I don't know about you but there are times when I'm faced with the prospect of either shooting famous people or people I feel very privileged to shoot (two very different categories) and the pressure to do everything right, and quickly, gives me a large dose of anxiety. If I am shooting a captain of industry like Michael Dell I know I'll need to work fast, deal with a layer or two of handlers, and that I might not get more than five minutes with him to do all I need to do to make what I'd like to be an interesting and print-worthy image. When you add something more to the mix, like the political head of a province of China the pressure mounts.
Corporate "meet and greets" like this are highly staged and precisely timed. While Mr. Dell and his guests met I set up lights in the lobby area of Dell's executive suite. I would need to have a flexible lighting design that could accomodate a group of up to 20 executives and dignitaries, the lighting would also have to work well when I moved all the other participants out to get a few tighter shots of the two V.I.P.'s. I defaulted to two lights on stands with medium size umbrellas. I raised the stands up as high as I could as a precaution against getting a glare in the glasses of one of the participants. I metered the lights to blend with the ambient light in the large room. I don't like to test much on site in this venue because there are glass panels on the conference room doors where the meetings are taking place, adjacent to where I set up for photography and I feel like the repeated flashes are intrusive...
Just before the appointed hour and minute my anxiety rises up. There's litany of "what if???!!!!" scenarios that start playing in my head. What if the radio triggers don't work? (answer: I have a two hard sync cables standing by.) What if one or both flashes fail? (answer: I have four extras plugged in and ready to go). What if the camera fails? What if they don't like the set up? What if someone trips on a cable? What if they blink in every shot? The list goes on and on. I start to get hot under the collar of my Haspel suite. What if I desperately need to hit the bathroom just as they arrive? The feeling of panic settles in. I double check everything I can possibly double-check. From the camera settings (WB, ISO, file format, f-stop, shutter speed, sync) to the radio trigger channels.
I've already marked the spot on the floor for the two most important subjects, calculated the EXACT exposure and written that exposure on the white tape I use just for that purpose on the bottom of my camera. At the last minute I slip another camera over one shoulder, just in case (even though I've never had a digital camera fail.....). By now my mouth is cotton-ball-at-the-dentist-dry and I feel just a bit queasy. I can feel my blood pressure rise and I can hear the pulse in my carotid artery.
Then the doors open and the performance has to start. I'm moving people into place with as much deference and grace as I can. Always mindful that the clock is ticking and whether or not I get what I need doesn't even enter into the scheduling equation. Execs come out from their offices to say hello and show face. This slows us down. I want everyone to move faster. But there's no way to push.
Finally, I'm getting them into position and my hands on the camera are getting sweaty and my breathing shallow. I shoot and over shoot to make sure I've got what I need. We do a group of 25 and a group of 10 and a 2 person shot, and then shots of a gift exchange. In seven minutes I've shot 125 raw frames. The batteries in the flashes are holding up well. Then, with a nod from the PR executive I acknowledge that my part of the event is irrevocably over. The Chinese delegation will move off to waiting cars, the executives will move on to their next meetings. I'm finally calm and as the last person leaves the lobby area I review what I've gotten on the camera's rear screen and a sense of relief and exhaustion washes over me. Now I know I have what I need. I didn't fail this time.
And it's all so silly. I've done this kind of work for decades. And for many of those years we used unruly and tough to wrangle cameras that would never think of focusing themselves. Flashes that had one or two wacky automatic settings that were.....eccentric... and batteries that were weaker than a mother-in-law's coffee. We shot on unforgiving film with no time to take Polaroid tests. And everything worked.
I think the pressure now comes from my assumption that my clients assume that modern technology is foolproof and that, given my years of experience, I'll be foolproof. They are playing a dangerous game...
Have I ever messed up an event shot? Not yet, but my psyche is always on guard against the first time.
The specs are interesting since they point to a new understanding of the professional market by Canon. They are combining their two lines of professional cameras, the 1D xx high speed sports cameras and the 1Ds xx high resolution studio and everything else cameras. The camera will feature a full frame sensor with 18 megapixels, a 12 or 14 fps shot to shot speed and a stated increase in overall IQ compared with all previous cameras. I think it's safe to say that they have no intention of leaving the dense pack market completely to Sony and Nikon so I'm fairly certain we'll see a "5D-like" camera with a wildly high pixel count in short order. Canon is taking a cue from the stellar noise and quality performance of the Nikon D3s cameras and updating the sensor tech to give buyers an overall level of resolution that will be convincing enough for most uses.
But, in a sense it's a vindication of what I and many others have been saying for the past few years. To wit, the endless race for densely packed megapixels was a run in the wrong direction. There's a sweet spot and the sweet spot seems to be defined by the size of each sensor node. This is why files from cameras like the Kodak DCS 760 could look so sweet. The pixel wells in that camera are 9 microns across. The current APS C and m4:rd's cameras are less than half that size. And the pixel wells in the 1Ds Mk3 are also 1/3 smaller.
While the bigger pixel surface area theoretically yields more dynamic range and less noise the DCS 760 was early enough tech to have some issues with noise at anything other than it's base ISO. But over the span of the professional, digital timeline discerning photographers have consistently found that big pixel cameras trump little pixel cameras when it comes to ultimate image quality (not counting resolution beyond native numbers). The Nikon D2h coughed up a beautiful file with really wonderful colors....as long as you kept the ISO down. I have a magazine cover for IBM to prove it's stealthy capabilities.
Lately I've tested bunches of Canon cameras including: the 5Dmk2, the 7D, the 60D, the 1Dmk2N and the 1dsMk2. While the technical specs of the first three cameras are all really great the files which have the colors and tones I enjoy most are from the 1Dmk2N. The second place finisher is the 1Ds Mk2. These are the two cameras with the largest pixel sizes. Neither of them is as quiet as the 5, 7 or 60D's but I'm betting that most of the improvements in noise characteristics came from improvements in the high speed processors that pull the information off the sensor and "package" it for inclusion on the memory cards. At ISO 200 the cameras are all great. The older cameras just have a different color response.
The larger pixel sizes are also not affected by the physics of diffraction in quite the same way. A sensor with pixel wells that are twice as big as a competing camera all other things cancelled out, would have better sharpness at smaller apertures and this might be just what the doctor ordered for architecture and product photographers who often shoot at f11 and f16.
The change in pixel density philosophy at Canon shouldn't surprise anyone after the introduction of the Canon G11 two years ago. The company ratcheted the sensor resolution back from 14 megapixels to 10 megapixels in an attempt to provide files that looked sharper on consumer monitors and which had much less high ISO noise. Most users welcomed the "regression" because, overall, the files looked better and were easier to deal with.
I welcome the step back. I bought a Canon 5Dmk2 a while back and I dread using it to produce full sized raw files. When I shoot portraits I routinely throttle the whole mess back to the M size raw file (1/2 size). Don't get me wrong, the big files look great. Full of fine detail and all that. It's just that most of the time the files get used at much smaller sizes and I hate the idea of endlessly filling hard drives with big, fat files that basically aren't going to go anywhere.
The bodies are huge but that's a neutral for me. I need the strength training to maintain muscle mass anyway. But when I get on my bike and head downtown for an afternoon of shooting just for fun I've got an Olympus Pen EP3 that fits perfectly in my bike bag anyway.
So, I have high hopes for this camera. It seems perfectly designed to be an all around camera for professional photographers. But that doesn't mean I'm going to rush right out and pick it up when March rolls around. The reservation on the list is a courtesy to ensure I get a camera if I want it. I can decline when the time comes and the camera will go to the next person on the list. I think my time might be better spent searching out more bargain cameras whose prices will undoubtably be affected as the supply of new cameras comes to market. I'll have my eyes on something really sexy. Like maybe another 1Dsmk2 or maybe a 1d3. You never know. March is a long way away.
Anyway, it's interesting to me to see the direction that Canon is taking in their flagship product. In a way it vindicates the statements made by Olympus. They basically said that 12 megapixels was the sweet spot for most consumers. Canon is now saying that the quality of the pixels now trumps the quantity. A good place to stop.
added 1/2 hour later: $6900? Wow. Thats nearly seven 1dmk2n's at today's market price. Or 10 Olympus EP3's..... Some with VF2's.
added on Oct. 19th: Some people around the web-o-sphere are already complaining that the 1DX is a failure because it didn't continue the progression toward ever more megapixels. But I have a simple question.....If lenses can't resolve much more than 18 megapixels on a ff camera isn't increasing the density of pixels kind of silly? Couldn't you achieve the same size results just by up rezzing the files? I mean, after all, if the lens is the limit of resolution in the system more pixels isn't going to add more detail, just more size to the files. Unless you are shooting with some really phenomenal lenses it would all seem moot. (Contax lens users and Leica 90mm APO Summicron users.....go ahead and bitch..). A poll of pro's recently done asked about their lens use. The vast majority depended on the 24-105 and the 70-200L's. Great lenses but probably straining to put real detail into 18 megapixels...
The last time I really posted to the blog we were in the middle of our extreme, full contact, death match, smack down drought. I labeled this image (above): drought survivors. We experienced record setting heat this Summer which, in a bizarre twist, coincides with a growing, national disinterest in global warming. I can imagine the pitch from the Austin Chamber of Commerce five years from now if the weather doesn't change for the better: Come see the sand dunes of the famous Hill Country Desert. Move over Dubai..
Then again, it did rain last Sunday and we've got our fingers crossed that it will do so again. Some day. Sooner than later. Hey! What happened to the hurricanes? Anyway, we got two inches of rain around here and what's left of our lawn seems grateful. Is it safe to shoot and drive? I didn't think so but since there isn't a law against it who cares?
At the end of the race the school threw a big picnic. Open to all. Brisket, burgers, hot dogs, veggie burgers and a ton of side dishes brought by the families. I'm a sucker for condiments. Love shooting them. The boys and girls all ate like they'd been out running or something. We had a cloud burst but that didn't slow anyone down. Some of the younger kids there looked at water falling from the sky like it was some sort of mythical miracle.
No synopsis of the last few weeks would be complete without mentioning that stalwart VSL supporter and quasi-official bored (not mis-spelled) member, Mr. B, snagged himself a Swedish miracle camera and he's been shooting up a storm. He's getting it dialed in and dangerous. Taken at Trianon Coffee in Austin.
Speaking of dangerous, I've made a few trips to city hall to take snaps and soak up the ambiance of "Occupy Austin." This young man (above) came prepared to do art on many levels. Note the Polaroid Land Camera on his right side. He'd shot up his supply of Fuji Instant film by the time I caught up with him.
I also appreciate the Holga. Different cameras/different looks....
The protest was well attended......by the media. On the morning it started I would estimate that the number of electronic and still news media had achieved parity with the number of protesters. It was a well covered event and everyone from the police chief to the youngest protester was well behaved. In fact the chief, Art Acevedo, was working the crowd and posing with people who had interesting signs...
Here's the chief in mid-interview. Serious on camera. All smiles minutes later.....
It was tough for the media for two reasons: 1. The well behaved protesters and professional police force gave them little action or real substance to cover, and, 2. It was tough to find a place to do your make up before an on-camera report....(see just below).
The one person diligently riling up the crowd was the woman in the electric blue dress trying to drum up support for Presidential Candidate, Ron Paul. Seemed that no one was interested in taking a flyer but everyone wanted to take a turn arguing with her.
Business is good but, of course, when business is down I'm unhappy not to be working and when business is up I'm unhappy not to have the free time to work on my own stuff.....
Hope you've stayed busy and happy.
In those mythic days of yesteryear I owned two 2,000 watt second Norman Strobe boxes and four flash heads. All of this stuff, a ton of light stands, a giant tripod, and enough film to last for a week and a half got stuffed into the bed of my Chevrolet three quarter ton pick-up truck. This was a truck with at least 150,000 miles on it's 350 cubic inch engine. It had a three speed transmission with a shifter on the steering column. No air conditioning. I had a "cap", not a camper, on the back. The truck got something like negative nine miles to the gallon but what did we care back then? It was Texas and they gave away gasoline instead of Green stamps at the time. The truck was oxidized baby blue with white trim.
When I picked up my art director at the Austin airport she was "enchanted" with my "rustic" truck and always excited when I backed out of parking places. In Texas people stop and wave you out if your vehicle has limited visibility. Apparently, if you are from Philadelphia, backing out without looking is considered heinous enough to start gun battles.
We made it through torrential rains and flooded highways (thank you, Truck) and we visited many interesting people who, having made fortunes in one industry or another, felt compelled to flee to rural Louisiana and throw their life savings into crumbling monuments to a dark time in our country's past.
I took a lot of photographs but the one that stays with me from the trip is one I took outside with my old, twin lens Rolleiflex. It's a clump of flowers. I found them and liked them so I shot them. In my memory my trip through the backroads of Louisiana will always be marked by this image.
It's quiet, serene and captured just before the last light rinsed out in a muggy sky and the darkness crept in.
Loved that truck. We used to sleep in the back when I travelled through west Texas. It was always more fun than the hotels....
It rained in Austin a week ago and we were all happy that nature nudged some benevolent clouds in our direction. My trees and flower beds seemed happier than I've seen them in months and the two inches of moisture, wicked into the ground, moderated temperatures for the rest of the week. We finally have a bit of Autumn.
One of the consequences of the rain, and my inattention to our gutters and French drains, was a little leak into the corner of my studio. The floor of a closet where I store photo props got wet and one of my favorite grey canvas backgrounds got soaked. I had elaborate plans to clean the background by hanging it over the fence and scrubbing with a sponge but finally decided, when Belinda wasn't looking, to dump the whole 10 foot by 12 foot hunk of dark grey canvas material into the washing machine and see what happened.
It's the first time I've ever washed a background and it went well. After the spin dry cycle I hung it up in the middle of the studio, on its background stands, to dry. And then, yesterday in the late afternoon, just as the sun was setting and the afterglow started to light up the evening sky, I looked over my shoulder from my desk and noticed how beautifully the soft, diffuse light was brushing across the gentle undulations of the background fabric. The light was directional but without force. It was almost like of mist of gray light.
I walked into the house and asked Belinda if she would come out to the little studio so I could take a shot. I put a digital camera on an old wooden tripod and turned Belinda into the light. The shutter speed was a slow 1/20th of a second and the aperture around f2.5. The light was low enough to require a sensitivity setting of ISO 400. I used an electronic cable release to shoot with. We shot eight or ten images and that was enough.
Belinda went back into the house and I yanked the memory card out of the camera and went to the computer to see what I'd gotten. From the beginning my intention was to make the final image black and white. I chose this frame because Belinda seemed bemused. The other frames were all good but all different. Some had serious expressions and some were blurred with Belinda's laughter. This one said it all. It said, to me, "I understand your frailties. I understand your impulsiveness. I understand your desire to photograph. I understand your frustrations. I understand the elation you feel when you get something just right."
I told Belinda all the reasons I stopped writing this blog. She listened. I told her all the reasons I wanted to start writing and sharing images again and that "look" up at the top of the page is the answer she gave me. That's all.
I've been re-reading Susan Sontag's book, On Photography, for the past few days. I'd read it years ago when I was filled with more hubris and impatience, and I'd dismissed too much. The one thing that really touched me was her assertion that people in cultures with punishing work ethics (Her list: Germans, Japanese and Americans) enjoy the hobby of photography because it seems like work and makes us less nervous about taking vacations and leisure time because we are convinced that we are still dutifully at work when we pursue our photographic creations. It's a disturbing explanation for our desires to photograph. But one that I believe is somehow mixed into the amalgam of our pursuits.
I prefer to believe my own conceit. I think human beings, as members of tribes, families and elective groups, are story tellers at heart. The photographic image is a crystallization of a part of a story that makes the whole of the story tangible. If I show a photograph of a pretty, young girl at a coffee shop the image becomes part of an instant framework that brings you to the story with a ready supply of clues and facts and background. You know what the girl looks like, how she's dressed, her expression and posture, the surroundings, the visual feel of the coffee shop, and more. You slide into the story with instant exposition.
But there are two ways to look at the individual photo. One way is to approach it as a fully encapsulated piece of freestanding art and the other way is to look at the photo as a frozen selection in time from the continuum of a story. I choose the second interpretation because, for me, every image I take cues me to think of the arc of actions and time connected to the image.
Here I'll make a confession. I believe that I am a photographer without much natural talent. There is nothing I bring to the table that anyone else cannot bring with the exception of my interpretation of stories. There are hordes of people more technically adroit than I. If you've done all of the exercises on Strobist.com and have read hundreds of technical blogs I don't doubt for a second that you can handle the technical aspects of image generation masterfully. I'm also shaky at the ins and outs of composition. I'm never quite sure how to handle the stuff that doesn't fit neatly into my frames and I'm generally no more than proficient when it comes to designing with colors. Interpreting the technical stuff into art is a stretch for me. When I say "no talent" I don't mean bad, I just mean, "not gifted." "Not a natural."
I came to photography in an interesting way. I always enjoyed writing and it came easily to me. I feel like words are fluid and flow smoothly when I'm in my writing groove. But all things visual and design are difficult for me and I struggle with them. I started adult life as a writer but I always had the idea that good writing (story telling) depended partly on having good stories to tell. When a writer is young they may be facile in the mechanics of a story but the foundation of the story is sometimes missing. And, the work from younger writers tends to be like a brash wine that could stand aging and breathing. I always assumed I would write something good but I also assumed I would do it in my 50's and 60's. You know, after I'd amassed something interesting to say.
So I waded into photography to confront the challenges of my visual illiteracy. My visual clunkiness. And every step has been like slogging through mud. But the stories are there. I've learned enough of the technical work to make the birth of my images reliable and I depend on the implicit and integral stories to bear the weight. So there's always a conflict. What is a photograph? A fixed work of art or the slice of a story transformed to a visual symbology? And do my own limitations inform my answers?
I come down on the side of narrative. I secretly wish every photograph had a well written caption. A way of contextualizing the image and the art. When other photographers sit and share coffee we talk more now about why we photograph. The dispirited wonder why they go through the motions and question their motivations. At the heart I think we all have stories to tell and that the sharing of the stories assures us that there's a certain universality to our existence and experiences but at the same time there are little twists and inflections that make a story uniquely yours. The storytelling is like a road map.
In Buddhist teachings everyone and everything is interconnected. Our suffering and joy are interconnected. And your story is equally important. All our stories are of equal value in the big scheme of things. If you tell your story people become newly aware of how things look to you through the filters of your experiences. It becomes part of the ever changing matrix of their understanding of our existence.
When I question my involvement in photography I come around to the idea that I have a story to tell and, just as importantly, an audience to tell it to. The stories exist with or without photographs but become, in some ways, more concretely accessible with them. When you have doubts about what moves you to take images, when you are frozen by the indecision you might ask yourself, "What is the story I want to tell? What are the feelings I want to share? How can I tell you how beautiful this thing in front of me is? Here, let me show you. We'll know this one thing together...."
Where do the stories come from? They come from your own passions. From your own curiosity. From the things you love and the things you despise.
I understood that when I photographed people but I didn't understand what pushes me to photograph little details of my city's downtown. Now I do. I am trying to understand the story of people's interconnectedness and shared space. I am trying to understand how we continually change our context to create a new world in each moment, anchored with the only objectivity available = our concrete surroundings.
In effect, it would seem that we capture images to tell long term stories about the past. "Here is Ben at 2 years old and he was doing this......" But there's more to the collection of images then the final chapter; which I always imagined would be me sitting on a small bed, in a small room, old and dressed in a worn suit and tie but with nowhere to go and nothing to do, holding small album or book of photos in my hands and remembering a life in the past that had moved on like water in a stream. And the images in my book would be a last, desperate attempt to hold onto the life line of life and memory.
But stories are now. Stories are in the present. We make them now and they become part of an infinite ball of rubber band cosmos....rubber band by rubber band. We add our stories because they are part of the continuum, part of mankind's story. And no matter how small the story might seem it also seems to be our destiny to tell it.
And that's why I think we photograph.
Welcome back to my blog. I appreciated everyone's feedback. I can't promise you anything but that I'll write about things I think and show images that have some meaning for me. Everything else is a crap shoot.
It's monday. It must be time to get back to work.
If, for reason of your geography, you are constrained from joining you can send me a personal e-mail and, if I feel your comment has validity or humor I may, at my discretion, post it. I'm taking most of the advertising totally off the site (I'm leaving links to my own books). As soon as I can figure out the programming I'm going to add a donation button to the site. You don't need to donate anything but if you are exuberantly wealthy and the value of the site is proportionate to your wealth I want to create a pathway for you to share your largess. I reserve the right to put some links in the copy but you never have to buy anything to read my blog.
I change my mind a lot. You are forewarned. I may like Nikon next week and hate it the week before Christmas. Ditto any other brand. If you came here to kneel in worship with me to some brand of camera or light you have me confused with a church and need to re-read your Google Map.
But here's the bottom line. If I don't hear from you I'm basically working in a vacuum and it's not very much fun to toss pebbles into a pond without seeing some ripples. If you like something a little then check a box under the post. Like it a lot? Tell me why. I actually wrote something that changed your life? Wow. I'm not sure I can handle that level of responsibility.
As before, I will write what I want and when I want. One of the reasons I'm not eager to accept sponsorships is my feeling that they'll change, however subtly, my relationship with the site and I'm not into it. I'm writing because I like to write. I write about photography because I love photography and I think we have some standards and some points of view to uphold. I also think the gear affects our vision and I like writing about the connection, the attraction and the frisson.
You are free to drop out at any time.
Finally, I've been hearing an interesting line from about 25% of the people I meet when I do public speeches or photo meetings or walks. They keep telling me that I seem "joyful, funny and light-hearted" in person.....less so in my writing. I'll work on being more serious in public...
Just kidding. Please know that what I write is from my experiences. It is always meant to be light-hearted and exuberant. I'm not writing any of this for you. I'm writing it for me. And I have come to find out that is what most of you really value.
Thanks for reaching out and giving me a reason to write and share. This time around could you drop me a line from time to time and tell me how I'm doing?
See you Monday October 17th, 2011.
Working on a Holiday Card for a client of nearly 10 years. Putting together the card with a background illustration and 70 individual people photographs sprinkled through. Someone needed to make the scientists and engineers smile and laugh. I was showing someone my air guitar technique when "Lightning Reflexes" Amy Smith grabbed a Canon 1dsMk2 and popped a couple shots. If you can't be silly you really shouldn't be around other people. Arch seriousness is just annoying.....
Agfapan APX100. Leica R8. 90mm Summicron. Printed on Agfa Portriga Rapid. The film, paper, camera and lens are no longer made. This is officially an antiquity. I can't make the same photograph with a newer camera and newer materials.
I called Lou up on a cool autumn day and asked her to go with me to Laguna Gloria Museum to make a little art, apropos of nothing. She wore an old courderoy coat and smiled beautifully as she looked down at her feet.
Hasselblad 500 CM, 180mm f4 lens. Agfa film.
Hasselblad 500 CM, 180mm f4 lens. Agfa film.