8.10.2011

Portraits are what photography is all about.....for me.

Lou and the Hasselblad.  The studio on San Marcos St.


I don't know why they do it but they do it all the time.  People talk to me about photography and they are so desperate to show me what they've recently shot that they whip out their iPhones and start flicking through images.  And sadly, many times the images are not portraits.  They show me tiny landscapes which makes my internal critic yawn and wince.  They show me "abstracts" which means they liked the color or shape of something and snapped a photo.  They show me architecture which I sometimes like, sometimes tolerate but mostly ignore.  And they show me pictures of cats to prove how sharp their new lens/camera/flash is.

I have a new dodge to get out of looking at the images as they are flicked past on the screen.  I apologize and point out that I didn't bring my reading glasses and so am incapable of truly appreciating the "art."  At this point they start using two fingers to enlarge the photographs.  Perhaps they mean to scroll across and depend on my "persistence of vision" to tile together their masterpieces in my mind.  At that point I generally just tell people to stop.

The one exception is when someone shows me a really nice portrait.  Then, mystically, my vision improves and I can share in the sharing.  Now I'm not saying that there's anything wrong with pursuing landscape photographs.  Ansel Adams had a good run with the genre and I suppose some other people have too.  And Lee Freidlander certainly made some hay with his abstracts, as did Gordon Parks.  It's just that people are so much more interesting to photograph and look at.  In a way it's because portraits can be virtually interactive......at least they will look back at you.

(Above shot on medium format black and white film, Hasselblad Camera.  180mm Zeiss lens.)

Studio Coffee Break, circa 1993.

Lou and the little black dress.


It was a more civilized time.  We'd shoot for while and then stop for coffee while the assistants reloaded the film backs.  None of the jittery madness of tight scheduling and fast turnaround we "enjoy" today.  And, after a shoot, the film would be sent to the lab for processing and contact sheets.  That bought us two days of relaxation and respite.

The coffee was always hot and good.  The film always seemed to turn out fine.  And no one was in a rush.  What a delicious way to work.

Another Day Another Medium Format Portrait. From The Early 2000's...

   Amy in the studio.


I can't imagine how we did it just a few short years ago.  I was looking through boxes with thousands and thousands of black and white, medium format images and wondering, "how did we pay for all that medium format film?  All the developing and contact sheets?"  And it wasn't all for jobs.  That would make sense.  No, at least half the stuff in the boxes was personal work.  People I couldn't bear not to photograph because I liked the way they looked so much.  Looking back at a typical bill from my lab from 2002 (we were still shooting a mix of film and digital....) I note that I shot 160 rolls of MF tri-X in the month of June.  In that same month I shot 300 rolls of color transparency film.  While that's only 5,500 exposures it's critical to remember that every click of the shutter cost real money.  I'd estimate the out of pocket expenses for the 460 rolls of film, with develop and contact at a modest $10 per roll (I used to get volume discounts...) and that means we spent $4,600 that month.  Close to a dollar a frame.  And that's before scanning or printing.

Now, for all intents and purposes, when we shoot with digital cameras it seems like photography is free.  But I think we've made some compromises that I wish we didn't have to make.  I like shooting in medium format but who can afford to buy and use $28,000 cameras and $4,000 lenses for clients whose budgets are falling faster than the Dow Jones average?  But the things I miss most people will dismiss as intangibles:  The brilliant finders.  The way the image goes out of focus because of the longer focal lengths on bigger formats.  The way black and white and color negative films could hold on to highlight detail and make it amazingly nuanced.  Being able to put your hands on a piece of film and seeing it.  Knowing that negatives might dissolve but knowing that they will do it gracefully instead of catastrophically.  The incredible tonal range of well shot and processed film.  The unmatched pleasure of the square frame...

The wonderful thing about life is that not everything has to be binary.  I change my mind a lot but it doesn't mean I have to burn all the other options and walk a narrow path for the rest of my days.  I've been seduced by the promiscuous nature of digital's ample largess and I've been swayed by film's Calvinistic rigor and I like both feelings.  The hot tub and the stern, early morning run up the long hills.

So I think I'll spend a while going back and forth, like a man with two lovers.  I'll shoot portraits for myself on silvery slivers of film and I'll shoot work for my clients on the visual accordions of digital.  And I'll hunger for the day when a wonderful client, with Warren Buffett-sized budgets, stumbles across some of the work I'm doing with film and exclaims,  with a breathy excitement: "Oh dear God!!! These are wonderful!!!!  Please.  Can you shoot our next project with real film???"

And I'll tilt my little black beret to one side of my head, toss aside my hand rolled cigarette,  empty my martini glass and, grudgingly say,  "Well...if that's what you want..."  And we'll be back into a new game of mixing old and new.

Note:  atmtx visited my studio on Sunday and captured me with the new camera.  His photo is here


8.08.2011

Continuing with the medium format nostalgia....beauty.

I've always had a love affair with.......the 150mm Lens on a Square Medium Format camera.  This was shot on the stairs that connect my living room with my dining room.   The model's name is Kara and we originally shot this as an alternative choice for the cover of my first book.  The image was taken with a Carl Zeiss lens but it wasn't on the front of a Hasselblad, it was on the other European MF system I used, the Rollei SLR system.  While there was much to love about the Rolleis, and with the same lens maker and choice of films the ultimate quality was absolutely equal to the Hasselblad, but I always preferred the battery-less operation of the Swedish version and the relative quiet of the shutter.  The Hblad is also a bit lighter.

When we create book covers it's routine to try a number of variations and then judge the winner at the end.  I had worked with Kara on several advertising campaigns before this but they all cast her as the quintessential "soccer mom" while I wanted something a bit sexier.  I don't care what you're marketing, beautiful faces work for me...

Hope everyone is staying cool and having a fun Monday.

(quick note:  shot on Fuji Asti E-6 film and then scanned on an Epson V500 Photo flatbed scanner.)


A self serving book review that I hope will inspire even non-commercial photographers to rush to Amazon or Precision Camera to secure a copy.


I am in the middle of writing my sixth book. This one is about the convergence of digital photography and video.  I think I'll call it Minimalist Video for Photographers.    All of the books I've written are about photography.  Two are about lighting technique (Minimalist Lighting: Professional Techniques for Location Photography and 
Minimalist Lighting: Professional Techniques for Studio Photography) and they have been very popular books when it comes to sales.  Another book I wrote is all about lighting equipment.  It's mostly about what's available out there and why you might want to use it.  It's entitled, aptly enough:  Photographic Lighting Equipment.   And sales of that book are also good.  In fact, anything I write that relates to equipment either sells well or, in the case of this blog, is a big reader magnet.  I guess that says something about the interests of my audience.  The fifth book is a comprehensive look at LED lighting and it should come out this Winter, from Amherst Media.

But the best book I've written to date is the one that seems to always be languishing on the shelves and getting chummy with the remnants on the Amazon shelves.  And it's sad for me because I think that in addition to being well crafted it is by far the most important book I've written for the greatest number of photographers.  It's called:  Commercial Photography Handbook.  Let me explain.

8.06.2011

Going backwards. Or, the epiphany I had while out for a walk in the blazing heat. Or, how to rationalize buying a new Hasselblad...

This is one of the very first medium format images I ever shot.  

It was shot with a Yashica Mat 124G which was the desirable cheapy MF camera of the 1970's.  I shot this in late 1979 at my place on Longview, near the UT campus.  It was done on Kodak Panatomic X film (ISO 32) using a Novatron 150 watt second pack with one head aimed thru a shoot thru umbrella.  I only owned one head at the time so that's how I shot it.  (Was Zack Arias even born back then???).

I hand developed the film at the Ark Cooperative darkroom and eventually printed it on Ilford Ilfobrom double weight paper.  This was before the Bass brothers tried to corner the silver market so a box of 8x10 double weight fiber paper, 100 sheets was about $6.95.  I scrimped and saved to buy it.  Texas was a poor state back then and my finances were precarious.  I was so in love with Belinda that any photograph I took seemed incredible to me then.  We dated for five years, spent lots of time enjoying Austin and places like the Armadillo World Headquarters  (saw the Talking Heads open their for Devo one night.....) and eventually decided to get married. But that's a whole other story.  This photo represents our first year together.  She abandoned teaching for studio arts and I abandoned electrical engineering to be a writer.....

8.05.2011

Portrait Professional. A user report. From the frigid wastelands of my studio cave...


 You've probably guessed that it's extremely rare for me to talk about software on this blog.  It's not because I don't use software in my photography business but I always considered myself a "purist",  unsullied by the "phony" effects of HDR software or any of the other canned effects that I see all over the web.  Yep.  I always considered myself a basic PhotoShop warrior with the credo that, "if it couldn't be done in PhotoShop you really shouldn't be doing it....

But lately I've wavered.  My friend at atmtx keeps doing HDR stuff that I actually like.  You can see it here:  the guy that does good, mostly subtle HDR.  We had lunch yesterday and I'm kinda blown away that he doesn't even use PhotoShop but does his magic with a combination of Apple's Aperture and Photomatix.

So, I was sitting in front of my computer one day, contemplating a virtual stack of portraits that I needed to retouch/enhance and dreading the time consuming method I'd come to after years of just hacking away with clone tools and various adaptations of layers and gaussian blur when I came across an ad for a piece of software called, Portrait Professional.  And it was aimed at exactly what I was working on.  I mean exactly what I was working on.  I downloaded a trial and twenty minutes later I was back to download the full deal, credit card sizzling hot in my hand.

In a nutshell the program offers you all the stuff a seasoned professional retoucher would bring to a basic portrait retouching job, organized in a straightforward way, with tons of individual controls.  I used the basic tools for the job at hand and estimate that I did the project in less  than a third of the time I would have done it in with my previous, antiquated workflow, and more importantly, I did a much, much better job than I would have previously done.  I just had to kill and bury that 20th century purist who had always (subconsciously??) held portrait retoucing in low regard.  He's gone now.  It's a new century and I'm all about making portraits that my clients love.  If I want to do "Art" I'll do in on my own time and on my own dime.  This is a tool for taking a conventional business headshot or ad shot and cleaning up skin tone, remapping some features and generally flattering the hell out of your sitter without tipping your hand too badly.  Now, don't get me wrong.  You can go all extreme and dangerous with the program and turn out Barbie Doll skin and wacky space alien features but you can also use the power of the program with a bit of restraint.

Once you open the program and select an image you'll see a "before" and a "working" image side by side on your monitor.  The program leads you thru the process of "marking" the outside point of each eyes, zooms you in to fine tune your selection of eye and eye brow and then sends you along to do the same kind of quick marking of lips and nose and the general area and shape of the face.  I assume the program uses this information to figure out what is skin and what everything else is.  You also select whether you are working a male or female face and even whether or not you are working on a child's face.  Once you've done all this (two minutes?) you push the space bar and the program does its automated retouching and then opens a brilliantly conceived and laid out interface that allows you to go into dozens of parameters and change settings to your heart's desire.  Finally, when you've done everything you want and you've watched the changes, you push the spacebar again and the program finishes out your creation and saves it.

I'm cheap, I bought the basic program.  It'll work with Jpegs or Tiffs and it works as a stand alone program.  If I need to clone something or mess with a background the image has to go into PS.  But you can buy more complete versions that allow you to use it as a PS plug-in and even in 64 bit.  I didn't realize how much I would enjoy working with the program and how much easier it's making my professional life or I would have gone straight to the best/coolest implementation.  I hope they allow me to upgrade.

I'm a curmudgeon at times but once you beat me over the head with the time savings of something and the fact that the program keeps me organized and better able to turn out a great enhanced/retouched image that is perhaps better than my patience and skill previously permitted, I'll jump every time!

Check it out and see what you think.  If you go to their site there's a free trial:  http://www.portraitprofessional.com/?gclid=CKmjkqyRuaoCFQ0S2godKgfGMw  The company is Anthropics Technology.  And now I'm curious about what else they may have to make my life easier.

Final Note:  It's not particularly fair or revealing to use Jana (above images) as a before and after because she has such beautiful features and photographs so well.  I thought about using someone plain until I realize that I make it a habit of never photographing anyone who isn't gorgeous......


8.04.2011

I have a lot of cameras. Why do I keep coming back to the Olympus ones?

Of course I have egg on my face about the Olympus XZ-1 and my initial perspective of letting ergonomics define everything.  Turns out I just needed to retrain my left hand and part of my brain.  Now I seem to carry it everywhere because, even with the EVF-2 on it, it's light as a feather and the quality of the files is very, very good.  I like the metering and I like the colors.  Noise?  Sure.  Why not. But not enough at 100, 200 or 400 to even register to me.  Print them out and 800 works as well.  Higher than that?  Well, I had a $5,000 Nikon D2x that didn't look any better over 400 ISO, so I don't worry about it much.  I like that it goes wide and I like that it's got a fast aperture.  Is it worlds better than the Canon or Panasonic products.  Not in its native form but when you add the finder it makes it worlds better.  Say what you will about the extra expense, or the way the finder sits on top of the camera like a goiter, but that finder is magical and if you haven't actually looked through one and seen how much fun it makes the cameras it is attached to you should do that before you comment.  Otherwise I'm just trying to describe how good steak tastes to someone who's been trapped and held captive by radical vegans since birth.

8.01.2011

A regular job that was fun and straightforward. Traditional photography lives.

You've read about the Cows and you've read about next generation transportation so I thought we'd throttle back a little bit and look at a job that may seem less glamorous and cutting edge but which, in fact, takes just as much photographic skill and business expertise.  Shooting products.  There's an Austin based company called, Salient Systems and they are a leading provider of IP video surveillance software, video management systems with IP video servers, and hybrid CCTV software.  Their stuff comes in rack mountable enclosures and they call from time to time and ask me to photograph new products.  I do so happily. 

7.31.2011

My amazing electric bike and why I think this kind of stuff is important.

    Photo of me, courtesy ATMTX Photo.  Picking up my electric bike yesterday.


Added on Monday August 1st, from the New York Times:  http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/31/opinion/sunday/the-dutch-way-bicycles-and-fresh-bread.html?src=me&ref=general


We all talk a good game about being "green" and "making a difference" but in reality we're all pretty reticent to change much.  A lot of the people in my neighborhood live less than three miles from their offices in downtown Austin but every morning they rev up the Chevy Suburban, drop by Starbucks for a big ole latte and head downtown.  If they leave between 8 and 9 a.m. chances are good that they'll sit through a few red lights at the intersection of Mopac and Bee Caves Rd.,  listen to St. Sam on the radio spew lots of ultra-conservative wisdom peppered with a continuous dose of both Christian "love" and a bit of Texas-Style admiration for the state's death penalty.  Once they've followed the rest of their neighbors into the hornet's nest of parking garages my neighbors will settle in for a day of work.  Their $40,000, six thousand pound cars languishing in layers of concrete or baking in an open parking lot.  In the evening they'll do the same thing in reverse.