5.06.2013

The thing no one wants to talk about.......video.

Meredith under the cool LED lights, on set, in my west Austin studio.

I read an interesting article by Jack Reznicki, here,  and to paraphrase, he's making the point that after years of deflecting his growing realization that video is quickly becoming the preferred imaging medium for a new generation he's ready to admit that video is part of the basic wiring of that new generation and will only get more popular as bandwidth speeds up and flat screens get cheaper and more ubiquitous.  He's thrown down the gauntlet, (to himself) saddled up and a few other confused metaphors, and he's out working on building a style and a name for himself in the video world.  Fish where the fish are.

When I talk about video to most of my peers in the business they get a "far away" look in their eyes and, when I press the subject, they rally their best undergraduate art school arguments about why still photography is different and unique.  I would argue that pretty soon all photography will be just still frames from video.  Of course, that's a bit hyperbolic but the reality is that photography is being subsumed by its very simplicity and popularity while video is in a new period of ascendancy.

But after trying my hand at the "new" video I know why my peers are so resistant to this medium.  It's harder to do well than still photography.  Let me say that again with the appropriate emphasis in place:  It's harder to do WELL than still photography.  And, maybe more importantly, to do it well requires collaborating (and sharing credit with) other professionals.  And that's something that many photographers are uncomfortable with or hostile to.  I know I am......

But it's to be expected.  We've spent our lives as loners.  We intersect with the pack to hunt down assignments and get a check.  The rest of the time we're experimenting in our caves....I mean studios....and diddling the dials of PhotoShop.  Now that our basic industry is saturated and devalued we're supposed to become part of a "team"?  (Remember that there is no "I" in team so be prepared to become assimilated by the Borg.....).  That, in a nutshell is why professional photographers aren't rushing to do video in droves.

I don't want to spend my life putting together crews of sound people, assistants, gaffers and grips.  I don't relish spending more time with more people.  What are we to do?  Hmmmmm.  Long pensive thoughts...

We could do what Robert Frank did in the 1950's.  While the majority of photographers were anchored in their studios with 8x10 and 4x5 view cameras and a jungle of hot lights he went out into the street (without assistants or a "team") and made a new art.  An art predicated on moving and seeing and capturing quickly.

We don't need to emulate the evolution of the video industry.  We don't need to follow the path of Phillip Bloom and Vince LaForet and embrace the way video has always been done, overlayed on a new set of tools (and let's admit that the only new thing Vince brought to the table was a new camera with better high ISO and more DOF control.....).  I can choose to implement a newer "snapshot" style that steals from all the good disciplines while maintaining the autonomy that I think many photographers have always subconsciously or consciously chosen for ourselves.  A new style of moving pictures.

I think about this because I just handed my son, Ben, another still digital camera to use.  He's been using a Canon SX10 and I don't think he's ever taken a still image with it.  I handed it to him a few years ago and the first question out of his mouth was,  "Will it do video?"  He and his friends have produced dozens and dozens of finished, edited videos with that camera.

I handed him a Canon SX20 yesterday and the first question he asked me was, "Does it do better video?"  Yes.  It does HD.  Will he take a still frame with the camera?  Doubtful.  Will he use the hell out of it?  You bet.  The batteries are already on the charger.

Ben and his friends are part of the generation in which all media moves.  All media, all moving, all the time.  He's in ninth grade and one of the courses he's taking is film making.  The school is teaching the students in his film making class how to use Final Cut Pro.  As a veteran user of iMovie, Ben is incredibly comfortable with the process.  And  the visual communicators of his generation will be as well.

I want to continue to wring out every good still picture I can out of photography.  But, to paraphrase the English poet, Andrew Marvell,  "O'er my shoulder I do hear video's winged chariot drawing near...."

Time to become multi-disciplinary in a new way.



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A Brief Tutorial About Shooting Underground.

I was thinking about dirt and remembered this image (on the right) that I made in the early 1990's.  Now I'm sure photographers would just piece the whole thing together in PhotoShop (tm) but that wasn't really a luxury we could count on in the first Clinton term.  So I thought I would recount the process we went through back in the neanderthal days of pre-digital photography to remind myself that image making used to be a time consuming and sometimes dirty craft.

I was working with an art director named Pam.  The client was 3M.  The product in question was a heat shrinkable sleeve that was placed over electric and data cable junctions to seal the connection and make the cable impervious to the encroachment of moisture and dirt.  Pretty cool stuff.  Apply.  Blast with heat, and you have a leak free connection you can bury under the mud.  So how do you show this to potential clients at tradeshows and in product brochures?  Good old fashion photography.

In the early 1990's clients with high quality budgets usually liked for us to produce photographs using 4 x 5 inch color transparency sheet film.  And it went without saying that everything was "Polaroided" at every step of the process so that the crew (art director, photographer and client) could see how the shoot was evolving and collaborate on the direction.

Step one:  Bring in trash cans full of different kinds of dirt.  Step two:  Create a shooting table by putting a 4x8 foot sheet of white plexiglas on top of a custom made set of saw horses.  The saw horses had attachable side rails to help support the plexi so it wouldn't sag in the middle.
Step three:  Rig our Linhof monorail camera over the top of the set by securing it to a large pipe suspend between two heavily sandbagged, tall, Century stands.  Aim the camera straight down over the white Plexiglas, stand on a tall ladder and rough in  the outlines of the shot by framing slightly tighter than the width of the Plexi.  We mark off our "live" area on the Plexi with black tape and get to work on building our set.  

Step four:  We know that we want to have little pools of blue to simulate standing water so we design the set so that side lighting from a medium sized softbox provides a deep shadow to the opposite side of each wire.  We use the outline of the shadow as a guide to remove the dirt in these areas.  

Step five:  The layout is fine tuned.  It is a process of going up the ladder, closing the shutter on the view camera lens,  setting the appropriate aperture, putting in a Polaroid holder, pulling out the envelope that functions as a Polaroid dark slide and then using a cable release to trigger the shutter.  My assistant times the color Polaroid and then peels it.  Once the art director, client and I review the image my assistant numbers the print on its back so we now where in the sequence each change occurs.  He also notes the fstop and shutter speed of the camera as well as the power settings for the studio electronic flash.  We repeat this process over and over again over the course of the set up.

Step six:  Once we've got the composition fine tuned on the top of the table we're ready to add the blue pools to the mix.  We do this by putting two small softboxes, covered with deep blue theatrical gels onto the floor under the Plexi, facing up.  Anywhere in our composition that the dirt is removed from the top surface of the Plexi there is a blue glow.  We can adjust the saturation by making sure that no light from the main light hits the shadowed pools.  The main light comes from one Norman PD 2000 watt second pack while the two small softboxes share the power from a second Norman PD 2000 pack set up to distribute power the two heads equally.  The main light is about four feet from the left edge of the set and small mirrors are added just to the right of the set to direct beams of light into areas that need to be filled or accentuated.

Step Seven:  At this point we are fine tuning the set.  We use small brushes, toothpicks and straws to brush, coax or blow dirt into place.  We build up little walls of dirt in areas where we feel a stronger shadow is necessary.  After each round of modification I go up the ladder and go through the routine needed to load fresh Polaroid and trip the shutter.

Finally, when we all agree that the composition is just what we wanted and the light is  metered to the nth degree I make another trip up the ladder.  Standing on the second step from the top of the ladder and using one hand for support on a steel rafter,  I put my head under a dark cloth and carefully check focus with an 8x loupe over the entire frame.  This is done with a wide open aperture.  Then I stop the camera down to f32.5, which is the fstop we calculated that would give us ample depth of field without introducing diffraction.  I spend five minutes under the dark clothe letting my eyes adjust so we can make sure there has been no focusing shift.  Then I shoot five sheets of film, bracketing each exposure.  We bracket our overs by double popping the flashes with the room lights extinguished and we bracket our unders by placing half stop and then one stop fabric screens over the lights.

If you've only shot small film cameras or digital cameras you've never had to consider that 4x5 inch film can bow a bit when shooting with the camera faced down.  To combat this we used to put a small piece of doubled Scotch tape (it is 3M afterall.....) in the center of the film holder and then slide the film over it and then give it a gentle press.  Not hard enough to weld the film tight to the back wall but enough to offset the bowing.

After all the film was shot we'd always do one last Polaroid to make sure nothing had moved and that nothing shifted with the camera.  Once that Polaroid was approved we'd get the client and the art director to sign and date the back of the print as an indication that they'd approved the shot.  A nice coda to the contract.

We'd congratulate each other just as the agency's account executive showed up to share in the good feelings and take the AD and the client out for dinner and drinks.  For the assistant and I the end of the day meant unloading the film into light safe boxes and labeling it for the E-6 film run at the lab.  We'd keep the set up and untouched until we saw final film, and only when the final film was delivered and approved by the AD did we start the process of cleaning up.  One day of pre-production and one full day of lighting, scene building and shooting in order to end up with five sheets of color film.  And only one perfect sheet.  

Post production?  Clean the studio and bill the client.  When the transparencies returned from the color separator we'd file them by date, job and subject and we were done.

Thanks for indulging this walk down memory lane.  Sometimes it's helpful to me to remember how we did things in the old days before we absentmindedly try to re-invent the wheel.  Now, where did I put my typewriter?


To see more of my still life work:  Kirk Tuck's Website



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Melancholy Walk. The Downfall. And other mini blogs as captions.


This is a re-publication of this article. It's still true.

I may be just a little insane but I think I'm witnessing the collapse of civilization every day.  Just a little bit at a time.  Crumb by crumb.  Not in the monolithic, "TSA Groped me and all is lost" sort of way, but in a different and more pernicious way.  Let me explain.  I'm convinced that the cellphone is greatest tool for isolation and evil in recent history.  Most car wrecks are now caused by people talking and texting on cellphones.  But that's too dramatic.  What I'm talking about is is the slow erosion.  I was at the flagship store of Whole Foods today.  Everywhere I looked people were detached from everything around them.  From the beautiful produce, the delightful pastries, the never-before-in-the-history-of-man selections of great wines and cheeses.  The guys were not "checking out" the plethora of beautiful girls flowing like spring water thru the aisles.  The women weren't even noticing the displays of chocolate.  Instead, they did the "thorazine shuffle" with their carts aimlessly navigated with one hand and the rest of their being concentrated either on staring like zombies at the screens of their iPhones or Blackberries, or wandering without a compass while listening to something at the other end of their cell connection, eyes staring off into the middle distance.  It was so sad.  Like a prince of old surrounded by a library full of priceless books and a museum full of art, looking for a comic book to read.  I was so depressed I had to leave the store.  These people wouldn't ever get better.  They are doomed to walk around in this particular circle of hell until their calling plan comes to an end.  Oblivious to the ever changing kaleidoscope of beauty swirling around them.  Don't write and defend cellphones,  I will only excoriate you.
For all of you who are convinced that photography is dead and that bricks and mortar photography stores died out in the 1990's I direct your attention to Precision Camera and Video on North Lamar Blvd. in Austin, Texas.  I shoved wax into my ears like Odysseus and resisted the siren song of the Carl Zeiss 85mm 1.4 for Canon long enough to grab a box of printing paper and bid a hasty retreat.  They had their best "black Friday" ever.  EVER.  This past week.  Selling mostly.........cameras.
 I live in the third smartest city in America, according to Fortune Magazine.  But I still see cars like this one.  The smaller sticker reads, "Obama Lied.  The Economy Died."  Apparently they didn't get the memo that the economy hit the crapper in late 2008 while GWB was still holding on to the reins.  The ballout?  2008.  The Tarp?  2008.  Collapse of the stock market?  2008.  Etc.  In some circles history and facts don't count.  God must have a different agenda.
When I feel overwhelmed I take photographs of clouds.  They comfort me and when they move really fast through the late afternoon skies they remind me of Bergman movies.  Or Highlander movies.  Depending on your age....
I know we are near the end of civilization when battered, graffiti'd fences are adjacent to 30 story luxury condominium towers just a quick walk from the center of town.  
Already commented.  When I walked by much later he was stil there, transfixed. He could have driven to another city and met face to face in the amount of time he spent glued to $2 worth of microwave emitting plastic.

I encountered the Which Wich shop near 6 pm on today's walk thru downtown.  It looked so medieval.  The glow of the interior lights made the barest impact just a foot or two outside the front doors.  Everything looked so gray.  Inside the lone worker leaned against the counter and talked on his cellphone.
But I did have lunch with Belinda.  She and I do have cellphones.  But we both leave them in the car.  Who could possibly call that would be more important than the person right in front of me?  Especially if it's Belinda.  Please.  Put down your phone.    Turn it off and speak without reservation and hesitation and condition to the person who sacrificed their time to sit right in front of you and share their humanity.

All photographs shot with a Sony R1 camera.  Jpegs.  iPhoto processing.  Start the new week with a commitment to really live.



the holidays are upon us.  I humbly submit that a good book about photography will be most welcome by the photographers on your list.  Here are a few suggestions:

   















   















   















   

5.05.2013

The Sunday Evening Blog. A catch all of subjects meant to bring everyone up to speed on the mundane details of my professional life...

2nd Street. Crowded with Party-Goers of All Kinds.

Quick history lesson: On May 5, 1862 the Mexican army unexpectedly whipped up on the French invaders in the Mexican area around Pueblo. Whupped 'em good. So Cinco de Mayo became a general celebration of resistance and democracy for the people of northern Mexico and today it celebrates the pride and spirit of Mexicans. The short version in Austin? Any excuse to block off downtown streets and throw a party. 

But let me back up to this morning. I worked on a video project for Zach Theatre and we started setting up lights and audio gear at 10:00 am, which meant that I started sorting gear and getting stuff together around 8:00 am this morning. The batteries went onto the chargers last night....

Shooting still photography now seems delightfully simple. I only need to pack lights and cameras. But video is mean. You have to pack all the stuff you'd use for regular photography and then dump in a bunch of audio gear. Microphones, mixers, balanced cables and microphone stands. And it makes sense to bring an assortment because, like lenses, microphones have specific strengths and weaknesses. I'd just bought a Rode NTG2 shotgun microphone and I was dying to use it today but the air conditioning system in the old theatre we were shooting in is loud like the cough of a rheumy old man amplified through the Rolling Stones location speaker stack.

But that's a whole other subject. 

I set up a white background and lit it flat and bright with two of the Fiilex P360 open faced LED fixtures. They make liars out of people who claim LEDs aren't bright enough or well enough color balanced for real stuff. With a little turn of the color temp dial they fell right in line with my Day Flo Pro Fluorescent lights. My main light was a 6 bulb Day Flo Pro Fluorescent fixture blasting through a 6x6 foot, one stop diffusion silk. My fill light was a 4 bulb Day Flo Pro Fluorescent fixture blowing through a two stop pop  up reflector.

We were making PSA's (TV commercials) and promotional web videos for Zach's upcoming rendition of Harvey. It's the play based on the 1940's moving starring Jimmy Stewart. The whole play is about a man, Elwood P. Dowd, who has a constant companion: A six foot, one and a half inch rabbit which only he seems to be able to see... The lead, the character Elwood P. Dowd, is played by one of my absolute favorite actors extant, Martin Burke.

This morning we were serving several "content masters." We shot all the material needed to do a thirty second spot with Elwood talking to his "friend" while a voice over narrator filled in the blanks. Mostly Martin sat on a park bench, in front of my white background, under my bright, high key lighting, in a 1940's era wool suit and vest (complete with a bowtie) and proceeded to ruin take after take by making the video crew (David and me) burst out laughing.

We did manage to get all of the shots we needed and a lot more. Close ups, middle distance shots and wide establishing shots. Martin played to the Rabbit just like there was a real creature sitting next to him.  

After we got our "footage?" for the PSA's we changed the background for a green screen and shot a bunch of impromptu and improvisational kidding around between "Elwood" and "Harvey." David Munns (producer and editor) will use his green screen magic to drop scenes from around Austin into the background. I can hardly wait to see it all.

Our only real issue was sound. With an air conditioner that sounds like a fleet of Harley Davidson motorcycles bereft of any mufflers in the background we tested and then quickly discarded the shotgun microphone in deference to a wickedly good set of Sennheiser wireless lavalier mics. They are great. You get them in really close ( like on a dark jacket lapel) and they tend to throw away background noise and add an intimacy with your main subject. I carefully monitored the sound through headphones as we shot, stopping every once in a while to remind Martin NOT to thump his chest with his fist...

Some smart ass will ask why we didn't turn off the air conditioning. I might as well answer. In commercial buildings they (the building managers) generally try not to put the control of their utilities or A/C into the hands of the general public. So there's not a user accessible switch that says, "PUSH HERE FOR NO AIR CONDITIONING."  But secondly, we're here in Texas with a man in many layers of wool clothing, hanging just fractions of a centigrade away from sweating like a fat man in a steam bath. Like a cold ice tea glass on an August day in downtown Houston... I think you get the picture...

I'm learning not to "wing it" in video. It's too complicated to leave stuff to chance only to have to come back again and fix it. I metered the set meticulously with a hand held, incident light meter. I photographed the scene with the video camera (a Sony a99) and checked the histogram. I used a Lastolite white/grey target to custom white balance with. I used my Rokinon 85mm 1.5 Cine lens at what I believe to be one of its best apertures, f4, and I switched the camera into still mode before each take to zoom in to 16 or 20X and check fine focus. On some scenes (especially the close ups) where Martin would lean into the camera for dramatic emphasis I check focus at both ends of his move and marked the lens at both places so I could rack back and forth between the two marks to keep him in sharp focus. Focus peaking really helps in that situation.

We reviewed the content and all the parameters are good: Martin's performance, the audio and the visuals. I hope to see a nice set of PSA's at the end of the week which I'll quickly share with all of you even though you might not be interested in video. (You lazy slackers...). Since David will be in charge of editing I handed him the memory card after we packed the car back up and breathed a sigh of relief. The editing is the hard part. At least to me...

I went home to unpack and see what the family was up to. Everyone is in work mode. Ben has his AP psychology test in the morning. He'd been out to forage for breakfast tacos and was munching on a pulled pork and egg taco with a bacon, egg and cheese in ready reserve. Belinda had already taken nourishment and had chained herself to her desk to work on an advertising project with her usual, terrifying concentration. Feeling marginalized, I headed to Garrido's restaurant where a loud, rowdy and happy crowd was already in the midst of a glorious Cinco de Mayo brunch/happy hour.

I grabbed a seat at the bar, watched Nick, the young bartender, defy gravity with liquids and munched on Huevos Benedictos (eggs benedict with an addictive chipotle hollandaise sauce) and, being the consumate risk taker I washed it down with a cup of decaf coffee. How could I resist? The owner/chef brewed a fresh pot just for me.

I spent the rest of the afternoon walking around in the sun drenched avenues of our capitol city trying to find fun things to photograph. I was carrying the Sony a58 which punches far above its price class and I was using it with a lens that continues to amaze me and grow on me: the 16-50mm 2.8 zoom. More and I more I'm saving the a99 for projects that are, in some part, about video. For everything else I've been pressing this one cheap, zesty camera body into hyper-service. My goal? To see if I can wear out the shutter before I get tired of shooting it.

Could things get any more crowded?


Last week was all about editing. It went something like this: Edit > get stumped > go to Lynda.com and learn for hours > Edit > get stumped, etc. rinse, repeat.  I knocked out two really good projects with that methodology and, more to the point, I think I'm over the hump (fear) on Final Cut Pro X.  

This week we go on industrial safari. I have a job that takes me into an international company that makes custom cabling to make portraits of the executive staff, record video interviews with the same (same lighting set up: light once, shoot twice) and then move on to making images of the design and work areas and the people who do the set up and assembly. After each cool still shot I'll shoot some "B" roll. A video crew will come in after me, the next day to do some "look and feel" sutff so the agency has enough content to make a good program. My interviews will get cut down and put on the website.

Funny, it was just a couple of months ago that I really started aiming toward doing more video in the business and now it seems to be flowing through the door and over the transom (wish I had a transom...). I guess having the intention is always the first step. Buckle up for a fun week. Glad you are along for the ride.'



5.04.2013

What's the order of importance in making a beautiful portrait?


1. To recognize a beautiful face.

2. To connect with the sitter and get a real expression.

3. To create light that's not about the light but is in the service of making the sitter look their best.

4. To choose the right focal length and lens character to translate what you recognized as beauty.

What is the least important and most talked about trivia in making a portrait?

1. What brand of camera you used.

2. What brand of light you used.

3. Your lighting formula.

4. How sharp and noiseless your image files are.

The first four matter. The last four are boring.

If I ask my friend, who is an artist behind the camera, how his portrait session went with someone he tells me first what they talked about. And he describes the moment at which the expression and pose clicked in. If I ask my friend, who is a gear head, about how his portrait session went he tells me what camera body and flash he used. Totally different mindset. Totally different results.



Knowing exactly which gear to use without bringing imagination and passion to the shoot is something like "knowing the cost of everything and the value of nothing."




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Lady Gaga, Britney Spears, Mel Gibson and Charlie Sheen have nothing to do with this blog post. Almost.

To be honest about the blog title, I wanted to see if it's really true that you can drive outrageous numbers to your blog with the silly ploy of using the names of famous celebrities in the headline.  Blogger will probably spank me for even playing around but I think in this day and age of media silliness it's interesting to see how hidden algorithms define what we see and read..... Now on with the Sunday blog.....

I went out for a walk around noon today.  I was wearing a pair of for all mankind (#7) polarized sunglasses and, as I've noticed in the past, everything looks better thru a pair of polarized sunglasses.  Skies get dramatic, colors pop and everything gets a bit janglier.  So I took them off, even though the hot noon sun was blinding, and I spent the next two hours trying to make my camera see the way I do when I have those damn cool glasses on.  That meant cranking up the saturation and doing some mild post processing on my return to the office.  Something I rarely do.

And today, of all days, I actually evesdropped on my own fleeting thought processes as I lined up photographs.  I wanted to know, in the moment, why I took the frames (not the sunglasses, the other frames) I did as I walked around on our first hot Sunday.  And just for the hell of it I thought I'd share those thoughts with you and see if anyone was hardy enough to read all the way thru.



Cute girls on stylish mopeds are always a given.  Flashing by with a short red skirt on the first hot day makes for an almost autonomic response by most photographers.  For some reason Austin is wall-to-wall with scooters, mopeds, electric scooters and motorcycles this Spring.  From a fatherly point of view I wanted to shout out that she should wear a helmet, and some foot gear, and some long pants in case she had to lay that bike down.  But advice is largely wasted on youth and I was too busy manually focusing to follow thru with sage pronouncements.


Why?  Does everyone see it?  It looks like an owl to me.  And if the architects and nature transpired together to bring off a decidedly cubist owl how can I walk away without documenting it?  I was first attracted to the slice of transluminated green on the right side window.  Then the horns on the top pushed me to stop and the glare of the endlessly concentric eyes compelled me to say, "Yes, yes, yes.  A thousand times yes!" As I bracketed a 32 exposure HDR bracketing sequence.  Then I came to my senses, deleted all but one of the exposures and figured I was actually smart enough or experienced enough (or lucky enough) to be able to get good shots that ONLY need on frame.......  I call it "Found In Baggage Claim.."


As I rounded the corner on Congress Ave.  I looked to my left and saw a long table of patrons at the bar of the restaurant on the ground floor of the Austonian.  Packed together in a line eight across were the biggest butts I'd ever seen shoved into Sunday church dresses.  Massive legs ending in fahionable high heeled shoes.  But though I'm cruel enough to write it I'm not cruel enough to stop and draw even more attention and ridicule by bringing to greater attention the plight of the enormous via photography. Even when they sit with their backsides to the giant show window, facing the main downtown street.  So I ambled along a few doors down and found these chairs stacked.  I'd been playing with the EC-S split image screen in the camera and I was amazed at how quick and easy focus was, near wide open, at the bottom of the frame.  And I thought about that instead.


When I started out my walk I went by a tall condominium tower called, Spring.   When I glanced up I saw this intense reflection of the undiffused sun.  Most people would blink and walk away but after the trench warfare of the Olympus EPL2 review (just "Google" "Olympus Red Spots") I decided to see what the difference sized pixel wells in the Canon would do.  Voila.  No red dots.  I'm of the belief that red dots are more of a winter phenomenon..... Then I just decided I liked the angles.  And I imagined that this would be the kind of building that an Ayn Rand-y architect would build if he were working in 2011 instead of 1957.  Who can know?


At some junction I think my brain is just attracted to strong lines and color contrasts.  And I'll shoot just about anything that fits the mold.  Kind of a "find a pattern named Waldo" with buildings.  And I'm a sucker for street lights on the corner.


Why did I shoot this?  Was it something Susan Sontag wrote?  Or Robert Adams?  Or, Claude Levi-Strauss (From Honey to Ashes to Street Art)?  Naw.  I just love it when corporations or the city make art for everyone to enjoy downtown.  This is an inset mural on the brick sidewalk of Second Street and is one of five or sixes pieces of original art embedded on the corner.  It wasn't there two weeks ago.  I snapped the shot to share it with my local ad friends.  Strictly Photography as a communication tool.



I've spent 30 years discovering, rediscovering and coming to grips with the work of photographer, Lee Freidlander, and as I walked down the sidewalk on Fifth St. thinking about cellphones and how lame the whole cellphone thing is, my mind clicked in and said, "Wow, isn't that a wild and chaotic assemblage of colors and shapes and stuff?   Shouldn't you stop being an anti-electronics snob and just shoot the damn thing?"  I was shocked at the intercession of a normally distracted brain and it was so novel to actually get some proactive juice out of it that I jumped to and snapped just as the cyclist hit the panel I wanted him in.  My brain thought it was pretty cool so I printed it just to keep him happy.  I wonder what Lee Freidlander's work would have been like if he'd worked all in color.  I wonder if this image above would have any power if it were in black and white.....


Documentary shock comes when you see something in your own town you didn't know existed.  In this case, actual street sweepers.  Shades of Paris in the 1970's.  Amazing.  I'd never seen it before so this is more of a documention of my protected lifestyle that anything else.


Moving along.  Nothing to say about the enigmatic art installation that's been at the intersection of Lamar Blvd. and the railroad tracks for the better part of a decade.  I shoot it to pay homage to the noble idea of art in public places.  And to mystify the drivers who sweep under the bridge, cellphone in one hand, Big Gulp(tm) in the other.  All faith placed in the steering power of their knees and the weight reducing power of 64 ounces of Diet Coke(tm).


Finally, A quiet shot done at the mysterious insistence of my new focusing screen which has convinced me in short order that every time we remove something like autofocus we are not losing tools so much as gaining directness with the objects in front of the camera.  Let me say it succintly:  Autofocus works well but it's a sucky concept meant, for the most part, to assuage the fears and trepidation of people who are too lazy to learn the totally cool art of taking charge and doing their own focusing.  Not to worry.  I'll find a reason for autofocus tomorrow.

The high point of the walk was seeing a wealth of people in the downtown area eating at packed sidewalk restaurants.  The lure of downtown is getting stronger and stronger and it feels so vibrant and un-American (in a good way).  People walking for blocks.  People moving without their cars.  People being nice to each other because they don't have four thousand pounds of steel around them and so must be responsible for their own words and actions.  Amazingly equalizing.  Just what a culture needs.

I headed over to Whole Foods and had a wonderful chopped BBQ sandwich with purple onions and sweet pickles.  Washed it down with a Pale Ale (on tap) and headed home.  I continue to be more and more pleased with the old Canon 1dmk2n and the 50mm Zeiss Planar 1.4.  Used them for my walk and never entertained the thought that I might need anything else.

Shooting tomorrow and Tues. but hoping to have my Michael O'Brien video done and approved by Weds.  Hope the week treats you well.

Postscript:  I finally gave into peer pressure and bought an iPhone.  Now I can stumble thru Whole Foods transfixed to the screen, walking into other people, head-on, who are also transfixed to their screens and once in a great while I'll use the hipstamatic app on the iPhone like all the other aging photographers in their desperate attempt to recapture the cool they assumed they had sometime in the past.  Just what the world needs.....  But at least now I'm connected.....oh brother.




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5.03.2013

All about change.

A wonderfully succinct thought about art.

Just saw this quote on a friend's site and thought it sums up everything very well.


"The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift." Albert Einstein



5.02.2013

An overdue Sunday walk helps reinforce a sense of place. Regardless of which amazing camera you choose.


You purist out there are going to hate me for this but for the last week I've gotten stuck on a silly, post processing mode in Aperture that Apple calls "Toy Camera." It ramps up the contrast and saturation of an image and then applies a whopping big dose of vignette. I think I started playing with it because my images were looking meek and soft and I wanted to experiment with a more, "in your face style." I'm sure I'll get over it and go back to my flatter and less frantic post processing.

I spent my week doing portraits (stills) and interviews (video) and I was ready for some "non-human" photography time. Many people seem to think that cityscapes are boring unless you do them in one of the "great capitols" where imposing, august and intimidating buildings that were made many years ago live. Cities as populated with interesting architecture the way Palm Springs is populated with golfers (and from time to time, photographers...).  I might agree with that assessment if my goal was to catalog and show off the architectural achievements of my fair city but in fact I walk and photograph to reinforce my sense of place. I see the city as constantly growing and changing. Not always for the better but not always badly. Having a mental image of what local places look like gives me some sort of comfort that I find hard to explain.

On the day of this walk I took the (relatively) new Sony a58 and the muscular 16-50mm f2.8 lens with me. I like the camera just fine but I love the lens. And I love it even better when I watch through the electronic finder after I take the shot and watch the camera's processor apply the corrections in it's little memory banks to the image. The lines straighten out and the corners lighten up. But then I just mess it up again in post processing with my Toy Camera Mania.


I spent all week in the studio so when I went out I looked for all the places where the central Texas sun does it's hot, bright, bully light all over everything. The images above and below were taken up on the third level of the Austin Convention Center. Interesting thing, the ACC is open every time I go there. Whether they are having a car show or meeting or nothing at all the building seems constantly accessible to me. Given the long halls with flooding sunlight and all the blandly interesting post modernist touches I am amazed that it's not full of film students doing guerilla photo shoots, without permission or permits. At the very least some exploratory fashion photography? Whatever. But the bathrooms are convenient and the water fountains are cold.



One benefit of keeping track of a city center growing like a weed is knowing which locations you want to put in the background of a location portrait and what the best time of day is to make it happen well. 


Our downtown never seems to sleep. There are multiple art and music festivals just about every weekend, and something like 120 music/night clubs in a one and a half mile strip. The problem for diurnal shooters like me is that most of the big events take place outside, during the day. The sun is harsh on faces  but looks great on buildings. I guess I need to go out later and haunt the few interior venues with interesting interior light....


I like walking the city with a small camera and a good lens because it allows me to get seriously good images when I see them while making a casual and lightweight enough package so that it feels as though it's just along for the ride. If I don't find anything to shoot then no big deal.

Okay, I think I'm over my "toy camera" phase. Just had to get it out of my system...

Changing my mindset from the "loner, creative photographer" to the "team player immersed in creating content". Now there's a leap.


I think it's a quirk of the human mind to always be looking in the rear view mirror at where we've been and what we've done, and how we did it. And, in an anthropological sense it's logical. Learn from the past. You have to take into consideration that for the vast majority of the time we've been wondering around this planet (as a species, camera-less)  the rates of profound changes in process and tradition for most generations of humans were....glacial. So I think we're pretty much hardwired to look for future solutions by mining our past experiences. What that leads to in an age of hyper-change and accelerating process evolution is a never ending set of schism points between people who "get" the lastest change in X and people who just pull up hard and stop in place. No bandwidth to go any further. Shut down and operating on whatever brain operating system version was in place at the moment they hit the wall of progress. 

You see it everywhere. There are some people who don't want to learn how to pump their own gas. Others who've never adapted to using the web. Still others that "don't get Twitter" and millions who aren't sure why their otherwise rational sons and daughters walk around in a haze staring at their phone screens as though some benevolent technology god was just about to impart the "final secret" through that medium. Remember the shock, disappointment and lost sales BMW suffered when they first introduced the "i-drive" to a generation of series 7 car buyers who were baffled by the interface? And why they might need/want it?  Maybe we could chalk that one up to crappy interface design. 

I'm of a generation that loves to talk about how we did it, pre-digital. And really? No one gives a shit. I'm also of the generation of imaging specialists who think they might just skate through their entire professional lives doing just one thing or one process really, really well. And why not? They won't have to expend any additional time learning more. I read a "Pro" forum today. A traditional wedding shooter was bemoaning the story that he had "booked" nineteen weddings last year but only four this year. You could feel his anguish. He went on to say he just couldn't understand why everyone wanted to mess up their images (taken with phones) by dragging them through the filters in Instagram. He just knew that if he could show them the pristinely sharp, perfectly color corrected and (yawn) perfectly posed portraits that he was able to knock out and print onto canvas with his Nikon D3X and such and such lens he felt certain that they'd want his product. A backward look at a product that sold well in the 1980s.

So, where am I going with this? Well, it dawned on me that most businesses do better when they listen to the customers they aspire to serve. I've just come off what I would have described as a schizophrenic week just a few years ago. Schizophrenic in that I got to wear many hats. I bounced back and forth between working as a still photographer, a portrait photographer, a script consultant, a video lighting designer, a director and a DP. The two video interviews I helped create were for businesses who felt ready to up their sell on their websites. One was for a law firm the other for an executive coach. Both mixed together my long term lighting skills with new stuff I keep learning about video in the digital age. We also produced a TV commercial for an entertainment client. When I say, "produced" I mean that I worked with a creative person and my part was to set up the lighting, engineer the sound and then run the camera. My partner created the script, ran the teleprompter and did the edits.

During the same week I shot an ad image, several portraits and did some fun art documentation. In the last few days, when I've dropped by agencies that I've worked with before, either to drop off work, or to drop by some promo, my creative counterparts ask me what I've been up to. When we talk about making video their eyes light up and conversations moves from polite banter to full attention. What just about every creative person and corporate marketing person is looking for is a full on content provider rather than a breadbasket full of disparate cogs that require assembly. 
But this is not the way we used to do it in the rear view mirror.

I spoke with a regular client about an upcoming project next week. He's used my video services for interview recently and has hired me as a photographer many times over the past ten years. We discussed his need for "B-roll" video as well as still images in our upcoming location at a tech manufacturing facility. He wanted to know if I could light my set ups with continuous lights, shoot the still images and then roll some video for inserts. It was a good discussion. He's designing the new website to use only horizontal image content. That means we can go in with a video tripod and fluid head.  We'll lock it down for the stills and we'll move for the video. The budget gets a bump as well. 

This was the lighting package I took to the location ad shoot. 
Big flash and lots of power. But for the rest of the week it was...
....all continuous, continuously.

I dropped off a couple DVDs to another long term client today who asked me, "What's up?" We dove into the video conversation. When I explained to him what I was doing he got excited. "I didn't know you were doing motion." We talked about shooting video with DSLR's and we talked about sound recording and editing. He was excited. He likes the way I direct and light people in stills and was ready to incorporate those looks in video. His company is all interactive. All website design. His take on the market? People are demanding a mix of media now. Static images are not enough. They are required but the are not sufficient to hold viewers' attentions. People want both. I want both.

As part of my continuing education I'm learning the in-depth craziness of Final Cut Pro X, which is a non-linear video editing software product. I knew it was more than I could be able to figure out by brute force so I signed up for a service called, Lynda.com. They specialize in video based instruction for creative people of all stripes. They have modules for just about any imaging software from In Design to Nuke 7 and everything in between. They even have a tutorial for learning how to optimize your YouTube channel.  I've watched the basic, six hour FCPX video editing module twice and my last two edits were better, quicker and more controlled.

The cross platform "money maker." Bright, soft and powerful.

I've got a lot to learn but then I'm expecting to live a long time so I figure I'd better adjust to my ever changing surroundings. One part of me wishes that nothing had ever changed and that everyday I could go into the studio, set up my signature light, drink coffee and yak with my assistants, shoot a corporate exec on a standard background and get paid big bucks. But, on the other hand once you figure something out well enough so that the operation becomes subconscious don't you get incredibly bored and ready to move on to something new? Isn't that the true nature of a creative business?


On one of the video shoots I couldn't use my preferred microphone method which is to put a lavalier microphone on my interview subject's shirt or lapel. We ended up using an inexpensive shotgun mic on a boom instead. I spent a lot of time in the editing process cleaning up the sound. That led to a shopping trip last Sunday which culminated in an upgrade. A new, much better shotgun microphone. You can hear a difference. I hear the sound of less work in post processing. Another part of the learning curve.



Providing more than photographs requires every photographer to look to their native skill sets. If you are a natural leader you might aim at doing more and more directing. If you are an introvert who loves the process of things you might aim to be more involved in editing and special effects. If your alternate talents lie in writing then I see scripts in your future. If you love to light you'll probably figure out how to leverage all the cool stuff you learned lighting photographs into more work as a lighting designer/camera operator. Are you really into music? You could be leveraging your assets into sound design.

There's no question that the market for just still photography, especially from mid-talent people in mid-tier markets is tightening. But it's hardly the end of the world. It's just an ever accelerating marketplace's way of encouraging you to spread those creative wings, open your mind and expand the range of stuff you do.

I like doing all these different things. It's more profitable than just sitting around changing camera systems willy-nilly, hoping the latest system has some sort of magic that will get you business. And even the time I spend learning via the web or editing the work has some benefit:  I get to spend more time with my noble dog. That's a nice, stable part of the process. And yes, I do look for her advice on everything from the moral character of the people who come into the studio to whether or not a cross dissolve would look cheesy for a certain transition. She hasn't let me down yet.  Go out and be prolifically creative. It's all fun.


I'm not saying I'm great at any of this...yet. But I'm committed. I'm enjoying the teamwork of shooting video and making interviews work. I grudgingly admit that editing is not the satanic process I originally thought it might be. It's all fun. And making motion ties right into all my research about continuous light sources over the last four years. Synergy. Growth and Change. Like baking a cake.

4.30.2013

My favorite portrait technique? Simplicity.



One light. One 12 megapixel camera. One 85mm 1.8 lens.

Just put the light in the right place and then work on seeing the person in front of you. At that point the technical stuff should take care of itself.

Back when we printed just about everything every photographer worth his Dektol at his own filed out negative carrier to use in his enlarger. The idea was that you could print everything that was on the negative. It was proof that you saw perfectly at the moment you pushed your fickle index finger down on the shutter release button. Shades of Henri Cartier-Bresson!!! While there are probably a thousand ways to make your own custom frames to fit around you digital images I find it easiest just to hop into Snapseed and customize one of their handy, pre-fab frames.

Most of the time they serve no purpose other than eliciting the ethos of printing in the wet days. But in this situation the background toasted up to white and I needed a frame to define where the white background stopped and the Blogger background begins.

I did some work on this photo in Snapseed. I turned down the saturation a bit. Because I think skin tones look more natural when they aren't Disney-saturated. I opened up the shadows and brightened up my subject's eyes to match the perception I had of her eyes while I was shooting. I was moving from objective reality to my subjective reality, via sliders.

I look at most of my RAW files as a vague starting point. And when it comes to portraits I'm willing to use every trick in the book to bring an image from the vague muddle of data that comes from my cameras into line with the pristine and always optimistic view my brain seems to store of my subjects. On any given image I might spend some time in Aperture (for just the right color and tone), PhotoShop (to repair blemishes and dust spots and meteor dust) as well as Portrait Professional (to get the eyes and the skin tones just right), and finally a wallow through Snapseed because I like the judicious use of the structure filter and the ease of adding frames and vignettes.

It's my job to guide your eyes and your intentions. I am not an forensic documentarian. My job is the opposite of strictly recording the median. That's for robots and surveillance cameras.

I suggest that we use the tools we have at our fingertips. The trick is to know when to stop. That's probably why I'm not showing the other ten variations. The bottom line is that the value lies in your original vision, not the cameras literal compulsions. Drag the image to the reality you saw in your heart and mind and the hell with the purists.