6.27.2016

Rome. In the age of pay phones.

Stalking the street scene with a Mamiya 6 Medium Format Camera. 

Ah. The halcyon days of the square frame....

Transitioning to a new way of thinking about the imaging business. Part of the process is letting go....



On a bright and sunny afternoon, recently, I was cleaning my little studio and office space when I came across two reminders of time past. One was a tax return from 1997, and the other was a box of 8x10 inch color transparencies; mostly still life work for customers like Dell, Power Computing and Domain Magazine. 

The numbers on the tax return were insane. While so much more money flowed through the business back then so much of it went back out to pay for film, processing, polaroid test materials, printing, huge studio rental and assistants. The overhead included a full darkroom, 3,000 square feet of downtown studio space and multiple sets of camera gear: Everything from 35mm (rangefinder and str) to an 8x10 inch view camera. Not included in the numbers was the insane learning curve investment (without the benefit of the internet) to master so many processes and so many ways of making images. 

The odd epiphany for me is that when we distilled down all the costs we were on set or on location working about 250 days a year to net about what we do in the current time period working 60-70 days a year. The present business model is so downsized by comparison. My current studio and office occupies about 650 square feet (which I own instead of leasing), I can currently fit all the cameras I own into one roller case. I still own way too many lights. There's no darkroom. There are orders of magnitude fewer assistants and professional services involved. We seem to have done a good job of shedding costs while increasing the core, fee based income. 

Those changes, from big space to small space, from lease to own, from many assistants to solitude, from huge investments in cameras to a meager (but smart) selection, happened gradually as we steered the business into digital imaging, starting around 1999. But what opened my eyes to the changing models was the diversification from "just" photography to writing books and articles about photography. One could make good, sustainable, renewable money with nothing more than a $1,000 laptop and the knowledge already gained. If that's all it took to add a significant amount of income to the business could we not also get rid of the hard costs and winnow down photography to its essentials and, in the process, spend less time to make the same final, net income? Seems like the answer is yes. As long as the changes you are making are in line with your market. 

My son, Ben, was fascinated when he saw the 8x10 inch color transparencies. I talked him through the whole process of shooting large format and he was amazed at the complexity and craft basis for the work we did in those formats. But we both agreed that those were different times and those times weren't coming back. That train of thought led me to believe that the business itself continuously makes opportunities to take advantage of those ever reductive changes, and that basing a business on the last century concept of "needed"  inventory, old school methodologies, and old school marketing would seem to be a financial dead end. Which led me to question why we, as a professional services industry, are in reality, very slow to change. 

I liken it to Wayne Gretzky's famous line about not skating to where the puck is but skating to where the puck will be. If the gravity of change forces you to change because you've become ensnared in its grip you have arrived where the puck used to be and not where the puck is now. And waiting until a new norm has been safely established and proven to be correct is now more financially dangerous than constantly pushing forward to learn the new ways. 
Now there are really only two things that imaging businesses must excel in; one is marketing and the other is creative creation. Nowhere in the equation is it any longer cost effective to horde an inventory of quickly depreciating equipment, nor is it an effective strategy to constantly overbuy. 

In the realm of cameras I can easily and quite convincingly make the case that the vast majority of professional work being done has, as its final target, placement on the web. That could include banner ads for client websites, images for social media, portraits for LinkedIn, Facebook, and company websites or photographic illustrations for web advertising. Of the remaining placements most will be print advertising at one page or smaller and direct mail at 6x9 inches and smaller. For editorial photographers (we always seem to hear about sports photographers...) the target is generally the magazine website and the printed magazine page. Most images are used one page or smaller but even if they were used as double trucks the magazine are printed on high speed web presses and on the cheapest (read: low ink saturation, low res) papers. The takeaway is that none of these uses would be the least bit taxing to a top line Micro Four Thirds system like the GH4 or the EM5.2 and would certainly represent horrible and wasteful overkill for medium format cameras and 50 megapixel cameras; unless they were being used for an aesthetic consideration like the degree of focus ramp available. 

I keep downsizing cameras and lenses here. We have three pairs of Sony cameras and a handful of lenses. When I pick a camera pair for a project I like to consider the parameters of the project and then match the system. The smallest format is the one inch sensor family of Sony RX10s. The middle format is the APS-C family of the a6300 and a6000. The big format cameras are the A7x bodies. It's rare that I mix and match. If resolution and sharpness are the only criteria I can select from any of the three families of cameras. If I'm shooting documentary video the RX10s get first crack. If I'm shooting classic portraits with lush, out of focus backgrounds then the A7xs get tossed into the camera bag. The process is pretty simple. 

If I need anything else I will rent it. And in many cases, if I need something else I might also rent the operator that comes with it. If a client wants me to show up for a client interview and they have to see a prestige video camera on the set I'll hire an FS7 camera and its owner operator rather than try to get totally up to speed on yet another camera from yet another field. If  client demands medium format photography (right.....) then I'll rent the system I need and toss it back to the supplier the minute I am finished with it. Ownership, maintenance, mastery and depreciation are no longer worth it so renting gear we might only use once or twice a year is my strategy. 
Many years ago I read about a German fashion photographer who was at the very top of his game. I was stunned to read that he had no studio, no lights, no stands, no gewgaws and no car. I couldn't imagine it when I overlayed the demands of my studio at the time onto his approach. It seems that the only things he owned were: a camera body he had mastered. a favorite lens (that he shot with 90% of the time --- not a zoom). And a light meter he trusted. Everything else was rented for the project right in front of him. The wonderful things for him were the elimination of overhead and the lack of mental inertia that would have required him to use the equipment he owned instead of the new lights (or whatever) that he wanted to try. To, you know, push the limits of his current creative envelope. 

A couple of weeks ago I looked around my space and the clutter appalled me. My desk was covered with paperwork. Two hulking filing cabinets were constantly in my left side peripheral vision as I sat at my desk. Over against one wall were two rolling tool chests filled with either cameras or junk. Perhaps the two categories were so intertwined I couldn't see the differences. 

I finally just couldn't take the visual clutter anymore. I've totally cleared out one of the rolling tool chests. I found filters for old series 50 Hasselblad lenses, batteries for cameras that hadn't been made in years, a viperous nest of cable releases that I was certain I might need again one day, too many broken watches or watches with dead batteries. Old, battered cameras that had been given to me by some other suffering photo wretch in an attempt to declutter his own life; and way too many cables. Everything from SCSI connectors to VGA connectors. Stuff Mac users haven't needed in decades.

The process of paring down in arduous and not for the meek of resolve. Once I started in on the red tool chest I would not let myself stop. I filled trash cans. I sent stuff away to the next unlucky photographer bastards. And, in the glow of triumph, I hauled the tool chest off in the car to the local Goodwill. What a victory. Now I'm hard at work on distilling down flash equipment. I am equally overweight on things that flash. 

There is a certain logic in using flash but more and more I am finding that interior work gets done with LEDs and florescent lights and the use of flash is more or less relegated to fill flash in sunlight. But so much of our buying wisdom is predicated on what was essential ten or twenty years ago when everything was lit by flash and ISO 100 was de rigueur. Not so much now. Even less so when I'm shooting with one of the RX10 cameras that sync at over 1/1.000th of a second. In that situation just about any flash will do. So why do we have six or seven 400 watt second mono-lights, in their requisite cases, cluttering up the studio shelves? Am I pining for the days when we needed 4,000 watt seconds to get the depth of field we needed with our large format cameras? I am not. The flash gear seems ripe for thinning next. 

The new business model is to become the opposite of the old business model. Where before we came loaded for bear, with every possible (high dollar) solution to any imaging situation, it would be a lot more fun to turn down the stuff I never enjoyed doing anyway and then figuring out less burdensome ways of doing the stuff I do love to photograph. Smaller and lighter stuff along with creating a kind of imaging that looks simpler and more direct. A few pocket strobes instead of a cargo bay with a forest of C-Stands and Pelican cases of lights. A couple of RX10x cameras instead of a Think Tank roller full of big Nikon bodies and fat, fast lenses. A tripod and a new appreciation for less light rather than the ability to create a complete sunrise in a studio. 

Fully a third of a recent video project's profits were generated in concept and writing. Another third in editing. Only a third of the money generated from the project actually came from the shooting. As shooting engagements get shorter and easier it's incumbent upon us as business owners to see where we can add value outside the time spent shooting. Concepting and testing concepts are valid tasks that can be billed. Storyboarding and story creation are perhaps more valuable than the actual shooting. Wouldn't it be just as much fun to be paid for thinking about a photography project in addition to just being paid to spend a day with a camera in one's hands?
I want to work toward the day when my studio is four white, bare walls punctuated by a small camera on a tripod. One light aimed into the right modifier. Nothing more. But I would like to bill insanely well for the creative vision that we'll bring to each project. Billing for what we know and feel rather than just logging in the hours or the days. 

The disconnection of this concept for most photographers might be the idea that we have to do our business encounters the same way we did in the past. In the advertising scenario we worked for the advertising agencies. They created the concepts. They sold the concepts to the clients who approved and paid for the production that made those concepts concrete. Our power was limited by our need to be invited into the game by intermediaries. But over the last ten years the industry has been unceasingly flattened. Now, in many cases, the clients are working as though they are at a buffet. They've been selecting "vendors"; people they are comfortable working with, outside of the traditional agency paradigm. Outside the agency tent. We might get integrated into a job well before an agency to create a public relations image that subsequently gets pushed into an advertising project. 

More and more often we're getting engaged to produce image catalogs for expanding uses. And these uses need curation, implementation and imagination. I think my days of waiting for oppressive purchase orders from advertising agencies are coming to a close, choosing instead to work more as part of a collaborative team instead of as a vendor brought in after the cake has been mixed and relegated to working the controls on the oven.

But everything requires a change of thought. A move from a business with an inventory of machines which stamp out "creative parts" and towards a consultancy that creates the ideas behind the creative parts and then produces them as an integrated part of a marketing process.

We should be licensing "looks" and "feels" and "styles" and "taste." Not just twiddling the controls on the machines. 



When your space is cluttered your mind is cluttered, and in a panic you attempt to do everything exactly the same way you did on the very last job that turned out very well. But--- that previous job was done in a previous time and the currents of culture and commerce morph and change. I have come to believe that decluttering the physical space gives my mind more freedom to plan and create rather than reactively accept the confinements provided by people proffering visions that are different than mine.

I was reminded by the tax return and the sheets of 8x10 film just how little time there is to think when fear convinces you that one must be always working. Always working to an exterior agent's specifications.

And that, in a nutshell is why we're engaged in the current minimalist purge of studio clutter.


6.26.2016

Taking a break from the camera excitement to focus on making food. My favorite chef made a house call.

Ben gets a lesson from Emmett Fox. How to make three different sauces for pasta.

My son, Ben, has been off at college for the last two years living in the dorms. In the Fall he'll get to move into an on campus apartment with three of his friends. He's thinking he'd like to try his hand at making his own meals instead of depending entirely (--- safety net implied) on the fare at the dining hall. He can cook basic stuff and he worked in the dining hall in his freshman year but our friend, Emmett Fox, thought it would be good for the boy to learn a repertoire of good, solid dishes. 

Emmett (who is the head chef and co-owner of two of Austin's favorite fine dining establishments: Asti Trattoria and Cantine Italian Cafe and Bar) made a plan to come over to our house today and give Ben a lesson in making pasta and sauces. Emmett sent me over a shopping list several days ago and then, yesterday, he sent a "prep list" over to Ben. While Emmett and I hit swim practice at the Rollingwood Pool this morning, and coffee afterwards with our swim buddies, Ben was dicing pancetta, sectioning tomatoes, slicing garlic, grating Parmesan cheese, dicing celery and carrots and onions. 

Emmett patiently showed Ben how to make three different sauces (carbonara, Amatriciana, and Neapolitano). Emmett also guided Ben in making the sauces by himself. I hung out in the kitchen with a Sony A7ii and a 50mm lens and just snapped away at the process. 

After the first volley, the Neapolitano, came out and was beautifully plated, Ben, Belinda, Emmett and I sat down and savored it, along with fresh Italian bread accompanied with olive oil from the Saratoga Olive Oil Company. They ship. 

With the Amatriciana simmering on a back burner, Ben and Emmett made a classic carbonara with pancetta, fresh eggs, black pepper, oil and parmesan cheese. They served it up in big, white pasta bowls and if there is any left over in the fridge I have first dibs. 

At the end of the (very happy) meal Emmett presented Ben with a very professional looking apron. 

It was great of Emmett to share his time and expertise (and great taste) with Ben. In fact, Ben has been going to Emmett's restaurants since he was four years old. He's a long time Austin regular at Asti and his early experiences with great food at Asti constantly influence his adventures with food. Emmett was feeding him escargot, cocoa sorbetto and bread sticks before Ben could read.

If you are in Austin and you want good food I highly recommend you try both of his restaurants. I've even produced videos for both of them. Here and Here. 

It was a great way for my family to spend the middle of our Saturday. More like this....



















6.25.2016

Thursday is museum day around here. Makes for a nice break from "who has the best cameras?"


Thursday was interesting. I was recovering from post-project depression. It's that malaise that strikes one when a challenging and fun project is over, delivered and billed, and there is a lull in the work because you left some time blocked out, just in case...

I filled my time in the morning (after mandatory swim practice) by throwing stuff out. The excess included old cameras (a Leica 3c that's been absolutely brutalized and an Alpa 10D that's had the skin scraped off and lacks a coherently working shutter. Lots of weird adapters for stuff I haven't owned in over a decade, many batteries to cameras long since traded away, old, dedicated flashes and lots of rubber bands. After a morning of equipment purging I grabbed a Trek 7000 bicycle off the back porch and donated it to Austin Yellow Bike. Having at least paid lip service to the battle against "the desire for physical manifestations" I chilled out and headed to our favorite Austin museum, the Blanton. 

There are two great, new shows on the first floor. The first is a work by Xu Bing, called, "Book from the Sky." A Chinese artist has spent much time hand carving blocks of characters (over 4,000 in all) that are used for printing his "book." You can read the Blanton Museum's explanation here. But I was captivated by the intricate detail on the blocks he carved.





Next door to "Book From the Sky" was an exhibit called, "Goya: Mad Reason" and it was amazing in a whole other way. Over 150 paintings and prints by Francisco de Goya, considered by many to be the first modern artist.  After looking at the Goya show for nearly two hours I headed to the galleries upstairs to see some of my old favorites. But I had to confront a sad change. The Battle Collection of Sculptures is now gone. They have rotated the Greek and Roman sculptures out in order to make room for new shows of paintings. I guess you won't be seeing the same Greek busts every time I test out a new lens or camera in the future. Ah well, life and art move on....

Just below is the start of the installation in the old sculpture room....


I spent my afternoon in the museum with what has quickly become my favorite, "go everywhere" play and shoot camera; the Sony A7ii with the 50mm f1.7 mounted on it. Such a nice blend of size, Herculean capability and dense, physical integrity. I love it. It's my "ultimate" hobbyist camera --- (my lawyers asked me to add the following): "ultimate" ...for the moment. Subject to change or modification at any time. The expressed enjoyment of the camera named above is not a binding agreement or legal or moral obligation to use that camera ad infinitum or exclusively. All superlative reviewing comments are solely the provenance of the writer who may or may not be influenced by hysteria, insanity or artistic and non-linear modalities of thought. Further, this should not be interpreted as an encouragement, enticement or sales pitch aimed at motivating any person or their chattel, living or surviving in some stasis, to also buy or otherwise obtain and use said aforementioned camera. The existence of this blog post does not imply or promise that your meager skills can or will be improved by acquiring and using said camera.  No bailment is being constructed or offered. If you are inclined to use the (non) word, "meh" in any discussion of the camera, or its use in connection with this missive, you should consider punishing yourself by eating too many jalapeƱos at one sitting, far, far from a functioning water closet. 

The camera seems like a perfect blend of resolution, color reproduction and handling; especially when paired to smaller, single focal length lenses. 



I admire the small images and the large matts. Definitely a move in the right direction..

There is no sense in going to a museum if you already know what you like and believe what you know. But for the rest of us the experience of experiencing something new and different is a real experience. 


6.24.2016

I read that some "professionals" are considering replacing their 35mm style cameras with the new Hasselblad X1D. I almost spit out my coffee because I was laughing so hard...

Photograph from "James and the Giant Peach", a Zach Theatre production.

People say zany and inane stuff all the time. And, in the field of photography, they love to conjecture about what "professionals" might buy or want. But usually the commentators do so in flights of fancy and with few facts or evidence...

A case in point is the suggestion, made in many corners of the internet, that Sony, Nikon and Canon better beware!!! A new cowboy is riding into town and he's packing ---- medium format!!! And, since it is only almost three times the price of the best, current pro 35mm style camera on the market (the Sony A7R2; according to DXO) there is the idea that hordes of amazingly wealthy, working camera professionals (because, you know, it's a lucrative career path) might just weigh up the apples and oranges and go for the power, glory and obvious superiority of the medium format choice.  Not so much in pursuit of better photos but to differentiate themselves from all the other well heeled, working photographers out there. You know, to differentiate them--- in the eyes of their clients...

The assumption is that they'll dump the Nikon D810s and the Sony A7R2s (and whatever Canons) and embrace the mirrorless, contrast detect-only AF, snail pace frame per second Hasselblad X1D --- and its two amazingly flexible lenses, in order to make their businesses rock and roll. Even as I read the first volley in this line of reasoning I was busy trying to keep from spitting out a mouthful of coffee because I was laughing so hard. 

While there are professionals working in a lot of different marketing segments most of them have a large intersection on the Venn diagram of needs when it comes to cameras. One of my main concerns is that I always have an identical (or close to it) back up camera. If a camera breaks and needs to go back to the tender mercies of the camera company's repair department, or gets stolen, I need to have a second body so I can finish the job, get up tomorrow morning and go out to shoot again. In all the pro systems based on the 35mm size sensors you can get a similar body at a lower price point to play the role of "safety net" for you usual shooting camera.  For me the Sony A7r2's first line of back up is the A7ii. But I can follow that up with an a6300 and then the a6000. All the cameras can use the same lenses, have the same basic menus, deliver the same color family characteristics and, miraculously, all use the same batteries.

If I ante up for a round-the-world-shooting-extravaganza I can do so with a back-up body from Sony and still spend less than $5000 for camera bodies. Really good camera bodies. Nikon and Canon users can do the same thing. If you put together a second body for the new X1D and you've spent $18,000 before you've even sprung for lens #1.

But speaking of lenses, it seems that the world of photography on the web has done a 180. Now lens choice is not an issue. When Sony was kicking everyone else's butt, last year and this year, all I ever read on the review sites was....  "Well, the sensors and the camera are incredible but....there are only 14 or 15 Sony lenses and maybe 25 to 30 third party lenses to use with the system--- how sad and tragic for the pros..."  But, of course, Sony photographers can cherry pick from all the major lens lines with help of inexpensive adapters. Heck, I can even use my 1970's era Hasselblad 150mm Sonnar on the A7R2. They opened up the  mount. It's an open system.

But don't try mounting that V lens for your old Hasselblad on the X1D body because: a. It won't fit. b. It won't actuate. You might be able to physically mount it, when and if someone comes out with an adapter, but without an electronic link to the lens shutter the only two things you might be able to do with the package is to look through the finder and maybe shoot some video. Some 1080p video at 30fps. You know, like video from four years ago....

So, if only a handful of very, very expensive lenses will work on this new model how much business can we do with the two current lenses? Not much. The longer lens is too short and the shorter lens is too long. A lot of us make a living shooting portraits and we need something between 110mm and 140mm to get a decent head and shoulders portrait without the dreaded foreshortening effect. But that's not even in the cards for the next lens in the X1D pipeline. That would be a 24mm equivalent which leads me to believe that the camera system might be aimed at the highly affluent part of the market that shoots real estate interiors for realtors and brokers. Which might make sense give that the camera uses CD-AF and who knows what the follow focus or fast lock on capabilities of the camera really are... But let it lock onto the details of a high rise condo kitchen and then --- stand back!

Of one thing I am fairly certain; it will be win a gold award from Digital Photography Review. Why? Simple! It has everything that every working professional truly needs to make great images in the fast breaking imaging world of today. It has wi-fi AND a touch screen. And everyone knows that Barney and Company prize those two attributes to a much greater degree than the boring stuff like: great color, high sharpness, beautiful tonality, etc. Just as long as we can stroke the rear screen and get a reaction from the camera we'll have their whole-hearted buy-in.

I have no doubt that the camera is as beautifully designed and finished as the dashboard of an Aston Martin Lagonda and it will have much appeal to hipsters of a certain coupon clipping class. But every pro worth their salt would trade all of that for: Accurate and quick focus. The lenses they need in order to get the jobs done while honoring their unique vision. The ability to have back-up gear. The ability to use a wide range of lenses readily available in the market. Etc.

On a more positive note: I read that the battery is big and powerful. And I like the choice of the mini-HDMI port instead of a micro-HDMI connection. Oh, and the engraving that will tell every pro, every time he or she uses the camera, that it was handmade in Sweden. Got it. Hermes scarf anyone?