9.07.2011

150mm does portraits well.

Subject:  Ben.  Camera: Hasselblad 501C/M.  Lens:  150mm Zeiss Sonnar. (Older CT).  Film: Kodak Tri-X, ISO 400.  Tripod.  Light:  Open shade in the late afternoon.


I want to call out a good, long term supplier:  Holland Photo in Austin, Texas.  They've been souping my film for the last decade and they do a great job.  My Tri-X is always the right density.  And the price is bearable.  If you are interested in getting back to shooting film, or trying it for the first time, I have a little bit of advice:  Go slow.  Don't shoot a bunch of film, drop it at the lab and only start evaluating your technique when you get the film back.  Even though I've been shooting film on and off for decades I started my newest flirtation by shooting one test roll (training wheels) and having the lab run it.  Then I scanned it five or six different ways and messed with the files for contrast and what not in PhotoShop until I got just what I wanted.  Only then did I start shooting a bit more.  Now I feel comfortable shooting a couple rolls at a time.......

9.06.2011

You can make nice photographs with anything but your keyboard and your mouth.

If you are any good at this hobby/profession you should be able to take this little camera with it's "tiny" sensor and slow focus and long black out time with each shutter release, and make some really nice photos.  If you can't then all the good gear in the world won't help you one bit.  You might just be too incurious to be a photographer....

Some people recently have been asking me about what camera they should buy.  I am mystified.  Don't these people know I switch camera systems and evaluative parameters more often than most people switch underwear?  From one week to the next I might suggest a Leica S2 or a Holga.  And when I ask for their preferences they basically give me a laundry list that covers the gamut from close ups of gnats (you know, "fill the frame...") to following their child across a soccer field at a full gallop.  But they want the machine to be easy to use and small enough to fit in a purse.  The dads usually have a recent copy of Sports Illustrated which they open to page 27 to show me the kind of stuff they'd like to shoot of little Johnny.  It's usually a 1200mm shot of a world surfing champion riding a sick curl or a tight shot of a quarterback being sacked in a night time game at the end of a 400mm 2.8 optic on a camera that does 10 fps at 16 megapixels at a clean 12,000 ISO.  If it's a mom she pulls out her iPhone and suggests that if it were, "just a little bigger than this that would be great."

They'd like to be able to make poster sized prints of Johnny and Sally but they want the files to be small enough to send out to everyone on Facebook from their phones, and.....oh.....they don't "Do" Photoshop so the files should be great right out of the camera.  "The less work I have to do the better." And my favorite:  "I just want something good enough to do the kind of work you do..."

I'm generally at a loss.  But even more so because I know that they will never read the manual, never read a book about basic photographic technique and, I'm probably the fifth photographer they know that they've asked this same question of, and I'm sure they've already heard, "Canon Rebel, Nikon 3100" over and over again.  Why torment me?  What did I do to deserve this?

This shot was taken with that camera (above) and it seems to be pretty nice to me.  It's in focus.  It's reasonably sharp and the colors are pretty.  But I can't recommend it to most people because they won't take the time to learn how to use it. And they sure won't spring for the EVF.  Now I only recommend cameras that: a. Can be purchased at Wolf Camera or Walmart.  b.  Have a "green" zone that means "no other thinking required."  c.  Have a Canon or Nikon logo on them because I'm tired of them coming back and telling me that the guy at Walgreens who makes their prints has never heard of Pentax or Olympus before....and he's been "running the lab" for at least a year.  And d.  Require no small accessories or parts....

But then I get to look at the photographs they generally produce and I wonder why they bother at all.  Most of my affluent friends don't take my advice to buy entry level cameras.  They can afford "the best" and most of them are walking around with Canon 5dmk2s and Nikon D700s.  To which they've attached a really cheap 18-400mm 5.6 to f11 ultra zoom.  But it really doesn't matter because the only photographs I've ever seen from them are on their iPhones.  And I rarely have my reading glasses handy when they want to show me a photograph of Sally that's so backlit it's nearly a silhouette and so cropped that we're looking at a couple hundred pixels at best.

I've changed tactics.  Now, if I'm personally really excited about a film Hasselblad camera system, then that's what I recommend to everyone.  To grade schoolers and grandmothers.  How about a 201f with a 40mm Zeiss, an 80 and a 180?  Maybe some 220 backs?  Then I shoo them over to the computer so we can go to the B&H site and start researching larger Gitzo carbon fiber tripods.  And compendium lens hoods.  If I'm into compact cameras I might goad them into hunting down an older Olympus 8080 that I always found intriguing.  And lights.  Lots and lots of lights.  Pretty soon word gets around and the "give it to me all in a pretty wrapper"  people stop calling and asking about cameras.  And that's okay with me.  Because I have my hands full of people who are ready to make that "big move" into "professional photography" and they're calling to ask me....."which camera bag should I buy?"......and we start all over again.  And then the big question....."which billing software?"  I show them my abacus and my double entry paper ledger and they back out the door slowly and watch me carefully for other signs of......instability.

All of which is to say: if you don't want to do the work and learn the craft, or the techniques or the business,  it really doesn't matter what camera you buy.  Because, whatever you shoot there you are.

(Apologies to Buckaroo Bonzai).


Shooting against white in the studio.


Shooting white in the studio:  Camera: Hasselblad 500 C/M.  Lens: 180mm f4 Zeiss.  Film:  Agfapan APX 25.  Developed in Rodinal 1:50.  Four lights in umbrellas on the white background and one gi-normous softbox as a main light.  Keep your exposure on the background right on the edge of having detail and keep the model far enough forward and you won't have problems with the background light wrapping around from behind and sabotaging your highlights.  You'll need lots of flash power to go toe to toe with ISO 25.  Especially at f8 with your main light in a big box.  Not "speedlight" territory......

9.05.2011

Jen in August in a Swamp with her bike. Me with a Mamiya 6.

Subject:  Jen G.  The plot:  Beautiful triathlete takes photographer along on a run, with a bike, thru a swamp.  Camera:  Mamiya Six rangefinder with 150mm lens.  Film:  Kodak Tri-X.  Developed in D-76,  diluted 1:1.  No lights.  Scanned on an  Epson V500 Photo Scanner.


Belinda and I have know Jen for years and years.  She helped us teach Ben to swim when he was about six months old.  She babysat for years.  She modeled for me even longer.  She's a hydro-geologist by training and now consults in the old and gas industry.  She's gorgeous, rock solid and never met a sport she couldn't master. We thought it would be cool to grab her bike, some clothes and some props and go out and do some gritty, back country triathlete shots.

I grabbed a couple of cameras and a small bag of film and we drove off to find fun.  I was reminded of this shoot today because Austin was hosting a triathlon with sprint and olympic distances today.  Ben and I had to check the race maps to make sure that our long, Sunday run didn't intersect with the course.

When we got back home mom had home made oat muffins ready for us.  I gobbled a couple down, jumped on my bike and headed to a late swim practice this morning.  Coach Isaac put us thru the grinder today.  An hour and a half of hard sets interspersed with sprint sets.  I hobbled home on the bike and took a nap.

9.04.2011

A quiet portrait from a studio session.

Model:  Renee.  Camera:  Pentax 67.  Lens:  200mm.  ftop = 8.  Shutter Speed 1/30th.  Film: E-6 transparency film.  ISO=100.  Lighting: Profoto box and head.  4x6 foot softbox used in close with several layers of extra diffusion.

Sometimes the only goal is to translate beauty onto film.

Hollywood on the Brazos. Elle Magazine Assignment.

Subject:  Richard Linklater, movie director.  Camera:  Pentax 67.  Lens: 150mm 2.8.  fstop 8.  shutter speed 1/60th.  Film:  Fuji Velvia. (ISO 50).  Assignment:  Elle Magazine Profile.


Richard Linklater had just become famous in film circles for "Slacker" which both changed the face of independent film making and introduced a new and highly descriptive word to our lexicon.  He was about to embark on his second big project, "Dazed and Confused" and the editors at Elle were doing a profile piece on him.  They called and asked if I could provide photos.

I looked him up in the phone book, called and set up a shoot time.  We did some images here on his front porch,  some in front of an old theater with a wonderful mural, and even some reclining in a trash heap.  We had no make up artist, no publicist, no art director and no shot list.  We used no lights.  We never contemplated the inverse square law or any of its new derivatives.  We just went out and shot stuff and had fun with it.  My assistant carried one of my two camera bags and kept one of the two Pentax 67 cameras we were shooting with loaded.  The Pentax shot 10 frames on a 120mm rolls so we didn't do a lot of "machine gunning."  I did have along a third body that was permanently fitted with a Polaroid back so we took one Polaroid at each location just to make sure we believed the meter.

The Polaroid back was made by NPC and used fiber optics bundles to get the image from the film plane to the Polaroid film.  At a buck a pop we tended not to chimp much Polaroid.  We could pretty much see the effect we were getting with our one old piece of foamcore, used as a fill card......

We shot about 10 rolls (120 shots) and then retired to Quackenbushes Intergalactic Bakery and Coffee Bar for some coffee and some giant cinnamon rolls.  Elle magazine liked the photos and ran them a month and a half later.  Then they sent me a check.

I liked the Pentax cameras and, if you locked the mirror up before each shot they made very sharp and contrasty images.  But the loading was finicky and I never liked the 6x7cm aspect ratio so I sold them to someone else and continued on with the square format cameras.

I find that there's a tendency to complicate shoots now.  Back when we shot this we were just doing our work.

9.03.2011

First Roll. New Camera and Lens.

Camera:  Hasselblad 501 C/M.  Lens:  150mm Zeiss Sonnar f4.  F-stop 5.6,  Shutter Speed 1/60th.  Film: Tri-X 400.  Lighting:  Sunlight thru 12 by 6 feet of white diffusion.  Location: My living room.   Model: Ben.

9.02.2011

In the end it all goes into the number one tank.....

It's instructional for me, and a good antidote to the gear lust that many of us feel, when I go back and look at projects from 2002, 2003 and 2004.  I consider those the early years for professional digital shooting.  Yes, we had digital cameras before the turn of the century but those were the transition years when clients, art directors and others finally felt comfortable using digital images for big print projects and not just quickie stuff on the web.  It's also about the time photographers in the middle of the Bell Curve got engaged and started eschewing film and it's drawbacks and calibrating their monitors and getting serious about delivering electronic files to their clients.  

I took a complete Leica M system along on this project and ended up using it far less frequently than I intended.  The clients loved to see the images we were making on the rear screen of the camera.  It helped them feel comfortable with the process.   By the time this project was finished and printed as a four color annual report I'd pretty much decided to retire the Leica from this kind of use.

When I look back at the photos from this project I see that the restriction all along has never been the performance of the cameras but the lack of diligence in my technique or my laziness in not pushing for more time on a project or more time in the field.  In our quest to master this new set of techniques (digital) we've plunged into research.  And in the course of our research we've plunged into online forums.  And some of us have a hard time walking away from an argument even when the resolution has absolutely no effect on our real lives or our bottom lines.

I hope I've come full circle.  The cameras are no longer a mystery to me or anyone who shoots professionally.  While we are called fickle by amateurs and poseurs what fickle really means is that we've actually tried a lot of options instead of just talking them to death.  Ditto with arguments about equivalence or lighting depth of field.  Thinking and arguing about these things is a nice way to pass the time when you are stuck in a cubicle doing work you wouldn't do if no one paid you to do it and being frustrated at the lack of personal freedom to do what you really want to do.   And occasionally I get sucked into one of those arguments and realize that it's like sticking a foot into the quicksand of fictional reality.  You never get the time back.  You never get the prize.  You might get a momentary "win" but you will have pissed off as many people as you will have won over.  And for what?  There's not even a trophy for "best endless argument on the web."

So I pull images and look at where I've been and think about where I'm going.  I'm not happy with the last three or four years.  We spent too much time worrying about the economy.  It will be what it will be.  We spent too much time waiting for consultants from the web to tell us what's next.  I spent too much time behind the keyboard writing books.  And all along I knew that the real prized goes to the person who walks out the door and shoots every day.  And, if necessary, we could have made  it all the way through the last four years with nothing but a couple of Fuji S2's and a small bag of Nikon glass.
(Not to imply that I think this is a magical camera or anything like that.)

Now I'm heading out the door to do some transparency shooting with one of the new cameras.

Added in response to a comment:  William comments below that he's decided to stop reading any of the columns about gear and that he and his clients are happy with his steady and enduring choice of one digital camera to provide content and product for the foreseeable future.  All I can say is that it must be nice to have such near religious certainty about your course of action.  I have four photographer friends who came instantly to mind when I read his post last night.  One, Paul, is up for any new piece of gear that he thinks will provide his clients with better images than they can get anywhere else.  He competes in one of the few profitable niches left and his clients are constantly being wooed by new, aggressively potent competitors.  Paul's recent purchase of an expensive, digital medium format camera system cost more than a typical new car.  Folly?  Not if he can turn the investment into profit.  And judging from his past  results I have no doubt he will.  He moves forward.  He isn't resigned to accepting the descending parabola of income that many in our field have come to expect.

And I know two photographers (both of whom I actually adore and respect) who wouldn't buy new gear if you put a gun to their heads.  They were both amazingly profitable ad photographers in the 1990's and earned more each year than a good surgeon in an affluent market.  But they still want to do the business exactly the way they did ten years ago.  They disparage having to buy gear or keep up.  And each of them imagines that the business has declined, will never recover and will never be profitable for them again.

While it's obviously folly to flop over and show your stomach to every camera manufacturer who wants you to buy their goods it's also a very good idea to acknowledge that change can be good.  That refreshing the look and feel can be good.  While I am accused of having a revolving door of gear it's good to remember than many, many pieces of equipment that I write about are lent to me for the purpose of review.  I neither pay for them nor do I get to keep them.  But learning about them and sharing what I learned does tend, if you read between the lines, to punch a little hole in the balloons of marketing hyperbole.  I do not own a Leica M9 but enjoyed using one for a few weeks.  Love the images, hate the price and the restricted flexibility.  I wrote about the Olympus EPL2 but chose to keep the EPL1 instead of "upgrading."

It's true that I've changed systems a few times.  And, if I had been able to see the future I probably would have just stayed with my original Nikon stuff instead of buying an Olympus system (paid for, largely, buy the sale of depreciated Nikon assets).

The last photographer that came to mind for me was one who was so cheap that, even though he had a number of good clients in the 1980's and 1990's he refused to even buy an extra Hasselblad body as a back up for his system.  Whether he had a lemon or whether his assistants and he were just clumsy I don't know but, his camera and lens would lock up on a regular basis.  This can happen to Hasselblad film cameras when changing lenses if you are not careful to keep from touching a small switch on the lensmount.  When this happens you can't shoot and you can't remove the lens from the body.  Your shoot grinds to a halt.

The fault is easily fixed by inserting a special tool thru the back of the camera and recocking the shutter mechanism on the lens.  Once done the camera springs back to operational health.  My friend had this happen on many occasions and, when it did, the whole shoot would stop until an assistant could rush the camera to the local repair shop where the owner would fix the problem.  Big trouble if the owner of the repair shop happened to be at lunch.  The rest of us spent (at the time) about six hundred dollars on a back up body.  If the body and lens we were shooting with locked up we could continue with our spare.  Jack Resnicki, in his 1990's book on advertising photography mentions this.  He maintained two complete systems with duplicates of ever lens and body he used.  He felt (and mostly we all felt) that this one time expense was dirt cheap compared to the cost of producing an advertising shoot.  And for high end corporate stuff it still makes sense.

I can remember a time when I used a cheaper brand of medium format equipment and was shooting an ad campaign for a national home improvement store chain.  We had multiple actors on rented baseball field in the middle of August ( why must all good exterior jobs surface in August, in Texas?).  It was dusty and hot.  One camera died.  We pulled a back up out of the bag and kept shooting.  Then that camera died and we pulled yet another one out of the bag and kept shooting.  The client was amazed but really, I could buy an additional body back then for what we paid one talent to be on the set for the day.  And who's on the hook if the talent is there but the cameras aren't?  Right.....I am.  Cheap insurance for sure.

So, I guess, the story really is that there is a continuum where gear is concerned.  Some people err on the side of excessive fiscal caution, some on the side of excess gear lust.  But there is a middle ground.  And there is a rationale for every position.

I love trying the new stuff.  But I love being able to send it back to the maker after the magic wears off ( usually a week or so....).  I also have the idea that there are improvements that both the client and I can see.  In the case of my ad client who pushed me to embrace the higher pixel count of the Canon 5D2 over the Olympus E-3 we both can see a big difference in sharpness and the ability to blow up the files for larger uses.  Staying with the e-3 would have meant losing a major client.  One who had paid me well for 15 years in a row!  I could have held my ground and kept to my choice but in one project we amply covered the cost of trading systems.  And now I've had the use of the system for over a year.

My current dalliance with film based medium format cameras has cost me a fraction of what it would have cost to buy these cameras and lenses new ten years ago.  So far I've spent far less than $2000 on the whole collection....and that includes film.

Every photographer has their own reality when it comes to what is expensive and what isn't and a lot of that depends on your market and your specialty.  I do corporate work and I do advertising work.   The pay (when the jobs come) is much, much better than I could make if I chose to be a retail portrait photographer.  And I've weathered the recession and started to see more and more light at the end of the economic tunnel as far as my business is concerned.

I don't want to be like my friend who had only one Hasselblad body.  I can't justify emulating my friend with the new MF digital system.  But while I realize that most of the puffery around new cameras and lenses is fluff I also realize that refusing to learn and refusing to try new things is the moment at which you begin to die.

9.01.2011

Try not to fall or drop anything into the number one tank.

 Why? "Oh, that's because it's the raw sewage intake tank." my client said casually.  "It'll be months before we find anything.  And it's really hard to swim in...."

One of the glamorous assignments that I truly loved came in 2004.  It was for one of the largest water and wastewater treatment companies in the U.S.  We cruised around and made images of all kinds of facilities.  It was on this trip that we introduced our art director from L.A. to the pleasures of Krispy Kreme donuts but our timing was off. We gave him a bag of fresh hot donuts about an hour before our twin engine prop commuter plane roared down the runway and into some really bumpy skies.

But what I liked about the assignment was the walking around in giant industrial plants looking for a shot.  All three of these came from a short slice of time at a single plant.  We'd done some shots to cover ourselves and we were about to go eat and recover from the rigors of the day when we saw the sunset and the wonderful soft clouds in the sky.  We stayed till long after dark shooting frame after frame.

Truly a situation of "waiting for the light to get neat."

These were early days of digital and we were shooting with a camera that was frustrating and fascinating all at once.  It was a Fuji S2.  The color was beautiful and the camera's ability to handle contrasty situations was pretty unique but it used two different kinds of batteries.  Four double "a" batteries for the mechanical parts of the body and a separate DL 123 lithium battery for the digital part of the camera.  And the batteries staggered their dissipation so that you ended up changing out batteries twice as often.  And you had to assess which set was going down.  But the camera did long exposures well and the files were easy.


I was just about to leave on this job and I was taking two camera systems.  One was a set of Leica M6's with a range of lenses which included the 15mm Voigtlander for the M series.  A few hours before we headed to the airport Ian called from the camera store.  They'd gotten in a new Nikon lens.  I ran by and picked it up.  The lens we used most on the Fuji was the Nikon 12-24mm DX lens.  It was actually very good but got "better" when Adobe started including a profile for the lens in PhotoShop.

While the people at Fuji insisted on calling the S2 a 12 megapixel camera it was really a 6 megapixel camera but that didn't stop anyone from making a series of large prints for the client to display in their offices.

Don't know why I posted this today but it reminds me of how much fun assignments of exploration can be.....

Ten ways to win an argument on a forum.

1.  Make up your own facts.  This is such a good strategy.  In advertising it's called, "Data Free Research."  Many people will believe whatever you tell them.  Works for politics, why not discussions about photography?

2.  Trot out algebra 2 and wiggle the numbers around ad infinitum.  To the people who didn't make it through algebra 1 everything with an equation attached is scientific fact.  Even the taste of a raspberry sno cone can be described and proven with a long enough stream of numbers and symbols.

3.  Be the last one standing.  Every time someone raises a question or disputes your data free research  shout them down and keep repeating your "facts" until everyone gets tired of the whole circus and moves on to "which camera should I buy?"

4.  Infer, imply or just go ahead and say it out loud: everyone who disagrees with you is a liar, a cheat or someone with a hidden agenda.  I have a friend who describes all the other drivers on the road like this:  "Everyone going faster than me is an asshole.  Everyone going slower than me is a moron."  It's the operative working methodology of forum rats as well.

5.  Try to pick apart all the small parts of other people's arguments instead of concentrating on the big picture.  This might consist of arguing about how fast a ship is really sinking instead of acknowledging that the ship is sinking.  Or, that "it wasn't the bullet that killed him, it was the vascular damage and the subsequent loss of blood."


6.  If challenged about why you are reinventing dirt, or why you insist on counting angels on the head of a pin, get very defensive and let them know that you are sharing your argument for the good of generations of future children as well as the miserable and intellectually downtrodden every where.

7.  Graphs.  Lots and lots of graphs.  (See: data free research above).

8.  If someone actually takes up the challenge and tests your idea, hypothesis, pipe dream, fantasy, terrible delusion, and finds it wanting in every way then immediately go on the defensive, protesting your brutal treatment at the hands of a reckless bully bent on derailing the train of intellectual progress.

9.  Drink lots and lots of Red Bull so no one can outlast you in a thousand post grudge match.  See point #3.

10.  The best way to win an argument on the web is to shut down your computer, go for a walk, take a nice photograph and be secure in the knowledge that arguing on the web is addictive behavior and you just got yours under control.  For now.