Great Piece about Art on A Photo Editor Today.

I'm posting this because it's interesting and germaine to our recent discussions about art.  Ooops.  ART.


Have a read and see what you think...

Post coffee world.

Sony a77.  35mm 1.8 DT lens.  ISO 50.

Did your parents have a Chevy when you were growing up?

I'm pretty sure that most of my European and Asian readers did not.  But in Texas the various full sized Chevrolet sedans, like the Impala, the Belair and the Biscayne were all over the place.  We had a brown, four door Biscayne that eventually became the car my older brother and I were allowed to drive in high school.  After my junior year in high school I worked a Summer job so I could buy my own car.  It was a normal thing for boys to do in Texas in the early 1970's.  I made just enough money to buy a 1965 Buick Wildcat with an enormous V8 engine and an equally big set of bench seats.  If you were my height you could comfortably sleep in the backseat.  And on the occasions, when vast numbers of my fellow high school students flocked to the Texas Gulf Coast for vacations and long weekends I often did, choosing to spend what would have been "motel money" for food and fireworks.  I fondly remember the bottle rocket battles on the beach.  Always fun...until (according to someone's mom) someone gets their eyeball shot out.

We'd finish school on Friday afternoon, skip swim practice, fill up our tanks with thirty-two cents per gallon premium gas, try to cadge $20 of spending money from our indulgent parents and then head south with a pair of surf shorts and a couple of T-shirts.  We brought our flip-flops so we could go into the Whataburger restaurant in Port Aransas.  We'd live on burgers and Cokes.  Some of the kids would live on beer.

After spending the weekend slathering our half naked bodies (and the bodies of our wonderful girlfriends) with Johnson and Johnson baby oil---to promote tanning, and eating trash, and trying to look cool and getting stung by little jelly fish we'd wait until the last ray of sun bounced off the water and then get back in our cars and head back to San Antonio Sunday night.  We'd be cranking the Moody Blues or Jethro Tull or Led Zeppelin on our cassette players and drive 80 miles per hour with the window all down so we could feel the warm, salt air wrap all sticky around us.  We were American kids from comfortable families. It seemed like it would be this way forever....

Those are the memories that flooded into my brain when I walked into a Cinco de Mayo festival on 2nd Street yesterday and came face to face with a beautifully restored Chevy Impala.  One look at the tail lights and I was humming the Beach Boys, Good Vibrations, all over again.

I saved a telling memory of my high school vacation history in one snap of the shutter.  I'll print this one and put it next to my desk to remind me that there's always something more fun to do than work.

Tech notes: Sony a77 camera.  ISO 50.  Big and Meaty Jpeg setting. Hasselblad 80mm Zeiss Planar lens at f4 with the Fotodiox adapter.  Post processed in SnapSeed for a bit more "structure."

"Catch a wave and you're sitting on top of the world."

Austin Texas Portrait Photographer.

My camera likes to shoot bright colors. And optimistic visual propaganda..

I like the juxtaposition of the wide shot of the alley way with the building in the background in the top shot and the close up arrangement of flowers and beads in the bottom shot.  I wasn't away of the vertical blue in each shot until I edited the images later.

These were taken within minutes of each other downtown at the Pecan Street Festival this afternoon.  In each case I used a Sony a77 camera, liberally "pre-chimping" and using the same 35mm 1.8 Sony DT lens.  Nothing was planned.  It's all happenstance.


Some books about art that I've found very useful.

After I wrote my plea for a more well rounded education a number of people were curious to know what books I'd suggest to help understand art and photography's relationship to the continuing thread of culture over time.  I've put together a preliminary list and a few comments about why I like each one.  Almost all of the books costs about what a decent, dignified, sit down lunch will cost you in any of the capitol or not so capitol cities of the world so there's little excuse not to accession the knowledge contained in these little beauties.  You will have forgotten lunch in a few days but the ideas in these books will stick with you for a lifetime.  There are thousands and thousands more to mention but who would read through a whole catalog?  These are some of my very favorites.

Art and Fear, Ted Orland

This little book (more in the price range of a burger and fries...) is a wonderful book about getting started, developing a style and understanding the psychology behind our hesitation to commit to our art.  It's easy to read and remarkably accessible.  I pass it out like candy to my friends who can't get past shooting....everything they see.

The Painted Word, by Tom Wolfe


If you truly want to understand 20th century fine art and all the bull shit surrounding many of the most famous manifestos then this slim paperback is just for you.  Abstract Expressionism?  Flatness?  How art gets sold?  It's all here.  And the illustrations are funny (just a few black and white cartoons sprinkled through the text).  Yes, it's the same Tom Wolfe who wrote "Bonfire of the Vanities" and "The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test."  It's funny and sharp.  And you'll be ready to be insightful and pithy next time you go to a gallery opening...

From Bauhaus to Our House, by Tom Wolfe

Everything I said above, but about the role of architecture.  Devastating.  Funny.  Need to know stuff I you are surrounded by architecture snobs.  

Why People Photograph, by Robert Adams

A series of essays about famous photographers of the 20th century and what they brought to the table.  It's a small and personable book by one of the 20th centuries interesting photographers.  I like his writing; his photos are too hard for me to understand.  

In Defense of Beauty,  by Robert Adams

In another slender volume (the price of an espresso based coffee and a few organic pastries at Whole Foods Market) Robert Adams explains why our traditional ideals of beauty need not be overlooked in the rush to art historically cool.

Civilization, by Kenneth Clark

How did we get to this point in history? Why the Medicis rocked. How our understanding of art through the ages informs us.  This book is more about history of western thought than anything else but it's a great foundation for understanding the art that contained each age like a custom suit. And Kenneth Clark writes so well that it's as riveting as an action adventure movie.  Take a seat and catch up.

The Nude, by Kenneth Clark

How have we gone from the idea that the painting and sculpture of the nude was a glorification of God's work to today when our cultures censor any image of the nude?  This book explores the history and meaning of the nude in western art. It's a dense read but you'll be happy you covered it so you can appreciate nudes in all of their glory instead of thinking that nudes are just something people who live in their parent's basements (and who drive ice cream trucks through the neighborhoods) do.  It's a brilliant ally in justifying your own exploration of the nude.  Should you need a justification.....

Ways of Seeing, by John Berger

We think we know how seeing all works but do we? This book explores symbology, anthropology and the science of seeing as it relates to cultural communication.  This book is the core of a PBS show on the subject.  

History of Italian Renaissance Art, by Frederick Hartt

Beautiful book with beautiful color plates that show cases what may come to be known as the ultimate golden age of art from which everything in the past few hundred years has derived its power from.  It's got all the big names:  Raphael, Leonardo da Vinci, Pantormo, Michaelangelo and much, much more.  You ain't half smart if you don't know about the righteous dudes profiled in this eternal block buster.  Get your read on and join the art cognoscenti... Better than the Superbowl or the World Series for pure entertainment.

Leonardo da Vinci

The master of portraiture.  He invented it the way we wish we could do it.  Learn from the source.

Why Photographs Work, by George Barr

Famous writer and photographer takes 52 great images and interviews their makers about WHY and how they made these works. No step by step diagrams but insightful overviews.  Learn what's in the mind of the artist when they create.

The Photographer's Eye, John Szarkowski

The 20th Century's most famous and influential curator of photography writes brilliantly about photography and shows incredible examples. He pushed American and European photography in a direction from which most current work has evolved.  It's good reading for people who want to know what came before and why it's important today.

Looking at Photographs, by John Szarkowski

The world's greatest curator took about a hundred images from one of the world's greatest collections of photography and explains them for you.  Every art student should have this book before they head out the door to re-invent the wheel.  Again.  

From Honey to Ashes, by Claude Levi-Strauss

An anthropological treatise on the development of myths and how symbology becomes universal.  We all work with symbols, right?  Let's find out where the power of the symbols came from and how people have used it through the ages in art.

The Nuba of Kau, by Leni Riefenshahl

Yes. I know.  She worked for the Nazis.  But if you can separate that out in your head you'll find the work in this book amazing. It's a study of a nearly extinct tribe in Africa through the extreme telephoto Leica lenses of a brilliant see-er and it's well done.  How do you develop a style?  A year long immersion into a difficult project is one sure way...

Dog Dogs, by Elliott Erwitt

I found the benefit of passing time.  You're collected work comes together with an arc of cohesion.  This inexpensive by thick and hearty book counteracts several pervasive misconceptions.  You don't need glamorous subject matter to do good work.  Your style will emerge over time.  Going out and shooting all the time allows you to explore and explore and that exploration gives you style.  And a sense of what's possible. This is a "look at all the incredible images, I just need to get out there and get to work" sort of book.  No cutting edge, state of the art, state of the moment gear.  Just showing up and shooting.  Again and again.  And the images are really good.  This is my ooops. I ended up alone at this restaurant for lunch, I'm glad I have a fun book to look through and a copy stays in my car.  Elliott Erwitt is funny and so are his images.

Janson's History of Art

If you want to know about the majesty and potential of the culture in which you live and you can only afford to buy one book because you are too busy amassing a selection of lenses (most of which you will really never use) then just save up and get this one and take it a section at a time.  It's the history of art.  It's the book we all should have read as high school seniors.  Or we should have read it as college freshmen.  Or we should have read it on our last vacation.  It's a thick, image rich book that catalogs ART. 

I'll try to think of more but this is the first semester of Kirk's Art History for photographers who want to be better informed and more fully mentally functional.  Feel free to suggest your won favorites but let's stay away from gear books.  Or the new genre of feel good pop psychology books disguised as books about about finding your magic.

Happy Sunday.


Forget ISO 25,000. I'm loving what I'm seeing at ISO 50.

Note to all technical geeks:  I assume that the "native" ISO of a sensor is where it gives you the greatest dynamic range coupled with the cleanest file.  For the a77 DXO clearly shows on their graph that it is squarely at 50 ISO.  They're pretty smart so I don't really give a crap about anyone else's presumptions or conjecture.  And...I've shot at 50 and 100 and 200 and 50, by far, looks the best.  Sorry if the science fails you.

Many times over the past few years of writing about cameras I've made the statement that I'd prefer a camera with the ability to do a "real" ISO 50 over a camera that does infinitely high ISO files.  Here's the reason:  Most of the work I do is completed under controlled lighting and in commercial work the bulk of it is done on a tripod.  While 50 ISO may not work as well for moving people shots with LED panels I've still got a studio full of nice electronic flash gear I can press into service when I want it.  A "real" ISO 50 (as opposed to the "pulled" ISO 50 on the Canon cameras) can be the highest resolution and lowest noise setting on a camera with a sensor designed for detail.  And the added benefit in the case of the Sony a77 (as confirmed by DXO and this Dutch website: http://camerastuffreview.com/en/reviews-en/camera/85-testen/cameratest/sony-cameratest/275-review-sony-a77 ) is that this is also the setting for the widest dynamic range for that camera and sensor.  They were able to get over 2500 lines of resolution with a usable dynamic range of over 10 stops IN JPEG in their tests.  Absolutely amazing.  And the ISO's of 64, 80 and 100 are just tiny increments less perfect.

But I never take other people's test to heart without confirmation at my own hand.  After a week of shooting nearly 1,000 exposures with the a77 for clients (including a bunch of very nice, clean work at ISO 800, with LED panels as primary lights ) I decided to head out this afternoon, around 4:30 and run some tests of my own.  I set the camera to Super Fine Jpeg (I've flip-flopped and decided that, in the default settings, this is the ultimate Jpeg shooting machine....but I'll explain that in another post).

The idea to test at ISO 50 came from a statement I made in a post two days ago about getting the most out of your camera.  I suggested that rather than only focus on worst case shooting scenarios when breaking in your new camera, that you also try the settings on your camera where you can expect the best case scenarios to see just what you and the machine can do.  Having written it I thought it only reasonable to head out and give it a try.  I'd already spent loads of quality time on a tripod this week, some of it down around 100 ISO so I had an inkling of just how sharp and how much resolution the 24 megapixel files have.  In a word, at that setting, better than a $3,000 Canon 5DMk2.

I also wanted to do a test of my newest lens, the Sony 35mm 1.8 DT lens.  It's a lens that's made to cover only the image circle of an APS-C camera and it's made out of plastic materials but according to everyone else's test it's a really sharp optic.  Especially in the center of the frame.

Today was our "get used to Summer" day here in Austin.  The mercury hit the 95 degree mark.  A bit hotter downtown... 

I set the camera at ISO 50, turned on the Steady Shot IS, set the AF to spot, and the image file setting to Standard.  And away I went.  I even got fancy and put sunscreen on my face.  My concession to the relentless Texas sun.  I shot everything.  EVERYTHING at f4.  I figured that would be the sharpest setting.  Two stops down from wide open.

The combination of the slow ISO, the optimum aperture and the overwhelming resolution of the camera make for files that can be enlarged and enlarged without every showing grain, noise or lack of sharpness.  It's like shooting MF digital  (and yes, I have tested and reviewed three of the four major brands of MF digital cameras in the last three or four years...)  the performance at the lowest ISO is worth any of the other compromises in the camera.  I conjecture that, putting the camera on a stout tripod and adding in Multi-Frame Noise Reduction you have a fighting chance of rivaling the new D800 for ultimate, on paper print performance.  I'll test it soon and find out.

This is my new hat.  I think it's cool.  When I went to an ASMP breakfast this morning a very cool guy named, Destry, had one just like it.  Since he is nearly half my age I took that as a certification of coolness.  At any rate it came with me on my walk and sat next to me as I had a cappuccino (again, one of the finest I've ever tasted) at Medici Caffe on Congress Ave.  The shot is cool to me because it's taken at 1/13th of a second and it's incredibly sharp.  Shooting ISO 50 indoors.  How chic?  And it would give you prime glass shooters the opportunity to spend more time at the interesting side of the aperture ring....

I've often said that Austin is a wacky town.  These guys were driving around in the van with the side door open, filming who knows what.  They stopped at the traffic light and I photographed them as I walked into the cross walk.  No one else even batted an eye.  Weird stuff happens so continuously in Austin and most people are inured to it after a few months.

This is my perennial test building.  I blow it up on the screen and look at the bricks. If I can read the brick maker's logo I know I have a high resolution tool in my hands.

When I got back to the studio car I remembered that I'd left the top down.  I'm glad it didn't rain.

My final shot (above) is a person at an outdoor bar on sixth street.  She is standing in front of a fan and occasionally the fan sprays out a mist of water for that "evaporative cooling" effect.  She was gracious enough to re-pose because she was about to walk off when I found her.

Remember the days before everyone wanted their camera to be the Swiss Army Knife of cameras and to be good at everything (impossible)????  We had cameras that took big film for landscapes and images that would go up large.  We used em with slow film to maximize the effect.  We had our snicky little Leicas with impossibly fast lenses, and pushed film, for the stuff we needed to shoot in the dark.  We had the best of both words by using specialized tools.

I'm right there with the new Sony cameras.  The a57 is a low light champ with 16 nice megapixels.  The a77 is my studio, low ISO, super res camera.  And I have one more thing that none of the Canon and Nikon shooters have yet.  I have a beautiful EVF finder.  The only 21st century technology, professional camera system out there.  

It doesn't really matter what brand of camera you have.  You might try using it at it's lowest "real" ISO and using good technique.  You might be shocked at just how good your gear can be.

EDIT FOR ALL THE STRANGE PEOPLE ON FORUMS.  While you may "want" the base/real ISO of the Sony a77 to be whatever you want it to be I'm going by the material I read at DXO Mark.  The info shows the highest DR and the lowest noise at ISO50 which is NOT a menu extended ISO but a marked ISO.  This would explain the lower (by one stop) noise performance at the top ISO as well.  If 100 ISO were the real sensitivity of the sensor I think that's where you'd see the top DR.  And unlike many who would rather argue than test for themselves, I've actually shot comparisons between 50, 64, 80 and 100.  50 is better.  On all counts.

To the wag who suggested that I must be using Sony cameras now because, "Nikon Stopped Giving Free Stuff to Kirk.."  I'll reiterate what I've disclosed here time and time again:  We pay real, hot American money that I earn from writing books and shooting assignment photography for almost 100% of the cameras I write about and review.  We note all exceptions.  The one camera I received free of charge was an Olympus EPM-1 (the lower part of the product range) as part of their "GetOlympus" promotion.  While I would love for Sony and Nikon and Canon and Olympus to send me free, top of the line cameras, in reality I pay for them just like everyone else.  

Good Lighting means paying attention to the light that's already in front of you.

Elgin, Texas Sausage Maker.  4x5 Transparency.

A few years back a fellow name Mike Murphy was the photo editor for Texas Highways Magazine and he called to ask if I'd like to shoot a feature on the town of Elgin, Texas.  Elgin is known far and wide for their really good BBQ and their really great sausage.  I took the job and, even though we were in the Nikon D2X digital age at the time I asked if I could use large format film for the assignment.  Mike agreed.

While it may seem counterintuitive to shoot magazine photo-journalism with a 4x5 inch Linhof field camera (TechniKarden) it's really not and photographers have been doing it for decades.  Many of the images on our list were shots of things like historic building exteriors and interiors and I wanted to be able keep my verticals straight.  I also like the idea of slowing down and concentrating.

I shot 100 frames for the assignment.  That's all that came in the two boxes of film I had budgeted.  I shot two boxes (40 pieces of large format, black and white 100 ISO Polaroid test material) because that's all that came in the two boxes I budgeted.

I wanted a shot of a sausage maker and when this guy came walking by me with a big metal tub of sausage I thought the excess would be humorous and would make a good opener for the dining section of the story.  I asked the man if he could come back with another tub in about 10 minutes and I started setting up the camera.  I figured out my composition and, since it was dark in the area I wanted to man to stand in I knew I'd also have to set up a light.  I set up a Profoto 300 w/s monolight, firing into a 60 inch Softlighter umbrella, with its diffusion cover.  I was looking for f11 and then I dragged the shutter to bring up the background. (That means I dropped the shutter speed slower and slower until a meter reading (incident at the back wall) told me I was in the ballpark.  Only when I was nearly certain of my lighting from the flash, and from the tungsten down lights, and the overall florescent lights did I commit a Polaroid.  It was half a stop bright so I made a mental note to adjust for the film.

I did not filter the flash to match the green fluorescents in the back ground and then neutralize the whole frame with an on camera filter.  I liked the idea of the color contrast of the flash lit sausage and bright red apron against the green of the wall.

I shot three frames of film because I could see, standing next to the camera as I shot with a shutter release cord, that my subject blinked on the second exposure.  When we finished I thanked him and then took everything back down and moved on to my next shot.

It's a straightforward photograph and, like the rest of the article, was fun to do.  It was my last editorial job with 4x5.  Everything since then has been digital.

Would I do it that way again? With large film?  In a heart beat. If Polaroid was still kicking and the magazines were willing to budget for it.  


What's missing from the current practice of photography.

History is a story with no ending.  You read it from the past to the present.  
Then you make history.

Funny thing happened on the way to educating our country.  We lost track of how important history is and we lost sight of what it really means to be educated. Somewhere along the line we decided, as a culture, that the only really important thing was to have a career and get a job and make money and be comfortable.  In order to do this most efficiently we took our universities, which previously had subscribed to a mandate that good education meant well rounded education, and turned them into big trade schools. Mostly for the benefit of big business.

Each "discipline" narrowed down its focus to transmit only the rawest and coarsest base competencies.  Engineering students learned their math and physical sciences but lost the institutional mandate that required what used to be considered basics.  Things like literature and a foreign language became roadkill for the sciences.  Business majors never see the inside of a philosophy or art history classroom on their rush to riches.  Our forefathers knew that it was in our society's best interest that people understand the value of good novels and poems, become civilized by appreciating important and time tested music and also to understand the arc of art history and art in general.

It has been said that "Art tells us what it is to be human."  And I would say that any society that doesn't value it's art will soon cease to be creative, cease to produce truly creative products and will live a meaner existence. To not know history is to be doomed to endlessly repeat it.

Many people flock to photography and practice it as a hobby or a business but so few of them know anything about the history of the art.  Or the history of its technology.  Without knowing the rich past of photography we have no base line to understand its arc and its depth.  And we're left with a generation of photographers who are re-interpreting the same wheel in the same (concurrent) time period, over and over and over again.

No wonder people are fascinated with Instagrams and Hipstergrams.  It's just a recycling of Polaroid SX-70 manipulations and Polaroid transfers.  Most of the current practitioners weren't old enough to have been around for the first iteration but its aesthetic has been kept alive by advertising references and rehashes for decades.  Would the new iterations be anywhere near as popular if the people doing it now knew that their parents and grandparents did the same thing, analog style, so many years ago?  Probably not.  They would shun it and perhaps go in a new direction.  They might seek new ways to speak with their cameras instead of copying stuff that their aunt did when she was their age.  ( And, by the way, Ben Lowy's work is interesting because of the content, and context, not the trendy presentation.....)

Would the photographers who think they are being cool by taking images with their tiny cellphone cameras be surprised to see a portfolio of Helmut Newton's fashion work done on a beach with a 110 (mini-film) interchangeable lens camera from Pentax back in the 1970's?  It was primitive and the film was primitive so it was all about the talent of the photographer.  Would people be as impressed by Chase Jarvis's oh so kinetic Ninja shoot if they had already seen the work of Phillipe Halsman's Jumpology from (gulp) the early 1960's?  Would they be amazed by the Photoshop work of hundreds of thousands of worker bees if they had spent time looking at paintings by Salvatore Dali or even Brueghel's Tower of Babel ?

And who doesn't understand that our modern ideals of beauty were invented and presented by painters Botticelli and Michaelangelo and especially Leonardo Da Vinci?  And that no one has created a more beautiful three dimensional work in all of human time than Bernini's Apollo and Daphne?

Our rush to decimate all of the non-essentials of learning in exchange for training will eventually destroy our entire culture because it takes away the reasons and rationales for all of the hard work we, as a culture engage in;  to be captivated, enchanted and mesmerized by art and music and poetry, romance and all the things we do because we love them, not because they bolster some bottom line.  How do you put a financial value on falling in love with the lines of a poem?

Photography is interesting today in that we are constantly obsessed by the availability and constitution of the tools. We spend all of our time on the equipment and none of it learning the stories and legends and motivations of the guiding lights and historical figures of our own art and craft. We know nothing of the great works and the struggles against all odds that produced them.  We say "good capture" to the weekend warrior who goes on a photo walk and takes a sharp picture of a cat but we've never learned of the struggles of the Civil War photographers (Matthew Brady: Sketchbooks of the Civil War)  who had to coat glass plates in the field for film and then make sharp images with long exposures on cameras that weighed over 50 pounds and had no functional controls.  People made exposures then by uncapping a lens, counting down and estimating exposure times and then recapping the lens.  The chemicals that made the final images were often times toxic and deadly and yet, the artists were still able to make images that would shame all but the greatest photographers of our current time; if we could distill our current masters from the vast fields of chaff....

Are we so smug and spoiled and narcissistic that we can't value the history and the past glory of our own craft?  We are so busy honoring our current "teachers"  that we can't even see around them to the incredible contributions that came before.

I wrote a book on lighting with small flashes.  It sold well.  People were ready to hear the message.  David Hobby preached the same message on his website.  And the vast majority of our customers and followers wrongly give us credit for "inventing" small flash photography or, in David's case, Strobism.  But the reality is that our work, for the most part is a shallow scoop into the work done by a person who was there before us named, Jon Falk.  He wrote a book back in the 1980's called Adventures in Location Lighting and he let us in on the secrets of using radio triggers, optical triggers, external battery packs, minimalist light stands, all kinds of flash modifications and much more.  He was an amazing source of information about all this stuff. (Thanks Jon!!!).

And I have no doubt that his knowledge was built on the information and inspiration that came from the generation just ahead of him.  And then all the way back to Dr. Harold Edgerton.

The primary difference is this:  His generation invented stuff to be able to say what it was they wanted to say. They had a mission.  It was to get a certain style of image.  Now the mission is to play with the gear. When is the last time someone told you about a subject they were intent on capturing in a new way?  And when did they tell you about their new lens/camera/flash?

Let's save the creative spirit of photography by learning what's come before us and let's see how the styles we leverage were created.  The same ones we build on today.  By knowing the past we can prevent spinning our wheels by reinventing them over and over again.  By studying the history of photography and the history of art we'll all benefit by being able to create new work that inspires a new generation.  Otherwise, to use a musical analogy, we'll just be stuck in the same elevator listening to the same Muzak version of Hey Jude  by the Beatles, over and over and over again until we die or photography becomes so stale and self referential that it dies.

So, you went to school and you got the job and you're financially successful.  Now plow some of that capital back into some important continuing education:  Dig deep into art and art history and you'll be rewarded beyond your dreams.  You'll actually learn how we fit into the rich and endless swirl of history instead of just watching "what's cool right now" being recycled on the web.

If you're going to tell me that you copy all of the current stuff in your own work as some sort of learning process I'll tell you that you're copying the wrong stuff.  Go for the classics.  That's where the magic is.  And the chicks will dig you more...

So many people work so hard only to come to the realization that they didn't make time during their working lives for the things that make us part of the human continuum.  The shared joy of our art and culture.  That's why so many older people take up painting, photography and expansive learning.  Easier to do it all along.  And, like compound interest, more valuable.

This is my 1,000th Published Post.  And it was finished at 9:30 pm on Weds., May 2nd 2012.

my favorite post: http://visualsciencelab.blogspot.com/2011/11/meaning-of-life-is-to-make-life.html

A similar post, suggested by a reader:

I'm going to get geeky and talk about an actual job.

This is an image we shot years ago on an Olympus e300 and the 11-22mm lens.  It holds up fine because I shot it on a tripod at a useful ISO.

I've had two remarkable days of photography this week.  I've changed everything I do.  Everything.  Up until a few years ago everything in my universe revolved around shooting with flashes.  Big flashes. Little flashes.  Remote flashes.  Flash on a wire and flash on a radio trigger.  I wrote a book about getting the most out of small flashes.  But for the last two days everything I've shot has been done with two relatively small LED panels on very small, lightweight lightstands.  And the most elaborate light modifier I've used is a rickety old, shoot thru umbrella which has a pencil taped (splint style) onto one of the struts that got bent in an unfortunate packing accident.

The panels cost me about $160 dollars each, require no electrical cords, don't need to be triggered by anything and can change output color temperature with the twist of a knob.  But this wouldn't have worked nearly so well for me if there hadn't been huge advances in digital cameras in the last couple of years. Clean files at 800-1600 ISO mean I can integrate my LED lights with existing lights and still get exposures with enough f-stop and shutter speed to stop the slow action I usually shoot.

The next big thing that synergistically moved the ball forward for me was the introduction of high quality, electronic viewfinders.  If you still think you'll never use one then you are already becoming one of those lunatic curmudgeons who rant and rave about cellphones not being real cameras.....(Hmmmm.)

I became aware of the fluidity of lighting and shooting with the this combination of tools in mid-shoot yesterday when I found myself looking through the finder of a Sony a77 and watching the color of a light source change as I twisted the knob on the back of a light unit.  I watched the scene and the light source get closer and closer to the same color temperature and then----they merged.  No iterative testing.  No hysterics.  Just dialing in the matching color temperature as though we'd always been doing it this way.  That's an amazing transformation.

People are writing about the Nikon D800 as a game changer because it does high resolution files and good dynamic range but we've got to admit that we've had access to that in medium format digital cameras for years.  But cameras with high enough quality EVFs to judge color are real game changers in the literal sense because now we can do stuff that we never used to do before with cameras.  We can dial in exposures and color temperatures and effects in real time.

One feature I'm starting to use more and more often (though not in the candy/clown way that we think of with this technique) is in camera HDR.  I'm using it to open up shadow areas in scenes so I only have to add small amounts of fill light.  I know that this is something many cameras now feature but it's amazingly useful in commercial shoots.  And, with my eye pressed to the finder it's easy to see just what the camera has done and whether I like it or not.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.  I wanted to talk about my new workflow so that's where I'm heading.....

I packed up to shoot some "editorial/corporate PR" at a restaurant on Monday.  Had it been an advertising shoot we'd have gone there when the restaurant was closed to the public and we'd have cleaned and styled and lit and tested and gotten all sorts of advertising agency approvals.  But in PR and editorial, especially if the location is not the client, you go when it's convenient for the people at the location and you shoot around the edges so you don't run off customers or inconvenience the staff.  I knew I didn't want to run electrical cables and have flashes going off so I packed just two Fotodiox AS 312 (two tone) LED panels, some lightweight light stands and a shoot thru umbrella.  That was it for the lighting.  Except for the big Sony flash that lives/hibernates in the big black Domke camera bag...

When I got to the location I checked in with the manager who gave me carte blanche. I shot some images in each of the dining rooms to start with.  I would set my Sony a77 on a sturdy tripod, line up my shot with the built in, two axis level and then shoot with the HDR engaged at a low level.  Most times the dynamic range was perfect but once or twice I needed just a bit more fill light in the shadows so I would put an  LED panel up high on a stand and dial it up (quantity) just so I didn't cast any additional shadows and then I'd dial in color temperatures (between 3200 and 5600K) while looking thru the finder to see when the colors matched.  Once they matched I shot.  I rarely did more than two images of any one scene because......why?

Since I was working with a tripod I could do all of the shots that didn't include people at ISO's like 50, 64,80 and 100.  The files (currently embargoed) are flawlessly smooth, detailed and sharp.  I think the HDR process works somewhat like another setting called Multi Shot Noise Reduction in that it stacks the frames and kicks out the noise components (which are random).  However it works it delivers ultra-clean files.  All of these images were shot as Jpegs which meant that the camera did the processing to straighten out the barrel distortion and vignetting of the 16-50mm lens, automatically.

After I shot all the stuff without people I ventured into the kitchen to shoot the important shots for the clients.  There was light from florescent fixtures with three different kinds of tubes and some light from skylights overhead.  It didn't bother me.  I rolled up the ISO to 1600 because I'd be shooting a cook,  and set up two of my LED panels for effective fill light in the darker corners and the background.  Then I did a custom white balance in the area of the kitchen that was important for the shot.  I knew that if I blew it I could color correct areas of the outlying quadrants in Lightroom or Photoshop.  I couldn't use the HDR setting because of possible movements but I was able to use the camera's DRO or dynamic range optimiser to bring up the shadow areas, albeit with a bit more noise.

After I shot some exteriors, with and without HDR, and with or without some flash fill, I headed home to post process and recharge my batteries and the batteries in my lights and cameras for a shoot that would start the first thing, next day.

Post processing goes like this for me:  Ingest images from card to Lightroom 4.1. Before ingestion but on the import page I do a rough edit and dump anything I don't like.  If the client doesn't see it they never know it existed.  During the ingestion I add the job name to the front of each file and have the program copy the files onto two different hard drives.  Instant critical short term back up.
Once ingested and previews rendered I sit down and do a vicious, take no prisoners edit.

Then I color correct and contrast correct in small batches.  If the job is small I also use gradients, retouching tools and whatever else the image needs.  If it's large I wait until the client picks the keepers to fine tune files.  Once I've made sure they all look very acceptable I output all the files as smaller jpegs and then upload them all to a password protected gallery on Smugmug.  I've used Smugmug since 2006 and currently have over 120,000 smaller (2000 pixel wide) files on their servers.  I send the client the link and the password and then I crank out an invoice.  Some get mailed and some get e-mailed.  Clients who are prone to losing invoices get both as well as a follow up e-mail...

When they make selections I do the necessary retouching and send them an additional bill for the post-processing and any additional totals for usage of additional images.  Then I sit around on my yacht and wait for quick payment.

The day after I shot at the restaurant I was engaged to shoot for a company that has a series of medical labs sprinkled all over Austin.  They do all kinds of tests including MRI's, CT Scans, PET Scans and other kinds of imaging.  Working with a great art director from their internal marketing department we spent a full day setting up shots with doctors, technicians and mock patients.  Most of the photos incorporated a million dollar+ machine in the shot.  Since time is money when it comes to high value, high investment diagnostic machines part of our brief was to be in and out of each location pretty darn quickly.

When I first started working for this company we'd come in and do the shots using electronic flashes. Usually monolights on big stands.  A typical location would require several lights with softboxes for the main lighting and then several smaller lights to put illumination on the backgrounds.  We'd set up and break down the gear at each location because it wasn't safe for the patients and staff to have us lurching down the narrow hallways with three foot by four foot softboxes on eight pound monolights on top of big lightstands with cords and extension cables in tow.

As soon as the digital cameras got better with low light we moved to replicate what we were getting from the big lights with a set of smaller, battery powered lights like Nikon SB-800's and the like.  We switched from predominantly using soft boxes to using more umbrellas because they were so much quicker to set up and take down.  I like the ones with black backing so I can control the spill light when I need to.

Now we're almost entirely using small, battery powered LED lights for a number of reasons. (Which I'll discuss below).

Our modus operandi for yesterday was to go into a room, figure out the action, line up a good shot, figure out the prevailing light, figure out if it needed to be improved, filled or transformed and then move in our small light panels and even out the lighting landscape.  We'd shoot fifteen or twenty shots and then try another angle and then another.  Three workable angles for each set up was pretty much the norm.  Then the lights would come down and into an Airport Security Think Tank roller, camera and tripod under one arm and off to the next location.

The downside of using the LEDs is the relative inability to freeze fast action (and that means anything that can't be reasonable halted by a 1/90th of a second shutter speed.  The second downside is that if you are going to shoot into a window there's not enough power to match sunlight, even through darkened glass.  Finally, the way to use LED's is to augment existing light instead of totally nuking the ambient light and replacing it with all new light.  Flash is not always practical when you have to show screen information and what not, and match illumination levels.

But the upsides are, for me, pretty compelling.  The lights are small, light and easy to place.  The fact that they don't flash is actually a big positive thing for me.  I'm working in what we'd call "practical" locations.  Real workplaces with loads and loads of non-professional talents.  I've come to understand that the flash of a flash is like a signal that something out of the ordinary routine is happening.  The flash attracts people like moths to a flame.  Everyone sees the flashes going off and they cruise on by to see what's happening.  Very disruptive.  And even more disruptive for the amateur talents who are already nervous and had to be cajoled into being in the shot.

And flashes make every gawker into a stand up humorist.  "Don't break the camera with that face of yours!!!!"  "Action!!!"  "What are you guys doing? Making a movie?"  With continuous lighting there's no repeating signal that says, over and over again, "Action over here. Come look."  Don't discount what a powerful time savings this is.  No one is really interested in anything that doesn't flash.  The camera isn't compelling.  The set up isn't compelling and that weak light on a stick is nothing much to write home about.  Can you hear it around the dinner table?  "Someone came into the office to take a photograph today.  The lights just stood there.  They weren't very bright.  They didn't flash."  Not a compelling story.

It's a lot easier than trying to keep your talent from being self-conscious as his or her work mates walk by to thrown in their two cents worth.  Another good thing about continuous light is that lack of anticipatory blinking that seems to happen with light sensitive people in front of the camera.

The second thing that's good, not just about LEDs but about all continuous lighting is that you can see all the little reflections and "gotchas" that are so hard to find when your flash is firing at 1/1500th of a second.  Really.

So, the combination of the Sony EVF and the Fotodiox variable color temperature LED panels helped me move through two projects more quickly that I could have done in the flash days and that's better for me and the client.

The workflow is, for me, so much more efficient that shooting/chimping/fixing/shooting/chimping fixing.  I know you think EVFs aren't for you and that's okay.  This story is about my use of the EVFs.  They make photography a hell of a lot more fun for me.  And that's all I really care about.


The process of gently breaking in new cameras.

The web is absolutely ablaze with gushing demonstrations of awe concerning the Nikon D800. I feel sorry for the folks at Canon who only launched a "very nice" revision called the 5Dmk3 instead of a revolutionary new photo machine.  If you read between the lines on Dubovoy's essay at the Luminous Landscape you'll quickly realize that this is the second coming of the ultimate camera.  (the Hasselblad 500 series was the first, IMNSHO).  

I had a call from a photographer friend today who owns the latest digital Hasselblad camera, a case of incredible lenses and shift adapters for it and a complete Canon system with all the tilt/shift lenses and most of the trimmings (including a brand new 5Dmk3).  His question for me:  "The camera store called.  They have a Nikon 800e set aside for me.  Should I pick up one and some of the tilt/shift Nikons?  And the 14-24mm?  And the 24-120mm?  And maybe one or two longer lenses, just in case?

See, not everyone's business is underwater.  But as good as the Nikon 800 is I'm sure that Canon will leapfrog over it.  They always do.  

My friend shoots differently than me.  He's an architecture photographer with acres and acres of experience and he comes home from a shoot with 40 or, at the most 50 shots to process and store. For him the file sizes are not a burden.  I shot 685 files today for a large medical practice today.  Each one of the files from my Sony a77 was about 25.1 megabytes.  I'm grinding through more gigabytes in day (post processing, galleries and storage) that he does in a busy week.  Different styles.  Different subject matters.  I do people. He doesn't stuff that doesn't move around, blink or grimace.  

Would I like a camera that shoots bigger files?  Not right now, thanks.  I'm waiting for the price of 4 terabyte drives to drop under $50.  But honestly, if I were putting together a system from scratch right now it would be kind of crazy not to strongly consider the Nikon.

I'm on a different track right now.  I'm more interested in the "user interface" than the absolute performance of a camera.  And after having just used the Sony a77 camera for two very different location assignments, one day after the other, I would have to say that the EVF on that camera is a game changer for me.  Most of my work is used just like traditional advertising and marketing photos have been used for the last six or seven years.  I can check the boxes with a 24 megapixel camera.  Web pages? Check.  Ads in magazines? Check. Brochures? Check.  Projected presentations in large venues? Check.  

What kind of work do I not do?  Big landscape shots printed 30 by 40 inches or larger for acquisition by collectors and galleries.  Uncheck.  I've never done it, I don't do it now and I don't see myself rushing into that market any time soon.

So, the files size I lusted after, back when I was shooting with my favorite Nikon (the D2X) was 24 megapixels.  Back then the medium format stuff was between 22 and 28 megapixels.  Now I have two cameras that do that with relative ease.  And they are incredibly fun to use.  But they are even more fun when you practice with them and get them figured out.

Here's my handy guide to figuring out new cameras:

1.  Read the manual.  Sit with the camera in front of you and read the manual, page by page. Find the stuff you read about and figure out how to set it.

2.  Go out and shoot for a full afternoon.  Limit yourself to one lens so you don't have more variables than you can handle.  Keep a mental note of the things that stump you.

3.  If you were stumped then go back and read the manual.  Try the stuff again.

4.  Set up a tripod in your studio and try all of the ISO's, one after the other, equalizing the exposure as you go. Then look at the files really big on your monitor.  Get to know the limitations of the files at various ISO's.  

5.  Do a "best scenario" shoot with your camera so you know just how good you can expect it to be.  For me that means taking a really nice series of portraits with the camera on a good tripod and the ISO cranked down to the point where the noise is non-existent and the dynamic range is fulsome and bountiful.  Look at the resulting files on your monitor and feel good about your camera.

6.  Go out and shoot it again.  But this time try to "feel" your way through the process instead of letting your brain try to power its way through the process.  Use some automatic settings and see where you can trust the brain in the camera and where you can't.

7.  Re-read the manual.  Then go out and try it again.  If you shoot sports go shoot some sports.  If you shoot portraits, do that.  If you shoot landscapes do that. Figure out the strengths and weaknesses of the camera in your specialty and then test ways to work around the weaknesses.

Once you break your camera in you'll have respect for what it's capable of and where it falls short.  And you'll be able to leverage or compromise.

The Sony a57 is a speed demon.  That's a plus.  The EVF isn't as good as the one in the a77. That's a minus.  That means I spend some time post viewing some critical stuff on the very good back panel screen.  But as I zero it in and see the differences between what the EVF shows me and what my studio monitor shows me I can depend on the rear screen less and my experience more.

An old Leica shooter once told me that you don't become a real photographer until you can set the shutter speed, aperture and focus of an M series Leica in the dark.  And then he added that the authentic shooters could also load the camera in the dark.  Pitch dark.  Not just "too dark for the AF module.."

I would submit that by getting to know your camera and carrying it with you all the time you'll get to know, almost unconsciously, exactly where the exposure comp button is and where the review button is.  How the camera sits in your hand.  How long it will take to start up.  How to fly through the menus to get exactly where you need to be.  And a lot more.  It's all about time with your camera.

In the end, if you know how to squeeze the most out of your camera you'll find you won't need the camera to do so much.  You'll know how to get the most out of it in every situation.

I know the a77 is noisy from ISO 800 up unless I convert files in DXO or some other program.  But I also know that for anything that doesn't move I can use the multi-frame noise reduction and get astoundingly clean files.  I use that a lot.  I use ISO 50...a lot. And it looks incredible.

Would I like a new Nikon D800?  If they come out with a body that has an EVF it would be hard for me to resist.  From where I'm sitting right now the one thing it does better than the Sony (big, detailed files with clean high ISO performance) is offset by the pleasure and usefulness of the EVF.  The files I'm working with are big enough and the dynamic range I'm getting is close as well.  Everything is a compromise.

Ah well.  Right now is the time for Nikon owners to strut around.  And they should enjoy it.  I remember too well the fallow days earlier in the decade when they huddled around campfires in fifty gallon barrels and prayed for the day they'd have noiseless files at 400 and something with a full frame sensor.  They watched many good friends succumb to the lure of the Canon miracle machines.  How the wheel turns....

Rockin it nu skool. Is it just me or did I go over the top on the post processing?

I was out shooting a restaurant yesterday and I photographed the chef.  And his hands.  And when I came home I put the photo into SnapSeed and started playing with my favorite sliders.  Now I don't feel so left out.  I can do work in a modern  vernacular. If I append a magnificent manifesto then the sky is the limit.

I think it all looks perfect.  Well, maybe the blur on the sides is a bit heavy handed.  And, well, maybe the color is a little...too juicy.  And, well, maybe the clarity slider got away from me a little bit.

But...ta da!  It's my new style.  And I wrote down all the filters I used to it's repeatable. Bon Appetit.

Post #997.

Edit:  My client says "This is not your new style!  Not if you want another P.O....."

note to self:  It is possible to overdo the modern idiom.

For the gear boys:  Sony a77 with 16-50mm Zoom.  Two small LED panels.