6.06.2011

Flash, flash and more flash. Why do I buy what I buy and what do I regret having bought?

You would think that after years of working in the field I'd know exactly what tool to own for the majority of the work I do.  And you'd be wrong.  When it comes to cameras the trick is keeping up with improvements in digital sensors and deciding which increases in megapixels will drive the rest of the market and where it's profitable for you to end up on that curve.  And cameras are a moving target.  Their bar changes.  At least the manufacturers have done a really good job convincing us that we're dealing with an upward moving bar.  I'm not always sure.

In lighting though it would seem logical to assess what you need for most assignments and buy one time. After all, the quality of the photons coming out of the business ends of flash equipment is all pretty much the same, right? Yeah.  That's the way bright, linear people tend to do stuff.... but.

We bought flash gear in the 1990's based on a couple parameters:  1.  We traveled a lot so it needed to be robust.  2.  We used medium format film cameras with slow film so the need for power was a given.  3.  We fantasized that we'd only need to buy new flash gear once every ten years or so.  That meant that the actual purchase price wasn't as big an issue as it is with gear that you replace every few years.

At the beginning of the 1990's (the medium format decade) I'd been shooting with big Norman PD2000 packs for the better part of ten years.  It was old and very heavy technology.  It was cumbersome to change power levels.  You'd switch banks and flip big switches but there was nothing like the rotating knobs that allowed you to seamlessly turn down power.  The heads weighed a lot.  The boxes weighed in at nearly 25 pounds a piece.  In those days you could always bribe Skycaps to look the other way where weight was concerned, but that changed.

I looked around on the market and found the Profoto stuff.  We bought a big box (2400 watt seconds) for those times we still dragged out the 4x5 camera.  We bought a couple of the 1200 Acute systems for all the rest of our work.  Most shoots were still happening in the studio.  By mid-decade more and more shoots were ending up on location and we bought two 300 watt second Profoto Monolights and a 600 watt second Monolight.  I thought we'd never change again.

Along came digital.  Once the cameras stablilized (around 2005) and started delivering clean files at 400 ISO and even 800 ISO the big problem with using studio flashes, especially for portrait work, was not having too little power but not being able to turn the power on a box or a monolight down far enough.

When I worked with the 300 watt second monolights I could only turn them down to one quarter power.  But if I wanted to work close with a big softbox and wider apertures I'd have to McGyver all kinds of diffusion onto the fronts of the boxes.  The 1200's and 2400's sat mostly unused.

That's around the time Alien Bees came onto the market.  They were small and light and had built in fans.  And you couldn't beat the cost.  I bought a set for two reasons:  1.  They could be turned down.  Way down. and, 2. They could be used with an external battery pack, called a Vagabond.  And if you didn't have much of a budget you could still do things with the lights that we would have struggled with a decade earlier.  The downsides of the Alien Bees were the crappy modifier interface (doesn't hold huge stuff well),  the cheezy product design (butt ugly logos all over the place) and the relatively low build quality.  Yes, the light was fine and the service is good but man, you pay the price in aesthetic joy and ergonomics.....

We got so many "funny" comments from clients about the giant bees on the sides of the lights that I started having the assistants cover them with black gaffer's tape.  But the cincher was the variable color temperature at different power settings.  It's easy to make universal corrections but if one light is different than another light in the same scene it can be problematic.  You'll spend a lot of quality time in post production trying to hit some sort of balance.

So, we had Profoto studio lights and monolights because they were bullet proof reliable and we had tons of accessories that fit together.  The mounting rings were up to the task of holding seven foot Octabanks and other crazy accessories.  They looked like real gear.  Clients got it.  And we had Alien Bees for shots of golf foursomes on the 9th hole and CEO on the pedestrian bridge over Lady Bird Lake.

But even with all this stuff we still needed battery powered camera flashes.  They come in handy when shooting corporate events and stuff at night.  If we were shooting Nikon we'd need SB-600's and SB-800's.  When we switched to Canon we needed EX 580's and EX 430's.  Then I started doing minimalist style shoots with the smaller lights and we added more and more of those.  Which culminated in a book project, which culminated in four more book projects.

After a while I got fed up with the Alien Bees plastic construction and the slight color shifts when I changed power and decided to upgrade the tool kit for exterior location work.  There were two front runners I could afford.  One was the Profoto 600b Acute with a head and the other was the Elinchrom Ranger RX AS system with one head.  I started with the Profoto because it's much lighter and, for the most part I've been happy with it.  A couple of downsides:  Sometimes, with bright sun and big diffusers even the 600 watt seconds isn't enough.  And when you use it in those conditions, at full power, you quickly go thru your battery charge (about 100-125 full power pops).  And at those settings the recycle can get a bit long.  I love shooting with the system just about everywhere so I picked up three more batteries and that buys me a lot of comfort level......

After a year with the Profoto 600b I stumbled across a great deal on a demo package of the Elinchrom RX AS with an extra battery and reflector, case, etc.  I snapped it up with the intention of selling the Profoto but now, over a year later, I still have both.

What do I like about the Ranger?  It pops out 1100 watt seconds and will do so 250 times in a row with one battery charge.  Drop the power to 600 watt seconds and I'm good for well over 500 flashes.  That's cool.  With two batteries you pretty much have a full day of shooting covered with no sweat.  And the top panel is all sealed.  All the touch switches are weather sealed.  It's so......safety, safety.

What don't I like about the Ranger?  Well, the powerpack weighs a whopping 18 pounds.  And the way accessories and speedrings attach to the heads isn't as solid and worry-proof as the Profoto system.  And I wish you could leave the modeling lights on for longer than 15 or 30 seconds.

So, when I need to carry lights further than 100 yards from the car it's generally the Profoto system that comes with me.  When I can put stuff on the cart I go with the Elinchroms.  I'm generally agnostic about the quality differences between the two.

Yesterday I was at the camera store getting rid of some excess tripod when I stumbled across two Elinchrom plug-in-the-wall monolights in a Pelican case for a decent price.  I bought them, undoing the conservational steak I had going for about seven minutes with the consigning of the sticks.

So now I'm thinking about rationalizing down to one system.  And it's hard because there's always the nostalgic and emotional context of past use and past reliability.  But I think I'm taking the reverse plunge.  I've long since sold off the Alien Bees but now I think it's time to say good bye to the old Profoto stuff.  I'm packing up the 600e Acute and two heads.  Saying goodbye to the last 600 w/s Profoto Compact monolight and aloha! to the mountain of accumulated accessories.

I can't quite let go of the Acute B (battery system) and head.  I like it so much for locations.

reality. Most of the stuff we do could be done with one small set of monolights and one battery system.  In fact, you could probably do portraits with camera flashes if you wanted to.  I'd miss the modeling lights and the fast recycle and I'd worry about battery packs on a long day of shooting.

I'm not doing very much studio work these days and when I do still life I'm tending to use continuous lights more and more.  So nothing special needed in the studio.  I don't like a lot of different lights in portrait shots; usually just two:  One on the background and one as the main light.  I prefer a passive fill.  More and more I like the look of just using available light.

I guess if I started over from scratch today I'd see how things would work with one big battery system and one smaller battery system.  Something like the Profoto Acute B for the big main light and just a Canon 580 EX2 for the background.  I'd be willing to be I could do a huge percentage of my work that way.

Recommendations  

I spoke to a class last week and I really had to stop and think about my recommendations.  The days of big projects with lots of lights seem to be behind us now.  There's so much to be said for clean 3200 ISO and just little splashes of light.  We don't spend a lot of time constructing big sets.  Even the people who used to do this now shoot most things in chunks and pieces, optimizing as they go, and then let the retouchers assemble everything just right in post production.  To my mind the future is in rentals.  You'll always need enough light to do a good set of portrait lights in this business.  But they can be a small set of monolights with fast recycling and a good selection of modifiers.  Everything else has become specialty lighting and as long as there are good rental sources I'd rather rent than own.

Rule of Thumb


Use it once a quarter?  Rent it.  Use it once a month?  That's a borderline between rent and buy.  If you love having the product around then buy it.  If it's boring but handy, rent it.  Use it more than once a month?  You need to own one.

What Changed?


When we started shooting years ago we shot everything in the studio and everything with flash.  Big flash.  We didn't do video.  We didn't do continuous lighting.  Most studio pros did not also do event/reportage shooting.  Now we do everything.  And it's not possible to own every light for every job that might come along.  The video industry is all about the rental and all the rental gear is billed to the client.  It's part of the job.  Specialty gear is the same way.  We used to shoot three or four days a week, now most shooters are happy to get three or four good, solid jobs a month.  We need less, not more overhead.   We need more, not less flexibility.  Renting makes that all work.

As the economy continues to change we're starting to see adaptations.  The first thing to go was employee overhead.  I can't think of a single photograph I know who still has an employee.  Office managers have become freelance producers or contract book keepers.  All assistants are contractors.
The next thing to go was studio overhead.  No more air conditioning and heating and paying rent on 3,000 whether you used it or not.  Now we work out of home offices and small share offices.  Our office equipment is usually a laptop and an inkjet printed.  Two or three outboard harddrives for back up.  Next up will be all the lighting gear.  There's some stuff that's hard or silly to source.  Like basic light stands and nets and scrims.  And like I said above, you'll want your basic portrait kit.  But to be efficient everything else should be considered specialty gear and rented and charged accordingly.

Judgement?  Nope.  It's not a good thing or a bad thing.  It just is.  If you want to survive in this market you'll have to manage cash flow and manage the resources you bring to bear for the clients.  That means not wasting money on stuff you aren't efficiently using.  It's good to remember that what your client is buying is your ability to problem solve and to deliver a visual product that moves the client's game forward.  They are not hiring you for your gear.  A guy with a Vivitar 285 who can deliver a look and a style that makes consumers hunger for the client's product will get the job based on what's in his book, not what kind of gear inventory is stacked in his garage.

When they removed the financial barriers and the technical barriers to practicing commercial photography the industry re-defined what is important.  All that's important is your ability to deliver the goods.  Nothing else enters the equation.  Elinchrom versus Broncolor versus Profoto versus Alien Bees is a useless exercise if the guy who wins the jobs does so by leveraging available light.  That's about it.
We really do have to sell our vision now.  And sometimes the inventory just gets in the way.

Regrets.  I wasted time and money with cheap flashes.  Whether it was the Alien Bees or some older Sunpak units.  I regret not always being able to say "goodbye" to gear when it's time to move on.  The older Profoto gear worked well but as soon as I hit the wall on not being able to turn it down enough I should have liquidated the collection and moved on.  I regret not getting top of the line battery systems earlier.  I did too much cobbling of stuff together to compensate for either lack of power in the Alien Bees or plastic mounts that stripped or weak mounting hardware for softboxes.  One good gust is enough to wrench off a softbox and rake the speedring across the flashtube.   And I love the water resistance of the Elinchrom Rangers.  Can't imagine bringing anything else along in a heavy fog or a 100% humidity day.

All those are small regrets and for the most part compensated by their inflection on my learning curve.  It's all a building process.

Buy once?  I should be so lucky.  I guess financial competence goes to the incurious.  I always wanted to know what the next system would do.  I guess I could stand to be a bit less  curious.....



Curious about all the lights out there?  We've got a book for that:

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6.05.2011

What a nice weekend.

The backstroke flags flutter in the hot breeze and remind me of the Buddhist prayer flags on the foot hills of the Himalayas.  Just plastic playing with the wind.  Funny what goes thru my mind at the side of a pool.


At the turn everything stops for the fraction of a second as all of the mass and inertia change direction; one hundred and eighty degrees and get ready to explode off the wall, heading for the other end of the pool.  


There's an anticipation when you swim in a relay.  You need to be like the middle of the three bears.  When your teammate comes barreling into the wall you need to time everything perfectly.  Stay too long and you lose time.  Leave too soon and you are disqualified.  Get it just right and the advantage is all yours.  Just like real life.


 After the swim meet I went downtown to see my friend of 17 years, hundreds of shoots and thousands of smart conversations. (At least from her side of the table).  We drank "single origin" coffee.  We talked about growing older in America.  I looked down and her coffee was perfectly lit by the open shade of Congress Avenue in the late afternoon.  I couldn't help myself.  I photographed another cup of coffee.  I'm seeing a pattern emerge.

Tonight, Ben helped make dinner.  The white bean and tuna salad, with roasted red peppers and celery was wonderful.  

It wasn't supposed to rain this afternoon.  It's not supposed to rain all week.  I told Belinda at lunch,  "I wish we'd get a big, wild thunderstorm this afternoon."

Around 2:30pm the first cracks of thunder peeled and it rained like crazy for forty minutes.  A soaking rain, by measures frothy and misty, and then hard and fast.  The gutters were foamy with street oil and dirt.  And everything smelled fresh.

I went to the camera store today to consign a carbon fiber tripod.  A vintage Gitzo.
I'm into my second year infatuation with wood tripods.
My two Berlebachs are my favorites by far.

I thought I'd make a little cash from the sale and open up some space in the studio.
But when I left I had a big Pelican case in hand and a couple more
Elinchrom Monolights to play with.  

I swam.  We watched movies.  We ate breakfast tacos.

It was one of those weekends when everything was just right with the world.

Savored and enjoyed.

click.

Get Close. Get Wet. Get Photographs.

My son's Summer league swim team, the mighty Rollingwood waves, clashed with their rivals, the Barton Creek West Barracudas, yesterday.  The Barracudas were soundly thrashed in what turned out to be one of the longest swim meets of the season.  We arrived at their pool at 7:30am for warm-ups and then, at 8:00 am, we all settled in to the rhythm of the meet.  The meet wrapped around 1pm and with the temperature already well into the 90's (f) we were all ready to head home and hydrate.

I took two cameras with me yesterday and ended up using only one camera body and one lens.  The body was an original Canon 1d mk2 outfitted with a 70-200mm f4L zoom lens (not the IS version).  I broke the rules by using the camera to make only Jpegs.  I figured I'd try it out and see if the out of camera Jpegs from these older cameras were really as bad as I was led to believe.  They're not.  But they are unforgiving.  Get it right and you score a nice photo.  Get it wrong and you're Sumo wrestling angry photons.  

In the last few swim meets I've been concentrating on getting nice shots of the kids waiting for their races or hanging around with each other.  Yesterday I tried to concentrate on the actual races.  The light was good and the angles of the pool were also workable.  So my real practice was all about my timing.  And the 1 series cameras are good for that.  They have a very short shutter lag, much shorter mirror blackout times and quicker overall system response than any camera I've used since my mechanical Leica rangefinders.  I stuck with fairly wide apertures and fast shutter speeds.  I love the way this combination freezes the wave just in front of the swimmers.

Avid swimmers among my readers will be happy to know that Ben's freestyle improved.  With a focus on front quadrant hand exchange his freestyle was smoother and more efficient which allowed him to breathe less per 50 yards and that meant faster overall time.  When I was in workout this morning I concentrated on staying long thru maximal glide and good front end swimming.  Helped me focus on staying with optimal technique instead of doing "trash" yardage.

Whether you are swimming or photographing swimming or just photographing, timing is a crucial part of the calculus of getting good images  or having a good performance.  Over time, in any event or performance, you develop an awareness that there are moments of build, peaks of action and plateau's of recovery.  Usually (but not always) the best images are delivered at the peak of action.  This means that your mind and your camera need to be ready to react almost without thinking.  If you think first you'll lose the moment.  Mindless reaction?  Yes.

In the martial arts (or swimming or running or ....) practitioners practice moves over and over again, thousands of times.  The rational is to instill a physical and mental reaction that is quicker than rational thought.  An opponent stikes, your block is instinctive.  You parry and the thrust is instinctive.  Mapping out the moves in your head takes time and is fraught with hesitation.  Instinctive reaction, reinforced by constant practice means that, when the moment arrives you'll be able to capture it without analysis.  Every part of the system moving as one.

Workflow:  I came back to the studio with 1075 shots.  I downloaded them via Lightroom 3.0 into folders on two hard drives.  During the downloading Lightroom makes custom names for the files and also inserts my copyright and shoot information into the metadata.  Once all the images are downloaded I select all the images and run parameters that I want included with each file.  These include adding the lens profile, selection the color calibration I want to use (Adobe Standard for these), selecting medium contrast and adding some clarity slider fanciness.

Then I go thru and color correct and density correct in small batches.  The images are output to new jpegs with a quality setting of 90% and the longest dimension of each file is set to 2000 pixels.  Each file is converted to sRGB and then all are uploaded to Smugmug.com (which I have been using with great success and only scant minutes of downtime, since 2005) and placed in a protected album for the swimmers and their families.

At the end of the season Belinda will go thru all the images, making sure we have a good image of each child, good group shots and fun action shots and we'll put together a 12 minute slide shot.  At the end of our awards picnic, after the sun sets, we'll play the slide show thru an LCD projector onto a 9 foot by 9 foot white screen.  Once we do that we'll have another project done.

We will have gotten wet.  We will have had lots of fun.  And we'll have the photographs to prove it.

Random note for heat relief:  If the heat is getting you down, go here for some visual heat relief:
http://frankg-photoworkshop.blogspot.com/2011/02/winter-in-texas_08.html

6.02.2011

Who's a nerd? I am! I am! Who's got the first PowerPC chip photo?

Back before the bulk of the Twitter-Babies who now cruise the hallowed halls of social media were even toilet trained and before they entered the workforce with a swagger that said, "We basically invented high tech," we still had computers and we still had something that resembled the internet.  And we used it to do stuff.  Microprocessors got invented.  And improved.  Usenets spread info, sans virus or Viagra advertising.  And back then some American companies even came together for a while to improve the construction and design methodologies of chip making (not Taco Cabana).  If I remember correctly the first PowerPC processor was code-named Somerset and came from a partnership between Motorola, IBM and Apple.  That was back in the Camelot years of U.S. dominance in almost all things tech-y.

The whole design process was based around reduced instruction set computing (RISC) and it worked out pretty well for a while.  Well enough for me at least because I got to photograph a lot of the product they put out.  This was well before digital.

The above device was glued down to a white plexiglas plane, rear lit with blue gels and then the areas we wanted to go black where masked off.  I used some fiber optics piping to guide white light onto the chip surface from a halogen source.  The shot was done in two exposures,  one for the chip and the front light, the other for the background blue glow.

The device was rather small and we wanted a big transparency so I used an Apo-Symmar 210mm lens on the front of a Sinar 4x5 view camera.  The camera was specially rigged with a Hassleblad 2001 FC body, prism finder and A12 back.  This allowed me to take advantage of big bellows extensions for magnification,  image placement and management using the camera movements, all the while being able to view the image directly in the finder.  Every component was locked in place and we used the Shutter in the camera to control overall exposure.

We bracketed through one roll of 120 professional color transparency film, left everything set up until the film came back from the lab and then sent the selected frame out for a drum scan.  The image was used everywhere the big three went.  Including a 12 by 12 foot version for stage shows.

Might be a bit easier to shoot now but it really didn't seem like a big technical deal back them.  Just had to make sure all the planes were planar and all movement was cancelled.  Don't want any jiggle between your two exposures.

I found the above image in a drawer on a 5x7 inch piece of color print paper.  They used to send them out by the hundreds during the first product launch.  Nice to remember how we did stuff old school.  I'm still pretty proficient with products.  I don't like shooting them as much as shooting gorgeous models but, really, who would?

I'd link to a lot of the product I talk about above but.......but "that train has sailed." (quote: Austin Powers).

On a random note:  I was so proud of the new Hasselblad system I bought and was using on an assignment at Motorola.  One day I was monologuing about how cool and costly it was.  He obviously was tired of my BS and wanted to get back to work.  He said, "That's a really cool $5,000 camera.  Now will you stop leaning against my million dollar electron scanning microscope?"  Puts the toys in some sort of perspective.

Intense Theater is different than intense movies. You're actually in the same room with the intensity..

 I am wholly unqualified to review live theater.  I've seen a lot and I can tell good craft from bad but I'm shallow when it comes to much of the subtlety of scriptwriting and the nuance of great direction.  Last night I photographed the dress rehearsal for The Book of Grace,  the play by Suzan Lori-Parks.  The one thing I can comment on is the difference between two dimensional entertainment, like movies and TV,  and intimate, live theater.  With live theater when the action gets intense you are pretty much in the middle of it.  You feel the emotions projected by the actors in a much more direct way.  The Book of Grace had me on the very edge of my seat for the first 2/3rds of the performance.  By the last third I was  making plans to duck and cover right up to the end.  Amazingly powerful theater.
I went into the performance with several cameras and two primary lenses.  I started out shooting with the Canon 5Dmk2 and the Zeiss 85.  Then I switched to the 50mm Zeiss on the 5Dmk2 and put the 85mm on the Canon 1Dmk2n, just for safe keeping.  Big mistake.  The first time I pulled the 1D+85 combo to my eye and clicked I was hooked and shot most of the evening with that combo.  Why?  Great focusing acuity,  lightening fast system response and the perfect ergonomics.

The play was staged in the round in the smaller theater at Zach.  It's always tough and kinetic to shoot theater in the round.  Unless you've been in multiple rehearsals you don't know where to actors are going to end up or just where you need to be to get a good two person grouping.

You are constantly trying to balance your need to be discreet and invisible to the actors with your need to get the images you know the marketing people need to sell the show.  Of course I dress in dark colors, try not to move during emotionally charged scenes, and stay low.  As cameras have evolved I've found my original way of shooting theater to still be the most compelling.  That's manual focus and manual exposure.

There are no "do overs" for the photographer during the dress rehearsal.  This is the last chance the cast will have to go straight through the performance before they have an audience.  If I don't get what I want it's just too bad.

The only issue I have with shooting performances these days is with the color filtering of the light sources.  And this will be a point of contention between lighting designers who are moulding the light to drive an emotional context and photographers who are (wrongly) trying for neutral accuracy.  At some point you have to accept the lighting as it is and move on.  A strongly gelled light will defy any attempt to bring the scene back to neutral color, no matter how good your PhotoShop skills are.  The light is part of the artistic collaboration of theater.  It's part of what I'm there to document.

Shooting dress rehearsals is incredibly good for practicing your integrative photography skills.  You have to think on your feet, react, make fast decisions, understand the value of exposure compromises and anticipate action and blocking.  And, you'll be doing this in the dark since the house lights are gone and all the light is on the stage.  That means you better know how to use your camera blindfolded.  

Just takes a little practice.  Better get started now.

6.01.2011

All we can really do is show other people how we see the world.

I am always amazed at the workshop experience.  I start out being baffled that people think there's some secret to be learned.  By the end of the day I end up learning much more about myself and my relationship with photography.  My constant conclusion?  I should spend more time shooting.

Someone asked me, recently, what I would do with my time if I no longer had to work to support myself and my family.  For a second or so I thought about our whole social construct.  Of course, we could sell our house and a lot of my toys and probably live fine on what we've already saved.  But there's that striving gene.  The "gotta put the boy thru school" ethos.  That "need new ________ mantra."  But after a few moments lost in the delirium of just dropping out I respond, from the heart,  I would basically do just what I do right now.  Make photographs that show people my happy and optimistic view of the world around me.
I guess I would swim more.  But wouldn't we all swim more  if we had more free time?  No?  I'm shocked and confused.

Maybe I'd take more road trips to Balmorhea Springs and.........

Spend more time really looking at the little fish on the bottom of the pool.....

Or watching beautiful sunsets.

Or going to more plays and performances....but wait, I'm already go to 28,000 times more than the average American....

I guess I could also learn what's on all the cable channels.  But probably not, since we don't subscribe to cable and wouldn't start if I stopped raking in the fortune that commercial photographers all make.

I'd have more time to venture out and meet beautiful people and ask them to sit for me so I could work on my skills as a portrait photographer.  That's a relentless goal anyway.

And you know that, if I didn't have to work,  I'd become a fixture at the Paris fashion shows.  Just, you know, to keep my runway chops in shape.  Might be easier now, in the days of AF and digital.  But where's the challenge in that?

But really,  whether we call it work or a hobby isn't photography just an excuse to look more closely and relentlessly at the people and things around us?  Maybe it helps us understand something.  Or maybe it just lets us play with patterns in the chaos.


Kind of a silly blog post but I've spent time today just looking at old photographs and reconciling the ways in which they inform what I do right now.  I'm about to make a big shift in the way I work.  Away from the traditional business construct and into areas that are self directed.  More creative.  More multi-disciplinary.  And when you read the blog you're along for part of the ride.

More books.  But self directed books.  So I don't have to feel guilty if they don't sell.  More film projects that make televisions worth having.  And more intersections with other artists.

The cool thing about being in a creative field is that whatever boundaries exist they are all self constructed.  And whatever you want to do you are free to do.  And that's a cool thing to realize.

The last image is just me shooting into a mirrored window at some giant, skyscraper high-rise with the Austin Music Hall reflected in the background.

When I finish typing this last paragraph I'm going to go pack a camera bag for this evening's dress rehearsal shoot of Suzan Lori-Park's play, The Book Of Grace.  I'm using the three Zeiss lenses.  It's a challenge to shoot manual focus lenses in an ever moving  production, in the round, under low lights but....that's what makes it fun!  And we all need to learn how to have more fun.

Totally off topic for you, perhaps. But not for me.

 Poor Ben.  Not a moment's rest.  I went to pick him up from swim practice this morning and I didn't like what I was seeing.  When swimming freestyle his hips were too low in the water,  his hand exchange was too rapid and he wasn't getting nearly the glide he should have gotten from each stroke.  To make matters even worse (for Ben) I didn't have any pressing deadlines today so after lunch and some downtime (and half an hour for Ben to read Emmett Hine's book on fitness swimming.  The all important chapter 4...) we went back to the pool to do a few drills and work on that pesky stroke.

Here's a tip for photographers and swimmers alike.  It's hard to work on pure technique while you are in the middle of a workout or in the middle of a shoot.  You default to what you know.  That's why it's important to walk around with a camera during leisure times and work on seeing and combining the seeing with the eye/hand/brain interfaces.  In swimming you go back to the pool, slow down the pace and work on one piece of your stroke at a time.

We worked on our "catch-up" drill this afternoon.  Swimming continues to evolve as we understand more and more about the physics of hydro dynamics.  We've learned that "longer boats" go faster in the water.  With one hand fully stretched out above your head you represent a longer boat.  If you exchange hands at shoulder level you've shortened "the boat" and now resemble more of a tug boat.  This slows you down almost immediately and isn't good for the streamline you are trying to maintain.  In the 1980's a Russian swimmer, Andrei Popov, changed the face of freestyle swimming by introducing what has become know, in the competitive swimming world, as "front quadrant swimming."  This technique takes full advantage of your streamlined glide and helps you maintain a lengthened body profile throughout the stroke.

The catch-up drill makes you keep one hand out in front of you while the other hand cycles through it's full stroke.  When the moving hand catches up with the front hand you then repeat the pattern with the other hand.  Once you practice the technique 10,000 times you'll find that you're swimming faster without expending nearly as much energy.

Ben and I worked on the catch up drill for a while, modified his head position and then worked on the cadence of his interchange for a bit.  He could definitely feel a difference in his stroke by the end of our practice session.  Tomorrow we'll put in a a little extra time over at Barton Springs.  Just for a change of perspective.  Should be just what a 15 year old wants to do on his summer vacation, right?
Austin's gem:  Barton Springs Pool.

It's important to take some interest in your kid.  Especially when it comes to swimming.

Back at Zach. Playing around with quasi-traditional lights and having a blast.

Sometimes I throw "hipster" caution to the wind, leave the battery powered flashes and massive LED panels at home, disregard available light and just muddle my way thru an assignment with a crate full of traditional studio flashes.  Oh my.  There go all of my "wanna-be cool" credentials.  It is possible to do work with "old fashioned" tools.  I proved it to myself yesterday evening.

Here's the way I decided to handle yesterday's assignment for ongoing client, Zachary Scott Theater.  We needed to do promo shots for an upcoming version of the musical play, Hairspray.  The play has already been cast but we didn't have sets and we're still weeks away from dress rehearsals.  Our brief was to shoot various actors against a white background.  We needed to shoot on location at the theater so we could take advantage of hair and make-up professionals in house, as well as having access to the full costume shop.  We were very limited on actual time with the actors because of rehearsal schedules and actors who were also in the final stages of rehearsal for the Suzan Lori-Parks play, The Book of Grace.

I packed up a white muslin background with stands, four regular light stands, two strobe systems and my cameras.  To light up the background I used two Profoto Acute heads running off a single Acute 600e pack, using standard zoom reflectors.  I plugged both heads into the "B" channel to reduce overall output power.  I like to shoot at f5.6 so I like to keep the photons a bit tame.

Just to the left of the camera I used one Elinchrom head with a 33 inch Varistar umbrella/softbox modifier as a main light and a second Elinchrom head with a 60 inch Softlighter 2 umbrella as a fill light just to the right of the camera.  I used an asymmetrical Ranger RX AS pack so their is always a 2:1 power distribution between main and fill.  The Ranger pack is capable of 1100 watt seconds per flash at full power but on a scale where 7.0 is full power I found myself working mostly around 4.2.  This ensured 1.5 second recycle times and more than enough charge in the battery to easily handle the 680 frames we ended up doing.

Lately I've been working with my bigger Canons and I felt that I was neglecting my APS-C cameras so I used the Canon 7D with the 24-105mm L lens.  The 7D snaps into focus quickly and it's very easy to program in specific focusing spots.  Since we had total control of power I was able to set the camera at ISO 200.  While the Canon 5Dmk2 might be better at ISO of 1600 and up it didn't matter in this set up and I gave the nod to the 7D for its ability to lock focus much quicker in dim lighting.

Speaking of dim light, we were working on a bare stage with only the ceiling mounted work lights for illumination.  I added a small, battery powered LED light down on the floor just to light up the front of the actors enough to take away any last struggles for the autofocus but also the stop down the irises of the actors a bit.  A smaller iris makes the eyes look more natural.  Why was this necessary?  Because the Elinchrom system I was using for the front lights is battery powered and the modeling lights automatically shut off after 15 seconds.  We shot a whole range of images with six different actors but these ladies were my favorites for the evening.

Once you have the lights set up and you've figured out the exposures you can get to the harder work which is the posing and expressions.  There aren't as many quantitative "how-to" books around about those subjects so you really have to work at it if you are as linear and logical as I tend to be. 

We set up at 5pm and we wrapped the whole shoot at 7pm.  I was back home in time for dinner.  I prepped the files this morning and turned my attention to other business.  It felt good to get another one under my belt.  This evening I get to shoot the last dress rehearsal for the Suzan Lori-Parks play.  I've been told the play is "intense."  My job is to translate and convey "intense" into images that will drive audiences to take a chance and see some real, dramatic theater.

Do I like all the stuff I get to shoot and watch at the theater?  Nope.  But I will say that every time I stretch and pay attention to something I didn't think I'd like I learn a lot.  And it's mostly about me.  And self knowledge is a valuable gift.

Hairspray will be a fun play.  The Book of Grace might actually make me think....


Thinking about buying a 17-55 EFS 2.8 for the 7D.  Anyone have experience with this optic?  Can you tell me what you think?



5.31.2011

When language obscures thought.


I hate language that's too finnicky and overly precise.  I think a story told should be more exciting than accurate.  I think we wrap too much caveat and limits of liability into our descriptions and narratives.  But, by the same token I resent and despise the seemingly relentless desire of mass culture to abbreviate.  A particularly foul Brittish language tic is the abbreviation of University to "uni."  Like fingernails on a chalk board.  But the worst abbreviation I've come across in my field is "togs."  I guess it started as a "hash tag" on Twitter but it should be stamped out at every opportunity.  "Photogs" is no better but slightly more sensible.

Please,  when commenting on my blog, try to use actual words that have actual meaning.  No more "uni" and please, please, no more "togs."  It's not cute or clever.  It's just wrong.  University.  Photographer.

For the Biblically inclined I would reference the Tower of Babel.  Wouldn't it be nice if we could continue to understand each other while speaking exactly the same language?

5.30.2011

The scariest part of being a photographer....

The scariest part of the race is waiting to get to the blocks.  

Without a doubt the scariest thing about being a photographer is putting together a portfolio.  There is always a self-inflicted monster conflict between what you'd "love" to put in the book and what you "think" will sell to potential clients.  Then there are the conflicting foibles of putting 20 of nearly the same image in the book versus putting in 20 completely different styles and subject matters in the pages of your portfolio.  Which brings up the whole issue of "how many images?" to put in a portfolio in the first place.  Followed by the "what size should they be?" question.

Maybe there's an easy set of answers but I've never found them.  Maybe that's because every art director or client is so different.  And the things they are looking for depend on what kind of projects they're working on at the moment.

Some of my friends took the plunge a few years ago (before civilization collapsed) and had large, custom books done.  These were done on big, lush papers and then bound by professional book binders into impressive, nearly overwhelming toures de forces that are so impressive.  Except.....they are finding out two years or so down the road that styles change, presentations change and favorite photographs change but custom made books don't change gracefully.  Here's the scenario:  You printed up 40 great, oversized images on unimaginably expensive inkjet paper.  You used the equivalent of several car payments worth of ink to get the images printed.  You spent $1500 or more having the collection artfully and permanently bound.  And then you went out and showed it to every potential client......good for you.  But the scenario continues.  You showed this impressive, museum quality piece just minutes before AIG hit the wall and Goldman Sachs walked off with everyones' money.  Now the market is recovering and you need to get some work.  And you want to show the dream book.  But most of your potential clients have already seen it.  Do you show it again and risk them thinking that you've been trapped in amber, or worse; unemployable, these last few years?  Or do you punt and show something else.

As a former CD I'd say the smart play is to put together a lesser book (lesser bobka?) and take it on the next round.  You've already shown the previous viewer that you can knock presentation out of the park.  Now you're trying to show them that you've been working, you are flexible, you have new stuff to show. Think of this round as "portfolio lite."  The real magic is to keep yourself in front of the buyers.

On to the idea of showing your portfolio on a iPad.  If you do a lot of video this makes perfect sense as you can put both stills and videos together on one asset and show them easily.  I think iPads are great for informal shows of photos and shows to people under 30.  For everything else I think large, well done prints are more impressive and show off your production skills.  It's easier to see faults at 12x18 and 16 by 20 inches and it's easier to be impressed by no faults at the same sizes.  If you live in San Francisco, Austin, New York and Boston you're not going to blow anyone away with your "awesome" grasp of new technology by walking in with a tablet.  At this point you'll just be at the end of a long line of people who got there to show off their new toys first.  Better be sure that what's on the screen is more impressive than the screen itself.  If you really want to blow away an art director  show them the portfolio on a tablet and then.....just give it to them.  But if you can afford to do that a few times a week then you're doing better than I am and don't need my advice.  Just don't confuse "new to me" with "new to you."  And don't make the mistake of thinking that a smaller (one quarter size) presentation is somehow more impressive than a full sized one.

I've done it every different way.  I used to hand tip fiber paper prints into beautiful, handmade Panodia books and take them around.  Clients loved the presentation but the books are still on my shelves with prints from the early 1990's and that market has flown.  In fact, if I showed them now I'd have to get into the big, ugly discussion that goes something like this:  "No, we don't have those cameras anymore. No, they don't make that film anymore.  Come to think of it they don't make that lovely printing paper anymore.  And no,  I no longer have a darkroom in which to do these kinds of things in...  And, no, I'm not sure why I'm showing them to you now."  Embarrassing to sell something you can no longer really do....

For a while we converted everything to 8x10 transparencies.  And that was pretty neat because they looked cool on a light box and we showed them loose so we could constantly change the mix.  But that got really expensive as custom labs everywhere stopped doing 8x10 dupe transparencies, stopped souping big E-6 film and......well,  you know the story.

So now I go back and forth between showing prints in boxes and showing prints in portfolio cases with clear plastic pages.  I love the idea of clients being able to handle each 16x20 print in a free form black box.  I hate the reality of having to keep making new prints to replace the ones crimped by young art directors who've never handled a print before.  I also sneezed on one.  That had to be replaced.  Quickly.

But the boxed prints get unorganized quickly and are cumbersome to clients used to turning pages in books.  So I go back to the anonymous black portfolio cases with enough 13 by 19 inch pages to hold 48 images.  I have everything printed a 12 by 18 inches and I keep the unbordered style constant.  Not as sexy as holding the prints in your hands but pretty efficient, easy to carry and easy to view.  And most important, easy to interchange.

Here are my secret weapons for putting together a portfolio and getting it in front of a client without ruining my self-esteem or scaring the hell out of myself.  First off, I've been systematically making five to ten prints (12 by 18) at the end of every job or project I do that I like or that has relevance to a large number of clients (or, if I'm being really venal, if I've photographed someone famous.)  I currently have three to four hundred 12 by 18 inch color prints in archival keeping boxes on the shelves of my office.  I can customize a 48 print showing in about and hour.  I added ten more prints this afternoon.  By not waiting till the last moment I never have to deal with:  1.  Oh dear God, the DVD is corrupt!!!!!  Where's the cleverly hidden back up file???  2.  Having to do a scad of post production and runs to the lab to get something together.  3.  Forgetting about those cool jobs you did last year.  Ordering prints in advance also spreads the cost out over time and gives you the chance to change your mind, show to show, without stress.

Second, while I might narrow down the selection I'll get together with Greg or Belinda or Mike and run my choices by them.  They are much more intertwined in day-to-day advertising and I trust their taste.  Probably more than I do mine.  If more than one of them says, "Take that one out."  Believe me, it's gone even if I had to wade thru acid to get the shot.  I try not to run the work by other photographers because they seem easily swayed by gimmicks and tough techniques.

Final weapon?  I arrange, at my first show to come back and show more work.  To do a second show.  And that's why I can't have a spectacular "take no prisoners" uber book.  I wouldn't have a good excuse to go back again.

Final advice for you if you are competing in my markets, here in Texas.  All that I've said above obviously doesn't apply to you.  The quality of your work will be self-evident.  Just put up a nice, flash website, sit back and wait for the assignments to come rolling in.  Really,  I'm sure you only need a website.  Really.  (sarcasm alert for the hard of humor...)