3.04.2014

The mindset of one photographer.


All the business stuff we talk about exists only to support my inherent laziness and my desire to walk around with a camera and point it at stuff that might only interest me. Cameras are props that allow me to stare longer at people and situations by circumventing typical social conventions concerning direct staring and spatial intrusion. Everything I shoot is source material for future fictional writing. Or it's a resonant reminder of amalgamations I want to remember.

Everything I shoot for myself is a form of archival memory of a feeling, a thought, a visual  juxtaposition. My goal is rarely the printed image hung on a wall. My sharing mainly consists of putting images up on this blog to illustrate what I write about.

The images are self contained historical artifacts that I use to prove to myself that I've lived and experienced the things I have. If other people like them then my ego is happy. If no one liked them I would keep shooting but stop showing. How can the images have the same resonance for others that they have for me. None of us share the same unique set of experiences.

We are all on a journey through life and the only important thing in my mind is to understand where I've been and where I might be going. The camera helps me keep track of my progress. This is selfish but it's true. I don't do this (writing or photography) for anyone else and I suspect anyone who says that their over riding motivation is to share their work for other's benefit of either trying to fool their public or trying to fool themselves.

I had a thought today when I was talking to another professional photographer over coffee. Maybe the cameras that help us elicit our best work, the machines that help us break through the clutter. are the ones that give us the most friction and the least handling satisfaction. Maybe  having to fight against a recalcitrant machine is an important part of some sort of process. Maybe the operational friction makes us bear down harder and commit to our purpose more forcefully.

I was reminded when I selected this photograph that I was working at the time with the Samsung Galaxy NX camera and there were things I didn't like about the apparatus. The EVF was mediocre and the operational speed of the camera was much doggier than my usual cameras. Saving files was more an art than a science.... But it was the camera I had in my hand at the time. (and in its defense still very much a beta product). But somehow I felt more invested in the images that I successfully shot because each one required more of my attention and more of my focused intention.

Maybe we've been thinking about all this photography gear in the wrong way. Maybe we should be looking for cameras that create more challenges for us. More obstacles to overcome. Maybe the determination to win is vital to mastering the image rather than being handed the image on a spoon, with tremendous ease. Perhaps the challenge brings a deeper spirit to the fore and moves us to think more clearly.

Then again maybe all current cameras have become more or less transparent. The obvious ones being too transparent.  And it's the very transparency or lack of effort that diminishes our feelings of satisfaction and competence.

Someone recently remarked about the image of the art historian that I put up that they didn't understand. Was I pranking my viewers? The image had graininess and wasn't acerbically, surgically sharp. Could my reader have missed the entire point of a portrait or did I misunderstand the need for technical perfection in every modern piece of art? Non-perfection. The new feature set.

A good reminder from Thom Hogan... The value of "unique."

http://www.dslrbodies.com/technique/technique-articles/improving-the-photographer/outrunning-those-just-behin.html

Had coffee with an interesting person this morning who pointed me to Thom's column. It's a good read.

3.03.2014

Important announcement from the CEO of the Visual Science Lab: All serious cameras are now better than they need to be.


If you are ancient enough to remember the early days of digital photography you might remember that Kodak (the people who largely invented digital imaging...) announced that the "Holy Grail" of digital would be to match the performance of slide film.  Estimates varied but most experts at the time figured that the number to hit was about 6 megapixels. When we hit that number with the Kodak 660 and 760 cameras a lot of professionals and well heeled amateurs figured we had arrived, dumped the film cameras and stared bravely into the future. And that's when the whining started....


3.02.2014

My long overdue review of the Sony a99.


It's got a 24 megapixel sensor. It focuses native Sony lenses very quickly. The colors it generates are good. The dynamic range is super groovy. It's fun to handle. It's got lots of nice bells and whistles for video. It's full frame and weather resistant. It has an EVF instead of an OVF. I've had one since the Fall of 2012 and I haven't wanted to get rid of it yet. It's got focus peaking for optimal use with manual focus lenses like the Rokinon 85 and 35 1.5 Cine lens. Everything works just like it's supposed to. If I forget about the nuts and bolts and use it in the same fashion I've used all my other cameras throughout time it helps me make images that are technically good. Sadly, it does not provide inspiration, insight, warmth, context or vision. We have to add those to the mix ourselves.

That's the review. Would I buy it again? If I owned lots of Sony lenses and was upgrading from a previous Sony camera? You bet. Would I do it again, right now, if I had a fat wallet and a totally empty camera bag? Probably not. I think I'd just snag a Pentax 645D and a couple of good lenses and be done with it. All subjective information is subject to change.....

Image above done with a Sony a99 for my class on Studio Portraits for Craftsy.com. Go poke around at Craftsy and see what they offer in the field of photography. And baking. And food. And while you are there check out the trailers for my three courses. One of them is absolutely free.

Studio Portrait Lighting

Surface Tension or just magic? I'm glad someone is showing off.



From a series of bubble photographs I took in Berlin last year. 

I've been wondering about something and I'm not sure there is an answer but I'm working on at least getting the question right. It's about video. But it's also about the New Dcoumentarians and it's about snap shots and Martin Parr and Henri Cartier Bresson. Here goes: How do you make wonderful small videos that feel like the images that we who love documentary photography grew up admiring and savoring? 

I look at the images above and I remember the warm day, the bright colors of the giant bubbles, the excitement of the kids as they played with the bubble magic and the general feeling of the moment. Short of making a pretentious three minute documentary about bubbles, why haven't we invented the video "snapshot" or the video "street photography" that so captivates us in the other media?

I'm not sure that every video needs to tell a story as much as some might just need to evoke a feeling. Have I missed a genre? Is my education sporting a blank spot in the artistic motion category or is this something that we need to get inventing?

There are so many times during the day that I want to capture a complete moment; whether it's the arch of an expression, a quick kiss on a cheek, the way someone moves through space or even the interplay of wind and fashion in the streets. How do we do this and how do we create a market for it?
I'm serious. I really want to know. Is all video condemned to be a linear story (even if it is sequenced out of linear time)? Does there have to be a beginning, middle and end? Can there be a short moment that's just right like the opening notes of A Stairway to Heaven? 

It's a new interest of mine and if you have something to share about it don't be shy about commenting at length....

Spending time indoors today. Working on some old files I didn't pay enough attention to and writing the blog.

The rear of a building somewhere in Berlin.

It's been a cold, wet, blustery day in Austin. I've been cooped up in a conference room for half the week and crunched up in front of a computer for the other half and bad weather or not I decided to take a couple hours this morning and go for a walk downtown. The city is gearing up for the annual celebration of hip-ism and cultural smugness that we've come to know as SXSW (South by Southwest). I thought we just had the two weeks of it that combines Interactive, Cinema and then Music but I misjudged the show's overall ability to metastasize and continue growing and, of course I left out the newest added week, the SXSW Education conference. Yes, it starts tomorrow.

I carried around a big, black umbrella today. I held it in my left hand and swiveled it into an ever-changing compromise between the rake of the wind and the rain and good forward visibility. In my right hand I grasped the Sony a850 and it's partner, the Sigma 50mm 1.4. I tried for a while to keep water drops off the combination but eventually I gave up and focused most of my attention on keeping the umbrella from dramatically inverting every time I stepped into a new slip stream between large buildings. 

It was nice to get out and walk but I was happy to come back to the studio and settle back in. I fired up the magic imaging box and went looking for the images I'd shot last year in Berlin. I remembered that I'd shot a few good ones and I knew that I set them aside and temporarily lost track of that train of thought. I was on a vague mission of rediscovery today. 

The image above was one of those quiet images that sneaks up on me. I turned a corner and came to this quiet place in the middle of a bustling city and the quiet of the shadow side of this building made me stop and savor the intimate isolation. It felt almost like I was waiting on a rendezvous with a beautiful woman. There was a shimmer to the space that I couldn't explain. I tried to make an interesting image and pull in some of the feeling of amorphous anticipation that kept me company. 

I love the blue of daylight peaking around the right corner and the soft green saturation on the top left corner from the light filtering through wings of green leaves. Diamonds and diagonals. Rich colors and muted colors. It's puzzle and a blend. 

I was using the Samsung Galaxy NX camera I had on loan from Samsung, along with the little 30mm lens. It was a pre-production camera and it brought along its own idiosyncrasies but it was there in my hand at the moment and I used it as well as I could.

There is something so wonderful about wandering without agenda or angst through a city you've never been in before. There is a sense of anticipation and an ampleness of images that swirl by as you walk along that makes me feel as though I'll never run out of things at which to point my camera. 

So, a normal lens and an incomplete camera...maybe that's exactly what I needed in my hands to stop and take this image. Funny. I never thought about it that way before. 

3.01.2014

On some two day shooting assignments it's the post processing that's the time vacuum...


One of my long term clients (thank you! thank you!) called a few weeks back and asked for a bid for a good assignment. The assignment was a case of opposites. On one day we would need to set up a shooting space and lighting design to make shots of hundreds of tiny glass ampules. And each one would have a different label. These little glass "bottles" are used to store pure formulations of reference chemistry. We needed to make shots of individual bottles, groups of bottles and still life images that incorporated the ampules with other items. (For some reason Blogger compresses images in a weird way. In Photoshop the background in the image below measures 255, 255, 255 but in this blog ----at least on my laptop--- it looks quite gray...).  


The other part of the shoot (the second day) required us to set up a nine foot wide white seamless background and to make images of people against white. We'd be fitting each person for a lab coat, doing primary make-up and then directing them through a series of expressions and poses. We won the bid and this past Weds. and Thurs. we produced the shoot. I arrived at the client location  (about 45 minutes from the studio), solo, at about eight a.m. and unpacked the equipment from the car. The first day was dedicated to shooting the tiny bottles and still life set ups so I decided to handle that on my own. 

I set up in conference room and used smooth, white , bristol board as a background. It was a 24 by 32 inch piece and it made a nice, compact sweep. The main lighting for all of the small work was provided by "floating" a white diffuser (Westcott frames) over the top of the items to be photographed and using a Fiilex P360 LED light (set to full daylight, 5500K) right over the top on a small boom arm. If I needed more power for more depth of field I added more LED lights, including a Fiilex P200 and eventually (for a big grouping at f22) two Fotodiox 312AS panels. All of them were aimed through the diffusion for a consistent look.

I brought along two full frame cameras because, from the very beginning, my client was adamant that they would be using all of the images large. Very large. I wanted the highest sharpness and pixel count camera I had in the inventory. In this case my intention was to use the Sony a99 with its very good 24 megapixel sensor. With that, and an electronic first shutter curtain, it seemed like the a99 would be the perfect tool for close-up, high magnification work done with continuous lighting. 

The way I imagined the day's shooting was based around setting up the first in a series of "single ampule" shots, snapping a perfect frame and then removing the card from the camera, sticking it into an SD card reader and then opening the perfect frame on my 15 inch MacBook Pro. The clients and I would discuss the lighting, the framing and any other details worth mentioning and then I'd get to work applying the same settings and look and feel to all the subsequent bottles. If we changed lighting or any other parameter we could pull the card back out and check a frame before committing to many iterations. 

Well.... I remembered the clothespins, the clamps and even something soft to kneel on but I screwed up on one important detail. I brought the wrong card reader. I had a CF card reader and a microSD card reader (which I thought was the SD card reader) but no SD card reader. Oh crap.

I stopped for a second and pondered. I knew the client wanted to see a test frame on something bigger than the screen on the back of a camera but I also knew we had a lot of ground to cover and we were scheduled too tightly for a run back to the studio for one little linch-pin. Yikes. I weighed my options. Then I grabbed the Sony a850 (the back up camera) from the camera bag and went through all the set up parameters, desperately trying to remember how to actuate the mirror lock-up I had never used before on this camera. Bingo. I found it. 

At that moment, with the a850 in one hand and a CF card reader in the other I made up my mind to trust the  old tech. Here's a stark comparison: The Sony a99 is fast and svelte and actually very light to hold on to. The Sony a850 is like a Russian tractor; it's oversized, heavy and heavy duty. But to my eye the a850 makes files that are equally good at ISO 100-200 and the mirror lock up, combined with an electronic cable release, makes the camera a very good choice for the kind of table top work I was looking at. Up it goes onto the Berlebach tripod and we're off and running. The first reference file looked pristine, the client relaxed, I unclenched my....jaw and we got down to the business of making photographs for industry. By the end of the day, still on the first battery, I had fallen totally in love with the a850. The screen on the back, while not nearly as high res as the screen on the a99, was exposure accurate. It agreed with both my Minolta Flash Meter Five and the histograms on the back of the camera.

I was nervous about switching cameras because I've probably pushed 40 or 50 thousand images through the a99 for business in the last year but I've only casually used the a850. When I got home I rushed to my main computer and carefully looked at random files on my big monitor and I was.....delighted. The color was better than I expected from either camera. But the real star was the lens. And it was a lens that I was determined to use on whichever camera I chose. In fact, it was the lens that pushed me into making the choice of the full frame cameras in the beginning. 

I was using the Sigma 70mm f2.8 macro. It's a copy I've use with delight since I bought it. I've also carefully calibrated it to ensure that it has no front or back focus on either of the cameras I might end up using.  It's a very sharp lens and it's got a nice out of focus rendering at all the wider apertures. 

When working close up I use manual focusing for everything. I like the ability on the a99 to punch a button and increase the magnification of the focus point. It gives me extra  confidence in my ability to focus exactly every time. I didn't have it this time but in 267 shot I missed zero as a result of focus failure. 

The day zoomed by. There was fresh coffee down the hall and a wonderfully catered lunch. We took a break for half an hour to sit and eat and talk about what we'd gotten done and what we needed to do in the second half of the day and then we got back to it. 

We finished with the table top photography around 4:45 p.m. and rather than rush out into rush hour traffic I decided to get a head start on the next day's shoot by breaking down and packing all the lights and materials we'd used for the table top work and then setting up the seamless and the flags and lights we'd need for the full length portraits agains white that we'd be shooting the next day. 

Every time I look around my own studio I think about ways to downsize. I think that I have too many collapsible frames or too many types of diffusion. Too many mono lights or too many LED panels. But then I do a shoot in the way I know a shoot should be done and I realize that while we don't use them everyday that most of the items in the studio are there for a reason. We might be able to fix a lot in post but it is a point of pride to be able to fix most things using the right tools in the right ways as we shoot the primary images. 

For the second day of photograph in did a standard white background set up. We didn't need to see feet. Our final crop for use in ads for our people shots would be just above the knees. This meant that I could use two lights instead of four on the background and I could dispense with the shiny board on which I normally have subjects positioned on to get a reflection back forward that cleans up the area around people's feet.
Above: The table top set up from the opposite side showing the camera, tripod and lights. 

The old fashioned hero camera of the week, the a850. Perfectly behaved. Perfect files and perfect battery performance.  A keeper for low ISO shooting. 

The set up for photographing people against white.

A few notes about the portrait lighting set up. I used a 32 by 28 inch Fotodiox soft box and it was the perfect compromise between contrast and softness at the subject position. Notice the white boards on the floor. I find my images more believable and a bit more open if I have that bounce up from the floor. It's not a major fill but it's enough to elevate the shadows just a bit and it provides some evening for the tone of the white lab coats my subjects were wearing.

Then there's the beauty dish at the very back of the set, just to the right of the seamless paper. That's a low power backlight that puts a little glance of light on the check opposite the main light. Not the way I always light things but we were following (loosely) a formula that I had inherited years ago. I've tried lots of different lighting instruments but the beauty light has not back splash onto the seamless and, with the diffusion cover, does a great job not being to specular or too hot on most subject.

With all the light bouncing around I knew I would not need a second, active light source to provide some illumination for the shadow side of my subjects' faces. I used a white diffusion sheet on a Westcott collapsible frame as a passive fill and I used it close in. A little closer for people with darker complexions and a little further away for people with very light skin...

Notice that that umbrellas have black backings to keep light from spilling all over the room and I've used black flags between each of the background lights and the subject position so there is no direct light from them hitting the subject and creating odd and mis-motivaed high lights.
This image shows a flagged background light and also, in the background, my back light.

Center of the frame is white diffusion on a collapsible frame which provides a flexible fill light. 
floor boards for just enough passive fill to make some shadows believable.

With the lights and background set I headed home to the family but before I walked out of the client's doors I made a note on my phone to remember to pack the portable steamer from the studio. I knew we'd need it as we had eighteen people to photograph and a limited assortment of white lab coats. One scrunchy arm crossing and we'd need to steam out wrinkles for sure.

Belinda stands in for a test. 


The next morning I headed out with Belinda as my assistant, manager, stylist and partner. We left early enough to get to the client's offices by 7:40 a.m. and we were ready to shoot our first person by 8:00 a.m.  Belinda organized the lab coats and fired up the steamer. I met with the client and agency people to put together our schedule and go over some of the parameters of the shoot. We'd be photographing 18 scientists and chemists  and we'd need to make sure that they were comfortable and that the lab coats fit well. In many cases that meant using clothespins to better tailor a slightly large coat.  We also used rolled gaffer's tape to keep collars in place.

I brought along the Barbie Make Up Case and one of us would powder shiny complexions as necessary.
The Barbie Case. Thank you Cover Girl and Maybelline. 

One of the most valuable shooting tools I know of.....wooden clothespins. 


Yes. Yes. I know. You are a master of reading histograms. Your camera is an infallible light meter, etc. etc. etc. Well, if you are metering a white background it's really useful to know "how white?" it is and what the actual difference is, in f-stops, between your subject, the background and everything else. You can do it by shooting and chimping over and over again but a light meter is a much better and more elegant tool for the purpose. There is a reason the Photo Gods invented incident light meters. They are easier to use and more accurate.  We have three. They all agree. 



Good catering is a hallmark of a good shoot.  Two thumbs up for the client's person in charge of food. She did an amazing job and provided both healthy and (fun) unhealthy options.  Everyone on the set appreciated that attention to detail. And it was no fluke. The catering was great on both days!

When we got rolling I shot a few reference frames for everyone to look at and evaluate. No major changes were required so we were able to work pretty much non-stop through the day without lighting changes or compositional changes. 

When I woke up on Friday I started working on the still life files. There was one product issue that required me to "touch" almost every file in Photoshop. That's okay because I wanted to do a perfect white balance and get the blacks at just the right level. Also, no matter how carefully you clean your sensor any shots you take at f11.5, 16 and 22 will need some remedial dust spotting. That's part of the job. I finished perfecting my last still life file last night around 10 pm. I logged about ten hours of computer time, breaking only for lunch and a few walks around the blocks with the loyal dog. 

When I woke up today I started editing all of the portraits (1167 files), kicking out blinks, tired expressions, the moments between high energy and awkward poses. Of course I threw out the frames resulting from an occasional over running of my studio flash recycling times. I ended up with around 700 good files that I needed to fine tune and send to the client for final selection. 

Those files got fine-tuned (color, contrast, tone, black point, white point) a few hours ago and when I left the studio my big computer was converting files from huge raw to manageable jpegs. When I finish writing this in my favorite coffee house I'll head into the studio one last time tonight to start the upload of the 700 files to a folder on Smugmug.com which I'll share with my client. 

Once the client picks a winner for each subject we'll go back to the raw files, make as many improvements as possible and then convert to .PSD and start the process of masking the images to drop out the background but retain detail in every strand of hair, etc. 

So far two shooting days have provided two post processing days. Once the selections are made for the final prints it should take the better part of a third day to make the masked finals. I also suspect that they want to have a black and white conversion of each selected file done as well. 

When we wrap up everything we get to sit down and write up our invoice. It's the last step. 

So many people think of commercial photography as a glamorous way to earn a living and, I guess it can be. But sometimes it feels just like work. Real work.

But I guess this is really only the tip of an iceberg. We need to work fast to get everything from last week off next week's plate. Next week we're scheduled to start a series of video projects. Talk about shooting days generating post production days!!! I'm planning on about a 2:1 ratio on those projects. And, of course, we have a hard deadline at the end of the month. Again----sounds like work.

I thought it would be fun to let you know what I've been up to...


2.25.2014

Even seasoned professionals make mistakes from time to time. That's why one needs to create a mental checklist.


One reader of my previous blog, about the importance of getting started and being open to failure, tallied up my article and basically said, "these are human errors and have nothing to do with technology." Well....exactly. Bold scores for reading comprehension. But there was one piece he did not acknowledge and that was the part of human nature that just assumes everything is working as it should (or as we believe it should). I have no problem with the mistakes I routinely make because every time I do falter it reinforces my need to bolster my mental checklist. The one which prompts me to double check the things that can go wrong.

But even seasoned professionals screw up from time to time. Here's my experience with one screw up from last Summer. We were on our last day of a video shoot. We'd been in the studio for a couple of days. In a funny twist of fate I was the talent on the shoot instead of the technical guy or the camera artist. I was giving a video class about studio lighting and I was delivering the content without a teleprompter or a written script. The producer much preferred that I just deliver the content in a conversational way instead of getting stiff and sticking to a literal script. A bit scary working without the net.

Working that way takes some practice. First there's practice of organizing the cogent thoughts in your head. Then there's the practice of trying to walk from point "A" to point "B", turn to the correct camera, do you introduction and then proceed to smoothly deliver content. Many times it doesn't work and often you try a scene several (or more) times until you actually get lucky and nail it.

At any rate I had been working with a really great team of professionals who did this kind of studio work every day and, in some cases, had done so for decades. On this particular scene they were using three cameras that all ran into a switcher. One camera was set up high and gave us a wide view of the entire set. The other cameras showed closer angles and the method in editing would be to switch from one camera to another to add visual interest. I was also asked to start the scene by entering the wide frame while introducing the course segment. I would continue walking and talking toward camera "A" and then I would stop, turn to face camera "B" and continue presenting the course material for the segment.

The problem is that I'm just a photographer, not a professional actor, and I can hardly walk and chew gum at the same time much less walk and talk and hit marks in a studio....

I muffed a few takes and we took a break. During the break someone re-adjusted my lavaliere mic and reoriented the transmitter on the radio link in my back pocket. Then we started again.

I walked into the scene, walked to my first mark without tripping or giggling, hit my second mark, turned to the camera and delivered the most incredible take I had ever managed. The words sounded good in my head and, more importantly, they made perfect sense to the producer/director. Every one gave me a thumbs up and we started breaking down the lights and cameras from that scene to set up for another one.

At some point the editor went back and checked the files. He was looking to make sure the visuals were good and the audio was perfect. And then he checked again and then he stopped everyone. There was a problem. My mic had been inadvertently muted during the "perfect" take. My only perfect take...

The consensus of the crew was that we had a safe back up to fall back on. There was a boom mic that usually sat just above me on the set, pointing down as a safety for the lav mic. The only problem was that in order to do the scene with a wide camera angle the microphone had to be moved way back to get it out of the shot and that made its audio unusable as well.

There was some discussion of using cutting edge science to fix the audio from the shotgun microphone that had been moved back but in the end all of the professionals knew where we were heading. We reconstructed the lighting and the cameras and we did the scene over again from the top. While I never hit the heights I had attained earlier I was able to pull off a decent performance and we moved on.

But the very bottom line is that we were, for a time, undone by the simplest of things: the "mute" button on the wireless microphone's transmitter. Now checking the "mute" button is part of my check list for audio. And, like the switching editor, checking the takes for audio and video quality before leaving a location (or ending a shooting day) is now permanently on my check list.

Stuff happens. When it hurts a bit it makes an impression in a different way than "learning" the same stuff on a website. When you have your time or pride or skin in the game and get a little burned it reinforces the lesson. That was the lesson readers were supposed to take away. Maybe I didn't write it correctly the first time around.

Sorry, I am relatively new at this blogging thing and I'm still making mistakes. Still learning. I should have it pretty much nailed down in another 1836 blog posts....


Photographing Art Historians.



I was asked to photograph the art history faculty for the University of Texas College of Fine Arts. I did. This is one.