3.11.2011

Industrial art meets the San Antonio streets. Film, of course.....


I'm working on an ad project where I need to drop an Italian street scene into the background of a photograph.  The client is wonderful and I wanted to make sure they had a range of options to choose from.  I've been to Italy a number of times on jobs and shooting for myself so I opened up the filing cabinet and started to go thru the thousands and thousands of slides and medium format transparencies I have accumulated over the years.

My eyes wandered over to a different part of the filing cabinet to a folder entitled, "Old Street Scenes."  I fumbled around in it and found this photograph.  That car, if I'm not mistaken, is an American Motors Corporation Gremlin.  The predecessor of the AMC Pacer, and other fine cars.

It was taken on the streets of San Antonio.  When I look at it I realize that it must have been taken about thirty years ago.  It was my pleasure to take dodge work, drive down to San Antonio in my old Volkswagen Beetle, and walk around in the streets taking photographs.  In those days the streets were teeming with air force recruits who would come to one of the three or four air force bases in the area for basic training.  Downtown was less savory then.  Tourism wasn't as vital.  Some streets were wall to wall tattoo parlors broken up by seedy bars and military surplus shops.  That made shooting in the streets a lot more fun.

I'm going to be this was taken with a Canon TX SLR camera and a 50mm lens.  Mostly because that's pretty much all I had back then.  Fun to see history.

3.10.2011

Sometimes rocks on a blue table are just rocks on a blue table.

     Rocks on a blue table.  Shot with a Lensbaby Composer and an Olympus EPL-1.


I would love to think that everything that squirts out of my camera is art with a capitol "A."  But I know better.  Sometimes I shoot things because I like the color and sometimes because I like the shape and almost always when there's a beautiful person involved.

Udi asked me to review the Lensbaby Composer for his site:  http://www.diyphotography.net  So I did.  He might not like the review.  I was amazingly honest.  And then, after dinner,  I came back out and looked at this photograph and wondered if I would have gotten it with any other lens.

Don't know why I like this so much.  I was out shooting test shots and I parked near a little crepe trailer a block off south Lamar.  I walked over to the table, picked up a few rocks and put them down, played with the lens and shot them.  Then I moved on.  It was only a few minutes ago that I really looked at the image in earnest and decided I liked it.  A lot.  Interested how a brain works.

Sometimes there's no meaning in what we photograph.  Just a juxtaposition of color and shape that seems to resonate with something deep down.  That's what I did for a few minutes this afternoon.

Don't forget to set your clocks back an hour on Saturday night, if you live in most areas of the U.S.A.  Are we the only nation that messes with time?

Did you happen to pick up one of the ring lights I talked about?

If not, I just checked and you can still get one with a set of lens adapter rings for less than $40 bucks.  It's a deal.  I now have two.....


I bought one when I first saw them on Amazon for around $35.  I didn't know what I'd do with it at the time but I thought, at that price, it was too good to pass up.  In the interim I've used it for lots of different lighting applications.  I used it above to add a bit of fill light to Noellia's face on a cold winter day.

I've used it as a work light on location.  I've used it as a direct fill on two video projects and I keep looking for clever ways to press it into service.  


The batteries for the unit are in the housing on top of the hot shoe.  It takes two double "A's" and they last for hours.  You have the option of turning on all 48 of the LEDs or turning on one side or the other.  The unit comes with an A/C adapter and a set of filter ring adapters for most common lenses up to 62mm.  It's small, light and cheap.  The white light is as good, colorwise, as that which I get from my bigger panels and, for the size and stingy battery use, it belts out a good amount of light.


When I shoot commercially in dark places I sometimes use one of the ringlights on the front of the lens to use as a focusing aid for my manual focus primes.  It also adds sparkle to people's eyes and stops their pupils down a bit so you see more of their irises.  It's a more natural look.  I'm amazed at how good and how cheap these things are.  That makes them one of my favorite devices in the LED space.

I also use it as a reading light.  But that's a whole other topic.  Get one at this link.

3.09.2011

A quick review of three new tools I love.


I love to mix it up around here.  I write copy,  I write blogs and I write scripts.  I shoot film, I shoot digital and I shoot video.  If I did the same thing every day, all day long, I might be damn good at it but I might be damn bored and damn boring.  We're humans.  We were made to roam.  To hunt and gather.  To invent and to constantly change gears.  Not to sit in front of the same electronic fire pit for eight or nine hours a day, watching the same lights flicker over and over again.

So, lately I've been more and more fascinated by video (or, for you elitists out there, "Motion").  And when you tumble into a new media you go thru the process of learning which tools work for you.  My current favorite video shooting DSLR is, without a doubt, the Canon 60D.  It's set up for video.  The audio set up is good, the noise performance is good and it's stingy with energy use.  The camera above is a Canon 5Dmk2 and it's the best portrait camera I've used.  And if you want out of focus backgrounds it rocks for that, too.  But when you need more than one thing to be in focus (90% of the time for me...) the extra DOF of the smaller sensor in the 60D actually works in your favor.  But this isn't a camera review.

The three things I want to quasi-review today are the Rode Stereo Mic, the 50mm Carl Zeiss lens and the Manfrotto 501 HDV video fluid head.

I'll start with the Rode Stereo MicRode SVM Stereo Condenser Microphone.  It works great for natural sound when you put it on top of the camera.  I used it, with the supplied windscreen, all afternoon in 20 to 30 mph wind gusts on Saturday on the end of a pole, close to our subjects, and we were able to get damn good sound.  Better than I would have thought possible.  When we used it in the quiet studio it's final output (what we heard in FCP) was very detailed and neutral.  The secret I've learned is to always be very close to the subject you're miking.  Like 12 inches away if you can swing it.  A boom pole is a necessity for any sort of real sound in your production.  That means that your video crew will usually have two people, minimum.  I'd buy another Rode Stereo Mic in a heartbeat.  I never worry about its performance and that leaves me mindspace to worry about other stuff.

I use the 50mm Carl Zeiss ZEZeiss 50mm f/1.4 Planar T* ZE Series Lens for Canon EOS Cameras lens when I want to be fairly close in to an interview subject but without any distortion of the subject's features.  I use the lens right at f2.8 which is the extreme sweet spot for this lens.  When I'm working inside of five feet the background goes mellow and out of focus but the sharpness on the subject is great.  I also love that it's not to crunchy but very detailed.  If I stop down to f4 the lens is almost too sharp for some subjects......  I bought mine to use on the 5Dmk2 but if I'm in the video mode it rarely comes off the 60D.... I liked this lens so much I went back and bought the 35mm f2 and the 85mm 1.4.  They are that good.  Not good in the hands of a beginner acculturated solely to AF, but great if you are comfortable hitting manual focus.  S screens for everyone!

Finally, the latest arrival, the Manfrotto 501 HDVManfrotto 501HDV Video Head - Replaces 501 fluid head for my video tripod.  This thing is big, heavy and works well.  I've used heads that are three and four times the price and they were great.  About 5 to 10% better than the Manfrotto.  But the Manfrotto is all I need right now.  When my hand skills and technique hit a wall with the 501 I'll look for something better but that might take a few years.  It's got a spring counterforce setting that compensates for the mass of a 5 pound camera set up (just about right for DSLR and lens....)  lots of adjustments and, most importantly, it stops and starts smoothly.  Every movement is adjustable.  For $189 it's an incredible value.

Ben used the head this weekend for a class project and he was amazed at what a difference the right tools made.  None of these are "break the bank" accessories and I bought them after struggling with other, less expensive options.  I have a project that starts next week that requires good techniques and good tools.  The cost of the three products = a day's fee.  If they make my work easier and better they're worth their weight in my camera bag.

Next week is SXSW.  I have to stay in town to work on a video project but I can guarantee that I'll be downtown a lot shooting the madness.  If you're coming to Austin shoot me an e-mail and we'll see about setting up a happy hour.

3.08.2011

It's Spring Break. Go somewhere fun. Do something fun. Really.



Man.  These are the biggest files I've loaded to the blog.  Click on em and see how big they get.  And that's the output from an Olympus EP-2.  Amazing to me.  But that's not what this is all about.

These are images I took last April when I did a fun roadtrip to west Texas.  These were done in Marathon at a funky, fun hotel in the middle of town in the middle of nowhere.

I didn't know what I expected to find but as usual I didn't find it I found something else.  And that's fine. That's the experience of trying something new.  You really don't know what you're going to end up finding.  So a  whole year has passed and it's time to go somewhere again.

When you are in a precarious job like photography there's always a temptation to make your vacation into something that can be monetized.  I started thinking up workshops so I could make the big bucks like Joe and David, without having to go thru the process of selling anything tangible to the ad agencies or the companies I work for.

I thought about a week long workshop for 10 people in Marfa, Texas.  We'd stay at the Paisano Hotel, have all kinds of desolate adventures and share war stories over great bottles of wine and rare steaks.  But then I remembered that the two deficits Marfa seemed to have last time I was there were good wine and supermodels.  And what's a workshop without good wine?

I've been doing a lot of video and I have something like twenty five years of experience doing TV commercials and stuff so I thought maybe I could throw together some sort of cool multi-media workshop teaching people how to make movies with their DSLR's.  But God, that's so time consuming and I'd come back from vacation with no finished work for me.

Then I decided to bag all the monetizing possibilities and challenge myself to shoot fun stuff for a week and plaster it all over this blog.  To do something for me.  To shoot stuff I liked instead of stuff I thought someone else might like and it all made sense to me.  I should just have fun.

Then I thought about all you guys out there and what I wanted to say to you.  Well, here it is:  "Life is short.  If you love to do art then get out of the office and out of the house and do some damn art that you like.  Don't follow a leader.  Don't take a workshop.  Fill the tank and ride.  Find your muse and squeeze it for every last drop.  Fall in love.  Take a different road.  Meet strangers and photograph them.  Share secrets with someone.  Sleep under the stars.  Eat something you've grilled over a campfire.  Stay one night in a five star hotel.  Drag your camera everywhere.  Write a poem.  Write a love letter.  Be silly.  Dive into Balmorhea Springs.  Listen to new music.  Stay up all night.  Kiss someone with passion.  Eat great food.  See the ocean.  But do something fun and new for Spring Break.  Life is random.  Take the prize while you are still alive."

And those are my thoughts about a good Spring Break vacation.  Do I have a metric to measure the success for any of this?  You gotta be kidding.

3.07.2011

The process of reinvention. Starbucks gets it.....

50mm Carl Zeiss 1.4 shot at 1.4 on Canon 1dmk2n.
50mm Carl Zeiss 1.4 shot at f8 on a Canon 1dmk2n.

Consumers and B to B clients are moving targets.  That's why it makes sense to focus on updating your "public face", your offerings and even the way you personally engage clients and potential clients.  Many people debated the intelligence of removing the type from the Starbuck's logo but it makes perfect sense if your plan is to move beyond coffee.  They've made the foray into ice cream and music, now watch them start serving wine in the afternoons and evening.  Their core market is adults and they own the morning for the middle to upscale part of the market (Sorry McDonald's....) but the problem with adults, even the most caffeine addicted adults, is that few of them can drink much coffee in the evenings and still sleep.

That means that Starbuck's sales  probably look like downhill skiing when you chart hour by hour sales.

If you can get adults back in by changing your product mix to match hour by hour sensibilities then you maximize your investment in rent and wages.  Wine and cheese makes perfect sense.  Happy Hour at Starbucks.  Please note that this is just my opinion about how they might go forward.......

As photographers we've got some psychological and process hurdles to get over too.  The days of print sales are wrapping up.  If you sell directly to consumers (weddings and portraits) you've got to re-invent your business so that pricing and fulfillment aren't 100% dependent on the physical print being your final product.  As demographics shift the draw of the print declines in lock step with the acceleration of electronic display.  You should probably be working to a sales model that delivers final images on an iPad.  With a slide show.  With video.  With other extensions.

In commercial (advertising and corporate) photography the print is as rare as a dodo.  We deliver high res tiff files to clients who are aiming toward magazine or direct mail or brochure print production.  We deliver profiled and optimized Jpegs to web designers and web marketers.  If you gave a print to our direct clients (such as medical practices and retailers) the first thing they would do is scan it into their system and the second thing they'd do is find another photographer.  

My graphic designer spouse reminds me that color preferences change in two to three years cycles and popular typestyles change quickly too.  Refreshing the look of our logos becomes a priority when daily presentation of a website is the lifeblood of commerce.  

Website design is now fashion.  And fashions change with the seasons (warning:  this is not a suggestion to use pumpkin graphics in the fall and beach balls in summer.....)  What's your Fall line look like?

Just like Starbucks we have seasonal shifts of demand and by broadening our offerings and pushing into new markets we can smooth out the curves so that the slow times are less........slow.  Think of the addition of video services as the introduction of Frappacinos.  That was a brilliant move on SB's part to build Summer traffic.  The coffee of our business is the photo assignment.  The copywriting is the hot chocolate.  

Now, along with refreshing my brand, I guess I need to come up with names for our different products.
Anyone up for a Venti Executive Portraitiano?

3.06.2011

Ennui. Success. Anxiety. Work. Throughput. Satisfaction.



I should be happy, satisfied and feeling relatively secure right now.  Business is booming, my fifth book is just about ready to ship off to the publisher,  I've got money in the bank and we didn't panic too much during the "People to Goldman Sachs" wealth transfer of 2008-2009.  In fact, we made money in both our savings and retirement accounts.  So why do I feel more like the bottom photo instead of the top photo?

It's the age-old conundrum:  Am I better off challenged and struggling or am I better off trying to maintain whatever little lead I've accrued.....knowing that it could all come tumbling down with the capricious whip of fate? Or the duplicitous hand of a new generation of investment bankers? Am I happier wishing optimistically for better things in the future or am I more depressed knowing that there's a long way to fall?

I've been living the frugal mentality for the last three years.  Only buying what I needed to stay competitive.  Only spending on stuff we needed for maintenance.  Eating peanut butter and jelly and staying out of expensive restaurants.  But last week I decided that we're either recovering (as a national economy) or we were all going to die.  And I decided that, if there will be bread lines and riots in the street,  I couldn't possibly face them without a new MacBook Pro,  a new fluid head for my video tripod and a full set of Carl Zeiss lenses for my Canon camera bodies.  Forget frugality.  It's time to have fun.

But seriously.  I think my anxiety is tied to all the mixed messages I get every day.  The internet tells me financial armageddon is nigh.  But my clients throw me good work consistently.  And my stocks keep rising in value.  The web tells me that my chosen profession is the latest minimum wage job category.  But my rates keep going up and people keep paying faster and faster.  The schools are kicking teachers out the doors and Texans are nonchalant about class room with 40 kids.  But my kid's school district is resisting all the madness.  It's amazing.  We all understood that it was fear that caused the market (and the economy) to finally collapse.  Why can't we understand that it will be blind optimism that will bring it back?

Oh well.  Back to work.  


3.05.2011

I am NOT an architectural photographer but sometimes.......

This image is a PhotoShop merge of five files.  I shot on my Canon 1dmk2n with the plain vanilla 20mm f2.8 Canon lens.


I have high regard for real architectural photographers.  I'm talking about the rare ones who really understand architecture, who love good furniture, who have studied design and art history and bring something layered and nuanced to the equation.  Too many photographers out there do interiors strictly as documentation and they don't do it very well.  The latest trend it to light everything flat, shoot multiple bracketed frames and then do (auto) HDR in PhotoShop.  Yes.  You can see all the details.  No.  You have no idea what the architect's original intention was.  Having a tilt/shift lens and a Canon 5d2 or Nikon d700 and a bucket of PhotoShop doesn't make you a "real" architectural photographer.  Only passion, education and experience can do that.

I have no room to talk.  I have no interest in architecture.  No interest in interior design.  And beyond the comfort of my favorite chair I have no interest in furniture.  Sorry,  I also have no real interest in landscapes.  You just can't be into everything.....

But occasionally I'll do a project for a client and they'll want a quick shot of their lobby or the front of their building.  Our core mission might be to document doctors working or to make interesting portraits, and most times the architectural shots are an afterthought.  It doesn't make sense for my clients to bring in another photographer and I'm hardly technically handicapped when it comes to shooting straightforward stuff, so I often get pressed into doing this kind of work.

The lobby above is nice but it's tight.  I learned long ago that the best shots are usually right from the doorway.  I keep an old Canon 20mm f2.8 around for this kind of work.  It's wide on my 5D2 but not so wide on the 1D2N's cropped (1.3x) frame.  And on friday I wanted to shoot with my 1d2N.  I put the camera on top of my tripod and leveled it.  I put it in the vertical orientation and shot five shots, without changing any of the exposure or focus parameters.  I corrected on file in Lightroom and synced the other four to the same specs.  Then I tossed them in PhotoShop and hit "photo merge."  A few seconds later, out popped this pano.  Easy as pie.  The client is happy.  I'm happy and that's cool.

I spent my early years as a "jack of all trades" and shot many magazine features about historic houses and buildings.  I did "rack" brochures for hotels and resorts.  And we did it all with 4x5 view cameras. But what I've learned over the years is that everyone has stuff they love to do and then stuff they have to do.  The more you can do of the first the less you have to do of the second.  I never mind taking a few documentation shots but I try never to fool myself that just pointed a camera at something makes it art.  Or that snapping the shutter makes me an artist.

3.03.2011

A post in two parts. 1. Putting together photos for a book is drudgery. 2. I had a blast at Bill's class today.


Writers (pretty much all "pure" writers) have it dirt easy.  They need only string together 30,000 or 45,000 well chosen words (for an instructional photo book) and they're off to the races.  I contend that's the easiest part.  You pour a big cup of coffee, sit down at your computer and type till your fingers cramp.  Then you walk it off and come back for more.  If you've done your research, and you've actually used the techniques and the gear you are talking about, over and over again, the words should flow like water onto the screen.  In the world of pure writing there are several layers of "lifeguards" who police the turbulent literary waters and keep writers out of trouble.  There are editors who suggest things to keep writers safe from future embarrassment.  And there a proofreaders to make writers seem smarter and less error prone than polite society.  But they are relative wimps when compared to the all terrain vehicle which are the writer/photographer book producers.  We actually have to kick start both sides of the brain with that single cup of coffee.

I would have finished my LED light book before Christmas but I felt like I needed lots of examples to show what I was talking about.  I'm an okay writer but I still subscribe to the idea that a picture is worth a thousand words.  When I went over the flow of the book in my mind I figured I'd need a couple hundred decent photographs to prove......I mean illustrate.....many of my points.  From the basic, "No! used properly these new lights will not turn your watchband green..."  to "Look, the models are cute no matter what you light them with."  

The cheat-y thing is that writers can just make stuff up and write it down and few people nudge them on the fine points.  But when you write book aimed at other photographers they can be merciless photo experts.  They sometimes demand image quality over content but are happiest when they can have both.  

My brain can't do both things at once so I have to write everything out first and then go back and re-translate everything I've written into a language called, "Photo."  And, unlike pure writers,  I wanted images of beautiful people in my books which meant that I had to find said beautiful people (talent scout), work with their schedules (project manager) and negotiate for their appearance in the book, with signed model releases (lawyer work).  In the end it's the temporary acquisition of models that's most vexing.  Did I mention that novelists are free to just make up people?

I tend to overdo  stuff so when I sat down to edit thru the folder I'd set up on my computer for LED book photos I was shocked to find nearly 12,000 to choose from.  Don't feel inadequate, most are not life changing images.......

I came over-prepared, like the test taker with five hundred, sharpened #2 pencils.  Once I edit them all down and match them up with the right words I have two more tasks to complete.  I have to caption everything and I have to create lighting diagrams for the "hard of imagining."  But it's fun to know that it's not been in vain.  I've learned so much about lighting and new technology.  Anybody need an LED consultant?  

The photo above is the set up I had for shooting the image below.  I wanted to light and shoot a camera and lens because that's the product I end up with in my hand most days.  The 60D is my favorite video camera.  I wanted to show it off.  And I love the way the lens looks.


Part Two:  I've been speaking to students for the last two weeks.  I'm getting some good practice at public speaking and now I don't get nervous when I walk into a big auditorium full of people, or, like today, when I walk into an intimate setting with nine students and one very well informed professor.

With big groups all you can really do is entertain.  Thank goodness "50-something" people have actually done enough to have stories to tell, but are young enough to remember and to tell them without mumbling......

With small groups you really need to show up ready to rumble.

I love what Bill Woodhull (the photography dept. chair at Austin Community College) does with his associate degree plan.  He makes students take an intensive course on the business of photography.  No gear, no gorgeous models, just:  How do you make money, save money, grow a business, calculate your real cost of doing business, market yourself, protect and leverage your intellectual property and  so much more.  Bill needs to take his course on the road and hit the other thousands of college students whose four year programs never touch this stuff.

Anyway, I'm on the advisory board at the college and I get invited to come in every semester to tell them what I think the imaging industry is doing and how I deal with the same concepts I've outlined above.  Usually the class sits silently and I talk and then we all go home.  Today's class was exceptionally focused.  They asked tough questions.  They engaged.  And that always makes me think.

Here's my "take away" thought from the class:  I think the market for corporate and advertising photography is returning.  And doing so in a big way.  Marketers have a desperate need to re-brand, re-launch and reinvent themselves and imaging is a big, big part of branding and customer communications.  We've got pent up demand from almost four years of radically declining image replenishment.

In a word, I'm "OPTIMISTIC."  But this new energy and demand is meaningless if we let the emotional context of the last three years keep us fearful in the face of re-emerging clients.  We need to stand up and be strong about keeping prices commensurate with the value we create.  And we need to be extra vigilant about keeping a tight hold on our intellectual property ownership.  We need to mirror our clients and ramp up OUR expectations.  Because the way we handle business during this recovery year will doubtless set the stage for the way this business will go for the next ten years.  Time to "spine up" and charge based on your value and the value of your IP and not how many hours you can work.  We bring value beyond commodification.  It's time we got back to acting like it.

Thanks.  Having fun in Austin, Texas.  Wish you were here to pick up the tab for the next round.....

3.02.2011

Book Achieves Critical Mass. Light at Tunnel End. Work Gets Easier.


I don't know what possessed me.  I was freaking out about finishing the LED book.  Didn't think I had enough images and what not.  So, when I suspended blogging a week and a half ago my aim was to assess what I had and what I needed.  Turns out I have ten or fifteen thousand shots from my LED experiments/shoots/playtime.  I've learned a tremendous amount about these new lights since last August when this brilliant idea struck.  Now I'm more relaxed.  I'm editing down the photo selection, thinking about writing informative and witty captions (good luck!) and generally getting everything into the right place.  I'm much further along than I thought I'd be.

What have I found out?  That the light source is secondary to your regular day in, day out vision.  That most scenes just need a little boost of light to be successful.  That it's pretty damn fun to light with continuous light sources.  That LED's don't have some bad mojo that you need to tread carefully around.  And that they work really well for video projects.  That's about the long and short of it.

Above is Jana.  She's standing under a covered patio at my swimming pool and I'm filling in with two very small LED panels, covered with diffusion materials.  I'm shooting close to wide open with an 85 and not worrying about sync speed or radio triggers or cables or........any of that stuff.

Too much fun.  Thanks.  Kirk