11.19.2012

One of the five greatest photographers of the 20th Century.


Go here to see some of his iconic images: http://www.magnumphotos.com/C.aspx?VP3=CMS3&VF=MAGO31_10_VForm&ERID=24KL53ZMYN

The book that shoved photography from second class citizenship into consideration as true art was a revolutionary book that rumbled into the world and shook up editors, magazines and every photographer with a pulse. It was Henri Cartier Bresson's, The Decisive Moment. It's impossible to say, without sounding saturated with hyperbole, just how dramatic the impact of that book was when it hit the bookstores in 1952.

In the U.S. at the time, most journalists were using larger cameras like twin lens Rolleiflexes and bigger single plate cameras like the Graphlex. Most portraits were lit and meticulously controlled. Amateur photographers were at war with grain and most images were tinged with a vague romanticism. HCB walked into the party and turned it upside down.

He was one of the pioneers of the genre we now call street photography but he practiced it all over the world, from Alabama to China. He carried a small, screw mount Leica camera with which he was ultimately fluid. He favored the 50mm focal length but kept a 35mm in one pocket and a 90mm in another pocket. His camera was, of course, a completely manual rangefinder and no one ever saw him use, touch, or hold a light meter. He learned exposure through experience.

He never used flash. He once was quoted as saying that "Using flash is like bringing a handgun to the Opera."

But what about the images? This collection contains over 150 very well printed images. The book weighs in at 6 pounds and is 338 pages in all. The images chosen are both his best work and his greatest hits.

The core of what HCB did was this:  He was inconspicuous, his camera was used quickly and discreetly, his exposures were pre-estimated, he watched for the decisive moment when all the elements in a frame came together perfectly, when the energy of the frame hit a peak, and he would bring the camera to his eye and snap.  He captured a world in transition. From the second world war, to peacetime and rebuilding and he documented transitions in societies into modernism and into the post industrial age.

But he was much more than a documentarian. He was an artist. He was trained as a painter. He came from enormous wealth and he left a legacy that changed our visual world.

I remember back to 1977 when I  was working hard at being an electrical engineering student at UT. I went to the Fine Arts Library with a girlfriend and I browsed while she worked on a paper. I stumbled across a copy (now nearly priceless) of the first English edition of The Decisive Moment and sat down in one of the study carrels to glance through it. Over the course of several hours I looked through the book again and again. Trying to tattoo the images onto my retinas. In one moment of library Satori I'd discovered a master who was responsible for me buying my first real camera (a 35mm rangefinder) and embarking into a passionate study of photography

Looking through my collection of HCB books I am still inspired and can still see the influence of this Frenchman's vision poking and tickling my images. He taught us that photography was about motion, about design and about being aware enough to know exactly when to hit the button and save a concisely framed moment in black and white amber.

He, along with Avedon and Penn, is one of the five greatest photographers of the 20th Century. In my mind he is the precursor to the current, modern age of image making. A loner, an artist, a sensualist. Buy the book at your own peril. I've met many photographers who were lured into this passion during an unguarded moment with a book of Henri Cartier Bresson photographs.




Can we talk about microphones for a second?


I know every time I write anything about video or microphones almost everyone tunes out and it kills the blog for a couple of days. But I can't help it. I bought my Sony cameras partly because they are good, efficient video tools and microphones are generally one of the cogs in production that make a difference. Miles of copy have been written by video professionals about really good microphones and, without a doubt, you can get a really good microphone for $600 and up. But how many of us really need to sport the absolute best if video generally plays second fiddle to our still photography? While I'd love to be booking the kinds of video projects that require perfect sound recorded at the time of shooting the reality is that the market I find most welcoming for video productions are the same smaller ad agencies and small businesses that buy my photography.

Most of the work I've done in video for the past few years has ended up being targeted directly for the web. Sound quality is important but there really is such a thing as "good enough for the web." For a lot of what I do I need more microphone flexibility than raw excellence. By that I mean the primary goal I have is to use a microphone that I can position off the camera and as close to the subject as possible without having the microphone in the shot. My secondary (but still important) goal is that the microphone not obviously color the sound with glaringly inaccurate reproduction.

I have a set of Sennheiser wireless microphones that are complex, expensive and give very, very good sound. But they are a pain to set up and calibrate. Just like people who have both a big DSLR and a small mirrorless camera I find myself, more and more, using more traditional, straightforward microphones that are hooked to my camera with a cable. And I find that my mid-to-low priced units can sound almost as good as my more expensive microphones if I use them well. I hate to say it but to some extent it's not so much about the gear but how you use it that counts.

In this blog I'm going to talk about the three microphones in my sound box that I use all the time but I want to  issue this caveat: I am not a sound expert and when the budgets are ripe and succulent I always hire a sound person who brings along his owner mixer, microphones and sometimes a separate digital recorder. My microphones make their appearance when I'm shooting for a web video or an "in-house" presentation for a company. Where big stake are involved I tend to dial-a-pro.  You should consider that too.

The microphone above is a nice, plastic microphone from the Australian company, Rode. It's called a VideoMic. It's monoaural, shock mounted and runs off a 9V battery. It's fairly directional but not nearly as directional as a true "shotgun" microphone. That's okay by me because a wider pattern means I can be a bit sloppier in placement.  Too might a pattern and being off axis makes for poorer, not better sound. This microphone is pretty inexpensive at around $150.  I use it to record sound on sets where I can't show a microphone in the scene.  If I use it within two feet of a speaker or actor and aim it correctly the sound is very good.  Ben and I both have one of these and we count on it for most stuff. When you put a wind screen over it (dead cat) you can make good use of it outdoors. This is my first line tool for projects where I have someone who can hold this microphone on a pole and position it and reposition it while we shoot. 



The microphone just above is Rode's inexpensive stereo microphone. I use it a lot in the studio when I can use it close to my subjects because it's a pretty nice voice microphone. It has a stereo plug that goes straight into my camera's 3.5mm plug.  It records a left and a right channel and it's best use is as an all around documentary mic in a small, quiet room where you are trying to mic two or more people in conversation but have only one mic and one set of eyes and ears with which to monitor said mic. There's a lot of usage cross over between this mic and the one at the top of the article. From time to time, if the venue is quiet enough, I will mount this mic on a fishpole and use it the same way I would use a short shotgun microphone to record dialogue.

If there are no operational caveats; if you can use this mic as close as you want and at the angle you want, you can get amazingly good sound from it. It's not a high decible level performance mic. I don't think you'd want to use it with a rocker who screams. But for general work it's a champ. Not as directional as the VideoMic but that can be a blessing. Around $249. If you are working alone and fast, off tripod, it's great to be able to stick the StereoMic in the accessory shoe of your camera and put the audio recorder on ALC and just go. At least you'll have good "natural sound" to use in your edit...

Finally I want to tell you how I use my "kit lens" of a microphone, the Olympus ME 51S.  This is the microphone that Olympus sold in the SEMA-1 kit that contained an adapter to plug into the port on the back of Olympus Pen cameras.  You could plug the microphone directly into the adapter and use it as a better "on camera" microphone or you could attach it to a stereo, 3.5mm to 3.5mm cord and use it off camera. The whole bundle is well under $100 and the SEMA-1 adapter is the only way to get off camera microphone audio into your camera when recording.

The microphone consists of two omni-directional microphones so in a live room it tends to pick up every sound with very little discretion. But most lavalier microphones also happen to be omni's and they work very well in isolating the voices of speakers and actors when the lav microphones are position on a lapel or shirt plaque, close to the speaker's mouth.  And, not surprisingly, the little Olympus works well in those kinds of applications too.

I helped a friend with a video for an association over the weekend. We had a lot of microphones to choose from but we chose to go with one of these. We clipped it to our interview subjects' shirts and cabled it back to a Sony a77. Even though we did not use one of the mixers that emits a non-audible tone to over ride the ALC of the camera the microphone was surprisingly un-noisy. And the camera managed to intelligently work it's auto level controls so that there were no big, fast spikes in spurious noise. We reviewed the sound this morning on small monitor speakers and it was actually quite good.

I've started to think of microphones the way I think about lenses. The cost is not always a good determiner of their usability. While an L series 50mm 1.1.2 costs somewhere in the $1500 range an enormous number of people swear by the 50mm 1.8 EF lens (the nifty fifty) and do very good work with it. Under certain circumstances the L lens might shine but for everyday work and everyday budgets the nifty fifty is a perfectly workable compromise.

We've also found that slower aperture zoom lenses can routinely outperform faster, more expensive zoom lenses in the same focal length ranges. In the Sony line the Sony 55-200DT is an excellent performer and, if you never need fast, you'd probably have a hard time distinguishing files from it (at $199) and the 70-200mm 2.8 Sony G lens (at $1995). Same thing with microphones. Use a high end production digital audio recorder, perfect microphone placement and an acoustically optimized setting and you'll get amazing sound. Videotape in a mall with a lot of background noise and non-optimum acoustics and you may find the microphones are equally challenged.

I mentioned that I have a wonderful set of Sennheiser's wireless microphones and they do sound great. But I've compared them to the big ME 51S and they are both better than my current talents or ability to make one appreciably better than the other.

Our video project worked well.

Side note:  All three images were shot with one small, Fotodiox 312 AS LED panel positioned about a foot and a half above the microphones, shining straight down. The rest of the light was just fill from windows around the studio. A quick and easy set up. No filters required.













11.18.2012

Saw these things on my way to work last night.

So, I was working the evening shift for the Visual Science Lab last night. I checked into the lab, took an iodine tablet just in case I'd been exposed to any random radiation during the course of the day (the Homeland Security people are flying planes filled with radiation detectors over the city to  try to measure pinpoint hot spots that may be linked to terrorism aimed at the big event) and then grabbed my job sheet from the dispatcher's desk. I drew hazardous duty. My assignment was to brave downtown with the projected 300,000 Formula One guests and then do photography for a private investment bank. I left the studio an hour earlier than I usually would because I was concerned about traffic and parking. I needn't have bothered because there was no traffic, plenty of parking and a number of half empty restaurants and bars right in the middle of downtown. The hordes? Many fewer than a typical day at South by Southwest. The one thing that was different was all the cool little cars being displayed at some of the local venues. This one (above) is kind of round-y and reminded me of a Volkswagen Bug. I might look into getting one as a run around or delivery car for the Visual Science Lab. I haven't seen a dealer yet in Austin so I'm a little hesitant about committing----but if they're a bit cheaper than a VW I might just get one. And maybe one for Ben as well. They are really cute.

I didn't think I'd be able to get in the door at Caffe Medici since all I'd been hearing for weeks was that 300K people would be arriving into the downtown area with bags of money ready to spend on everything from coffee to mink lined, diamond studded cowboy boots. According to the owner of Austin's premier coffee shop it had not been a particularly busy day. Most of the seats and tables were open even though the day's festivities at the big track had been over for hours. The few out of towners were huddled outside huffing and puffing on their cigarettes.

I photographed these artfully arranged flowers in front of the W Hotel. Yes, the Formula One Grand Prix is tomorrow but there are still vacancies today. Just give them a ring. Whatever. The flowers were nicely arranged over an array of LED panels. They looked cool. And stayed cool.  I made the photos (Above and Below) with a Sony Nex 7 camera and an older, Olympus Pen FT 40mm 1.4 lens. I think it's a lovely lens. I've stopped believing in the magic of focus peaking for wide open high speed lenses and prefer to confirm focus by hitting the magnify buttons a few time....

I finished my assignment before 10pm and headed back across downtown to the area where I'd parked the VSL staff car. Many of the streets were blocked off. I expected (based on the press speculation that the elite of EU car racing would be in attendance) that I would see dazzling glamorous beauties in the latest fashions accompanied by men who dressed more like James Bond than Homer Simpson but it was not that way. The whole milieu resembled mostly the 1990's street carnivals in San Antonio that spring up around that city's Fiesta. Lots of Kettle Corn and vendors selling cotton candy. An impromptu outdoor beer garten with the usual assortment of wide characters wearing ubiquitous car oriented Members Only style jackets over their XXL logo'd white t-shirts.

I headed back to my car, less than a quarter mile walk from downtown, and was pleased to find both that it was still there and intact and, that it was on a street with dozens and dozens of open parking spaces. I'm sure the race on Sunday will be a lot of fun for those attending. But downtown was comparatively a ghost town. If you want to see what crowded looks like you need to come to a home grown event like any Halloween evening on Sixth St.

Added to on Sunday evening: Here's the first news story about the economic impact of the race on local, downtown businesses:

http://www.statesman.com/news/sports/f1-boon-and-bust-for-businesses/nS9SF/

It was my intention to spend part of all three days downtown documenting the crowds but after my direct observations on Friday evening it was pretty clear to me that the only excitement was at the track and that the expected boon to the local economy was anything but. I chose to stay home and read a good book.  So this is the European version of NASCAR? Right....

11.16.2012

Ragtime hits the NYT.

Going back for an evening of Italian food in my time machine.


There used to be a restaurant on 9th Street, in the middle of downtown Austin, called, Italian Gardens. It's been gone for maybe twenty years. But when I found the negative of the image above all of the memories of sliding downtown in an ancient Karmen Ghia and slipping into one of the many empty, free parking spots just in front of the restaurant, and settling in for an over the top meal of garlic bread, pastas, soup and little pizzas, all washed down with Chianti that poured from a bottle with a wicker cover, came rushing back as though it was yesterday.

That's one of the charms of having been a photographer for many years. I can't remember a time since I started that I didn't have a camera of some sort over my shoulder and ready to go. In this case it was my ancient Canonet QL 17 III. Stuffed with a hand rolled length of Tri-X.

I read now about how cellphones and pocketable mini cams have now made it possible to carry a camera with you everywhere. I laugh. We never felt unduly burdened by having to carry a small rangefinder and a pocket full of fresh film...

I love portraits taken over tables in dark restaurants. The only technique is to plant your elbows firmly on the table and make the intersection of camera and forehead the third point of your human tripod. Breath out and click. It's a technique that made film seem faster and less grainy and still works with digital captures. (What an icky word...).

While it's seems important to stride out into the big world and catch images of kinetic strangers you should not forget the pleasures of imaging closer to home. Take your camera to dinner along with your loved ones and you'll create documents that mean more to you in five, ten or twenty years than countless hundreds of photographs of strangers walking on random streets. They mean nothing to the rest of us but for you the personal images will be like fine wine aging in a barrel.

Doesn't matter which camera you use as long as you use one. The memories are fragile. The photographs make them stronger.


11.15.2012

Super Light. Super Cheap.


Sometimes the blog lies fallow for a day or so and then it comes roaring back. Sometimes it's because I've stumbled into a sticky patch of good work and I've got my head down and working as fast as my little fingers will fly over the keyboard. Sometimes it's just sloth. For the last few days I've been getting back to my true photographic love, shooting portraits in my little studio. Just straightforward and happy portraits.

I'm a big believer in using large, soft, directional light sources to create portraits in my own style. I'm not a fan of hard lighting in most situations and I feel like hard light is always a bit cruel when used on anyone over 16. Softer light better mimics the light we see in nature. The kind of light that makes things beautiful. The kind of light that makes painters and photographers say, "Oh...the light is so beautiful..."

In the early part of my career I was obsessed with enormous softboxes. I always had a couple of 54 by 72 inch variants lurking around the studio. And they worked really well. But they take a while to set up and the speedrings always give me problems. I still have one in reserve. 

Then, after working on movie and television commercial sets, I started to light more and more with diffusion panels as my primary, large diffusion source. The light from a 72 by 72 inch panel with a couple layers of (faux) silk diffusion is beautiful but it also takes up a lot of space, takes a lot of time to set up and fine tune, and the light bouncing off the back side of the silk bounces everywhere and you end up with a next of black flags on your set in order to control contrast and kill the unwanted spill. Lots of flags means lots and lots of light stands. No problem on a big film set with lots of assistants but a basic pain in the butt for a one person studio.

All this led me to experiment more with one of the oldest and cheapest modifiers we photographers regularly use, the basic umbrella. For years my go to umbrellas have been the Photek Softlighter 2 60 inch umbrellas.  I have three and I love them. They come with a front diffuser that takes the softlight coming off the white interior fabric and making it even softer. For the most part 60 inches is pretty good, especially if you use the umbrella as close in to the subject as you can. The one downside, for me, of the Softlighters is that their metal spokes are delicate and sometimes the locking mechanisms fail. Two of my three, all less than three years old, are somewhat hobbled. One set of spokes is splinted with a pencil and wrapped with gaffer's tape. 

And, of course, no matter how big your light source is there is always the idea that it could be bigger...which means softer...which means a whole different look. At one point I bought an 80 inch Lastolite umbrella with integral front diffuser for nearly $200 but it's a mess to set up because it doesn't have a traditional shaft. It's more like a beach umbrella and it requires a messy combination of adapters to get it on a stand and get a monolight firing into it evenly. But when I take the time to use it the effect is nice.

With this in mind I often browse the bigger websites looking for something that brings all the good stuff together without any downsides. I found it in the Fotodiox 72 inch umbrella.  It's a 72 inch, white umbrella so even without using a diffuser it makes the light soft. The umbrella is backed with an opaque black back cover to kill unwanted spill. At about $79 it comes with its own white, translucent diffusion front cover and it's own packing sleeve.  The spokes are made from a sturdy fiberglas and the whole melange sets up quickly and easily.

I've been using it all week long and I've very happy with the results. I would post a few portrait images but everything I've been doing lately has been for paying clients and I won't use on of the images until they've made they're selections and approved my intention to use their likeness.

I did want to show you what the umbrella looks like so I shot the two images (above and below) and introduced myself into the frame for relative scale. I had been working with incredibly volatile images in the VSL safety lab so I still have my retina saving safety glasses on..... Some images are just too sharp for conventional use....we're trying to figure out how to weaponize them...(not really).


The image below is one of Amy that we made during the set up of a portrait project for the Kip Schools a few years ago. We used the huge Lastolite umbrella for that one. It was pretty cool. Heading downtown to see if Austin has been overrun but out of town Formula One guests yet. Hope everyone is having maximum fun. I think I am.







11.14.2012

The Rectangle Period. And general thoughts about photography.


There was a period, back in the early 1990's, when I veered from the true path of the square format and flirted with several medium format cameras that "featured" different aspect ratios. Of the handful that I tried I think my most successful affair de camera was with the Pentax 6x7. The value proposition over the traditional Hasselblad and Rollei squares was twofold: The extra centimeter of film, printed on a rectangular piece of paper gave one XX% more resolution and, the camera and its lenses sold for much less than its European counterparts.

If you haven't used a Pentax 67 let me describe it for you.  The 6x7 centimeter format writes to film that runs horizontally through the camera like 35mm film. The camera is set up like a 35mm DSLR on super steriods. It's bigger, by far, in every dimension. And it's painfully heavy.

The camera usually came with an eye level prism finder which was available as a metered or non-metered prism. My biggest gripe with the Pentax 67 was the fact that the viewfinder covers less than 88% of the actual frame.  Since the mirror was huge and the shutter curtains equally enormous every frame required lots of mass to go flying around inside the camera. The noise would make digital-only camera users gasp and the recoil of the mirror slap was enough to cause a concussion if held to tightly against one's head.

The way most people I know used the camera was to put it on a tripod, compose, focus and then hit the mirror lock up button, wait for the internal chaos to calm down and then trip the shutter. In many ways this made the Pentax 67 more like a view camera than a handheld camera. And it was equally slow to load. 

A roll of 120 film would give you 10 exposures. To load the camera you opened the huge back and swung it to the right. Then you pushed a button to release the empty film spindle on the left and moved it into the spindle holder on the right. Next you would insert a new roll of film into the left chamber, lock it into place and then pull the paper leader over to the empty, right hand spindle and insert the leading edge of the paper into the slot on the plastic spindle on the right hand side.

In my experience the paper would slip out two out of every three times I tried to wind it on prior to closing the back.  Once I got the film to "lock on" and wind properly I could close the back and wind the film advance lever until the camera stopped itself--ready at frame one.  Ten frames later you'd go through the whole process again. This made the camera a really piss poor tool for high frame rate studio portraiture....but it sure trained you to be frugal with your frames...

The usual solution for studio shooters was to buy two or three additional bodies, since they were relatively cheap, and then interchange cameras while shooting fast. Assistants hated working with these cameras because of how fiddly they were to load and how quickly their photographers could go through ten frames.

The camera was a decent studio performer since the lenses were pretty uniformly sharp and contrasty. The big negative with its plethora of surface area silver was also a big plus; clients loved seeing the bigger images on light boxes. The biggest downside of the camera was the slow sync speed. The camera was limited to a 1/30th of a second sync speed. You really had to be careful when shooting flash in brightly lit environments because you ran the risk of color contamination from sources other than your primary light source.

So, why did we use them? Because they were optically good and a whole set up with a good lens cost less than a bare Hasselblad body at the time.

For a working photographer some of the cost savings was offset by the fact that Pentax offered no Polaroid back for the camera. Camera repair wiz, Marty Forscher, made an after market back for the camera but it required the back to be replaced with the Polaroid back = Permanently.  So one dedicated one body just for proofing.  And that meant that the Polaroid back couldn't be used as a way of testing all your different backs for technical issues when out in the world shooting.

Eventually I got tired and bored carrying around a bag with three shooting bodies and one proofing body and all the assorted hardware that goes with them. I switched to the Hasselblad system and bought a bunch of film backs instead. The silver lining to my short tenure with the big rectangle was the fact that prices rose quickly during my time of ownership and I was able to move the whole system on to the next brave photographer for about what I paid in the first place.

What does this have to do with today's world of digital photography? Nothing. But I do have to think that we were willing to go much further in our pursuit of a good image in those days. Not out of some superiority of character but out of sheer necessity.

On a personal note:  I feel oddly unmoved by any of the new cameras that have come onto the market so far this year. Not sure why. I was sitting in the orchestra seats shooting Pagliacci for the Austin Lyric Opera when I came to the conclusion that I had all the camera and lens I needed right there in my hands. If I had used full frame sensor I would have needed a fast 300mm lens with all the cost and handling considerations that would come with it. When I shot portraits yesterday I realized that using ISO 50 or 64 was giving me an amazing dynamic range that yielded great skin tones and good detail with lots and lots of dynamic range and no noise. 

My local camera store called to let me know they had reserved a Sony a99 camera for me but rather than jump up from my computer and rush to the store I yawned and took a nap. The camera will be in stock if I need it. The panic buying of newly introduced camera gear seems to have abated or the makers have become better at filling the inventories on first launch. In the past we rushed to buy the new cameras because we felt that we were keenly aware of some real shortcoming in our current cameras that desperately needed fixing. Now we're just looking with mild curiosity at some outlier specs.

If you were working with a Nikon D2X when the Nikon D700 came out you couldn't get to the store quick enough because, for the first time in Nikon digital history you'd be able to shoot both full frame and high ISO. It was heady to go from shooting at ISO 200 and under to being able to crank up the ISO to 1600 or even 3200 without undo anxiety.  

If you worked with a Canon EOS 5D the introduction of the 5D mk2 bought you a doubling of resolution and a much more solid platform. Of course you'd rush to get that!

But the difference between the 5D2 and the 5d3 for most of us? Not so much.

In fact, all the cameras introduced in the pro, semi-pro and advanced amateur segments of the market in the last year or three are more than adequate for almost any kind of commercial photography. Buying more camera is an exercise in buying into a small percentage of improvement that may be more about bragging rights and working at the bleeding edge than any real need to deliver work that pleases clients.

Some of my peers are upgrading from 5d2s to 5d3s but not because they need some incremental improvement in image quality; most of them are just refreshing. Getting rid of bodies that have 80 or 90 thousand clicks on shutters that are rated to 150,000 actuations. Turning over inventory before they reach the troublesome zone. Reloading the tax break for depreciation.  But none of them have come back and gushed over any sort of performance improvements.  A few people mention better autofocus but that usually leads to a rejoinder from my friends who shoot architecture and still life: "You mean these cameras have autofocus???"

In the Nikon camp there are probably not many who were unhappy with the performance of their Nikon D3X cameras. If they buy D800's it's probably because of the price point.

There will always be new people coming into the market and they'll be excited about the new offerings. There will always be techno-amateurs and they will always wait with cortisol-laden-adrenaline-laced breath for the latest and greatest technical achievements. But in the realm of diligent image makers and people who charge for their work, it seems like we're entering a period of calming equalibrium. Cameras that work well and exceed need. The prices will drop, the AF will get faster and more flexible, but the IQ is already so usable.

If you buy a new camera to replace a pro camera bought in the last year you are buying it because it has more fur-lined cup holders or built-in grip warmers or some such thing. How do I know this? Because I'm as big a new camera freak as you'll meet and I feel a sense of camera buying calm I haven't felt since the days of mature film cameras.

What am I buying these days? More great photo books. I just bought a hardback edition of Josef Koudelka's Gypsies, and I have a whole list of similar classics for my collection of 20th century masters. Funny thing, while most of our miracle digital cameras depreciate in value the minute we unbox them most of the photo books I've bought in the last twenty years have sky-rocketed in value while consistently delivering real value to me in terms of joy and inspiration.  Long after the gleam and white hot desire for the turboflex 2013 wears off I'll still be sitting down in a comfy chair browsing through a book of Elliott Erwitt images or Diane Arbus one frame dramas. And I'll find some new resonance in them every time I return to them.

What else am I buying these days? Experiences. For every day that I ignore the march of progress  in the consumer camera space I wind up with more energy to go out and look. And by looking distill down what it is I want to see and then what I want to make into my own art.

As the camera itself recedes the subjects come into clearer focus. And isn't that what we really wanted when we started this journey?

Hope you're having a fab week. We're trying to wrap our brains around all this Formula One stuff here in the center of the universe....











11.11.2012

And then there's Irving Penn...


Still Life : Irving Penn Photographs, 1938-2000

Irving Penn and Richard Avedon are two of the five monolithic and critical photographers of the 20th century. Both were masters of portraiture and fashion but while Richard Avedon focused like a laser beam on making images of people Irving Penn was also a dominating presence in the world of still life photography.

This book contains a comprehensive look at some of the best still life work in each stage of his life as a photographic artist. It'll cost you eleven venti lattes at Starbucks (or the equivalent) but if you have not seen his still life studio work before it will change your perception of studio photography, design and creativity. I collect Penn books like other people collect parking tickets and I am happy to have a book about Penn that is so tightly focused on one important aspect of his work.

That guy you're following on (fill in the blank website)? Chances are most of his work is somehow informed by Penn. So skip all the imitations and "homages" and go to the source. You will not be disappointed.

Still Life: Irving Penn Photographs, 1938-2000




Another Look at Richard Avedon.

©Richard Avedon

We can argue all day long about this but I think Richard Avedon was one of the five greatest photographer/artists in the entire 20th century and I think, in an almost subversive way, his intellectual and visual impact is still being felt by, and inspiring, enormous numbers of photographers around the world. So I was delighted to see this new book on a friend's desk last week.

Like most of the Avedon books this one is big, well designed and well produced. It features performers and performances (in the studio) that cover over 50 years of work.  The book is called, simply: Performance: Richard Avedon.

In addition to the great images of instantly recognizable (by any one over say, forty) stars and performers, there are several great essays including one that talks about being invited to dinner at Richard Avedon's place. He served very simple baked potatoes but then he brought out some garnishes for the baked potatoes including "about a pound of Beluga caviar..." 

If you don't have a Richard Avedon book/portfolio in your collection this is a fun place to start. At only around 12 Starbucks venti lattes (my preferred exchange rate. Almost as universal as the dollar but corrected for inflation....)  I consider this book to be a bargain.  It's a well printed and wonderfully entertaining volume that is also a small and tangential slice of what the cooler parts of the last century looked like through the eyes of one of the century's pre-eminent artists.

©Richard Avedon


Indeed.

So, who are the other four?  More to come.







11.09.2012

Dialing in your camera at the opera. The Sony a77 does Pagliacci.



"The Jpeg engine! The Jpeg engine! Nothing good can ever come from the Jpeg engine!" Hmmm. I always wonder when I hear people trash or praise the Jpeg performance of their digital cameras whether or not they ever took the time to do a little fine tuning. While manufacturers work hard to make their Jpeg files one size fits all it's dawned on me over the years that the same manufacturers would not have gone to all the trouble to wedge in parameter fine tuning controls and different color palettes if they didn't understand that everyone wants something different and they can actually get it with a little metaphorical elbow grease.

I'll admit that the Sony a77 Jpeg files were giving me some issues in the early days. The contrast was a bit wonky, the noise reduction too severe and the saturation was a bit much. Mostly my fault, I can see in hindsight, for slavishly setting the camera in Jpeg beginner mode: Standard, and just hoping things would turn out the way I wanted them to. The reality is that using a digital camera in the Jpeg file mode is a lot like shooting slide film. You're locking in settings while you are shooting.  If the color is a little off you'll need to correct it in post but you'll find that you degrade the files a bit every time you make a change.

My thinking on working with Jpeg files got changed when I started shooting more video in DSLRs and when I started trying to color corrected the video I'd shot in Final Cut Pro X. If you set the sharpening in your files too high (because it looks nice on the LCD screen) you'll regret it in editing because there's no way to turn it back down again and bad sharpening looks worse and worse as you go along.  Same thing with contrast.  And same thing in spades with saturation.

From everything I've read on video production sites, in conversations with DP's and directors who work with digital video files, everyone has the same suggestions: Turn down the contrast, the saturation and the sharpening and add them back, to taste, in post processing. To this I would also add: Get your color balance as close as you can. Since these guys can only do limited global corrections in video post production it make sense and I've been zeroing in my working methodology for using Jpegs using this idea of turning everything down for a while now. It works.

At this point someone with way too much time on their hands will chime in and tell me that everyone should just shoot RAW. While it's a nice option it does take a lot of unnecessary resources (most importantly, time) and it's not always necessary. Figure it like this. I shot 1500 files at the Austin Lyric Opera dress rehearsal of the opera, Pagliacci, last night. The newspapers and arts websites are anxious to get some pictures in their hands.....today.

If I'd shot RAW files with my Sony a77's each file would be around 25 megabytes. That works out to about 37.5 gigabytes of information that needs to be ingested into Lightroom from multiple cards, Lightroom needs time to render standard previews and then, after a much slower process of file cleaning and enhancement, it will take hours to output one or two megabyte Jpegs that the media will want to use. Honestly, newspapers and web masters aren't looking forward to getting 16 bit, 70 megabyte tiff files. Probably would not even take the time to open them....

If I shoot large/fine jpegs I'm looking at around 6 to 7  megapixels per file or around 10 gigabytes of images to work with. I was able to do all of my post production and outputting in a couple hours this morning. And the files look great. They all have been downsized from 24 megapixels to  a little bit bigger than 12 megapixels. I applied a bit of sharpening to the files which they accepted very gracefully. In fact, I am so much happier with my flesh tones and noise reproduction that I'll try to shoot most of my fast breaking projects this way.  So, how did I shoot last night?


I set up my cameras to work in Jpeg using the largest files size and "fine" quality. There is one step above fine called, "extra fine" and I'm sure that if you run the files through a thorough diagnostic test you'll see a difference on the charts and graphs. Will you see a difference on the web or in newsprint? Highly unlikely.  This setting gives me almost 1,000 potential shots on an 8 gig memory card. It also saves on battery power since it requires more electrical juice to write the large raw files.

I set the Jpeg "creative" setting to standard and then I go into the menu and dial the contrast and saturation both to minus one. While I used to shoot my Jpegs with a +1 sharpening setting I've dialed back to zero and I add a bit of sharpening in Lightroom. The next thing I do is to make sure I'm in the right ballpark vis-a-vis color balance. Not necessarily for accuracy but for pleasing colors in the output. The lighting designer used a very blue palette for several parts of the opera and I wanted to keep that psychological effect but I wanted the scenes to render a bit warmer so I set a custom K temperature while looking at the scene in the EVF. Using the EVF instead of analyzing stuff on the rear LCD means I can block out the ambient light that will effect my take on the color. I worked mostly in the range of 4200K to 4400k to make the colors more neutral. While I liked the cool blue washes in the actual show I would hesitate to send files that were as blue to editors since they would see very monochromatic in print.


I've also started to always use the high ISO NR in its lowest setting. At anything under 1000 ISO it looks great and doesn't give me the plastic look that too much noise reduction generally imparts. This makes the a77 an ISO 800 camera for me. I'll go to ISO 1600 in a pinch but 800 is perfect. And perfectly usable. With good stage lighting my spot lit principals were usually in the f3.5 at 1/160th range. Seems just right for shooting a stage show.


Getting your Jpegs into a good flow helps you be a bit more disciplined in shooting RAW as well. Recent Jpeg images we've provided to another client in town recently were used highly cropped on large posters and I was amazed at just how well they worked. There's so much we see on 27 inch screens that's just not relevant to the way images are routinely used.

Finally, if you have the ability to do a micro focus adjust on your lenses by all means, take advantage of that and do it right. My 70-200mm f2.8 G series lens has become a brand new optic for me after half an hour of adjustment and testing. All in all I'm happy with my new Jpeg shooting routine, my lenses and my a77 bodies.  Good to have stuff dialed in.






Finally, if you are willing to go into each color setting and do some manipulation with the color controls it's very likely that you can get close to the overall color palette of most camera families. The tend to put all these controls on the cameras so you can have your images pretty much the way you want them. Might as well use em.

Did I enjoy this rendition of Pagliacci?  Yes, very much. The people at the Austin Lyric Opera did a fabulous job. This is a great opera for beginners. It's very much fun and very accessible. If you are in Austin pony up for some tickets and give it a shot. I can pretty much assure you that you won't be disappointed. Culture. Have some.

In other breaking news of vital importance to our Canadian readers: You now OWN the copyright to the images you create, commissioned or not!!! Read more: http://www.petapixel.com/2012/11/07/canadian-photogs-now-officially-own-the-copyright-to-all-of-their-photos/