9.19.2013

How did one get "hooked" on photography, circa 1978?


I think the big difference between photography now and photography in the "good old days" of film and printing paper can be found in the sheer investment and risk of the former. While in the days of magical cellphones and instant uploads to sharing sites we have almost zero investment in creating images the days of yore demanded a whole different level of attention and intention on the part of the artist.

This print, above, is from my earliest days as an amateur photographer with a light. I had one flash and a umbrella of some sort. There were no screens to tell you if you got stuff right or if you totally fucked up everything from exposure to flash sync to focus. If you were a poor student with a very small budget you probably developed your own film, which was also fraught with peril. Did you get the temperatures of the chemicals right? Did you agitate the developing tank correctly? Did you dip your film in Photo Flo and distilled water in just the right way to keep the negatives from streaking? Did you dry your film in some area that was relatively dust free? There were never any guarantees in the process and if you did mess up you'd only find out about your mis-steps days or even weeks later. Long after the statute of re-shootablity had expired....

And none of this takes into consideration that learning to print well continues to be a multi-year experience. I got lucky with the print above. I got it with a relatively small investment of test prints and test strips. But to get to this one image there was, for me, a profound investment in time, money and learning curve. There was required investment to even get something so simple and singular. Maybe that's why the end results were so precious to use back then. In a sense we were creating a permanent artifact of our memory and our way of seeing. Not a consumable meant as Facebook candy.

Maybe that is why so many older and more experience photographers have such a hard time letting go of an idea of photography.  We hold onto the idea of enduring artifacts that had intrinsic value based on our investments of time and skill. Now, for the most part, we're engaged in a process that's not much different than creating a beautiful and tasty main course for a fine dinner. We might fuss a bit and throw in some lighting and post production but in the end we know that the product is more transient. More....consumable. And we get the sense that we need to increase the output to feed that gaping maw of social sharing. If we want to somehow remain relevant.  It's a whole different medium by dint of its use.

The moment that hooked most of us back in 1978 was the moment that your first decent print started forming in a tray of developer under the soft, dim glow of the red safe lights with a little transistor radio humming away in the background. When Belinda's eyes started to come up in the print. That's the moment I decided that I was "all  in."

Hmmm.



Are they "street photographs" or are they portraits taken on the street?


Claire remarked a few days ago that she likes my portrait work but has never really warmed up to my street photography. And I thought about that for quite a while. Then I started thinking about images like the two above. Are they portraits or are they some form of street photography? Both were spontaneous and neither was set up in the sense that I posed them or directed them in any way. So, what would you consider them?

And while everyone's taste in street photography is different I do like these (below) for various reasons.
I wanted to share them again today.....











Big lights make nice portraits.


I've been using large lights for portraits for a while now and I love the way they look. My favorite tool in doing this kind of lighting is the black card I use on the shadow side to make the deeper tones more dramatic. This is a scan from a print and as such it's probably hard to see much detail in the shadow areas but on the negative and in the original fiber based print there's sill detail all the way down until the tones turn black. Difficult to represent on the web with only 255 shades to work with....

My current favorite lighting tool (yes, they change from week to week and sometimes from day to day...) is a 72 inch white umbrella with a black backing that's made by Fotodiox. The image above was done with on of my largest soft boxes used close in.

One of the things  I like about portraiture is the ability to constantly experiment with different light sources and modifiers.

When I re-visit portraits like the one above it reminds me how much I like the longer focal length lenses for the style of portraiture I like to do.

An alternative to watching re-runs of Breaking Bad this weekend? Tired of all that Downton Abbey stuff?

Well, you could sign up for my portrait lighting course at www.craftsy.com and watch 2.5 hours of information about portrait lighting in the studio..... Here's the ad I just saw in my e-mail. And if the thought of me shooting and talking for a couple of hours isn't enough there's also Neil's classes... Or Rick Sammon's Landscape course...

I'm heading back up to Denver on Weds. next week where I will spend eight days working on the next two programs. Should be a lot of fun. One of the two programs will also be offered free of charge. I'll keep you posted.



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A link:

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9.18.2013

In case you hadn't heard Adobe created an economical cloud package for photographers.


A month ago there was lots of agitation and uncertainty over Adobe's decision to move all future revs of PhotoShop to the cloud. More recently Adobe has been offering photographers who already have licensed copies of previous versions of PhotoShop a special pricing strategy. They are bundling PhotoShop, Lightroom and Bridge for a monthly subscription cost of $9.99. With tax it come out to a little less than $11 a month for me.

I looked at the numbers for previous upgrades and the fact that the new upgrade path will be more of less seamless for me and decided to accept their offer. The contract holds the price to $9.99 per month for the next year.

I did the downloads yesterday afternoon and they went without a hitch on a Mac using system 10.8.4.
The upgrade is good for me as I keep getting cameras to test for which the raw files exist only on the newest versions of the software.

The software is resident on your hard drive and the files are resident on your hard drive but can also be sync'd with the free, accompanying 20 gigabytes of space you get in the Adobe cloud. You also get a free website program to use with your images. See their site for more details.

If you don't like the idea then just keep using what you have.

9.17.2013

Blog notes.

Comments are back on but moderated.


A camera reviewer's indecision and an ambiguous set of testing parameters.


We talk about cameras and stuff like they really matter. As though our choices will dictate some plane of reality that will change our lives. And we give far too much credence to camera reviewers. Anyone who's read my blog over the years knows that I'm as clueless about what constitutes the perfect camera as everyone else in the whole industry. We've chased after megapixels, high ISO performance, build quality, nostalgic design cues, low noise and high speed and not a single parameter makes much sense in its own little vacuum.

One of my blogger friends wrote a piece gushing about the high ISO performance of the Canon 6D and how it opened up the doors of perception for him by allowing him to shoot well exposed images in Stygian darkness. Problem is that the image he posted wasn't nearly as good as the ones he's done previously with much less capable cameras. He worked harder on the older images and leaned on the idea that his camera was providing the magic on the newer images. Big mistake.

Over the years I've had the opportunity to test a bunch of different cameras. Some are cameras that advertising and handling made me infatuated with and I bought those with my magic credit cards and, for the most part, over the course of months or years, felt the magic wear off and sold them or traded them in with significant friction of trade. 

I believe that most of us pursue the hunt for the perfect camera because of an overwhelming sense of insecurity. Most of us believe that we are not possessed of talent or vision or any of the great stuff that everyone else seemingly must possess that gives them the opportunity to make great images. We see ads in which our role models and heroes profess to use a brand and model of camera and we buy it in the hopes that some of the great power of the technology will convey to us. Will lift our work up and help overcome our innate inferiorities.

We give away some of our power to the camera and to the reviewers and spokespersons. Why do camera companies have people review their cameras? Why do they select the people they do to evaluate their cameras? Well obviously they look for people with audiences and credibility because the testimonial is still a very powerful form of persuasion.

If you are looking to me to justify your camera purchase my opinion will only make as much sense for you as it does for me. So let's look at my case study:

Kodak>Nikon>Kodak>Nikon>Fuji>Olympus>Olympus Pen>Canon>Sony>Sony Nex>Pentax.

That's the progression of my digital camera buying. And those are just the brands not the individual models (of which there have been many). Is there any logic to it? None that I can see. What's the end result? Huge friction of trade at every shift. Thousands and thousands of dollars poured into black holes. In real estate we'd call it short selling. The reality for everyone in the market is that five minutes after buying whatever new toy we're buying we're under water. 

But if, after every new acquisition, my images got demonstrably better and I got more creative and the camera did sprinkle a higher quality of creative pixie dust on me I'd gladly spend the money to move my ego (oops!) I mean my art forward. But the reality? The reality exists somewhere beyond my rational reach. I know each camera is, on paper, capable of more than the cameras before but does the technical capability of a camera have even the slightest effect on the emotional quality of photographs?
Not that I can see.

At the top of this blog I put a photograph that I very carefully selected as an example. It's a picture of Michael Dell volunteering at Austin Easter Seals. I shot it with a Nikon V1 camera a few years back. I liked that camera and I probably sold it in a moment of stupidity after trying to make it do something it wasn't designed to do. But I wrote a number of mini-reviews about it and it was definitely a workable tool. In fact, I think it did a great job at the Easter Seals shoot. It was small, discreet, fast to shoot and it seems to have handled the requirements of basic photojournalism quite well. Jobs haven't gotten more demanding and imaging hasn't gotten any more difficult but that little camera is gone and replaced by something new and shiny. At my loss. And the opportunity loss of that money in both directions. The acquisition and the sell.

If you took me seriously as a reviewer every time I get a crush on a new camera you'd be doing yourself a huge financial disservice.

A lot of the cameras I review are sent to me on short term loans. They arrive, I shoot with them, cart em around with me all day long and screw around with the files until I break em to find the quality boundaries. Most cameras are great these days. The differences are largely the way they feel and in how perverse the Japanese, Koreans and occasional German menu architect have turned out to be. Some cameras are operationally tough to use because of their interfaces. Some have handling issues that can only be solved by people with very plastic and elastic hands. Some cameras have no discernible spirit or soul and some cameras are just mean. But it's all terribly subjective. At the end of the test period I get to send them back.

I've tested and shot many cameras and at some point in the process I'm nearly always torn between an appreciation for the images and some imagined or real shortcoming of the camera design. The files are beautiful. Sometimes you love the idea of the camera but the handling is not there yet. I like new stuff right up until the moment that it fails me operationally.  If you looked at the images I shoot with the cameras and read what I've said about the cameras you might be tempted to buy the cameras. And with some cameras the early models sent to reviewers are eventually transformed by firmware updates that turn an operational assessment upside down. I don't want to torch a potentially good imaging machine out of impatience. But you should always wait to buy one from any maker until you can handle it yourself. And that's what you should do with every camera anyone reviews. Try it yourself. Work the controls. Use it the way you always use your cameras and see if the camera will solve your problems. Not mine.

Case in point: I love the look and the feel and the files of the Leica Vario X. So much so that when I handled it with the EVF attached I was seconds away from buying one on the spot. I'd owned many film Leica cameras and loved every one of them. But I walked away and took a breath. As I fought about the way I liked to shoot I admitted to myself that I almost always shoot wider than this camera's apertures would allow. Especially in the focal length range in which I like to shoot. 70 to 90mm f2.0-2.8 is my sweet spot. I knew this camera wasn't for me. But... Ming Thein wrote about it so eloquently that I wished it were.

I'm writing this in response to Charles who asked me about my camera choices in a previous blog. I hope it's a better explanation than the one I wrote. I am always grappling with ethical questions that arise when writing about stuff.

When I see the image of Michell Dell with the kid in the image above I am reminded that all of this nonsense about cameras is time limited, constantly morphing and changing without check, and ultimately unsatisfying. No matter how perfect a camera is there will always be something to pine for in the yet unannounced Mark 2.

Do you ever hit the wall and feel like you've already done all your good stuff?


Maybe I just need to focus a bit more. Distill things down to their essence. Find the thing that interests me at the core of all mybusy motion. Stop shooting and processing so much and look more. I started a new exercise last week. I do one walk a week where I take no camera. I have no agenda. I walk and I look and I let everything soak in. Sometimes I'll just stop and watch the light reflect off the mirrored surface of one building and paint a brick building across the street in a golden tone.

Rather than concentrate on setting my camera correctly for street photography the whole not having a camera means I spend more time looking at people more deeply. Looking at their eyes. Looking for their human condition. Are they happy or sad. Disturbed or thoughtful. At peace or agitated. Busy to get somewhere or lost in their own world.

I don't think I ever wanted my work to be decorative or totally representational and yet in my quest to stay busy (thanks a lot, my Puritanical fore bearers....) I've spent too much valuable time shooting reflections and coffee cups and random people doing random things.

I've always known that the benefit of walking through my city is two fold: I get some needed exercise and fresh air, and, I know where everything is located. But as far as photography goes it's just another way I've let resistance come between me and what I should be doing with my camera (the one I already own) and what I should be doing with my keyboard.

I'm about to have another birthday. It's coming up next month. On my birthday I'll be in NYC at Photo Plus talking about a new camera. It's a job. And it's another aspect of resistance. I know long term I should be doing the things that will push me relentlessly toward my over riding goals. But I can always justify classes and presenter gigs, blog writing and things like that because I need the income and the cash flow. Just about everybody does.  Gotta put the boy through college. Gotta keep saving for retirement....

And yet there is always the uncomfortable thought that I'll put off the work I really want to do in order to be "productive" and "responsible" and just as I've succeeded in fulfilling my self-imposed obligations, just as I'm ready to do the one big thing I'll get hit by a bus or contract some dreadful disease and the whole house of cards will tumble down.

I think the feeling of hitting the inspirational wall is a signal that you've lost your way or you've surrounded your way with so much fluff that you can no longer clearly see the path on which you want to be.  If that's the case it's time to get the shovel and dig out from under all the meaningless crap so you can see just where to put your feet in order to move yourself forward, in the direction you chose. Toward the goals that you set.

Cameras and busy photography sure have a way of bogging us down. Mastering the discipline to distill everything down until it becomes obvious what you wan to do is the key. Doing it now is the schedule.




9.15.2013

Good moves by Olympus to flesh out offerings for an advanced market...

Noellia as hippy. Shades of Donovan.
Samsung Galaxy NX 85mm 1.4
Backyard Photography.

I've been following three camera companies with much interest and mostly for three different reasons. The first is Olympus. While I didn't like the feel of the OMD EM-5 I am the first to admit that the files from the camera are beautiful and that the five axis image stabilization is little short of amazing. My many friends who dumped fat cameras to go smaller are pretty much uniformly delighted with the cameras. I kept picking up the EM-5 and trying to like it by I think there is a point at which a camera becomes too small for some people. Maybe it's decades of hand training and maybe it's just individualized haptics but there it is.  

When Olympus rolled out their announcement of the OMD EM-1 I immediately thought that they'd gone a long way to fixing the niggling problems I had with the "5."  The body is a bit bigger and the controls are placed in more convenient places. The finder, if it's the same one used in the Fujifilm x100s, will be remarkably good, and the view massive. There's one addition/improvement that was a complete surprise to a me and a quick shorthand signal to all the older photographers that the camera is intended for a sophisticated audience. That was the addition of a PC sync socket. Wow. Shades of the last century.... but oh so nice for triggering stuff when you've got a microphone or some other accessory in the hot shoe.

The second, most welcome, improvement over all the previous Pen and OMD offerings is the addition of a dedicated microphone input. If they get around to implementing a headphone monitor jack in the next rev they will finally be able to compete in the digital video department. 

When you add in the new 12-40mm f2.8 zoom you've got a pretty awesome picture making package in a nice, compact package with lots of potential.  Final point: Olympus! get to work on the batteries...

While it's a step in the right direction for Oly to admit that people routinely use external microphones the line of thought always brings me to Panasonic. While their previous designs seem less polished than the Olympus offerings they are kicking butt in the video department. I've been over every video specification of the GH3 and I've got to say that when I'm tooling around shooting video with my Sony a99 I'm always experiencing a deep seated lust for the GH3 instead. Whatever Panasonic doesn't get about marketing they more than make up for in their understanding of production video. For less than $1500 it kicks a stock Canon 5D3 right in the shins. And with the addition of the two professional, constant aperture zooms it's a tidy package. 

The synergy between those two companies is what will ensure their viability in the future. It's entirely practical and logical for anyone entering the professional market now to consider a hybrid approach (photos and videos, mixed) to the business and to do so within one ecosystem. The logical way to build a great, economical system is to pick and choose between the Panasonic and Olympus lines, knowing that they will intersect flawlessly. The smart way to make a system would be to pick up a couple of the new EM1 bodies for still shooting and a GH3 body for video production. Both use the same lenses interchangeably and make great back ups for each other. And all the Panasonic users should appreciate that Panasonic finally replaced the dumb 2.5mm microphone input of the GH2 with a 3.5mm input on the GH3. Little favors.

If more and more professionals and advanced amateurs picked up these cameras and tested them in the U.S. and the EU I think the shift toward mirrorless technologies would proceed at an accelerating pace. But who knows? Maybe generations become enamored of tradition and resist any change, regardless of its advantages. Small, light, good and inter-usable seems like a good argument to me. 

But if you are a hard core traditionalist you might be interested to know about my other new fascination. I picked up a Pentax K-01 recently because I loved the weird design and the price was too good to believe. When I got around to shooting the camera I was very impressed with the lens and the imaging done by the sensor. Really nice files. So I started researching the Pentax cameras. They had been off my radar for a long time. I walked into Precision Camera (why does that sound so familiar when I write it?) and asked to see the Pentax Kr-5ii. It's a traditionalist's camera. Nice (but still small) optical finder. Traditional hold and feel. Very solidly built and fairly compact. I brought the camera up to my eye and clicked the shutter. It sounds so good. Much like the priceless shutter on the old Olympus e-1 camera. I almost bought a body and some groovy lens on the spot. I may still.

I've been immersed in a new camera for the last three weeks. But that doesn't mean my mind's gone dark to the rest of the camera universe. I'm more and more convinced that hybrid content creation will drive the professional markets in the near future. The one thing that stopped me from buying a Pentax body was the poor video implementation. 

So, where am I on cameras right now?  Using the Sony Alpha line for just about everything and waiting to see what they bring to market later this fall. If they lose the mirror altogether and keep bolstering their head start in video I'm there for the foreseeable future. I like the full frame video. I like the headphone jack. I like the front multi-control.  If they stumble hard and become a Nex-only company I'll start considering options.

I'm also testing the Samsung Galaxy NX and while I'm loving the images I can get out of the camera and lenses I'm weeks away from writing any sort of review because the camera is still a work in progress. I'm waiting for one or two firmware tweaks before I can evaluate the camera fairly.  It's interesting to shoot two (Sony and Samsung) such different types of cameras nearly side by side. My brain had to relax a little bit to make room for two totally diverse menu structures and my hands vacillate between having a button and dial for nearly everything and having a touch screen and i-function controls for the same stuff.

It's an interesting time for the camera industry. On one hand you have Pentax steadfastly embracing the traditionalist ethos. Almost like an aristocrat in a private club. On the other hand you have Samsung trying to re-invent the way we shoot and share images. That nerdy programmer kid you knew in college. And every other camera company is somewhere in the vast middle ground.

Have I left anyone out? Oh yeah, Canon and Nikon. Inertia is a powerful marketing tool. I think they'll be surfing the cultural memories of Life Magazine and National Geographic for years to come. And, like Windows, they have the first in the market advantages. When the waves break I'm equally sure that they'll look over the landscape of imaging populated by truly innovative companies and cherry pick all the stuff that's working and jettison all the stuff that failed in the market. A strategy of letting the other guys hang ten on the bleeding edge of the board.  Hey, it's a strategy that worked for Dell Computer for nearly two decades....



9.14.2013

Shooting in the studio. My favorite lighting set up....

I love shooting portraits in the studio. I love the feeling of total lighting control. My space isn't very big but it's pretty efficient. For these two images I used my favorite lighting set up. It's one big (six by six foot) frame, covered with white silk diffusion material at about a 35 degree angle to the subject. My camera is right at the leading edge of the diffusion panel....actually touching the frame. I used three big fluorescent lighting units to push light through the silk. What this gives me is a big, soft, but directional light source that I can use to sculpt light across a face in a very flattering way. Since my studio has an all white interior I placed some black panels to the shade side to keep the portrait from getting too filled in. 

Once your great big light is set you've got a lot of lee way to let your model move around and be comfortable in the space. 

I used the Samsung camera's touch screen to actually take the images. I would touch the part of the screen where I wanted the camera to focus and then I'd touch the virtual shutter button to take the image. It was kinda fun but after a while the novelty wore off and I went back to composing in the EVF. 

I like the look of the images. And I like the perspective of the longer, 85mm lens on this APS-C format. But most of all I liked composing in the square on that big, juicy rear screen. When I mentioned earlier that I thought this camera would make a good studio camera that's what I meant....you could compose on a huge screen so that even if you are cropping square there's still a ton of real estate with which to play. 

Why do I like continuous light over flash for stuff like this? Well, it just feels more kinetic and alive. That's pretty much my overriding rationale.

Big thanks to Noellia for dropping by and letting me put my toys through their paces. Hope you've had a weekend of shooting fun stuff.


Studio Portrait Lighting