5.16.2013

I like to make portraits. It's always fun to spend time with interesting people. And 99% of all people are interesting. The remaining 1% is interesting by dint of not being "Interesting."

David Steakley.

Mr. Steakley is the artistic director of Zach Theatre here in Austin, Texas.  I recently had the good fortune to photograph him for the theater's public relations work. The only problem with getting the assignment to photograph Dave is that his schedule is insane. When he's not directing wonderful shows he's in New York or some other cool city looking for new projects to bring back to Texas.

For this portrait I used the new Fotodiox fluorescent light fixtures. One small one for the background, another medium bank with only half the bulbs on for the backlight, and a six bulb bank blasting through a Chimera diffusion bank as my main light.

I used the Sony a99 with the Sony 70-200mm 2.8 G lens at around f3.2 at 1/80th of a second. The focal length was 105mm.

While I often need to prompt and cajole sitters into giving me a "look" that I like Dave fell right into what he thought his role should be. I guess it comes from watching and directing actors for the better part of 20 years.... He is masterful in his direction and I've photographed images for marketing for well over 100 of his plays, including his own well received, original play, Keepin Austin Weird.

I think one of the things that makes Dave such a successful director is that he comes to each project with a vision and he is fearless about pursuing his vision for a production without compromise. In that aspect I feel he is like a mentor to me. His vigilance in his work against unnecessary compromise or capitulation pushes me to say, "No" to bad requests more often.

His current project is "Harvey." If you read the blog you know that I photographed it on Tues. It's an amazing play in that it comes almost unchanged from the 1940's but Dave has managed to craft it so that the core message of the play isn't lost in the wonderful comedic moments.

This may not be the image that the theatre finally uses but it is certainly one of my favorite portraits to come out of my studio this year. It borders on intense. And, actually, we like that.

A spot on critique.

I loved everything in this blog and wanted to share it with you. We're (pretty much) all guilty of the same things.... at least I know I am...

http://www.thephoblographer.com/2013/05/16/this-is-why-your-pictures-suck/

5.15.2013

"Harvey" Dress Rehearsal at Zach Theatre. The Sony a99 and a58 trade punches. In some respects it's a draw....


I've been shooting marketing for Zach Theatre for about 19 years now. When we started it was with Hasselblad cameras and Tri-X film. When we went to color I switched to Leica M's and Kodak 320T tungsten balanced slide film, pushed to ISO 640. Now I routinely shoot the shows with a variety of digital cameras, all of which look better at ISO 3200 that the retired Kodak film did at it's native speed.

At the theatre the light's getting sexier and more complex and the incorporation of moving sets and pictures that move on the sets make for a layering that's as captivating as it is difficult to capture. The straightforward shots of the plays are easier. 

Last night I packed up an old, worn, black Domke camera bag with two cameras and a little assortment of lenses. Almost like a chocolate sampler box.... There were some things I just wanted to play with and I brought them along. The main camera was the a99 with the 70-200mm f2.8. It's a great utilitarian combination. I set the aperture at f4 and the ISO at 1600 and I just let it fly. 

The other camera, the a58, was my trial cam. I wanted to see how it handled 1600 and 3200 and I also wanted to see what it would do with my cheapy favorite optic, the 55-200mm DT lens. I brought a few other lenses for some wide shots on both cameras and I brought along an ultra wide that I never got around to using.


The play was "Harvey." This was a play, made famous in 1950 by a movie of the same name, starring Jimmie Stewart. The basic story is that Elwood Dowd is a wealthy man in his 40's whose best friend is a 6 foot 1.5 inch rabbit. Actually a "Pookah" of Celtish origin. The only problem for everyone in the play (except Elwood and Harvey, the rabbit) is that the rabbit is, well, invisible. 
To complicate matters Elwood generously makes his beautiful home available to his sister and his niece. The niece is having a hard time attracting suitors given that she's living with a man who has a giant, make believe friend with whom he goes drinking nearly every evening. 

When a plan is hatched to have Elwood committed everything gets crazy. And funny. 

The play is being produced in the new Topfer Theatre and the sets and scale are perfect for this intimate and acoustically perfect venue. So, back to the  photo stuff....


I'd like to make the mechanics of all this seem so complex and endowed with such heady craft that only an accomplished genius could pull this level of photography off but that would be a lie. It's so much easier to shoot moving action and changing lights with a state of the art digital camera, a fast zoom and all the trimmings. Now all I really need to pay attention to is the action and the framing. Which is also important but much more subjective than binary measures of quality. 


So, here's my tech boy take away: At ISO 1600 everything looks good on both cameras. I can shoot people full length and still count the eyelashes. Both cameras use new noise filtering algorithms that process different parts of the frame differently. Flat areas are more aggressively filtered while areas with detail are less processed, the noise hidden within the detail. Both cameras have great EVF finders. (I do need to calibrate the EVF to the LCD on the a58. The interior screen looks beautiful but it's too dark right now...I defaulted to the histogram...thankfully, both screen are adjustable separately.)

Another funny thing is that the lenses are almost equally good. The $200 lens wide open seems about as good as the $2,000 stopped down a stop. At least at the long end of the lenses. I was very happy with the way the 55-200 handled tight compositions at its extreme focal length. 

I'm not making any claim that there's no valuable difference between the $2799 a99 and the $599 a58 but what I am saying is that in the sweet spot of use, where neither camera has to really break a sweat, you don't get to see that last 10% of image quality and elan that you paid so much more money for....

For my day to day work the a99 proves its value in a number of ways, one of which is the inclusion of a headphone jack and manual audio for my video projects. Still, it's nice to know that an entry level camera is well enough engineered to deliver 90% of the goods for a quarter of the price.



If you live in the Austin area the television commercials and PSAs that we produced for the play have started into rotation on many of the Time Warner Cable stations and a few local network affiliate stations. I watched one as I edited the files today and remembered that the camera that shot the promos also shot the dress rehearsal. Two different worlds colliding on one sensor. In my mind it's a great example of the idea of Hybrid Photography. So, after last week's excitement and all the Adobe bashing what software program did I edit my images from last night in????



I used Apple's Aperture. The more I use it the more I like the choices their designers made for the aesthetics of sharpening and the way the program renders the tonal curves of the files. It also does a great job holding onto highlights. Or maybe that's just a new generation of wide dynamic range sensors from Sony. (Ahhh, the Sony sensors. The real reason people like the new generation of Olympus and Nikon cameras... :-) ).

I whipped through the 1281 files I shot and color corrected in batches. I originally shot as full sized, extra fine jpegs and I saved out at the same res as quality 10 jpegs. I delivered about 8 gigabytes to the marketing people just after lunch today and, I am sure, that as I sit here writing this that they've already tightly edited and are knee deep in the routine of offering the images out to the many editorial outlets (mostly web) that blanket Austin like those blobby things that congeal around Mr. Incredible in Syndrome's lair in the movie, Mr. Incredible. All that's left is the sending of the invoice.


And, so how did I like the play? Gosh. It was good clean fun. Well acted and well blocked. The scenes were built on a large turntable (think fifty or more feet in diameter) and the whole stage rotated for scene changes.  I'd neve seen that done before.  Just good clean fun flown in on the Zach time machine from the 1940's. (play from the 40's, movie from 50.)























If you click on the images you can see them at 2000 pixels wide. That's as big as I like to upload and as big as Google likes to accept on my account.  Take my word for it, the 6000 pixel files are pretty as well.

The end.




















5.14.2013

Pernicious camera envy.

I've got a temporary case of it and I'm fighting it....

But Olympus and Magic Lantern aren't making it easy. Let's start with the ground breaking change to the Canon 5D mk3 first. If you are a still photography only person this may not shake the ground under your feet or cause you to do much more than walk down the hall for another cup of coffee, but for the people who want to do commercials, movies and other kinds of video with their hybrid (still+digital) camera this is big.

There is a company/group/source called Magic Lantern and they've made a hobby of writing terrific hacks for cameras that can do video but seem to be a bit crippled by their manufacturers. When the Canon 5D mk2 first came out videographers flocked to buy it because it was the first time a full frame (35mm frame) camera could be pressed into making video and that meant that film makers of all stripes could take advantage of the big sensor size to do all sorts of effects with shallow depth of field. But the camera had some flaws for video production. The biggest was no control over audio. The camera handled external microphones about the way a point and shoot would, it used automatic gain control, which results in compressed dynamic range (audio) and a lot of hiss and noise during quiet moments.

The industry went into work around mode. Film makers started buying up digital audio recorders and shooting second sound. This means they shot video with the 5D2 and recorded audio on a separate device and then tried to marry up the two tracks in post production. That led to another workaround in the form of some software called, Pluraleyes, which automatically sync'd up the tracks. The camera was also locked at 30 fps while film makers also wanted access to 24 fps.

So Magic Lantern created a "hack" that gave the 5D2 both fully manual sound control and 24 fps. Embarrassed, Canon later added both features in a long overdue firmware upgrade. Something they may have never done if the Magic Lantern folks hadn't showed the buying public how easy it was...

Now we've got the Canon 5Dmk3 and it comes factory equipped with both of the features that were missing at the previous model's launch. But video makers keep evolving and what they currently, desparately want is video with much better codecs or, even better, no compression at all. The current holy grail is to be able to shoot raw files. It's something offered by the Red cameras and a few other manufacturers but not by any DSLR hybrid maker. The general wisdom is that the thing holding back full frame video from ultimate quality is precisely the codec, of the way the files are compressed and then uncompressed.

You guessed it. About a week ago the Magic Lantern people announced and have distributed for beta testing a hack that does just that. It allows the 5D3 to shoot in raw. And the content I saw on EOSHD (yes, click the link for samples and details) is pretty compelling. It leapfrogs the 5Dmk3 well ahead of many dedicated, high end video cameras in the nose bleed price territory. Even those over $20,000. And unliked the uncompressed files you can get from some camera via the clean HDMI output into a digital recorder the hacked 5D3 will write directly to fast CF cards.

So now budding film makers can scale the capabilities of their 5D3's to match final use, creative expectations or client budgets. While the camera is still a 2k device there is the potential to sample from the entire frame and get a higher level of resolution as well.  Do I wish I also had a Canon 5D3 for the times I want the ultimate in video quality? Yes. As a still shooter do I have the same grass is greener on the other side of the fence envy? Nope.  Go to this link and read all about it because this will change the professional film and video market: http://www.eoshd.com/content/10324/big-news-hands-on-with-continuous-raw-recording-on-canon-5d-mark-iii

The potential downside (and we may already be seeing this in the introduction of new lenses like the 24-70mm 2.8, is that high end videographers may drive Canon to up the quality levels of their premium lenses and to (expensively) optimize them for shooting video. It all depends on where the market momentum winds up.... At the moment, through no hard work of their own, Canon takes the lead.

My second hunk of envy is much more straightforward. I was an early Olympus Pen adopter. I owned the original Pen film cameras, those cuddly little half frame cameras with the extra dose of great industrial design, that came out in the 1960's and soldiered on through part of the 1970's. I also bought several of the newer digital Pens. I loved the EP-2 camera and the EP-3 was even better but when we seemed forever stuck at a kludgy 12 megapixels I got lured away by the siren call of the IQ in the Sony Nex 7.

When Olympus came out with the OMD EM-5 camera last year I looked at it and played with it a dozen times but I didn't like the way the body was designed and it didn't evoke the warm and fuzzy nostalgia for the OM-1 that Oly hoped. I bonded with the cleaner and more logical EP/rangefinder-esque bodies and couldn't make the leap. But I did love what I saw from the camera and I still wish, from time to time, that my current cameras had the same prodigious image stabilization as the OMD EM-5.

The new EP-5 is nearly everything I wanted in a camera configuration I wanted when Olympus came out with the OMD EM5 instead. One thing that makes the new package even sweeter (and better than the OMD) is the upgraded EVF. The new version more that doubles the resolution of the VF2 while shortening the already good lag time down to 30 ms.

The other thing Olympus fixed was the fiddly control dials. Now there are hortizontally oriented control dials on the front and the back of the camera. There's other relatively meaningless stuff, like WiFi but the camera seems to have hit the sweet spot of both industrial design and performance. It's making me sweat a little when I look in the Nex equipment drawer. I'm sure I'm not the only Nex user who's saying: "Where's my Nex 70mm 1.8 ?????"

For more information go to the metrics source, DPReview: http://www.dpreview.com/previews/olympus-pen-ep5/

Just try not to get embroiled in any good forum fights while you're there....

Sunny and happy in Texas, and looking on the other side of the fence...

5.13.2013

Lighting tools and camera synergies.

Chartier.

I was looking across the littered studio this morning and noticing that I'm not really a camera junkie as much as I'm a lighting junkie. As I looked through the little piles of lighting fixtures I starting into the reductive mindset that tries to eliminate clutter by pushing me to make choices and get rid of everything I don't need.

The two piles most in conflict, at the moment, are the new fluorescents over the older LED panels. They both cover the same shooting situations. They both provide continuous lighting for video and good lighting for just about everything on my bucket list. But here's what you have to know about bigger continuous lights (the ones that plug into the walls).....they require more overall stuff in your lighting package when you leave home.

If you use flash you can put each flash on one stand, then apply a softbox or an umbrella as a light modifier directly to the light fixture without having to use a second stand. When I set up my big fluorescent light or LED light there's no easy way to attach a softbox or umbrella and, honestly, I wouldn't want to if I could because it would take away too much light and drive my exposures towards lower shutter speeds or noisier ISOs.

So when you want to modify your big LED panel, or your even bigger fluorescent panel, you generally use a separate diffuser on a frame which requires a second light stand and an attachment mechanism. You gain some lighting control since you can carry a range of diffusers and nets, etc. but you definitely add to your packing craziness.  Four flashes generally means four light stands while four fluorescents generally means seven or eight light stands (you might not need two stands for the background light...) to do the same basic lighting set up. More if you want to bring along black flags and modifiers for the modifiers.

My recent excursion into the world of location video/photography required eight light stands, a background stand system and two tripods (one for the video set-up and a second for the still work). It also required collapsible frames for the 4x4 foot diffusion scrims along with clamps to hold them.

While it would be nice to light exclusively with one type of light the real world makes this difficult. If I worked only in the studio or other interior locations where sunlight was something we looked forward to seeing on our way to lunch I'd be happy enough with my new fluorescents.
But there are still a lot of assignments that require me to go on locations and balance man made light with bright sun and, for still photography, that's still the territory big, portable flashes like the 1100 watt second Elinchrom Ranger RX flashes work best in. 

Then there are those more complex interior exterior locations like the CEO standing in front of a vast wall of floor to ceiling windows. She'll need to be balance with the sun drenched scene behind her and might require a few supplementary lights behind her, which is efficiently handled by three or four electronic flash mono lights.

So, even though we are now providing hybrid video/still content solutions we still need some variety in our lighting equipment to handle all the situations we seem to get into.

I'm sure some of you have leapt forward to the logical question: "Weren't you all jazzed about LEDs last year? Why now the fluorescents? Have LEDs failed?"

Hardly. But there's an analogy that's something like cellphones. The big LEDs I currently have---the ones big enough to kick out effective levels of light----are very much G1. (First Generation Technology). They require me to jump through a few hoops to make them work well. Mostly they need to be intelligently filtered. And the newest fluorescents with the latest tubes are better, color-wise, and a couple stops brighter than my three to five year old LEDs.

I looked hard and long when I started really moving into motion at replacing my current inventory with the latest panels from people like Lowell. Their Prime Light LED panels boast a 91 CRI and they are markedly brighter than my existing panels, so better light and more of it. But here's the rub, they are about $1800 each and every lighting set up I do seems to require at least three lights. That meant spending $5400 to replace my original investment of about $1200. Would they be demonstrably better? Yes. Could I make a better investment to get the same results? Yes. 

When I visited the Museum of Art in Boston, Greg Heins showed me the Alzo fluorescent lights that his photography and video department use for video programming and interview. Very good light, requiring very little correction and about a third the cost of premium LEDs for the same three light set up. Most of the advantage for the Alzo lights come from a new generation of fluorescent tubes so I started to research all the options and came up with the Fotodiox version. I give up dimming controls but gain a price advantage.

I've used the flo's on six or seven mixed video and photography assignments in the last month and they are working out well. My one concern (and this is where LEDs absolutely rule) is hauling all of those oh-so-very-breakable glass light tubes around. I think breakage is inevitable with the tubes and hardly possible with the LEDs.

There's a second area in which LEDs have all other light sources beaten, hands down. And that's using them with batteries. My smaller LEDs, the color changing Fotodiox 312AS panels use two standard, camcorder batteries for power and can light at full power for around two continuous hours. No other light source is anywhere near as efficient. Which means I have to keep my case full of these lights for those kinds of run and gun shoots where plugging in and accessory light stands are just not in the cards.

And that brings me to the stack of "hot lights" I have sitting over in the other corner. Why the heck am I keeping these primordial light fixtures around?  Well.......first of all they keep me warm in the winter when I use them (just kidding, not a good reason...). But really, I have several Lowell Totalights, a Lowell DP light and three of the Lowell VIP lights that fold up for cartage. I use them for the times when  wall of LEDs or Fluorescents isn't enough for a special application.
Sometimes you just want raw power and, though they are hardly efficient, for their size and relatively minor investmentm, they can really push a lot of photons through big diffusers. They're my go to lights when I need to shoot continuous and I need both low, noise free ISOs combined with medium to high apertures.

So far I'm counting a number of systems here. Two kinds of LEDs. Fluorescents, High Powered-battery powered Electronic Flash, Electronic Flash mono lights and a pile of hot lights (tungsten).
But we really don't stop there. We have to consider the portable speedlights. We have a couple of the big Sony flashes because they work well on and off camera and can be used wirelessly. Then there's also a motley collection of manual-mostly speed lights along with radio triggers, that are left over from the Strobist/Minimalist lighting days.

I use the speed lights for candid shots at events and though it seems like this market is in an off cycle right now I'm sure it will swing around again when I least expected. For their size the on and off camera flashes are a potent lighting tool. Without (real) modeling lights and fast recycling they won't take the place of studio flashes and with their 100-200 watt second flash power they won't replace the large Elinchrom Rangers in sunlight but they sure are handy to have when following an executive around a trade show or whipping up good light for an impromptu portrait.

So, of all these things how can I best consolidate in order to pacify that part of my brain that's rebelling against the clutter and demanding some rationalizing of the vast VSL lighting inventory? I've decided that the first generation LED panels must go.

I'm going to sell them locally for some price that makes no sense. Live in or around Austin and want to play with 500 bulb panels or 1000 bulb panels? I'm asking $100 per smaller panel and $150 each for the two bigger panels. I won't ship them because they are too bulky and heavy to make it sensible. I also hate to pack stuff. If you want them you can e-mail me and we'll meet up.
Take them all and we'll price the lot accordingly.   Edit: the LEDs have been sold. Thanks.























5.12.2013

Another day at the photo office. Working with two cameras. Including the new Sony a58.


A quick summation of last week's hybrid job.

We set up a temporary portrait and interview studio in a big conference/mixed use room. I brought along one of my favorite color management tools, a Lastolite gray/white target. In this room I used the big Sony a99. One click white balance worked for both the stills and the video. I like setting the color correction once in shooting instead of pasting it in post. I lit with two fluorescents and one LED light. And I brought my own stool for the subject's to sit on. The more stuff I can control the fewer problems I seem to have. I went for five hours with one lens. It was the 85mm 1.5 Cine lens from Rokinon.


Using the big Rokinon at wide apertures, in close is what the Sony a99 was built for. The lens is totally manual so I rely on focus peaking to ensure sharp results where I want them. 


I brought the Lastolite target out onto the assembly floor and balanced both the cameras for the existing light. Made it easier to shoot because I only had to focus on composition and focus, not on color balance. I tend to use manual exposure and all of these shots were taken in a landscape format with the camera locked down on a Manfrotto video tripod with a fluid head.


By moving quickly with one camera on a tripod and one camera over my shoulder we were able to move through the space quickly. After every still shot I ran about ten seconds of video and then moved on. We got fifty or sixty set ups during the course of a long day.


I had the client carry a small Fotodiox LED panel around with us but it didn't get much use. I liked the bright way the area was lit and, with the preset color balance the images were easy to work with in post.




My one and only gripe about the 85mm 1.5 lens is the close focusing distance. It's 39 inches. I'm spoiled, the Sony 85mm 2.8 focuses much closer. But then again it doesn't do quite as well at f2...



I unabashedly like the new a58 camera. It may be because I always use it with the 16-50mm f2.8 DT lens. I like the range of focal lengths and I love the high sharpness of the lens. The image above was made with that combo. With all the present generation of digital cameras there is a freedom in being able to comp and shoot a scene as a still photograph and then spin a dial and start shooting the same thing on video. Double threat. Most the work I did on this job with the a58 is available light, handheld and at ISOs of 800 and 1600. The OLED viewfinder is great and the built in IS works well for me. No matter how I handled the camera the metering was spot on.


I decided to live on the edge for this shoot. I realized that there's no way to shoot raw video files on the a58 so I needed to get any video I shot just right in the camera. Just like shooting jpegs. Since they were equally important to the client I decided to go ahead and shoot jpeg as well. I might as well take advantage of the extra care I was using to get things right for video...

The a58, like the a57 before it is small and light and highly usable. The new sensor is sharp and detailed and has as little noise as the a57 did but delivers a much better user experience both in the EVF and the actual sound of the shutter. I can report no focus problems in over 600 shots under regular working conditions.

While this shouldn't be construed as a review I would like to say that the tools are so suggestive to the way I take images. While the a99 was on a tripod, using a longer MF lens the a58 was always handheld and used with a fast wide to short tele zoom. With the smaller camera I found myself moving around the edges of subjects and quickly trying new angles while the locked in camera was used in a more straightforward way.  

All cameras are good these days. I don't care about brands but I know that for my paying work I'll never willingly go back to a camera that doesn't have an EVF as an integral part of the design. Now, after selling off other systems, every camera I have except the Sony a850 is equipped with an EVF. And when I pick up the 850 I have to slow down and think more about operation. That means I think less about the image. I like the real time feedback of the newer finders. They make the feedback loop much more effective.

That's it. Get yout mom an a58. Ask her if you can borrow it. Happy Mother's Day.

The End.

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The inter-relationship of different art. Want to be better in one segment? Broaden your wisdom net. See more stuff.

It's kind of funny but most of the photographic images that I like of people are lit like the pronounced chiaroscuro of Caravaggio paintings. And most of the poses I like I've seen in paintings and sculptures. It would seem to me that a lot of our photographic imagery are really references to work done in other media and in other ages. In most cases I would conjecture that the current photographic practitioners are just copying what they've seen other contemporary photographers doing (and so on) without having a real idea of what the original sources were. Without a wide catalog of cultural references work quickly becomes one dimensional and formulaic. In every field.

I'm going to make a statement here that may sound elitist but is not meant to be. Whether you are a commercial photographer or a hobbyist I think your work (and mine) can be improved in direct proportion to the amount of varied art work to which you expose yourself. If you are lucky enough to live in a cultural center like Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Chicago or even Los Angeles you have ample opportunity to see an enormous range of old masters and new, original art in many media. When you add galleries to the pot your range of selections becomes almost infinitely rich.

If you are working or living in one of the major European cities you have the same opportunities. I couldn't imagine being a photographer in Paris and not having been to the Picasso Museum, the Louvre or the Jeu de Paume. Or to live within one hundred miles of Rome and not having been to The Vatican or the Borghese Garden museums.

When our points of reference are too far removed from the original sources they are diluted and become spuriously referential at best. To copy the work and working methodology of a young, technically aimed photographer on Creative Live is a woefully thin substitute for experiencing the real power of art first hand. Standing in front of a great painting is worlds different than flipping through some 640 by 480 pixel thumbnails of a painting. Watching light move around a sculpture is a world different then seeing a two dimensional photo of the same sculpture on Wikipedia.

Often times, because we live in a technical culture, and in thrall to the ideas of best practices, and the tyranny of metrics, we look toward technical fixes when our photography gets stale or when our enthusiasm stalls. We try a different lens or a new filter. We try some "new" lighting technique that's popular on the web. But in the end these are quick fixes for our boredom and not deep fixes that could transform our love of our art. A mindless copy rarely makes for valuable growth.

Not seeing original art but being influenced by its faint and diminished echo is like playing the old game where one person comes up with a phrase and whispers it to the person next to them. That person whispers the phrase they heard to the person next to them and so on. In a small room with thirty players the message becomes garbled and meaningless in a matter of minutes. Imagine the art message in a brilliant piece watered down by centuries of the same game. The end result is a thought artifact that's been distorted, changed and relieved of all context. It becomes a cheap filter or schtick.

Our jobs as artists don't exist in a cultural vacuum. We are all subject to cultural reference points. It's our choice if we want to drink the collective spit in the bucket or participate in the actual wine tasting of art.

I know that I am renewed and recharged when I eschew pondering more and more contemporary photographs and instead sample actual masterpieces and the works that laid the foundations for our work across different disciplines. Today might be a great day to step into a museum and drink from a rich cup of work that stands the tests of time. Work that forms the foundations of our visual culturals. What a gift to be able to experience foundational work first hand. How much greater the impact.

When someone directs me toward the latest over-processed pop photography I like to direct them right back to the masters they unwittingly borrowed from. Almost inevitably they are astonished at how much they learn and how much more organically the power of the original work gets integrated into their own projects going forward.

If you are a portrait photographer you've heard a lot about Rembrandt but you need to look at Leonardo da Vinci's work and Caravaggio and maybe Edward Hopper; even Georges Braque. I love heading down to San Antonio to look at work by Renoir and Picasso, at the McNay Museum. No matter which museum you head to you'll see something new and perhaps be able to add to your own repertoire. At the very least you'll finally learn who to ultimately credit for that neato lighting technique that you saw on some contemporary's website. The magic is all out there for us to sample and subsume and use. Don't you want the undiluted version? I know I do...


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The Three Graces.


I confess that I love to photograph sculpture. From the Bernini pieces in the Borghese Sculpture museum to the Rodin Museum to the ancient Asian examples at the San Antonio Museum of art I am fascinated by all kinds of sculpture.

Often, when I read that the death of photography is approaching I remember that all the arts have been through ebbs and flows and all of them have, at one time or another, been declared dead except for sculpture. And I wonder what it is about sculpture that  grants a collective immunity to it.

I think it may be the difficulty of working in marble or granite, or even with castings. The capability of working to the level at which Bernini did is all but lost in the modern age and it's our fascination with what we can't do that elevates this art to a more impregnable perch. I can no more imagine taking a chisel and hammer and making a home made version of the Pietå than I can making my own deep space passenger rocket in my garage.

I have to wonder though whether the evolution of 3D printing will eventually make sculpture for everyman as accessible as taking still photographs. I imagine a time in the near future when a typical person will walk around his naked girlfriend clicking off frames that will later be sequenced and integrated into a 3D CAD program and them set up to be rendered by a printing machine.

Not a two dimensional printer but one that works in all physical dimensions. One that can, unaided, build statues and sculptures as well as guns and pottery. The technology is here, now, and is becoming more financially accessible every year.

I imagine a time in the not too distant future when new apps and CAD plug-ins will appear that will allow you to INSTAGRAM your sculptures and have them rendered with pre-programmed actions and filters. Click this filter for late Renaissance, click that one for Etruscan, click this setting for modern abstract. Perhaps there will be a button that just wraps pre-made sculptures in cloth. The Cristo filter for conceptual artists....

But I imagine that once done the methods will lose their intrigue because, like current photography, most people's art-in-a-box will look like everyone else's. And the work that is significantly different will retain value.

In the meantime I intend to look at as much sculpture by old and new masters as I can. Then I'll be ready to write series of articles about the GOLDEN DAYS OF PRE-DIGITAL SCULPTURE.
I shudder to think that sometime in the near future I'll drive through neighborhoods and people will all have their digi-sculptures in their front yards, much like we have every photographic permutation resident on the web in the sharing galleries. From soup to nuts.

Most yards will have sculptures of pets and varying degrees of chubby and homely children. Or spouses in odd drapings. Perhaps the masses will revive the Roman and Greek tradition of painting the statues. Perhaps the style will be more and more heightened realism and eventually we won't know if the sculpture in the front yard is live or just a three D replica. If the sculpture is of someone checking their cellphone will there be a difference?

Ah, the march of progress. What would the three Graces have to say about all of this? They would probably tell me to stop the negative daydreaming and just concentrate on what I want to do. And they'd be right...



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5.11.2013

Rejecting fear of change and living life on your own terms.


Life is a very interesting thing. It continually throws curve balls at us and it's how we deal with new stuff that comes out of nowhere that determines whether we are successful or whether we just give up and capitulate to the inevitable decline. I think about this in my profession. So many people my age and even younger are so wedded to the way they learned to do things in school and the way processes operated as they did their craft that they seem unable or unwilling to accept that some aspects of photography have irrevocably changed. Some types of photography have entered the same realm as making a Xerox copy in that there is no need for a gifted operator in order for the process to be successful. Richard Avedon's first real job in photography was taking I.D. card photos for the Merchant Marines. I doubt that they still need a trained and gifted artist to do that....

The discussion I put up yesterday about Adobe and their Creative Cloud marks a change of process and a change in the way we address the tools we bring to bear in the making of some of our images. I don't own Adobe or their stock. If I did I'd give myself free software for life. But I have no control over that, at all. And it's not as if Adobe is the only company that is doing this. I'm sure the move by Apple to stop having boxed sets of software in their physical stores is the first step in Apple's transition to a subscription model for their software content as well. Once the big suppliers initiate the tipping point I can imagine that software from smaller and smaller developers will follow. Eventually most discretionary software will come to us this way. We can fear this or understand that it's an evolution and learn to leverage whatever advantages there may be to this system.

We (as photographers) have done a lot of moving around before this. Our product has become more or less virtual and has been for nearly a decade. In the film days our control was our ownership and possession of the physical slide or print. But that's gone now. We deliver transient information. We changed tools. We changed deliver methods. We changed deliverables. And at each step people became fearful or frustrated and dropped out. We adapted to the changes in the markets in order to stay profitable and relevant to our clients. That's the nature of all industry.

I've been talking a lot lately about incorporating digital video into my product mix. I would never have considered this if my clients hadn't developed an obvious inertia in that direction. And, given the depth of my research, I was/am fearful that I might not become as proficient as I need to be as quick as I need to be. My fear/understanding is that while 2K video has a hard time yielding a good still from a video stream the eight megabyte files from 4K video will be good enough for lots and lots of uses, if they are shot correctly. And already on the heels of 4k video is the very real appearance of 8k video which is more than enough actual resolution (and dynamic range) to be repurposed into just about any demanding still use.

The hyper technical among us will jump up and declare that it will never happen because the shutter speeds at which video is shot are too slow to freeze action. The next argument will be that it is well nigh impossible to sift through the horrendous amount of data that the cameras will generate in order to find that perfect frame. (And what if the new cultural evolution means that we no longer have to have the "perfect" frame, just a perfectly good frame....). But with automated facial detection and smile detection and almost certainly open eye detection the sorting process will become automated to the point of efficiency.

Here's the scenario: Client undertakes a fabulous television commercial shoot, hires really good director and cinematographer who cut teeth doing fabulous lighting for great movies, and creates expensive and mindboggling cool sets. Client also wants stills for ads on web and in print that match the look and feel of the commercials. Get the pose and gesture just right and run a few minutes of moving images before each take. Sort and select. It would be hubris to think that we, as a group, are better at lighting and posing than great DPs and directors, yes?

All of this trickles down. The junior AD on the set may not get to do projects of that scope but is being trained in a new production paradigm. Not going to happen in our still businesses? Consider that I was hired for one shoot last week for my ability to "light once, shoot twice" on an industrial shoot. I designed light that would work for both motion and stills and we used the same camera to go back and forth between the two. If my fear of change had paralyzed me into inaction and I refused to start the learning cycle necessary to go in both directions I am convinced that my client of many years would have, sadly, hired someone else who was less inflexible rather than continue with the added expense and time of sticking with the traditional system of hiring both a still photographer and a separate video crew. Job lost, money gone. Opportunity squandered?

No one likes it when I talk about EVFs but that's just one of the building blocks of shooting in an efficient hybrid manner. So are headphone jacks and microphone jacks on "still" cameras. And, by the way, if you've been a long time reader you've probably noticed that I haven't changed systems in over a year. No one else offers a camera with the flexibility I've gotten used to. And it's a combination of these things. And it's a good thing I haven't wanted to switch because I've been spending all my extra cash on microphones and marketing.

Everyone makes their own choice about when or if to give up growing in their fields. The day you start saying "this is all I need to know, I'll just keep doing this until I retire" your market is already starting to shrink. We love to blame stuff on age discrimination but it's really initiative discrimination.

I've been watching and experiencing all this stuff myself. It scares me. But I'm not willing to give into fear and stop and neither should you. We are all capable of learning so much. And putting what we learn into action. The key is to stay flexible and bend with the prevailing wide. Get too stiff and a hard gust will snap a brittle tree while a flexible one bends and recovers.

When I wrote the piece about Adobe yesterday I wasn't applauding their move or even agreeing with them. I wasn't jumping up and down with excitement at having my software paradigm shifted all to hell. But I was trying to reflect the idea that it wasn't the end of the world for any photographer. Hardly a speed bump in our workflow. And nothing to be afraid of. Adapt and move on.

Sorry to ruffle a few feathers. But the sooner we learn to shift and bend the quicker we'll see new opportunities and act on them. That's what I've learned after 30 years of doing this to put food on the table.

And it's amazing---- I feel the same excitement in learning more and more about motion and sound that I did watching those first black and white prints coming up in the darkroom so many years ago. It became fun when I stopped fearing the transition.



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