What is portrait photography all about anyway?

I think it's about preserving what we love now to enjoy in future time.  This is one of the images that resonates that concept for me on several levels.  This is a portrait of a fireman/father and his young daughter.  He's in great physical shape.  She's adorable.  Both will change over time.  But this moment, captured in the amber of digital will not change.  It locks in what it was to be then.  How it was to look like that in the moment.  (taken with a Kodak DCS 760 camera and a Nikon 85mm lens. ISO 80).  Even the attribute of it's digital heritage is locked into an historical context.
This young boy must be twenty by now.  But this image locks him into the middle of the 1990's in a profound way.  Taken for a United Way campaign and later given to his parents as a gift it's a print the captures the transient joy of childhood in a genuine way, unadulterated by the cares of the time.  He is real and this reality of him will remain forever in the continuum of time past.
This image of Rene Zellweger is a testimony to what she looked like as a young woman.  Now you can see how she has aged just by going to a movie theater.  But this image is proof that she looked this way at one time in her life and it was this look that was critical to launching everything for her that came after that day.  And this image is a permanent marker of a time past.
 And this is how a young Russian girl presented herself to the world on the Spanish Steps in Rome in 1995.  And now it's part of the visual history of my career and a monument to my pleasure at shooting in the street.  But what do all these portraits really mean?  In my mind it's all about capturing the beauty and truth or beauty or truth that you come across as you float through life and add to your stack of aesthetic knowledge.  Just as it's often said that "we stand on the shoulders of giants" to pay homage to the people who broke ground before us, each image we take forms a continously shifting and growing foundation both for our relationships with people and our growth as visual artists.

It's a reminder that we are the curious ones who want to show the world, "Look how beautiful or strange or magical this image is.  It was a time.  It happened and it affected the forward passage of time and reality. Even if just by an infinitesimal fraction of time and space.  It's proof of a reality.  Mine.  Yours.  Ours.  Tis the season......


Just another balmy day in paradise.

 There's one fun thing about being freelance (well, there's probably more than one fun thing.....) and that is the reality that you can "call" the holiday vacation whenever you darn well feel like it.  Our last job got delivered on Sunday along with an invoice.  At that point I started telling people that we were done for the year.  And what a great day for it.  It's the winter solstice and it was also 80 degrees (f) here in Austin today with a blue sky full of sun and long, lingering shadows and caramel colored sunsets.  What a perfect time to ditch work, grab a camera and go for a walk.

I haven't played with the Canon 5D2 enough so I pulled it out of drawer and stuck the 85mm 1.8 on the front.  I walked around from 3:00 pm til 5:00 pm and I only shot stuff that I liked.  Which brought me back to a basic truth about my kind of photography.....it's little more than an excuse to stare at stuff with an intensity that's otherwise frowned upon.

Rational intention ruins art.  Or something like that. I've found that you really can't go out with an agenda and come back with anything close to what you had in mind when you set out to shoot.  Or as Woody Allen once said, (paraphrasing from a monologue in Manhattan) "Nothing worth knowing can be understood by the mind."  You really just have to be there.  The image above is the front door of the Red Fez, a bar in downtown Austin.

So I walked the route I usually walk and I looked at a lot of stuff I didn't photograph.  I wish more people spent time outside in Austin.  We're great for concerts in the park but not so great for the passagio.  Lots of cars but not a lot of foot traffic.  I spent time looking at windows. And doors.

And sometimes I found seed pods on magnificent trees against French blue skies, just begging to be photographed.  And aluminum windows with cool and warm tones, framed by black.  And I was happy just to be outside and moving.  And the camera in my hand felt like a tether.  Keeping me connected with everything I was seeing.

Belinda asked me to be home on time.  We were having a Mexican chicken soup with squash.  White cheese and tortilla chips on the top.  Garnished with fresh avocado.  Quesadillas on toasted whole wheat tortillas and a bottle of Cupcake Red Velvet wine.  I paused as I walked back toward my car, over the pedestrian bridge.  I was loving the contrary rhythms of the city.  The worker bees commuting home, air conditioners separating them from the warmth and vibrant glow of the outside, while the free spirits docked their kayaks under the bridge to frolic in the cool water of Lady Bird Lake.  And I was somewhere in the middle.  Vaguely trapped by the idea that I should be doing something "productive" but all the while knowing that I was already on vacation in my mind......

Life is short.  And can be sweet.  And all I really want for Christmas is the time and energy to enjoy it fully.  I wish the same for you.

Tech:  Canon 5D2.  85mm 1.8.  That's about it.

Book buying guide. "Which one should I get?...."

It's the holiday shopping season and everyone's running around looking for last minute gifts and stocking stuffers.  A fair number of people have e-mailed me with a remarkably similar question.  "If I could buy only one of your books which one should it be?"  Hmmmm.  Like asking someone which one of their children should be left behind....  But what I think they are really asking is,  "Can you give me a little synopsis about each book so I can decide?  Personally?  I think it's sad to break up a family.  I'd get all four.  And that's the most self serving answer I could drum up.....

First up.  The first book.  There are now two books that have the words, "Minimalist Lighting" in the title but the subhead tells the difference.  One is about location lighting and the other is about studio lighting.  They are not versions of the same book.  The book above is the location lighting book.  The emphasis is on using small, battery powered "smart flashes" like the Nikon SB-800 and the Canon 580EX2.  But using them as a professional would have used studio lights in the "old days."  The back of the book has descriptions of five or six different actual jobs with diagrams and shooting info.  The book is intended to take someone from a shy and unsure user of "flash on camera" and give them the brain tools to take the flash off the camera, stick it on a stand, attach a radio trigger, add a couple more flashes and get everything to work the way it's supposed to.  All the samples are on location.  Many (most) of the examples are from actual paying assignments.  This is a great starting point for people who want good lighting on location.  And a good primer for using Nikon's CLS, all different kinds of slaves and diffusers.

The Second book is also called "Minimalist Lighting" but the subhead explains that it's aimed at studio lighting.  This book is mostly about lighting in the studio and I do several exercises like taking an orange and a cheap work light and show the way direction and diffusion affect the way images look.  We take one of my favorite models, Heidi, and show permutations of portrait lighting using everything from giant umbrellas, small reflectors and even bounced sunlight.  I cover florescent, flash, daylight and tungsten light and by the time you're done you have a good idea of how to outfit a home studio or a small working studio and how to do basic studio photography.  I like this book.  I wish there had been one out when I started oh those many years ago.  Instead I reinvented many wheels.....

I stuck these pipes in just for fun.  It was a classic annual report shot from 2002.  Somewhere between Gulfport and Biloxi.  

I rarely think of myself as an architectural photographer but one of my first professional assignments was a ten day, large format gig for a historical architecture magazine shooting plantations across Louisiana. The magazine liked the work so much we spent the next ten years driving around Texas, Lousiana, Mississippi and New Mexico shooting architecture with a 4x5 view camera and a box full of Schneider lenses.  This pool was for a feature on water features for a little lifestyle magazine called, Tribeza.
Back to the books in a moment........

You've probably divined by now that I'm a bit of a heretic when it comes to photographic lighting.  David Hobby may have popularized the small strobe craze but, believe me, a bunch of us corporate shooters were all over that in the 1990's when corporations were flying us all over the world and depending on us to hit the ground running in places where the A/C only worked for five hours a day or not at all.  We got used to improvising. That's young Ben holding a homemade florescent bank 
for book #2.

If you are trying to do photography as a business or you have a friend or relative who is this is the book they need.  It explains all the voodoo pricing and why it happened the way it did.  It explains model releases, contracts, marketing and specializing.  It's well illustrated and reads fluently.  Pick up John Harrington's book on business practices to round out your selection of good, solid photo business books. I'd buy either of our (mine or John's ) if I didn't own them.  Mine is a reminder to do the right thing for your business.  John's is how to do the nuts and bolts that go along with doing the right thing.

Okay.  You have no interest in becoming an underpaid, overworked professional photographer.  You already read all you needed to know about flashes and any more would be overwhelming.  You know enough to run a studio but you've got other stuff you'd rather do.  Skip the first three books and get this one.  It's a fun romp thru what kind of lights are out there on the market, what accessories help you get the looks you want and why you want a certain kind of light for a certain situation.  If you like knowing about gear this the book that will work.

Now I don't expect anyone to take my suggestions without a grain of salt because, let's face it, I'd love to sell more of my books.  I'll get a bigger royalty check.  But if you are on the fence and you'd like to make both of us happy over the holidays you might take time to read the reviews.  Here's the link to my author's page on Amazon

If you do decide to order one it would be cool for me if you'd click thru to Amazon from one of the links below.  I'll make a few dimes and you won't pay a cent more.  In fact,  if you click thru from here to Amazon for anything from diapers to giant TV's I'll get a small percentage and it will have no impact on the final price that you pay them.  Just want to be transparent.

Here are the links.....


Thanks for shopping.


Sunday ramble with a small camera. The EPL-1

2010 was an interesting year.  I felt very conflicted.  Our profession faltered, changed and then recovered, after a fashion.  Clients went away and some of them came back. But the structure feels different.  Before there was a camaraderie with many clients that went beyond an ordinary business calculus.  We supported each other.  We bent over backwards to make everything as perfect as we could for our clients and they rewarded us with a sense of loyalty.  Or maybe it was honesty.  Maybe it was just common courtesy.

Then the recession interceded and clients circled the wagons.  Many of us found ourselves on the outside of the circle.  The clients of the clients snapped their fingers and budgets flew out the window.  If the client screamed "stock" our client replied, "How cheap?"  Fear gnawed at them and broke the teams apart. And it was every photographer for himself.

But now the ad agencies are feeling pressure to be good again.  Not just hold the line or make the budget.  The new dictate is to go back to being good.  A lot of time's been lost for the ultimate clients.  A lot of market share got lost to fear and indecision.  And now they're coming back to the ad agencies and saying, "Show us something new.  Something we can't just suck out of a catalog.  Something that doesn't look exactly like the thousands of other variations that all of our competitors are using."

I had a client return.  They're big.  They didn't really get nailed by the downturn but they circled the wagons nonetheless.  And when they came back they didn't ask about budget.  And when the job was delivered they remarked,  "This work is wonderful.  It looks like HD in a standard world. It's so perfect it's three dimensional.  We'd forgotten that it could be like this."

And we almost forgot as well.  We (photographers) forgot that it really is much more than the regurgitation of technical skill sets.  It really is about vision and craftsmanship and art.  And there is a quality that comes from mastering working with the people in front of our cameras.  There is a difference between what we do as professionals and the legion of people who have new digital cameras.  And clients were amazed, after the long drought, that they COULD see the difference and it DID make all the work look better and it was WORTH paying for.

And I hope photographers don't forget this valuable lesson and accept the discounted status that accountants and account executives tried to foist on us when they held the leverage of the market.  We needed to have this discontinuation to remind all the parties that everyone was bringing something to the table.  And everyone was/is valuable in a way that can't be defined by spreadsheets and metrics.

And so this year of nascent recovery is coming to a close.  Three more large clients are back.  And they know that if we're turning the clock back it will be to the business practices of the time before the recession and we won't return to the ruinous pricing models of 2009.

I love this business.  It will recover.  It is recovering.  It's time good photographers everywhere stood their ground and started asking for what they are really worth.  2011 WILL be a happy New Year.

Technical info:  I left the house with an unusual camera/lens combination.  I stuck on old 38mm 1.8 Zuiko Pen FT lens from the early 1970's on the front of an Olympus EPL1 body, topped with an electronic viewfinder.  Manual focus all the way.  I found the metering on the EPL to be impeccable and the color to be.....juicy.  I spent a few quiet hours walking through downtown shooting jpegs at ISO 200.  I was happy with the results.  It made me feel good to see that I could go from a Canon 5D2 to a $499 EPL with a forty year old half frame lens and still make the same photos.  Amazes me.  

To everyone:  No matter what industry or profession you happen to be in let's push to get paid for the value we bring instead of bowing to the power of the spreadsheet and  precedent.  Especially not the precedent of the last three years.  We all deserve better.  Everywhere.  

My shameless "What I want for Christmas List".

 We can argue the evils of desire.  We can argue against consumerism.  We can look down our noses at reckless and wanton acquisition.....but let's save all that for some blog in the future when we're feeling fat and sassy.  I, like many people around the world, am kissing one of the least financially productive decades I can remember "goodbye" and hoping with exuberance that we can look forward to a decade of recovery and progress.  And that progress will include refreshing the equipment pantry with fresh new stuff.  Maybe not all at once but......

At any rate, it's fun to think about stuff you'd like to have even if, at the last moment, you get cold feet and conform to long habit of diverting the various nickels and dimes you could have used for the latest high speed lenses into your son's college fund or the ever voracious retirement fund.  Here's my list of stuff I'd love to pick up in 2011 if.......

1.  A plain jane 16 Gig Wi-Fi iPad.  I know.  It's silly when I have all these aging laptops sitting around. But I'm secretly jealous when my advertising friends whip theirs out and start doing the "finger dance" to show people they're latest stuff......Wow.  Prices are starting to drop.  Can I wait for the new product intros? Suspense.

2.  Copies of my two or three favorite movies on DVD.  I've got tons of old classics on VHS but new players are vanishing.  I'd start with La Dolce Vita and Casablanca.  Then, of course, all the 1960's James Bond movies......I know these don't have much to do with the obvious photography stuff but they are rich sources for style.....(rationalization alert).

3.  More LED lights.  The solid state future has arrived.  Here are some I want and some I want more of:  The 183 is fabulous.  I have two and want two more.  They run bright and the dimmers work well.  They can be used with lots of different kinds of batteries.  Yummy.  And, at the high end of the scale I want one (or more) of these Lite Panels.

4.  On a more practical note, I'd like a lithium replacement battery for my Profoto 600B Acute portable flash system......but I'll gladly settle for an extra lead-acid at half the price.....There are times when a small, extremely powerful studio flash comes in very handy outside.

5.  I sold off all my compact cameras in the middle of the great recession and I'm really pining for one little camera with great specs that I can shove in a coat pocket and sport around for those cold winter days.  Problem is I can't decide between the Canon G12 and the Panasonic LX-5.  Both are cool.  I'm leaning toward the LX-5 because you can use it with the electronic viewfinders from the GH series cameras.  I like eye finders and the electronic ones don't bug me.  A little price drop and I'm there.

6.  I've had my Apple 23 inch Cinema Monitor since the dawn of time.  Well, at least since the inception of the G5 machines....I'd like to replace it with the new 27 inch monitor.  My friend Paul has two and they look awfully pretty.  Awfully pretty.  But I just want one......

7.  I knew I couldn't resist more lenses for long.  I have a friend named Bernard.  He showed me his Canon 135 f2 L lens and now I can't get it out of my head.  According to all the stuff you read on the web it's miraculously sharp wide open and has a bokeh like butter (whatever the heck that means...)  I'm sure they'll "improve" it if I don't buy one quick and it will not be the way I wanted it to be....

While we're on the subject of lenses.   I keep thinking of things to like about my Carl Zeiss 50mm 1.4 ZE lens.  So much so that I'm adding the 21mm Zeiss ZE lens to my long term addiction list.  I'm trying hard to like my Canon 20mm but it's not trying very hard in return.....

8.  Here's something I want but I don't know if any of us will get it.  I want a brand new historical novel from Steven Pressfield.  I loved his Gates of Fire,  have recommended and given away dozens of copies of The War of Art and loved all his other novels about ancient Greece and Alexander the great.  Of course,  if more novels magically appear it just gives me an excuse to give in to resistance and put off finishing my next book(s).  I'll accept that downside.

9.  There are a ton of little things I'll put on my list as stocking stuffers.  You can never have too much fast memory for your cameras so I would love it if Santa stuff a few 16 gig CF cards in my stocking.  And, you can never have too many external harddrives so I'd willing unpack a couple of these 2 terabyte disk spinners as well.

10.  The last category is "studio comfort".  There are two things I need in the studio to make everything wonderful.  I need a pair of these crocs so I can go from the cold pool deck to the cool studio and still keep my (size 10) feet warm.  I like crocs.  Don't care if they are out of fashion.  They are strictly pool and studio wear.  I'll put on shiny shoes for clients.  And I need something to play raucous music on when young models and ad people are here that also sounds good when I'm playing Joni Mitchell and the Beatles from my time......I like this system.  It's just right for my space.

I tend to be modestly frugal.  I'll probably just opt to get myself another pack of those great double A alkaline batteries from Costco.  They're always a big hit in my office!  Dreaming is fun.  I'd be interested to know what's on your list.

happy holidays.


What is it that I like about the Kodak DCS SLR/n? And why it's important.

I met my friend, Anne, at Houndstooth Coffee to catch up.  She left her successful career in the photography industry several years ago to study nursing.  At the time she said that she just couldn't imagine herself at 65 or 70 years old still dragging the full camera bag around for hours and hours at weddings.  I don't blame her.  In many ways photography is a young person's sport.

When I left the house to meet with Anne I grabbed one of my current favorite cameras, the Kodak DCS SLR/n 14 megapixel, full frame camera.  This camera came after the ill fated and over hyped Kodak 14nx and it fixed many of the issues that made the 14nx a pariah among working photographers.  The first new, full frame camera from Kodak was an unfinished product that was band-aided by firmware patch after firmware patch.  It didn't have very good high ISO performance, in fact going over ISO 160 was pushing it for most people.  I had a color banding issue known far and wide as the "Mexican Flag" issue because the color shifted from green to neutral to red across the frame. And it also sucked down battery power like a kid's new toy on Christmas day.  Couple these "features" with a noisy and slow autofocus and you had an unlikeable package.  One thing I forgot to mention in the whole litany was the "calibration" "feature".  This was one of the first digital SLR's that had a temperature sensor built into the electronics.  The camera would, in the middle of a shoot, stop and recalibrate.  Technically the calibration would yield better noise characteristics but in practice it was just good for ill humored laughs whenever it interrupted the whole shooting experience.

The Kodak 14nx had one or two things it did quite well.  At ISO 80 it had a really large dynamic range. And, because there was no AA filter in front of the sensor, it was incredibly sharp.  But the 14n and 14nx deserved to die on the vine.  Not so the final iteration, the SRL/n.

Kodak went with a new sensor chip that was less noisy.  Now, by less noisy I don't mean to say that it achieved the silence of a Nikon D3 or D3s at 6400.  But you could use the SLR/n all the way up to ISO 400 and expect good results.  The last camera in the series also had much, much better power management which meant that you could finally take the camera out for a walk of several hours or hundreds of frames and not have to take a pocket full of batteries.

The other great feature of the SLR/n was the long exposure mode.  When you dived into the menu and set "longest exposure" you'd get a menu that would allow you to use ISO 12-50.  But only at a certain set of slow shutter speeds.  The camera would repeatedly sample the frame over the course of the long exposure and then dump out all the anomalies that caused noise.  I did a job once, in the studio, with products shot with tungsten lights.  We used the slow exposure setting at ISO 12.  The exposures ranged in the four second to fifteen second range (depending on aperture) and the resulting four foot by six foot prints were magnificent.  The lab manager whom I'd known for years called to ask me which MF digital camera I had used for the project.....

One thing the Kodak cameras always did well was color.  In fact, I think Fuji and Kodak both have made the best of the best digital cameras yet when it comes to pleasing and rich color rendering.  Is it always accurate?  Probably not.  Do I always like it?  Oh yes.  Both these companies know a tremendous amount about color.

So, clunky handling, limited ISO range and a dependence on Nikon lenses.  Occasional moire.  Some chromatic aberrations with some lenses and a recalibration "feature" ostensibly created to drive photographers mad versus beautiful color, incredible sharpness at base ISO and killer dynamic range.  Is it any wonder that this camera cycles in and out of my camera bag in a maddening way?

Well,  I plonked my Nikon 50mm 1:1.2 Ais on the front, grabbed my Minolta light meter and met Anne for coffee. We caught up.  And during a lull in the conversation I grabbed the meter and took a quick reading.  1/45 of a second at f2.8.  I manually focused because the lens is.......manual focus.  And I started clicking away.

It's a quick, handheld portrait but I love the way the camera handles skin tone.  I like everything about the file.  From the soft background to the contemplative look in Anne's eyes.  After having used the very sharp and detailed Canon 5Dmk2 I was curious to see how the detail looked so I zoomed in on the closest eye, the one that's in sharp focus.

I noticed two things right off the bat.  First, even with my old, old eyes I was able to achieve focus right where I wanted it without too much effort.  This in spite of the fairly low light levels.  And second,  the color right into Bridge (and back out of Bridge) was exactly what I saw in the coffee shop.  None of the various casts that the Nikons and Canons seem to have.  None of the casts that lead people to insist that good color can only be done with portable color charts and $100 worth of profiling software.

While Kodak never updated their PhotoDesk software to work on Apple system 10 I find that all the Adobe professional products do a great job dealing with the raw files.  Am I encouraging you to rush out and buy some Kodak cameras?  No, not at all.  I am suggesting that what Kodak did was important as a "proof of engineering" in one regard:  We can do well (better) without the AA filters.  In many ways the race for megapixels is the antidote for moire.  Manufacturers can ramp up basic resolution so they still end up with enough detail after the image has been degraded by the softening effect of the filters.  But the higher the resolution of the chips the less likely the files from them will be to have moire effects that require the filters in the first place.

The situation with the Nikon D700 and the Canon 5D2 is an interesting one.  The Nikon  files are very close to the Canon 5Dmk2 in perceived sharpness and quality even though the Nikon has nearly 50% fewer pixels.  It achieves this by making the AA filter weaker.  This means that the Canon is making up (or interpolating ) more of what you see in an image.  In real life it's a toss up.  But in theory, if the Canon camera designers trusted us enough to remove rare moire with software tools they could deliver a 21 megapixel camera with much more sharpness.  The perceived quality would be off the charts.

And no one can say it can't be done because it's done in practice every day with most medium format cameras and, currently, by the Leica M9.  And it was done successfully with the Kodak SLR/n over five years ago.  So, in many ways, this overlooked camera is a guidepost for sharper file creation from current manufacturers.

My current camera has a few glitches.  It doesn't play well with autofocus Nikon lenses and gives me an error message.  It loves to recalibrate.  But all in all I like it.  And I like it for another reason.  The files that come out look different from the files that came out of my Nikon cameras or come out of my Canon cameras.  Not better or worse, just different.  And I like the difference.  Some of my joy is from the extensive dynamic range.  It's a camera that likes overexposure.  It's like shooting color negative film:  push it to the edge of overexposure and then drag it back down.  You get incredibly smooth highlight transitions (my nemesis as a portrait photographer is burned out highlights on foreheads and cheeks) that minimize the need for retouching or intensive prophylactic make-up.

First of many new years resolutions:  I'd like to do more and more portraits and less and less of everything else.  Here's my branding message:  "There's that guy who shoots  portraits."

Nap time.