rest of the people on the web and be the first to make some announcements."  I'm a bit nervous but here goes:

The e3 replacement:  I was amazed when I opened the discreet, cardboard box with no markings.  If you've done beta testing before you know that you get the camera long before the manuals are written etc.  I did get a thumbdrive with some engineers notes and that really helped.  The e1000 will seem familiar to anyone who has worked with the e1 camera in the past but this time the battery grip is a non removeable, integrated part of the body design.   The finder.....get ready for this.....is a 2.2 million pixel EVF with zero noise to EV 1.  That's right.  EV 1.  It's a cleaner images, with auto ramp up gain, than the view through my close friend's Sony a900 finder, the previous champ of great optical finders.  You heard it here:  The optical finder is dead.

The reason the Olympus people built the battery casing as an integral part of the camera has less to do with rapid frame rate (the camera doesn't have a moving mirror so there's not much to slow down the recharge sequence of the beryllium bladed shutter...... 12 fps!!!) it's so they could add a discreetly covered interface that has two XLR microphone inputs.  Oly, according the the marketing people I talked to in Lubbock, Texas, have decided, based on the Canon success with video, to provide video.  But in true Oly fashion they took it to the next step.  Instead of 1080i or 1080p they've matched the RedOne camera and gone with 4k video.  They are actually positioning this system as competition for the Red by giving it all the professional video controls you'd need to be able to make a feature film.

This, of course, called for a brand new Sensor, and here's where the surprise comes in.  They switched to a proprietary sensor created by the NSA for high altitude surveillance and brought onto the market by a new and very secretive company in Israel.  Olympus is one of the first companies to take advantage of the new technology which uses photon enhancement and lossless amplification of nano band interference patterns to yield clean ISO into the 64,000 range.  In a white paper that is still proprietary the chip company said they choose Olympus as the first company to roll out the new consumer sensors because no other company could make lenses that would take advantage of the characteristics of the new 22 megapixel imager.

The battery grip also houses a treasure trove of ultra fast ARM chips that pull off video signals across 16 channels and write it to proprietary SQUAM memory.  I don't have all the details on that other than the transfer rate is somewhere in the terabytes per second range.  Thankfully, for all of us who don't routinely make feature films, the camera also has dual slots for both CF and SD memory cards.

Interestingly enough the camera is aimed squarely at professionals with only two mode settings on the top mounted dial:  Aperture and Manual.  Seems that those are the go to settings for 90% of the real professionals.  They mentioned that they could add a "P" setting via firmware if the market of whining babies insists.  (Their words, not mine....).

Moving on from the video attributes of the camera it's interesting to note that there have been some changes to the actual sensor geometry.  The sensor is now circular and is a precise match for the optical circle cast by the lens.  Powerful algorithms take the peripheral information and remap it over whatever aspect ratio you choose actually giving the images about 27.5% more surface area than the APS-C chips.

The camera should be out in time for Photokina and a similar camera which I haven't had time to play with is being readied for the m4:3rds market.  When I first printed a few of the files from the m4:3rds (called the Pen Screaming Eagle) on an Epson 10800 printer at 40 by 60 inches the files at ISO 200 blew away files of similar subjects taken with the new Phase One back.  Seems 22 great mega pixels beat 60 okay megapixels any day of the week.

Olympus has a great ad campaign getting ready for the new cameras.  They already have DXO certified tests that show they have achieved the first sensor and support electronics to test over 100%.  The measured dynamic range exceeds 18.5 stops and can't be printed on any conventional device.

New Lenses:  Look.  I know the camera announcement is almost unbelievable but I was even more shocked by the new lens announcements. Without further ado:

The new Ultra High Grade lenses are all f1.  But get this, at f1 they out test similar focal length lenses from Leica used at f5.6 and f8.  Most of the new f1 UHG lenses are made for the traditional e camera (the 1000) and consist of the following focal lengths.  10mm, 12mm,  15mm, 20mm, 25mm, 44mm and 50mm.  They have also introduced a legendary 29 mm lens with an f stop of .5.  Yes that's (point) five!!!! and they are calling it the Noctozilla.  Apparently it is sharper wide open at 0.5 than the previous 50 macro lens was at f4.

The delightful thing about all the lenses is the AI (or artificial intelligence) enhancement for rapid focus (AIERF).  Which uses a complex matrix of camera movement, topological readings and even barometric readings to accelerate focus.  From infinity to close focus is now measured in nano seconds.  In fact, many times the camera and lens combination focused on things I was thinking about photographing several minutes or even hours in the future.

It's a brave new world.  Happy 1st of April..............

3.26.2010

A quick report on the Olympus EPL

There is something absolutely exhilarating about shooting wonderful images with a camera that cost 1/10th the amount I paid for a Nikon D2x in 2005. 


If you look back over this blog for the past three months you find that I love shooting with the Olympus EP2 very much.  It's a very fluid camera to shoot with.  The EVF is great.  The image quality is great.  Even the industrial design makes me happy.

So there really wasn't any reason to go out and buy an EPL, was there?  Well, not so fast.  Even though these cameras aren't specifically aimed at working professionals I use them on just about every assignment that comes along which doesn't have, as a parameter somewhere, the need to impress and art director or a client.  In fact, on my recent trip to west Texas, in search of ART, I used my EP2 almost exclusively.  And when I use cameras in that fashion I really like to have a back up camera.  If something goes wrong a thousand miles from home I want to make sure the project doesn't have to end prematurely.  Reminds me of a job on a hot, dusty day in August in the desert outside Palm Springs when two Hasselblads in a row jammed up on me in the space of an hour.  Didn't I look like a boy scout when I was able to pull a third one out of the bag?!?  I really like the idea of redundancy when it comes to critical gear.

So, when Precision Camera got a new supply in I went by to play with one.  The camera is obviously the result of two previous learning curve.  Buttons are bigger and clearer.  The shutter button has a better feel.  The mode dial, while not as spiffy of a design, sits right on top of the camera and is clear and easy to read.  The flash is utilitarian and surprisingly well designed.  If I hold the erected flash back with one finger I can bounce it straight off the ceiling.  The camera looks.......utilitarian.  It just doesn't draw the eye the way the Japanese Sixties Minimalist design ethos of the EP2 does.  It's a black brick that works.  And that endears me to it.  It feels like a working tool

Three warnings so no one will come back and bitch:  1.  The mounting flange on the back of the lens is made of a composite (nice word for tough plastic).  I don't think it makes any difference in quality on the file but it's.......plastic.  There.  I said it.  2.  The rear screen is a bit smaller than the one on the EP2.  I use the big screen only for menu items so it doesn't bother me.  I use the EVF for everything else.  The one plus this might have is that it takes less battery power to light up a smaller screen.  3.  There is not a separate wheel to adjust shutter speeds or apertures independantly.  You have to use the "left/right, up/down" keys on the back to change the settings.  Sounds gruesome but in reality I mostly use the "A" mode so all I want to change is the aperture or the "+/-" compensation.  And the lack of a back mounted wheel means fewer accidental changes.

While I haven't had time to test it out myself, early adopters have mentioned that the anti-aliasing filter over the sensor is less aggressive which means that the images right out of the camera should have much better fine detail or should look sharper with less post production.  Sharper images are always welcome.


Some other features that we can't dismiss too quickly:  The flash can be set to full, 1/4, 1/16 and 1/64th power so you could actually use the in body flash as an optical trigger for your studio flashes.  It can be also be used to control Olympus "R" flashes wirelessly.  This means you don't have to choose between using your EVF and triggering your lights!!!!  Course they could have made it really simple and put a sync socket somewhere on the camera body.  They will probably save that for inclusion onto the new professional mFT body they'll announce in the Fall.  Oooops!  Did I just say that out loud?

The cost.  This cameras, which also doubles as a great HD video camera, cost me the princely sum of $599.  With a very good zoom lens.  That it outperforms my $5000 from only three and a half years ago is astounding.  If you are practiced and careful with your technique you should be able to get absolutely professional results with this piece of gear.  At that price, if you are confronted with a shoot that presents a hazardous environment for gear but comes with a good budget, you could easily consider this little system expendable.

I have a fantasy of dumping everything else and doing business with a couple Pen cameras, some adapters and some other lenses.  The business is changing so quickly.  Content is moving inexorably to the web and to electronic tablets.  I feel like putting to the test the old saw,  "It's not the tool, it's the photographer behind it."


By way of full disclosure:  I went into the local store and bought this camera with my own money. No one offered me any money or equipment to coerce me to like this camera or to say nice things about it.  All the stuff written on this blog is here because I like photography and I like to write about it.  It would be nice if you clicked on some of the product links but you sure don't have to.  I'll disclose that as well.  All those annoying links have returned something like $100 this year.  Not getting rich writing fun content.  But it's nice to know that you stopped by and took a look.

All the best, Kirk

3.24.2010

A change of sensibilities.

Image from Eve's Organic Bed and Breakfast in Marathon, Texas.  March 2010


Back in ancient days I shot a wide range of subjects.  While portraits were always my favorite I was often pressed to shoot architecture.  One of my first big magazine projects for a national magazine was a two week trip thru Texas and Louisiana shooting historic homes and plantations.  I took the trip with an editor from Harrisburg, PA.  The magazine was/is called Early American Life Magazine and they are still going strong (niche markets work!).  I spent those two weeks mostly either driving, sleeping or shooting interiors and exteriors with an old Calumet 4x5 inch view camera.  We only shot transparency film back then.

I would walk into a room, figure out the composition, meter the ambient light and then set up a couple thousand watt second Norman strobes, bounced into big umbrellas and then work on getting a good balance between the existing light and the fill light my flashes were producing.  I'd generally use up three big, black and white Polaroid test shots to get into the ball park and to get approval from my editor.  Then we'd do a bracket of five frames in 1/3rd stop increments.  While not totally necessary the tight bracket also gave us close back up shots in case something happened to a random piece of film during processing.  Then we'd break everything down and move a hundred pounds of gear to the next location.

Back then I only had twenty film holders (two sheets to a holder) so every eight shots I'd have to stop, pull out the changing bag ( a black fabric construction that worked as a sweaty and uncomfortable mini darkroom.  Your hands would fit into sleeves with tight elastic and you would unload and reload strictly by touch.  Nasty part of the job, especially in the summer in rural Louisiana where it always seemed hot and humid.)

I describe all of this so you'll understand why I never pursued architectural photography with any rigor.  People could be reasonably well shot with quicker, lighter cameras and a lot less lighting.

When I went on a recent road trip I found myself shooting more and more architecture and I wondered why.  Here's what I think:  With the new EVF cameras (electronic viewfinder) you get to see exactly what the camera sees.  Imagine a view camera with a lens that's stopped down to show you the exact depth of field but with a bright and detailed view.  Combine that with a camera that you only have to reload after nearly 500 raw shots (on an 8 gig card) and you start to see the appeal.

Add in real time levels and customizable grids and you're on a roll.  Then throw in incredible depth of field (from the short focal lengths) and image stabilization and you have a camera with which you can shoot interiors as fast a you shoot portraits.

I had coffee with my friend, Paul, on Sunday.  We were sitting at Cafe Medici talking about stuff when he pulled out the Panasonic 7-14mm lens for the micro 4/3rds cameras.  The lens has some bragging rights.....like a perfect score of 10 on SLRgear's reviews.  It was wonderfully small.  It would be amazing to shoot architecture with.  One of those on an EP2, stopped down to 5.6 and you'd have everything sharp at 7mm or even 14mm.  The only thing you would be missing is perspective control.

I'm this close (holds fingers tightly together) to getting one and expanding my horizons.  Literally.  Doesn't hurt to plan ahead.  Now, if I can only figure out how to shift the lens......



  

3.22.2010

Taking time to smell the flowers. Then getting back to work.

Eve's Organic Bed and Breakfast. Marathon, Texas.


I would bet that egos destroy more businesses than recessions or acts of war.  I say this because I nearly destroyed mine by letting my ego convince me that I could write four books in two years and that my business of taking photographs would run itself.  It almost did.  Right into the ground.  Fortunately I went on a little journey to write a fifth book only to find that there is no book there.  And then it struck me like scalding coffee thrown in my face.......it's time to get back to work doing the thing I love.  Taking photographs.  I grabbed the controls and pulled up just in the nick of time (I hope).

The lure of writing a book is the little voice that says, "Someone thinks you are smart enough to write a book." Photographer friends say, "I wish I could write 'cause then I would have a second income stream."  And publishers tell you, "If you put enough of these out there you'll finally stack up some royalty income...."  All of these things may be true (or they may not) but the bottom line is this:  Now you have TWO jobs.  One of them is seductive.  Nothing on the schedule?  You could do some marketing, pick up the phone and call some clients, or.........you could put on your jacket with the patches on the elbows, head to your favorite coffee shop and......work on your book.  The choice is too tasty.  Hot coffee and crowds of the beautiful people or the quiet desperation of the cold calling and all the rejection it implies.  I chose the coffee shop way too often.

It wouldn't have mattered if the economy hadn't tanked.  I probably could keep going along on marketing fumes and royalties for years in the old days.  But just as I was adjusting to life in multiple lanes it became very clear that cash flow is king.  The route from writing to royalty is a perilous journey that takes about a year to bear any fruit.  The best part of photography is the instant gratification on so many business levels.  The jobs come quick and they finish quick.  If you take credit cards you'll be paid quickly.  And then you are on to the next job.  If you do that marketing thing.

It finally hit me as I was thinking about a book project I'd been offered by a publisher who had stalked me since last fall.  I didn't like the terms but we negotiated those.  I was ready to leave when I hit one more stumbling block.  It was the final straw.  I balked and forfeited.  In retrospect, being a curmudgeon and refusing to compromise on the way I write saved my business because it made me realize just how many hours I would have to spend in the creation, formatting and editing of the project.  Not to mention the shooting and photo editing.  All for the promise of a small share of future profits.

I took the exploratory trip to parts west just for myself. I wanted to be sure I wasn''t missing out on a great thing.  And as I was driving back to Austin I had a coffee induced epiphany:  No matter how smart you talk yourself into believing you are you aren't smart enough to do every at once and do it well.  At some point you have to decide.  I looked out over the landscape of corporate clients and advertising agency clients and it became so clear that there are hundreds and hundreds of accounts just waiting to be harvested.  Ready for me to come along in my combine and snap, snap, snap them up.

I had to take my eyes off photography for a while to understand just how much I like taking photographs and working collaboratively with really smart designers and marketers.  I've smelled the flowers.  Now it's time to roll up my sleeves.


3.21.2010

Bidding Jobs Requires a Big CheckList!


I recently got a phone call from an ad agency asking me to bid on a job for a multi-state  utility company.  We were being asked to do an ad campaign that would consist of five print images that would be used in direct mail, statement stuffers, newspaper and city lifestyle magazines, as well as their website.  There would be one person in each set up as well as photoshop prop additions.  

The lazy way to bid a job like this is to go all “day rate” on them and then do a rough assessment of expenses.  This would be a wonderful way to leave some fee on the table while creating a lot of accounting bad blood when you realize that you’ve left a lot of stuff out of your bid that someone has to end up paying for.

The smart way to go would be to provide an estimate that starts with a description of just how you’ll tackle each part of the job.  If you have to write out how you’ll shoot it you do two things:  you assess every step and every piece of material you’ll need to create, make or buy.  And secondly, you’ll show the client just how thorough and thoughtful you were when considering their project.  If you are bidding against other people you might well teach you client why you are more valuable that the competition.  If your competitor leaves an important and expensive article out of the bid the bad surprise hits the client when they least expect it and can least correct it.….right in the middle of the project.

By describing your methodology in a step by step method you’ll create your own master check list.

For this project we needed to cast five people in very specific demographics.  This is not something you want to do over the phone.  We called a meeting and the creative team sat together with the ad comps and a source books full of people photos.  We also brought our laptops so we could go to model agency sites and have a shared conversation about specific types and even specific models.  By the time we left the meeting we’d already reached a consensus about four of the five models.  

One of the account executives was kind enough to remind me to include meeting time in the bid.  She needn’t have mentioned it because that line item is at the top of my checklist.

Here’s a breakdown of my process and a rough checklist.  Yours will vary depending on the kind of shoots you do and how complex they are.

Fees:  
Creative fee:  This is what you charge to show up and actually think about the shoot, in the moment.  This is what you charge to bring to bear all you’ve learned in XX years of doing the business.

Usage fees:  This is a fee additional to the creative fee and is based on how many different media the images will be used in and for how long.  See David MacTavish’s book, Pricing Photography, or Craddock Software’s, FotoQuote, to see how to price each individual media use.  This is where your profit lies.

Casting fees:  You or a casting director will have to communicate with agents, agencies, and individuals to gather the talent you’ll want to use.  Make sure you charge for it because putting schedules together is long and frustrating.  If clients want to do a casting call with photos you’ll want to charge for the day(s) involved.  I can get a casting director for about $800 a day.  I’ll charge more if I handle it myself.

Who will pay for the models?  I’d rather have the client contract with the talents so that I don’t need to have the liability for payment if the client bonks.  If I have to include models in my bid I’ll make sure that there is a mark up of their fee to cover my exposure.

Meetings:  Ad Agencies can “meeting” you to death.  Each time the ad campaign changes direction they’ll want to meet with you.  Sometimes for hours!  Make sure you include meeting time in your fees.  They’ll respect your time and not waste it if they have to pay for it.

Locations:  Someone will have to find the five different locations we'll use, contact the owners of the locations and negotiate with them to use the spaces.  A location scout will probably have a whole catalog of locations which will be a good starting point for the selection process.  You might need to constantly remind the client that there isn't a giant resource of ready locations.  You might need to manage their expectations.  

Production scheduling is really part of bidding:  You'll need to know how you'll get from one location to the next, where your make up person will set up and who will bring props and also food and coffee to keep the production rolling….If you map it all out at the outset you'll find glitches that may cost you time and money when you get the green light to go ahead.

Assistant(s):  I've gone both ways.  I've done the one man show and I've done the entourage and I find the best way for me to do a shoot like this is to have a really, really good first assistant who can also produce.  They can help handle casting, propping in addition to the work that they do on the working set.  The best assistants are bulletproof and unflappable.  The worst are chatty, disorganized and needy.  If we're doing equipment intensive shoots outdoors it's good to build in a second assistant to help anchor scrims and keep softboxes from being blown over.  More than two assistants is more than I can generally handle.

Make up:  Be sure to budget a make-up artist for every shooting day that has human talent in it.  I work in a lot of high temperature locations and find that having someone there to powder shiny faces saves me tons of time in post processing.

Craft Service:  Craft service means food.  Everything from coffee and protein in the morning to lunch to M&M's in the afternoon.  A shoot runs on food.  If clients are there the food has to be a number of cuts above McD's or Costco snack mix.  On big shoots craft service is a full time job.  You might even consider hiring a service.

Props:  This project called for many domestic props like, a bathrobe, bath mats, towels, a washer and dryer, the right clothes, a step ladder (but just the right kind…..) and a lot more.  And here's the deal:  An art director wants choices available at the shoot.  Three different bathrobes in various shades of blue.  Just the right coffee cup for a kitchen shot.  This must be budgeted because it can be wildly time consuming.  I did a shoot recently that called for just the right set of wrenches.  Took half a day to find this $75 prop…….

Also include time for prop returns.  I don't really need three extra sets of bath mats…..

Rentals:  When you sit down and think through the job be sure to keep in mind that you might need to rent specialized pieces of gear that you don't own.  This could include foggers, giant scrims, grip trucks, generators, additional lighting, perhaps even an RV in which to do make up and wardrobe changes for clients.  Rentals should not come out of your pockets.  Understanding the availability of rentals also expands your vision for what the job could be!!!!

Archiving, editing and post-production:  Most photographers lose their collective shirts because they give away one of the most time intensive parts of the shoot process.  Everything that happens after the actually shooting!  When you get back you'll need to dump all the raw files onto your computer.  And then you'll need to put them on two different backup sources as well.  Then you'll need to edit down the images into a manageable number for the clients.  When you've narrowed down an edit you'll need to get the color and exposure into the ballpark and convert your files to jpegs for client selection.  These will either go on a web gallery you'll create or on a disk you'll deliver.  One the client has chosen their favorites you'll need to go back and do a very careful conversion for each file and then retouch and prepare them in a format the client can use.  Tiffs for print and Jpegs for electronic.

Organization:  You'll need to keep track of all the model releases, property releases, agreements and contracts.  You'll need to provide the client with a final contract that makes sense.  And this take time to.  Time that you should put in your bid somewhere.  

Always resisting the temptation to cut costs because at some point you'll end up doing parts of the project for free.  And why you'd want to provide free work and free intellectual properties to profitably multinational corporations is beyond me………You are in business.  You should be making a profit.  The more complex the shoot, the bigger the pay off for the client, the more your should take home at the end.


If you want to know more about the biz of photography you could do worse than getting my third book:  Commercial Photography Handbook




yes,   this one:  

Good luck on your next bid or estimate.

3.20.2010

Marfa and the great beyond.

Mr. Rob Hogan.  Singer and songwriter.  Shot just outside the Marfa Table Restaurant on Marfa's main drag.


After my time in the Davis mountains I stopped back through Ft. Davis. spending just enough time to get stopped by a state trooper for speeding.  For some reason,  probably my honest and like-able face,  he let me off with a warning.  A short while later I passed the world's most productive hydroponic tomato farm and then slid into the sleepy, west Texas town of Marfa.

I had lunch at the Marfa Table, and it was good.  My friend, Bridget, made me a BLT on ciabatta bread with a spicy chipoltle mayo and a great bowl of Porcini mushroom soup.  Wonderful.  Maybe the best reason to head out to Marfa!  Anyway, I struck up a conversation with the table next to me and it was delightful.  One of the pleasures of being out on the road.  Two men and a women were nursing coffee and chatting away.  One was a doctor who also keeps the NPR station  on the air for the entire area.  He'd just interviewed the other two people at the table, Marie and Rob, who are traveling musicians.  They'd done a performance the night before in Terlingua, would be performing in the evening at the Gage Hotel in Marathon and Sunday would bring them back to Marfa to play on the patio at the El Paisano Hotel.

I shot Hogan as he was talking to the good doctor.  For the technically inclined, this was an available light shot using the afternoon sun from the subject's back, right side.  The glorious fill light was provided by the bounce off the wall just behind the photographer (that's me).  I was delighted with the dynamic range of the EP2 sensor which did a good job including the direct sunlight on the right of his face while providing good exposure on his face overall.  Not to mention nice detail in the dark tones of his jacket.

As usual  on this trip, the camera was used with its humble kit lens.

I spent a while talking to these guys and getting a dose of what it's like to spend weeks and weeks on the road.  Little things become big questions.  Like,  "Do you think the hotel will have a laundry service?   If not, do you think there's a laundromat close by?

"If there's no vacancy when we get to the Gage do we sleep in our cars......again?"

I thought photography was a dicey way to earn a living until I hung out for a while with musicians.  Yikes.







Bridget and I made plans to meet up around five and share a bottle of wine at the big hotel and then head out for a nice dinner at a place called, "The Blue Javalina".  I did what I love most and spent time wandering around Marfa looking for buried treasure.  The kind that's right in front of you.  You just have to be in the right mindset to get it.  What started to appeal to me are what I call the Marfa Ruins.  For some reason these rail side pillars from a structure long ago rendered unnecessary seemed to evoke visual memories of the columns at the Forum in Rome.


Once I got the vibe with these I spent some time looking for images that incorporated that feeling of disuse and decay into some sort of feeling of the desolate southwest. I had fun photographing this old stock pen that sits beside the railroad.  The historical marker indicates that in prime days 70,000 head of cattle a year were processed through the pens and onto railcars here.




I love the look of the sky with the thin, diaphanous clouds high over head.  This is near the edge of town but still in town.  I spent and hour nosing around here without seeing a single person.  Without answering the old, "Can I help you?" from a law enforcement officer.  That may be because Marfa doesn't have its own police force.  They call a county sheriff if there's a problem.

Here's what I see when I drive through places like Marfa: There's a continual process of discovery and abandonment.  People come to Marfa on the way to somewhere else and they stop for gas and a sandwich.  While there the quiet and solitude work on them.  Maybe they're running from a big city and a crappy, stressful career.  As a counterpoint the west seems tranquil and manageable.

After they've been here for a while, fixed up a business or renovated a house the sameness starts to get to them.  Once bitten by the convenience of getting good phone service and coffee, good coffee, within five minutes of wherever you are, you get spoiled.

You go to one of the two tiny markets and look for fresh fruits and vegetables and you get misty eyed for the giant Whole Foods with its almost infinite choice of stuff.  And you might miss your doctor and you dentist because there are no full time ones in the area, etc. etc.  But the heck with all that.  I'm not a socialogist, I'm just a photographer.

For some reason, and it may be because I'm so resolutely anchored in a frenetic urban space,  I really love all these old farm and ranch supply buildings.  I love the corrugated siding and the tanks and pipes against a pure blue sky.  When I walk around small, Texas towns I spend a lot of time trying to make this stuff into some kind of art.  Might be nice as a contrasty monochrome image.

My friend's house is right across the street from an obvious artist's house.  I say obvious because everything in the yards, front and back, have an artful look to them.  This is a detail shot of the side fence which is made up of layers of rock and huge nuggets of colored glass.  It lives better than it photographs.
Marfa sneaks up on you.  At first you think, "desolate desert town, move on."  But given time the quality of the light and the obvious depth of the people give you pause.  They you get stuck and think, more.  Give me more.  Somewhere there's a balance.

So, what have a I learned so far?  I've learned that I adore shooting in the square.  Seems so natural and easy.  I've learned that there are very few things that in body image stabilization can't handle.  I've learned that the EP2, either by processing or by the nature of its sensor chips, nails exposure 95% of the time and greats images with great details in the shadows and the highlights.

While I'm pretty certain that I'm instantly pegged as a tourist with my jeans, black Target ($7) tennis shoes and my black t-shirt, I'm equally sure that my photographic profile is as slim as I can make it with my little black camera kept tucked in one hand with no strap intersecting my haberdashery or waving like a flash.  I watched people from the "big city" who'd come to do photo tourism (like me) but they wore their big cameras like badges, challenging people.  One fella I saw had on his photo vest and wide brimmed safari hat.  On one shoulder was the latest fat Canon with a 70-200. Around his neck, promotional strap wide and flaglike, was a second fat body with a plump wide angle zoom.  The exotically scalloped lens hood looking vaguely evil in a "Star Wars Storm Troopers Darth Vadar" way.  He marched through the street daring images to show themselves......

I learned on the trip to come first as an interested person and secondly as a photographer. Rather than barging in blazing, shutter clacking like an automatic weapon, perhaps it's more effective to smile, talk, share coffee and then lift the camera almost as an afterthought.  An easy and extemporaneous afterthought.  For years this was the province of Leica M cameras. Small and unobtrusive.  Now it's the province of a new generation of small and capable cameras.  If only we can get the shutter noise down a bit.............

I packed extra camera gear, but not much.  I hedged my EP2 and kit lens with an e30, a 14-35mm and a couple of Canon G cameras (the 10 and the 10) .  Pretty much everything but the EP2 stayed in the bag.

Wish list:  A direct, inexpensive flight from Austin to Marfa with a good car or motorcycle rental shop close by.  A noiseless Olympus EP2.  An Olympus 25mm f2 lens.  Not a 20!  (Too short.)  A nice public swimming pool in Marfa for lap swimming.  Time to enjoy it all.  Next up.  Adventures in Marathon.