4.03.2011

Spring cleaning. Good for square footage. Good for the brain.


When I undertake a project, like the LED book, I tend to compulsively jump in with both feet.  I feel like ''total immersion" is the only way to really learn a subject.  But as I add new stuff to the mix I find that my limited storage space (literally and metaphorically) fills up quick.  So every once in a while I do a big ole studio purge.  I toss out a lot of stuff.  Things that have good market value go to Precision Camera where they sell them for me on consignment. Other things get pieced out to up and coming, or struggling existing, photographers around town.  Yesterday I took a box full of optical filters and flash brackets to Precision Camera.  Along with a host of batteries I'd collected for cameras I no longer own.

Today I'm feeling especially ruthless.  I'm dragging stuff out of closets and out of tool kits.  I'm determined to minimalist-ize my space and be like one of the those Zen Monks of photography.  But let me tell you, the attachment I feel to some of this (though misplaced) is strong.  Every time I jettison something is symbolic of the passing of one era or another.  And that nostalgia creates sticky webs that slow down the whole process.

Here's what I'm getting rid of today:  A Calumet four foot by six foot softbox (shallow design).   A Photoflex four foot by six foot softbox.  An Alien Bees Ringlight with cords and the "Moon Unit" softbox.  Lots of partially used rolls of different colored seamless paper backgrounds.  An orange shipping tube for lightstands and tripods (Indestructible plastic resin).  A set of pop up reflectors.  Some older light stands.  Maybe another set of Profoto strobes (although those have high stickiness.....)

I'm also throwing out any film from corporate jobs prior to 2001.  Hell, with the exception of my "art" negatives I may just throw it all away.

Only in this way can I make room for the next wave of stuff that's sure to come.  It's just relentless.  But that's what I get from living and participating in the world's greatest consumer culture.

4.02.2011

Following thru on your projects is good practice for following thru on life.


It's so much fun to shoot stuff.  It really is.  The camera makes fun noise and the little screen on the back of your camera does a good job letting you feel as though you are creating art with each gentle mush on the shutter button.

But it really doesn't count for much if you don't go back to the office and edit, and then do some color corrections, and then put up a web gallery for your client.  And even more importantly, when you get a list of images from your client you really do have to sit back down and do all the post processing you crowed about being an ace at on the shoot day.  The retouching, getting the color exactly the way you want it (as opposed to settling for the "correct" way) and then burning the disk you promised your subject.

Otherwise..........

But, once you get into the habit of following thru you start finding yourself getting things done almost unconsciously.

I promised Selena I would take photos of her for her nascent but quickly blossoming career as a singer/performer if she would give me some time as a model for my just finished LED book.  She did her part and now I've done mine.

I hear from a lot of models who get burned by photographers.  The photographers promise something in exchange for a model's time and energy and then toss a few unprocessed files into an e-mail and walk away.  No wonder models don't take photographers as seriously as we'd like to be taken.  So, I'm encouraging everyone out there with an uncompleted project to jump to it and get it done.  Once you've cleared the decks you've let the universe know that you are ready and able to jump onto the next fun project.  And generally the universe delivers.  (No 30 minute guarantee.  That's just for pizza.)

4.01.2011

I spent my morning photographing oral surgery. Better to photograph it than sit in the chair...

 Another one of my "day in the life" stories.  One of my clients is an oral surgery practice.  I've been doing a lot of work with them lately.  We're creating an extensive catalog of images to use on their website and in their print collateral.  We like to show the doctors and surgical assistants at work and that's where I come in.  Random little secret:  I've never been comfortable with medical or dental procedures, faint at the sight of my own blood and get queasy around needles.  Of course I should also confess that this random secret is pretty much "past tense."  Over the course of the last year, working with these guys, I've become less and less reactive.  I guess that's because I'm getting better at being thankful it's not me in the chair.  But if I needed something fixed or extracted I wouldn't hesitate to go to these guys....
Today I needed to make a portrait of one of the doctors at a clinic out near Lake Travis.  I packed a Profoto 600b acute pack (battery powered) with a head and the Fotodiox 28 inch beauty dish with matching diffuser.  I brought along a flex fill to bounce in fill light, a set of background stands and a light gray background.  When I got to the clinic I went straight to the doctor's office, moved chairs around and set up the portrait stuff.  I wanted it ready to go so that we could move in and do the portrait on a few minutes notice.  The magic in using one light is in the feathering.  If you don't know about feathering do a search.  This blog ain't for beginners.
Once the portrait lighting was set I grabbed a camera from the bag and set out to shoot actual patients in procedures. I shot one implant procedure and one wisdom tooth removal.  In both instances the patients were sedated via IV's.  I dressed in my regulation pressed khaki's, white, button down dress shirt and sensible shoes.  I tend to wear a mask just in case.  The surgical team largely ignores me.  We've worked together before and once they were reasonably certain that I wouldn't faint and hit the floor, or do something dumb like unplug a bp/vo2 monitor during a procedure they tend to just accept my presence with good graces.

Since I've been shooting a lot of video lately my big Domke bag has gone thru some inventory changes. Out are the two Canon 1dmk2n's and in are my two favorite Canon video shooting cameras, the 7D and 60D.  And they're both great for this kind of work.  Newbies get all excited about needing super high ISO's and fast lenses to shoot under any interior condition that they aren't lighting with flash.  Not so necessary.  The operating areas are very well and uniformly lit.  My basic setting is the half sized RAW file (10 megapixels), AWB, ISO 640, f2.8-f4.0 and a shutter speed range of 1/125th to 1/320.  But mostly it's right in the middle at 1/250th.  Today I pulled one lens out of the bag and used it all morning long.  From clinical shots right thru to the portrait.  It was the manual focus Carl Zeiss 50mm 1.4 ZE for Canon.  When you use the manual focus lenses with cropped frame cameras that have gushy screens meant to look pretty with auto  focus lenses you really have two choices if you want sharp photos.  You can use live view (assuming you are comfortably situated on a tripod, which I wasn't) or you can use the center focusing point just like a rangefinder on a Leica.

Here's what I've decided is true about manual focus on cameras without manual focusing screens.  To a large extent the focusing screen itself is useless.  You need to use the autofocus confirmation lights or lights and beep to know when you've achieved focus.  The screen seems to have a native "f-stop" of around 5.6 and it doesn't matter how good your eyes are or how good your diopter adjustment is, the screen itself isn't going to show you in and out of focus in the way a camera would if it's screen were optimized to work in manual focus.

I've tried it a thousand different times.  And every time I come back to setting the center sensor as my target sensor and using it with good success.  Why put myself thru this when Canon makes a plenty of good, auto focus lenses?

Because, in video it's all different.  Smooth focusing matters.  You'll be using manual focus anyway and you'll be right back to the same question of how to do manual focus.  Also, the Zeiss lenses have really smooth, well damped focusing rings.  And I like the neutral color rendition along with the high resolution performance. (Lost on most video footage....).

I shot for several hours, then we did the portraits and I packed up and moved on.  Back to the office to download and tweak before putting them up on Smugmug to share with my client.  The rest of the afternoon was spent returning calls, writing on a project and editing thru some video footage.  Things seem more and more to be getting back to normal in my business but I get the very real feeling that the roiling and thrashing in the ad business is continuing relentlessly.  A good friend and winner of hundreds of awards for creative direction and television just lost his job at the big mega-agency.  It's hard to understand the map for creative people these days.  Every thing changed but the change itself is changing and nothing seems to be working in some areas.  I'm happy to have my plate full and my clients happy so I'll keep doing the things that have kept me moving forward as the economy moved backwards.

I have a few observations about the gear.  The 60D and 7D bodies are really great to work with.  I like them a lot and I like them better, for the most part, than the 5Dmk2.  The 5 has nicer files.  But feels different.  Second observation:  If you are of my generation you'll just enjoy the feel of the big, heavy Zeiss lenses on the front of your camera because the feel the way we were taught that lenses should feel. A lot of my perception that the Zeiss lenses are somehow better is doubtless due to the placebo effect.  But that doesn't make it any less metaphysically real.  Does it?
This weekend I'm diving into the learning curve with Final Cut Pro.  Shouldn't be much harder to use than iMovie, right?  It is an Apple product, right?  I'll let you know how it goes......

3.31.2011

Experiment, try, fail, succeed. Don't sit still.

I went out to Willie Nelson's place west of Austin with Selena to take a few images to promote her band,  Rosie and the Ramblers.  We didn't use any lights for the images shown here.  I'd just bought the two Canon 1Dmk2's and I tossed them in the bag along with the three Zeiss ZE lenses:  The 35mm f2, the 50mm 1.4 and the 85mm 1.4.  I tried every permutation of available light shooting I could think of and then some.  The top image was shot, hand held with the 50mm lens, wide open.  Or close to it.

I'd always heard that this lens was "dreamy" and "unsharp" wide open and while I admit that focusing it on one of the cropped frame cameras can be.....challenging I think the center sharpness of this high speed optic is pretty damn good.  Another myth in the trash basket.


I heard the same thing about the 85mm 1.4 lens.  All of the well known photo test sites sing the same mantra on this lens:  "It's soft and dreamy wide open."  The shot above was taken, handheld, with that same 85mm 1.4 lens, used at its widest aperture.  I think it's pretty wonderful.  All fast lenses are designed to be sharp in the middle at wider apertures.  Because,  that's where we need them to be sharp.  If I listened to the pundits I would never have purchased the lens because I would have been told that it's only usable above f4. Pretty crazy if you ask me.



While I rail a lot about the futility and silliness of heavy post processing I recently bought a copy of Topaz Adjust and I've been playing around with all of the filter presets.  They are all too heavy handed but I find that I can fade the filter result in PhotoShop and then I like the effects much better.  Not sure it's any better than what I could normally do by myself in PhotoShop but it's a lot of fun to experiment with.



Part of my new experiments have to do with microphones for video production.  I bought a Sennheiser wireless microphone system and I've had very, very good results so far.  In the next week or so I'll write a review about the microphones and transmitters.

I know that dipping my toes into motion might scare off some readers but, c'est la vie. I think the whole market is moving to motion and the sooner we come to grips with stuff that moves around and makes noise the better.

Off to see Michael O'Brien sign some books.  Hope you're having a great week.

Best, Kirk

3.30.2011

Michael O'Brien kicks it up another notch and shows why he's the real deal.

Get this book of images by Michael O'Brien and Poems by Tom Waits and understand that there's a whole step up in the art of photography beyond us geeks that write blogs and use 50 flashes to show off.

I guess it's easy to lose track of what you got into photography for.  We let clients side track us and we let trends corrupt the way we really should be shooting.  I'm as guilty as everyone else.  But it doesn't feel so bad until someone with a laser focus and a gift for digging in and shooting the hard stuff comes along and rubs our faces in it.  Then all of a sudden a book about LED's or a trip around the country flashing the rubes doesn't seem like such an incredible deal.  That's not to say that Michael is the type to rub anyone's nose in anything.  As far as I can tell the man is a saint.

Michael O'Brien spent four long years meeting the homeless people he photographed (with dignity)  for this book.  He didn't do it because he was sponsored by an equipment manufacturer.  He didn't do it for the money (there rarely is any in art books...).  And he didn't do it as a way to claw into "social media" and show off.  He did it because no one else was doing it and he felt that these were faces that comfortable people needed to see.  We needed to understand a different and pervasive reality outside our limited suburban comfort zones.

He did the book in concert with the singer and poet, Tom Waits.  It's out.  It's there now.  And since UT Press subsidized some of the production you'll be getting a book for $40 that would have cost closer to $70 if produced by one of the bigger, for profit publishers.

I talked to Michael today and he told me he was surprised to find that the final printed work was as good as the original prints he made.

The images were done with a 4x5 view camera and on Polaroid materials.  Check this book out and you'll understand why the world still needs photographers who care less about booking the next workshop or shooting trendy slop for a blog that's peppered with affiliate advertising.  We need them because they are the "bar."  And every time they raise it they make everyone think harder.  And hopefully, work better.

August Osage County. A look at the finished piece.


About a week and a half ago I posted a blog about photographing actors for an upcoming Zach Scott Theatre play.  Here's the link:  http://visualsciencelab.blogspot.com/2011/03/cant-get-enough-of-those-crazy-leds.html.   I showed you the "behind the scenes" raw images that I shot of each actor.  Some were accented from one side and some on the other.  They were all shot against white.

I thought it would be fun and instructive (and a good way to procrastinate) to show you how the designer, Rona, put all the photos together for the promotional postcard.  The combination is much more powerful that the photos individually.   Having a client that does good design work and uses photography well is especially good when they add in two other things:  A big bold credit line coupled with distribution to 20,000 carefully selected trend makers in the community.

You'll probably remember that I shot all the images with the antiquated Canon 1dmk2n cameras and a Zeiss 50mm lens.  You can see that, given the size this will ultimately be used, that we didn't need any more pixels than what we had and that the workflow was quicker and smoother with the smaller files.

Tonight I'm going over to the theater to photograph the dress rehearsal.  It's a long play.  Nearly 3 hours. There are two intermissions.  There's a lot to shoot.  I'm told that the set is pretty cool and I already know the cast is great.

Tonight I'm thinking of shooting a one lens/one camera system.  Make it as easy on myself as possible, commensurate with good results....

So I'm leaning toward the Canon 5Dmk2 with the 24-105mm f4 L lens.  I'm taking the 7D along as well and if the play is such that I need more reach I'll go with that body instead.  For documentation, where expression and timing is more important than ultimate technical quality, I trust both cameras up to 3200 ISO.  The reach will be the determiner.  Just to hedge my bets I'll stick the 70-200 f4L in the bag, as well.  You never know when you might really want to "reach out and touch someone" with your lens..."


3.28.2011

It's all part of the process of life.


We were so busy back in the late 1990's but I never neglected to spend as much time as possible with my son, Ben.  I'd come home from a morning shoot on a bright Summer day and corral Ben and his mom, Belinda, into my old, green BMW and we'd head out for a lunch adventure.  To this day Ben doesn't get that other dads don't take time for a long, lingering lunches with family.  On this particular day is was in the 90's already by noon.  We were all in the mood for burgers so we headed to Hilbert's on north Lamar Blvd.

We ordered our burgers and fries and grabbed seats at the counter.  The bright sun diffused itself thru a yellowed sun barrier on the floor to ceiling windows that looked out over the picnic tables and the parking lot.  Ben was eating french fries and his mom and I were talking about vacation.  Where we'd go and what we'd do.  I looked down at Ben and he looked at me with such love and adoration it almost made me cry right there on my vinyl covered stool, in the run down burger joint.  I lifted up the camera that accompanied me everywhere, like an oxygen tank on the surface of Mars, and snapped one or two frames.  I've cherished the memory of that warm and ultimately happy day ever since.

Ben has grown up to be a wonderful 15 year old.  He still gives me a warm and happy look from time to time.  We still go out for burgers when he's not at school.  I look forward to summers in Austin.  We each have our own activities but we come together at lunch and dinner to catch up and just exist together.  I'm grateful for photography because it captures these wonderful moments for me and sticks them in my face to repudiate times of self pity or narcissism.

Kodachrome 64.  Scanned.  No lighting.  No tricks.  No layers.  Only unconditional love in both directions.  That's the reason for photography.

I love this portrait very, very much.


I had the perfect assistant for a while.  Her name was Renae.  She was telepathic.  She could sense what tool or prop I needed it long before I even thought about needing it.  And she would occasionally say, "You need to do a beautiful portrait now.  I'll have a friend drop by."  And one day she announced that I should photograph Amy.  And since I never thought to argue with Renae I dutifully prepared the studio for Amy's arrival.

I was still shooting film at the time.  Early years.  Maybe 2000 or 2001.  We had digital cameras but we used them for quick stuff.  Not for art.  We shot this on Astia.  With an R8 and a 90mm Summicron.  We shot all our fun stuff on Leica R cameras back then.

The lighting I used was my favorite.  A big soft light high up and to my left.

I took one look at Amy and fell in love with her face.  She was remarkable.  A natural beauty.  We shot a lot of portraits.  And we played with the light.  But that was secondary to our banter and back and forth.  It was a seduction plain and simple.  From both parties.  Eventually it all got silly and Renae broke up the moment and we all had a few glasses of wine.  Then everyone went home.  And that's the way the best portrait sessions go.  Men or women.  You meet the sitter.  You mutually conspire to fall in love in the safety of the studio, both knowing that it won't progress past the last roll of film.  You flirt, you engage, you tease.  And when you get good images you give your subject good feedback and they push closer to the invisible edge and then the moment passes and the energy ebbs aways and you become friends.  And you know you've taken a wonderful portrait.  But you know you could not have done it if your subject hadn't submitted in some way to your advances and responded in kind.

And that's when you know the magic of portraiture manifested itself to you.  If you can't fall in love with your sitters you are doomed to make documentations instead of art.  In commerce it's different.  That's why it's important to do work that pleases you and the private sitter and not worry about the masses.  Not everyone is lovable and not everyone can fall in love.......

As Renae pushed our sitter out the door she gave me a look.  She knew just where the edges of the process blurred and how to enforce her own mystical idea of inspiration.  I've never known a more prescient person and I've never had an assistant like that again.  She made herself part of the process.  And she was so valuable to my vision that I gladly let her.

3.27.2011

Um. Shut up and shoot. Social hour's over.


Here's what the web has done for us (me).  Allowed photographers to share their images, thoughts and words all over the world.  We've spent the last five years talking about shooting until we're all blue in the face (and I thought that was just the result of a bad profile....).  And for every hour we spend talking about how to perfect the images we may take in the future we've loped off one more hour that we could be making those images.  Every hour spent in one direction is a lost opportunity in another direction.

Habit's a bad thing to fall into.  I have a couple of friends who are photographers of a sort.  I used to have coffee with them.  All the time.  There's always something you could talk about with a common interest like photography.  It was always fun in the first go around.  You got to share and they got to share and world seemed interesting.  But then we fell into habit.  We met even when there really wasn't anything to share.

With a couple of friends I felt a trend happening that's a running joke when it comes to doctors.  You know,  you run into a dermatologist at a cocktail party and show him that curious mole.  He says,  "Interesting.  Why don't you call on Monday for an appointment?" And then he wanders off to find drinking companions that aren't looking for free medical advice.  So, with me, having the curse of having written a few books about the craft and having practiced it as a business, the fun talk evaporates pretty quickly only to be routinely replaced by, "Which lens?"  "Which setting?"  and in the old days, "Which Film?"  And there is no right answer.   To them photography is different from work.  And what I do is different from what they do.

And I get frustrated.  Because all the talk is aimed at making the "how" more and more quantified without a care for the what and why.  Technique has become the big idea.  And when technique is the big idea there is no idea.    I'll be happy to hear someone talk about what they want to actually shoot but I don't want to hear about an amazing new HDR discovery or the way they mapped their printer profiles or how they lit something.  Believe me,  after all these years all I have to do is look at the photo and I'll be reasonably certain how someone lit something.  My photo friends might be interested in what PhotoShop can do but we don't need to talk about it.  For me it's a tool like a hammer or a wrench.  It's not a muse.  It's not an inspiration.  Look outward for that inspiration.

So many people use the idea of mastering all of the technical shit inherent in photography because it gives them an excuse not to mount up and ride off in search of the magic.  Because the fear is that they won't know the magic when they see it, and,  they're afraid that their magic won't resonate with their audience.  And I can't help anyone with that.  I shot for one audience:  ME.  And believe me, if I see a photograph of someone I've loved for over a quarter of a century, standing in the Louvre in a gray beret, all I see is the smiling eyes and all I take in is the happiness of the moment.  And my audience feels it all in a very real way because I am the audience and the photograph was taken for me.  To capture, in the amber of time, a vanishing moment that I wanted to preserve and look at again and again.  Not something I need other people to admire.

And every time talk turns to  HDR, gradients, techniques with multiple inverted layers and all the other quasi-techno goo that seems to make our actions and intentions more viscous,  I'm trading that time for the opportunity to please my solitary audience with one more image.  Tell me about your exciting idea to photograph models in Milan, or feral cows in Des Moines but don't bore me with details of the flight and how you plan to process the files.

The only way to gain magic is to give up control.  And giving up control is hard.  And fraught with uncertainty.  And not everything will work out just right.  But in the times that you let chance guide your  hand instead of the tight brace of technical "mastery"  you might occasionally stop thinking long enough to allow your spirit to create.

I shot the image above on ISO 64 film on a cloudy day in Paris way back in 1986.  I know what camera and lens I used but it doesn't matter because the scene will never happen the same way again.  Belinda and I were walking through a room at the Louvre that was filled, at the time, with sculpture.  I'd just photographed an Italian man disregard the multi-lingual signage and lean over the rope to lecherously run his hand over the smooth, marble hip of a tasty nymph statue.  I turned around to say something to Belinda and the light washed over her in a beautiful way.  I saw her eyes sparkle.  I doubt I noticed the out of focus shapes behind her but I've come to love them very much.  I clicked one or two frames of precious film, looked into her beautiful hazel eyes one more time and we moved on to look at a different genre of art.  


When I go back and look at frames like this I'm overwhelmed by the concentration of emotion I see in them.  Lost to me are meaningless issues of sharpness or lens curvature.  Lost to me are discussions about the seemingly random noise of the grain.  All I see is Belinda as I saw her in that moment.  That's why it's art to me.  


If you have to explain, fix in PhotoShop, render in layers, etc. you've captured something much different and while I might like the taste of that dish I don't need to hear the exacting particulars of the recipe recited.



3.26.2011

What If You Thought You'd Done Your "Ten Thousand Hours" Only To Find That You'd Only Done One Hour Ten Thousand Times?


People ask me all the time,  "Why do you change gear so much?"  "Why are you constantly experimenting with new lights and new ways of lighting?"  "Where do you find such interesting models?" But what they are really saying is, "Why don't you find a comfortable rut and stay in it?"  The idea being that you get to have one big idea or style in your career and once you hit that point you should keep endlessly reiterating it in order to squeeze all the juice you can out of that particular turnip.

So much chatter on the web last year and the year before about Malcolm Gladwell's observation about the need to log ten thousand hours of practice before you master your (fill in the blank) art/craft.  And I think, at the core, it's a useful concept with eddies of truth and substance.  But it never ceases to amaze me how our western culture wants to distill everything down to quantifiable results, with a maniacally singular focus.  But that seems to grow from our linear and metrically obsessed modalities of gauging business success and, by extrapolation, everything else.  We tend to equate quantity with good and speed with success.

With the rise of corporations the general goal seems to be the reduction of any craft or art to a series of production steps that can be isolated and repeated, ad infinitum, always finding a way to cheapen or condense the product while remaining profitable.

This applies so handily to the craft and hobby of photography.  In books, at workshops and online the constant demand from would be artists is for the "formula."  It's always couched in these questions and requests:  "What's the correct ratio?"  "Give me a diagram showing me exactly where to put the lights?"  What's the best (lens/camera/tripod/lightstand/modifier) to use for XXX?" And my favorite:  "What is your technique for getting people to look interesting?"

Once many people have run the gamut of workshops and books and on line forae they narrow down the stuff they've learned about each niche in photography and then slavishly follow it.  And if they follow the same course of action over and over again for ten years or ten thousand hours they are generally no closer to their goal of making their own art.  They've done the hour or twenty hours of instruction and practiced the same small things over and over again.

The goal, perhaps, should be to abandone any sort of formula and rely on your own intuition and taste to augment your experimentation and your growth as a collaborative and empathetic human being.  That might be the secret people are really looking for.  And it has a formula:  experiment and refine your own vision.  Hold the camera your own way.  Make the most of your ten thousand hours.  Even if it means sitting quietly and listening to the person you'd like to photograph.