9.14.2011

Caveat Emptor. What you see is a distillation.

Have you ever looked through a blog or a website and seen great image after great image and, while you were happy; after a fashion, for the photographer, you went away a bit dispirited?  You compared the work you've been able to produce every day for however long you've been doing photography and you can count the winners on one hand or, if you're lucky, both hands and both feet.  And the implicit message you get when looking at an image forward blog is that the photographer can do no wrong.  Give him or her a box camera or a cellphone and everything they point it at will be breathtaking, awesome, riveting and otherwise perfect and beyond the ken of mortal photographers.  Every morning you go to the site and there's something so entrancing that it just frickin wears you down.

We're human and we can't help but make comparisons with the people around us. Culture drives us to measure our accomplishments against the mean and against the curve busters.  But I'm here to tell you that it's largely BS and marketing in large measures.  I'm very clear on the fact that very few of the images I post to accompany the written (important) part of the blog rise even to the level of art.  Much less high art.  Some are interesting while some just show something I want to talk about....

But when you look at my blog, or John Paul Caponigro's blog or Joe McNally's blog and you really like a photo or a series of photos you might want to remember that the photos you admire have been cherry-picked from 10, 20 or 30 years of daily practice.  For each photo you admire there are hundreds, thousands, or, in the case of my work, tens of thousands of "close but no cigar" and "what the heck was I thinking" contenders to wade through.

If blogging required me only to use the photographs I've taken that I actually think are exciting, wonderful, insightful or emotive I think I would have stopped illustrating the blog after the first twenty or thirty offerings.  Like most introspective photographers I have a feeling of failure as I look through my files.  I have thousands of 4x5 transparencies of micro processors and circuit boards.  Nothing I would inflict on a general audience but a workmanlike history of the my sliver of the semiconductor industry.  I have files filled with literally thousands of head shots done for companies like Motorola and Dell.  The bulk of the people in the files are probably retired, have moved on to new start up companies, etc. but I can't bear to throw much away.  And, for the most part, while their mothers and children and spouses find them attractive the crowd is a mixed bag.  It's journeyman photography at best and certainly nothing to share as the example of a life's work.

There are medium format chromes shot for magazines that are dated and in some ways funny in their historic perspective.  Hairstyles change, clothing styles change and lighting styles change.  Gone is the fascination with saturated, gelled backgrounds just as fill flash at sunset has become the cliche of this decade.  By the time it filters down to every studio the fad is past and the trend setters are on to something else.

And so, when I look through the files it's the images of friends and family, people I've met in coffee shops and clubs and on the street that I've been able to cajole into sitting for a portrait, that constitute the images that resonate with me.  And some are nostalgic reminders of a wonderful time spent sitting and talking.  The images may mean more to me than to any audience.  And yet, I feel that this sort of distillation is part and parcel of every camera artist's experience.  Amateur or professional.

But the message to everyone who steadfastly continues making images in spite of the angst and negative inertia that comes from comparing yourself to someone's stream of greatest hits is this:  We are all the same.  We all struggle to make work that is relevant.  We all struggle with the niggling feeling that others know special secrets that make them better.  We all lack total self confidence (except for the sociopaths...).  We're all on a learning curve.  We all have the tendency to put our best foot forward and to cram all the stuff that didn't work back into the closet or the filing cabinet.  The masters you see whose work you think you'll never be able to equal are just as conflicted and just as unsure.  And you're seeing only the tip of their "iceberg" as well.

At its core the kind of photography we all want to do doesn't have quantifiable, objective measures of relative value.  All that matters is that the images you create resonate with you.  But I'll go further and repeat an idea that a friend of mine and I were talking about at breakfast:  As important as the images might seem the more important thing is to enjoy the process.

I don't put images up on the blog with the expectation that you'll use them as a measure of my quality as an artist.  Few of my clients are interested in blogs about photography.  They are not our audience here. My audience, as far as I can tell, are like minded photographers for whom photography is a joy.  For whom camaraderie, whether on the web or in person, is important and valued.  The enjoyment of photography is not akin to a pissing match.  There are no ribbons to be won here.  No trophies other than the lucky shot well seen.  In some little incremental way we are all moving the art of photography forward just by participating in the process.  A ripple that becomes a wave.

Good marketers distill their greatest hits down into a public persona.  I could do that with the meager handful of images I've made that I truly love but in the end it would be dishonest to the purpose of this blog.  And that's to share the love of photography and the discipline of working at the process.

Last word:  I was re-reading a book by Steven Pressfield about the life of Alexander the Great.  Near the end of Alexander's invasion of India his entourage was walking along a road and his advance people were clearing the way for Alexander.  A group of holy men was sitting in the road and refused to move.  As Alexander approached he could hear the animated conversation between one of his officers and one of the "naked holy men".  The officer said (and I'm paraphrasing):  Do you know who this is?  He's the greatest commander/leader in history.  Alexander has conquered the entire known world.  What have you done?


The reply from the holy man:  "I have conquered my need to conquer the world."

9.13.2011

A fun photo from a secret "super" camera.

Photographed for a dermatology practice.  Nikon D2h.  Lighting:  big and soft.

And also a version in black and white:

......Lousy old cameras.....


We were off-line for about an hour this evening to do some psychic maintenance. I'm not always gracious about taking ad hominem attacks.  If you like the blog send me some nice comments to take the bad taste out of my mouth.  I'm working on growing thicker skin....

Professional photographers always use..................yadda, yadda, yadda.



The people on photographic forums are really nice people but they don't always have the story straight.  A lot of people learned stuff about photography that might have been true in the days of steam powered cameras but has lost its relevance in modern times.  There's also a mental glitch that translates stories or anecdotal events into facts and rules of thumb.  To wit:  All pros use full frame cameras! (No.)  All pros use big lights. (No.)  All pros use f2.8 zooms. (No.)  All Pros use Nikon or Canon. (No.)  All pros shoot raw. (No.)  All advertising clients demand 1. High res tiffs,  2. 120megabyte files, 3. L-series lenses. 4.  The highest resolution cameras on the market.  5. Kickbacks.  6.  Profoto lighting gear.  7.  Alien Bees lighting gear.  8.  Unlimited usage rights.  9. Ultra high sharpness.  10.  A perfect image every time.  (no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, and no.)  All book publishers demand super high res files. (chuckle).  All cookbooks are done with Medium Format digital cameras.  All pros are abandoning  Olympus, Sony, Pentax, (fill in the blank) cameras.  My favorite of today, "All pros get their cameras free from the camera companies!!!"  I wish that was true.  My wife wishes that true even more.

Let's see,  the cover of the book above was shot with an Olympus camera and some really cool Olympus lenses but the real story is the inside stuff.  Mostly there are images of equipment and some lighting set ups.  Many, if not most, of the shots were done with a Canon G10 compact camera.  My publisher has done hundreds and hundreds of books and his staff are experts in color printing.  No one had a single complaint and, in fact, I doubt anyone could tell which shots were done with the small camera and which ones were done on a large camera.

We tend to take technique more seriously when using serious cameras but BUT if you take the time to put a G10, G11, G12, LX-3, LX-4 or some other well made compact camera on a tripod, light well and shoot at the minimum ISO you'll have great images.  Well worth putting in a book to illustrate concepts.  And you may find that the increased depth of field is a blessing, not a curse.  Especially when shooting products.

I love the perennial questions about which brand of electronic flash lights are "the" professional brand to buy.  Like DSLR cameras today, most are pretty darn good regardless of the price.  I recently wrote about dumping a fifteen year accumulation of Profoto gear and replacing it with cheap Elinchrom D-Lites.  The new lights are 1/2 the weight of my older monolights and less than 1/3rd the cost.  They're plastic.  Do I care?  About as much as I care whether the harddrive casing on my desk HD is plastic.  Hardly matters.  Will the Elinchroms be as sturdy?  I'm not sure.  We'll find out.  But I'm guessing that most photographers are flying a lot less frequently than they did before the recession hit so maybe their lights won't spend quite so much time in the hands of the baggage savages.  Maybe that will even out the MTBF........

By the way.  We did another shoot with the new lights today and the art director didn't notice any changes.  The lights flashed.  The image on the screen looked great.  That's all that mattered.  It's not like Profoto is a household name outside the arena of working professionals and gear geeks.  And if there is a hierarchy isn't Broncolor on the top?  I can't keep up....because we don't need to keep up.  1/10th of a stop control and 1/5000th of second t.05 flash durations are rarely issues in making headshots or shooting a group shot of the swim team.

I meet a lot of people who've decided to become professional photographers as I do workshops, speak at Expos and go to lecture at classes in three colleges and one university, locally.  And to a person they are all different.  No denying there are a lot of Canon and Nikon users but that goes with the market share.  The interesting people seem to be the ones who gravitate to outlier cameras.  A huge number of people are still shooting film and loving it.  Five or six friends recently followed me down the rabbit hole of shooting with Hasselblads.  My friend Paul is rocking a Hasselblad Digital body and a case full of Hasselblad lenses.  Agnes bought a pinhole camera and keeps selling prints to art collectors.  My favorite street shooters are using m4:3rd cameras and Nex cameras.  Alex Majoli used a compact Olympus to cover the early parts of the war in Iraq.   

I was on a forum where one old pro was roasting an Australian photographer.  Didn't think she had technique worth a crap.  Don't know what camera she was using but I do know she's a marketing gladiator and she's found a market for her stuff.  She's obviously resonated with her customers. We're all so different.  Our customers are all so different.  That's how we stay in business.

And for some of us the choice of cameras is tied up with a nostalgia for either a better time or at least a less hectic time.  Shooting film for me harkens back to the days when clients could wait a day or two to see the results.  When a long lunch was more important than ultra efficient post processing.  Incidentally, I shot part of a job on Thurs. with the film cameras and the client didn't get to see the images until Monday.  She held a few pages of transparencies up to the office window, chose three frames in less than 90 seconds and asked for scans. She loved the process.  She loved the look of the images. No time wasted importing and key wording and color correcting and converting from raw to jpeg and uploading and making a gallery on Smugmug and sending links and all that other "butt expanding" computer work.  We shot, we dropped, we picked up on the way into downtown and that was it.  Metatag?  It's written in Sharpie on the archival page sleeves......

Even though there are infinite styles and points of view in photography, "professional" is a word with just one meaning:  "I make money from my work."  Professional doesn't define the work it merely defines the business relationship.  Now go out and shoot with something fun.  If you can sell the work for money you just used a professional camera.  

Professional Color?  Why not.  If that's your vision.....
Bet that machine was made in 1955.  Still makes money for its owner.  Don't you wish you could buy something worthwhile and keep it for 60 years?  Maybe that's the real mark of good tools.  Longevity and the experience gained working with it..

Maybe today is a Holga day.  Naw, probably a Linhof day.  Either way something interesting might happen.

9.12.2011

An ad campaign for a local company.

I spend a lot of time writing about artsy portraits and big concepts of sturm und drang in the field of photography but my time teaching a workshop on video showed me that most people don't care so much about hermeneutics and epistemology and would really just like me to shut up about philosophical crap and show them what we actually do most days to make a living.  So I thought I'd oblige with this fun project.  It's for a company called EcoBox that sells and recycles and resells packing boxes and all the materials you might need to move your household across town or your business across the country.

The owners of the business, like most smart business men, didn't want to spend money on stuff that didn't make a difference in the bottom line but enough demographic research showed that their biggest potential customer base was women.  Mostly women in the 30 to 45 year old age group.  We knew we wanted to use a person in all of the ads because again, research shows that an image of a person looking directly at an ad viewer gets the longest engagement and the highest recall.  

We called our local talent agencies and gave them the specifications and asked for a "go see."  On a certain day all of the women that we narrowed our search to (by looking at headshots supplied by their agents...) came by and we snapped photographs of them to see how they looked on our cameras and how much they'd changed since they had their last headshot done.

The woman we chose, Kara, was a unanimous choice.  She does well in front of the camera.  She has a very pleasant aspect and her athleticism and good features make her an aspirational model for our client's demographic.  We negotiated for the various usages that we'd need and booked her for a day long shoot.

My studio is adjacent to my house in west Austin so we sometimes spill over into the house on shoots and sometimes, when we need lots and lots of space we shoot in my living room and use the studio as a make-up, wardrobe and gear storage facility.  In this situation we had the studio set up to shoot in and used our living room as a station for our make-up person and the dining room as a break room for coffee and meetings and internet silliness.  My assistant reserved two "travelers" of coffee from Starbucks the night before and went by to pick them up on her way in to work.  I had ordered a tray of baked goods from my favorite bakery and I went early to pick them up as well.  We also had juices, power bars and protein-y snacks set out.  Ben cleaned his bathroom for my clients.  We had the following people in attendance:  Greg, the art director/CD.  Amy, my assistant.  Patricia, the make up artist.  Kara, the model.  Two clients.  One account executive (who's name escapes me...).  

The creative brief called for shooting everything against a white background.  Amy and I set that up first.  We used the classic technique of four lights in umbrellas with black backing cross lighting the expanse of the background.  We metered the background and moved lights and feathered them until the meter read within one half of a stop anywhere on the visible paper.  We used black panels to block any spill light and to increase the general contrast by reducing flare and spill.  

I used a large softbox to to one side of the set and a smaller box on the other side for adjustable fill.  We did everthing a step at a time.  We were careful to match the light on the product shots of boxes to the light we used one Kara.  We had a series of pencil sketches and a shot list to work from and we were methodical about checking off the boxes, one after the other.  While I was shooting Amy was setting up and tearing down the boxes we were using as props.  Patricia kept an eye on Kara and stepped in when Kara started to get shiny.  She also kept a sharp eye out for wrinkles and other wardrobe issues.

I'd shoot (I think this was all done on a Nikon D700) and then Greg and I would review a test shot on the back of the camera.  If there was a question about detail we'd tether the camera and shoot test shots which we reviewed on a 24 inch calibrated Apple Monitor.  I've learned thru experience that it's more important to be consistent in your light sources than it is to have prestigious but mixed light sources.  Now I'm shooting with Elinchrom gear but I'm pretty sure I had a bunch of Alien Bees monolights in the studio at the time (I was writing a book about studio lighting....) and we used six of them.  All set above 1/4 power to ameliorate any color temperature inconsistencies.  In work like this I prefer big, softer light sources to smaller, harder light sources.  We can also increase apparent contrast but it's much harder to increase it after the fact.

We shot everything in uncompressed RAW files so we could make sure of the color matches in post production.  I did a rough edit to throw out blinks and scowls and flat out errors and then converted to smaller jpegs and uploaded to a web gallery for Greg and the clients.  I also provided a DVD of the same Jpegs for Greg in case he wanted to use them in a PhotoShop view instead.

Once Greg narrowed down his choices he sent me over a list and some instructions to customize the images.  We work large since some of the files would end up on the sides of large trucks.  I went thru each file, matched it for color, corrected loose threads and subject faults and output the files as 16 bit PSD's.  There's a mythology that photographers deliver Tiffs and that ad agencies just drop them into place but I've found that the art directors I work with have lots of practice working with files and fine tuning them for various applications in PhotoShop.  Greg is one of those art directors.  He knew exactly what to do with 16 bit PSD files....

I know it's kind of silly but I still get a kick when I'm driving around town and I see one of the truck wraps with my images all over it.  I am amazed at how well planned out Greg's campaign was and, by dint of his tremendous pre-production planning, how much we were able to get done in one long day of shooting.   The clients loved the campaign and are in their second full year of use so they've long since forgotten about the relatively small cost of my production.  In the grand scheme of a long running campaign my fees will be a fraction, perhaps less than one percent of the total advertising budget.

Amy and I cleaned up the studio and the house,  we hugged everyone.  We helped the guy from EcoBox who came in the big truck to pick up all the prop boxes.  I sent thank you notes to everyone involved.  I backed up the files on another hard drive and two DVD's and then Amy and I started resetting the studio, at nine o'clock that night, for our 5:15 am head shot for an executive from Dell.  The next morning always comes faster than we think it will.  Better to be set up the night before.

I sent Greg a bill and it was exactly the same amount as the bid.  No surprises.  No angst.  The check came quickly and the job was another gold star for each of us.  That's the basic anatomy of a local advertising photo shoot.

Note:  Last weekend's workshop on Video seems to have been a big success.  The people at Precision Camera sat in and enjoyed the whole thing.  They've invited me back to do another one on the 19th of November.  Should be fun....

9.11.2011

A fun and simple shot for the Molly Ivins tribute play, Red Hot Patriot.

Barbara Chisholm as Molly Ivins in "Red Hot Patriot."  A play at Zachary Scott Theatre.  ©2011 Kirk Tuck.


We shot images for the opening of Red Hot Patriot earlier this year when it debuted on the Wisenhut stage at Zach Scott.  Because Molly Ivins is such a larger than life character in the history of Austin the play is being brought back for a longer run in the Zach Scott Arena stage.  We wanted new images to re-launch the Fall run.

I headed over this afternoon with a simple kit in the car:  Two small Interfit monolights with supplied reflectors, two shoot thru, white umbrellas, two light stands and a bag with a camera and three Zeiss lenses.  I set up a classic portrait light for the above frame.  One light from camera right positioned above and 45 degrees to the side, the other light from camera left, a little closer to the camera axis and set at one quarter the power of the first light.

I shot around 1/60th f 8 @ ISO 200 with the Canon 1Dmk2n and the 85mm Zeiss 1.4 ZE lens.  When I got back to the studio I looked at all the frames in Lightroom, selected this one to output as a jpeg with no changes in post.

We took an hour to set up and shoot about 300 different frames.  Barbara, the consummate pro, gave us a range of looks and expressions.  We got in at three, I was packed and heading home by four.  Some work is really straightforward.  It works best that way for everyone.

Why the 1Dmk2?  I have a split screen in there that works really well with manual focus lenses.  And I like the noise the shutter makes when it fires.....

Another hot week coming up.  Hope everyone around central Texas stays hydrated and cool.  Not a good week for a mid-afternoon run.

Watering dead grass.

Don't waste time reading this if you aren't interested in the commercial side of photography. 

We're in a stage two water rationing situation here in Austin, Texas.  That means we can only legally water our lawns once a week and only during proscribed hours.  And that makes a certain amount of sense given the extreme drought conditions we're living with.  My lawn couldn't make it on once a week waterings and, when we had a week of sustained high temperatures over 105 degrees with wind and no humidity large swaths of green gave up the ghost, lost the very last almost invisible remnants of green hue and....expired to light brown.  But today is my ordained watering day and I set up the sprinkler and doused the yard one more time.  A vague, irrational yet optimistic hope that the grass would be resurrected.  A Sunday miracle.

And while I was driving back from getting some coffee I started thinking about the logic and emotion of watering dead grass.  And I realized that's what commercial photographers have done for the last three years.  We've been watering dead grass.  Some of us having been hanging on to the original, profitable paradigm of photography by dint of sheer momentum and will power. Just when we're ready to hang it all up and get a real job (as opposed to owning a photo business) a project comes in and we move the can forward a few more feet.  But it would take a blind and deaf photographer not to realize that someone came in, stomped on our cheese and then scooped it up with a shovel and tossed it away.  And, unwilling to believe that markets can change so profoundly, we've been watering the dead grass.

Why do I say this?  Because I'm tired of giving pep talks to my peers (of all ages) about the idea that our markets will recover.  That a day will come when we'll saddle up and ride off to an exotic location with a juicy assignment and we'll send in our images while resting on our patios adjacent to our suites at a Four Seasons Hotel.   Better to face facts and move forward with a new plan than to play a waiting game with market inertia.  I talk to many, many photographers and what I hear back is this:  We're seeing more jobs coming our way in 2011 than we did in 2010 and 2009 but they are for much lower budgets.  And almost every job that comes my way comes with a demand for "all rights."  Clients have a million, no, make that billions of options, if their perceive that our prices are too high.  And most of those options live on the web and come with an ever declining price tag as the stock agencies rush to the bottom of the pricing barrel.  With real unemployment at around 16% more and more people have the leisure time to ooze into the business based on hours, days and weeks of trial and error to get a decent shot.  And with many on unemployment they rationalize that they have zero overhead and that any sale for any amount is a win.  And clients have no moral imperative to use us instead of stock or amateur work.  They answer only to their own CFO's and, ultimately, their clients.

So how have photographers continued to make a living?  Let's be frank.  There are still pockets of need for assignment photos.  CEO's still need to be photographed as do new products that come to market.  Pundits always point to niches like this to imply that, if only we worked harder at marketing we could all be filling these niches, but what's really gone is the vast foundational structure of entry level jobs and cash flow sustaining jobs that were part of a heathy industry.  Now, to make real money, you must be in one of two or three photo healthy cities, have a track record and a phenomenal portfolio and be mining a very narrow set of niches.  Or you diversify into related fields.  You teach workshops, write books, run digital printing labs, find a community college teaching job, learn to make coffee....

I personally know a number of photographers who worked for prestigious magazines like National Geographic and did six figure ad photography campaigns for national clients who know struggle to line up enough $300 headshots to pay for groceries.  These aren't people who needed to "up their game."  Their "game" is already higher than their closest competitors and still way over the heads of the rest of the market.  It's the clients who pulled the plugs.  It's the markets that surged in a different direction.  "Good enough and cheap enough" is the current credo.  Yes.  There are exceptions.

And for the last three years the consultants have been encouraging us to advertise.  To hire them for insightful consultations.  To send out the postcards.  To heave endless e-mail campaigns (assaults) over the transom.  And mostly to go out and do what we did when money was NOT a scarce commodity and clients were professional and appreciated good work at a fair price.  In short, they've been begging us to water the dead grass because they live on the run off.

I got an e-mail from the ASMP last week.  Instead of telling me about some new way to leverage my copyright they were informing me about a new workshop sponsored by the ASMP and presented by Blake Discher.  The basic message of the e-mail is that the workshop is about how to stop whining about your situation and go out and make the most of it. You could save the money and get a Nike t-shirt that says, "Just do it."  But that would be too easy.  The ASMP board seems to have a method for dealing with the recession and the stumble of our photo markets and that's to sponsor past and present board members in an endless series of workshops.  Basically they are joining the chorus nudging people to water the dead grass.  Blake has so far been the ASMP's expert on SEO, web marketing and now whining cessation.  He stays busy travelling from ASMP city to ASMP city with the message that all can be healed if we can just market smart enough and aggressively.  Good advice in healthy market.  But for huge swaths of the country?  Just watering the dead grass.  And what purpose does the workshop serve?  It's a Potemkin Village for the ASMP.   Like a doctor with a terminal patient trying to look as if they're doing something constructive.

If we remain in this holding pattern the most we can expect is a further dilution and fragmentation of the imaging industry.  The real secret is that our country has to get back to work.  We have to start inventing, making, marketing and selling products again.  We have to put people back to work.  We have to give retailers a reason to advertise in print and other media.  We have to stop believing idiots who would have us all working for free. We have to pull together and educate the kids coming up behind us in basic business so they understand the tremendous value a customer can derive from an artful image, well used.  We have to understand the value we add to advertising budgets.  We need to start positioning ourselves as creative partners, not photo day laborers for hire.  We have to help everyone understand the real costs of being in business and of doing business.

Only then will our marketing efforts be anything more than watering the dead grass.


So, what to do while the ground lies fallow and waits for a break in the drought?  And we have no way of knowing whether or not the rain will come again.  Or if our landscape will return to desert.

There are no guarantees in life.  No one promised that our jobs would maintain their form and value through a lifetime.  We'll scramble to find the niches.  We'll broaden our offerings.  (although I still remember the disastrous attempts of hordes of photojournalists to jump into the, at the time burgeoning, wedding market and survive a radical course change) and broaden the demographics of our offers. And we'll start building up other skills.  I'm lucky.  I can write books.  I have a book on LED lights coming out soon from a traditional publisher (Amherst Media) and I'm putting the finishing touches on my first e-book.  I write presentations.  I write scripts.  I've been modestly successful in investing.  But I know I'm not betting my future on a stupendous recovery of the traditional photo industry.

A note directly to working photographers:  Watering the dead grass is a waste of time.  If you're going to spend the time and money watering you'd better make sure you've planted some new grass seeds.  And that means thinking of new markets and new customers.  Anything else creates mud.

What I learned in my DSLR video workshop yesterday.

When you teach you always learn or re-learn new stuff.  Yesterday I taught a workshop about using DSLR cameras to do production video.  The class was a basics class so I had to make sure I got everyone up to speed on things like FPS, different file sizes, how ISO, f-stop and shutter speed work in concert and some straightforward stuff like that.  After we were all conversant on the day to day knowledge we moved into why you might want to use manual focus lenses on your shooting camera.

I showed them how camera operators sometimes use white tape on their lens barrels and mark various focus settings with china markers in order to do quick changes of focus between subjects at known distances.  But when we started this demo I wanted to show how the Canon AF lenses with USM have no hard stop at infinity and it makes them harder to do this method even though you can use them in manual focus mode.  We went back and forth between a Canon 24-105L zoom at f4 and a Carl Zeiss 85mm 1.4 ZE manual focus lens.  The camera (a D60) was tethered to a 50 inch HD TV screen with an HDMI cable.  While the class was interested to see the differences in operation between the two lenses I was just amazed at how much cleaner, sharper and more transparent the Zeiss lens was than the Canon.  It was night and day.  I understand that one is a zoom and one is a fixed focal length but once you've seen the difference I doubt you would ever want to go backwards.

We did a lot of work that involved moving the camera.  Looking at a handheld image on a big TV is a great way to show just how much shake even the steadiest person in the room has while trying to handhold.  And, or course, this translates to your still photo technique as well.  If you think not using a tripod isn't hurting your images you might want to put a middle focal length lens (50mm or 85mm) on your camera, line up a subject and trying handholding for even ten seconds.  When you review the footage you will become a tripod adherent almost immediately.  Even adjusting for my two cups of coffee that morning and the anxiety of getting ready for nine hours of teaching I was still the worst in the class.

In the segment about camera moving we dived into fluid head tripods and took turns trying to do a simple, jitter-free pan.  Even with a good quality head like a Manfrotto 501 or 504 HDV it takes practice to master even the basic moves.  And that was the point of the demo:  Gear won't help you become the master of good technique.  Every move takes practice.  We get spoiled shooting stills because nothing is supposed to move at the decisive moment, except maybe the subject.

We used the Cinevate 48 inch slider to do some parallel-to-subject camera moves and then mixed it up by putting the slider perpendicular to the subject.  Lots of interesting effects could be had by doing a "push" in toward the subject while simultaneously zooming in or zooming out.  We also used an Ikan shoulder mount and played with a Zacuto rig with focus follow rings and shiny counterweights.

After lunch we dived into sound.  If you think good clean photography is tough sound is exponentially harder to pull off.  We recorded with five different microphones so students could hear for themselves the different personalities of microphones and then we spent much good time experimenting with placement, and booming mics on poles.  After we mastered miking techniques we talked about treating rooms to compensate for areas that are too live or too "bright."  The bottom line?  Bring lots of blankets to absorb bright reflections off hardwood floors, saltillo tile floors and hard furniture.  Be ready to change the room to make the sound work.  Surprise of the day?  How well the little Olympus lav microphone for the Pen cameras does when compared to mics that are 6 times pricier.

The winners of the microphone contests?  The Rode Stereo VideoMic for all around sound and cost to price performance.  The ultimate in sound quality?  The Sennheiser  wireless ommi-directional lavalier mic.   We had discusssions about auto level controls versus manual level control for one and two person crews, how to monitor your mikes with today's cameras and how to use external digital audio recorders to do double sound.

Near the end of the day we went over basic lighting techniques.  On one hand we showed how to use the existing light and use small fixtures to improve and shape it.  On the other hand we turned out the room lights and lit from scratch to show how we go, step by step, in creating a lighting design that makes cameras look their best.  And subjects too.

I checked in with each student and they all were very happy and heading home to process what we'd spent the day teaching and learning.

What did I personally learn?

I like smaller classes where people can huddle around a big, very high def screen and watch and produce demos in real time.

I hate using video projectors for anything other than presenting to large crowds in big, dark rooms.

There will always be someone in the room who is compelled to bring up in discussion the biggest, priciest and most complicated piece of gear.  It's like:  How to drive a formula one car for someone who's still going with his learning permit.  We always have to acknowledge the commenter and then bring the discussion back around to our agenda.

That fixed focal length Zeiss lenses blow Canon zooms right out of the water, no matter what DXO might tell you......

That the D60 is a great video camera with a clean ISO 6400, an easy to use menu, a straightforward manual audio level control and a menu full of customization options.  Easily better that the 7D by dint of having manual audio level controls.  Don't get me started on the Canon 5Dmk2.  The video menu in that camera is a nightmare.

The D60 is my current recommended camera for either film makers or still shooters.  It's pretty darn good.  And, even though we used the camera as our demo machine (meaning it was on almost all day long) when I checked the battery this morning it still had a 30% charge left.  Amazing to anyone who remembers the early days of digital cameras with their notoriously weak batteries......

I learned that I love a class with a mix of students.  I had one ad executive, aged 61, that was out to master video to offer clients better work on YouTube and Vimeo.  He knew he needed to change and was being smart and proactive.  Our youngest attendee was a woman who's taking a year off from college to work with a bunch of friends on a documentary.  She took lots of notes and was happy to find some fixes for both audio and focusing problems that arise in the field.  Others were sales people from the camera store who wanted to better understand the products they sell and how they would be used in the field.  One was a photo assistant who has come to know that more and more of her clients also require an assistant who is conversant with video as well as still.  And one attendee is a dedicated photographer who is starting to get more and more requests for video as an adjunct to his traditional business.

I learned that I like doing workshops were someone else arranges for the space, brings most of the gear and does the "behind the scenes" production work.  Thank you Precision Camera.

Video is an interesting field and one in which most photographers have barely stuck a toe into.  We know have the tools of production.  We could make our own movies if we had the time and enough friends who want to help.  Now we just need to get the fundamentals down pat and find stories we really want to tell.  That's where the magic happens......

Having a plan and a script keeps you out of the #1 tank.

9.08.2011

The untold story of photo torture. Your poor family.....


Subject:  Ben.  Our in-house teenager.  Camera: Hasselblad 501 C/M.  Lens:  80mm Zeiss Planar.  Film: Kodak Tri-X, ISO 400.  Light:  Indirect daylight coming in through a set of double glass doors.  Tripod?  Yes.

I'm one of those people whose parents had very little interest in photography.  They started, with due diligence, on a baby book but you could see that the late 1950's was a bit overwhelming and production quickly fell off.  My collection of my own visual history contains a flurry of blurry baby shots, a mix of yearly professional portraits of me with my siblings,  some "cute kid in cowboy hat with six shooters" photos as little, grainy 3 by 3 inch, deckled edged prints, a few shots from high school and random other stuff.

By contrast, Ben has been photographed at nearly every step of the way.  Swim meets, track meets, band concerts, Halloween costumes, first day of school, last day of school,  linear yards of prints albums, lots and lots of workboxes full of all manner of negatives and chromes.  Disk after disk of digital images and so much more.  He's used to it.  Blase' about the process and probably, as a result of his total immersion in photography (as a subject) he has absolutely no interest in taking up a camera and learning the craft.

I promise not to show future girlfriends embarrassing shots from an earlier age.  I know being followed around by a parent with a camera can be..........annoying but.....It's more fun for me to try new techniques on Ben than on the dog.  And he doesn't move as fast as the dog.   


9.07.2011

Got yer 80mm's of Bokeh right here......

Subject:  Will at Trianon Coffee House.  Camera: 500 C/M.  Lens: 80mm CB Planar.  Film: Kodak Tri-X @ ISO 400. Shooting near wide open at f4 and handholding at 1/60th.  Not too much coffee.  Scanned on an Epson V500.  Lighting:  Indirect daylight thru windows.


I really don't have much to say about this portrait (which I really, really like) other than to point out how nicely the stuff in the background goes out of focus.  A really nice side benefit of shooting with larger format cameras and longer lenses.  I'm loving the whole process.  Since I only have waist level finders I get to stand up and say, "Hold that!"

It's all so much fun!

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.......