Sometimes everything comes together just right. It was a cold and rainy day when Michele and I made this image. I was in the downtown studio and we could hear rain and sleet rattle against the window outside. The studio was very large. I was able to put the background as far away as I wanted and still have room to stand back and use the perfect focal length lens.
The main light was a 54 by 72 inch softbox over to the right. About 45 degrees of center and up enough so that the bottom of the box was high enough to cast a shadow under her chin. There was a white fill card somewhere to the left of the camera but not very close in. The ceiling was 18 feet high and painted matte black. The background was a gray seamless paper and it was lit with one flash head modified with a broad grid.
We worked casually then. There was no make up person or stylist. No assistants lurking in the shadows. Just a model and a photographer.
For some of the shoot I used an old Rollei twin lens but for this image I switched to a Pentax 645 camera and one of the inexpensive 150mm f3.5 lenses Pentax made. The focal length with this film format was near the 95-105mm that I think makes portrait subjects look best.
At some time after this shoot I bought a Marty Forscher Polaroid back (with a fiber optics bundle that positioned the focus in the correct plane) but on the day this was shot I just used a handy light meter in its incident (as God intended) mode.
I never printed this particular negative but today I was sorting out envelopes in a filing cabinet while also trying to pay attention to some enormously detailed conversation on the phone with an art director. That's when I found about twelve pages of these negatives.
I scanned them in the good, ole Epson V500 Photo flatbed scanner in the nothing special required setting, followed by a few minutes in Photoshop to knock the dust spots off and....ta da. My favorite photo of the month. One of my long term goals? More like this.
Love shooting portraits and I tried something a little different with my lights during this session. I used a smaller softbox and put it directly over my models face and slightly in front of her. Pretty much standard beauty lighting. My subject is sitting at a portrait table and there's a white card laying on the table to provide enough fill back onto her face. Uncharacteristically, I used a hair light (also in a small softbox) and, of course, there is soft gridded background light directed up from a low angle behind my subject's chair onto the canvas background.
I worked at f5.6 on my Zeiss 150mm Planar because that aperture seems to be the perfect intersection of sharp and shallow. And by that I mean that the facial details are sharp where you want them (eyes, nose, mouth) but the depth of field is shallow enough to drop the background detail out of your brain's discomfort zone.
Although most of our portrait work is (by client request) in color these days we do have clients who see the big, square black and white portraits on my website and request that we do old school portraits. This is something I'm nearly always happy to do, unless a short deadline is part of the mix.
There is something very visually comforting to me about composing within the confines of the square. Faces just seem to fit better.
I'm setting up the studio right now (in between writing this blog and going out to eat Mexican food for lunch...) to shoot a series of test portraits on black and white film. I'm using big banks of LED lights punched through really nice diffusion because I want to see how the color curve of the light sources effects the panchromatic response of the film. I'm curious to know if the non-linear nature of the light source will have pronounced effects on the rendering of skin tone and the contrast of the overall image.
It may be silly to want to know about techniques that soon may be irrelevant but that's one of the many little quirks of personality that I live with. If the skin tone rendering is good I'll be interested in shooting more black and white film. I still have three or four hundred rolls in the fridge.
On a topical note...
Swim practice was wonderfully neutral and calm this morning. We have a hard and fast set of rules, learned and implemented for over two decades, of absolutely no political discussions before, during or after swim practice. We love everyone we swim with too much to let our personal opinions about politics and political parties to intrude. But that still leaves us a lot to talk about. Not everything requires a continuous dialogue... Having safe zones from all the contention keeps us all a bit healthier.
And finally, Thanks to reader, Frank, for helping me edit down a recent post. His input was valuable to me and probably added to your enjoyment as a reader of the VSL. A tip of the coffee cup to him.
Every artist seems to accrue stuff over time that they don't really want anymore but can't seem to part with. I have an office space that's about five hundred square feet. It always feels full of stuff. And by extension my brain seems to always have a subroutine running to keep track, in a general way, of where most of the stuff resides. But here's the deal: There's a lot of stuff I just don't want to keep track of anymore. And when it comes to film and files I feel even more constrained by the two extremes; purging everything or preserving stuff for posterity.
Posterity is all about ego. Purging is all about compulsion. Is there some healthy middle ground?
I wouldn't know, I'm not a mental health care professional. But I do know this; up until last week there were boxes full of slides I hadn't looked through since I bought this space 16 years ago and moved all the stuff in. That's all changed. I pulled a big garbage can in from the side of the house and started by pulling out the first bankers box filled with the polyester sleeves that protect, in groups of 20, decades of color slides. On Sunday I filled half a 50 gallon container with slides that I came to realize that I'll never need or want to touch again. A lot of nothing special.
Today we purged another twenty or thirty pounds of non-virtual imaging. But in the role of a stalwart steward of my own version of culture, I held up each sleeve of slides in front of a lightbox and took a quick look at the little rectangles. I pulled out all the images of my spouse and put them into a new set of sleeves. Ditto with any image of Ben or my direct family members. Chalk that up to nostalgia. Family guy. Family history custodian.
The ones that got chunked are client files, street shots that never worked out. Shots of the Eiffel Tower and all sorts of monuments that are, frankly, better as postcards that someone else has shot. As each box gets emptied it gets recycled and my office space gets another three or four cubic feet of space that I'm dedicated to not filling up.
I have a couple more days of editing and purging in order to bring down the clutter to a manageable amount. Then I'm going through shelf after shelf of CDs and DVDs. So many headshots of people from the last 12 years. People who worked for companies that no longer exist. Probably a fair number of people who no longer physically exist. And mostly they are images that will never be printed or shared again.
But the fun part of all this (besides the self delivered gift of increasing space and less clutter) is finding little gems that pepper the archival sheets. The one above is a color copy slide of a hand colored print of Renee Zellweger. We'd been out shooting on the railroad tracks on the east side of town. We started the day goofing around and shooting negatives that we earmarked for an earlier version of Hipstergram filters that was called, cross processing. We actually shot the film in a certain way and then processed it in the wrong kind of developer. By the time we got to this image I was bored with the cross processing experiment and more interested in shooting some black and white.
One of my friends asked me what might be behind this sudden desire to get rid of stuff. I thought for a long time about this and I think I know. I just turned 57 and I remember talking to an older photographer many years ago. He was in the process of winnowing down his collection of images as well. He divided his rationalization of the initiative into two parts. In the first place not all of the images I've shot are great. Not good. Not even mediocre. If I die before I trash them they become part of my legacy as a photographer. That would be embarrassing. Very embarrassing. I'd love to distill all the stuff I've shot down to about 100 nice images. That's a manageable project and, while I doubt anyone but a handful of friends and family will remember the work I've done a week after my website goes dark and my blog runs dry, it still assuages my ego and insinuates that I am leaving something behind.
But in a more honest assessment I don't think there are more than 100 great images in the collection and having to make my kid and my spouse go through 200,000 images in order to find the few is cruel and preventable. Left with an unmanageable collection they would be trapped with trying to decide what I would have wanted to do with all this stuff and the (smarter and better) desire to get on with their own lives.
Maybe we have a moral responsibility to clean up after our selves and create a bit of order going forward. At least that's my rational.
If you scratch a little deeper I think I'm just trying to make space for a whole new wave....
We spent a few days up around Fredericksburg, Tx. and around Enchanted Rock shooting a fashion spread for a magazine. We were taking a short break on an ancient front porch attached to a grand, old, Texas wooden ranch house. I looked over and saw my model's look of quiet (tired) repose and I pulled up my camera in order to catch not just her youthful beauty but also the warm and unhurried feel of the day. It was near the end of September and still in the mid 90's. We were all warm but not glistening. I was drawn to the line of the young woman's jaw, the tranquility of her expression and the little wisp of dark hair sweeping down in front of her ear under her light colored straw hat.
Not lighting trickery here. Just the open shade. No post production elbow grease here just a curve adjustment in the scanning and a tiny bit of sharpening in Snapseed. No Promethean camera here, just an older Leica SL2 and an older, used 90mm Summicron. Fuji ISO 100 slide film.
I think the first step is to admit that most of the stuff we do is nothing special and that we do it to fill the time in a pleasant way. But is that enough?
The last ten years have seen incredibly dynamic growth, excitement and change in photography. At its very best, at the top of the craft, artists have successfully thrown out decades of convention, antiquated thinking and the safety of old rules in order to transform the art. At the other end of the spectrum never before has there been a greater quantity of the same poorly seen and poorly executed work foisted on the world's visual markets.
Collectively, we've spent the last ten years breaking away from the constrictions of film photography only to, in most cases, end up re-applying the same tired conventions in the new medium.
The single most pressing questions I hear when I meet other photographers for coffee and conversation are variations of these: "I have all this gear but I need some inspiration. I'm looking for the right subject matter. I'm bored just shooting. I feel like I'm totally prepared but I don't know what I want to shoot. How do you decide what to shoot?" And, after we talk for a while the conversation floats back to firm ground: "which camera body? Which lens?"
It's time for a new re-invention of photography.
Most of the progress we've made falls into two areas. We've spent a lot of time getting digital to be reliable and of equal quality with the film technologies that we had used for decades before. While digital can be noiseless we are only now conquering the dynamic range issues and characteristic curves that make and made film so alluring. In fact, most of us would have continued to shoot film if not for the stark differences in perceived operating costs. So now digital starts to decisively pull away in terms of technical quality. Cameras like the Nikon D800 and the Sony a99 are delivering very high resolutions combined with wide dynamic ranges and low noise. Equally importantly they are doing it without the bulk and slow operating performance of medium format imaging platforms with which they now compete.
The second area of progress is post production and digital manipulation. I've been using Photoshop since the year it was invented and clearly remember the first iterations which had no options for layers, or even undo. You worked and saved and worked and saved. Now all can be changed with the wave of a hand, the click of an action or the magic of the right plug-in. You can pretty much make any image anything you want. Its very ease seems to impel us to use and abuse it. Coupled with this kind of post processing control is the maturation of ink jet printers which allows us to print to just about any size with high quality, archival keeping qualities and in-house control.
But have we really moved the art and wonder of photography forward? I would say "yes" for a very small number of practitioners who use the medium as a spring board for their ideas. I would say most of us are stuck firmly in the aesthetic realm of the 1970's and 1980's. We just make it all faster, in greater quantity, and print it bigger (if it gets printed at all...).
One of the first culprits is the pressure of group think that aggressively postulates and then rewards the idea that the only thing which matters in terms of labeling photography as "good" or "bad" is the technical quality of execution. Is the image sharp? Is the image noise free? Does the image encompass a wide enough range of tones? But rarely do we, as a culture, relate to the idea behind the image. What was the artist trying to say with their perfect image? What concept did they put forward that will add to and change our collective thought processes? How will the image move the needle and set the stage for a new way of looking at our lives and our cultures?
The fact is that most of the flood of images we endure is highly imitative and self-conscious. It's more in the realm of proving technical mastery than anything else. At some point a compulsive adherence to even the idea of technical quality as a major qualifier of acceptance is destructive to the art. Not to mention the reality that our eagerness to show off our techniques tends to make us content agnostic.
But how did we get to this place? How did we develop photography into a religion that worships almost entirely at the alter of objective parameter measurement and metric analysis? Why do we copy so many (self fabricated) star photographers (who themselves seem obsessed with teaching technique) on the web? Why is DXO Mark so popular in our photo lives? Why is it important to so many people that their camera or lens be able to squeeze out a tenth of a percent more something than a competitor's camera? Are images of our acne endowed but beloved teens made better and more endearing when rendered clinicially sharp? Do images of our weathered and worn spouses become more alive when rendered by a machine with more or better pixels? Are snapshots of kittens and puppies more enduring because we can now blow up the images and see texture on each follicle of kitty fur?
I would say that, with the help of ad agencies and camera makers, along with the mind boggling explosion of blogs and photo sharing sites, that we've effectively reprogrammed the brains of three generations, and mutated our thought processes to the point where the analysis of the tools trumps anything that can actually be done (creatively) with the tools.
I think most bloggers start out trying to generate a mix of art, experience and gear. They quickly find that every time they talk about gear, or review a favorite lens or camera, their number spike like crazy and every time they post something heartfelt and about the art of photography their blog readership drops faster than a plutonium feather through a vacuum. Their blogs evolve into something they never anticipated. What started as a behind the scenes showcase ends up as an educational blog with a credit card gateway. What started as a technical sharing site morphs into a running ad campaign for workshops that teach how to. Never why to.
Let's face it. Most photographers have a financial incentive in running a blog. They wiggle around until they find a selling proposition that works for them and then they optimize. If you find the greatest payoff in click throughs and ad sales comes from gear reviews and the glorification of technique then it just makes sense to steer more in that direction. Which steers everyone into a self-fulfilling prophecy. In a technical culture the person with the corner on facts is king of commerce. And so it goes. Even my favorite non Kirk Tuck blog seems to be larding in more "interesting" lenses and cameras than every before.
My point in all of this is simple. As a culture it's pretty obvious that we're fixated on process and gear and largely ignoring aesthetics and concept. We are dumbing ourselves down in that we absorb and regurgitate stylistic "differentiators" (fancy borders? different filters?) that have no relevance to messaging, thoughtful content and point of view. Adding destructive filters to a banal documentation doesn't elevate the banal documentation into a different realm. Especially when so many others are using the exact same filters on exactly the same kind of banal documentations. Madness. Paint by numbers. Stand here and use f5.6.
If we all become completely invested in the process only, with no point of view and no reason other than our own short term (imagined) pleasure, then the vast majority of images created in our lifetime will have less real reason to exist that toilet paper.
I've always preached the idea that constant practice makes one a better photographer, and perhaps there is validity to this on a commercial level or in the practice of street photography where, at least, you're being out on the street increases the chances that you'll find something worthwhile at which to point your camera. But I'm re-thinking my whole hypothesis. I think we shoot and share too much. And it's mostly done without regard to challenging ourselves as artists with inquisitive brains. I'm guilty as heck of shooting stuff not because it's the way I see a subject but because it proves or provides a technical point I want to make in conjunction with my writing.
So, what do I hope for? Now that the megapixel race seems less important and now that the web based experts have have taught everyone on the planet how to use small flashes indoors and out, how to shoot people on skateboards and bikes, how to shoot women in halter tops and high heels, and now that everyone seems to be settling in with their favorite PhotoShop celebrity post processing, I'm hoping that some strong, disruptive and highly creative artists come forward into our collective space to actually challenge us to try and make some art that has balls and a voice. I'm looking for the equivalents of Irving Penn and Richard Avedon who shook up the world's perceptions about photography in the 1950's and 1960's, even in the 1990s. I'm looking for a William Frank who can bring new energy to shooting in the streets. I'm looking for someone like Bill Brandt who re-invented portraits in the first half of the 20th century. Where is the current generation's Diane Arbus? I'm equally welcoming to painters like David Hockney crossing over to do some unique camera work as well.
For that matter where are the peers and counterparts to Gary Crewdson and Alex Gursky? Why the insistence on only emulating the easy targets? Is it just harder for people to be found in the clutter? Has the signal to noise ratio dropped below 1:1? Have we just let our aesthetic sensibilities atrophy to such a level that we can no longer even recognize something that has a real message? Or did we never care in the first place?
There are so many big themes in the world: The collapse of economies, the collapse of cultures and countries, the denial of jobs for a generation of college graduates, the collision of western culture and middle eastern cultures, the clash of religions, the changing domestic roles of men and women in relationships, the ascendancy of women as income earners and learners and how that will effect sexual politics, how we'll redefine beauty as people become larger and obese, and how we envision the future. Love, Hate, Wonder. Big themes that are just there for the taking. Big referents on which to hang our artistic visions. Or something as simple as a new distillation of what it means to possess beauty.
I would love for teachers to come along and, instead of showing us where to hook up the flash trigger or how to meter fill flash in sunlight, would push us to dig down and understand that we have a voice and a point of view and it's at least as valid as anything else out there. And it's that which we should be sharing and discussing rather than creating another image of a kitten, or a filtered landscape meant to impress everyone else on a discussion forum about how sharp our newest lens is.
I would love to see galleries spring up that are filled with transformative work instead of imitative work. I'd love to see photographic prints that are sharp with vision instead of just sharp as a litmus test.
I've caught myself, in my own little world here, heading out to create images to use in the blog that are quick and functional instead of good and personal. I am as guilty as everyone else because, at the center of our art is that nasty little secret that it's now easy to show off technically. Newbies are entranced by flash in daylight or narrow depth of field or mixed color temperature mastery. But we seem to have forgotten that these are just the tools we should be using to create messages; they are not the actual message.
The state of photography today? We've never had more effective tools and we've never (collectively) used them in a more mundane and safe way. We're paralyzed by our need to perfect things instead of getting inside our own heads and understanding what we want our photographs to say. We've burned through the value of workshops as they related to construction techniques of building a visual house but we forgot to include an education about how to create the idea of the house. We have the construction company ready and equipment with all the tools and materials but we forgot to include an architect. We forgot that building well is also about building to a design. To a concept.
We built the photo equivalent a super collider but we have no idea what we're looking for or how to get started. At the risk of unleashing a whole new wave of workshops I'll say this very frankly: There is no value to a workshop that only teaches you how. The new value is the workshop that teaches you why or prods you to connect with a voice deep inside of you that needs to sing out.
Gone are the days when it was cool just to be able to show up and make a workmanlike image. We can do that with a phone and pulse now. The real magic will be learning to tell the stories of our hearts in our pictures. And to give them the power to move people because of what they say and not exclusively because of how they say it.
The workshop or online class I want would teach me how to connect to my own subconscious and learn what it is that has the most value to me as a person. As a member of our civilization and as an interpreter. The best workshop experience I ever had was one on creativity given by Ian Summers. No cameras. No photography. But some meditation and a lot of exercises that helped me get clear on what held me back as an artist and how to change my own perceptions. How to become clearer about what I love to see and how I love to see it.
The blogs and forums? They filled a void for people who wanted current, hard information and needed a source. But they didn't layer in relevance.
The next big trend? Might be wishful thinking on my part but wouldn't it be cool if we all slowed down and took a chunk to time to understand what drives us to do our art and our hobby and how we can bring the best of ourselves to the process instead of mindless repetition and duplication? And instead of working to sheer quantity wouldn't it be great to distill down our work to a group of incredible images that take your breathe away rather than an unending stack that leaves you tired and out of breathe?
In the end art matters more than technology. It's art that becomes the critical source of our history of civilization. Art and literature. And we have the tools to effect our own renaissance if we are only brave enough to connect with what we do intellectually, intuitively and emotionally.
It's not enough to be sharp and well exposed anymore. It's time to put our better brains to work.
Less an object of reason and technology. More an object of power and emotion.
"Show me something I've never seen before."
People are, by nature, contentious. Love to argue. Love to be right. That's the basis of all the binary arguments. Nikon versus Canon. Democrat versus Republican. Each side clings to the idea that they are irreproachably right and the other side is delusional. Even though I know who is right and I am as political as everyone else out there it is a major point of pride here at the Visual Science Lab that we have had no politically charged blog entries and no nasty comment/squabbles. And that's not going to change today.
I hope everyone votes. I hope my guy wins because I think I know best. But you've got to love the process and the passion.
To our extra-American readers I presume that the billion dollar election marathon looks crazy. I mean, how many really cool cameras could you buy with that kind of money? But it's always been a bit crazy it's just that our whole circus is much better broadcast these days. The correct way to look at all the expenditures is to see it as a big economic stimulus for the media and advertising industries. I'm sure it adds some percentage to our GDP.
So, which camera company is better? Canon or Nikon? The real answer? Neither! Sony will trounce them all......(kidding).
Have fun out there. Today we make some more history. Take a camera with you. We might as well document it.
Just a grab shot while walking along Congress Ave. yesterday with a Sony a77 camera set to black and white, and a 70mm Sigma 2.8 macro lens clamped onto the front. I enjoy using the a77 as a black and white camera because the image preview that I see, real time, in the finder, shows me exactly how the image will render when I push the button. I like that. Much better than looking at a color image, trying to imagine it in 2-D and then trying to imagine how it will look after the monochrome filtering.
Also, I think the Sony does well with the skin tones in black and white.
I'm a sucker for good lighting books and I hate poorly done lighting books. One of my favorites is nearly all theory. It's called Light, Science and Magic, and every photographer deserves to have a copy on his or her book shelf. In the last four years the marketplace for lighting books has been flooded by a torrent of books; some good and some beyond mediocre. But a good, hands-on, intro book is a nice thing to have. Syl Arena's has written a nice, small book for people who are just now getting ready to stick their toes into the water of photographic lighting as it exists beyond the little, nasty flash that's built into your camera. He's written a book that will help you take your first steps toward working at photography independent of existing light.
The book is published by the same group that published Nicole S. Young's book about food, Food Photography: From Snapshots to Great Shots, that I reviewed about a month ago so I expected to find the book very richly illustrated with example photos. The book is NOT aimed at people who've been through all of the Strobist.com routine and it's not aimed at professionals out to improve their technique and their understanding of lighting but it IS aimed squarely at someone who might have picked up a camera, gotten bitten by the the enthusiasm bug of photography and is now ready to add a flash and get started figuring out how to use one, two and three flashes off their camera.
The book discusses the quality of light, color temperatures, the direction of light and all the relevant basics. He then goes on to teach the rudiments of lighting a portrait, working with flashes outside in the sunlight and how to trigger everything. I was first exposed to Syl Arena's writing when he came out with his first book, Speedliter's Handbook: Learning to Craft Light with Canon Speedlights. I bought that book because I was using Canon flashes and I wanted to make sure I knew all the tricks, shortcuts and operational nuances of the brand. What I found in that book was a very meaty and in-depth "how to" book that was fairly well written and quite comprehensive. I loaned the book to a long time Canon "pro" photographer and have never been successful in getting it back. But I remember that it was quite useful to me.
When Syl came out with the latest book, priced at under $15 in paperback, I was intrigued enough to buy it. I wanted to see how different it would be from my first two books. Well, not much has really changed in lighting but the gear continues to evolve and Syl does a good job incorporating the latest triggers, flashes and techniques into the book.
If it sounds like I'm hedging on giving it a full recommendation, I am not. It's just that so many people who read VSL daily have advanced beyond the need for an introductory book. And I don't want anyone to think that this is a lighting revelation of biblical proportions. If you haven't messed with light and you are interested in getting up to speed with battery powered flashes then this book has my hearty and enthusiastic recommendation. The writing is informal and flows well, the information is rock solid and the example photographs clearly illustrate his points.
If you just bought your Profoto flash system upgrade to the Alien Bees you've been using for a few years you probably won't get as much out of it. But that's just the variable nature of experience in photography.
If you do decide to buy it go for the paper back version. It's not much more money than the e-book and I think basic books are great in paper because you can take them anywhere you go and whip through them to the parts you need now. Besides, we might be the last generation that has the choice of buying on paper.
Just thought you'd like to know about this one. I read it in my hotel room in Abilene and it kept me interested enough to stay away from HBO and CNN...