7.19.2016

Those "in between" days. You know; where we get all the boring stuff done so we can do the fun stuff the next day....

I've been treating my Sony RX10iii like a chubby little Hasselblad.
I've got it set to shoot squares and sometimes I go one step further and 
set it to shoot black and white. And it's a camera I nearly always use
in the Jpeg format. So it's more like the old days of film when you
kind of had to more or less nail your shots in the camera.

Studio Dog is waiting for someone to come down the hall, 
exclaim, "Oh my gosh, you are so cute!!!" at which 
point she will manipulate them into giving her yet another 
treat from the little jar on the small kitchen table 
next to the (hardwired) telephone.
It's all retro here.

So, it's Tuesday. Yesterday was my day to get up way too early and drive the hour to Johnson City where we were supposed to shoot some board members for a utility company. I got there at 7 a.m., set up by 7:30 and had my first board member show up, in a rush, at 7:45. I got his photograph taken and waited for the next of the three new people to arrive. At the last minute the schedule changed and everyone went into a board meeting right at 8:15. "Another day." my contact said, "we'll come back and get the other ones on another day." 

I tore down the lights and the soft boxes and the meticulously placed green screen and packed everything carefully back in their cases and bags. Then I headed back to Austin. I'll charge them enough to make the trip worth my time but it seemed empty to travel so much and shoot so little. I came back to the world headquarters of the Visual Science Lab and imported the files into Lightroom, did some rudimentary color correction and converted the selects into Jpegs then put them up on Smugmug.com, in a private little gallery for the client. I spent the rest of the day making airline reservations for next week's assignment in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, sorting out retouching and post production orders from clients and hanging out with my sometimes assistant and full time son, Ben. 

Today is a "limbo" day. Not as in dancing under the limbo stick but as in stuck in limbo. I had a stack of things growing like weeds on the corner of my desk: Sign a contract to get a bunch of work done on my trees. Calculate and pay my state sales taxes. Bill several clients whose jobs I shot last week. Interrupt the billing process to read a book about how to cure procrastination. Get back to billing. Pay some bills online. Pay some bills offline. Have lunch at a little Mexican restaurant on First St. with my friend, Will. And then return to the studio to clean, clean and then clean again. 

If you work as a photographer and you stay pretty busy you are always coming back from somewhere, on a job where you chose to use some assemblage of gear, and you are always getting ready to go somewhere else and, if you are like me, choosing other gear to take on the next job. There never seems to be time to unpack, stow the used gear and get organized so stuff starts to accumulate in little piles. 

Then, all at once, you realize that tomorrow you'll be shooting in the studio with two clients in tow and you need to pretend that you are one of those highly organized photographers who keep their studios looking spare and Swiss. At this point I panic and start trying to do all my organization at once. 

The schedule for the next 24 hours is a little tricky. I'm getting the studio totally set up and ready to shoot still life stuff first thing in the morning. Right now I'm taking a break (procrastinating) after having set up three soft boxes and five, big LED lights. The reason I want everything set is that I am scheduled to go to Zach Theatre tonight at 7:30 pm to photograph the dress rehearsal of Mary Poppins. Since the production goes "live" tomorrow I need to shoot this evening (usually until around 11pm) and then head home to post process the files right after. We need to get them to assorted sites and media tomorrow...

From 11pm till about 2 am I'll be importing, editing, color correcting and outputting. My hope is to start an upload to Smugmug.com as I walk out the door at the end of the night and then be up and going by 6:30 in the morning for the first of two shoots; the still life shoot for the healthcare devices client, followed by another location shoot at a different theater. We're shooting marketing images at a downtown theater and we'll need to set up lights, etc. but not the same lights we'll be using to shoot product...

I'm sure that by the end of the day I'll be toast. I hope to get some sleep on Weds. night so I can hit the post processing for these two jobs right after a dentist appointment (see, I'm having all the fun!).

I've got the shop vac out and my earplugs in. I'm trying to figure out a design-y way to store sandbags. I'm constantly back and forth on e-mail scheduling portraits with doctors who seem to have rampant scheduling issues. Little issues that seem to require a nearly constant fine tuning of appointments. It's largely insane. 

But I am reticent to actually complain about any of this. It's what we wished for all the way through the downturn in 2007-2013 = a Summer of good paying, non-stop photographic work. Now, if I can just get through it all without collapsing from exhaustion. Some down time to nap on the couch with Studio Dog would be wonderful.

Testing a lighting set up before an important shoot (they're all important!).




The business of photograph is mostly about getting good images delivered. Clients don't really give a crap why something "didn't work" they just need photographs they can use. The better the photographs the happier they are to pay on time and hire you again next time. Since guaranteed delivery is essential we try not to leave much to chance and usually will have an assistant step in for some test shots. That way we can fine tune a lot before the clients arrive on the set. 

The test shot above was supposed to be of my assistant. We were going to photograph former president, Bill Clinton, in conjunction with a Dell, Inc. event. The problem in this situation is that, at the last minute, the secret service refused to approve my assistant. They wouldn't give him security clearance to be in the room.  I would be making photographs of the former president, and a big collection of Dell executives and local dignitaries and, all of a sudden, I found myself flying solo. 

Well, that's why camera makers put self-timers on our cameras. Sure, it's a pain in the butt to shoot, then chimp, then shoot and chimp again while walking a circuit from the subject position to the back of the camera but it beats the hell out of noticing that something isn't working in the middle of a non-repeatable assignment. Especially one on an insanely tight time schedule. 

The tension of a last minute change in staff, along with the pressures of the moment probably go a long way toward explaining why I am not smiling my usual endearing smile in this particular image....


7.18.2016

Paris Hatters. San Antonio, Texas.



My first real memories of downtown San Antonio were of eating ice cream sundaes at Joske's Department Store on the corner of Alamo Plaza and Commerce. They had a restaurant on one of the top floors and they made clown faces on the sundaes and put the cones on upside down, like clown hats. It wasn't until I was old enough to walk around the downtown area by myself that I started to discover older businesses like this one, a hat shop that's been on a side street in downtown for over one hundred years. It's still there. It's still open for business and they still sell hats and boots. 

I like to think that ranchers and ranch hands come in from the small, surrounding towns to buy their authentic hats there. It was somehow reassuring to round a corner and see that the shop was still there. Progress marches so quickly sometimes...


I tried two different compositions.
I like seeing more of the building but I'm not sure 
I like seeing the tops of the cars. 
I'll have to look at them for a while.

Camera: Sony RX10iii.
ISO: 100
Fancy Jpeg.

Summer self-portraits. Reflections in the old Alameda Theater. San Antonio, Texas. RX10iii.





Stumbling through San Antonio in the Heat. Trusty RX10iii Swinging by My Side.



I was down in San Antonio yesterday doing the routine human stuff. Buying some groceries for my octogenarian parents and making sure their air conditioning was working, visiting with my in-laws, and acting as a chauffeur for my wife. But I carved out the time between 3 and 5 pm to grab a camera and head to downtown San Antonio to see what might be new since I last roamed through, well over a year ago. No great art here, only the realization that the camera works as a motivator to get me out looking and walking. The experiential parts of walks are at least as important as any images one comes back with. 

It was hot but I was sporting a new hat that worked well and an old, white shirt from REI that seems to have built-in refrigeration capabilities. A nice time to be out and about. San Antonio can be so vibrant; it made me a bit resistant about heading back to Austin. But, since I needed to be in Johnson City this morning at 7 a.m. ...  











7.16.2016

The importance of small, incremental jobs. Making a photography business work.

I don't like to turn down small jobs. I remember all too well the early days in my career when my livelihood depended on piecing together dozens of smaller projects over the course of a month in order to make enough money for the mortgage and groceries. It seems like most people (and articles) are focused on the "big" projects with big price tags. Not a bad idea, if you can get them with any degree of regularity, but I counsel younger photographers not to walk away from the smaller, "bread and butter" jobs because they can be more numerous and available, and if you stack enough of them together it's actually possible to make a living taking photographs.

A case in point is head shots. I'd love to charge $1,500 to $2,000 for a single head shot in the studio. But you know what? There is a range in every market and those prices are a bit more that businesses in Austin are currently willing to pay. The range here is about $125 to $650 for an in-studio head shot. My clients seem comfortable in the $350-$450 range. What does this buy them? It buys a 30 minute session with a seamless background (or canvas, etc.) along with a web gallery to select the image they'd like to use and the retouching of that selected image. It also includes the usage rights for personal public relations and use on a website.

Advertising projects pay much more so why do I "waste" my time doing an almost endless series of head shots? Well, for one reason, practice makes perfect. The more people I photograph, and the more often I photograph them, the better I become at fine tuning lights, making good conversation and identifying poses and expressions that make sitters look their best. If I spent less time doing these kinds of business portraits I'm certain that I'd be rusty and I would be slower. Maybe I would deliver a lesser product without the constant practice.

But the smaller jobs, like head shots, also serve to keep the cash flow flowing in between the bigger jobs. If I could nail down 6 jobs a year that net me $25,000 each I could work for a month or a month and a half every year and have a good income. But reality intrudes and work never comes in on a methodical and regular schedule. If I waited around just for the "whales" I might be disappointed. I might also, eventually, be broke.

I just finished a "whale" job last month. It paid well and it required my skills and attention for several weeks. If jobs like this came in regularly I'd be thrilled, but, in reality, they come in sporadically and are never quite predictable. Head shots, product shots and interesting events happen all the time. They are a great source of regular and almost continuous income between the big stuff. They are like the  minnows, trout and salmon. Not the whales.

I remember having dinner and chatting about business with one of the people who was a super star photographer in the 1990's and early 2000's. His work consisted almost entirely of big, national and international advertising projects. Most of which came from NYC. We talked about the difference between the way I had structured my business and the way he has structured his. He might only get three or four big jobs in a year but the budgets were in the range of $50,000 to $100,000 per engagement.

I was working three or four times a week for local corporations, or divisions of national corporations that had a big presence in Austin. My day rate at the time was around $1,800. I would have to work for a month to make what my friend could make in a week. His client list consisted of six or seven giant advertising agencies on the east coast. My client list was sixty or seventy local clients that ranged from a small, regional theater, a few mid-sized medical practices, and a large number of technical companies like Dell, Motorola, IBM, and Tivoli Systems.

The projects I worked on were (are) always large industry events (not advertising), images of cool, new product, lifestyle portraits for product marketing, and executive portraits. Not very glamorous very often. But it was (is) steady work. And I have a personality that feels comfortable when I'm always working on something.

When the economy collapsed in 2007-2008 advertisers cut back. Traditional, big campaigns were replaced by cheaper, early attempts at social marketing and highly targeted niche marketing, and moved away from big campaigns aimed at wide markets. My friend's six or seven agencies switched gears and the work stopped flowing to him. When the markets finally recovered and cycled back to those more traditional projects the three or four year hiatus killed my friend's business. On the recovery a whole new crew of younger "photographers of the moment" were positioned to take over and start a new cycle.

My business fell during the same period but with ten times the total number of clients the shock was spread across a wider group and there was always someone who still needed the day to day work for their company's advertising. Six or seven head shots in a month covered the mortgage and property taxes. Three or four product shots in a month kept food on the table and the occasional, smaller, local or regional ad campaigns filled in enough so we could still make contributions to retirement accounts and the kid's 529 college plan. The jobs shrunk for a while because our clients were having difficulties with the economy as well but we were lucky in that 90% of our existing base of clients was loyal through the years.

The secret was to be diversified not only by client types but by project types and sizes as well. In the tightest economies it seems that only the smaller jobs get approved and funded. The more of these jobs you can round up; even though you are working more or longer days, the more financially healthy your overall business can be. It's all back to cash flow...

Since we could gauge more regular results I remained committed to regular marketing and in those lean times the marketing emphasized our competence at doing smaller, more routine jobs. No sense sending out images from big and costly campaigns if everyone is tightening their belts....

To this day, even in a year when bigger projects seem to be flowing in nonstop, I am loathe to ever turn down a smaller project; if I can do it profitably and efficiently. I understand the need for cash flow. These are the jobs that ultimately make a business sustainable.


Life in photography can be a jumble of disconnected images. It can also be fun.

Paddle Boards. 

Canoes.

Water and Trees.

Barton Springs Pool. Closed on Thursdays for cleaning...

Sony A7ii camera.
Sony/Zeiss 24-70mm f4.0 lens.
Swimming Pool = 68 degrees.

7.15.2016

Ah. Those Austin Summer Skies.

A different view of the Pfluger Pedestrian Bridge over Lady Bird Lake. Austin, Texas

There are two overlapping lenses that I bought for the Sony A7 series cameras. Both are wide angle zooms and both were designed by Zeiss, but they come from very different eras. One is an older, manual focus zoom lens that was made for the manual focus Contax cameras which were popular in the 1980's and 1990's. It's a very solid and heavy lens that utilizes a push-pull design. It's the 28-85mm f3.3 - f4.0 lens. Used with an adapter on an A7x camera it is front heavy but it does a very nice job when it comes to making images. It is moderately contrasty and has a very rich color palette. By that I mean that the colors are very well differentiated and quite nicely saturated. It is not overly energized but has a nice visual balance to it. As a photographer who likes to make classical portraits I am happy that the long end goes out to 85mm as opposed to the more current vogue of emphasizing the wide end over the long end. The "cool" Canon, Nikon and Sony zooms of today start at 24mms and end at 70mms. Nice if you really need to go wide most of the time but not really optimal for beautifully drawn headshots.

The other lens is a member of the new order. It's the 24-70mm f4.0 Zeiss/Sony. While it's not as long as I would like it's a very functional street shooting lens and in some ways is a complement to the above lens and not a redundancy. Whereas the manual lens pushes one to be more methodical and careful the newer lens combines with the latest A7X cameras to deliver fast and accurate autofocus. This makes for a system that just seems made for taking quick slices of life while moving through time and space. The AF lens is also much lighter than its manual, distant sibling which makes it much more fun to drag around during the day. 

The lenses seem to render colors and tones in very similar ways but the main difference in imaging between the two lenses is the overall contrast of the resulting photographs. The older lens, no doubt optimized for use with film, is only moderately contrasty and has a balanced look to it. The newer lens follows the modern design idiom in making the contrast stronger and placing more emphasis on sharpness than a certain visual balance. 

So, yesterday when I left swim practice and went for a walk I chose to use the new lens. I knew I would be photographing things that might benefit from the combination of contrast and high sharpness and I knew that I would benefit from the lighter weight and faster operation. If I had been heading to the studio to make portraits with specific lighting I'm pretty sure I would have made the opposite choice. Of course I am spoiled. A good photographer could press either lens into either kind of service and get satisfying results. Additionally, with a little work in post I can make the older lens look very much like the newer one. But it is nice to have two different tools that, while nuanced, do have differences that can be expressed in daily shooting. Just as I've come to realize that it can be useful to have more than one model of 50mm lens the same applies to standard zoom lenses. 

Part of the difference is the psychological momentum created by the heft, feel and operation of each lens. To achieve perfect focus with the MF lens one must slow down and take advantage of the camera system's focus magnification feature. This works best when adapting a contemplative style of photography. When shooting still life, landscapes, objects, and people who aren't moving around too much. Knowing the limitation of manually focusing slows one down and makes one become more methodical. 

When using the AF lens one is freed to turn, snap and continue on without having to break the flow by demanding a greater concentration on the mechanical steps of picture taking. Both methods are valuable and both have their limits. Part of being an artist is to desire the right tool for creation ---- in the moment. Different moments call for different approaches. It's nice to have choices. 


A look toward the neighborhood where my studio is located. Just Southwest of downtown and across the Colorado River. This view is about a mile from home.

In the middle of Summer, in the middle of Austin. July 15, 2016

Barton Springs Spillway.

The lakes are full and the sun is shining. Even though the heat is oppressive it seems everyone in Austin is heading outdoors. Some are walking the streets of downtown, looking for Pokemon, but the rest are heading to Barton Springs, the streams along the Greenbelt, or out to the lakes. Yesterday, in the middle of the work week, I drove over a bridge across Lady Bird Lake; the lake that runs through downtown. There were hundreds and hundreds of people cruising around the water below on paddle boards. 

As I walked along the hike and bike trail there was a continuous stream of runners heading towards me and heading away. 

I was out taking taking a walk with the same old camera. I've found a camera among the assorted collection that most fits my style and temperament. I may shoot jobs with something else but this one is as comfortable as an old pair of sandals, well broken in. And the funny thing (to me) is that it's the last one in. I bought it only a month or so ago and it was already well used. 

But comfortable. A great camera to take along in the hot weather, just in case I see a Charizard under the Lamar Blvd. Bridge. 

You never know.