7.31.2009

Once in a While I get to Shoot Cute People.

It was 1992 and I'd been shooting advertising images in Montego Bay, Jamaica for a while. My client was a company called Adventure Travel in Dallas and they had vacation destinations all over the Caribbean. We'd shot in Negril, on Nevis, St. Kitt's, the Dominican Republic and up and down the Mexican Riviera but my favorite location was always Montego Bay.

This is how we'd do it. My rep would call me and throw out dates. We'd narrow it all down and decide. Then the client would go to the talent agencies in Dallas and cast "real people" as models for our shooting. We'd all hop on a charter and head down to the islands. Usually three model couples, a client representative, an agency representative, a make up person, a production assistant, my assistant and a gofer for the client. We'd hit the ground running and try to get as many set ups as we could in a seven day period.

One the evening before our last day in Jamaica we'd taken a break to savor a mixed drink and the sunset (we'd shoot the evening cabaret in an hour or so). That's when I looked up from the bar and saw our model walking along the beach, suffused by "magic hour" light and looking incredible. I grabbed the camera off my shoulder (I'm never without a camera---even if it looks dorky) snapped four frames and then the light changed. She found her boy friend and the serene look vanished. The moment was past. But I've always loved the image.

If you put down your camera you may miss the one unscripted moment that defines your idea of "vacation in paradise."

7.26.2009

General Observations about Camera Equipment and the enjoyment of photography



The first three images above are swimmers from our little neighborhood pool swim team, the Rollingwood Waves. I've been the defacto team photographer for the better part of nine years because that's how long my son, Ben has been on the team. This summer I made a conscious decision to shoot the whole season with an old Olympus e1 and some older lenses. That's what pushed me into the squishy repudiation of state of the art. Here's why: I was getting so wrapped up in the gear. Do I take the 70-2oo or the 300 2.8? Full frame on the D700 or smaller crop on the D300? What if they get wet? Maybe I should brings some wides for group shots. Now my bag weighs twenty pounds.

How about I just bring a splashproof e1 and a 14 to 54 and a 40-150 zoom? Covers the equivilent of 28-300 and two thirds of the kit is relatively impervious to everything but total immersion (incidently, my favorite swimming book is Total Immersion Swimming...) and the longer zoom can be replaced for around $150. Then I started looking at the Jpegs I was getting and was loving the skin tones so much. One thing led to another......

What I discovered is that when the camera is less important it's easier to make the subject more important and the immersion in the moment more transparent and less contingent.

I just came back from the Creative Photographic Retreat in Dallas, Texas. I was one of eight photographers and Photoshop experts who were asked to participate in the workshops. I put together a one and a half hour lecture on shooting with battery powered flash and gave the lecture twice a day on Friday and Saturday. We played with scrims and reflectors and umbrellas and radio slaves. It was an interesting crowd. Most of the attendees were there to learn better photographic technique to use in creating scrapbooks. I was the only male on the roster of speakers. 98% of the audience were women.

I'm used to speaking in front of groups that are mainly men and I noticed some profound differences. Men tend to be most interested in the process. How things work and why they work. Woman want to know what to do to improve their images. The image is the pay-off. With men the pay-off sometimes seems to be, "look how sharp this is!!!!!". With the women in the CPR program it was more, "look at how beautiful my (grandson, brother, husband, father, best friend, etc.) looks now that I figured out the lighting, photoshop setting or whatever."

It sounds odd but I think being a teacher there changed the way I think about photography by more than a few degrees. Now the question I ask myself is, "why do I photograph?, What am I trying to say? Who is my audience?" instead of pondering which lens might have better chromatic aberration control or corner sharpness.

I learned different ways to explain basic photographic principles and I learned that everyone comes to photography on their own time and at their own level and it's hard to rush it. I've been doing photography for so long that everything seems old hat and technically simple. But I helped a grandmother get up to speed with her new Canon Rebel xtsi and her Canon flash. And here's the deal....I think she'll make better photos than the guy who has everything in his camera bag but no idea why he's photographing...and the difference is that the grandmother has a passion for her subject and not for her gear. Think about it. A passion for the subject, not for the gear. Stops a gear nut like me right in my tracks and makes me look at what I do from a different perspective.

After spending three days with a bunch of motivated women learning to come to grips (and grins) with their cameras I think the thing the field of photography might find useful is a much bigger dose of estrogen....

There were four gear nerds in attendance but they happened to be the instructors. All women under 30, all sporting Canon 5Dmk2's and all sporting the latest Canon "L" glass. No exceptions. All of them were quick to dismiss flash and lighting in general. If it couldn't be controlled with a collapsible reflector then the light wasn't right. At first I was dismissive of them for being dismissive of using lights. But I looked at their work and realized that they had really mastered available light technique to an extent that made most rank and file gear nerds look like beginners. A lot of mental give and take. On both sides of the aisle...

The weekend did reinforce what I had been feeling over the last month as I made my (now famous) transition from Nikon and Kodak gear to Olympus cameras. It was just as I imagined. Once I removed the idea of "superior equipment as the talisman of photographic power" I came to grips with the reality that all the best of photography is about seeing clearly. And feeling strongly about the subject. Which for me is generally people.

The only camera I took with me for the weekend was the Olympus e520 with the sweet little 14mm-54mm zoom. The camera is currently selling for around $350 on Amazon and will surely be discontinued within weeks. It is steadfastly not the "state of the art" but it is small and very light and fits into my hands perfectly.

As I stood in the classes and helped people navigate the menus on their big Canons and a smattering of Nikon D3's I couldn't help but notice that I was outgunned by all of the attendees. And at the same time I felt a tremendous sense of freedom. That I could pursue my own course rather than be a standard bearer for a brand.

Here's a news flash! The e520 gets a bit messy in the noise department above ISO 800. In the old days my mind would start screaming for an upgrade. Now I'm thinking I should just pull the monopod out of retirement and work at ISO 400. When you use the flashes on manual (with various ratios) all hooked up to radio slaves, all the cameras become equal. When you use f 5.6 or f8 all lenses become (more or less) equal.

I found my favorite radio slaves. More important than a cameras or lenses (written tongue in cheek---) is, of course, great remote triggers for my flashes. I recently stumbled across a brand called Flash Waves that are tiny, have ten channels, work really, really well and have an "on-off" switch for the receivers. They run $200 for a transmitter and receiver and have one thing other brands lack----easily and multifaceted connection options. There's a traditional pc sync, a hot shoe and a port for quarter inch plugs and 1/8th inch plugs. Wonderful. I used a set with an Olympus fl50r flash, a Metz 54, two vivitar DF 383's and a Profoto box and nothing gave them pause. They will definitely replace my now morbidly obese, older Pocket Wizards.

Speaking of flashes. When I switched camera systems the one thing that gave me pause was switching out the Nikon strobes. Even if you are a Canon or Olympus die hard you have to admit that Nikon kicks everyones' butts when it comes to flash. At least that's very true if you use TTL. I did some research and, with many reservations, I ordered two of the Vivitar Series One DF-383 flashes from Amazon for $120 each. Fired them up for the workshop. They work well, a little slow in recycling (alkalines....) but the neat thing is that they have built in optical slaves and when you put them in the slave mode it overrides the energy saver mode that usually shuts them down in five minutes to save batt juice. They worked well as TTL flashes on the Olympus cameras. The light is a touch bluer than that from the fl50r..... Nothing some filter gel won't fix.

The guys from Olympus lent me an fl50 and an fl36 for the workshop and I think the Fl50r is awesome but I don't think I'll drop $500 on a flash that doesn't have any sort of sync terminal. It's a choice between hot shoe, Olympus' proprietary (controlled by on camera flash) optical triggering system or nothing. Come on boys, let's get the plugs back on the flashes! Nice looking results, though.

A few thoughts on the business of photography. I think we are at a critical stage in the business of photography and we need to start planning for the recovery. We need to start having meetings and happy hours and breakfast gatherings with all the photographers in our respective areas and get some solidarity on moving prices up. We provide the images that move businesses forward but we act like we're selling commodities like a Walmart and the race to the bottom won't help anyone. Once all the knowledgeable practitioners leave the field clients will no longer have a "good, better, best" choice. All that will be left will be, "I'll get to it as soon as I finish with my real job." or, "Well my wife thought it looked professional!" or "I shot it with a XXXXXX it's got to be professional quality." At some point we have to educate clients about the value we bring to the table in assignment photography. Why is it that the ASMP can't talk about setting ballpark, suggested prices for photography? Why aren't more people using Fotoquote when they bid? Why are so many people willing to leave so much money on the table????? I don't have the answer but it sure is time to start the dialog.







7.14.2009

Tired of thinking about digital. I just want to look at a few photographs.





I've been evaluating various lenses in my new system. Ordering new flashes and then working the rest of the time on a website for my master's swim team. I'd been looking at images all day long. At the end of the day I just wanted to rest my eyes and when I cleared the clutter off my desk I found a small box of prints. These were images I'd done in a printing plant in New York City a number of years ago. I know what cameras I used but I don't want to say which ones because then the discussion turns from "look at the composition", "look at the tones" into "wow, I had one of those and they're really sharp.

I remember this job so well. I'd been asked by an art director who knew my work to come up to New York and shoot images for a company called Primary Packaging. They printed exquisite packages for the cosmetic industry (among other clients). They did the little black boxes with gold foil stamp for Chanel and the lovely white boxes for Lancombe. I remember one room at the plant that was filed with gold foil for embossing. Just rolls of the stuff.

But what I really remember best is that the plant was filled with craftspeople who knew their jobs the way we know how to put on our pants or drive a car. They ran the presses with an eagle eye and a nose for ink density. There wasn't a digital indicator or device anywhere.

The whole process of shooting this de-mystified the New York Shooting experience for me. I called Michael O'Brien who owned a studio for years in the city to ask for a reference to an assistant. He put me in touch with a New York hot shot. I know he was disappointed when we met up to head over to the shooting location. I had one camera bag. A stand bag with my scarred Gitzo tripod and two old light stands. I brought along a couple of monolights and an old orange extension cord. I figured we were going to a printing plant, I could pick up a sheet of white board to use as a reflector once we got there.

My "entourage" was totally lame. It consisted of me, my very cool and highly talented New York assistant and the art director. Assist was shocked that we might be shooting people without hair, make-up or wardrobe people in tow. Just not done. He was also shocked to be not only the "first assistant" but also the second and third assistant. He was even more shocked when I decided that the plant had pretty good natural light from the hundreds of feet of frosted glass windows that ran down the length of the building. In the end I didn't even need someone to hold a white card as the light was perfect all day long.

The art director introduced me to the client. We went over the shots they were interested in and then.......the art director left. And then.......the client told me to go wherever I wanted and to shoot whatever I liked....and he went back into his office. The assistant was stunned. I felt a bit inadequate as I really didn't have much for him to do except carry the bag.

The cameras didn't have meters so eventually I let him do all the metering. And he also kept track of all the Polaroid trash we generated. Lunch was exciting. We walked two blocks to a sandwich shop. It was filled with factory workers. They all ordered two sandwiches.

I spent my day walking up to people and asking them, "What do you do?" They were all happy to tell me and then show me. If I liked it I set up the camera and took photographs. I always use a tripod. I still do.

At the end of the day I had about 40 rolls of 12 exposure black and white film rattling around in the bag. The assistant kept trying to write things on the paper but I stopped him. He wanted to keep notes so that I could "hold back" some of the film and test some of the film. The notes, presumably, would tell us how to proceed with the film not destroyed in the first run.

He was quiet when I told him that I was going to have all the film run at the same time. I asked him about good labs in the city. He had some suggestions and I asked him to get on the phone and find out what it would cost to develop and contact print the 40 rolls in the next 48 hours. He seemed excited that we could get it done for "only" $30 per roll. I laughed and we headed to a Fed Ex office to dump all the exposed film into a box and send it back to Austin Prints for Publicaton.

Jeff souped and contacted the film in one long night and had it all back to me with dispatch. It all looked great. It cost ten dollars a roll, plus shipping. I handed the art director the stack of contact sheets and he mused that he hadn't seen contact sheets that nice in years. The images were eventually used 12 feet tall at a trade show at the Jacob Javitts Center. They looked incredible.

Now when I look at the test prints I made in my old darkroom I remember being on the factory floor and marveling at how all the printing flowed through. It was such a mature process.

I don't know if the plant is still there. I'm pretty sure all of the people I photographed have retired. No one asked me about my camera. No one asked me about my film. Occasionally someone would look at a Polaroid and make a polite remark.

It was really a wonderful shoot. Just wanted to share it. Wish there were more like that.

7.13.2009

Frenetic Action on the set of a typical shoot. Kirk style.

video
I recently did a photo shoot for Zachary Scott theater. I used hot lights for a variety of reasons. Earlier I posted a video that showed the clean up and packing after the shoot. Even earlier I posted a video of Martin being photographed. I thought I'd show with this video how many hands touch a project and how much distraction and stop and start there can be in a session.

The light is coming through a 6 foot square sheet of diffusion. The background light is a 300 watt fresnel tungsten spotlight and the main light, way over to the left, is a 1,000 tungsten flood from Profoto.

The season brochure should be here soon from the printer so I'll post that final piece so you can see what we ended up with.

Thanks, Kirk

Author of: Minimalist Lighting: Professional Techniques for Studio Photography. Published by Amherst Media in 2009.

7.12.2009

Practice makes competent. Plus some Sunday observations.







I don't believe anything I read on the web or hear from other photographers about cameras. If I did I would be walking around with a Nikon D3 or a Canon 5dmk2 and some giant zoom lenses. Okay. That's a bit of hyperbole. There are a few people out there who are pretty good at making the right case for the right camera but we don't always see eye to eye because there are so many factors besides sharpness and noise to consider.

Most of my friends think I'm crazy for getting rid of all the Nikon, Kodak and Fuji stuff and moving back to the Olympus cameras. And given the parameters that they think are vital they might be right for them. But after my first full week with my Olympus stuff I'm more and more certain that I made the right choice for me. And here's the kicker: I didn't make my choices based on the great reviews given the e620 and e30 Olympus cameras. Didn't give that part much thought. The lenses were half of the decision making process but the other half was pure romance. I'd just never gotten over my largely illogical but sincere and quixotic attraction for the e1 cameras. The e1 with the battery attachment always fit my hand better than anything I'd ever used and the darn things worked.

I'd let my brain be swayed by logical arguments into turning against the e1's when the megapixel wars started to heat up. "The AA filter is too strong!" everyone said, "You'll never get any sharp detail with an e1!" Then, in true herd fashion all the photographers I know decided that the only way to shoot was in raw. It must be raw to be professional. And it was obvious that the buffer in the e1 was just too slow. Gotta have the speed. The next thing was the enormous amount of time it took for Olympus to get the next professional camera out onto the market. "They just can't compete in the professional section of the market!"

Well. I bought the e30 camera last week so I could give the art directors who care a real 12 megapixel file without any explanations. And I bought some cool lenses so I'd be ready for wide ranging jobs like the three or four annual reports we do each year. But I really did it so I could keep shooting my own stuff with the e1's.

When you buy a new system, or return to an old system, it's vital to go out and burn it in. Shoot two or three hundred shots a day until your mind and your hands remember where the controls are and just how far you can go before you start burning out detail or blocking up shadows. I think the eye-hand-mind-camera interface is important to your success as an image maker. Much more so than which camera or lens you use. When I took a class with Gary Winograd back at UT in the 1970's he suggested that we take our Leica rangefinders with us to the movies, to dinner and anywhere else we were headed and practice setting the controls without even looking at the camera. We got to know how many shutter detent clicks it took to go from 1/500th of a second o 1/15th of a second in the dark. Most of us could load a Leica in the dark. For many of us a Leica M3 or M2 was our only camera and we knew just by the sound what our shutter speed was set at.

So much of the auditory and tactile references have been obliterated by new camera design. How do you count detent clicks when changing the shutter speed is done with a button and a spinny dial? Sure you an see the display in the dark but the whole idea is to be able to set it without bringing the camera to your eye or into your subjects consciousness until the moment you need it.

I knew that I'd forgotten so much of the e1 feel so after lunch today I went total photo geek. It's 105(f) here today so I put on the Khaki shorts and my rugged walking sandals. I rummaged thru the closet to find my white Columbia shirt that's made out of the really thin fabric that blocks UV and wicks away sweat. And I grabbed my rickety old Panama hat that's been sat on by several different assistants. Drank a big glass of water and headed downtown.

Nothing much happens in downtown Austin in the middle of a Sunday afternoon in the dead of Summer. The street people were out but there wasn't anyone to panhandle from. They were heading to the shelters. Heading to the library. Heading for new shade. No tourist on the streets. A few insane natives sitting at the outdoor tables at some of the restaurants on 2nd street. Car fumes and reflected heat from acres of black top swirling around them. Desperately trying to read the paper with salt sweat burning their eyes......

And then there was me. Walking down the sidewalk with an Olympus e1 fitted with a 50mm f2 macro lens. This wasn't a "looking for adventure" type of afternoon excursion. It was a "dial it in" afternoon. How well does the spot meter track the actual exposure? Where does the sharpening work best? How wide an aperture can you shoot with and still get sharp images? How well does the auto white balance work? what tricks it?

The beauty of a simple camera with straightforward menu selections is that once you've set the parameters you've come to trust there's very little reason to fire up the "menu" switch again. The ISO, WB, Compensation, and meter settings are all accessible via dedicated buttons.

I found some rotating doors on an old government building that I'd never seen before. I might actually get some images for my "industrial decay" portfolios. I found a painted sign (Joseph's) that just saw the light of day after decades of seclusion behind another building. I think the file I've posted is perfect in all regards. I shot stuff inside an old parking garage at ISO 400 and I'll be damned if I can find the noise I'm supposed to be tripping over.

Here's my quicky assessment after four quality hours in the Texas sun: The 50mm Macro lens is really great. I'm building a small altar for it in my studio. I put the camera down an hour or so ago and I already miss it. I'm so pleased with the files. The camera, even with the battery attachment, has a demur and stealthy feel. Especially with the smaller lens. My experience today makes me wistful. Here's why. I think Olympus made the perfect digital camera and nobody "got it." When I tried to explain why I got rid of my D700 i fumbled around with the foibles of a value system in a culture that doesn't really believe that inanimate objects can contain energy and intention. I blurted out that I didn't like the D700 because it didn't have a soul. And I really believe it with the same intensity that Shinto priests believe that all of nature, the rocks and all, have spirit. The D700 is the ultimate camera for a technologist because it "measures" well and tests well, and for some people it performs well.
It always vexed me. The monitor was indifferent to my need for consistency. Change ambient light, change monitor rendering. The files were always technically perfect and lifeless. Which may say more about me than the camera.

The opposite is true for the e1 and in fact for the e system in general. There are so many technical "gotcha's". The screens on the back are small and low resolution. The files are "plagued" with a new malady called, "low per pixel sharpness!". And to most reviewers all but the latest Olympus cameras are saddled with more ugly noise than all the early heavy metal music pumped through giant speakers in the back of a teenager's car. But. But. These cameras have soul. They connect with your hand and your heart.

I'll understand if you don't think this is rational. It's certainly not measurable. But none the less it's how I view the whole deal. Do I wish that Olympus cameras had great flash performance like the Nikons? You bet. Do I wish they had the high ISO noise profile of the Canon full frame cameras? You bet. But they've got at least two things going in their favor: They have wonderful lenses (and very rational focal lengths). And they have soul, energy and spirit. ( I wonder if this is easier to explain in Japanese?)

RAW VERSUS JPEG REVISITED.

I had coffee the other day with an old friend and he was talking about the Will Crockett, "Kill it and Bill it" philosophy. In a nutshell it goes something like this: With a good light meter, good work habits and well profiled cameras and assorted support gear you should be able to nail your images in Jpeg such that they need NO adjustment or post processing. No butt time. No layers and layers of adjustment and plug in massage.

I think he's right. Sure, if I was photographing the landing of Alien Beings in quickly changing light at Opray's wedding on assignment for National Geographic Magazine I'd probably hedge my bets and shoot in Raw. But for most of the stuff we shoot SHQ or highest quality Jpeg seems to be pretty fabulous. After hearing about this I've embraced it as a bit of a challenge and I'm getting a lot more careful about using and assessing my incident meter as well as shooting tests while tethered so I can have a much better idea of what the screen on the back of the camera is telling me as related to the image on the calibrated studio monitor. Even if I revert to shooting RAW I'd like to think that the practice will make the raw conversion process quicker and more effective. And even in raw lack of perfect exposure exacts a penalty. Always.

In a roundabout way I consider highest res Jpeg the "real" professional's format. Anyone can shoot sloppy raw and fix stuff. In a way it's like the old slide film versus negative film argument. The lab was the raw converter for the negative film. Interesting that the newest cameras give an unequalled amount of feedback, information and control and yet we feel constrained to hedge our bets even more. Where is the sense of challenge? Of mastery? Ultimately, where is the sense of control?

Finally, I've been reading a lot of books from my Publisher, Amherst Media. Most of the books I've read through lately are squarely aimed at portrait and wedding photographers. And when I first started going through them I was a bit dismissive about the information because we always saw ourselves as somehow more sophisticated if we shot advertising and corporate that the guys who did weddings and portraits. Fat chance. The one thing that comes thru loud and clear is the fact that there aren't any dilettantes in this group of writer/photographers. To their credit they see their business as a business and they have mastered the most important part. Not the purchasing and testing of new equipment. They've learned how to market and sell.

I learned something brilliant in nearly every copy I read. Cliff Hollenbeck's book was superb. It pays to read what other parts of our industry are doing. Just as many ASMP and other editorial photographers have discovered this decade: There's money in weddings and babies.

MARKETING NOTE: If you like the blog take a moment to check out my second book over on Amazon. I feel like it's the bastard stepchild. We named it, Minimalist Lighting: Professional Techniques for Studio Photography, because many of the lighting techniques were done in the studio or with studio lights. That's led a number of potential readers to bypass it because they don't have studios or they have perception that they'll need a studio to use the techniques. But, in fact, the theories and practicals are absolutely universal, and the book is full of good info about lighting in general. Maybe just go to the page and read the reviews......get your library to order a copy.


Finally, If you didn't find today's entry particularly scintillating or relevant, or you find it downright bizarre just remember I've spent most of the day walking around in the heat. The temperature may have addled my brain cells. Have a great week.

7.08.2009

Recalibrating my fear and paranoia with a good walk. Plus, a high temperature test run with a new camera and lens







If you spend too much time listening to the radio, watching the news on TV or scanning Google News on the internet you will eventually develop anxiety and a brace of related mental health disorders. The media is a cruel filter and saturates the more compulsive members of its audience with a never ending stream of doom and gloom. I respond by battening the hatches and hunkering down into the bunker of the studio, anxious for the storm to pass and for light and decency to prevail. But are things really so wretched?

I recently got rid of a huge mess of gear in the spirit of distilling down. Focusing on one system. One set of cameras and one small collection of lenses. I decided to abandon the system I've been working with all these years and go with a fresh canvas, a counterintuitive side step. (I have more space in the drawers of my cabinets since I started back into the business in 1987...). I decided to take a break from the internet and the TV and all the other voices of misery and take my new camera for a walk. A real, get down and play with your camera, sort of walk. And it was so cathartic.

I grabbed a tiny little Olympus e520, popped an 11-22mm lens onto the front, jammed a 4 gig card in the side and fired up the Honda Element. What I needed was a little bit of downtown adventure. When I parked the car near the city's hike and bike trail around 11 am the temperature was already in the mid-90's. I pulled out a hat, put up the windshield reflector thingy and headed off over the pedestrian bridge to downtown.

Here's what I found as I walked through the downtown area: Dozens of high rise, luxury condominiums. Some built and occupied, some under construction and some breaking ground. None of the projects was on hold. The streets were filled with people in suits or shirts and ties walking to meetings or early lunches. By noon the downtown eateries were full and in some there were lines for tables. Not too many "sale" signs in the boutique windows. Most people seemed pretty happy. Pretty content.

None of the "doom and gloom" wasteland scenario.

And then there was my new little camera. I've long since given up caring what the exposure meter says to me. On a sunny day like today i learned to set the right exposure at least 25 years ago. Put the camera on manual and set for ISO 100, set exposure at 1/500 @f8. Unless something changes, don't move the dials.

At the end of three hours the temperature was cresting 100(f) and I was sweating like a boxer. I'd re-acquainted myself with humanity and made at least an introduction to my new camera so I headed home. Less fearful about the economy. Less paranoid about the localized representation of the human condition and happy with my photographs.

The 4:3 format suits me well. The lens is great. The finder is good. I can be happy working with this camera.

I bought a couple of battery powered flashes today. They are both Vivitar EF-383's. They have built in slaves. They supposedly work in ttl on my new Olympus stuff. They are less than a third the price of the Olympus flash. I'll let you know how they work out. They are coming on the snail express from Amazon.

Three or four of the images above are from my little stroll around Austin today. The other one came from my first adventure with the new cameras. I was out last friday and I shot this with my friend, Emily. We were playing around with a 4x4 foot scrim over her head and a flash bounced out of an umbrella for the main light. It's all fun.

No presumption that any of the images are great art (or even minor art). I'm in that stage where I'm getting the new stuff all dialed in and that goes for the economy as well.

NEWS FLASH: I'm going to be a presenter at the CREATIVE PHOTOGRAPHIC RETREAT in Dallas, Texas on the 23rd, 24th and 25th of July. Should be fun.

IN AUSTIN: On Sunday, August 9th, I'll be giving a lecture and a lighting demo for the Austin Photography Group at Book People, third floor from 7pm on. I think it is free and open to the public. I know my friend Paul will be coming by to heckle. I'll be showing some work and then showing my favorite ways to light portraits. If you are in Austin please come by. I'm sure we'll head out for coffee or a glass of wine after we wrap.

EVENT: Thinking about a happy hour this coming Monday. 5:30pm at Threadgills at Riverside and Congress. If you are in Austin and want to go hang out, have a beer and talk about art drop a line or leave a comment. One dollar Lone Star Longnecks all day long.......Look for the guys with the camera.

7.06.2009

A new strategy for buying cameras. Circa 2009.


Ceiling detail from the Alexander Palace in Pushkin, just outside of St. Petersburg, Russia. 1995.

If you were alive and shooting in the time of film you worked with the presumption that you would buy camera bodies and lenses and then use them until the little cogs and gears were worn down to nubins, then you would sell them all to your first assistant and retire. The image on the left was shot in the time of non obsolescence with the epitome of that breed of camera, the Hasselblad medium format film camera. This shot is most likely from an SWC/M wide angle camera but we didn't have exif in those days so I'll never know. Film was the thing that got outmoded but we could remedy that by buying newer and better film. Although sometimes the film was merely newer.

I caught myself being stupid over the last four years. I was using a film business model in the acquisition and retention of camera bodies. I was buying digital SLR's as though they would last a lifetime. In one sense, they might. The Kodak DCS 760's that I adore are well made and seem to go on forever. But what i really mean is that every two years there is either a doubling of resolution or the introduction of a "can't live without" feature that compels us to rush out and buy another body.

So I looked in the drawer and there were generations of cameras. Fuji S2's S3's and S5's (and I couldn't bear to get rid of them because i'd gotten "magic" files with each of them.....) Nikon d300's, d2x's, and D700's. Old lenses that were purported to be magical, like the Nikkor 50mm 1.1.2 and the 105mm 2.5 and so many more that hadn't be used in years. Like the 28mm f2 that I bought because all the reviews raved about it. It never focused well on a D2x so it sat in the drawer.

We are quoted a price to trade in our older bodies that seems laughably low so we keep them and justify this by calling the body a "back up".......as though we'll go back and use the antiquated thing in the uncomfortable case that our main (and brutally expensive) main body dies prematurely. We won't.

When budgets were rising and work was plentiful the strategy was relatively harmless because we could assuage our longings for more and our nostalgia for the recently retired cameras by shrewd applications of massive cash flow. And are we really doing anyone a favor with all the equipment overkill anyway?

I don't think so and here's why: Since the beginning of the recession over two years ago clients have moved relentlessly to the web. I hardly need to tell anyone here that you don't need four or five thousand pixels on a side to make a good web image. Some magazines have lost 70% of their ad pages. When they fold they'll never be back. We might fantasize (while in front of the camera case) that we'll be shooting double trucks again before long but it might be a couple of years and by then the $8,000 wondertool that we crave today will be old news and ready for the scrapheap. Do you have more downtime than you really want? If so, do you want to spend it with an extra $8000 to $12000 worth of camera inventory?

I took a hard look at the kind of work we're doing lately. The one thing that seems to not go out of style is the need to light things well. If we light them well then we don't need peerless high ISO performance. Oh I'm sure someone will chime in and say that we do but I notice an interesting phenomenon: The ultra pro shooters who demanded super high ISO performance in their 35mm based DLSLR's moved into medium format DSLR's for a spell and never whispered a peep about the high ISO output of those $30,000 cameras. Which are not anywhere near as good as a $1,000 Canon or Nikon....

If you shoot weddings or sports I don't begrudge you the best high ISO tool you can find but if you are shooting advertising, corporate work or studio portraits you don't need (or probably use) anything over ISO 400, maybe 800 in a pinch.

So why go crazy on the bodies. It's the lenses that retain their value.

With that in mind, here's my new buying strategy: I'm buying up the pro level Olympus glass for the E system but I'm swearing to only buy camera bodies that are less than $800. I'll keep em for a year and then trade em for whatever comes out next. That way I'll always have the current sensor technology without the investment in the "talisman of power" that the high end cameras represent.

Don't believe me? That's okay because I'm not always right. But I ran into John Isaac the other day (big time Olympus shooter) and he was sporting the e620. Swore it's his favorite camera. Cost? $599. His take? Superb.

Just a thought. Lenses for the long haul, bodies year by year. No matter which system you favor. Because even when the megapixel hysterics wear out we'll still have dynamic range to drive the market.

I've sent off most of the Nikon and Kodak inventory. For jobs that require (and pay for) the high end gear I'll gladly rent. For all the rest I'll be happy with the 12 megapixel bodies that are now $599 and blow away anything that was available for less than $5,000 just five years ago.

Works for me. Might not work for you.

Hope everyone is staying cool.