3.18.2011

Nerdiest LED configuration of the day. Kirk Tuck's nutty contraption with a nod to Syl Arena.

I know now that I have become truly a lighting nerd.  I was reading Syl Arena's good book on Canon flash when I came across a small section in which Arena needs more power and manufactures a "light bar" out of wood and nuts and bolts and proceeds to festoon it with six or ten Canon 580 EX2 flashes.

Not being a carpenter and not owning power tools I meandered over to Precision Camera, looked thru their bewildering collection of lighting stuff and found an already assembled and ready to go model that was under $50.  With shoe mounts.

I came home, put four of the DLC-60 LED units on it, threw a sheet of diffusion over the top and lit a portrait.  Those four little guys can really belt out some light.  Don't know what I'll do with the assemblage now but I'm sure it's enough to earn me membership into the GEEKS OF LIGHT private club.  If I can just  scrounge up a couple dozen of these units I could probably go toe-to-toe with Joe McNally himself......

Done. Finished. Happy. Satisfied. Complete. A-Okay.



If you haven't written and photographed a book I'm here to tell you it's a sneaky undertaking.  By that I mean that it sneaks up on you, sucks away your time and energy and makes you a bit......compulsive.  So what's involved?  Well,  over 42,000 words,  a distillation of 12,000 images,  lots and lots of experimental shoots,  four very patient professional models (whom you've seen from time to time represented here in the blog.....),  approximately 260 captions and lots of time spent learning everything there is to know about buying and using LED lights for photography.

Of all the books I've written this is far and away my favorite.  It's a subject I  really wanted to write about because I think it will overwhelm and engulf the whole practice of photography over the next two or three years.  I think it will also make good video accessible to so many good photographers.  It's cool technology, literally and figuratively.  It's also available at relatively low cost for people who want to experiment with it.

For the past two weeks I've been declining social invitations, missing some swims and spending way too much time with a laptop burning my thighs.  I'm sitting here burning DVD's full of images for the people at Amherst.  In an hour or so I'm heading to the Fed Ex office to send out the whole bundle.  And that includes my hand drawn lighting diagrams.

All of a sudden the post partum depression is settling in.  What will I do tomorrow?

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3.17.2011

Getting really clear on what you WANT to do.

Life is really strange.  There's a lot of stuff that sounds like good ideas.  But then you try it on for size and realize that while it might be a good idea for someone else it's not necessarily a good idea for you.  Take social networking for example.  One of my friends insisted, a couple of years ago, that I would be left behind unless I embraced Facebook. According to him all social information would essentially migrate there and  if I didn't have presence and lots of "friends" I'd probably never get another invitation to........anything.

You may be having a different experience but I think most of the stuff that makes it to Facebook is pretty lame.  And since I never check the mail there I'm probably missing out on incredible parties I'll never know about.  But interestingly enough we still get lots and lots of invitations from Evite and we actually have friends who still know how to use e-mail and even the U.S. Postal Service to get in touch with us and tell us about upcoming actual (face to face in the same room) social networking activities.  We just don't call them "social networking activities" we generally call them "dinner parties."  Some of the functions we call, "Cocktail parties."  Those functions  have more alcohol than most of the dinner parties but much less food.  We talk to each other instead of sitting around "tweeting" about sitting around.....

I tried Tweeting but it makes me feel like......a twit.  I don't have a lot to say to people on Twitter except, "Go and read my blog!!!!"  Or the always popular (with me), "Go buy my books!"  And people get tired of reading that over and over again, even if I do it in only 140 characters.

Most of Twitter is different now.  A year ago it was all, "I'm Mike and I'm watching a train wreck here in North L.A."  but now it's mostly retweets of links that refer to something like:  "Ten ways to be a better photographer."  Or "Don't make the mistake of charging for your work when you can easily give it away for free."  Or,  "Tune in tonight for my Podcast of how to edit Podcasts."  And, of course, my favorites,  "Come to my workshop."  "Here's a link about my workshop."  "Here are ten things I learned at Bob's workshop." "365 ways to use social netwhoring to build new business."

It's basically become a clearing house for corporations that used to write press releases but  can no longer afford stamps, or lone photographers, writers, and IT people who want or need attention.  And who doesn't need a little attention?  But really, at some point "Give me Attention" Fatigue (GMAF) settles in and we realize it's mostly marketing messages disguised as "useful???" information.  Shouldn't there be "social" pressure to limit "Tweets" to ten a day?  Or fewer?  And please,  stop texting while you drive.

So what does this have to do with photography?  Well, we have a  tendency to believe we should be doing what everyone else is doing when it comes to marketing and even the kinds of photographs we should be taking.  We assume that the people who got there before us are more steeped in the magic and lure of the latest "social marketing" thang and that, if we only work at it hard enough and diligently enough, it will make us successful too, and clients will beat a path to our doors.

But does it work?  Does it ever work?  One could bring up the examples of Chase Jarvis or David Hobby.  They've made social networking pay.  But chase is talented, and driven, and connected enough to have made it anyway so we'll never know how critical tweeting was for him.  David needed a new gig and he did a great job of inventing it.  But he did it early, and often, and established himself before the big crush.  And, to his credit, he brought together a depth of understanding about lighting and a different set of tools about blogging, the combination of which propelled his Strobist.com to stardom.  Could he do it today?  Maybe.  Maybe not.  We'll never know.

But here's the real question:  If you wanted to be a photographer,  were passionate about actually taking photographs,  felt the greatest satisfaction when in the process of making photographic art,  would it make sense to re-launch a new career doing something totally different because the tides of marketing made it sound like a great business idea?  To wit, giving up shooting to stand on a stage, or tinkle a keyboard "teaching" other people to light or shoot, and growing older by the day?

All the time you spend tweeting and holding workshops in the icky ballrooms of "second tier" hotels in secondary markets is time you'll never get back.  All the time you spend "loading" more stuff into Facebook and the countless other supposed social marketing media are days and weeks that you'll never get to spend working on the stuff you love.

When money managers talk about one thing displacing the other they talk about "opportunity loss."  If you spend $50,000 on a new BMW you end up with a depreciating product but you lose the opportunity to make money with that $50,000.  When you decide to monetize your social network the very act skews you to aim toward whatever market you think you have prayer of hitting and dilutes both your spirit and your creative "true nature."

And it's easier to justify that the money you bring in will pay for shooting trips and opportunities of time but there's only so much time to go around.  If you sell your art you sell your art.  But I'm beginning to think that when you try to leverage social media into a money making machine you sell a little bit of your soul.  (Apple doesn't make money by giving stuff away.  Or wasting time on Twitter.  They charge for everything they do.  They are old economy kicking new economy's ass.)

And, I'm not pointing the finger at anyone else.  I'm as guilty as all the rest.  I write this blog because I hope it will help me sell books I've written in the past and books that I'll write in the future.  I hope that people click thru to Amazon from time to time and buy diapers, or mail order wine, or a car and that I get a small percentage of that.  And it's true that I'll never get the half hour a day that I devote to writing a blog back.  When you multiple that lost half hour by all the other half hours that you dribble away because it's "expected" of you, or because you think you are participating in the "new economy" they start to add up.

How does it help me do my art?  How does it help me connect with clients?  How does it free up my time to print or find new subjects?  The answer......it doesn't.  It helps sell books. But even though we all do it let's try to be honest with ourselves,  and by extension, to our potential clients.  We all wish we had the courage to say, "Screw it." to everything else and spend our time doing the projects we love.  We don't live and breathe just because we're sooo excited about the next workshop or, even for that matter, the next unexciting headshot.  Some of what we accept is because of our fear that no more money will come in if we don't  but mostly it is because we believe the current of information that ricochets around the web and tells us how important it is to be.......there.  Enmeshed.  Engaged.  Connected.

What if being un-engaged and productive with real (non-virtual) projects is even more important?

In case you haven't guessed......I've finished writing the LED book and I'm sending it off on Monday.  I'm going to read it one more time to see if I can catch any errors.  Then,  I'm getting in the car and going off for a long weekend to shoot some stuff that I like.  Even if no one in the entire webspace likes it or even cares.  Because I want to be really clear about what I like.  For me.  You might think of doing the same.

To wrap up, the photo of Jana, above, was done for the new book.

3.14.2011

Coercing people to work for free and then calling it "crowdsourcing" doesn't make it moral or ethical or profitable.

I don't have a photo to go with this one but I do have a king sized rant.  Recently on Twitter a local photographer, who loves the idea of being an social networking guru, posted a link that pumps 99 Designs, a company that "crowdsources" design, logos and a lot of different graphic design work.  I think it's wrong to advocate "crowdsourcing" because it damages the fee base by which most designers earn a decent living.  It's a price grab that really only benefits  99 Designs.  The designers lose out on their normal income and security while the clients lose out on well thought out, custom designs from the real pros (who wouldn't touch this crap with a thousand foot pool).

So, what is this flavor of "crowdsourcing"?  The company mentioned invites you to throw a "design contest" (which they host and profit from)  and suggests that hundreds or thousands of designers around the world will slave away working on a design just for you.  Hey, logos start at $249!!!!  It's disingenuous to call this a contest.  It's speculative work.  It's a tiny carrot.  On a hundred sticks.

So thousands and thousands of man hours (and women hours) get thrown into creating a logo.  And you get to be the final arbiter.  And the capper is, if you don't like any of the hundreds of designs you get your money back!!!  How exciting.  The problem with all this is two fold:  First, it pushes people to work for free in a slow economy with the hope that something will pan out. And second, since the "design contest" initiator sets the price, even if you win it will be for a price that isn't enough to sustain a decent standard of living.  That means fewer dollars into the local school taxes, the city taxes and the state taxes.  More people marginalized.

But it also sends a message to every potential client who explores the market that there is some sort of fixed price for design and art.  That the creative process has become a commodity.  Sound familiar?

Oh yeah, stock photography!  Which led to "dollar stock" which led to the decline of the an industry.  Now the only people making money in stock photography are the stock photo companies themselves.  And even they are now victims of their every shrinking price/value bullshit.  They initiated a race to the bottom and now seem surprised that most of the value has been sucked from their companies.

So,  it takes a good, committed designer many hours to create a truly creative and valuable logo that provides ongoing value for a client.  Technology doesn't make the process of creative design any quicker than it was ten years ago and there's certainly no way an artist who licenses intellectual property can industrialize their process and earn additional revenues by increasing throughput.  There are no efficiencies of scale in real custom art.  All this new process is able to do is to deteriorate the perceived value of art in order to debase the pricing.  And the value of debased pricing works in only one direction.

This is a win/lose proposition.  It hurts even more when people who are ostensibly related to the art process side with the aggregators to push an idea that harms an entire industry.

Some will say that this process separates the wheat from the chaff but what it really does is separate highly trained, insightful and hard working people from their income stream.  It's a cold, callous and calculating business model that Goldman Sachs would love.  As long as they are on the other side of the equation from the artists.

The sad thing about self appointed experts with big microphones pointed back at the web is that they have an audience they didn't earn and their sole intention is to monetize their bully pulpit.  Sad days for real artists.  Thankfully, lots of clients can see thru this kind of horse shit and still hire professionals to design, create and help them market successfully.

I guess in a pure market driven economy the thought is that naked cannibalism is good and ordained by some god somewhere. At least some of the population will get fed.... When did the actual value of art exit the market?  When did it get replaced by a bunch of Ayn Rand clones bent on destroying all markets by reducing them to the equivalent of pork bellies?

This is not a question of being unable to compete on talent.  It is a moral question of who should benefit from true value.  There is an intrinsic value in all we do.   There used to be an understanding in marketplaces that you would sustain your providers and they would sustain you.  Now is it just every man or every business for themselves?

Thank goodness that this drivel on the web hasn't penetrated into the general public consciousness, yet.  Not all of us nor all of our clients have walked up to Jim Jone's table and drunk the Koolaide.  Not every author has given away their books to drive their corporate speaking engagements.  Not every photographer has walked away from their copyright to embrace a royalty free existence (and impoverishment).

If someone offered you a contest instead of a job would you take it?  If you were a freelance electrical engineer and someone came to you and said,  "Design the next great cellphone for us on spec (with 1,000 other engineers)   and if we decide to build the one you design we will pay you a wildly reduced fee?"  If you were a chef and someone came into your restaurant and said, "Make us your best entree.  We'll sample yours and those of all your competitors and then we'll pay the check at the restaurant whose food we liked best.    What a great opportunity for you to connect with diners!"  I hope you would have the gumption to throw them out of your restaurant or tell them to stick their cellphone contest someplace where only trained proctologists could recover it.  Because what they are basically saying is,  "Let me exploit you."  And we're supposed to pretend this is the new economy.....?

3.13.2011

I find the most interesting people just walking thru life.

Amulya, sitting in my studio for a portrait.

It's fun to find new people willing to spend the time to come into the studio and sit for a portrait.  Just for fun.  Every semester I get invited to come to one of Dennis Darling's classes at the University of Texas college of Journalism to do a slide show and talk to students about the profession of being a "High Value Content" provider  .  I generally talk about what I like to shoot and why.  I always talk about how to "monetize" my passion, as well.  According to Dennis I am usually entertaining and never give the same speech twice.  The students seem to like the talks.  But sometimes Dennis and I don't communicate (it's probably me, I should listen better.....) and this was one of those times.  You see, I'd been doing little, intimate talks about the business of photography for Dennis' and Michael O'Brien's  graduate students.  Usually no more than ten or twelve people in a class.  We could grab a topic and throttle it and then move off to another topic that the students wanted to know about.

When I left my office I grabbed some self promotion pieces to show and the incredible book, Commercial Photography Handbook, (which is like a blue print for constructing a financially successful career in photography.......) and I put my favorite HD infested DSLR (Canon 60D) in my bag and I started free associating a speech-let about the "exciting" convergence of still photography and video.  But it was not to be.  Instead I was escorted into a big theater style lecture hall and I smiled and said "Hi!" to well over 100 students.  Now I know how a comedy club performer must feel when they walk into an unexpected audience.  You know, like Eddie Murphy walking in to entertain a church full of southern Baptist ladies...

Picassa online albums to the rescue.  I found a gallery I've uploaded in order to put photographs in my blog and there were over 900 fairly fun photographs, each with a funny story attached.  I was saved by the ubiquity of the web.

But at the end of the talk, after most people filed out of the room (still laughing?) I stood in front of a small group of people who wanted to ask me some questions.  Most of the questions were about how to get started.  Or how to make money.  Or how to get started making money.  But one young man (on a campus of nearly 50,000 students and a female/male ratio of 58/42%) actually asked me how I found people to photograph.  Really?  Ummm.  Look left or right?

So I turned to the cute and exotic young woman standing in the middle of the crowd and I said,  "You have a wonderful look.  Would you consider coming to my studio so I can do your portrait?"  She quasi blushed and then said, "Of course."  (Later she called to see if she could bring a friend along....which is always fine.  Especially if they are attractive as well.)  I turned back to the young man who asked me the question and he seem mesmerized that things could be so easy.  But there it is.  Life is as easy as you make it.  Finding people to photograph is a practice of playing the odds.  Ask enough people and you'll have enough models/subjects.

Today I finally made a web gallery for Amulya.  It's important to remember and keep your promises.  

The lighting was one giant Octabank with a Elinchrom flash head plugged into the lower output plug of a Ranger RX AS pack.  I used the Octabank as close as I could get it.  It's the Fotodiox bank  that's all of $65 I talked about in a blog about a month ago.  An amazingly great, cheap modifier.  I love the light.  It's groovy.  Used the Zeiss 85mm and an older Canon 1dmk2n.   Fun stuff.



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.