1.19.2012

On Politically and Legal Safe Ground. My review of the Nikon F...

The Nikon F.  Image by Kirk Tuck ©2012 Kirk Tuck.  This image has been post processed.

We were ready to be impressed by this one from Nikon.  It had gotten such good previous press.  And there are things we like about it but let's get the less positive stuff out of the way first.  This camera is not digital.  It only takes physical film but it does operate in a semi-open system architecture.  You can use any brand of spooled, perforated 35mm film, available from a wide (but ever diminishing) circle of suppliers.

We were horrified to find that instead of a bad, dim, dark rear LCD screen that requires the viewer to keep his or her eye centered behind it to see it properly, Nikon have left the screen off altogether.  We'll presume that this was an attempt to keep manufacturing costs down but...we at VSL feel like that's just one step too far.  Of course, LCD's may not have been available at the time of design but surely they could have put a little cathode ray tube back there, just to, you know, preview stuff.

Which brings us to our next criticism.  No Menus.  None? Nope.  Astounding.  I fiddled with the damn thing for nearly an hour, trying to find a way to auto bracket or to fine tune exposure.  I couldn't even find a color space setting.  Now that's primitive.  In frustration I sent the camera to our fully equipped and space age lab for further analysis.  Within days they had researched, poked and prodded and found the source of the design defect.  In a word: battery.  The camera maker had forgotten to include a battery in the package.  Or a place to put a battery.  It was all so mysterious.

We did some more research and consulted with a very, very old photographer (over 40!!!!) and he let us know that this Nikon F body was actually designed that way.  He showed us how to read a meter that lives outside the camera (but be careful, you'll have to choose a film first) and how to set the few controls available. And we were off and running.  Kinda.  

We stepped outdoors, put a slight pressure on the shutter button and ..... nada.  No focusing.  Defective lens?  Not according to our consultant.  The lenses were meant to be focused by hand, like the Zeiss lenses currently on the market.  We tried turning the lens barrel, as instructed, and were rewarded with improved focus.  But even though we looked everywhere we were unable to find the diopter.  With our eyes and that old screen we'd be lucky to get 50% of the stuff we shoot in focus, and that's outside in good light!

The buffer in the camera is pitiful.  No matter how much time we waited between shots the camera would always stop at 36 frames and not budge.  At one point we even left it "on" overnight to see if the buffer would clear but, no.  And it's apparently WORM  (write once, read many) technology because once you've hit the buffer you actually have to introduce new memory.  And that's not cheap.

The top shutter speed is a dismal 1/1000th of a second and the shortest timed exposure is 1 second.  

Here's our executive summary:

While we were anxious to buy into the hype surrounding this camera we knew at the outset that we'd been sold a "pig in a poke."  When attempting to first load "film" memory in the camera the entire bottom fell off.  Right onto the ground.  The camera lacks even the barest degree of customization ability and it shoots only as quickly as you can push a lever 120 degrees with your thumb.

On the other hand, the non-battery lasted forever and the lens was fast, sharp and well corrected.  Our recommendation?  If you're into fast shooting, extreme sports, quick work, total control or.... just about any metric you can imagine then this camera is definitely not for you.  So, how are they positioning it in the market?  Would you believe they are trying to position it for professionals?  Our prediction?  They'll need a lot of marketing (and just the right kind) if they are going to make any head way with this one.

See our gallery of 4x6 inch prints on the refrigerator....



Here are the specs:

Big.
Heavy.
Slow.
Construction:  Metal on metal and more metal.  With metal.  Everywhere.

Positives:  We were unable to destroy it in any fashion.  We even used it to chock  the wheels of a large school bus on a perilous incline.  We liked the noise it makes when we push the button.

Stayed tuned. Next month we'll be reviewing the Canonet QL17.  Camera, Icon or Ruse?


1.17.2012

Dis-attachment-ism. My new religion. Works for just about everything.

Everywhere I turn there are work boxes full of old negatives and transparencies. Most for clients who've been bought out, gone bankrupt or changed ownership.  Like dental records of dead people.
At some point it's good to disentangle the emotional cabling wrapped around our ankles before it pulls us under for good.

If you're anything like me you get attached to the processes that you master.  I once took pride in knowing all 17,000 keystroke commands for WordStar, the first really mainstream word processing software for early IBM personal computers.  I was sad when faster, better, more streamlined word processors hit the market because I had come to romanticize all the time I'd spent being conversant with the foibles of the older program.  I mistakenly thought that the early skill set had value outside the actual writing. (The main lesson for me today.)

In the film days we saved everything.  We saved the slides and the contact sheets and the negatives and transparencies in all sizes.  Over time that's an efficient way to fill up filing cabinets.  In those days businesses seemed to have a corporate memory and were interested in their achievements and milestones.  They liked the idea of having a visual historic record of their growth and success. They understood adaptive reuse.  But now businesses change hands like playing cards and they spin off and recreate themselves with amazing alacrity.  Executives don't add value through decades of service, now they leverage a quarter and move on. The value of the photographic records of their oblique and tangential orbits have become as devalued as Kodak stock.

When images had a physical manifestation we valued them as "objects" in addition to their stored visual information.  Negatives could be a thing of beauty in a of themselves.  But now we've become pragmatic.  Now mental and physical space comes at a premium.  And the lure of the old creates its own pools of amber and tar that serve, if we're not careful, to anchor us into a position that's a losing proposition:  the reminders of how we did stuff in the old days.  You know, ten years ago.

I'm grappling with a sea change.  I'm convinced that everything we knew about showing portfolios has changed profoundly.  That all the information spewing from photographic marketing consultants is as dated as MySpace.  Until recently I was right there with them.  I believed that we needed a printed book.  I believed that we needed to show our 20 most powerful images.  And I believed that screen based portfolios were a sidekick, an adjunct or a watered down appetizer for the real deal:  Hand made prints in fanciful and tragically expensive bindings.

Several things are changing my mind.  When I visit with designers and art directors they always default to the screen.  When I hand someone an electronic tablet with a portfolio on it they succumb to their addiction and wipe thru every image in the portfolio...and then they ask for more.  They tell me they like to see work electronically more than they like to see work on paper.  It's a sea change.  It's seismic.  But consider this, the new generation of art buyers and art directors, marketing directors and managers has, effectively, grown up with the screen, learned on the screen and earned on the screen.  Print is something....extra that gets done.

Why the disconnection between what consultants and old guys tell us and what's happening on the ground for 95% of the photographers I know?  Easy, the consultants go for the biggest pay off.  They work with the folks who are aiming with all their might at the biggest ad agencies with the biggest accounts.  And it takes time for the art buyers and art directors to work their way up the kerning ladder to get into the position to accept visits from reps and recommended talent.  By the time they get there they've been trained by each other and their predecessors to think of the "print book" as the "gold standard."  And that may be the reality for the "one percent" of advertising people.  But the vast majority, especially those under 40 (ten times more so for the people under thirty) the screen is the thing.  Show on a screen and you speak in their language.  There's an immediate connection to the relevant work they do.  E-mail blasts, banner ads, websites, video and the whole social fabric of modern life.

So,  I practiced with a Kindle Fire and today I'm heading to the Apple store to buy the iPad I put off buying for some reason that seems irrelevant now.  This whole line of thought came to me as I was searching the archives to see what else I might want to stuff into the portfolio I'd be building electronically this week.  And it dawned on me that some much of the studio had become a monument to the way we did things in the past, and the jobs of the past.  

I've pulled out thirty pounds of old film and paper from filing cabinets and job boxes.  It's headed out to the trash.  I think if I can winnow out thirty pounds a day for a few days I'll have unfettered the part of my brain that hand been tasked with keeping a mental inventory of everything physically photographic and where it lived and I'll be able to re-task those parts of my brain to re-enter now.

I've also been peeling off older cameras and lenses.  Not the hallowed stuff that I just can't seem to detach from but the clutter that builds up over time when you convince yourself that you need a back up for your back up camera.  Those sorts of things.

With every pound of film shed and every box of last year's photo miracle machines that heads out the door I feel lighter and less encumbered.  Less set on making old tools work for new jobs.  Less set in my ways and more open to change on many levels.  

I have two friends who are around my age and both of them, several years ago embarked on the search for the holy grail of print portfolios.  Their searches brought them to master "giclee" (fancy inkjet) printers who printed on thick, archival papers.  They printed large and they printed really well.  And then they bound the images in custom-made leather books.  Almost Medieval in their grandeur, detail and mass.  The pages sewn into the spines in the greatest tradition of book making.  And they wound up with multi-thousand dollar art pieces that are, in fact, prints stuck in amber.  Unchanging and unchangeable.  

Sorry.  Not for me.  I'm going after the fat part of the market that changes all the time.
I'm using different cameras.  I'm breaking the video rules I never really liked.  In short, I'm trying to translate the way I've looked at stuff into a modern idiom that works.  And the declining costs are like getting a "do over."

Unloading stuff is like getting permission to start over.  And starting over is just what the economy always seems to be doing.  I like the idea of showing up at a meeting with less than a square foot of electronics and being able to show off multiple and quickly configurable portfolios.  I guess not all aspects of change are so horrendous.  While I sometimes pine for film I'm equally aware that the back end is.....a pain in the ass, for commercial production.

Funny that getting rid of a few negatives and chrome would trigger so many other changes.

Note:  Dear Technically oriented readers:  Yes.  I would have to be living under a rock not to have heard the rumors that Apple will be launching a new iPad three the minute I buy an iPad two.  That's the way technology seems to go.  If the iPad two+portfolio produces one typical job I'll gladly line up for the next one.

Notes on the using the Kindle Fire:  I've actually been showing work, albeit informally, on the Kindle Fire and the screen is very good.  The two issues that may or may not constrain using one as a portfolio platform is the dearth of good portfolio presentation programs.  But for $200 it may be just what you need to show an ever changing book on a budget.  Or if you just hate all things Apple.  

Notes on throwing stuff away:  I'm spending time editing through the piles.  I'm saving the best frame from 100 on most old jobs but some are so old and so boring that they just have to go....

Final note for the morning:  The comments are on but that doesn't mean you must use them.  If you do, please be nice.  I'll try to do the same when I come over and comment on your blogs...

1.16.2012

Mini Old School Class on White Background.

Ad shot from the 1990's.  A Quick and clean revisiting of White Background Lighting Techniques from the film days. (ie: before you could just cut stuff out in PhotoShop).


If there's one subject that comes up again and again on lighting forums it is: "What is the correct way to light and prep for a white drop out background?"  Time and time again the bold rush in to suggest everything from blasting the background with one huge flash to shooting against black and just cutting it out with Gimp Tools XP10.  But there is actually a method that used to be taught in all the photo schools or learned at the feet of the guys who did it before you.  And it made sense back then.  


I thought I'd put this up for three reasons:  I like the image of the skater.  I was playing with the pen tool I've had for ten years and remembered how much I like to scrawl things across photos.  And finally, a younger photographer, who will have to do many, many of these kinds of shots asked me to.

In the shot above I'm starting by rolling out a nine foot wide seamless backdrop of Super White paper.  I roll it so that the front end (right behind the skater) is at least 12 feet from the plane of the hanging paper in the far background.  This allows me put an even light on all of the background but leaves me enough room to scrim the background light off the skater with black panels.

I'm using five lights on the background.  There are two flash heads on either side of the set and all four of them have white umbrellas with black backings on them.  They are aimed at the opposite sides of the seamless so the light feathers across the surface.  I've also added a center light, high up to both clean up the middle of the background and also provide additional light (via careful feathering) to the paper that's spread across the floor behind our model.  I always attempt to light the backgrounds so that every surface that shows to the camera is within a 1/3 stop of everything else.  Having too much light in a spot is just as bad as not having enough when you don't have the luxury of hands-on post processing.

In front of the background paper I've placed four sturdy milk carton holders to elevate my model's platform.  I've placed a stout piece of plywood under the shiny, white Pleixglas for support.  Having the platform raised means that, at the angle I want to shoot my dancer and the focal length I'll use, I'm actually seeing the far end of the white paper at her foot level instead of the part of the paper nearest the camera.  This is pure white and gives me a great reflection back on the shiny plexiglas surface which works to obliterate detail and go as white as possible.  It also gives me a nice reflection of the skater's blades and shoes right in front of her.

The one boom arm you see coming into the frame on the left hand side is tightly secured to a solid tether and it there so the skater can reach out and steady herself if she starts to lose her balance.

I'm using a large (54 by 72 inch) Chimera softbox from about 45 degrees to the left, in front of the skater and just far enough away so that it won't show in camera.  The only other source of illumination is a white fill reflector from the opposite side.

I meter (with an incident meter) the background and get a reading.  In this case it was probably f11 and 1/3 stops.  I then meter while adjusting the distance of the softbox to the model until I get a reading that's one third of a stop darker on the model.  In this way I am assured that the background will go pure white but I'm equally assured that the least amount of light will spill forward from the background lighting to contaminate (and lower the contrast of) the model at the front of the set.  In this situation all we left for the color separator was to clean up the area around the model's feet.

Even in the zenith of our digital days I can think of several reasons (all lighting and lens oriented) to maintain the same lighting practice.  Less spill means less veiling flare.  And, as I've written, less unwanted contamination on the subject.  The even-ness of the background means that, even though you will be using the selection tool in Photoshop you'll have less issues to deal with and will spend less time with "refine edge."  Finally, if you get used to doing it correctly you'll see that it also works just as well for video.  And it's easier than "green screening" everything and fixing it all up in post...

I won't get into the argument about "incident meter versus reflected" or exactly how to hold your light meter.  I think that's too personal to talk about on a public blog.  And I do think you'll figure out your own technique.  After all, you can see the results right away now.  But can you see 1/3 stop above white, on your camera's histogram?  Meters are still relevant.

We took the day off today.  Back tomorrow to discuss portfolios for the new age of screen dominance.  Maybe.