The Benefits of Shooting for Yourself.

When I speak to college classes about the business of photography it's inevitable that someone will bring up what they call "The Catch-22" of portfolios.  The premise is that the student (or person making the switch from another field into professional photography) is stymied from looking for photographic work by the idea that his portfolio must be filled with photographs from advertising shoots in order to get advertising shoots.  "How" they ask, "do I get the work if I don't have the work in my book to show?"  They seem to think that everyone in the field walked into an art director's office carrying a portfolio fully loaded with images from Vogue Magazine shoots and projects hot off the printing presses for IBM and Apple.  But that's just not true.  The first time every photographer walks into an agency or client office he or she will be showing work that didn't come from a commercial job.  So what to do?

The solution is really very simple.  Invest time and energy into doing shoots for yourself.  You no longer have the fixed costs of film, processing, and Polaroids so there are few financial barriers involved.  All you need to do is assemble the props and the people you need and get to work.  If you can't make it work on your own then you really aren't ready to go out after commercial work.

Throughout my career I've logged a lot more time doing experimental shoots for myself than shooting actual, paid work for clients.  I'll meet someone whose face is interesting and I'll invite them over for a shoot.  I'll give them a display print in exchange for their time.  If I use the photo for a commercial purpose I'll get a signed model release and pay them a fee each time I get to use the photograph in a commercial stock application.

This is how I met Renee (above) and also how I met and photographed many of the other people on my website and in my portfolios.  Many times I'll think of a style or a lighting technique that I want to use and I'll self-assign a series of images in that style.  Then I'll use the images as the core of a new portfolio to get people to assign me the same kind of work......for money.

The problem with only doing work when there is a client and a payment involved is that you have, at that point, entered into a collaboration.  You compromise your vision to incorporate the client's vision.  The piece you end up with might be totally different that the vision you might have if you had been shooting just for yourself.  And, generally, the images from commissioned shoots entail less risk taking and less experimentation.

Doing it for yourself means giving yourself permission to push the envelope.  It gives you permission to try something and fail and then to try it again in a different way.  And sometimes it means just practicing your style exclusively, which may bring you more work than you realize.

I'm working on a book now and I'm committed to including all new images.  Nothing I've used in a previous book will get recycled.  This means I'm doing a lot of self-assigning.  I love it when I can include client work but I know I'll need a lot of variations and some images that reflect niches I don't really market into.  I'll self assign.  Then at least I know I'll get stuff that I'm happy with.  And that's the whole reason to be delve into this craft in the first place.

Plus, you meet interesting people when you walk up to strangers and propose that they help you realize a vision.  The ones who accept are more open to art and risk.  And usually they're the most fun to be around.

Don't get suckered into doing free work.  If you want something that will look really great in your book you know that you can go out and shoot it for yourself.  It's really about the art not about the "access".


Don't call the therapists in just yet. He does smile most of the time.

Poor guy.  I'm always dragging my son out into the studio to sit in front of my camera while I test stuff like lighting for the next morning's shoot, or to see how a Canon 60D handles high ISO settings.  Or lately in front of a bank of LED lights that were way too blue and way off color.  I started hearing from concerned friends.  "Kid looks gray!" "Does he ever smile?"  etc.

So here's a quick post of the guy with a smile on his face, getting ready to head off to school.  He's generally pretty happy.  Really.  I swear.  And I'm sure he'll pay me back.....he's doing a film production class this semester....

The constant lure of continuous lights.

This is a scan from a print.  Sarah is a painter.  She has a wonderful face.

Since the very early days of my photography I've been drawn to continuous light.  There's something wonderful about seeing very clearly exactly what the camera will end up recording.  And it worked really well in the days of black and white film.  I abandoned hot lights during the infancy of digital because the weaker blue channel in most cameras (pre-2005) caused a high degree of noise when confronted with light that was strong in red and yellow but deficient in the blue spectrum.

After working for a number of years with studio flash and portable flashes I started to push back toward my earlier techniques.  By 2008 digital cameras were so good that they handled incandescent light with relative ease.  But until recently I had a very hard time making good black and white files.  Now, with the combination of PhotoShop CS5 and a new infusion of constant light sources I've started to venture into work made specifically to be shown as black and white.  And I've come to realize that I make important decision about how I'll shoot and how I'll light depending on what the final form of the image will be.

I like strong, deep shadows when I shoot portraits for black and white.    I also like much higher sharpness and more contrast.  But the general feel of the light; the soft quality of big sources, is a given.  Almost all the time.......

This is a scan from a print.  During the printing I used a device called a Pictrol between the enlarging lens and the paper.  It had plastic blades like the blades of a lens diaphragm and where the blades overlaid the image it created soft zones.

But the image of the rancher, above, was taken while I was deep in my first exploration of cinematic lighting.  I assembled a collection of spots and fresnel fixtures and even broad softlight fixtures and mixed and matched them for the effects I wanted.  In this instance I used a small Lowell ProLight with a four way barn door to come in from my left, right under his hat.  The barn doors narrowed the light beam and helped the light drop off across the front of the jacket.  I threw several spots of light on a gray seamless background and added a backlight, also from the left side.  The style worked well for character portraits and I kept the lights in my bag of tricks for sometime.  But it didn't translate well in the early days of digital.

Now we've come full circle and I'm testing the waters.  The Canon 5Dmk2 seems like a good match for this style.  The real trick is to find the right conversion parameters for black and white.  I have friends who swear by SilverFX but I'm busy making my own presets to mimic the look and feel I've always liked.  I want to understand better how the various light channels can be intermixed to get the effects I want.

Same general information as the image above.  All done with Hasselblad cameras on Tri-X film.

The next step is to figure out how to duplicate the look I had with tungsten spot lights with the new generation of LED lights.  I am drawn to them for both the softness of the larger banks but also for the idea that one can use LED lights very, very close to the subject without worrying about heat and discomfort for the subject.  LEDs are a technology that seems to be in its infancy right now but is spreading quickly.  I recently purchase three 500 LED panels that are AC powered.  They measure about eight inches by fourteen inches and they put out a nice light.  The cool thing about them is that I can use them so close in to my subject that the fall off (inverse square law) means that the light once again becomes contrasty and dramatic.

I've also been experimenting with the small, battery operated units because I can take them anywhere.  I kind of feel like a vampire though.  I like shooting at dusk or at night in the studio where I can have total control of the lighting ratios, unfettered by the ambient light that always acts as a degrading fill.

The next step in my process of LED exploration is to find a source of affordable fresnel or spot light fixtures to use.  I want to be able to have the same precise controls I once had with the tungsten fixtures.  There are companies out there that make fixtures that fit the description but their target markets are the large production companies that do feature films.  And their products are priced accordingly.  Built to incredible standards in order to survive the daily grind of movie production without a hiccup.  For an example search for NilaTV  (I can't make the link work on here for some reason......)  You'll find incredible LED fixtures with prices that rival small, new cars.  But the technology is already in the process of trickling down.

I remember when I had my friends pose for me in the days of hot lights.  In Austin.  In the Summer.  That's why I excited to play with LED's this time around.  No heat.  No discomfort.  Lots of control.  Remind me to take the flashes out every once in in a while....if for no other reason that to keep the capacitors formed.  More to come.

Looking back in the time machine.

Love this clip from the 1960's movie, Putney Swope.  Let's us know that there's been no big paradigm shift.  Photographers as a group have always worked against their own self interests.

Negotiate wisely.  Know the value of your work and the value of their project.  Learn to say "no".


Kirk Tuck and the Butthole Surfers.

They couldn't say the name of the band on the radio here in Austin so they referred to the band as the "BH" Surfers.  I photographed them for Spin Magazine.  And again for Rough Trade Records.  They came to the studio and we shot for a while and then we headed out to do the largely cliched railroad tracks and urban downtown shots.  Later I did the album cover for Paul Leary's,  "The History of Dogs."  Just came across these photos and thought I would show them and try to dispel the notion that I've only shot stodgy, corporate work.  Loved the 1990's.  Everything was up for grabs.

That's all for now,   I'm going to go find "Hairway to Steven".   One of my BHS favorites.

Shot mostly on a Pentax 67 with a few rolls of 35mm thrown in.


The trough.

It's inevitable in a self employed arts based business to have cycles where you go from being overwhelmingly busy to overwhelmingly slow.  It's the territory.  We chose it.  But it's not the amplitudinal changes of work commissioned by customers that gets me, it's the indecision.  It's so easy to stray from what we probably should be doing.

I've chosen exactly the wrong way to run a business.  I have corporate clients who want nice, tidy photo shoots.   When the economy is booming they're shoveling assignments in the front door.  When the economy goes into free fall they hibernate.  Then I have advertising agency clients and, guess what? their clients are also corporate clients....subject to the same financial mood swings.  So we learn to even out the cash flow and supplement income by doing things like writing books.  And then the books become like a small business and we do things like write blogs in order to tangentially move book sales forward.    Everything moves me further and further from the core.  But that may be the progression in our industry that everyone is seeing.

Once you have a few successful books under your belt you get a bit of notoriety and the universe seduces you into doing more and more tangential stuff like participating in workshops and giving guest lectures to various college classes.  And you spend more and more time doing things that look less and less like photography as you understand it.  A friend calls up and asks me to work with them on a video. That seems like a good idea.  Diversification, right?  But not having a straightforward path seems so ambiguous.....

And it's amazing how flexible you mind can be when your clients and the economy are also practicing flexibility.  Last Summer I participated in a workshop in Dallas where I spoke about lighting with small flashes to nearly 1200 people over the course of two and a half days.  These were all scrapbookers who wanted to take better photographs to stick into their scrapbook projects.  Why did I do it?  Well, it appealed to my ego, of course.  But business was slow and the money was good.  And it was an opportunity to promote two books that dovetailed nicely with the overall tenor of the conference.  The focus of the conference was to gently teach non-technical people the technical things they needed to know to have more control over their work.

But in the course of preparing a 50 slide presentation, practicing some strobe techniques, traveling and being present at happy hours and social dinners I moved further and further away from my solitary practice of photography.

Now we're three quarters of the way through another years.  I've done a few more workshops.  I've worked on twice as many commercial assignments this year compared to last year and now it feels like we're heading back into the trough.  The low spot between the waves of work.  I'm thinking about teaching another workshop but it feels so disingenuous if I'm only doing it because I think I need to supplement my core business.  In the best of all possible worlds a workshop would be a small group thing where really complex and involved ideas that intersect creativity and technique would be shared.  Not a group introduction to stuff I've already written about plenty of times.

I had a good Summer and early Fall as a photographer doing real assignment photography.  But as a result of the last two years I always feel the cold sweat of impending doom wafting over me like a chilling breeze.  And so I pitched a book project on a new lighting technology/technique.  And the publisher accepted.  And the moment I got the e-mail of acceptance I remembered the old Texas curse, "Be danged careful what you hanker for.....you might just git it."  And all the calmness and optimism that led me to pitch the project, the joy of new learning, the challenge of writing, the happy anticipation of shooting a whole new body of work-----that all paled in an instant; replaced with the anxiety of knowing that now I have to perform.  I have to make the great new photos.  I have to master the new technology.  I have to deal with the gnawing doubt that I may have "bought a horse who won't make it to the finish line..."  I have to help sell the property once we make it.

And there is always the indecisiveness that comes from knowing that a project like this can push you to a new level......or level you.  But it's nice to get started.  Back to the typewriter and bit of isolation.

I suffered through two years of deep and relentless anxiety starting back in 2007.  It was interesting for me and also very scary and devastating.  But through it all I worked, wrote four books and kept the business moving forward.  I sought professional help.  I went to therapy.  I swam more.  But in a flash I found the secret and the anxiety abated.

A brilliant woman, named Pat, sat with me over coffee one morning and explained what she thought were the underpinnings of anxiety.  She said that anxiety was the combination of Ambiguity, Loneliness and Indecision.  She felt like it could be treated by understanding those three causes and working to erase them.  That, and the choice of the right bottle of Scotch.

While the new projects I've signed up for are daunting I'm decisive about how I'll do them and there's no ambiguity about why I'm doing them.  And, unlike the first four books I did,  I'm inviting friends and colleagues into the mix to help me make the projects really sing........and to keep me company.

And maybe the successful completion of these projects will bring me full circle.  Back to the core of photography.  And back to the fun of new discovery.

Just some Friday morning introspection.  Indulge me.


I like images that use natural light and added light. They seem harmonious.

This image of a radiologist was lit with the light of the screen in front of her and also by a small flash in the back of the room that bounced off the ceiling and boosted the overall illumination and added an accent light that separated her hair from the dark screen of the monitor behind her.  I used a Fuji S5 camera to make the photograph and I still marvel at the sharpness and dynamic range when I look at the full sized image.

I shot at f2.8 and, of course, the camera was on a tripod for the exposure.  The tripod often being the most important tool in creating good shots.

Lately I've become very interested in using small LED panels to take the place of flashes.  Part of the reason is the general compulsion to keep learning and to keep commercial photography interesting for me.  But another part of the equation is the belief that these light sources will be become the ubiquitous light sources of the future.  At some point flash might become the specialty tool and LED's the day-to-day lighting instrument of choice.  Maybe not, but there's no real cost for experimenting.

I did a portrait today and I lit it the same way I would have with flash or with tungsten but this morning I decided to use LED panels as my primary light source.  I set up a nine foot wide gray canvas background and lit it with two conjoined, small, battery powered LED panels.  Like these:  Little LED. They made a nice soft glow that surrounded my subject.

I used the six foot by six foot PhotoFlex light panel with diffusion that you've probably seen me use for Zach Scott portraits and other favorite work.  Over to my left and positioned at about a 45 degree angle to my subject.   It's no secret that I love huge, soft light sources. It's a beautiful way to light faces. Behind the large diffusion panel I used two of the ePhoto 500 LED panels.  The photo shoot was very successful but I learned some of the limitations that come with using inexpensive (read: not very color accurate) LED panels.  And I learned that the shortcomings are in no way insurmountable.

Seems that no matter what the distributors say there is a nice big spike in the green spectrum of the lights.  If you do a custom white balance you'll be pretty much okay but you might find some anomalies in the color balance that lead to a few splotches.  I shot my Canon DSLR in RAW so I was able to lower the saturation and increase the luminance of the green channels (and, to a certain extent, the blue channels) in order to compensate.  But here's what I learned through subsequent trial and error:  adding a 1/4 strength minus green gel filter does a reasonably good job compensating for the aberrant color spike.  The name of the game is get the light as close to daylight as possible.

If you don't have a color meter handy you can always set your camera white balance to daylight, shoot a white target, use the color eyedropper to correct to white and note the numbers you get in the Lightroom develop panel.  You're looking for two separate but related parameters.  You want to see how close to 5500 degrees kelvin the color temperature is and you'll want to note how many points of green or magenta have been dialed in to get a neutral white target.  You'll likely see a swing over to the magenta side of the scale which means you'll need to add some magenta to compensate.  If Lightroom indicates that it requires 30  points of magenta to render neutral white you'll probably have a filtration starting point of between 1/4 and 1/2 minus green filter.  That's actually a magenta filter that takes out green.

When you filter you're going to loose some power and that's important with LED panels.  They don't put out a tremendous amount of light and the light they do put out isn't collimated into efficient columns of focused light like you might find in a well designed tungsten fixture.  You may need to move the panels closer in to the diffusion material.  Don't worry.  Nothing will catch on fire.

So, why go through this exercise if you already have tons of great flash equipment that works well?  For one thing, the quality of continuous light is different than flash.  There's also.....no flash.  And that means fewer anticipatory flinches and blinks.  You get into a motordrive rhythm that's heavenly.  And with modern DSLR's you never need to stop.  There's ample light for focusing and the ambient light (after you've figured out the filter factor) makes nice fill light.  It's also new and different.  And for me that's enough.

Nostalgia for the days of giant cellphones and invisible photographers

I love huge cellphones because you could always see them.  When you could see the big instrument in someone's hand you had an 80 or 90% certainty that they were talking to someone other than themselves.  Now, with the tiny phones,  you can't really tell whether the person weaving down the street, running into strangers, or the person in a car running right through red lights is just insane, inebriated or, in fact, has some tiny device they are cupping next to their heads and is talking passionately about nothing at all....

In the days of the big phone the call was theater.  Now the call is in the service of ever shifting plans or to assuage general feelings of disconnection.  I conjecture that entire groups of people now have have un-purpose driven lives and use the ubiquitous cellphone to get the next set of directions from some extra-planetary overlords who control the general population via microwaves.  It could be that the person next to you taking snapshots with their iPhone or their Verizon Punk phone is really just triangulating your position so that the overlords can assimilate you as well.  I also get the feeling that cellphones are largely responsible for adult onset Attention Deficit Disorder.  Never have I seen a person change gears and go from a full out, impassioned conversation to a passive and submissive listening mode as quickly as in the past few years.  A Pavlovian respond to a tiny few square inches of plastic and Lithium Ion.

Perhaps this too shall pass and people will go back to diligently practicing their lives with purpose, picking up their phones once or twice a day in order to check messages and return calls.  Maybe that's the hope of economists optimistically calling for enhanced productivity to pull us out of the economic mess.  Naw, the nature of the universe is to constantly move from order to chaos.  From momentum to entropy.  Why should humans buck the trend?


some photographs that I liked taking and still like looking at. What is style?

Why I like to use different cameras:

I don’t think about what camera I should use that much. I just pick up the one that looks nicest on the day
-- William Eggleston
If you want to change your photographs, you need to change cameras. Changing cameras means that your photographs will change. A really good camera has something I suppose you might describe as its own distinctive aura.
-- Nobuyoshi Araki
(Thanks to Tokyo Camera Style for the quotes!)