5.03.2016

Cameras as art. Operation as a function of good design.


We love to trot out the idea that visual and industrial design is very secondary to the metrics of the camera's performance as measured in tests and comparison images. That the only acceptable rationale for buying or upgrading to a new camera is for some sort of measurable performance boost. Trading in weaker performance for strengths that you can see on a gauge.

But if you really ponder the whole jungle of available camera models and then look at who is buying what it becomes obvious that a number of people are making their primary buying decisions based on the creativity and expression of modern design as represented by various expressions from different camera makers.

As with cars, jeans, shoes and food, the market for cameras encompasses a big tent.

On one side you have traditionalists who are still buying the "jelly bean" (1980's Ford Taurus) styled cameras from Nikon and Canon. In another corner of the tent is

5.02.2016

The Importance of Having Fun.


I was reminded of something last Thursday that is sometimes (too often) missing from a lot of work these days. It seems that we all know how to get the work done correctly, and efficiently, and diligently but many have forgotten how to have fun with the work. I mentioned last Thursday because having a lot of fun that day reminded me of many of the projects I end up doing over the course of a year in collaboration with people who are obviously stressed and under the gun to perform. And who are obviously NOT having fun. And seem not to want to have fun.

Business has gotten so busy, and at the same time so chancy these days, that more and more people approach each task in their crowded purview with a mix of iron control and blindered tunnel vision. They worry through every step and, sometimes, their stress is contagious. They worry about time management. They worry about budget. They worry about the tiers of committees within their companies who will dissect every decision made and who will, collectively, relish the role of "monday morning quarterback." They worry that the project might go overtime which causes worry about things like traffic and child care. Deep down they worry that their marketing concept or their campaign really isn't as brilliant as they wish is was and they obsess about the impact a failed foray might have on their company's bottom line. But most of all, they've just worked so hard for so long that they've had the fun sucked right out of their work lives. At least that's the way it looks from outside. (And of course we call what I have written just above 'hyperbole'). 

I understand the feeling that one needs to be in total control of each tiny piece of a project but, in reality, no project ever goes exactly the way people imagine it will. There is never "complete control." There are bumps in the road but at the same time there are pleasant surprises and wonderful coincidences. But it requires ratcheting the stress down far enough so that people are able to weather the glitches and harvest the great things that can happen unexpectedly. 

I think the best way to do that is to prepare for as much as you can. Why did Thursday's shoot end up being so much fun for me? First of all no one had to be completely in charge. I trusted that the client would know what shots they needed and come prepared to help work through a rational schedule. I trusted that the models were professional and wouldn't need to be  obsessively coached or highly directed. Instead of having one person who would sternly look at images on the monitor and give a "thumbs up" or a "thumbs down" we quickly fell into a dynamic where everyone's opinion was considered valuable and where give and take was the rule of the day. If we saw something that wasn't "on the list" we gifted ourselves with the leeway to spend time experimenting and playing with the concept. The client, in turn, extended me the same. He believed I knew what I was doing and had his best interests in mind.

No one was overly obsessed with details that would not be visible in the final photos. A frontal shot of a person wearing a belt is not "ruined" if there is a clothespin behind their back, pulling a shirt tighter. If we are dropping out a background a small ding in the white seamless backdrop isn't a show stopper. Without a "supreme boss" who ruled with an iron fist, we could shoot in a relaxed way and enjoy the process. A shoot at which everyone is happy and well fed is a wonderfully productive project. A shoot where everyone feels that they are on the verge of being fired by a relentless bully is like a broken car that lurches forward in painful lunges and spews noxious fumes into the immediate environment. In those situations you're never sure you'll reach your destination.

So, here is my short list of how to have fun on a photo shoot: 

1. Be clear on the concept and make sure the client is clear as well on the same concept. You both want to be pulling the wagon along in the same direction. 

2. Clients and photographers should treat each other as equal partners in the project at hand. Laugh together, learn together and have fun getting stuff done. When one person tries to rule the hierarchy the good feelings dribble away and the time seems to go on forever. 

3. Treat models, assistants and support people with as much respect and kindness as you would like to receive from them. When everyone works happily more stuff gets done and everyone puts more of their energy into the success of the project.

4. Make sure the schedule is reasonable. Photo shoots should not be desperate races to complete unreasonable amounts of work by sheer determination. Projects should be planned with a do-able pace in mind. One that allows for bits of happy experimentation, breaks for proper, good meals, and lots of ongoing collaboration. If you are racing an imaginary (or real) clock you and everyone on the team will cut corners and conserve their energy and output to try to make it to the finish line alive. The worst clients (the ones who suck the air out of what could be fun jobs) are the ones who want to pull three days worth of images out of a single day. It never works out the way they intended...

5. Have a nice, relaxed lunch and take the full "lunch hour" to make a break from what you just got done in the morning. It allows you to start with renewed energy in the afternoon. Everyone I know with a real job gets an hour for lunch; the "event" of having a photo shoot shouldn't prevent living well. 

6. Be professional about your part. If you are the photographer it goes without saying that you should know exactly how to do your job. You should have your batteries (and their back-ups) charged and ready to go. Lights set up and well planned. A clean and well stocked environment to work in. A client shoot is NOT the time to try out shooting 4x5 sheet film for the first time. Practice makes for a smooth shoot and that smoothness translates as confidence. Confidence in your expertise and professionalism will go a long way toward helping a stressed client unclench a bit and have more fun as well. It's a virtuous spiral. Don't make excuses for your gear. Use the right stuff and be sure you know how to use it. You should be able to do a custom white balance on your shooting camera almost with your eyes closed. Same with all the other functions. 

7. If something isn't going right stop and fix it. Don't try to ignore or power through an issue. It will come back and bite you on the ass. And that causes stress and ignites the un-virtuous spiral of blame and recrimination. An ancillary subject to this one is the need to practice your craft safely. No models in swimming pools with alternating current electronic flash heads strapped to their backs.....no shooting on rail road tracks. 

8. Have a targeted finish time. If you've planned well you'll have gotten everything you need to accomplished. We called it a "wrap" at 4:30 pm last Thurs. No one complained about not working longer. The truth is that we all run out of energy by the end of the day and everything starts to fall apart. The work suffers. Emotions start to fray. People start to take everything too seriously. If you are still working at the end of a twelve hour day you might want to think long and hard about how you are scheduling. Clients can ask you to schedule too much in one day but you don't have to accommodate them. You can always explain your reality. You are an expert in your field after all, right? If you have clients who don't understand what constitutes a "day" of work in your profession then you have done a poor job communicating. 

It's eight hours. Everything else is over time. Price overtime fees high because you'll know you are not working in your optimum fashion once you crest the eight hour mark....

9. Invite input from everyone when it's appropriate. The client may be the final arbiter but you might find some really good ideas from lots of people on the team. They will enjoy being asked. 

10. It's a worn out saying in the corporate world but I really mean this: You should celebrate your successful jobs (and they should mostly be successful if you plan them out right). Wrap the shoot and then spring for the first round at happy hour. High five each other. Shoot some group shots to share on the web. Talk up the high points of the day. Ignore the little glitches or poorly thought out remarks made during times of stress. Talk up everyone's contributions and you'll have a future team that looks forward to working together on projects. Include the client in every step of this team celebration!

Learning to have fun at work is work too. You need to be diligent about pushing back against bad practices because, in the end, you as the photographer have real power on every shoot. You can say, "No" to unrealistic pre-planning. You can make clear how you work and what you require. You set the stage for the way everyone works on the set. You are the example of positive relationships and productive work. You can either make your jobs fun or you can suffer through twenty or thirty years of personal hell trying to work in this industry. It's something to consider. 

We're into the 21st century and we're making our livings as artists. Life isn't that rough. Plan your projects so that everyone has a good time while getting good work done. Isn't that the worklife we should all be aiming for?

Finally, forget the cowboy boots or five inch heels. Wear some really comfortable shoes. That's a good start....



Make making money fun.

Wear the right shoes. 

Make sure you know how to work your cameras. And don't forget to bring along a back up. Or two.

When it snows take a minute to lay down and make some snow angels. 

Laugh and play together and you'll get just as much done but it will seem like you did it all in the blink of an eye. Happy teams pitch in together to get stuff done.

Craft service is important. It's fun to bring donuts (or Cronuts(tm)) but be sure to bring some protein to the set as well. You don't want everyone sugar crashing right after the coffee break.

Keep your pencils sharp and your filters clean. 

Most crews run on good coffee. A well stocked Keurig set up is the absolute minimum standard. Don't invite me to your set and let me see a jar of instant coffee anywhere. Just don't. 

With a great team that's having fun, and all on the same wavelength you can accomplish almost anything. Getting good photos under those conditions should be child's play. 

I have no caption for this. I included it for the silly reference to hipsterism. 

When we play we try out lots of different styles and methods. Some (filters) might look a bit embarrassing a year or two later while some might become the next big thing. You'll never know if everything you shoot is done to a plain vanilla formula. Play harder.

When you find the fun clients nurture the hell out of your relationships, and remember the value they bring to your life every single time you work with them. If you aren't paying off a desperate loan to a malevolent mob loan shark you'll be smart to turn down toxic and untrainable clients. Life is too short to live as though every photoshoot is a dire emergency with no good outcome....

Bad clients? Screw em. Go swimming instead.



5.01.2016

Last Week's Workhorse Camera. At least it's the one I used the most....


I was excited by the idea of getting a Sony A7R2 but I'm finding that the little a6300 is the camera I'm pulling out of the bag most often to use in day to day projects. Right off the bat I'll admit that the reality of shooting, storing, editing and re-storing the 42 megapixel raw files generated by the A7R2 (especially in an uncompressed RAW format) just takes the intrinsic thrill of shooting a top rated camera down more than a few notches. I'm sure computers are getting faster and drives are getting more capacious but the reality is that we live in the "now" and are using a decent 27 inch i7 processor iMac and a bunch of 4-6 terabyte, USB3 drives to do our day to day processing and storage duties. I'm not about to upgrade an otherwise nicely usable system for the sake of one camera....

Owners of Nikon D810s, Sony A7R2s and the new Canon 5DRs certainly have bragging rights when it comes to pulling out all of the stops (intended) and generating files that no other (cost effective) cameras can touch for absolute detail; but it all begs the question: "How many times during the course of the year do your commercial projects require the absolute measure in terms of pixel resolution?" If you are like most of us you love having the horsepower under the hood but you rarely use it to your advantage.

A lot of photographers are like young adult (male) car buyers. The lure of big engines and lots of horsepower, and torque, switch on some acquisition hormone generation system (AHGS) that makes our purchase of showy performance machines almost inevitable. Most men would love to own a Shelby Cobra or an Aston Martin Lagonda but our opportunities to drive 150 mph are scant or none. A more practical car, like a four cylinder Honda or a six cylinder Ford pick-up truck will take care of our transportation needs at a fraction of the cost (and maintenance). Yes, every once in a while a poor Honda or Ford driver will be unable to outrun a flying saucer filled with extraterrestrials, and will have to endure painful probing and other indignities, but these encounters actually happen far less than we might be led to believe by the likes of Fox News....

I think it's largely the same with cameras. We imagine that when the curator of the Museum of Modern Art in NYC calls us to arrange the shows we so richly deserve that he will toss in the proviso that the Museum can only accept enormous prints made from the files of cameras sporting 36 megapixels or more. We also dream of the time that we'll take delivery of our own Epson 10000 printers and wrap the exteriors of our homes with enormous panoramic prints which our neighbors can come over and admire with magnifying glasses. Doesn't happen much around here....

I've been getting a lot of use out of 24 megapixel, full frame sensor cameras for my commercial jobs (Nikon D750, Nikon D610, Sony a850, Sony s99, etc) and I haven't heard a squawk of complaint from a single client or printer. No one has been demanding the issue from a D810 or its brethren. In fact, since we graduated from the barren realm of smaller, 12 megapixel imagers critiques about technical quality shortcomings have dried up completely.

At any rate, either because photographers don't have endless budgets (or schedules) for storage and file massage I like to shoot in a "Ming Envelope" of sufficiency for the job(s) at hand. In 90% of the situations I encounter a file from an APS-C camera; either 16 or 24 megapixels of resolving power, is more than adequate to both fill the "Ming Envelope" of sufficiency and cover the postage to boot.

So, in the flurry of camera buying I knew that the Sony flagship body (the A7R2) would cover the needs of my commercial photographer's ego as well as those times when clients actually do need as much pure resolution as I can cost effectively provide. But I also knew that I'd be happier, day to day, if I had a second tier camera to press into service for everything else. For that 95% of jobs which just need to be content perfect and technically adequate (or better) instead of aiming for perfectionism. In harmony with the A7 series, the e cameras, such as the a6000 and the a6300, are right in the sweet spot. This doesn't mean there aren't things about the form factors of these cameras I would gleefully change if I had the power to do so but it does mean that when I press them into service, photographing models for websites and tech equipment for multiple applications, that nobody is getting short-changed by my "downmarket" selection.

On Tues. of last week I used the a6300, along with various lenses, to photograph black boxes on a white table top set. I chose the a6300 over the A7R2 because the smaller sensor in that camera provided an edge in depth of field for the same angle of view. The smaller camera (used on a tripod) also yielded a more compact set of raw files. Since our deliverables needed to NOT exceed 6,000 pixels on a long edge (tiffs and jpegs) the files from the a6300 were just right while files from the A7R2, if I had used that camera, would have had to suffer the indignities of being much reduced in size. Another step in the process.

Later in the week I had fun photographing models with belts. Again I weighed my equipment options and settled on the a6300. In the studio the same arguments I made above applied. There's a limit to how many jobs are handled effectively by nearly infinite resolution. Especially when every file generated is intended solely for a web site or a web catalog. With the a6300 I was able to shoot all day long with the 18-105mm f4.0 G lens. While I am certain that more biting and contrasty lenses exist I am happy to say that this lens, coupled with the range of tools in my post processing applications, leaves absolutely nothing to be desired for whatever commercial work falls within its generous focal length ranges.

I'd love to say that I took advantage of the lens's and camera body's joint image stabilization and that this feature made all the difference in the world but....I'd be lying. We had the camera on a tripod with a fluid head in the studio (I.S. off) and in the exterior work I was happily shooting at shutter speeds like 1/1,000th, which also obviated the need to let the camera conscientiously jiggle the sensor around to compensate for my decades long coffee habits. High shutter speeds are their own reward.

While fans of alternate camera systems are quick to the debating stage with negative points to share about the ubiquitous Sony npw50 batteries I will again say that the a6300 was downright parsimonious on Thurs., allowing me to knock out some 2,000+ images with two batteries (charge remaining on the second one...). If you love to chimp I doubt you'll do as well on power management. My flaw as a shooter is that I seem to fire off far too many nearly identical frames in the hopes that somehow the imaging gods will intercede and bless me with an (accidental but no less valuable) keeper selection of images, based on my repeated and diligent use of the shutter button. This leads to more quantity of shots per battery than a slow motion flurry of highly considered, individual shots; well and thoroughly examined.

I can't begin to tell you the pleasure in holding just the a6300 and the 18-105mm f4.0 G lens for the afternoon versus the alternative of holding onto the A7R2 and the matching 70-200mm f4.0 G lens; or, even worse, the Nikon D810 paired with an 80-200mm f2.8. Just a different world of happiness. No aching biceps the next day. No neck pain from the strap of a heavy camera and lens at rest.

The a6300 is also a faster camera to use than the A7R2. I don't usually think about stuff like frame rates since I rarely shoot sports but even with the talent paddle boarding or jogging, the eight frames per second of shooting, with full on live view, makes working with the slower frame rate of the higher res cameras seem plodding. For pure, productive laziness nothing really beats an 8 frame per second, live view-enabled, camera with an EVF and face detection AF. I could shoot this way ensconced in my lakeside cabana while lying on my side eating grapes, being fanned by comely assistants, and still come out with a respectable number of winning photographs.

Now, remember, I am not singing the praises of the a6300 because I am impoverished, under equipped, and jealous. I actually own an A7R2 and a nice group of lenses for the camera. But sometimes it's just not the right tool to grab.

There are just two situations in which I reflexively grab for the bigger camera. The first is when I want to pop an 85mm or 105mm on the front of the full frame sensor and test the limits of narrow depth of field. The second, and most obvious, is when I need or want enormous RAW files---filled to the brim with resolution/data points. The a6300 (and the a6000 before it) do such a nice job on everything else. The flexibility and performance made the a6300 my "go to" camera all week long last week.

There were two "use" exceptions. On one hand I brought along the RX10 (classic version) to my belt wielding model shoot just for video. The 1080p video in that camera is really superb and I've shot with that camera enough in video mode to make the operation more or less seamless for me. The other exception was my use of the A7R2 to shoot a "family" shot of four communication server boxes together, on white seamless background paper. I didn't really need the singular attributes of that camera for the shot but I was curious to see how much of a difference the higher resolution and the logo-enhanced performance of the Zeiss lens would deliver.

If you peeped at the pixels at 100% you could see a small difference between the 24 and the 42 megapixel sensors. In real life? At the size of the deliverables? Any difference would have fallen into the placebo category, for sure.

So, my camera of the week, for my commercial business, was the a6300. Does that mean it's the best camera for everyone to use all the time? Hardly. It has its faults and they mostly revolve around the ergonomics of the body design. They made the body too small! The finder could use more eye relief/stand off as well. But the sensor is really good, and I've already mastered the menus so I feel at home making the camera do my bidding.

I could have easily done the same work with an Olympus EM5.2 or a Fuji XT-1 or Pro-2 and some of those juicy Fuji or Olympus lenses. But, the ego needs of the A7R2 saddled me with my current selection of APS-C cameras by dint of wanting to rationalize the lens choices over a complete family of bodies.

I wish that Sony would just take an RX10ii body and put an APS-C sensor in it. Same focal length selections and speed. The body might have to be just a bit bigger to accommodate the geometry of it all but I wouldn't care, I'd be happy as a clam. At least for a while.

I'm cycling back into the movie mode next week but the schedule isn't as furious and overwhelming as last week. I am happy to announce that, while I missed getting new blogs out, I was able to maintain a reasonable swim schedule and I have also added an improvement to my freestyle stroke which I will talk about at length in a future column that is certain to rivet the attention of the non-swimmers in the crowd (implied sarcastic happy face emoticon). It's all about accelerating the last half of each arm pull.....

What a glorious time to be alive and near a perfect swimming pool. Oh yeah, and to have cameras.

4.30.2016

Film Cameras in the wild. Extra points for dragging around a 6x7cm medium format camera AND a spot meter!!!

Photographer at the Graffiti Wall. Austin, Texas

I was walking back to my car from Eeyore's Birthday Party today and I made a slight detour just to see what might be happening at the Hope Outdoor Gallery (aka: the Graffiti Wall). Attendance was sparse but there was one person who caught my eye. She was grappling with a medium format Mamiya camera and had a spot meter tucked under her left arm. I remember those cameras well. I don't know anything about the photographer but I'll say this, she must have an above average level of determination to continue working on location with all six pounds of camera, and ten shots on a roll...


Fun with belts. A video that our talent thought up during our still shoot for Klikbelts. Go to Vimeo to see the video in 1080p. It's just 800 pixels wide here....


klikbelts 2K Final from Kirk Tuck on Vimeo.
This video is about klikbelts 2K


Here's the client's site: https://www.klikbelts.com