Must read essay of the day about photography.

I read this interview with my friend, Dennis Darling, and I decided to take the rest of the day off. Dennis is a tenured photography professor at UT Austin. He is also brilliant, pithy, and eccentric. All the good trappings of an artist. Read the interview and gnash your teeth or praise him. I'm going out for some BBQ and then taking a nap on the couch. Dennis already said everything I wanted to say today....



What if I was really as smart as I thought I was? It would be so weird.

Two notes that are totally tangential to my life as a writer and a photographer:  

1. Sitting down might kill you. At least that's what I keep reading over and over again on the web and in the last few paper newspapers I read. Apparently every hour of just sitting around (watching TV, reading websites, staring blankly at your computer screen, scribbling on index cards, etc.) cuts about 21 minutes off your life expectancy. I thought I was bulletproof because I swim hard for at least an hour six days a week and run a couple of days as well but the studies say: "NO."

And that's a nasty realization for someone who spends a lot of time doing file conversions and working in PhotoShop as well as for someone who really enjoys writing blogs. Because, in the past, I did all those things...sitting. By various study calculations I may already be dead and am just continuing on as a zombie.

When I had lower back problems a few weeks ago I did a bunch of research and found that a major culprit in the epidemic of lower back pain was.....ready for this?......sitting.  Around that time I started experimenting with my self by finding a piece of furniture in the studio that would allow me to read and write on the web while standing. My Sears Professional Craftsman Rolling Tool Chest was almost high enough but a stack of previous model laptops placed on top gave me the perfect elevation for my current reading/writing computer. I am able to stand in front of it with my elbows bent at ninety degree angles and type with ease.  I am also at the perfect distance from the matte screen on my 15 inch Powerbook. I have written a book chapter, a blog, an invoice and a scrunch of e-mails while standing in front of the assemblage and I'm feeling fine and productive.

I don't know what your situation is but if you are having back problems you may want to try a standing work situation. It's kind of fun. And if you rock back and forth you'll burn more calories than you would sitting (that's true just in keeping your major muscle groups flexing....) and that never hurts because it means you'll likely lose some weight if you are already at odds with your bathroom scale and, if you are either naturally thin or highly disciplined it means you can up the calorie count with reckless abandon.

The second note: I usually upgrade when new software upgrades are offered. Especially if they are offered at what I consider to be a reasonable price. For some reason I shied away from the first release of Apple's Mountain Lion, even though the price in the "App Store" was only $19.95. I just didn't want to deal with system trauma, no matter how remote the possibility. I didn't want to be one of those guys who writes (moans) on the web about loosing everything in a painfully tragic upgrade.

I waited until version 10.8.2 and today I updated the machine I'm writing this on. It was a fairly painless process. It took a couple hours to download the files and another half hour for the installer to do its dark and secretive vision. This machine is populated with most of what is also on another, newer Powerbook so I really wasn't tightrope walking without a net. But I needn't have worried. Everything seems to be going we the keyboar#$#$#%^%&$%*(*RHWRGATU$YWTGHWSTYETHEYWRYWRHYSGHAFYSRTWE%&$^^@#$^&#$%^#%&$YTHGQARYEDFGSFJERTWE&#%$&$%^&#%$*$TWETYWE

Ooops. Just kidding. I'll let you know if I run into any issues. I know, I know, you're a dyed in the wool windows guy... but the majority of our readers now read the blog with Safari so there has to be some interest in the operating system. 

Food shot. What I needed to do differently on this one.

This is an image of a really lovely dish. It's a pork shank served with spaetzle. It's hard to make big hunks of meat look fabulous no matter how delicious which is why (with the exception of racks of ribs) most meat gets photographed as individual servings already plated.  Another exception is fowl which can look good when photographed in its entirety. Our client serves up this dish as one that's shared at the table. More a bar food than a restaurant entreé. My job was to make it fit into the series of images we would make for use in their advertising.

The image looks good in a web size and my client was pleased with the way it looks on the website for the business but in retrospect I think we could have made just a few changes to improve the overall image.

First, I think the dish might have been better presented if it had already been sliced to show the interior of the meat instead of just its delicious, golden exterior. Providing the privileged view of the insides for the package delivers more selling message per image.

Next, I could have used more olive oil on the exterior to create more shine and pop on the skin. When the dish was first presented it glistened more and we needed to apply some oil and some steam right before shooting in order to maintain that fresh from the broiler look.

In retrospect I wish that we had used some sort of garnish for the spaetzle since it looks to monochrome along with all the other warm colors in the image. A sprig of rosemary, some marinated purple onion or some other concise, fresh addition would have been a nice counterpoint to the softness and uniformity of the dish. My only concern would be potentially introducing a second point of focus which would draw the eye away from the cooked green onion garnish of the pork.

Finally, I wish I had used a stronger backlight on the dish. Just enough more raw light to add a crusty delineation to the top of the bone in the pork shank and to better define the edges of the meat.

I find it very useful to come back to an image after a few weeks and really study it. We learn more from our mistakes than we ever do from hitting it out of the ballpark every time. I'll ad this to my notebook on food photographs and take a look at it next time I head out to shoot food.

The above brings up a topic that I feel strongly about (which ones don't I...?). I've had the habit of keeping a "job journal" for many years now. I sit down after a job and write notes about things that worked and things that could have worked better. Some of the journal entries are extensive and detailed while others are little more than recordings of feelings or moods. Along the lines of, "How did that portrait interaction feel? And why? What should I have done to move it into more positive territory? Could I have changed the Gestalt?"

Usually the journals are much more technical than emotional. For instance, I did an assignment last week for a company that tests chemicals, creates reference compounds, and analyzes complex substances. It's the kind of quiet company filled with employees who have doctorates in chemistry and other esoteric fields. This was a job that is part of a recurring advertising campaign and one in which they would like continuity of the visual components.  For me, that means getting the lighting and point of view to match up.

I was doing portraits against a white background with individual people dressed in lab coats. I looked back at last year's journal entry of the same, basic job. I was able to quickly find that the distance of the background lights (three total) was 12.5 from the white seamless background. The background, measured with an incident light meter read f8.2.

The distance from the background to the subject was 23 feet. The distance from the 60 inch softlighter diffused umbrella that I used as a main light to the subject position was approximately 50 inches. I used a Westcott one stop net between the main light and the subjects right shoulder so that the ultra-white lab coat would not burn out. I was able to see that last year I used a passive fill reflector as a fill light to the opposite side of the subject. It was a 40 inch round white reflector.

Having all this information at hand meant that this year I was able to set up more quickly and surely, spend a bit less time testing and come away with images (portraits) that will match, year-to-year.  It was a time saver. There were also notes about how I post processed the images as well as how and to whom I delivered them.

The cameras changed from last year to this year but after a conversion to black and white for the campaign the biggest issue will always be the uniformity of lighting.

My notes for the food shoot done in late August are more...voluminous. And when I studied the notes yesterday I went back and referenced a food shoot I'd done several years ago with LED lights. While I dealt with a few technical issues on that shoot it presented an interesting counterpoint to the recent shoot. I think the lighting was much more nuanced in the previous shoot. I'll study a bit more and see what I can combine from both the food shoots to make the next one a little better.

Younger photographers may scoff at the idea of keeping a job journal since they can remember most of the shoots they've done so far, but jobs pile on jobs and details get muddled. At this point in my short career I can look back at my ledger and find that I've done over 10,000 assignments. Most are not memorable but some are mileposts and point of view shifters.  Having a clear, post action assessment helps me to intellectual internalize what led to success and what details led to less success.  

I still remember, with much clarity, a note I wrote myself after a personal trip where I took along everything but the darkroom sink. I told myself that I felt I had carried a boat anchor through Paris. I suggested that a small, fast camera body and a zoom lens that covered 24-85mms was all a vacationer/street photographer/documentarian would/should ever need. That and his wits. I hedge my bets when I travel and also take a fast, short telephoto; like an 85mm. But when I sit down to pack I'm always like a kid in a candy store. Bags get crammed full of stuff even though I know in some part of my brain that picking up a bag and carrying it across the studio is nothing like carrying the same stout bag on and off trains and over my shoulder for ten or twelve hours a day.  Then I read my note about travel cameras and I open the bag and start dumping stuff back into the drawers. I always thank myself later.  And you know what? I never miss the gear I didn't bring.

I think a journal is even more critical for an amateur/enthusiast. Since you don't shoot as often you tend to get rusty. A good journal is always there to remind you of what ultimately makes you happy each time you go out to shoot. And it reminds you of what you didn't use, hated carrying and wish you'd left at home. Sometimes we all need a reminder.

Go out and shoot and have a great day!


There isn't always just one "right" angle for food...


The shot directly above is my favorite for this dish but we routinely try out as many angles and croppings as we can in order to give our art directors and our clients a choice of images for a range of uses.

Every region has its own regional, culinary cliché. Here's ours.

One of the very successful, new restaurants I do artwork for has several different preparations of Jalapeño Peppers as appetisers. In fact, even their signature burger comes bristling with the snappy little devils.  As highly mobile employees in a large hotel chain the food and beverage directors who helped to create the menu are newly transplanted to the central Texas area and still hold to the newcomer belief in Texas myths. One of these being that Texans will eat anything with a spicy hot pepper on it, that we crave the peppers, and that in some way the Jalapeño is the national food of Texas. Food shorthand...

The shot we were aiming for in the brief was a more complicated one with multiple, roasted, stuffed peppers in a metal rack cut to the shape of the state of Texas. Once we had that shot in bag I decided to do the locally time worn "pepper on a fork" image.  Having not seen it before the new arrivals loved it. The original shot is less contrasty and has a lot of wasted space around it. The final image above has been enhanced with more saturation, contrast and sharpening as well as a vignette on the sides and corners.  Below is the original crop.

I really enjoy shooting food for restaurants and hotels because they generally have teams of chefs that have gone to top culinary schools and have lots of experience plating food in order to present it well. Here's how a food project usually goes in my business:

It always starts with an e-mail from an art director or creative director at the agency which is handling the account, and when working with larger companies they nearly always have an agency relationship in place. I'll generally get invited in for a meeting and asked to bring a big sampling of food work. They want to see that you can do what they need---with certainty. The agency may want you to leave your portfolio (my food work is on a iPad) so they can show the client and get final approval of their photographer of choice. (Good to have multiple portfolios, even if that means multiple iPads.) The benefit to the agency of calling in a portfolio instead of going by what's on the website is that they can blow stuff up and really look at the details. With the new Retina Screen iPad it's a much more compelling presentation than smaller images on a website.

This preliminary meeting will also be the one where the number of shots and the general style and feel of the images will be discussed. That's important because it always affects the budget. It's at this point that we talk about usage rights as well. When working with bigger clients there's always the possibility that the work you do for the "local" version of their restaurant may be the framework for a whole chain and you'd hate to realize that you gave away the rights for many locations, spread across regions,  for one small usage fee.  You'll also discover that even though nearly all these projects start as websites only  briefs the agency quickly psychologically amortizes the cost to shoot by convincing the client that the images will be able to be used not only on the web but also in point-of-purchase advertising and other print media.  Maybe even as still images for TV commercials.

What that really means is you'll want to shoot with the highest resolution camera you can get your hands on in order to generate images that stand up to multiple uses across media.  Just makes sense; you can always make them smaller but it's harder to make images bigger, especially after the fact.

For me, if the shoot is on location, the next step is to scout the location. On a recent scouting trip we discovered that the room we'd be working in gets full sun for most of the afternoon. We're bringing along big sheets of black drape for that one. Good to know before the day of the shoot.

If we're working with a good food stylist we arrive with all the lighting gear and cameras and leave the food fixin tools to the expert,  but if we will be working directly with a chef and without the services of a real food stylist then we pack a full kit for styling food. We need a mister, glycerin, olive oil, a hand held steamer, chop sticks, scissors, toothpicks, styrofoam peanuts and armature wire; for starters. Everyone's kit is unique.

I like to start by having the kitchen bring me samples of all the plates we'll be using so I can see how they fit on the background and how tightly I'll be cropping. I set up a rough lighting design based on our meetings and then we bring out a dish and plop it down and work on the lighting and the camera look until everyone is in agreement. Once we agree and we like the lighting we fall into a rhythm.  A dummy plate comes out with the chef's best intention for a dish. We look at it and tell him if we want changes and then we get busy lighting the dummy dish and working around it to find the right face. Once we've dialed it in the chef makes a perfect hero dish and we rush it to the table, switching it with the dummy. At this point the stylist or I will accent the dish with oil, move garnishes around and even blast in a little steam to make the food look hot and fresh.  While we're working on the hero plate the chef has moved on to the next selection and is working up our next dummy plate. 

Every once in a while we'll pop the memory card out of the camera and grab some jpegs (we usually shoot food in raw+jpeg for just this reason) to look at on our laptop in order to really study the set up and find any problems before they screw us up.  

My assistant moves lights, keeps my working area clean and makes sure that lenses I discard are capped, front and back, and put back in the right spot because I'll almost certainly want to use them again soon...

Some dishes work best with backlighting and some with sidelighting but it's always important that the images feel connected. They need to look like they all came from the same shoot and the same family.

Once the food is done we move on to drinks and we try to give every client their own unique drink look. We don't have a formula which we apply across the board. To make this work we generally take a coffee break and get everyone re-wired and re-focused so they can all help build a consensus as to what their customized look and feel will be. Drinks are tough. Maybe the toughest part of a food shoot. Think about lighting the background and pushing light through the drinks from the back.

Once we wrap I generally book the assistant to come in the next morning and clean all the gear. Methodically. When you are moving fast and working with lots of dishes and food you are touching your camera gear with greasy hands and sometimes there are spills and drips. Better to get all that off your lenses, cords and lights before it's been there too long. Don't want to loose your favorite extension cord to mice or your favorite camera body to tiny ants....

After the client makes  final selections I go to the computer and start enhancing. I want the food to come forward and the backgrounds to recede. That means lightening some stuff and darkening other stuff. It may be mean selectively sharpening the food while aggressively blurring the background. Pretty much whatever it takes.

That's enough for now....I'm starting to get hungry and I think there's some left over påte in the fridge. Now, where did I put that cork screw?

Shooting drinks for fun and profit.

 I recently did a photography assignment for a restaurant in one of our city's major, downtown hotels. We photographed food and we also photographed adult beverages. The images that I turned in to the advertising agency were straightforward food and beverage shots that included the full product but sometimes I like to experiment so I went in tight to photograph this mint julep variation. I love the green garnish that sides to the right and I love the random bubbles and subtle suggestions of ice. I'm sure there are many rules that I've broken but that's beside the point. The point was the exploration of the image after covering what the client needs.

In this instance I was shooting on a table top in a small, private dining room and I aimed a monolight with a grid spot onto a reflector on the floor behind the table. The reflector bounced the light up onto the back wall and gave me a softer but still controlled splash of light behind the glass.  I used a light in the back right corner, modified by a small 16 inch softbox to add a backlight to the glass and a bright highlight on the leaves that stood up.  There is also a large, soft, general light (a beauty dish pushed through a 4x4 foot diffusion screen coming from the left. The large soft light is modified by a black flag to keep it from effecting the look of the background and the saturation of the background colors.

I worked handheld and moved in to the minimum focusing distance of the lens. The 4000 by 6000 pixel file, with very high sharpness, allowed me a lot of freedom in playing around with various crops.

The shot was very conventional but I also pulled the file into SnapSeed and used the "structure" tool and a bit of vignetting to get the effect I wanted. Not as exciting as images of super models in lingerie but a nice exercise in the middle of a job for me.  Most of all I like the colors and the contrasts.

I am very happy with the 85mm Sony lens. It is cheap and very good, optically.

I was using a Sony a77 camera with a Sony 85mm 2.8 lens.


Old Tri-X film that keeps re-surfacing.

I carried around a camera over the weekend but I didn't see anything I felt compelled to shoot. That's okay because I was busy with other aspects of life. Sunday brunch with my parents, the acquisition of a new car and some last minutes searches for important papers that ended up in the very last place I looked. In the process of looking for a car title I came across a sheet of negatives from many decades ago. I was not a (capital "P") photographer back then, just a happy amateur and many of the negatives in the sheet were overexposed or poorly developed. But I pulled the negative for the image above and put it into the Epson V-500 scanner in my studio and fiddled around with it for a few minutes. I'm pretty happy with the resulting images and happier still that the image prodded my memory and reminded me in exquisite detail just how free and easy the hobby of walking around taking photographs was in the middle of the 1970's.

I took a semester off from college to walk around a much different Europe than we have today. I am amazed to look back in a contemporaneous journal and discover that my girlfriend and I spent a good part of the semester backpacking, staying with new friends and occasionally splurging and staying at hotels and pensiones for about $800 each. That covered food, transportation and lodging but not our plane fare from the U.S. and back.

We camped out in the south of France in dozens of towns from Avignon to Perpignan, pitching our small tent in rustic campgrounds and making meals with a little blue gas portable stove. A frying pan hung from one of the straps of my backpack.

My camera of choice for the trip was the only camera I owned at the time, a Canonette QL 17 III. I took that little camera, a few extra button cell, PX-625 batteries and a small plastic bag with about 30 rolls of Kodak Tri-X film which I bulk loaded into blank canisters in order to save nearly a dollar a roll. I used the strap that came with the camera. It was a thin nylon strap with no logos or branding, just a little rubber shoulder gripper that kept the camera from sliding down my arm as I walked around.  I mostly used the camera in a completely manual mode because my friend, (and fellow photographer) Alan Pogue, took the time to teach me how much more accurate my little system could be if I used the pictogram sheet that came packaged with every roll of Kodak film as an aid to calculate my exposures. Sometimes I didn't even bother to double check the increasingly worn and poorly memorized sheet and depended on the vast exposure latitude of the film to save my ass.

I also shot some color transparency film but unlike the black and white negatives there is nothing on the color film that interests me, even for a moment.

The primary mission of the trip was not to have a primary mission. My girlfriend and I were going for adventure and fun. We wanted to see Rome without our parents in tow. We wanted to lay out on a beach on a Greek Island and waste full days doing nothing more than watching clouds and drinking beer with other tourists from all over the place. That made the camera incidental. That meant I used it when I was intrigued by something rather than spending useless energy lurking around trying to goose the muses into giving me a little something for posterity.

And when I looked at the images I stuck in this blog post it got me thinking about how easy things are to do when you don't focus all of your energy directly on them. It's almost like dating where aggressively stalking someone and calling them all the time are counterproductive.  Better to have a bit of insouciance and reticence in your pursuit and not care overly much about tightly controlling the outcome.

Shooting with the small rangefinder camera was such a wonderful way to add small doses of documentation to the experience. The camera had few controls and demanded little attention. The battery with which it arrived in Europe  was still going strong as we headed home. The rangefinder was pretty easy to use, and accurate, and the lens (when one paid attention to technique) was quite sharp and charming. But the real beauty of the photographic part of this experience is that nothing was riding on the outcome. No clients would "die." There were few expectations.

When I returned to Austin I spent happy months learning to print in our little co-operative dark room. It was located in the Ark Cooperative near the UT campus and the whole dormitory (according to rumors) had once been the Tri-Delt Sorority house. The room the darkroom occupied rumored to have been Farah Fawcett's old room. The one she lived in before being drummed out of the sisterhood for some indescretion. Whatever. It was a magic place and I spent many long nights getting a tan under the dim red safelights as I printed very personal images from the trip onto box after box of double weight Ilfobrom graded photographic paper.

The girlfriend exited the scene a few months after our return but the camera is still sitting on top of the equipment cabinet to remind me that a lot of good work can be done with minimalist tools. When I go on a digital camera buying spree I remember to stick the little rangefinder in a drawer before I head to the store. If I don't do that I imagine it sneering at me in superior derision for wasting my time and money buying cameras that are barely as capable as that thirty seven year old tool.

What an odd collection of ideas for today....

Getting queasy thinking about buying new cameras.

Let's call it camera buying fatigue. Or maybe it's the realization after so many years that a slightly better camera isn't going to do squat when it comes to making me a better photographer. Seems like a short time ago I was waiting anxiously for the new Sony a99 camera to float down from the stratosphere of a camera design and convert my pedestrian vision into world class art. But now that the delivery date is drawing nigh I have nothing but ambivalence about parting with ever more money for fractional perceived improvements in the imaging minutia that may not trickle down through my heavy handed usage into the final images I give to myself and my clients.

What happened to extinguish the camera lust that has always burned so brightly in my psyche? I think it's been the process of thoughtfully reviewing selections of images I've made from the inception of my interest in photography to the present. And truthfully, there is no mechanical or technological confluence of factors that makes one image "better" or "worse" than the other.

To my mind my best work came when using tools with which I had long term familiarity. We pay lip service, nowadays, to the idea of mastering our cameras but if we look at this assumption rationally, knowing that we are now impelled, seduced, moved to rationalize, persuaded to "upgrade" our magic boxes and their attendant lenses every eighteen months to two years can we really say honestly that we have the time and tenure with the gear to create a man/machine relationship that is truly, really, genuinely transparent????

The image above was taken with a film camera. After loading film (autopilot function) the only choices open to me as the operator were aperture, shutter speed and focus. That's it. Exposure measurement was largely a function exterior to the actual camera. I didn't worry about "creative" settings, color spaces, focus adaptations, noise reduction, color temperatures, parameter adjustments or even raw versus jpeg. The camera operation almost instantly became subservient to the process of actually taking the images. 

With digital cameras I find myself wrenched into a mode of heightened vigilance. I become overly aware of all the settings and "gotchas" of the digital workflow.  Not with just one digital camera but with all digital cameras.  There are hundreds of combinations of settings we can enable or disable and all of them, in one way or another effect either the image quality or the quality of making the image.

It's like the "Tyranny of Choice" for average consumers. Careful studies find that consumers mostly want three choices in a category. If they are looking for a jar of raspberry jam they are looking for "good, better, best." And, unless they are budget constrained, most will pick better. If confronted my too many choices and too many variations they may (if they do not already have a brand preference) skip the purchase altogether.  One several levels I'm sure this dissonance to effecting a cascade of choices drives a wedge between the camera and the user when it comes to comfort with the process. How else to explain our almost constant search for the next camera and our supplementation of a our "primary" camera with a growing selection of secondary cameras, rationalized as "carry around" cameras? Aren't they almost all "carry around" cameras?

In my personal situation (what else can I know?) I've had the Sony a77 cameras for almost seven months and I've used them to make over 30,000 images. Frankly, I am just now becoming comfortable with all of the menu settings. And that is not because the Sony has more or more complicated menus but because there really is no "right or wrong" setting and not all settings apply uniformly to the creation of all images. So I'm asking myself "why?" when I am just becoming comfortable with the way the cameras work and shoot, why am I considering "upgrading" to yet another device and another set of things to learn and implement. It surely isn't any perception that the cameras in hand have failed me in some way, or that my clients are demanding some decisive jump in overall image quality. It's because there is always the implied promise that I will somehow generate more interesting and profound work.  But I'm here to tell you that a recent browsing through my archives tells me that meeting the right people and being in the right situations has far, far, far more to do with creating images that I will like than some tiny movement in the calculus of my taking camera's ephemeral ability to nail down a performance paradigm that causes me to exceed my own limitations.

In fact, I feel like the rejection of the newest toy and a dedication to wringing out the best performance from my current two main cameras is much, much more likely to allow me the transparency in taking images that will make them more fun to look at and more fun to share than anything that takes place on the pixel level. If you think about it, shooting in raw is just another way to not have to knuckle under to the tyranny of choice, at least not in public and not until you are comfortably ensconced in your own little cave to privately tend to your wounded ego as you come to grips that a new camera won't make your work more universally successful-----no matter what Canon, Nikon, Sony and Olympus would like you to believe. It really does all boil down to you.  And that's more reason to dig in and move toward man/machine transparency than to kick the can down the road and just upgrade the stuff.

I like the idea of the Sony a99. I like the idea of a full frame sensor. I like the idea of some of the cameras new features but I'm pretty sure it won't make my interaction with portrait sitters any better, more exciting or more intimate. In fact, in the short run I'm certain that my uncertainty with the nuts and bolts of the camera will have the opposite effect. When I audit, with searing honesty, the kind of work I like to do with cameras and, by extension, the kind of work that comes to me as the result of showing the kind of work that intrigues me, I realize that there's nothing more in the a99 than there was in any of the endless line of digital cameras that have paraded through my hands. At the end of the day the camera is generally on a nice tripod and the lights of the studio are shining and winking and glowing. I'm still trying to engage the person in front of the camera and the less time I spend engaging the camera the more time I have to do what I consider my real job: selecting and collaborating with people whose images I'd like to interpret and share. Nothing else really matters.

In 2009 the people at Leaf lent me an AFi 7 medium format digital camera with a whopping 39 megapixels of resolution and an $8000 Schneider 180mm f2.8 lens. This should have been the ultimate camera for the kind of subjects I like to shoot. The lens is among the best in the known universe and the camera, at the time, represented the state of the art.  After six weeks I sent it back with no regrets. I was so overwhelmed and hyper-vigilant in the operation of the camera that I couldn't relax and just take portraits. Batteries constantly needed attention, settings beckoned, and the auto focus took a lot of attention away from the real action. Here I was with the $50,000 image machine that my peers drooled over and in the short run, at least, it stymied my ability to make great images.  Oh yes, they were sharp and possessed of awesome bokeh and infinite tonality but I would have been better served to have dumped everything but one species and genus and family of camera and plod onward.

And the appreciating tragedy of using lots of different cameras, all together and serially, is that the personalities of the cameras mash and wiggle and jostle together in your mind so that each implementation is like another layer of chaos in your mind. And since it's impossible to flush no longer needed information from yout mind you just have an ever escalating and very poorly organized catalog of facts and settings that slows you down, distracts you and diminishes the enjoyment of the moment.

All something to think about as we start the next round of "upgrades."


Car Struggles to help photographer complete one more assignment.

The poor studio car has been struggling lately. It's been getting harder and harder to start. Every day as Ben and I trudge out to the VSL motor pool at 6:15 am we never stop to think about our reliable transportation but then came the decline. Every day the starter has been wheezier and wheezier. I crossed my fingers for luck and whispered a silent prayer to the saints of economical SUVs asking for just a few more days....

Yesterday Ben and I headed out to start our day. The car started but it let me know that the line in the sand was coming. I dropped Ben off at Zilker Park to run and I headed north to do a daylong photo assignment for a chemical testing laboratory. At the end of the day I loaded the last of the gear into the cavernous rear area and stopped next to the front left fender. I said a small prayer to the saint of electric starters, took a moment of silence and then crawled in to try my luck.  Two failed attempts. I stopped and gently stroked the top of the dashboard and gave the key one more twist. The car ground a bit and then sprang to life. In forty five minutes we were home. Assignment successfully managed. The odometer nearing the millenium mark, times 100.

Today we had a respite from the early wake ups. I slept in and Belinda took the boy to school. I went out to start the studio Honda.  A quiet, pensive rain coated everything with glistening drops. I turned the key and sadly the Honda Element tried its best before sighing and resigning itself to a melancholy feeling of failure.  I could sense a small tear drop tenuously hang and then drop from its left head lamp.

I did all the things guys do when their cars won't start. I jiggled the battery terminals. I tried to jump start it. I muttered and looked stuff up on the web. Finally I capitulated and called the Honda dealer. They sent a tow truck and trundled off the Element for service.

So, now, the question to my readers:  Do I buy a new studio car?  Do I continue to repair and replace the noble Element's bits and pieces? Once cars hit that ten year/one hundred thousand mark are we really at the point of hugely diminishing returns? Will I like a CRV? Is there something else out there that will haul a bunch of photo gear and still get good gas mileage?

You collectively helped me fix my back (thank you for the advice about Advil and Ice Packs!!!) now will you help me decide my auto-conundrum? I'm sure you must have an opinion....let's hear it.

Final Edit: I traded the Element in and bought a CRV. The ten year old Element brought almost 1/3rd of its original purchase price in trade. I'm happy to have a newly reliable car. The car makers have made a lot of progress in 10 years.  Thanks for all the advice.

Photographing at Esther's Follies is fun. Lots of fun.

Somewhere in the previous week I took an afternoon to photograph a bunch of marketing images for the folks at Esther's Follies. EF is a live theater located right smack dab in the middle of Sixth Street (the Austin eq. of New Orlean's Bourbon St.) and they specialize in hilarious satire skits of current politics, Texas archetypes, weird reality televison shows and much, much more. The writing is biting and witty. The cast is wild and pretty. And they have Ray.  He does incredible magic tricks.  Think David Copperfield only better and smarter.

I tossed a bunch of lights in the car and headed downtown but when I got there we decided to do all the shots with the stage lights. I brought along the Sony a57 and the Sony a77 with the idea that I'd end up using the a57 if we went low light. I pretty much ended up shooting everything at ISO 800 and using both cameras. Weird revelation: If you expose corrrectly there's a lot less noise in the a77 files that we're led to believe. And the a57 files are clean at 800, given the same care of exposure.

Live theater rocks. If you're in Austin you owe it to yourself to check them out:

I used two different zooms on this job. I used the remarkable and amazing 16-50mm 2.8 and I used a worn and dusty Minolta 24-85mm lens. Both of them were more than adequate. The former is sharper overall than the later but unless you are pixel peeping like a maniac I don't think you notice much difference, if your technique is sound....

If you want to get good practice comping, riding exposure and focusing on the fly then find an exuberant and energy filled theater group to work for. Get your cameras set up and then dive right in and start making photographs real time. It's tougher and funner than it generally looks.... And I've got to say that auto exposure is a non starter with a predominantly black background.