10.26.2011

Some fake words that we should all avoid.



"Really?  You think that sounds cool?.....right."  Lou.  Hasselblad camera.  150mm lens.  Agfa black and white film.




Here are words (and concepts) that drive me nuts when I read them. Language has meaning. These words subvert meaning and are too cute by far.....let's shy away from ever using them unless some Englishman is holding a gun to your head.....

Uni. Meant to be an abbreviation for university. But really just the Latin root for singular or one. After investing several hundred thousand dollars in an education would you really want to say "when I was at Uni..." ????

Brolly. One of those whimsically stupid abbreviations that make my skin crawl like fingernails on the proverbial chalk board. It really means: "umbrella." Brolly Box is the worst iteration. Boycott anyone who refers to their product this way. What next? The "Bumpershooter!" ????

Doco. Just read this bastardization on Phillip Bloom's website. It's meant to be a shortening of the word, "documentary." Given enough time the English will attempt to abbreviate anything they can. That doesn't make it right.  "He shot a doco!"  No.

Tog. Meant to be an abbreviation of the time honored word, "Photographer." The problem is that "tog" has a previous meaning. It refers to apparel or articles of clothing. Both confusing and diminutive. Let's all promise never to use it in reference to picture taking again.  Makes us sound like toys.

Strobist. Nice business name but a poor description of people who have cameras and also have the ability to light things with small lights. One man may call himself a "Strobist" if he invented the term. When others appropriate the word it garners the same slimy veneer that "Members Only" jackets had in the 1970's.......a big flashing, neon sign that screams:
"Wannabe."

PhotoWalk. It's a walk. You just happen to be bringing your camera along to exercise it. PhotoWalk sounds so......clubby. It's okay to ask a friend, "Do you want to grab our cameras and walk around downtown?" Photowalk sounds so single minded and pretentious.

MeetUp. HookUp. BangUp. It's a meeting. It's sex. It's a wreck. Just use the right word. Meet Up implies that people will get together for a meeting. There's a real word for that: meeting.

Blog. (noun) It's really an article. You've written an article.  Why does it need a new word just because it lives on the internet?

Add words to this list as you desire. But those are the ones that make my jaw ache.  To each their own?  I think not.



Article edited for good taste at 12:37 Texas Time.

10.25.2011

Using the toys. Making art and making money.

Sienna.  Hasselblad 500 C/M.  100mm 3.5 Zeiss Planar.  Tri-X.


In the past few days I've used a surprising number of cameras for a surprising number of uses.  I used a medium format camera with a mediumish long lens to shoot an available light portrait that just had to be one slice of sharpness in a sea of smooth tones.  I used a high resolution, full frame camera for an advertising project where the final manifestation of our work will be large posters and print ads.  I used an older full frame camera with a firewire socket to shoot twenty pieces of various kinds of artwork, yesterday.  I like to see the focus and cropping on a tethered screen to make sure I'm not getting small reflections that might go unnoticed on the small rear LCD of a camera.  The firewire connection is fast, mature and reliable.  Not as fast as "live view", just better.

I grabbed a small sensor camera with a built in flash to catch Ben blowing out candles on a chocolate birthday cake from Sweetish Hill Bakery.  The camera was fool proof and quick and I used it on the "P" setting. Last Friday I used a camera with a slightly cropped frame to shoot a cross country race.  It's the same camera I use for swim races.  It focuses faster than even my newest cameras and shoots 8 frames every second.  I'm bound to get something good....

And I used an old view camera because I needed a camera with which I could control both the front and the rear standards.  Plus, I had the nostalgia to see another one of those chubby, juicy transparencies.  I've come to believe that the Apple iPad screen experience was modeled after the look of a four inch by five inch transparency on a light table.  In the short space of a week I've used a collection of cameras not because it's what I had lying around but because, over time, I've selected an assortment of cameras that all do different things well.  Some get out of your way.  Some provide a technique that is unavailable elsewhere.  Some make my jobs easier.  Others make up for my aging reflexes.

Some people are happy finding "just the right camera for themselves."  I'm not sure every professional has that freedom.  We could pretend that we only do our very specific vision but that's not fun and it's not fair and, in pursuing that "one-ist" dogma you'll find that the more generalist market of a second tier city will beat you down with the demand for variety.

None of my cameras needs to be the latest.  My sports camera and my firewire full frame camera both were born in 2005.  They still amaze me.  My newest camera is also my cheapest one.  My favorite camera is my oldest one.  But they each serve a wonderful purpose: to realize my vision efficiently.

I have the same relationship with my lights.  I cannot imagine trying to do all the different things the average photographer is called on to do with only a bag of speedlights or only a Pelican case full of studio lights.  Each choice is rife with compromise.  About two weeks ago I set up and shot 70 people's portraits, from their toes to their heads (some even jumping into the air..) against a white background.

We used four lights on the background for an even wash, two lights in front of our subjects and two sidelights for a total of eight fixtures.  We set up at 8am and shot, altogether, 1,400 shots by the end of the day.  We needed to shoot generously to loosen up and emotionally involve our amateur talent.  We needed modeling lights to see the effect of the lights.  We had twelve light stands because we needed scrims to block light from hitting our subjects in the wrong way, and to keep light out of the lens.

After Amy and I shoved all the equipment back into the studio I hopped in the car and headed off to shoot a small shoot with two speedlights and a few 48 inch diffusion panels.  We needed one good portrait and I needed a fast set up.  The speedlights were my answer.  The next day we spent ten hours shooting video interviews with A/C powered LED panels.  We'll do it again next month and the month after and the month after.  Yesterday I spent the morning shooting ceramic art and two dimensional art.  I used a set of tungsten spot lights.  I used them because I could see exactly what I'd be getting all the time.  I used them because the tight spots keep spill light in the studio to a minimum.  They were exactly the right tool for the job.  Not the latest tool.....these lights are twenty years old.  But definitely the right tools.

And in the afternoon I was setting up a 4x6 foot softbox and one of the monolights because that was the right tool for a portrait I wanted to make.

I play with lots of cameras and lights because I'm curious about what they do and how they do it.   But I really own just the tools I've come to understand I need for the range of things I shoot.  And I don't apologize for having them, they are part of the business.

It's important to understand that I don't own all of the cameras I write about.  When I wrote a review of the Fuji X100 I borrowed a copy from my friend, Will.  When I reviewed three different medium format digital cameras in 2009 and 2010 I was using cameras loaned to me by the manufacturers.  While I appreciate what they can do I wasn't compelled to keep any of them around.  Not right for my business.

I think it's important to trust your tools.  And the only way to do that is to use them and find out what they do well.  You may need more than one device to do paying work.  If you do architecture you're pretty much going to need a shift lens.  You can try to make due but I never works out well and not everything can be replicated in PhotoShop.  If you are going to take commercial/advertising portraits you'll need some studio flashes with enough power to go big.  If you really want to shoot action you'll need a camera with lightning reflexes and tenacious focusing powers.  That's more important than file size.  Every thing is a compromise.

But clients don't like compromise when it comes to their projects.  If you are shooting for you the sky's the limit.  Or the ultimate in minimalism is that limit.  Your choice.  If you shoot for money you need to be open to finding the right camera, not just the latest or coolest camera.

I had an odd thought as I was reading over this blog to find errors (of which there are many, I'm sure).

I found myself wondering what camera different writers might choose if they lived in our time.  What, for instance, would Hemmingway shoot with?  And what about Dylan Thomas?  Would Tolkien shoot with an 8x10 Deardorf?  Would Sylvia Plath favor a Leica?  Don't know why it came to mind.

Program Note:  I'll be doing two demos each day at the Austin Photo Expo.  I'm planning to do portrait sessions with my LED lights.  I'd like to show what I do with them.  I also think it will help to build interest for the upcoming LED book. The Expo and the seminars are free.  If you are in Austin it would be nice to see you there.  Here's some info:  http://austinphotoexpo.com/

10.24.2011

Branding. Photography based on logo love.



The icon above is the symbol of my business.  It's not a household visual referent yet but, at the rate I spend on advertising and marketing, give me another two hundred or so years and I'm sure I'm make some sort of dent in my target markets.....  But the whole idea of branding and trademarks and consumer acceptance of the power of brands is something I've been thinking about lately.  What makes photographers buy the cameras and lights they buy and reject other brands?  Why are we so adamant in the defense of our choices?  And how much does one brand's supposed technology advantage over other brands inform our picture making?

I'm sorry.  I don't remember what camera and lens I used to do this shot and I don't really care to search the "exif" to find out.  The client and I agreed that the shot worked fine.

In the earlier days of cameras the choices available to us were more quixotic and more vertically nuanced.  If you wanted a cheap camera you had a bunch of choices and if you wanted an 8x10 inch view camera you also had an embarrassingly rich array of choices.  In the big (literally) leagues of view cameras you had Toyos, Linhofs (in several flavors), Sinar (in even more flavors), Deardorf, Wisner, Calumet and probably ten other brands of hand made folding 8x10 cameras I never heard of.  All were good.  All were eccentric and charming.  No flame wars erupted between the users of, say, Linhof and Sinar.  All that mattered was the film that came sliding out of the holders and into the soup. But that's because the magic didn't belong to the glorified boxes.  It was the operator that made the difference.

Medium format aficianado plowed through the same kind of landscape. If you used either a Hasselblad or a Rolleiflex you couldn't stand on any higher ground than people who chose the other European brand because, after all, Schneider and Zeiss made the lenses for both of them.  If you weren't enamored of the square you could always toss in your net and fish out a bunch of rectangular aspect, medium format cameras and you could choose between a number of good brands and a number of aspect ratios.  Like it "stubby"?  You might want a Mamiya or Pentax or Fuji 6x7.  Like 'em longer?  How about a Fuji or a Mamiya or a Linhof?  Maybe even a Plaubel.  And no paucity of panoramic machines.  One shot panoramics, just like the photo gods ordained....

Even in 35mm it was a-okay to like Pentax, Olympus, Minolta, Nikon and Canon equally.  They all had good glass and it was all the same three or four brands of film that squirted out of them.  But then along came digital and the emotional landscape changed.

We've been trained by the manufacturers to believe that one company at a time has the holy grail of digital camera technology and we rush like drunk sailors in a storm, from one side to the other, based on what came out last month.  The people who invent, nurture and control brands have done a great job inculcating fear of failure and shame of non-conformity.  They've made any effort to step off the rat race of perpetual camera upgrades seem terrifying and career threatening.....even to people who don't even do this for a living.

Lighting up the night looking for the secret camera.

I've been researching and reading all the ads for "professional" digital cameras I can find (and believe me, I can find alot...) and I've been analyzing them to find out how the manufacturers sell them to us.  They do it with the combined forces of fear and shame.  The ads all infer that it's your clients who drive technology.  They imply that if you aren't willing to step up to the plate again and again and embrace the latest tech toys the makers of "your" brand have to offer then there is a horde of talented people standing in line behind you waiting to "wow" your best clients with six (no, that's not it) eight, ten, twelve, eighteen, twenty four or thirty-six megapixels and they tease you (mercilessly) with the idea that the industry as whole proceeds in lock step and that falling behind in any one area will doom you to the quick decline from star to Willy Loman in a few short steps.

It's only been a few years ago but do you remember when we were shooting with one megapixel cameras and the mantra from Kodak was that when we hit six megapixels we would have equalled film?  And then we did.  And we stopped there for a few moments and people did amazing work with the six megapixels.  Joe McNally dragged National Geographic (one of the print magazine "gold standards") into the 21st century with a story on air power done with an interpolated 5.3 megapixel Nikon D1X.

Canon ruled the wedding roost when Denis Reggie started showing off the incredible wedding photographs he was taking with a brace of four megapixel Canon 1D cameras.  And at that time a bunch of us asked, "How many megapixels would be enough?"  The answer I heard from top pros was, "Double it to 8 megapixels and we're there!!!!!"  And the camera makers did just that and for a little while we stopped and savored cameras that so exceeded our expectations for noise and resolution and sharpness that it seemed like science fiction.  But the ads kept coming.  And the new product kept coming and what was once "remarkable,"  "better than medium format film!!!" and "the peak of technology." quickly became yesterday's fish.  When Nikon unveiled their D2x it was almost as if their ads for the D1x never existed.  Front and center were ready pros who told us stories that seemed disconnected from the photos in the ads.  And the stories said, in breathless prose, that the amazing (generally not) images shown here were only made possible with the latest evolution in picture making. And now, for the first time ever (ever) you could join the ranks of the pros who'd been beta testing a new paradigm of performance that would change the face of photography forever.

We were gripped with fear.  We didn't want to be left behind.  We didn't want to be the guys who could "only" shoot at 8 megapixels.  We didn't want to be the guys who couldn't shoot at 16000 ISO.  We didn't want our clients to follow the guy with the magic talisman of visual power.  So we bought the message in the ad and we bought, for the second time in two years, the new camera.

Nikon shooters had been waiting for what seemed like half a lifetime for their company to launch a twelve megapixel camera to match the performance of the Canon 1ds and they finally did.  The D2x offered much better performance on a number of levels including: Noise performance at base ISO's, speed, sharpness, raw buffer and amazing compatibility.  In fact, even when Canon issued their newer, 16 megapixel camera DPReview said, in a review that pitted the two competitors, that the Nikon was "convincing" and hairsplitting close to Canon's new flagship, and $3,000 cheaper to boot.

Did that assuage Nikon users?  No, Canon came out with ads that showed off their lenses at sporting events and the shooters switched systems faster than some people switch underwear.  Now Canon was the focus champ.  It was the new fear inducer for Nikonians.  What if their lenses and bodies didn't focus as fast as Canon?  Would the clients dump them?  Would they be relegated to shooting only Little League while the Canon shooters held court at the Olympics and Wimbledon?

Light, subject, intention;  they all trump "camera."

Everyone in the sports world switched.  And the company raced to the ad machine to toot their horn.  Then Nikon came out with a camera that could do all that and do it at ISO XXXXXXXX.  It was called the D3 and people embraced it even though it was "only" twelve megapixels.

You could make a shaky case for this kind of frenetic churning among professionals if it were even true that clients cared just a little bit about what you are using to create their small ads on the web but what about all the people who do this thing (photography) for the fun of it?  People with no expectation that they will be paid by someone to bring "the right stuff?"

What's around the next corner?  Does it matter?

People who study markets tell us that one of the biggest fears of consumers, after death and shame, is to be left out.  To be marginalized. The desire to be part of the dominant group comes from millions of years of social evolution.  To be "in the group" meant you got to share the kill.  You grouped together for protection from other tribes or predators.  And marketers have done a great job subliminally convincing their markets that there are tremendous benefits to being part of the pack.  If you choose a camera brand that is in apparent decline, such as Olympus was perceived to be in the last two years,  you become dissatisfied.  The camera you bought hasn't changed.  It can still do all the things for which you originally chose it.  It still makes images that are as high a quality as you experienced during the selection process.  But now it seems your choice is a one of declining market share and popularity.  You have only to read the popular Olympus forums and blogs to see that the tribe of Olympus is upset.  The lower the sales the smaller and less powerful the tribe.  Which, of course, has nothing to do with the use of the cameras or the quality of the files.  But there is the real fear that, if Olympus exits the camera market,  the users will be cast adrift on a digital ice flow, adrift and alone in dangerous seas.  At some junction they might have to bury their past and join a new camera tribe.  Which one will it be?  How long will it take to learn the new lore?

But we're really just talking about products, right?  Box with a sensor and a lens on one end.  I know the ads show famous photographers using and talking about Canon and Nikon's current digital wonder cameras but you understand, if you think about it, that these "famous" photographers largely made their reputations by using the cameras available five years ago or even ten years ago.  Some garnered their name recognition in the days of film!  But the ads are engineered to make us believe that the only way to achieve the fame and fortune (and the adoration and acceptance of a camera tribe) is to make the same choice that the spokespersons have.  The spokespersons whose signature images may have nothing at all to do with the latest tech or the even the brand of camera they are currently shooting.

Am I immune?  Am I sitting here laughing at all the people who've bought into a camera tribe for the comfort of sitting around the campfire and telling stories that glorify the past and future history of the tribe? No.  Of course not.  I am only human and I'm probably even worse.  I find myself trying to hedge all my bets by keeping a foot in many camps.

I am part of the Olympus Pen tribe.  I feel the call of my little sensor people because of my good memories of their older film cameras.  I have some Hasselblads because, for many years, their tribe ensured in a way that I'd share in the feasts of photography.  I keep them in case I find ways to use the power locked inside of them.  And I've embraced the Canon tribe because it's so big.  I can find my frat brothers and sisters almost everywhere.

But what does all this do to us?  It keeps us afraid, on edge and waiting for the witch doctors of our tribes to bring out the next great tool to keep us warm and safe.  And we are willing to throw down the tools that have fed us for several years in order to embrace tools that promise us just a little more.

But I secretly think that buying the first 1DX has nothing to do with need at all.  If you are a sports photographer I believe that the current Canon sports camera (or any one of the last three generations) would do equally well.  If you are a studio shooter you probably could soldier on with any of the 1DS offerings or a 5Dmk2.   No.  The real reason to buy the first 1DX is that the tribe elevates the early adapters to a higher level within the tribe.  The power of your opinion rises.  People pay attention to you and you are given more status.  Which is a reward cycle that doubtless gives you huge pumps of dopamine which drives you to find the next reward.  Which is doubtless the next body.  And people who either can't afford the new camera or don't really need it but want it hold the buyer in higher regard because they also aspire to be thought of as a "master" of the tribe.  One of the inner circle.  Because when you are in the inner circle you are less likely to be pushed out or marginalized.  

When you separate buying into a tribe and buying tribal status from the business equation of adequate equipment acquisition to do what you really need to do you free yourself from the tyranny of marketing and branding and make decisions that are rational and leave you more time and energy to use your camera for it's intended purpose....not to win popularity contests and tribal acceptance...... but actually taking photographs.  If only I were wise enough to take my own advice.

So, which camera company is the Honda Accord (which logically I should want?) and which one is the Porsche Panamera (which I should avoid?).  I hate it when I realize that I've been played.




10.22.2011

Ten Ways to Shoot Better Portraits.

Neely in the old studio.  MF.  180mm f4.  AgfaPan 100.


1.  Stop worrying about technique.  Set up your lights before your subject gets to the studio, test them, test them again and then let it go.

2.  Spend some time letting everyone get settled in.  Don't feel like you have to rush through a portrait session.  If you are doing it for money you're obligated to do a good job and that means slowing down and doing it right.  If you are doing for the satisfaction then make the session like a lollipop.  Lick it slowly instead of biting right in and chewing it all up.  When you feel rushed it's hard to feel relaxed.  Don't do rush yourself.  My good sessions take at least an hour...

3.  Do your own style.  If you are trying to shoot the exciting "flavor of the week" style you are already doomed to mediocrity.

4.  Don't be afraid to fail.  But don't be afraid to succeed either.  You can't force someone to have a good day but you can be relaxed and empower them to have a better day because they are in front of you.  Experiment with extending and improving your own style.  Experiment hard with your listening.

5.  Really talk to your portrait subject.  Not just generic chit chat from behind the camera but real stuff.  Ask what they love.  Do they have kids?  What do they do for fun and fitness?  Share feelings.

6.  Use a longer lens.  There really is an optimum focal range for a flattering portrait.  Too long and faces look one dimensional and smushy.  Too short and noses get bigger while ears get smaller.  If you are shooting a classic headshot portrait with anything shorter than a 50mm on full frame you're just being mean.  Conversely, if you can't have a normal conversation with your subject because of the distance between you then you are being too skittish. Be less like a scared rabbit and more like a best friend.  100mm on a full frame camera makes me and my subjects happy.

7.  It's easier to compose well in a square. Try it.  No reason to be captive to the dreaded 3:2.

8.  If you are shooting portraits for pure recreation/art/hobby/happiness then never photograph anyone to whom you have no attraction whatsoever.  Just having a warm body in front of you is not enough.  You must be interested to find out more about the person.  In a sense taking a portrait is just a pretense to find out more about the person in front of the camera.

9.  If you want to see beautiful people in your final images then you'll have to start by either finding obviously beautiful people to put in front of your camera or.....find the beauty in the person and put that in front of your camera.  Warm bodies for "practice" is not enough.

10.  The best way to become good at taking portraits is to do it over and over again.  It's like any other pursuit in life.  Practice makes fluid.  When you've been through all the permutations of Murphy's law, both physcially and mentally, you start down the path of figuring out solutions to anything that might hamper your highest and best portrait expression.  To love portraits......shoot more portraits.

Bonus tip:  Everyone looks better in black and white....

10.21.2011

The pre-production and production of a "simple" group shot.

I was contacted by an organization that needed a photograph of a large group of people, in a neighborhood where the houses had solar panels, with some Chevy Volt automobiles.  I won't go into the specifics of the use or the program for which they needed the images.  I'm more interested in talking about how a "simple" shot like this comes together.  Someone has to organize it all, get the people there, figure out the best location and the best angles, etc.

In this case the client knew the neighborhood they needed to shoot in.  We had several "phone meetings" to discuss dates and details and then arranged to meet on site several weeks before the shoot to determine a location.  We met.  We drove around.  We got out and walked a few streets.  I used a compass to roughly determine the direction the sun would be rising.  We were using people from the neighborhood to comprise our group of nearly 100 and we needed to shoot early enough so we didn't interfere with peoples' work schedules, but late enough so we had good sunlight.  We aimed for 7:45am.

We needed to get approval from the city to block a street.  The client took care of that.  We needed to go house-to-house to let the people on the street know what would be happening so they could park their cars in alternate locations (since there were only houses on one side of the street and a park on the other only four houses were really affected...).  To lure volunteers for the group we needed to have breakfast tacos and hot coffee ready.  And some sort of "swag."  The client chose T-shirts as their giveaway.  Our client was amazingly good at all the detail stuff leaving me to concentrate on the photo stuff.
The morning of the shoot was glorious.  I got to the location at 6:30am to make sure no one inadvertently parked an unwanted car in the middle of our location, and also to walk around and savor the space before anyone else got there.  I love the quiet period before everyone starts piling in.


My set up and equipment was relatively simple.  When I scouted I found this angle which would let me fill the street with people and still reference the houses, with solar panels, off into the background.  Par for the course in shooting large groups it's important to get up high.  I brought along an extendible ladder and placed it (marking my territory) on the spot I would shoot from.

When I shoot from the top of a ladder I generally use a Manfrotto Magic Arm to give me another two feet of extension and to hold the camera still for longer exposures.  I love my ladder.  If folds down to around five feet and extends to nearly ten feet.  And it's sturdy.

This is my pile of junk.  I always use Domke bags.  You can't be a pro if you are using something made of ballistic nylon.  It just doesn't translate.  Got some Australian bag or a some shiny black bag?  Just drive by the nearest dumpster and drop it in.  Get a Domke bag.  (I am unaffiliated with Domke!).

The flash is an Elincrom Ranger RX AS 1100 watt second pack.  Battery powered for my convenience. Please note the two twenty pound sandbags over the legs of the tripod.  Before I started shooting I also hung the 18 pound Ranger box on the Lowell stand as well.  And I'm glad I did because we had a couple of wind gusts that made me twinge.....

Just in front of the power pack is a little waterproof Pelican case that holds my Flash Wave radio triggers.  Two sets, just in case.  The case also holds all the batteries and assorted cables and alternative connectors.  The open, gray case next to it is filled with grip gear like Magic Arms and clamps of many varieties as well as rope, tape clothespins and more.  Just in case.

The tripod belongs to the video crew who documented the shoot and did some after the shot interviews.


I used a 28 inch metal beauty dish reflector for the shoot.  I was depending on ambient light from the glorious sunrise for most of the light but I wanted to make sure I had a good strong light for fill light aimed from the camera position.  I was easily thirty or forty feet from the front of the group so I had to select a light and a modifier that would have the reach I needed and still not toss in ultra hard shadows.

The light stand is not fully extended here.  I did that just before I started to shoot.  But I knew that the higher the stand the more leverage the wind gusts would exert on the whole construction......


Once I had everything set up and tested I left a Canon 5Dmk2, with a Zeiss 35mm lens, on the tripod/ladder, pulled a Canon 1ds Mk2 out of the bag and walked around shooting some of the people and the last minute car preparation.  Not only did we have a video crew in attendance but also a stringer from the New York Times.  Nice guy.

Everyone, myself included, was interested in the Chevy Volts.  We had four of them.  It's really cool technology.  At no time does the gas motor directly drive the car.  The motor is used at a constant and highly efficient RPM to drive a generator that powers the car after the original battery range of 40 miles is exceeded.  You won't get stuck somewhere.  Also, there's tons of new, smart technology that helps them make the power grid more efficient.  If they were in my price range I'd buy one.  

Once everyone had arrived I pulled the group together and placed everyone where I wanted them.  I shot twenty or so shots with the 5d2 set at ISO 100, f8.5 and 1/125th of a second shutter speed.  Then I got down off the ladder and let the video people (shown above) use the ladder to get a moving shot. The single hardest part of my job is always the part where we wrangle crowds of people....

This final shot is of the dignitaries in attendance as well as staff members of the organization that hired me.  The morning's event got coverage in a number of places, including the New York Times.  I had some coffee and a breakfast taco with a University of Texas physicist and we discussed interoperability between the car batteries and the electric grid.  Interesting stuff when you realize electricity can flow in both directions.  Then I packed up the stuff, tossed it in the Honda Element and headed home to do some post production.

Not a glamorous shoot but fun, clean, and successful.  Just the way I like them...

10.20.2011

Back home on the ranch....

Cowboy Ben.  Taken with a Fuji Autofocus medium format camera on color negative film.


I don't know how y'all New Yorkers or Californians do it but in Texas we photograph big and wild.  In fact, that's how we do ever'thing here in the Lone Star State. This image is from a required class that all Texas children must take.  It teaches them to dress like Texans, talk or drawl like Texans, and to boast like Texans. Ben was already claiming to have created more new jobs in his neighborhood than any other kid in his class.....even back then.  Ben ruined the curve on the mandatory test at the end of the class.  Not because he's smart but because he had the right footwear and the right "looking across the prairie" gaze.  He also addressed everyone as "Ma'am."  Even Jonathon, the gardener.

He learned some good stuff in that class. Dang good stuff.  Like:  How to kill and gut a rattlesnake.  How to make rattlesnake stew.  How to make a rattlesnake hatband.  How to treat a rattlesnake bite  (two shots of whiskey for an adult, one shot for kids under 12...).  He learned how to say, "Gosh."  "DAGNABIT" and "Darn!!!" with just the right inflections and he could accurately spit tobacco juice up to eighteen feet.  And ten fun things you can do, RIGHT NOW, with scorpions.  And my favorite,  how to make rattlesnake skin camera straps with dried scorpion tail decorations...

I tried good to learn him about photography but he did that "far away, across the prairie" look and told me, "Sorry papa, but it just ain't man's work."  I understood.  After all,  I grew up in Texas and I know in what "special" esteem we, as a state, value the arts.  And math and science, too.  (number tricks of Satan.)

If he keeps his grades down and don't learn too much about science or (dang useless) art or about DANG foreign countries, or economics or any of that other useless book learning, we can just about hope he could be our Governor some day.  Maybe even president.  He's already got the swagger.....

But that picture above is about eleven years old and no matter how much, over the last ten years, I tried to Texa-fy him his mother kept stepping in to "book learn" him.  Well,  at least I have this photograph to commemorate a time when he was on the true path to being a good Texan.  We did have one little episode recently.  He was careless and broke a camera.  I lost my temper and yelled at him.  I said, "Be careful! you little buckeroo.  Them cameras don't just creation-ize themselves out of thin air!!!"  He looked at me in a resigned way and backed out of the studio.

Hope y'all 're having fun.  Howdy from Rick Perry's home state!

You can always tell a Texan.....but not much.

10.19.2011

Do you ever wonder why we photograph what we do?

added 10/19, 2:46 pm.  Gloominess alert!  Persons prone to melancholy should steer clear.
A shop window on Houston St. in San Antonio.  Mamiya 6 camera.  75mm lens.  Tri-X.  1990's.


I've been thinking a lot about what I shoot and why I'm drawn toward certain subjects.  One of the things I'm drawn to are scenes that make me melancholy about time past.  In essence every photograph we take could be construed as an attempt to cheat death, or at least catalog the existence of something before it disappears.  And many times the thing we choose to photograph has no more resonance for us other than its emotive ties to time that's already slipped by.  Maybe we catalog the past to confront our fears of the future.

Think of the times in your youth when you smuggled a camera into a rock concert and made images of the lead singer wailing away on stage.  What was your ultimate motivation?  You may say that you made a souvenir to help you always remember the experience but by taking the photographs your experience was changed from a visceral response to the moment into "recording mode."  You stepped outside the direct experiential moment and stepped back to record the passing moment.  If you really examined your motivations you might find that you were attempting to grip the moment and keep it from sliding into the quicksand of the past. A fervent desire to hold onto the glow of youth.  But no matter how well documented the moment still slipped away and left you only a two dimensional slice of time remembered that can't be re-engaged other than through imagination.

You might say that you created a "record."  But a record of what?  Proof that you were at the concert?  Proof that it all existed as you remember?  Or proof that you exist on the Moebius strip of time?  Perhaps we catalog the past to build up an emotional equity for the future.  Maybe the images we take help us believe in the forward momentum of our existence.

In early years I photographed many images that caused uncomfortable emotions for me.  I remember one image I took on contrasty slide film of an old man near the front gates of the Mercado in downtown San Antonio.  He was always somewhere near that very public area.  He had commandeered a shopping cart many years earlier and made it his own.  It was covered with cheap toys from Mexico and China which he ostensibly sold to children and their families who came to the area to listen to Mexican bands, or to eat in one of the open air restaurants.  His shopping cart also held cans and bottles that he would redeem at recycling centers.  He was old and moved slowly, with a shuffle.  He wore the same kind of worn blue work shirt every time I saw him.  He was always sitting and spent most of his time alone with his head bowed.

What drew me to photograph him other than the curiosity for an existence that an American middle class (and largely self sheltered) upbringing had effectively kept mostly hidden from me in my youth?  Was it my human need to understand the suffering and loneliness of strangers?  I postulate that I was drawn to record him because poverty, loneliness and isolation are the pervasive fears of our culture.  We dread exclusion.  We fear being left behind or discarded.  And through photography I was (unconsciously) examining the hearty and fear inducing resonance of these feelings.  They echo a fear that runs through everyone in a purely capitalist society;  that some day my usefulness to commerce will come to an end and I'll be irrelevant.

I also photographed another San Antonio downtown regular who was spent his days walking around with a homemade, wire tool that allowed him to pick up aluminum pull tabs without having to bend over.  (A quick note to young readers:  "pull tabs" were the removable tabs on soft drink and beer cans that were used before the more modern push tabs, that keep the metal connected to the can, were introduced to eliminate sharp, metal litter...).  He wore baggy clothes, danced to all the street music he came across, no matter what variety, and had hawk eyes for little slivers of metal in the gutters.  He was mentally challenged and I wondered where he lived and how he survived.  If I were really concerned for his welfare I guess I would have made inquiries but I was more fascinated with the idea of his life, intermingled with the "normal" tourists and how he interacted on the street.  If I put myself on my self-constructed analyst's couch I would dig down until my subconscious screamed out that I fear we all have some side that's vulnerable and corruptible, and I fear that mine will be discovered.  I will become one of those people who collect cans and pull tops.

My documentation of people aging, cities aging, and general temporal decay is always couched, in my mind, as a study but really it's a gnawing desire to understand the ultimate expression of decay as it relates to me.  Some day I'll die and all the photos in the world won't stop that from happening.  But the creation of images at least helps me to believe that I'll be able to delay or obfuscate the process until, in the end, I won't care.

Finally, the visual embrace, however fearfully, of an existence that is so foreign to my current condition (but not so remote as to be unthinkable)  helps me to build an empathy that I may, one day, need to turn upon myself.

Why do we photograph what we do?  To keep fear at bay?  To process visual evidence of the cycle of life?  To find our own place in the cycle?

But then, other than narcissism, why do we share it?

Isolation,  Ambiguity,  Indecision.  These are what we are pitting ourselves against. Perhaps photography can be divided into two categories:  Those images that explore our fears and those images that help us to disregard them.

10.18.2011

Performance Anxiety. Photographically speaking.

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.

Canon EOS1D X

This is NOT an equipment review!  I'd heard rumors about this camera for several weeks.  I didn't know it had been announced until I got a phone call this morning from my favorite "sales associate" at Precision Camera.  Seems my friend, Paul, woke up this morning, saw the press release on DP Review and promptly ordered one from the same guy.  Ian (my retail camera consultant) called to let me know that he'd already placed me on the reservation list to get one of the first five cameras to come through the door.  I don't have to worry about it for a while.  It won't be here until March 2012....

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...

Catching up. It's been a while.

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?


Ben ran another cross country race at Decker Lake (that's him in front)  last weekend and did pretty well.  Bettered his previous times by nearly a minute and a half.  I'll chalk up some of the improvement to diligent and disciplined practice and some of it to weather twenty degrees cooler than his previous races....  We're happy and proud.  He's very matter of fact....


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).


There was a deficit of interesting protesters and agitators so the media spent some quality time interviewing each other.....

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