8.08.2013

It got hot this week. I'm pretty lazy but when the temps. reached 104+(f) I decided to head out into the sun, walk around and shoot some video.


http://vimeo.com/71979352

Be sure to click "HD" to see it in high def.

I shot this with a small camera. It was the Samsung NX300. I was surprised at how well it handled the lighting extremes. Not a big project just an afternoon of shoot and edit and upload. All done now.

No client. Just playing.


Studio Portrait Lighting

I did it. I figured out the "secret" of photography!!!! Just shoot subjects you love and only shoot the subjects you love so you can share them the way you see them.


It was too hot to cook at home last night. The boy abandoned us to go to a concert in the park with friends. So Belinda and I did what we used to do years ago when we worked together at the same advertising agency, we headed out to have a fun Tex-Mex meal. Not fancy food. Just Tex-Mex. If it's reviewed in Texas Monthly Magazine or raved about on Twitter chances are the venue has been discovered and destroyed by the monstrous invasion of hipsters that have descended upon Austin like loud vultures at a buffet. We headed to the place we know with the fewest stars on the review sites. We headed to El Mercado where the staff is friendly and laid back, the regulars drink at the bar and there's hardly anything on the menu that costs more than $10 bucks.

We crunched on a basket of chips and sloshed them around in a comfortable but indifferent hot sauce and nursed a couple of ice teas. It was so pleasant and unpretentious and so not loud.

And it dawned on me as the last light of the day tumbled and flowed and crept through the window that I had just, in that moment, figured out the whole secret of why I take photographs. I photograph people to show everyone else how amazingly beautiful these subjects are to me. If I'm out scouting for images on the street I tend to substitute easily accessible subject matter for what I really want to shoot: beautiful people. When I shoot stuff on the street I sometimes come home feeling empty and indifferent to the practice of photography. The times that I'm happy with my work are the times I've found an interesting person to photograph and had the courage to engage them.

The subjects we really choose to photograph are a mirror to who we are. They are our aspiration. They are our intention. There are really only a few critical choices in the art of picture taking. The most important is choosing your subject. If you aren't shooting something you love or are deeply, deeply interested in then you are just wasting your time. The selection of subject is the critical thing. It's the  only important thing. I know I love to make portraits of people. Why take anything else?

The next important thing that you get to control is where you stand. And then you get to control when you click the shutter. Everything else is window dressing. The techniques and esoteric lenses and all the rest, when used to shoot something you really don't care about, are really just window dressing and obfuscation. They are pink saccharine icing on a mediocre and stale cake.

The secret to success in photography is to shoot and show only what you love. That's it. It's so easy. It's amazingly easy. And it makes me wonder why we've worked so hard to make it all seem so complicated.

This is a photograph of Belinda. She is a never ending source of inspiration for me. The Muse who informs and adds some residual energy to every other portrait I make for me. It's all about the subject. Not about the craft or the frame or the manifesto. Just the love for your subject.

Too easy.

Tech note: Samsung NX300 camera with 30mm lens.

8.07.2013

Portrait.



Gearing up (or down) for more change. Incessant change.

Who moved our photographic cheese and what are we going to do about it?

Isn't it funny how the relentless wheels of progress make the (antiquated, 20th century) idea of buying permanent gear seem quaint and foolish? I'm sitting here in the studio doing clipping paths and thinking about how everything felt four or five years ago. At the time I thought, "if I can just find the right camera and assortment of lenses that really produce great results I can stop buying gear and hold onto it for a long time and be more efficient." But that was several brands ago and many different models within those brands. 

It's a hoary cliché now (and so are the words, "hoary cliché) but progress is changing so rapidly that, if we are to respond to our clients and markets, we feel that we must innovate our gear to keep up. I would never have thought, pre-Canon 5D mk2, that I would require, need and want high res video in any future camera I bought. It just never occurred to me. But once Sony stuck good video into the a99 and then went a few steps further by adding a headphone jack and audio level controls on the front of the camera I can't imagine going back and depending solely on a camera like my Sony a850 or some previous, non-video enabled camera for my business. For art? That's a whole different topic. For the pleasure of the hobby? Again, a different calculus all the way around. But as a creative content creation business the whole idea is to be on the tip of the spear. To innovate faster and better and to hop to something profitable from something dying. We're no longer in a market where one jewel like image carries the day. We're in a market that expects us to do a great still image and then turn around and construct some video to wrap around it. Again, I'm just speaking about requirements only for people who are doing this stuff for a living.

It's no secret that Samsung sent me an NX300 camera to play with this Summer. I like the files from the camera and I've been sneaking it into my regular jobs now just to see how a $699 camera with a kit lens holds up against full frame cameras with esoteric lenses. It's interesting to see just how little air there is between them for a remarkable amount of stuff.  Samsung is about to launch their next big camera. You may have read about it, it's NX (Some Model Name) running Android. It's supposed to be a really cool machine but I don't think anyone has gotten their hands on one yet.

I mention it because in one sense, while I have no fear about changing systems and embracing new cameras, I am slow to embrace new technology that is at a remove from my admittedly 20th century beliefs about what "a good camera is all about..."

I fought the viewfinder-less wars and lately I've worked on trying to leverage the good stuff about working on a rear screen. My other prejudice has always been against the need to add stuff like wi-fi to cameras because I didn't see a need for it in my work (I am Kirk-centric and feel that if I don't need a feature no one does..).  But now I'm trying to figure out how to make dynamic accessibility a feature I can leverage back to  my clients. As they get younger and younger (perception only) I find that there's disconnect between the way they access content and information and the way I traditionally delivered work.

I'm trying to learn more because I'd hate to have my reticence to learn new delivery methods negate my value as a content creator. I see the day coming when I'll be on location, shooting portraits, and my client/art director/creative director/buyer will be in their office and I'll be shooting test shots and streaming them to a shared folder in the cloud for instant approval. Without being tethered. Without a laptop.  We shoot a test shot, click "send" wait for the phone call (oops! I meant "text") that either gives us the big "thumbs up" to shoot more in that style or the phone call (oopski! "text") that says, "what the hell was our model thinking wearing that purple, paisley shirt with the Budweiser logo on the pocket? Can we change that?"

I need to get over my resistance to fast access and fast image sending, for the business. If it's my own work, done for my own enjoyment then I'll get to it when I get to it. If it's for my clients I want to make the whole process as streamlined and transparent as I can.

Perhaps, since we'll be able to add apps to the new generation of cameras coming down the line I'll be able to add a billing application. Imagine, shoot, send, bill and process credit cards all on the same camera body. Insane, scary and kinda fun to understand that this is probably what some version of the future looks like.

So I'm ready to get rid of more stuff. I think the professional shooter of the future will own a small, personal system. A couple of really good bodies and maybe three lenses. Maybe no lights or stands or auxiliary gear. You come to work with one little Pelican case of gear and everything else is rented for the day or the week. Need LED panels? Rental package. Need big Fluorescent panels? Rental Package. Need high speed studio flash? Rental Package. Need a really fast, really good lens? Rental package. You get  the picture.

It just doesn't make sense anymore (as a business) to make the big investments in gear that changes so quickly or in specific gear that can't do a wide variety of day to day stuff well.

I'm currently happy with the 2K video performance I get from my Sony camera but I know that clients whose work ends up on television are already spec'ing 4K video cameras; regularly. And today I read an article about a new 6K camera from Red that movie makers are salivating over. And two years from now it will be all about the 8K cameras....

And no small, single person business has any business actually thinking about investing in that kind of  gear just to have it sit around the office more than it's in production. Only bonafide trust funders can play in that arena.

The idea going forward will be to rent as needed. Own the bare essentials. Own the specialty tools for your niche but the minute you step outside your gear comfort zone you might be smart to rent and charge back the rental fees to the clients. They are, after all, paying for your eye and your expertise. Not an endless inventory of gear.

To that end I'm anticipating another round of downsizing. I'm looking at the video cameras in GEAR's rental department and figuring that I can do home made projects with every successive generation of hybrid cameras like the Sony Alphas and the Samsung Androids but it definitely makes more sense to use a dedicated (rental) video camera for big client projects. Out goes my endless and expensive duplication.

I looked into HMI lights and I've used them for a few projects. I like the smaller ones that you can run off household currents. But I can't justify buying a set of lights at $3K or so per fixture. I can justify renting them (and charging the client) as needed.  A day of rental may run me a $100 a fixture but I don't need to make the capital expenditure for them when I'm still using flashes for some work, fluorescents for other work and even portable flashes. You just can't justify owning everything just because you may have the need to use it from time to time.

I've noticed as I've sold off stuff over the past year that the lighter the inventory gets the more creative and free I feel.

Not owning stuff means you get to cherry pick what you'll use on a project by project basis and, when your business hits a soft spot you don't have capitol tied up in something that only produces ROI emotionally...

I've got another box full of cameras and lenses to put on consignment. And some more big strobes as well. The load is getting lighter and lighter. We are becoming more intelligent about the way we use our capital.

Who would have thought that everything changes? Now, how do I get this wi-fi network to recognize this camera????




8.06.2013

The smaller jobs are the respite I need to just feel secure and engaged.


Photographer bloggers tend to write about the big and impressive jobs. I assume they think it's what their audience wants to read about. But I really like the smaller, calmer and less challenging jobs that come through the business. They are easier to produce, there's less emotion involved in the projects and the fact that they are less high profile also means that if and when you screw something up it's not a big deal and can be easily re-done with very little loss of "face."

I have a small, high technology client that needs straightforward images of their products from time to time. The products are systems that run on generic platforms. Today we were photographing three different desktop computer and server boxes against white. There are some custom design implementations that visually differentiate each product from the computer boxes that you could buy off the shelf but in the end, to state it plainly, we were photographing the same, basic rectangular boxes we've been photographing since the dawn of commodity computers. The real mission is to get nice images of the boxes, add a bit of drama with the light and drive attention to the cool, new logos on the front that are the client's signature. Just to make it easier, I shot them against white seamless paper. I'll clip the images and deliver them with clean backgrounds. 

The client and I discussed the job over e-mail last Friday and I asked if I could arrive at 10 a.m. to try and dodge the rush hour traffic that happens in Austin from 6:30 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. That presented no problems. I loaded up the Honda CR-V with rudimentary stuff. Four of the Elinchrom moonlights, a couple of soft boxes, four small light stands, a background stand set up and a short roll of white seamless paper. 

I took some Sony Nex cameras instead of the bigger, full frame cameras because I remembered that the last time we shot this kind of stuff we had trouble getting enough depth of field with the larger sensor cameras and I wanted to see if a move to an APS-c sensor would be helpful. It was. I put a Wein infra-red slave trigger in the hot shoe of a Nex 6. I remember buying that particular trigger in 1987. It's never failed me and seems to run forever on two double "A" batteries.

The boxes were waiting for me when I dragged my little cart with my photo-junk out of the elevator and into the conventional conference room. I set up the paper across one end of the conference room table and then set up my lights. The final step was setting up the camera on a tripod and then going through the menus to make sure I had all the settings optimized. Had I turned off the image stabilization? Was the white balance set correctly? Had I formatted the SD card? Did I set the camera up for manual focusing? Do I remember which button enlarges the frame in order to check focus? Did I remember to turn off the DRO and HDR and all the silly art modes? Did I bring extra batteries?

Once everything was set up I put my iPhone on the table in front of me, out of the frame of the camera, and turned on the music. I listened to some Bach today. The Brandenburg Concertos as done by Consortium Musicum, to be precise.

I played around with the lights and I played around with lenses and the camera. Eventually, I got some images I was happy with and I went to the break room to find a cup of coffee and then to find my client. We reviewed the images, talked about post production and I could tell my client was happy with the work. I took all the stuff back down, loaded it all on the cart, put the conference room chairs back where they go and then headed down the elevator to my car where I took everything off the cart and put it back into the cargo area. 

I'll spend some time tomorrow making clipping paths, looking for smudges and fingerprints to clean up and generally sprucing up my initial work with a bit of post processing. Then I'll upload the relevant files to the client's FTP site and also send them a DVD with the same images on it as a back up.

Before I leave the studio tomorrow I'll write a nice "thank you" note because I really do appreciate having some calm, quiet and consistent clients, and then the next day I'll send out an invoice for my services which will include a charge for a usage license as well. 

If this jobs goes just like the dozens of other ones I've done for this client there will be no drama, no hysteria and no tense moments. Just a nice project. A nice batch of deliverables and a reasonable payment.  

It's fun to read about the big, exciting jobs that require split second timing and perfection on demand. But it's much healthier to live through the quiet and happy jobs.

You'll have to excuse me now. The sun is setting and I finally feel like it's cool enough to pull the lights and stands and cases out of the car....

8.05.2013

People don't read so good.

Photo Forums are going to the dogs. 
Let's shed some light on that.

I wrote a piece yesterday that attempted to explain what might be behind the recent metrics on camera sales. The fact  is that, worldwide, (and in N. America) camera sales are falling right off a cliff. Some readers assumed that I am cynical or bitter or upset at the apparent demise of the camera industry's recent prosperous sales cycles. Those readers assume that since I explained why many men are abandoning the hobby for greener pastures that I have pronounced the death of amateur or hobbyist photography.

And, of course, the astute reader will see that I said no such thing, am in love with the general practice of taking photographs and write about my own immersion into the warm pools of imaging ambrosia nearly every day. And I still make my living selling/licensing images to clients instead of trying to figure out why someone's password doesn't work for their Entourage account on a third rate network run for a boring corporation.

I stand by what I said. That many people adopt hobbies to master them. It's fun to master them when it's a challenge or technically difficult. Then your victories seem much more heroic. You seem more like a smart guy. But when the challenge is mitigated by fool proof machines or wizard-y software, and cameras are festooned with "Hello Kitty" logos and pink trim the mastery of the technical challenge is largely a forgone conclusion and therefore not very darn alluring. And when an industry reaches that point a certain part of its market becomes bored and moves on. There's no way to measure the value of the content so that can't be fun.....

The happy, positive, upside to all that is, perhaps, a return to the idea that the images matter and the content has value beyond proving a technical point. I'm just as happy to take images today as I was before the market (according to CIPA) fell on its face. I'm ecstatic to work with my various cameras, all of which seem adequate to make the images I desire. I'm happy that I don't have to concoct some sort of matrix of metrics to enjoy the craft. Happy, happy, happy. 

I also remarked on the overwhelming number of images put up on the web every hour, minute and second of every day and how hard that makes it to sort through and find things to like. But I didn't say that all the new images were crap. I said they became instantly homogenous. That's different, kinda.

So, to summarize: Reading good. Reading with comprehension, better. Reading well helps people think well. Sometimes, when you read, it's good not to try and read between the lines. If there was stuff to put between the lines my regular readers would quickly tell you that I am more than verbose enough to supply the needed content. 

And yes, I know that "People don't read so good." is incorrect. That was the point.


 I can explain this stuff to people but I can't understand it for them. (Apologies to Mayor Koch.)

8.04.2013

Has the bubble burst? Is that why camera sales in N. America are down by 43%?

Men sitting around NOT discussing technology.

DSLR sales are down this year, worldwide, by 18.5% according to CIPA. The total decline in the entire dedicated camera market is closer to 43.5% and mirrorless cameras are seeing about the same year to year decline as traditional DSLRs. Why?

I think there are two reasons driving this incredible decline. Two bubble bursting phenomena occurring on top of each other. The obvious first cause is the rampant replacement of point and shoot cameras of all flavors and varieties with smart phones and their built in cameras. The advantages to smart phones are size, constant (annoyingly constant) access, multi-task tool set, and the ability to send your images, electronically, to an audience just about anywhere in the world. What's not to like about that? You must pay for a plan so you have a vested interest in maximizing the potential of the tool anyway.

Interesting that we are just now seeing cameras with full operating systems like Android while smart phones have been vested with operating systems since the first rev of iOS. In some demographics that gave the phone a big head start over conventional cameras because owners could populate the phone/camera with a huge range of "apps" which expanded the usability of the phones as photography tools. This capability arrived (in a very, very primitive form) in the Sony Nex cameras last year and is set to arrive in a more mature fashion with the intro of the Samsung Galaxy NX camera running Android, this Fall.

I can only imagine some future photo excursion with the Galaxy NX camera or some other camera that comes complete with a luscious big screen and a full bore OS.. I'll have spent a day shooting images and I'll be riding home on a bus from some God forsaken hell hole and I'll relax as we barrel down the highway by watching Blade Runner on Netflix on my smart camera. Then I'll take a break to run MS Office in Windows emulation so I can do my taxes....on my camera.

As you can imagine point and shoot cameras represent(ed) a huge part of the total camera market and for many years were the bread and butter financial foundation that made it possible for DSLRs to exist at the price points they occupied. Now the market is being effectively gutted. Gone. Non-existent. And as that market dries up you can logically expect the last of the one hour labs and photo labs in major stores to vanish because people very, very rarely print anything that they've shot with a cellphone. Don't know why but they don't. People seem to think that having images resident on their hard drives is the end game for the latent image. When 43% of the market vanishes in ONE YEAR something profound WILL happen to the all of the players in the market.

It looks like Olympus and Fujifilm's response will be to kill off that segment of their product lines entirely. But that hardly means that any of the second tier (behind Canon and Nikon) companies are out of the woods. Another interesting number to emerge from CIPA is the total sales of mirrorless system cameras in N. America. In the last year the makers of these little gems have sold slightly fewer than 39,000 units. Total. And I suspect most of those were sold only in the financially prosperous, tech forward cities of the U.S. The value proposition being lost in more traditional markets. 

But cellphones have been gently eroding the market for the past four years. Why the swift and sudden plunge of conventional cameras over the cliff? My take? The vast majority of buyers of all cameras, DSLR's, mirror less, high end compacts, etc. were hobbyists  and amateur photographers who, after years of pursuing some sort of competence in the craft have come to the conclusion that the whole art genre of photography is somewhat of a dead end. There's no real cheese at the end of the imaging tunnel. Pros take pictures to sell to people, and companies, and they try to make products that are really, really good so they can sell them for good amounts of money. Their motivation comes in trying to please clients. And get paid.  Oh, and they might also do it for the sheer exuberance the craft, well practiced, can bring. But the hobbyists mostly had one feedback loop and that was to share their images with like minded practitioners on the web and to bask in the glory of positive feedback. 

In the early days, when images were being uploaded only in the low millions per day there was a chance to stand out from the average, struggling amateur and really show off one's chops. But as the faucet was removed from the plumbing and the pipes started delivering at full and accelerating capacity every day the sheer quantity of images became absolutely overwhelming and impossible to sort and parse.

What's more, the feedback loop of learning about photography from your fellow followers on the web became, more or less, nearly 100% efficient so that any unique and singular vision is copied, disseminated, learned and re-shared in veritable milliseconds. The very hunger for approval fueling the next wave of homogeneous vision in a cruel and immediate way.

Like any trend this one grew slowly at first and then accelerated to its tipping point and started the precipitous slide into ambivalence around the end of last year (2012). That was the time frame when I started hearing from my non-professional friends (but very competent photographers) about their hobby ennui. They were fully equipped but uninspired to move forward. Not just one or two lost souls but a legion of guys who seemed to have lost their photographic drive just around the time that they caught up with, and mastered, the sum of all the technical stuff one needed to know to produce a really well done image. We'd have coffee and they would say to me, "I have all the gear I ever wanted and I just don't know what I want to shoot." I'd talk about taking portraits but beyond flashing their portrait work onto the world wide web for forum approval most friends understood that without the client along for the ride making standard portraits is a shallow exercise for the most part.

If you think about it the hobby of photography from the dawn of digital to now really had very little to do with the desire of most people to make wonderful images. They did want to make the images but not for the sake of the images but only as proof of mastery. Proof that another rung of Moore's rusty ladder of laws had been assimilated and mastered. In the early days the technical workers of our hobby were locked in a war against the stair stepping and lack of sharpness caused by lack of pixels. Not enough dots to make up a convincing image---especially when writ large and examined minutely. That battle continued right up to the introduction of the 24 megapixel sensors hit the market and, if you notice, there was a backwash, a rehashing, and new understanding that maybe, just maybe, 16 megapixels currently represents a sweet spot. Good enough for big photos and small enough to be manageable.  

Part of the technical race came to a (maybe temporary) end. The proofs of quality that showed the equation of mastery were handed in and graded and that part of the course was over. See how big I can print this? See how sharp it is? 

The contingent that is driven to do photography to prove their technical mastery (and it's a much bigger segment than most will acknowledge) and their understanding moved on to embrace the noble battle against noise and there's been a circular series of spasms empowered with endless energy, driving the expansion of ISO's that one can use to capture a scene. Every time the ISO scale gets ratcheted up the noise comes howling back in like a pack of wolves attacking a frail cabin door and the noble knights of noise saddle up and do battle with noise reduction software, exposure schemes to the left or right, and many other fixes. The battle isn't about producing a wonderful photograph as much as it is about creating a "proof" (using the word in a mathematical sense) which shows off the victory over noise at each setting. 

And the marketers for the camera makers have proven really good at creating the "problem" of the quarter for techie photo enthusiasts and providing  the (inventory) roadmap for its subsequent solution. 

What finally happened? How did the skirmish resolve? I think the camera makers shot themselves in the foot. When the only way to get super high resolution at first was to drop $5,000 to $8,000 on a professional camera body the technographers had the understanding that high resolution was rare and costly and something to be pursued. And mastered.  When you could buy a Nex 7 at 24 megapixels that could go toe to toe with a Canon 1DS mk3 in terms of sharpness and resolution for nearly one sixth the price the pursuit of the precious was shaken. When the 24 megapixel sensors got rolled out into a $600 Nikon body the curtain was pulled open and we could see that performance was now on sale at Target prices and everyone was free to share the same basic benefits no matter what their tenure in the technical trenches. And when everyone is special....no one is.

I think amateur and pro alike realize that most of the race is over; at least how the race was understood as an analogy to analog. By which I mean, "How can I match and exceed the quality of conventional metrics that we used to get from medium format film." There's nothing else pressing to solve, technically. And as the STEM education mania pushes everything else out of the way in the U.S. at least, when the non-subjective metrics are satisfied the game is complete then there is no way to advance to the next level.  We, collectively, did our "job" and mastered all the new impediments to making imaging work in the digital age. That, and that alone was the quest of the Holy Grail for millions and millions of hobbyists. It was all about mastery and all about the process of perfecting measurable results. Corralling data points. Keeping score by analysis. 

And you could see that in the ten years of cataclysmic discussion on forums and web discussion groups around the world as old knowledge met new semiconductor life forms and accompanying constructs of new understanding. Characteristic curves paled next to the arguing power of Nyquist frequencies and interference patterns. Diffraction limitation and artifacts of sensor blooming overtook age old discussions of resolution and sharpness.

Now all the cameras that are coming out in the hobbyist, enthusiast, semi-pro and pro markets are equally good at exceeding all the measuring metrics that the coalesced hive have set down for "good enough." The engineering idea is that we've hit the sweet spot and to go for a Six Sigma improvement would be costly and unnecessary. So, as I've said, the game is over and the photo wizards made it to level 89 and no one wrote anymore code after that. To the vast majority of people who "took up" photography after it became digital the lack of new technical challenges equals having to play an old video game over and over and over again knowing exactly where the new lives are stashed and which key will get you the grenades as you enter the Alien/Predator threshold. 

What's left? That's the real question and it's one that people who care about the photographs themselves have been grappling with for decades. Why photograph? What's my motivation? What story do I want to tell? How do I want to tell it? How can I make things in my own style? How do you really learn to see? What's my target for all this work? How does one keep score when everything (everything going forward) is subjective and not bound by the measurement of interferometers or subject to Moore's Law? Is the future of photography all about watching Breaking Bad on the rear screen of your camera and then taking a break from time to time to look into a window on the screen and snap a photo of some meaningless (but colorful and graphic) street scene to share later with other people on the backs of their wi-fi enabled cameras? Dear God, I hope not.

I think the future is something more and less desirable for photography and photographers. As people adjust to the new economy they'll be going back to more secure and conventional jobs and will abandon trying to make a career out of photography. As hobbyists driven by technical contests and quests realize that the quest is over and the game is at level XX and there's no more technical pats on the back to accrue, no more extra lives to collect, they'll move to the next technical challenge and abandon old fashion, non-moving photography. As the market for cameras declines the rate of new product introductions will also decline and everyone who is left will be figuring out what they want use the power to make images for and how to proceed. 

Instead of workshops on how to do stuff (step by step, recipes) the new workshops will be on finding that magic spark that motivates you and makes you want to create for the sake of creation. And instead of sharing endlessly with strangers perhaps we'll return to a time when small groups of photographers and galleries and even virtual magazines helped to curate and self-curate and sort and add value to the practice of enjoying the actual image instead of sanctifying only the process. And the tools of the process.

And that, in a nutshell, is why I think the camera market has fallen off a cliff and entered a period of radical and breathtaking decline. To the mass market all images have transformed from being a method of memory and sentiment storage to being consumables. Like cheeseburgers and fries and large lattes.  To the technically motivated the major psuedo engineering challenges have been met and solved and won. Why continue? 

And now we can get back to work and make images that reflect our tastes and our styles and our engagement with life. Because art should be a conversation that strives to tell us just what it is to be human.

I could be totally wrong. Discuss?


Featured comment from VSL reader, Dave: 


I decided to test your hypothesis by looking at site rankings for dpreview.

Dpreview is largely made up of people with a strong technical interest in photography and if that part of the market is going away then it should show a similar decline.

In fact, it does!
http://www.alexa.com/siteinfo/http://www.dpreview.com

Since the beginning of the year there has been a major drop off in dpreview's rankings with somewhat of a rebound occurring last month.

This rebound does not take the site anywhere near as high as its rankings sometimes hit last year.


Another interesting read, this time about Nikon:

http://www.dpreview.com/news/2013/08/08/nikon-cuts-2013-sales-forecast-citing-poor-mirrorless-camera-sales?utm_campaign=internal&utm_source=mainmenu&utm_medium=text

Studio Portrait Lighting

in other news: Belinda and I finished working on, The Lisbon Portfolio. The photo/action novel I started back in 2002. I humbly think it is the perfect Summer vacation read. And the perfect, "oh crap, I have to fly across the country" read. It's in a Kindle version right now at Amazon. The Lisbon Portfolio. Action. Adventure. Photography.  See how our hero, Henry White, blows up a Range Rover with a Leica rangefinder.....


Remember, you can download the free Kindle Reader app for just about any table or OS out there....






Little camera. Big shoot. Nice stuff. The paradigm of what constitutes "professional gear" keeps changing...


My friend, Lane, asked me to volunteer to shoot portraits for Aids Services of Austin. Every year they do an "Aids Walk" as a money raising event to continue their good work of providing critical services to people in central Texas living with HIV. Lane is producing public service announcement/television spots to promote the Aids Walk (more information: here). Lane needed an assortment of images that represents a cross section of ASA supporters and I was happy to help out. He started casting a couple weeks ago and by yesterday morning we had a roster of 38 people who were eager to help by being on camera talent. We scheduled 20 minute sessions starting at ten a.m. and ending around six p.m. 

We wanted a cool, gray background and Lane wanted the images shot in 16:9 to fit (without cropping) in his HDTV frame for TV. I set up a gray background and lit it with a 18 inch beauty dish covered with some white diffusion. I added a 1/2 tungsten to daylight conversion gel filter to the middle of the diffusion on the light to cool down the spot that would be created directly behind my subjects.  I used an Elinchrom flash into an 80 inch, white umbrella as my main light and used no fill whatsoever, depending on the white walls of the studio to provide enough bouncing fill light to keep our shadows from going inky black. I was very happy with the light. 

Now, here is the interesting twist....instead of pulling out one of my full frame Sony cameras I decided to put my philosophical money where my mouth is and use......


....the little, Samsung NX300 camera instead. I've been writing about small cameras for years, and using them since Olympus came out with the very first Pens. And I've used them as back-up cameras and as main cameras on smaller projects or person work but I've never really pressed them into service as full on commercial cameras for a day long shoot. My biggest concern was that the two batteries I had on hand wouldn't last through the day with constant shooting and chimping. I was wrong. My first battery lasted nearly 1,000 frames and my second battery was still going strong as we ended up the day. Our total frame count was around 1350. I was pretty much stunned by the battery performance.

One of my other concerns was my own prejudice that the contrast detection AF, while very good in bright sun, might fail me in the darker studio. I set the AF for single shot and engaged the face detection   magic. This is NOT how I would have shot in times gone past. The camera was set up at ISO 100, shutter speed at 1/160th and the aperture around f5.6 to 7.1.  I used two Elinchrom monolights and I triggered them with an older, Wein infra-red trigger that I mounted in the (pleasantly conventional) hot shoe of the NX300. In the Sony cameras, if you want a bright image in the studio in your EVF you have to click a setting called, "Turn setting effect off."  Samsung calls the always bright setting the "framing mode" so I set that in order to compose images with a bright image on the back screen of the camera. 

I mounted the camera on a tripod and we got started. Once I got to the point where I trusted the camera to nail the focus on faces (every time) I stopped trying to be a control freak and let the camera do the face detection AF for everything. I shot in the super fine Jpeg mode and I was very happy with the camera's choices of contrast and color. I left the imaging parameters in "standard" with no customizations. The files come into Aperture needed a little bit of contrast boost and, frankly, that's just the way I like them. Better to need to bump up a little contrast rather than trying to pull contrast out of an image. And I think the way the files are set up they do a good job protecting against blown highlights.


Lane and I have worked together on photography and video projects for over ten years now. We've always used typical, big cameras in the work we've done for his advertising agency. He took one look at the Samsung CSC camera, shrugged and never blinked. The idea that non-photographers care about which camera is used on a shoot is, for the most part, a silly myth invented by forum rats to justify their camera purchases.


We used the kit lens for this project and the long end was just about right for covering a nine foot wide roll of seamless paper from a good shooting distance. I would have preferred a longer focal length for a few of the close ups I did but they were not for the client, the close ups were just for my own fun. When I look at the results from the 18-55mm lens I'm pretty much satisfied. We were shooting about a stop down from wide open at the long end but the lens still delivered very sharp files. When you consider that the primary use for the files will be in 2K television you realize that you'll just be throwing sharpness away at a certain point. And we had a lot of sharpness we could throw out, if needed.


We moved pretty quickly to get everyone through yesterday and not clog up the works. We had couples with babies and moms with toddlers and a mom and fourth grader team. Everyone really got into the spirit of the day and relaxed and played. The images I've included in this blog are just quirky, fun selections I made while scrolling through the thumbnails in Aperture. 


While I was using the Samsung NX300 in this instance, it's safe to say that any of the cool, little mirrorless systems would have worked equally well on this project. We weren't in a situation (more than once or twice) where we were shooting individuals, we were mostly shooting groups of two and three where focus on everyone in the group was much more important than using a style that calls for extremely narrow depth of field.

I decided to use the smaller camera because it seemed like a fun thing to do. We were in the studio. If I concluded that something wasn't working I was just a step or two from the equipment cabinet. But what I've found is that the whole industry is changing and camera selection along with it. Smaller and lighter is more fun and less precious. I was sure the smaller camera would do a great job and I like the way the jpegs work in that camera. I didn't want to shoot raw and process through 1300+ big, 24 megapixel raw files to get to what we wanted. When you decide that you are going to shoot Jpeg in the studio, at normal ISOs, you basically put most cameras on even footing. Once you set a custom white balance in a studio space you've eliminated a lot of the reasons that people choose to shoot in raw.


I've written a lot about my camera selection here but it was really one of the unimportant decisions in putting together this shoot. We're getting to the point again where most of the new cameras are interchangeably competent and that's nice because we can stop making them such a focal point in our process. A bigger concern for me was how to create the kind of back light Lane had in mind and how to do the amount of vignetting on each frame to match the ad agency's original vision for the lighting.


I struggled in trying to decide what kind of lighting to use. I've been working pretty steadily with my new fluorescent fixtures which I augment with a few LED lights but for this project I decided to play it ultimately safe by choosing electronic flash. I figures that I'd have some fast moving babies and toddlers as well as very active adults and I'd want the "freezing" power of flash. I also want to use a big light source that wouldn't suck up all the space in the studio and which would be easy to move around and reconfigure for smaller and larger groups of people.  That meant that I was less interested in setting up a six by six foot diffusion screen and all the attendant light stands and more interested in a combined solution, like a big umbrella or a big soft box. I chose the umbrella light because I like the wrap around of an 80 inched and I really valued the portability and flexibility for this project.



The choice of camera and lens took all of 30 seconds while the lighting took just a bit longer. The hard part of the shoot was making a uniform style for all the images and then working to keep everyone's energy levels up so they felt good and genuine in front of the camera. That's the part that took up the next six hours.....


Sometimes I think we focus on the wrong parts of photography. Choosing and buying cameras is the easy part. So is reading the owner's manual and figuring out the right settings. The hard part of this business (or craft or art form) is figuring out what to shoot and what you want your images to ultimately look like. Lots of stuff is binary but the human reactions you want to get from your subjects in a photo are totally out of the science grid and firmly in the random, chaotic and unpredictable category. It's really your experience and your ability to mentally and emotionally change gears that makes or breaks projects that depend on getting good performances from other humans. All the spread sheets in the world aren't much help there....


We've seen workshops about the Zone System and about One Light and every permutation of waiting for the light in landscape photography but I'm going to be first in line for the workshop about how to make people happy, engaging and part of a collaborative approach to making fun photographs. That's a course I never see and it may be the only important or useful course for smart ( or overly smart) photographers.


To wrap up and summarize:  We had a project that needed to yield images for television, social media and some print advertising. We used a smaller camera but I didn't worry because it cranks out sharp, nice, 20 megapixel files in a competent and straightforward way. The lighting was much more important than the camera and lens selection in this instance and keeping people engaged and giving their best energy to the photograph was more important than the lighting. If nothing else the use of a non-traditional camera in this setting was like a tacit excuse to be a little less serious and have a bit more fun. Certainly there was nothing intimidating here for the portrait subjects. They had a great time....


Shoot essentials: Cold, bottled water for everyone. Coffee for everyone in those critical, first two hours of the morning. A lunch break where we could leave the studio, sit around the dining room table and decompress and talk about what's working and what's not. A close by bathroom. An extra camera battery. A lot of energy. The stamina to be on your feet for six hours and the patience to wade through a thousand images.







Just another 
fun day 
at work in the orchard of photography. 

Support the Aids Walk.

8.02.2013

Some fun, Friday afternoon notes. From the desk of an unorganized photographer...



What the heck was I doing in Denver last month? I'd been invited by a company called, Craftsy.com, to make a video course on Studio Portrait Lighting. I worked with a producer from the company to put together an in-depth outline that covered everything from which lights I work with and why, through basic portrait lighting, and into a little behind the scenes of how I work. The program took days to commit to video (hey, I'm a photographer not a professional actor) and almost a month of post production and editing to get just right. What we ended up with is a 2.5 hour video that people can purchase and watch online (and once purchased can watch forever...). I hope that people find it interesting and useful. It's for people who've mastered basic photography concepts and now want to extend their expertise into the realm of studio work. In particular, portrait work.

My only fear, now that we're approaching the launch date, is that there's some sort of very embarrassing blooper reel I don't know about that the producers are going to release to pay me back for being a newbie on the set. Seriously though, I had a great time working with the company and I hope they invite me back for more. I'm not posting  any links yet because I don't want people to go prematurely and be disappointed that the programming isn't there yet. Look for more details in the next two weeks.

An added benefit for me was a deep immersion into studio video production. Spending ten hours a day in front of two and three cameras at a time was like taking a crash course in how to do more adventurous and polished video. And yes, I still think sound is the most important consideration!! Well, sound and having someone incredibly beautiful in the program with you.....

Quick Equipment Review: I don't know if it's the sharpest 50mm 1.4 lens in the whole world, in fact I suspect that just about any current 50mm lens from Leica will handily beat it, but I really like shooting with the beefy and imposing Sigma 50mm 1.4 lens that I recently bought. I've used it pretty extensively over the last month and it's a great match for both the full frame Sony's that I own. For the last week I've had it spot welded onto the front of my Sony a850 and am attempting to shoot (as much as possible) at f1.4, f2.0 and f2.8 just for kicks. I mean, why else own a fast lens? The reason I'm using it on the a850 is that I'm a contrarian. The a850 reminds me of Kodachrome 64. You can't really push it up to very high ISOs so I'm making a conscious effort to shoot everything where that particular camera shines. Most of the time I leave it at ISO 100 and when push comes to shove I crank it on up to ISO 200 and live dangerously. At those speeds I don't think the camera has any competitors that are head and shoulders better. You could argue for a Nikon D800, but only one that focuses on both sides of the frame....

Once you've dialed in an a850 you're working with a really great image maker with a smaller IQ sweet spot than some of the newer 24 megapixel cameras. Interesting point for the DXO true believers: the Sony a850's overall score of 79 is only two points lower than that of the Canon 5d mk3 which is four years newer... The a850 still spanks that camera in the dynamic range realm which means more to a studio type photographer than just about any of the other measurements the inscrutable ones do....

Anyway, back to the Sigma 50mm 1.4. When it first hit the market a lot of people had trouble with front and back focusing but so far (knock on wood) mine is right on the money with both varieties of the full frame cameras. In terms of sharpness most people will take points off for the fact that the lens is very sharp in the middle but that the far corners need to get close to f5.6 to be really, critically sharp. Since I only use the lens for human-style, three dimensional subjects and not ever for flat copy work I understand that this metric is meaningless for the intended use of the lens and joyously use it at all apertures, counting on it to be less sharp in the corners and far edges when I'm shooting images of people. But it's really no different in that regard than the older Sony 50mm f1.4 or those that I've owned from Canon and Nikon. If you need sharp edge to edge, near wide open then you are in the market for a macro lens, not a high speed lens.

When I shot with the Canon 1DS mk2 and the 5d mk2 cameras I bought and (tried ) to use the vaunted Zeiss 50mm 1.4 lens. When I had luck riding with me and all the variables (like focus) lined up for me the image could be very good with rich colors and pleasing tonalities. But the rub in that set up (and I suspect most situations where one is attempting to connect a legacy style manual focus lens with a modern, autofocus camera (which through ancient design choices does not feature focus peaking) ) is the fact that the 50mm ZE, when used in the most popular part of the focus range (closer than ten feet) had a tendency for pronounced focus shift. Even if your green dot of focus confirmation lied to you and told you the lens was in focus it was not. The only way I was uniformly successful in using that lens was to take advantage of Canon's live view function. As you can imagine it was a major pain in the derriere when trying to shoot in bright light. The ambient light just washed out the screen  image and you wound up basically guessing when you had achieved sharp focus.

Of course if you use a camera with an EVF and integrated focus peaking it's much easier to determine the point of sharp focus on the fly. And with image magnification and in finder live imaging paranoid levels of confirmation are much easier.

I've wanted to buy the fast Sigma 50 for the Sony for some time but already owned Sony's version and it's not at all a bad lens in its own right. I finally grabbed a Sigma 50mm 1,4 when the priced dropped from daunting $499 to a less anxiety inducing $399. I've used it for many shoots and love the images at nearly every aperture. I've sold off all the other Alpha capable 50mm variants I had lying around and I'm breathing a sign of relief at my inventory downsizing. While the lens is big and feels ungainly on my a58 (which is a crop frame camera) it's just the right balance in my hands when coupled to the a850 which is in itself a monster sized cameras.

I love shooting with the combo only because of the nostalgia I have for a time gone past. In days of camera yore every "professional" camera came with a choice of 50mm 1.8 or 50mm 1.4 lenses. And that's how we bought them back then. I remember the succession: Nikon F2 with 50mm ai 1.4, Canon F1 with 50mm 1.4 SSC, Contax RTS III with Zeiss Planar 50mm 1.4, and even a brontosaurus like Nikon F5 with the 50mm 1.4 AF.... Those cameras trained my hands and my mind to favor the fast over the flexible and mass over pocket ability. The Sony a850 is their digital analogue. And I love it when I pick it up.

The Sigma 50mm 1.4 is available for all of the "big three" camera makers and, if the price stays where it is, To summarize: in the center of the lens it's very, very sharp---on par with just about anything not made exclusively for NASA or the military. Far edges? On par with just about all the competitors---better than some, even with others. Size? Enormous and imposing. Cool factor? 8.5.  I think you should check it out if you are in the market for normal/fast. It's a good value.

Travel Plans:  I'll be traveling to Berlin on the third of September to do some serious shooting, to meet with execs from a camera company, and to attend a small part of the annual IFA show (fun, high tech stuff----huge showcase with lots of tech product launches and introductions). I'll be there for about a week and I'd love to meet for coffee with any VSL readers who will be in Berlin during that time frame. Let me know what works and when my itinerary is set we can start making plans.

I'll be traveling to Tokyo in early November and I'd love to hear from Tokyo VSL readers. My schedule is wide open on that trip. The Tokyo adventure is purely for shooting and socializing. I'll be there by myself and it's always nice to meet photographers when traveling.

Books: If you don't already own a "Kirk Tuck" book now is the time to get one. They're still in stock at Amazon and they are still full of the same great information they've always had.  Please check out the links to the books at Amazon.com below.

Yesterday I started making a short movie about what Austinites do when the temperature starts to climb like crazy. I'm trying to edit it quickly and get it up by tomorrow. It's mostly just for fun but it shows off what you can do with a little mirrorless camera like the Samsung NX300. I was amazed at how well it handled the wide range of tones in direct sun. Maybe you will be too. Not much difference between the footage from the small camera and the footage from the a99 or 5Dmk2. Stay tuned.

Amazon links below!!! If need diapers or sardines or car parts or even camera gear and books I'd be much obliged if you'd click through any one of the links below to start your shopping adventures...






















7.30.2013

Soft side of photography...


I normally don't photograph babies. I like babies just fine but the whole business side of dealing with moms and the mercurial rhythms of babies crying and fedding schedules seems too uncontrollable to me. But I'm an avid amateur photographer of cute babies who are attached to my friends.

Renae and her second daughter came to visit on Sunday this week and I thought they were both adorable. I'd worked with Renae back in the 1990's and we've tried our best to keep in touch. She was a brilliant business partner and a fun person to be around. She hasn't changed, she just has a new, super (baby) model in tow.

We were all sitting around the dining room, catching up, when Maisy stood up on her mom's lap and smiled and stared at me. I flailed around for a convenient camera and found a Sony a850 with a 50mm lens on the table, right next to the plate of deviled eggs and the bowl of hummus. I picked up the camera and started shooting.  I'm looking at the image now, as I type, and I understand the power in a photograph. The potential to catch so much happiness and store it for the future.

Good thing I always keep a few extra cameras on the dining room table...


Studio Portrait Lighting