12.28.2011

Shoot more, think less.


Thinking really seems to get in the way of shooting.  The cooler the gear I own the less I shoot.  And the cooler the gear I own the less I like what I shoot.  There's a lot to be said for the primitive approach to any art.  The more direct and uninflected the connection the more visceral it is to your intended audience.  Maybe that's the appeal of smaller, less complex systems.  Fewer choices means more direct interaction with the art itself.

The Quiet Image is a Wonderful Thing.

We've all seen images that seem forced.  Lots of time and effort went into the preparation for the shooting and we're delivered a photo with pizzazz. But the general effect is one of instant hyperbole alert.  Especially now when everything seems to have been done and tried.  By pushing all the buttons and frantically trying to make everything just so perfect it's so easy to see the hand and the mind of the creator (that's "creator" with a lower case "c")  in every frame and that severs the suspension of disbelief by which so much photography becomes embraceable.  If we feel we're seeing a private moment, captured unprepared from the slip of time we believe more heartily in the image's verisimilitude.  We feel invited to share a wholly objective slice of time, frozen. 

The biggest obstacle to emotionally unconstructed shooting is the preparation itself.  When we signal our intention the antennae on our subjects snaps to attention and creates a different energy.  It is at once on guard and also preening in an attempt to earn the upcoming inspection.  If you make a shot a big deal then babies cry, teenagers pose, middle aged women grimace and everyone else toys with taking on the persona of everyone they've ever seen photographed on TV or in a movie.  The greater the preparation, generally, the less likely you'll ever achieve an image without artifice and posture.  A microcosm of Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle.  Oh, to trifle with position and momentum....  We love the random and unplanned shot of Henri Cartier-Bresson when he captures a man, in mid-air, jumping over a rain puddle.  We feel betrayed when we find out that Robert Doisneau possibly staged his greatest hit, Le baiser de l'hôtel de ville (Kiss by the Hôtel de Ville).  

But for generations great and not-so-great-but-okay photographers have had a salve that could salvage much of the emotion of the moment glancingly portrayed.  They carried their cameras with them at all times and made images every so often, and for no obvious reason.  Almost random documentation but always in the service of the process of obscuring the artist's intention of the moment in order to wear down the vigilence of his subjects.  And in this way they captured and continue to capture images that give us a front row seat to the impression of reality unfolding.

There are current photographers who are good photographers but whose work is very much about the prepared and orchestrated image.  Perhaps because it's possible technically now in a way that it wasn't before, many of these photographers create images of subjects like dancers leaping on urban rooftops at sunset. They are frozen in space and lit by electronic flashes.  And the artist's hand is so obvious that most viewers take one look and start mapping out the banal mechanics of the technique rather than being charmed by the kinetic vivacity of the seeing.  The fill flashes at sunset cue us that applied lighting technology was involved.  And we (fellow photographers) , as a large part of the photographer's audience, understand that flashes were placed on stands, with modifiers, and the units were under the care of an army of assistants, and the dancer is most likely springing off a mini-trampoline that we can't see but understand to be just out of frame.  Further, we understand that she's leaping over and over again to until the photographer is happy with a shot.  And we are unable to believe that we've been privileged to see something that genuinely happened because it was going to happen rather than the event being entirely constructed for the attendant audience.

The same could be said for classical portrait work.  The best of that genre works when the surroundings are minimal and subdued and works less well when we see more and more of the hand (and taste) of the photographer.  An old gray wall means that the image could have been taken, in the moment, in any anonymous location while a brilliantly colored seamless background peppered with posing blocks and faux Greek columns disallows our ability to divorce technique from message.  In essence, what Richard Avedon was doing by shooting against white backgrounds was to divorce reference from image.  And in that way make the structure of creation recede and the collaborative interaction (which is part of the human condition) move into the foreground.

The more cues we see in a portrait that reference a manufactured reality the more we are effected by the trappings of the attempted art and the less resonance, intimacy and value we feel directly from the intended subject.

For the binary readers who've wandered in from the "how to" pages of the web let me quickly say that I'm not making a stand that all images have to be totally candid to be successful.  Far from it.  The work of David Chapelle is brilliant in its own fully manifested intentionality.  A large part of his success is that his images are constructed as inside jokes about culture and society and we, as viewers, are invited into the "special" circle for whom the joke is shared.  We feel the inclusion as well as the cultural messaging and that makes his images, obvious though they are, work on a level that others don't.  

Annie Leibovitz's best work isn't necessarily the work that is most candid but she does a good job creating lighting and staging scenarios that amplify reality instead of re-inventing it or, with inflection, re-parsing it.  In this way we look at the images she creates, even the big tableaus and we accept their believability because she's hidden her artifice so well.  To a less well visually educated audience her work could be the result of a quick candid, albeit a nearly perfect one.

All of this is to say that doing approachable images of people can be tough.  The fewer things you try to control the more believable the images are to the widest range of viewers.  But, if you do need to alter the light, create a different background or otherwise enhance or change the reality you'll do best, over the long run, if you can make your controlled parts as close to a sense of reality as possible.  And you'll work to catch the moments between the peak moments as well.

Just a thought about taking images that work for people.  

12.26.2011

Has our almost complete adaptation to color imaging changed the way we shoot?

When I first undertook photography my perception was that most serious artists and aspiring artists used black and white film in their cameras and, by extension, in their seeing.  And, to my mind, there's a giant chasm between seeing in color and seeing in black and white.  When we look with a black and white or monochrome sensibility we tend to looks for graphic shapes and forms that are recognizable and not too finally detailed.  We look to recognizable forms that tell stories or describe objects.

But in color we tend to look for pleasing chromatic combinations or pretty pastels that can nestle next to one another in a pleasing and hue driven pattern.  Or the antithesis, a garish pattern comprised and composed of striking opposite colors which usually sit, glaring at each other from the opposite side of the color wheel.  Knowing what our final destination will generally be we select subjects and scenarios that aid our artifice.  If we know we're diving into the pool of color then the juxtapositions of colors becomes (consciously or unconsciously) our target and goal.  Conversely, when we know we'll be making images in monotone we look for content to carry the visual narrative and tickle the part of the brain that wants to know the story.

You can see this in image after image on the web.  And I'm not making a value judgement either way other than to say that I think B&W is being marginalized into a photojournalistic ghetto of photographic art and I'm hoping that, like the phases of the moon, that images about things and forms and textures come back into our perception of the orbit of art and start to re-assume precedence over the titillations of candy color.  

Soothing but empty.

A story I want to hear.....

My old camera can beat your new camera. I think. Maybe.

Back in 2005 I bought a Kodak SLR/n which, until the arrival of the Nikon V1, was the most villified DSLR camera ever introduced into the market (except for its predecessor...).  This was a camera with issues.  If you aren't familiar with it go back to DPReview and read the review of the Nikon version's Canon sibling here: http://www.dpreview.com/reviews/kodakslrc.  What you'll find is a flawed but somewhat brilliant camera for the times.  It was the direct descendant of the first full frame digital camera on the market, the Kodak 14N.  In 2004 the SLR/n delivered 14 megapixels of big pixel, full frame files and it did so for about $3,000 cheaper than the Canon 1DS that followed it onto the market.

The issue is that photographers aren't engineers.  In the film camera days you could press a camera into service to do just about anything.  But the Kodak engineers were building a camera that worked very well in circumscribed situations.  It was a great portrait camera with lots and lots of RAW file headroom.  And that translated directly into big time dynamic range for the time.  But the parameter that endeared it to me (and you'll notice it's one of the few cameras in my studio that hasn't been upgraded, traded away or resold over the years) is the fact that the sensor did NOT have an anti-aliasing filter over the top.  That means a great impression of sharpness all the way around.  In fact,  at ISO 160, in a head to head comparison with the Canon 5D mk2 at 21 megapixels I think you'd give the nod to the Kodak as far as impressions of overall sharpness go.

So why didn't it sweep the market?  Well, in the hands of studio portrait photographers who could control light and lenses, it was a hit.  But Kodak marketed it as an "all arounder"  and that's where the SLR/n hit the wall.  It was pretty well controlled for noise up to about 320 ISO but over 400 ISO and it fell to pieces.  It would take six to eight seconds to start up and, as the temperature changed, it would stop to recalibrate its electronics.  Kinda of a "turn off" when you are building up to that shooting crescendo....

The whole machine was based on parts from a less expensive Nikon camera body and the finder wasn't great.  But man, could it knock them out of the ballpark when it was working in the narrow constraints that described its strengths.  I routinely used (and should still be using) its special, low ISO menus.  Choose ISO 12, 25 and 50 and the camera turns into a detail machine.  The longer exposures let the camera do iterative exposures which are then binned and sampled and in camera crafted into noise free, high quality files.  I've done 40 by 60 prints of product for clients that brought tears to my eyes and those of the lab manager who printed them our for us on a Lightjet printer.

But as a low light, wedding/photojournalists/art camera in chancy available light.....it sucked.

The files it kicks out in RAW are true 14 bit.  They are also 4,500 by 3,000 pixels.  And none of the pixels sees the image thru a blurring filter.  If you shoot at the lower speeds or at 160 ISO I think you'd find the camera keeps up with the 18 to 21 megapixel wonder cameras of the moment.  And it does so with lots of dynamic range, its own very desirable color balance and palette and an edge acutance that most camera makers would kill for.  
I hadn't used it in over a year but I felt like taking a long walk all by myself today and just doing something different.  No small cameras with small sensors today.  No film today.  No agenda today.  I plastered a Nikon 50mm 1.8D onto the front, set the camera the way I like it and hit the long route through downtown.  Walking and looking and not feeling compelled to shoot too much.  But little by little I came to remember what I liked about this camera.  I did a quick shot of a leaf on a fence with the sun behind it.  And when I got back to the studio and looked at it at 100 % I was happy.  So I made a 100% crop to show off the structure of the leaf and the detail of the edges.

I have stack of batteries for the camera and I charged them all.  I find that digital cameras really need to have a battery attached to them at least once a month and I'd been negligent by about 11 months.  The attached battery allows the camera to suckle over time and keep small capacitors formed.  I'm sure it helps maintain other electronic needs as well.  For the first hour or so the camera was antsy.  It would give me random "card corruption" messages and tell me that a file couldn't be written.  But like a spirited horse it eventually took to the bit and calmed down.  By the end of my walk it stopped giving me messages and was writing every file to memory.  I've decided to pull out the A/C adapter and put the camera onto the adapter once a month (at least) over night.  I'm hoping that keeps it happy.

I spent the late afternoon just soaking up the newly re-emergent sunlight and spinning an ancient Nikon circular polarizing filter in front of the lens.  The files that emerged in ACR were wonderful right off the card.  Very punchy with solid highlight structure and lots of sharpness snap.  The colors need a bit of nursing but that seems to be endemic with all older digital cameras.

I'm convinced that the files (at ISO 160) are just a bit better and sharper than the files I get out of my recently (Canon) overhauled 1DS mk2.  And nearly as detailed as those from the Canon 5D mk2.  Not a bad performance out of a camera that basically died of marketing neglect and was sabotaged by reviews aimed at the great general marketplace.  Like just about anything else some of the coolest performances necessitate the greatest practice and skill.  

We all love the newest and greatest stuff to shoot with but I'm convinced that for studio portraits the Kodak is just about where most of us want to be.  Long tonal scale, great bit depth and wonderfully rich colors.  Just be sure you have some substantial lighting and tripod support standing by to take advantage of the strong points and to ameliorate the weak ones.  

I came back home as the light faded in the west.  The afterglow was beautiful today.  I chauffeured the child somewhere and headed back to the studio to look at what I'd shot.  Wish I had two of these cameras, in perfect condition, because I'd love to use them to make artful portraits.  As it is I ordered yet another battery so I could be sure of at least having the camera functional for another year or so.  If it finally gives up the ghost I do believe I'll have some sort of ceremony for it.  It was, after all, my first full frame digital camera.  




One morning I got up early to go to the Acropolis.

Security Guard relieving himself on the foundation of 
western civilization.  Canon TX camera.  50mm 1.8FD lens.
Tri-X film.  Scan from Print. ©1978 Kirk Tuck.

I woke up one hot and dusty morning in Athens, pulled on my running shoes, a comfortable pair of jeans and an tee shirt and headed out the door of my hotel to see the Acropolis.  I owned two cameras at the time.  One was a Canonet QL17 and the other was a Canon TX with a 50mm lens.  I took the bigger SLR.  And a couple rolls of 35mm Tri-X film.

As I walked through the city I took tentative photographs.  The Greek temperament seemed at odds with the laid back ethos of my native Austin, Texas.  I'd bring my camera up to my eye and in the finder I would find a scowling face and a challenge to the idea that photography was a universally welcome undertaking.  I'm sure a lot has changed in the last thirty years.  Except the Greek temperament.

On my first visit I found that most hotels were not air conditioned, no trains were air conditioned and no monument had yet been totally Disneyfied.  By that I mean that people didn't necessarily line up for entry.  The enjoyment of a monument or attraction wasn't constrained by velvet ropes, defined queues, or minders, or ticket takers.  If you got to the Acropolis early chances were you got there before the officials and the security guards and you were free to walk into the unattended gates and enjoy posterity in all of its glory.

I walked up the steep hill and into the general area.  In those days pieces and fragments of statutes and facia carvings dotted the general surroundings of the ancient building.  Blocks and columns lay splayed and revealed for all who might want to climb on them or run their hands over the ancient marble faces in wonder....or for good luck. 

The sun was climbing slowly above the horizon and it would eventually be another white hot day in early September.  As I looked down the hill I could see a rising but still thin curtain of yellow tinged dust rise up from the streets.  I was one of the first souls to climb the hill that morning.

As I walked around admiring the giant columns I turned a corner and encountered my first official of the day.  A security guard for this national treasure.  He was casually urinating on the foundation of the monument.  He finished, zipped up his trousers and then turned around towards me and, while fishing a cigarette and a lighter out of the pockets of his jacket, asked me,  "Ticket?"




12.25.2011

A Christmas present to myself...

A portrait reminds me of all the things in life that are wonderful.

Merry Christmas.







12.23.2011

Small sensor systems. Practical commercial tools? Why not?

Corporate Executive volunteering at Central Texas Non-Profit Agency.  
Nikon V1.  30-110mm lens.  ISO 1600.  ©2011 Kirk Tuck

Love it.  One of the discussions I've been following is on an Olympus forum, and guy named "Marty" asked recently if a small sensor camera system, like a Pen EP3 or similar camera system, could be the sole camera for a photographer.  I'm going to say that, if you were a journalist or a newspaper or editorial photographer, you could do so with aplomb.  

The image above was part of a reportage coverage ( meaning: catch "it" if you can because we're not pausing or setting anything up. And we're not going to repeat anything ) of a locally headquartered, executive leadership team donating their time and energy (and no little amount of equipment) to a very worthy, non-profit organization.  In the past I would have used some flash bouncing off the ceiling to get the color balance right and to fill in shadows.  Last year I would have used a Canon 5D mk2 with fast lenses to get shots like this and I would have used fast ISO's so I could get enough depth of field to keep parts of the frame sharp.

This year I took along the Canon 5D mk2 and an assortment of Zeiss single focal length prime lenses and it was my intention to shoot the assignment with the full frame camera.  But I also took along the Nikon V1 and the lenses. I started shooting casually with the Nikon and I never stopped.

What I ended up with is an image that's slightly noisier than it would have been had I shot the same frame with the Canon. But I also ended up with a camera that could shoot silently, and quickly, and with incredible depth of field, given the angle of view.  It helped me keep the executive in focus, while he was in motion, and also held focus on the computer products on which they were working.

Because I have lots of legacy photography baggage to deal with, accumulated from the last twenty years, I was incredibly nervous about making the decision to use the smaller camera.  But in retrospect it was just right.  Do you know why?  Because all of the use will be in situations that don't require a film-based print focus.  And by that I mean that I knew full well that the images were headed to two media: newsprint and the web.  We didn't need to make 16x20 inch presentation prints or posters.  We wouldn't be running the images as double trucks in a glossy magazine.  We'd be incorporating small files into a web site and we'd be sending out images, sized to 6x9 inches @ 300 dpi for splatter onto newsprint.  Porous, gain-y newsprint.  And the Nikon V1 files could deliver all the quality, and more, needed in that application.

A younger photographer wouldn't have thought twice.  After all, they've pretty much grown up knowing that their targets don't require the level of quality that was required when the world thought of the magazine page as the gold standard.  They know that the web only needs so many pixels.  And that downsizing the files or printing in a newspaper hides the difference in high ISO performance.  Handily. 

We stick with a lot of assumptions out of habit.  And some of those assumptions can be self defeating.  I caught myself the other day processing 21 megapixel files in 16 bit depth in photoshop and making meticulous corrections in a number of parameters.  And then I remembered that the client was looking for 8 bit, srgb files, sized to 640 pixels, on the long side, for their website.

As professional image providers we can sometimes be hampered by how we did things in "the old days."  It pays to pay attention to now.  In this regard I tend to learn a lot from younger photographers.  The way they edit.  The way they post process.  And even the way they market.

These days the need for big files is less frequent.  It's good to know how to do things when "no compromise" is the plan of the day. Or when the client wants a poster campaign.  But it's also good to know when you can deliver, and prosper, from getting stuff done on a smaller scale. With agile and discreet tools.

I'm learning to stop telling art directors how we used to do all our still life work with 4x5 inch view cameras and transparency film.  Now I'm happy to use a much smaller format because it's so much easier to keep everything in focus.  And move quickly.  And process quickly.   The craft is changing and clinging to a life raft from the past is probably a poor strategy for continued financial health.  Quick, crisp and immediate might actually be the best strategy for a client who knows exactly where the images are heading. You just have to decide that you're ready to shift.

Staying relevant means constantly changing.  Not necessarily just your style but also your production  and your delivery, and your outlook.  Just a thought as we anticipate 36 megapixel cameras from Canon and Nikon....any day.  Does your client care?  Should they?

The Nikon V1 and the Micro Four Thirds, and the smaller cameras like the Fuji x10 are speaking a different language.  Are you fluent or are you still trying to sell a solution you are comfortable with and which your client may not need or want?

12.22.2011

One of my absolute favorites from 2010. As an antidote to my last post.

8.14.2010


Are you showing off your skill or are you joining the conversation about art?



   This is a desperately bad photograph.  It's blurry.  It's not sharp.  The shadows are blocked up. The white on the headlight/handlebars is burning out to white.  It's too tightly cropped.  It's one of my favorites.....  Rome.  1994.

There's always some way to technically improve a photograph.  I was jarred into thinking about the difference between the joyful discovery of beauty and/or truth via a camera, and the hard work of compulsively honing both equipment and technique in the pursuit of perfecting the recording process of capturing a photograph.

I say "jarred" because I seem to have forgotten, almost entirely, the time I spent in the retail audio business back in the 1970's.  For me it was a way of making some extra cash to spend on dates while pursuing a degree of some kind from the University of Texas at Austin.  For everyone else around me;  customers and fellow employees, audio was a passion.  And, if you read carefully you'll see that I wrote "audio"----not "music".

You see,  the pursuit of perfct audio has nothing at all to do with music other than the fact that recorded music is used to show off the clarity, richness and noise free fidelity of the sound created by the machines.  Sound familiar?

So, this morning I had coffee with an "audiophile" and he was telling me about a new turntable and tone arm.  He sold off a world renowned "reference" turntable in the every escalating compuslion to squeeze even more "transparency" and accuracy from his collection of long playing records (LP's).  Vinyl, of course.

We spoke for a good while about audio and I still don't know what genres of music he enjoys or who his favorite artists are.  We never got around to talking about music.  He did mention that the current "state of the art" home audio system currently costs around half a million dollars.  We also reminisced about a zany friend of mine, also an audiophile, who was so obsessed that dreaded "low frequency, vibration induced rumble" might be affecting the ultimate sonic performance of his turntable (this was in the late 1970's) that he cut thru the floor of his "pier and beam" house,  poured a reinforced concrete pillar that reached down to bedrock, and mounted his machine on that.  Then he surrounded the whole assembly in an insulated closet. His next task was to tackle the obvious problem of convection currents......

Surely the emotional need for the illusion of perfection has its roots in the human need to quantify and qualify the parameters of an experience while ignoring the experience itself.  After the series of reviews I recently wrote on the Leica M9, the 35mm Summilux, and the Canon 7D,  I got the usual e-mails (never comments) that pointed out ways that I could improve my technique, adding various suggestions for cameras and lenses of even greater performance and generally took me to task for not providing charts and graphs....as though the experience of handling the camera has become meaningless.  As though the image itself, and the clear path to its acquisition, was secondary to squeezing the ultimate technical juice from whatever image I might be able to capture.  All assumed that I was avidly looking for specification driven and measurable perfection.  I generally am not.  I'm pleased if anything at all comes out......  Usually it's my human approach and my timing that are the limiting factors, never really the equipment.

In music a good musician might appreciate a great piano or violin but the interpretation of the music is all that ultimately matters.  (My tattered LP's of Pablo Casals, Bach Suites for Solo Cello readily attest to my belief that the artistic rendition beats quality of recording every day of the week).

I'm beginning to understand that the pursuit of an idea vs the pursuit of technical prowess is the dividing line between artists and the great unwashed.  Not between pro and non-pro.  There are a ton of pro's who are fixated by the process and don't have much to say.  There are many non-pro artists making good and valid art with any old camera they can get their hands on.  The quality of the equipment is wildly secondary to the well thought idea behind an image.

I guess the universe was trying to punish me for even suggesting that various cameras might make you a better photographer.  I've tried to write about the holistic experience of using various lenses and cameras but someone did point out to me lately that "all the lenses I review are 'devastatingly, breathtakingly, rivetingly' sharp and wonderful.  But if you read between the lines maybe what I've been saying all along is that all this equipment is pretty damn good if you use it in the service of your vision.....

The universe can be cruel.  Perhaps it is just random and chaotic....

At any rate I had coffee in the afternoon with an friend and his acquaintance.  The acquaintance asked me about getting a photographic education at one of the three main local schools of higher education here in Austin.  I described all three programs to him.  (I feel competent to do so since I've been on the advisory board of one program for four years,  I taught in another program and am a frequent guest lecturer still, and the third program is headed by a friend....)

First up is Austin Community College and I described the 2 year associate's program as a "blue collar" curriculum.  Which to me means,  "Teach me how to make money with photography by showing me how everything works.  And the steps required to do business."  (My use of "blue collar" is not intended to be at all perjorative!!!!  It's a really good program).  They'll teach you how to set your camera, how to use lights, how to compose and shoot, as well as all the steps you'll need to know in order to have an efficient and knowledgeable PhotoShop workflow.  But they won't teach you how to do art.  They won't teach you "Why" to shoot.

They assume you had a reason, an angle or a vision that you likely wanted to pursue in the first place. Or that you (misguidedly) thought commercial photography might be a high profit business opportunity.

The second program, the school in the middle, for all intents and purposes, is a private four year college named, St. Edwards University.  It's four year curriculum teaches the basic nuts and bolts.  Enough to provide you the tools to move forward in the service of your artistic vision.  Bu they also teach art history, and critical theory behind photography, bolstered by a traditional and vital liberal arts education. They help you hone a philosophical point of view as it relates to creating photographic art.

They assume that you were motivated to be a photographer in order to communicate an aesthetic, an idea or a way of seeing that deeply resonates within your psyche.  They give you the tools to dig out the vision intact.  They deliver the rudimentary practical tools you'll need in order to get your points and styles across.  But they assume you DO have a point.  Or at least a point of view.

The third school is a major university, my alma mater and home of my first teaching job,  The University of Texas at Austin.  Their four year, fine arts curriculum is nearly devoid of technical hand holding and almost totally consumed by aesthetics, art theory, artistic voice and expression.  They assume that you are able to read your camera's owner's manual and that you get the rudiments of a subject (photographic technique) that you've chosen as your university major at least competently  mastered.  They teach the "why" and assume the "how" is a given.....or something you should pursue on  your own.  And let's face it,  photography in the age of digital is hardly complicated.  There are only four or five camera parameters that are essential for image creation...... and now we all have litte TV sets on the backs of the cameras that iteratively feedback information to us on our progress.  You can experiment day and night pretty much for free.  How complex could it be?

All three programs assume you are coming into the mix because you have something you feel compelled to offer to the "discussion".  (And by discussion I mean in the context of the world of art.  Or commerce).  None assume that technical mastery of your camera is an end goal.

But as I spoke to the acquaintance of the friend  it became clear to me that he considered the valuable part of education to be the technical mastery.  He  deflected the higher values of the pursuit.  He consistently devalued the creative impulse as it related to direct transmission of ideas and gave value to the output of the machines and their ultimate transparency as a product of ever more technically advanced tools.

The desire to gain proficiency in something that can be quantified "sharper than",  "highest acutance",  "more accurate" color,  x degrees faster, etc.  He saw art as something to conquer, a medium solely in which to actively display his proficiency.

And it became so clear to me over the course of the conversation that  obsessing over process, workflow and technical proficiency were the surest signs that people with these priorities would not make art.  Were not capable of making art.  Copying its trappings, yes.  But a clear physical creation of their own visual voice?  No.

Well...........sorry.  There's no guarantee anyone will be able to make meaningful art.  Art which tells us what it is like to be human.  And there's no fast track to becoming good at the intangible parts of the photographic process.

But in the end the only things that really do matter are the absolutely intangible properties.  In a photo:  The story.  The narrative.  The rapport.  The message.  The feel.  The vibe.  And the point of view.

And all of the technical candy won't do squat to fix a poorly imagined or poorly seen photograph.

My bottom line message for anyone looking to spend some money and time on a photographic education?  If you don't have a passion, a message, a voice.....a visual thing you want badly to show to other people because you think it's important or beautiful or disturbing......You'll be wasting your time.  As an artist.

I'm going to be pre-emptive here and state that none of this means you shouldn't buy a camera and have a great time using it and making photographs that you enjoy, regardless of how far you want to push your vision.  Cameras and the taking of photos have no greater or lesser value than doing puzzles, collecting stuff, skateboarding or any one of a thousand popular pastimes.  I take family photos and they are not intended to be art (though I'd love it if they were) and I shoot lots and lots of commercial images that are not, by any stretch of the imagination, art.  But I do it because it supports my intention to do art in my personal work.  Seeing, exploring and, most important for me,  sitting in front of people, sharing a moment and capturing an expression that can be translated as the shared transmission of a human experience is the essence of photography for me.  The more I know about you the more I come to know about me.

What started all this rant?  The revelation that some people don't truly understand the passion to do art and instead use the medium as a way of showing off their chops.... I might have over reacted but maybe not...

My top gear of the year. The stuff I bought that made my photographs more fun and some of my images better.

I know a lot of writer/photographers end the year with columns on their favorite gear but it's almost irresistable.  I narrowed my list radically and came up with a top camera based on the following criteria:  The camera had to bring a smile to my face when I put it in my hand to shoot.  The images had to be wonderful and outrageously beautiful within the context of their class and price.  The camera had to do more than just be a really nice camera with good feel; it had to bring something extra to the table.  And because I tend to use my cameras a lot and spend time with them, it had to be well designed, visually.

I thought I'd narrowed everything down to one camera.  For me that would be the Olympus PEN E-P3
.  And my reasons are weighted to both the way I like to shoot as well as the collection of legacy lenses I have sitting in the "Olympus" drawer in my studio.  The "extra" thing that the Olympus EP3 brings to the table is the ability to use my beloved, manual focus Pen lenses with few limitations (I know that the Panasonics have the same capability, and that's good because if Olympus goes away as a result of their board's financial chicanery I won't be left high and dry.  It's just that I haven't liked the look and feel of the Panasonic line as much as I do the jet age styling and wonderful VF2 finder of the Oly camp...).

Here's my quick summary of why I like the EP3 so much.  1.  Absolutely wonderful to hold in my small to average sized hands.  (If you are a massive bruin of a photographer your mileage will definitely vary... by miles.  If you are a smaller person you will adore the Pens.  I think.  I know my wife does.  It's the only camera line she currently shoots with).  2.  Unlike all you old, crank, curmudgeon guys who will "give up their optical viewfinders when they pry your cold dead fingers off the shutter button..." I have to admit that, for most stuff, I like the working methodology of using a good EVF better than using an OVF.  When I'm working with one of my Pen FT (older) lenses I can see the effects of the changing aperture in the finder as well as changes made by changing color balance, filters and other settings.  It's wonderful to see exactly what effect I'll get when I commit and push the shutter button.  It's also wonderful to be able to do a quick review with the camera at my eye.

I worked with a Leica M9 recently and loved the optical finder in that rangefinder camera but I've come to the conclusion that I can no longer afford to be a digital Leica shooter.  I'd rather adapt the M lenses that I still have to the mirrorless cameras, going forward.  If the professional market changes I might reconsider but...for most of the uses now I'll take the convenience and customization of the Pens, coupled with whatever esoteric lens I might need hooked onto the front with one of the ubiquitous adapters.

The Pen EP3 is good with batteries and also let's me shoot in whatever format (aspect ratio) I want.  And if you've read my stuff for any length of time you know I have a deep and abiding love for shooting portraits within the formalist constructs of the square.  While most of my use of the EP3 is with my older manual focus Pen FT lenses I have played around with the AF lenses (both single focal length and zooms) and am happy enough with the quick, crisp autofocus.  Finally, the camera is customizable to the extreme.  I am happy to be the kind of photographer that uses the camera with 90 % of the settings in the same place all the time.  The only things I routinely change are ISO, metering patterns, aspect ratios and color temperatures and all of those can be accessed by the Super Control Panel on the main LCD.  

The camera is agile, beautiful, well made and puts out wonderful images.  While it gets noisy at 1600 and beyond the files at 800 and under are great.  Added benefits are all the new single focal length lenses coming into the system space.  Of special note are the 12mm and the 45mm Oly lenses and the 25mm Leica/Panasonic.  This is the way a system should be and this is all the camera most people would need for tons of different tasks.  Olympic sports or NFL shooter?  You already know what you need and don't need my two cents worth.  The targets for this camera are experienced photographer who shoot art, landscapes, portraits, street work, etc. with a measured pace and deep concentration.  Or with a light hand and a quick eye.  Don't start your studio portrait business with this camera but when you become successful in it then reward yourself with one of these for the sheer pleasure of shooting.

But don't dismiss ergonomics.  Make sure you have the same fit as I do for maximum enjoyment.  Try one in your hands before you buy it.  I love the smaller systems and have ever since I took the EP2 and some lenses to West Texas back in 2009.  (It's somewhere in the blog.  Search for "Marfa" to see more images.)

So, if I were starting from scratch with a Pen, how would I configure my system?  Easy enough, I'd do the "holy trinity" of primes.  The 12mm is easy since there's no competition in the focal length.  I'd choose the new Leica 25 1.4 over the Panasonic 20mm 1.7 because I like a longer focal length, love the Leica optics and might use the 1.4 aperture from time to time.  I round out the system with the 45mm 1.8 Oly and then backfill with longer lenses as needed.  All done.  Nice system.

But just as soon as I had my mind made up to make the Olympus Pen EP3 my personal best camera of the year I started playing in earnest with the new Nikon Series One.  This threw everything up into the air like a three year old with Pick-Up-Sticks.  
So I'm declaring a tie.  If I could only have one the nod would go to the Olympus if only because if the ability to hang just about any lens made off the front of the camera.  With the right combination of adapters I could even use my Hasselblad lenses on it.  But the Nikon 1 V1 seems to be more of a closed loop system to me.  And that lack of having to make decisions beyond which of the three (four, if you count the zany video lens) lenses to put on the front when you head out the door is part of the system's charm to me.

Yes.  The Nikon sensor is tiny compared to the m4:3rds sensor size.  Double yes.  It's miniscule compared to a full frame sensor.  Many dedicated buttons and knobs are missing.  This camera won't win the "knobs-per-square-inch" contest (KPSI) against anything but a tyro cam.  But, I love the 1950's Soviet inspired industrial design of the V1 body.  I love the bright and accurate EVF and so far, the files that come barreling out of this thing are as good as what I get from the EP3.  Here's what it does better:
1. Total silence mode. (courtrooms, theater, under cover work, spy cam, and wedding ceremony friendly).  2.  Faster than anything in the universe frame rate. (Not really faster than anything in the universe but you'd be hard pressed to beat 10, 30 or 60 FPS in just about any other camera).  You will never miss the decisive sequence again.  Shooting your kid's soccer match? 10 fps and be there.  3.  The VR or IS or whatever we're calling Nikon's implementation of image stabilization is profoundly good.  And I'll admit that I like it better when it's in the lens because you can actually see the effect in the finder.  I've shot at 1/2 second and gotten good results.  It's just important to understand that it can't freeze subject motion, only the coffee induced tremors of your own hands.  And it does that very, very well.

The lenses are well done and sharp and, suprise! The camera does ISO 1600 as well as the m4:3rd's cameras.  Maybe a tiny bit better.  The high ISO performance so blows away that from big SLR's of just a generation or two earlier that it seems yet another proof of Moore's Law.  I know, I know, all you old, cranky and grumpy curmudgeons will jump in and denounce the fact that, even in raw, the Nikon is applying noise reduction.  Well we modern and courageous cutting edge photographers don't care because the files look better than most of the stuff I try to run through noise reduction on my own.  You'll just have to get with the times or shoot with a more "traditional" camera.

But the bottom line of why I like the Nikon V1 is this,  the combination of high speed, fast AF, intergalactically incomparable IS and natty good looks just makes the combination more fun to shoot than almost anything else out there.  In good light the files are superb.  In bad light the files are still in the hunt.  And with recent price drops you can just about cobble together a system for around $1,000.
Not meant to compete directly with entry level DSLRs it's a camera for someone who wants sure, fast performance in a smaller, simpler package.  And it does this well.

Now, here's the disclaimer.  These systems are designed and implemented at this point in their evolution to serve only one market well.  (This is my opinion and may not reflect what the manufacturers had in mind).  This market is nerdy/cool experienced photographers who already own a full bore DSLR system like a Canon 5Dmk2 or a Nikon D3 or something of that ilk, and a bag of hyper sharp, pixel peeper glass, who want to keep buying new stuff to keep the adrenaline hit going.  The smaller system is purely an adjunct for those frequent times when the raw cubic inches of the big gear is either socially, physically or temprementally untenable.  Heading out to the pool to race and to snap some fun images.  That's perfect for this type of gear.  Or, invited wedding guest, NOT the official photographer, but can't bear to be without a decent picture taking machine.  Under your Armani sports coat, just in case you see something cool on your way to a nice dinner.  Any time your spouse looks at you and says, "You're not planning on bringing that giant camera bag filled with crap to the recital, are you?" And you realize that, maybe less is more.  Or just for those days, after a week of shooting professionally with eight pounds of lens and pro camera body in your hands, when you wake up and think: "minimalism.  that sounds good."

Honesty:  While I often fantasize about giving up all the Canon 1D series cameras, and the Hasselblads and the L lenses and the 5Dmk2's and just getting a small system for my work, like: 2 Pen EP3's, the "holy trinity" and a few bits and pieces like a longer zoom and an M mount adapter for a few other choice optics, I'm dragged back by the kind of job I did last week where high resolution and very narrow DOF were the main creative technical parameters in the service of our creative approach to a good paying advertising job.  As I've said, if you are a professional or a traditional and committed amateur you need to think of all these smaller systems as adjuncts, for now.  Their time will come.  For many it might already be here.  For me?  Some higher speed lenses and a few better interfaces for studio flash triggering need to come first.  

Acknowledging craziness:  The crazy thing is that I can't decide (with any regularity) between the Swiss Army Knife flexibility of the beautifully designed EP3 and the stoic high speed performance of the "collective" camera (Nikon).  So I bought both.  Why not?  They're both incredible video production cameras as well.  More on that in the new year.

When I had the idea to write about my favorite new cameras of the year I thought I would also throw in the lens that made me re-think lenses.  Preamble.  I've owned the Canon 85mm 1.2 when it first came out for the EOS film cameras and it was very, very nice and very, very slow.  I also owned the Nikon 85mm 1.4 AF when I owned that system.  But the 85mm that slapped me in the face, kissed me and then demanded I buy it was the Carl Zeiss 85mm 1.4 ZE.  It's amazing and it's sharper than people give it credit for.  It has some focus shift as you stop down so you either have to focus stopped down or focus with your live view camera when you are close up and personal, and wide open.  Used correctly the center 2/3rds, even at 2, 2.5, 2.8 and 3.5 are wickedly sharp.  By f4 it's beyond sharp, if you've focused correctly.  We've got split image rangefinder screens in the 5D2 and the 1D cameras so it's not that hard to nail.  But I'm only describing my experiences with the CZ 85 as a way of introduction into the system of good optics.  I like the warmth and the look of the Carl Zeiss better than the other two brands I mentioned.  It's probably a personal opinion but it just seems to put more depth and weight into the images.  Once I developed an interest in the Zeiss product for Canon I started looking at more and more of the offerings.  I bought the 50mm 1.4 and while it's nowhere as good as the late model Summilux or Summicrons I had when I was shooting R series Leicas it's a hell of a lot better than the Canon 50mm 1.4......if you learn to focus it correctly.  After the 50mm I bought the 35mm f2 after reading Lloyd Chambers comments on that optic and he's right.  It's amazingly sharp. 

This last Summer I was heading out of town to shoot interior architecture in a very high end country club some investors built in the middle of "nowhere" Texas.  I don't shoot architecture very often because I have a friend I usually recommends who does it much better than I ever will.  But the client wanted me to shoot it because we had a track record and an ongoing business relationship and....I could use the cash.  

I was packing up the Canon 20mm and the 28mm and a few other optics when the Zeiss rep called and asked me if I'd like to test out the Zeiss 21mm f/2.8 Distagon T* ZE .  I did.  It was good but not great.  Then my architecture specialist friend looked at the front of the lens and immediately found a big nasty, dirty spot right near the center.  As he expertly cleaned the lens he suggested that my first trial was void and that the lens deserved a second sortie.  This time, being careful to keep the lens clean, I was initiated into the circle of people (very small) who've actually used a nearly perfect 21mm lens on a DSLR.  It was breathtaking.  And the clients I was shooting for could see an immediate and profound difference.  When I compared it with the Canon I assumed that the Zeiss would win, hands down, with both lenses wide open but I also assumed that both would even out around f8.  But while the Canon got marginally better in the middle and somewhat better in the corners the Zeiss lens was already better at f4 than the Canon had a prayer of becoming, even at f8.  

The 21mm is amazingly sharp, and, when cleaned, flare is absent.  At f5.6 the corners and the center are as near to perfect as I can imagine.  In fact, the only fault with the lens is the purchase price of around $1800.  But you only need to buy it once.   For all of these reasons I felt that I had to include the 21mm as my "lens of the year."   




The funnest gadget I've gotten in 2011 is the Kindle Fire
.  It's not as productive as an iPad.  You won't be writing a novel on it or doing your taxes with it.  The screen's not as big and the software is a bit primitive when compared to the unsurpassed market leader....but....if you think of it in a different way it's a $200 bargain.  I use it to read books, to check and send e-mail and to casually show people images.  For all these things it works great.  If I lose it all the content (less the photos) exists in Amazon's cloud and will come pre-installed when I order a replacement.  The screen is good and the size is pretty much perfect.  I read an old James Bond book in my dimly lit living room last night and the screen was perfect.  I prefer my original Kindle for bright light reading environments but I amazed at the values of the Fire.  Just amazing how far technology has come.  And it's fun to read that we're buying the product at less than Amazon's cost of parts and construction.  Recommended for those who just can't bring themselves to buy an iPad.  For whatever reason.  (My reason?  The iPad is too close in performance, size and usability to the ever growing stack of small 13 inch MacBook Pros that proliferate around the house and studio.  But the laptops do more, faster and better.)  The Kindle Fire   didn't necessarily make my actual photography better this year but it made showing new images more fun.

Finally, in the category of newly "re-acquired" gear is the ever morphing collection of Hasselblad film cameras that came into the studio in the middle of the Summer.  My favorite is the 501CM and the standard 80mm pictured above.  I don't think I'll shoot tons and tons of film with the camera but it reminds me that there is value in slowing down, thinking about what I'm shooting and tackling it with really focused intention.  I walked through a gray and smoky downtown yesterday on my way to meet a friend for coffee and I carried the Hblad combo above.  I found 8 shots that would work just right on black and white film.  In a square.  I shot a total of 14 frames.  I was stopped by three curious photographers.  It was fun.  I put it in as my film camera of the year.  And really, film is far from "dead" it's just that film and digital are becoming two different disciplines.  More about that in the new year.




12.21.2011

A break in our usual programming for a commercial announcement.

Yes. I am an opinionated curmudgeon at times and you don't always agree with me.  But I've worked hard to put up over 800 articles that are at least tangential to the art/craft that binds us all together here: Photography.  Like most freelance photographers in our modern milieu I have to wear several hats to keep the home fires stoked, keep sustenance on the table and afford running shoes for our in-house cross country runner.  I do this in a fragmented and multi-threaded way that requires me to be passably good at several things and to mix them all together at once.  It's not enough to write about concepts and trends and favorite cameras without some "proofs of concept."  Namely, photographs. I write the articles and I'm also the VSL staff photographer.  I spend a lot of time chasing new and existing clients because I forgot to sign up for the trust fund.  I also make money by writing books about photography and that's where this commercial announcement is headed.  If you would like to support the VSL blog it would be great if you would consider clicking on the links below and ordering one, two, three, four or all five of the books I've written.  You'll get the usual hefty discount off the cover price and what I hope you'll think are valuable books.  I'll get a commission from Amazon (that won't cost you a cent) and I'll get a royalty for each book sold from my publisher.  

Now,  if you are the marketing director of a multinational (or national, or even local) business that uses photography and you've already purchased the books in the past, please consider hiring me for your next project.  I promise to do a really nice job for you. :-)

I've also tagged on three books from Texas based photographers who are all good friends and wonderful photographers.  Michael O'Brien's book, On Hard Ground, sold out in a little over five months but you can pre-order now to be sure and get a copy from the next printing, which is already in progress.  My LED book is also at the printedrs and I'll let you know when we get close.  It's generating lots of interest and I've had numerous requests for review copies from magazines and large, photo oriented websites.  It seems that using LED panels for production lighting is now coming on to everyone's radar.  In a big way.

That's it for my glancing commercial message.  Help move VSL forward if you can.  If you can't, or don't want to don't worry, the content is free and you are always welcome here.  Happy Holidays from the "management."


My Lighting Book



My Location Lighting Book


My Studio Book


The Business Book







I also wanted to throw in links to my two favorite cameras of the year:  The Nikon V1 and the Olympus EP3.  I bought both, with cold hard cash, and have no regrets about either purchase.  Both are great "system" carry anywhere cameras.  You might want one for the holidays....



Thanks for your support.  Kirk