7.20.2010

Street shooting in San Antonio.

Renae on Commerce St. in San Antonio with a wedding dress and tanned shoulders.

I blame Robert Frank and Richard Avedon equally for my love of street photography.  While the Robert Frank reference is obvious to anyone who's looked through a copy of "The Americans" I'm sure people unfamiliar with the breadth and depth of Avedon's career are probably scratching their heads.  Rush out to a well stocked book store and browse through a copy of Richard Avedon, " An Autobiography" and you'll be surprised to find a bunch of wonderful street photos from New York, Paris and Rome.  Were they all staged?  Probably, but I don't find them any less powerful.  Part of the power in the work of both artists no doubt comes from their conversant ease with graphic black and white.  They were working directly in the process rather than trying to divine how to shoot in RGB and then make the right gyrations to unlock their vision, after the fact.  

Both Avedon and Frank were masters of seeing and capturing gesture.  And gesture is one of the unsung foundations of a great portrait.

So, after sitting around brainwashing myself with my book collection I called my friend and transcendent muse, Renae and suggested a street shooting foray in one of our favorite (financially) accessible cities, San Antonio.  She mentioned that she had a wedding dress we could use as a prop and we were off.  

As you've probably come to expect by now, we didn't do anything by the numbers.  Instead of a box full of gear I dragged out a Hasselblad 2003 FCW and an 80mm lens.  Instead of our typical Provia color transparency film or our old standby, Tri-X,  I threw ten rolls of Agfa Scala film in the bag.  Sink or swim.  All my stories seem to have the line....."It was a hot, Texas day...." and this one is no different.  By the time we banged thru the ten rolls we were shot and heading toward the bar at the Havanna Hotel.

For people who never had the privilege and pleasure of shooting film I guess I should explain Agfa Scala.  It was a black and white transparency film.  No chance at redemption if you weren't able to hit the exposure.  And it was a latitude cheapskate.  Half a stop over and you were in white territory.  One stop under and you lost your lower mid-tones in a sea of black.  Once you shot it you had to send it off in pre-paid mailers so you didn't know if you were a chump or a hero for about ten days.  I'm always optimistic on the front end and pessimistic on the back end.  Love it while I'm shooting and critical when I see the mess I've made.

But the whole exercise was more for fun than anything else.  I figure if photography is so fun that it's the world's biggest hobby I should consider my life one perpetual "Magic Kingdom" of fun.  So we shot and settled for what we got.  Even the stuff that was blurred by subject motion or photographer inattention.  Like the one below....



note:  After I started writing this I went into the house from the studio (fourteen steps....) and grabbed the Avedon book off the shelf to make sure I had the title right.  I plugged it in and checked out the Amazon.com link for the book.  OMG!!! The first (and only?) edition of this book is going for a lusty $500+ dollars.   Very good condition used copies are around $350.  Amazing.

But I guess I shouldn't be too surprised as the first edition of "The Americans",  inscribed by Robert Frank, is going in the neighborhood of $16,000.


 I better stock up on some more first edition, Minimalist Lighting (location) and Minimalist Lighting (studio) books before they run out.  I'd hate to be an author who couldn't afford his own first and second books..........

I have one Summer reading suggestion to all you readers who like historical fiction.  If you haven't read Stephen Pressfield's, "The Gates of Fire"  you should.  It's a brilliant version of the Greek battle at Thermopylae against the Persians.  I've re-read it three or four times and I'm always sucked into it.  You've probably read my recommendation of his smaller but no less brilliant non-fiction book,  "The War of Art"  which I believe should be on every artist's night stand or bookshelf.  It'll save your artistic life......

Hope you're having fun.  People will want to know what you did over the Summer......

7.19.2010

A re-appraisal of the Olympus Pens as fine art cameras.


You may remember that on my little journey to west Texas I rashly took my EPL-1 and my EP-2 and a little bag of lenses and batteries.  While the older, film camera lenses saw some use I was most at home using the little 14-42mm kit lens that shipped with every Pen camera you could get your hands on.  It was a wild roller coaster back then.  The economy was still very uneven (yes, worse than today...),  I'd just basically told a publisher I couldn't work with them on a project (the West Texas Road Trip) that we'd been discussing for the better part of two months and I felt at loose ends.

When I got home I posted some images from the trip and did a little write up of the experience but I don't think I really burrowed down to discuss the nuts and bolts of the little cameras in much detail.  I think I was still processing my own intellectual fallibility and hubris.  You see, I thought any project I could think of I could make work.  But by actually going out on the trip, even without the restrictions of a publisher or commercial, outlined project,  I came to learn that I just don't have much of an affinity for the aesthetic of the wide open spaces.  I'm not in love with the ethos of the cowboy as is Robb Kendrick or Kurt Markus.  I don't think Marfa is mystical or Marathon magical.  I couldn't wrap my interests around the endless miles of driving and the vast desolation.  I felt like a character in Jack Kerouac's, "On The Road", destined to drive on mad, nonstop, junkets back and forth across the United States with only a bag of cheese sandwiches and whatever rest stops I could find.

But in retrospect I brought back quiet photographs whose code I hadn't cracked yet.  Like the one on top which speaks to me about the ebb and flow of "colonizing" territory and then letting it slip back toward its sustainable chaos.  Other empty landscapes made me think, pretty much for the first time with any diligence, about how thin the slice of our livable environment is when measured against the volume of the earth.  A few feet of soil and then rock below.  Two feet or fifty feet of vegetation, sparsely scattered around, and above that only the ether.

I guess that not every photo needs to be of craggy faced celebrities, pretty girls and buff men to have it's own subversive impact.

This tree is next to a dammed up spring.  The spring was corralled in the 1930's during our last, national economic catastrophe by people working for the FSA.   It's on a piece of public land miles from the tiny town of Marathon, Texas, at what seems to be the very edge of the earth.  If the stream hadn't been dammed would this tree exist?

And, so what does any of this have to do with dinky cameras?  A lot.  Nothing.  I know that I wouldn't have gone looking for pictures in quite the same way with a different camera.  I've harped on this but the ability to compose and see in a square format removed friction for me.  It lubricated the seeing process in a nice way.  And it's one of the reasons I come back and pick up the Pen cameras over and over again.

I love the fact that they are tiny and light.  I can carry them without regard for their weight, their bulk or the imperialism of their intention.  What do I mean by that?  I mean that a Canon 5Dmk2 or a Nikon D700 is a professional tool that commands a way of confronting subject matter.  They suffuse situations with an expectation of "serious" photography.  They are not airy and exploratory cameras the way the Pens are.  The Pens seem to defy an easy categorization and they seem to morph themselves to match your intention.  If you need them to be serious cameras you can pull off serious photography with them.  If you need them to be "Lomos" or "Holgas" you can do that too.

I find the electronic viewfinder indispensable.  I would never want to shoot one without it.  The only time I can make that work is when I'm shooting video on a tripod.  I use a Hoodman Loupe on the back LCD when I need to use the hot shoe for the microphone adapter.  If I can get away with using the built-in microphone I will.

Of the two cameras I have to say I prefer the EPL's imaging quality and quickness.  I prefer the elegance and retro design of the EP2 as an object.  Of all the lenses I've tried I always seem to come back to the kit lens.  I try to shoot at ISO 200 and I nearly always use the large/fine Jpeg setting.  I only shoot raw if the lighting has incredibly mixed color temperatures.  I try not to use either camera above ISO 800 because, no matter what the reviews say, you'll have a hard time reconciling the noise.

It's a perfect camera for an artist.  It's not a perfect camera for a commercial photographer.  And maybe that's why it's a perfect camera for a commercial photographer.  Its quixotic approach to imaging pushes us outside the confines of our usual, self bounded boxes enough to make photography serious in the opposite way that commercial photography is serious.  It's serious in the,  "I want to look at things and see how they look as photographs"--way instead of being, "I want to impress the guys on DPreview with the sheer technical quality of the frame and make money from clients"--sort of way.

I keep them because they aren't like my other cameras.  And that's a good thing.

7.18.2010

Just an image to celebrate passing my 300th blog post!!!!!!!

Renae sitting for yet another portrait.  My favorite kind of lighting, extant.

As I'm sure you've figured out, if you've read the blog for any amount of time, that I change my mind from time to time, switch gear with what seems to be reckless abandon,  have used the phrase, "reckless abandon" more than once in these writings, and generally get bored doing one thing over and over again.  So I was amazed when I looked at the blog stats yesterday and noticed that I had surpassed the 300 mark on entries.  Amazing to me.  We have an average of 1800 people a day (or original clicks) reading the stuff I've written and 396 people count themselves as "followers" of the VisualScienceLab.

I thought I'd take this opportunity to explain the "Visual Science Lab".  It started, as all great ideas seem to, at a Happy Hour in some forgotten watering hole.  If I remember correctly, my drink of choice at the time was the venerable "Cuba Libre" and I'm sure I had several at the end of some productive week back in the late nineties when clients had an excess of courage and an excess of cash.

I'd watched the virus-like intrusion of entirely unnecessary "consultants" into every fabric of the advertising and marketing industry.  From cost consultants on the agency side to content and metrics consultants on the client side.  The whole mysterious charade of "branding".   Even down to the clothing consultants who counseled CEO's and CEO wannabe's about what to wear and how to wear it.  We were at the ground zero of consultants here in Austin.  Even the city would blithely spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on such pressing consultation needs as, "what color to paint the trash cans?" (five different "solutions" were offered and then the city was passed on to a "color consultant".  "Where should the busses go?" (On the streets!  There's another 1/2 million dollar consulting fee.....)

During the course of an unusually spirited happy hour discussion I proposed that I open a consulting company called, the Visual Science Lab.  I created a framework:  (tongue in cheek) that would describe as "scientifically based" our proprietary process and  tell our clients (big corporations, all) exactly what the visual content of their advertising should be.  The colors, the sizes and shapes, the type styles.....anything visual.  And we'd get our two cents in before the ad agencies even got involved.  It was all a lark.  

My elevator speech went something like this:  "Bob.  Every corporate marcom director since the dawn of time has heard the hoary old joke that one half of all their advertising spend is wasted.  And you know the punchline.  It's "if only we knew which half."  Am I right?  Well, we looked at the problem seriously, scientifically and analytically and decided to do something about it.  We've hooked up with the data mining sector at MIT,  and some really smart folks at Stanford, and we entered millions of consumer assessments and visceral measured reactions to colors, shapes and various measurable attributes of advertising: measured scientifically:  and devised a matrix that allows us to predict with a plus or minus four percent accuracy, just what a particular demographic wants to see, and will react to, in advertising."

"And Bob.  We can offer these custom assessments to your corporation for only a meager retainer of 1% of your total media buy a year.  If we're "on the money" you'll save 49% of your media spend, annually.  Dear God, you'll be a hero!"

And the sad thing is that I threw out that elevator speech for fun in front of some friends who actually were on the client's side and they wanted to know how soon we could get started.  There were, of course, no programmers mining this information.  No matrix.  No metrics.  Oh sure, we could have signed a contract and faked it for a while but our corporate ethics officer (Belinda) would have shut the whole thing down the minute she got wind of it.  It was a total fraud.  A silly story.  Like one or two modern religions created by old ad hacks.  But it did have its own legs.  

I've always liked the name and when I decided to blog it seemed perfect.  We are talking about a visual science.  And an art.  And wherever there's an intersection.............

If you work for a large company I'm sure you have plenty of tales you could tell of consultants.  My next cushy gig?  I think I'd like to be an expert witness.

In celebration of hitting (and surpassing) the 300 blog mark would it be too much to ask you to bring in a friend or two so we can keep growing?  It would certain keep me moving in the right direction......

The joy of a great partnership.

I thought I'd introduce you to our CFO, Chief Creative Officer and the ethical and moral compass of the the Visual Science Lab,  my partner,  Belinda.  She's the one I blame when I'm talking to clients who don't want to pay the invoice in the agreed upon time frame.  She's the one who keeps my from buying a Leica S2 and instead reminds me that I should pay the phone bill first.  She's the one who keeps telling me I'm using my logo too big, in the wrong way and in the wrong colors.  And she threatens that she's going to have to produce a style guide for me to follow.

Belinda and I have worked well together over the years.  Our first foray into working as a team came when we were both starting out our careers, were dirt poor and both cooked in the kitchen of a popular Austin "home cooking" restaurant on weekends and during late nights to make ends meet.  We both worked as cooks and have the dubious honor of working together on a record breaking "Mother's Day" weekend.  It was so busy we ran totally out of food.  Imagine, two sweaty cooks flipping 8 omelets at a time, grilling fajitas AND making salads, all at once.

Our first, professional tag team debut came when I joined a small ad agency as the creative director and promoted Belinda from production design to art director.  In her first year she proceeded to win a handful of gold Addy's and the respect of everyone in the firm.  We did that together for nearly eight years.  Then I started the photo business and she moved to a bigger agency...... and she became one of my biggest clients.  She's been a freelance graphic designer for the last   14 years and we still work together on random projects.

Many photographers write and talk about their exploits as though they were lone nomads ranging through the wild and doing feats of daring and amazing creativity unaided by any save the hand of God and provenance but the reality is that most photographers I've met would not have survived a year without a good and steady partner.   The partner just doesn't get the same press.

I'd have hung it up and gotten a government job years ago if not for Belinda.  She's smarter than me,  save-ier than me, totally optimistic and so organized.  Can't imagine working without her.  Wouldn't be fun.  Wouldn't be effective.  Wouldn't have the joy.  No muse is bad muse......


7.16.2010

Looking back is looking forward.



When I'm in the moment I think the stuff I'm working on is really great and destined to go into the portfolio but time is an interesting filter.  And the stuff I shot years ago because I needed the money or I volunteered or I shot because I was stumbling around, bored, with a camera?  The same time filter eventually causes the old work with value to bubble up.  If you take the time to go back and look at it.

People are always in such a hurry to do new stuff.  Always new stuff.  It's relentless and once you jump in and get in the habit of habitually shooting you can almost not help trying to make each day and everything you come across a series or a project.

And what happens to most of us is that we're so busy administering the endless flow of raw files that need archived, and images that need processed and so on that we never take the luxurious step of just sitting back and really looking at what we've already done.  In an unhurried way.  In a thoughtful way.

There's an extra layer that mitigates against reappraisal of past work in digital and that is our subconscious belief that the cameras we are using today are so far improved over what we shot with just five years ago that.....what's the point of going backward?

But that's the very core of what knowledgable people have been saying for years:  It's really not the camera.  It's really all about the vision and the seeing.  And the lighting and, in the end, getting off the office chair and doing.  (Not taking a stab at non photo professional office workers but photographers of any stripe who research photography more than they shoot it).

There are always advances.  Some good and some bad.  But artists having always gone forward with the tools of the day and made art that stands.  They use the shortcomings of the tools as formalist boundaries which they use to define their niche in the genre.  There are artists selling work from the five and six megapixel generation of cameras in museums and galleries.  Images from 35mm film are still collected and appreciated.  At some point looking back reinforces to you what you got right and what you'd do differently.  And for that alone it's an incredibly valuable undertaking.

I shot these a few years back for a mentoring program called, Project Breakthrough.  In the intervening years we shot trendier versions of kids for the program.  But these seem to be the ones I come back to again and again.  And I look at them to figure out why.

Might want to crack open a few disks from the earlier part of the century and sit quietly with some of the images on them.  Might just give you an older/newer way of looking at things going forward.







The joy of straightforward work. Getting back into the groove.

A product shot for D2 Audio.  Done with multiple exposures so the viewer can "see thru" the top of the case to the product inside.


In a recent blog I alluded to the need for constant practice as a building block to becoming a better photographer.  The more I shoot the more fluid and less labored each subsequent photo session becomes.  And I think, at some point, it really doesn't matter what the subject is, the very act of working through projects and problem solving acts like a lubricant to the whole process.

The image above is a very straightforward shot with lots of little challenges.  The cabinet and front panel are black on black so you have to define the three visible planes of the product by giving them each a different tonal value with your lights.  While there's on overall exposure for the electronic flash illumination you'll need to make a secondary exposure for the blue lights on the front panel.  At f8 it probably took one or two seconds to burn the lights in to the correct intensity.  That means you'll need to turn the modeling lights out when you do the overall exposure so you can drag the shutter, along with the flash exposure, without introducing any overall color casts to the background or the overall product.

The next step is to consider how to match the angle of the overall  product with the angle of the separate shot for the "hero" product, the blue and white processing module inside the appliance.  Of course the important parameters are to keep the angles the same and the camera position the same between shots, and the direction and quality of light (hard, soft, indifferent) has to match.

When you put it all together you are obviously putting the module layer under the overall appliance layer and then using a large soft brush to erase through part of the top layer to get the look of transparency.  Then you need to drop out the original white, seamless paper background and add in your own drop shadow.  Voila.  You are done.

We do a lot of these kinds of shots.  It's a subset of the business, and once you get the hang of it it's almost a meditative process.  Sure, every product is different enough to keep you on your toes.  Chrome finishes are vexing.  Weird convex or concave patterns make life more interesting.  But it's all just fodder for problem solving and process.

Even something as simple as where to put your point of focus comes into play.  I shot this with a Fuji S2 and a 60mm lens.  I needed to have the whole thing in relatively sharp focus.  The front panel is more important than the back edge but the back edge has to give the perception of sharpness.  If you focus on the front edge there's no way that f8 (the f stop I choose for highest quality and least diffraction) will carry focus to the back of the product.  But you could find a point about 1/3rd of the way into the product that would work.  In the old days we would have used a view camera and tilted the front and rear standards to create focus in the plane need, but who has the budget for that these days.

While this image is a  golden oldie I spent this past week doing similar images for another tech client.  I'd show those in the blog but it's pretty routine for the images to be embargoed until after they are used by the client....

In addition to product images in the studio I also took the show on the road and photographed on site at a medical center.  I started my week shooting a swimmer showcasing good and bad technique for a magazine article.  The next step was location/environmental portraits for a medical practice.  I shot images out in the heat and in the freezing environs of a data center.

And, even though I'd love to be shooting portraits all the time, the range of work was engaging and kicked up the problem solving gland to produce more solutions.  Different solutions.  And my hands and brain practiced together.  Getting the timing and the thinking synced.  Exercising the weird part of the brain that makes decisions about composition.

There's a benefit to doing "day in, day out" photography besides the fees.  It gets you into the groove and the flow.  I like it.

One more techy shot of the road.....

7.15.2010

The passage of time.


Ben.  Shot two years ago with a Kodak DCS SLR/n and a 105mm 2.5 lens.  Tungsten lights.  Big ass diffuser.  One little tungsten light on the background.


So this is the way Ben looked two years ago.  He looks nothing like this now.  Now he's a teenager.  Now his hair is darker.  Now he has a little mustache across his upper lip.  Now he looks more insouciant. More adult.  More teenager-y.

This is the anthropological record of Ben from a time when he was just on the edge of the absolutely cute mode to me and his mom.  I remember why I took this photograph.  I was going to do a portrait of a corporate CEO about six hours later and I wanted to test my lighting.  Owned a Nikon D2x at the time but I thought I liked the way the Kodak system rendered flesh tone and contrast on skin much better.  I wanted to make sure because real money was on the line.  I'd like to say that my brilliant and gifted child was sitting in an upholstered armchair in the library of our home, reading "War and Peace" but if you had a twelve year old you probably know chances are he was playing a video game.  And if you know many working photographers you probably know we didn't have a "library" and he was probably strewn over the 22 year old, recovered sofa.

At any rate, I dragged him out to the studio and had him sit in so I could shoot some frames, drag them into PhotoShop and have a look.  Utilitarian photography.  No goal photography.  Test images only.  And then my mom saw these photos of her grandson and all hell broke loose. (How do I tell John Harrington that I pretty much have to give my mom and dad free images of the grandkids or they'll trot out that whole, "We put you thru six years at the university and now we have to pay you too!!???")  I snuck the image into a portfolio and found that it resonated beyond the family.

But the bottom line is that this image defines, for me, Ben in transition from childhood to adolescence.  And it's really been a graceful transition---much to his credit.

On a more prosaic level this image (as a successful test) was the impetus for many other continuous light portraits;  many of which helped pay the mortgage and put food on the table.

I have a 20 by 20 inch print of this in the house and an 8 by 8 inch on the wall in front of my desk.  When all of Ben's friends descend, like locusts, on the house, eat everything in the pantry and agitate my dog I look at this photo and think that it's all worth it.

I guess that's one of the real reasons we do photography.....so we can look back and see how good we really had it.

7.14.2010

Nostalgia for the good old days....of early digital.


This is not so much a walk through remembrance gardens as it is a quick salute to one old war horse of a camera.  My Kodak DCS 760's last battery bit the dust.  It holds enough charge to get off maybe ten or fifteen images before shutting down altogether.  I've made no secret through the years that this is my favorite digital camera for all the same reason I've always talked about here.  I doesn't have an extensive menu of choices.  It was built to be a RAW only camera and Jpeg capability was added later via a firmware upgrade.  There are very few user settings to work with.  There's no "dynamic range enhancement" feature because the camera already kicked butt when it came to dynamic range.

There's only two focus modes and while you can set single and continuous for frame rates you'll only get 1.5 fps as your fastest throughput.  There are no "sports modes".   There's no "vivid"  or "landscape" setting.  The body is based on Nikon's venerable F5 and the whole thing is a nearly five pound block of metal.  The screen on the back is miserable.  It pushes you to double check what you're doing with a good light meter.  And, even in their prime of life, the batteries sucked and the camera sucked down batteries.

So why do I love this camera?  Well,  it's the same reason any photographer should love any camera:  The files look so nice.   So very, very nice.  Even today I love the look I get from this camera.  It's enough to make me plug in the A/C adapter and get busy.  When I look back over the last ten years at all the digital cameras I've owned this one consistently gave me images and campaigns that looked different and better.  Almost magical.   In fact, one of the things that attracted me to the first generation of  Olympus professional cameras (as exemplified by the E1's that I still own.....) was the look of the files from the Kodak sensors.  So different from the other solutions on the market.

Yes,  I've been using PhotoShop for decades.  I can probably emulate the look with enough post processing but the point is that the art just squirted out of this camera with reckless abandon.

The shot above was part of a series for the Austin Lyric Opera.  We shot it with a Nikon 105 DC lens nearly wide open.  It was lit with a six by six foot screen to the left of frame, very close in and slightly over the top of Meredith.  The main light source was a 1,000 watt Profoto ProTungsten, continuous halogen light.  The background (nearly 60 feet away) was lit with a single 300 watt DeSisti spotlight.  I used an 80B filter on the camera to bring up the blue spectrum and avoid blue channel noise in the file.

The image was processed in Kodak's Photo Desk software and then tweaked in PhotoShop.

I had other cameras available to me at the time but I chose this one because it matched my vision of the palette I wanted for this job.  Too often we buy one camera or one system then shoehorn everything into that one set of tools.  And it's not always an optimum choice.  The painfully high res camera may not always be the ultimate choice.  One system may have lens strengths in one area but not another.  Your mood may change.  Even now,  with all the feedback I've gotten over buying some Canon gear it's good to remember that I shoot with more than that one system.

Granted, it's easier to shoot with the cleanest, highest res LCD's as guides.  It's nice to have great high ISO performance.  But I still keep two different Kodak cameras around for their unique color and file contrast.  I keep a Sony R1 around because it love that lens for outdoor stuff.  I love the Pen series from Olympus for its feel and its gorgeous jpegs (and good movie mode) and I still keep a drawer full of Rollei SLR MF film cameras when I want real black and white and not just the canned SilverFX  looks. (I'm sure I'll hear from SilverFX fans so I'll just say that they're really good.  They're not Tri-X on Seagull warmtone or Ilfobrom Gallerie).

I'm not writing this to suggest that you rush out and buy old cameras.  Or even new cameras.  I wouldn't have brought it up at all if I hadn't just put together a portfolio full of portraits and lifestyle shots and spent the better part of a month selecting and printing images.  I assumed that the old Kodak images would fall apart compared to some of the newer stuff I'd been shooting on the Canon 5D2 but it just wasn't the case.  When it comes to portraits it's a whole different ballgame than technical subjects with lots of detail and sharp edges.  At 13 by 19 it all looked technically good.  And that included images from the 6 megapixel Kodak, a ten megapixel Olympus, some Nikon D2x files, some Canon files and even an entry from the Leaf AFi7 system (39 megapixels).  They all coexisted just fine in one book.

I showed the book yesterday at a design firm called Pentagram.  The designer I showed the book to stopped and savored the four images from the Austin Lyric Opera series.  I included a variation of the one above.  To her, the look outweighed any sort of technical differences.  It might have been a different ballgame if I'd been showing landscapes or big production ad shots.  But for portraits.  I think I was right a year ago.  The Kodak's were a milestone.

7.13.2010

The importance of shooting for no good reason.

Emily.  Taken with an Olympus e-30 and a 35-100mm f2 zoom lens.

Gosh, I really like photography.  And I think it's a lot like playing the piano.  You need to practice all the time if you're going to be any good at it.  It may seem like one of those crafts where you can learn all the stuff you need to know and then shelve it until you have time.  But I think that only works for hobbies like stamp collecting or artistic pursuits like conceptualism.  If you paint you need to learn to control the brush and the more you do it the better you are at it.  It's the same with musical instruments.

How do you get to Carnegie Hall?  Practice, practice, practice.  When will I be done learning to meditate?  When I'm dead.  And how do I learn to take better photographs of people?  Shoot and shoot and shoot.  There's really no shortcut and there's really no advantage to learning every little fact as a cerebral tidbit.  When you shoot a portrait your hands do some stuff your mouth does other stuff (talk, sing, lie, cajole, praise, engage....) and your brain does some other stuff.  But to make them do everything at once and make them do it reasonably well you have to give your creative muscles daily exercise or they atrophy.

So I call friends and people I meet and relatives and anyone that will listen and I invite them over to my little studio and make photographs.  And it's nearly always a nice collaboration.  When it isn't it means I wanted everything my way and ended up not getting anything nice.  Or the subject wanted everything their way and that didn't work either.

The image I keep in my head as I shoot a portrait is that of water in a stream.  Every time a rock comes up I try to go around it.  I never try to push the rocks out of my way.  I don't know what's on the other side of the rock but I know I'll get there if I just stay fluid.

The way to stay fluid is to be the water, everyday.  And flow.  

Practice, practice, practice.  Enjoy the process and you'll enjoy the outcome.  Force the process and the outcome is worthless.

Everything we think about the photo market is suspect.

I don't want to sound like someone who is relentlessly positive but I think the rumors of professional photography's death are highly exaggerated.  I think the patient had a bad case of the flu for the past three years but I think it was  episodic and not as brutally permanent as pundits and aging photographers would have you believe.  Photography, for most corporations and companies, is like the HR department. It's great to have during the up times.  HR's in charge of head hunting and hiring and keeping employees happy and stable.  But it's not sales and it's not manufacturing and when the economy goes sour it's often as much of a target for cost cutting as photography and employee appreciation events.

During the last three years there's been needed belt tightening and then belt tightening as corporate theater.  Sadly, photography has always been perceived to be the caviar on the buffet. Take the good stuff off the table and bring out the hot dogs...  When times get tough fewer P.O.'s get written.  Fewer photo intensive projects get done.  Anything that costs money but doesn't move the water polo ball toward the goal in the short term is relegated to the "wish" list, not the "to do" list.  And so it's been for three long years.

But disgruntled photographers began to talk about how the "market has permanently changed".  They mistook a brutal downturn for whole scale evolution.  There were/are endless predictions that dollar stock and the web would be the final nail in the coffin of professional photography.  No one would ever assign again.  Best case (deeply pessimistic) scenario?  We'd all learn how to become videographers  slugging it out over in that sandbox.

But business needs images.  Business needs advertising.  And advertising needs to constantly evolve to keep its audiences interested.  Otherwise Mr. Whipple would still be squeezing the Charmin and Madge would still be soaking in Palmolive.  We'd still see "the little purple pill" every evening on the news.  Nope, the audience won't go to the same movie over and over again and they won't look at the same ads over and over again.  So, new and different is part of the product specification for communications.  And that means new ways of looking at things and that means new images and, by extension, brand new photography.

So now, three years after the big freeze there's pent up demand for photography of the same old subjects but imaged in a new way.  A new style.  Not radically new but new in the way that a Honda Accord gets a facelift every few model years.  Nothing worse for an executive than using an old headshot in a speaker's promotion or event program only to have aged a bit.  Likely he'll end up the recipient of many, "Have you been ill?" inquiries as the audience tries to reconcile his weathered and beaten current look with the headshot in the program they hold in their hands (someone remind me to tell the story of retouching gone wild and the cancer scare story....).

Here's what seems to happening right now in the business:  Products are getting new product facelifts and need to be re-shot.  Executive teams have been shuffled and need to be re-shot.  New markets are opening and old markets are re-opening and companies are getting ready to put on fresh faces and go after the markets.

Many have discovered that photo fees from professionals are really such a tiny part of the budget that the different between $500 and $5,000 is still just a fraction of a percentage of the overall cost of production and ad placement.  They are starting to understand the overall value proposition and would rather have proven "brands" (photographers) than taking chances on unproven generics.  In short, the market is showing the same signs of life it has after every market correction.

I put a photo of this building in because in the last recession the common belief in Austin was that the game had profoundly changed and no one would ever be able to sell a condominium in the downtown area in the foreseeable future.  Since then, this building and about 12 others have been built, are coming online and filling up briskly.  As late as last year pessimists proclaimed that the buildings would either go partially filled or that developers would have to radically reduce their pricing.  Now the buildings are nearly 100% sold.  People are clammering for more space close in to downtown.  It's the place to be.  The general take in 2008 was that real estate would be dead for a decade.  Now we need more.

The market is always more optimistic and pessimistic than the facts.  There aren't stock photos of the new CEO, the new building, the new factory, the new product, the new fabric, the new airplane, your kids, your daughter's wedding, or any of  a thousand other subjects.  We will need to take them.  We may take them with tiny digital cameras, we may take them with hulking behemoth cameras but we will take them.  We may deliver them on the web.  They may run on the web.  But they will still add the same or more value to corporations, companies, mom&pop businesses and other communicators.  We just need to charge accordingly, deliver accordingly and revive the working business model.

The sky may be falling but it may be the sky in some other market.  As a profession we need to stop putting energy into a myth that's destructive to our markets and our psyches.  The game was called on the count of "rain" for the past few years.  The clouds are breaking up.  Game on.