Seven Days in the Life of an Eccentric Photographer.

Photographer's Kid

Somehow this got deleted and I had a few requests to repost it. Here goes.

If you've read my blog over time you'll realize that I can be somewhat imprecise. So, in fact, my seven days covers eight days. I decided to write this because everywhere I go there seem to be misperceptions about the way we work. Professional photographers out there will probably shake their heads and tell you that their experience is totally different but that's the whole nature of the business!

Last Thurs. morning I got up at 6:30 and tossed my camera bag into my Honda Element which was already filled with lighting gear and other fun stuff I wanted to use in demonstrations at the Creative Photographic Retreat where I would be teaching for three days. Being a former Boy Scout I hew to the motto, "Be Prepared" and brought my own LCD projector, just in case.

My first stop was the Rollingwood Pool where, at 7am, I joined my rowdy band of masters swimmers and pushed my way through a swimming workout of around 3200 yards. Next stop: Starbucks. Venti half caff drip coffee and a scone. Then onto the freeway pointed at Dallas.

Checking into the Marriott in the early afternoon and learned that the person who would teach the basics course (engineered to get newbies up to speed on basics) was delayed. Could I teach and impromtu one hour course on camera basics? You bet. The conference started with a welcoming reception and then all the instructors had a dinner together at the hotel.

I was, at 53, the oldest instructor by far. While the rest of the crew went out on the town at night I headed to my room to spend a few hours writing book #5.

Up in the morning Friday for breakfast and a brisk run thru the maze of tall Dallas office buildings. My first class started at 11:00 am and ended at 12:30 pm. The second class was from 3:30 pm to 5:00 pm. If you've ever taught a typical photo workshop (my subject was "using your flash off camera:) you probably know this drill: You finish up your curriculum and then you ask for questions about ten minutes before the end of the class. One or two people raise their hands and we muddle through a few general questions. Then the class is over and nearly half the class line up to ask you their questions individually. And it's usually a variation of the same question. Too shy to ask questions in front of the crowd I guess.

Saturday is basically a repeat of Friday with two more class sections. On the last day, after the formal classes everyone heads outside to try out what they learned and ask questions of the instructors. We spend a couple hours helping implement newly found skills. And then there is a closing ceremony with great door prizes from Canon, Tamron and others. The Canon guys were so nice that I felt like I should keep my little olympus cameras out of sight.

Once the official program was over the instructors had one last dinner together and then, around 10 pm headed to the lobby bar to compare professional notes and share our backgrounds and talk about marketing. That wrapped up at two in the morning. Even our choice of beverages was so diverse it was funny. From Shirley Temples to Champagne. The photographers were mostly baby, wedding, expecting and family portrait professionals. I was the sole advertising/corporate shooter.

Up the next morning and back on the road to Austin. Lunch with the family and then pre-planning for the next week. I shot through most of the week for the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority annual report. I needed to pack a range of stuff. I'd be shooting outside for the most part. I packed a bag with two Olympus e520's, 11-22mm lens, 14-54mm lens, and a wild 70-300mm lens which, in 35mm speak, is the equivalent of a 140-600mm lens. Brought along polarizing filters for all of them.

I also charged batteries and composed e-mails for all the clients who needed information during the week. I also dropped by the bank night drop to deposit some checks that had piled up over the week.

Monday. Driving up and down the tollways looking for soaring flyovers and curving overpasses with cool skies behind. The heat topped out at 104 and the car thermometer read 125 on the pavement. I was usually standing on the pavement to set up and take the photos. (Newsflash, e520's tend to underexpose by about 2/3rds of a stop).

Home at the end of the day to answer e-mails and phone calls while downloading files into Lightroom, making general corrections, and outputting the images as small jpegs. After dinner with the family the files get uploaded to a Smugmug gallery and I send a link to the client and the agency. Finally, before I put the memory cards back in the camera bag I copy the folders with the originals and the little Smuggie files to two other hard drives.

I swim in the morning and then check in with the client. We go out and shoot again. This time I take Ben along as an assistant. He's 13 but he's good to hang with. He's kind and indulgent with his father. We get lime green safety vests with orange stripes so we're visible if we pull off the road to shoot from overpasses. We park at an overpass that the client has on the shot list and start shooting the intersection just below. In minutes a black, stealth police cruiser with lights flashing pulls in behind the old Element and two police officers dressed in tactical black hop out of the car looking ominous.

We spend a few minutes chatting and I finally pull the name of the highway authority out. Seems the roads are privately managed and the police are paid from the authority to patrol. They give me the nod of approval and warn me not to break any traffic laws. Warm and fuzzy moment. Ben and I discuss the role of law enforcement. I let him know that a 50 year old with a clip board, a safety vest, a hard hat and a walkie talkie could probably get away with just about anything. He makes a mental note.

The rest of the day is a scavenger hunt for interesting angles and interesting clouds.

Weds. is a repeat performance but this time we bring along a bag of lights and a new lens. The lens is the Olympus 35-100mm f2 zoom. Weighs four pounds and I'm loving the image quality. It seems very humorous to me to put a $2500 lens on a $350 body but there you go.....

The lights are for the interior "high tech" shots where we go into the server rooms to make exciting abstractions of wires and switches and lots and lots of Dell computers and servers. Ben and I get to use the Flash Waves radio triggers. I also use two of the Vivitar Series One Olympus dedicated flashes. Here's why: They have built in slaves and when you set the slaves the camera defaults to manual. You set the power level you want. The slave switch also disables the power saver settings. The Flash Wave triggered a Metz flash which then triggered the two Vivitars. Everything was set up into small umbrellas. Ben got the whole thing really quickly.

I brought along the 35-100 f2 for a very specific reason. We needed to shoot down from a bridge or gantry and include the cameras that clock the cars and read their toll tags. The cameras are about ten feet below us and we are behind a strong wire mesh that can't be removed. I'm banking on 100mm at f2 to give us a shallow enough depth of field to basically make the mesh disappear. For the most part it works. We scout some more stuff and when the thunderheads move in we call it a day and head back home to the studio. Unload, download, reload, recharge, back-up, make galleries, return phone calls and e-mails. Every day starts at 6:30 and every day seems to end around 8 pm.

This day had extra, added stuff. A dinner party at a friend's house. I wrapped a bit early, bought a nice Bordeaux on the way home and we spent the evening catching up with six other families we know well.

I talked about my current project and I wore my safety vest to the house for a bit of fun.

Remember, we're not shooting cute models or striking portraits. We're shooting roadways and technology. But I love it for three reasons: 1. I'm good at it and the client likes the work, 2. I get well paid for the work, 3. It's the hard or what are thought to be "unglamorous" subjects that let pro's show off what they can do with the most common clay. Anyone can shoot an interesting image of a beautiful young girl in an exotic locale. Let's see what you can do with asphalt. Lots of asphalt.

I change directions on Thurs. take a break from the roadways and we photograph five different executives from Dell in our studio. It's really the first formal outing for the 35-100 and I'm overjoyed with the look and the ease with which it works when mounted on a stout tripod. The lighting is Profoto power packs and heads. Main light is a 60 inch Softlighter umbrella diffused with an extra layer of white silk.

Then in the early afternoon we do a few group shots of more Dell execs followed by a magazine cover shoot for yet another Dell exec. Then Ellis Vener showed up from Atlanta and we talked tech. (Ellis is the technical writer for Professional Photographer Magazine and a damn good photographer. He knows more about the technical end of imaging than just about anyone around). After a good catching up session it was back to........you guessed it......downloading, uploading and gallery making. Never stops. This time it was for the Dell people. The Oly cameras are great with flesh tone. Probably should have shot the whole thing with an e-1 but I was tired and wanted to go with the sure bet. (You never know when you are going to need the bigger file size).

Today was clean up day. Or it should have been. There was an early client meeting (after the swim) to go over the week's shooting and to plan some of next week's shots. Then a coffee with a photographer who just moved into town and wanted a little guidance (asking my advice? Optimist!) followed by a lunch with one of my favorite photographers, Will Van Overbeek. His advertising work is incredible.

By the time I got to the studio I was wiped out but, you know, you need to get your billing out as quick as you can while everything is fresh in your mind. Nap on the couch? Not until I book a model for some personal, portfolio work on Sunday. And another assistant for monday's highway shoot. Mailed out checks. Checked e-mails.

Doesn't sound very glamorous, does it? Sounds more like work. Like everybody else's job. Yeah? Well, I conjecture that for every photographer out there shooting fashion or glamor and getting paid for it there are like, ten thousand of us working stiffs who are shooting interchanges, asphalt, products and executives day after day. It's a long way from those dreams of shooting art that we all had back at the university decades ago. Unless you allow yourself to make each project your art.

But believe me, after the year we've just collectively lived through I am thrilled to be working on good, paying projects. And working with new toys. And making art out of monolithic concrete and gently curving overpasses. Modern Stonehenge. Just wanted to share my typical week. Hope yours rocked.


Upcoming stuff: My third book is coming out at the end of August. It's entitled, The Commercial Photographer's Handbook. It's not anything like my first two books. It's all about the business and marketing part of being a photographer. It's highly opinionated. It doesn't agree that "information wants to be free". If you are contemplating a career in photography it de-mystifies the business and tells you how to get rolling. You'll like it. Maybe. Some people don't like anything but you're not like that........

More as we get closer. KT

My book on the business of photography is available for pre-order at Amazon. I like it.

Life is an iterative process. Every time you do something you build on your previous efforts, and writing books is no exception. When I wrote my first book, Minimalist Lighting etc. I was nervous and over thought the process. The book was well received but the emotional cost was outsized compared to the enjoyment of the process.

The second book seemed to sing along for me as I discovered my pace and really got into the subject.

But the third book, the one above, captivated my interest in a uniquely different way. In a sense it's a retrospective of my career in the field. Not through the photographs, in the sense of a retrospective show but rather, as a retrospective collections of thoughts and theories that have made me, if not successful, then at least ten steps ahead of my creditors while doing the one job that I've loved more than any other.

Like most I have the subconscious conviction that I am an artist first and a business man as a far second. Business practice out of necessity rather than a warm embrace of capitalism. Doubtless, with good therapy early on, I could have changed my views about the relative importance of the business end and perhaps made much more money. Or at least as much money but in a much easier way.

But the book distills all of the things that worked and continue to work into a wonderful melange that speaks to the old saying, "Hindsight is 20/20". I hope this book is one that will have readers saying, "I wish I'd had this resource when I was first starting out."

Rather than stroke my own ego I have peppered the book with gorgeous photos from incredible professionals like architecture expert, Paul Bardagjy, Advertising and editorial superstar, Will Van Overbeek, and the most amazing photographer I've met in my career, Wyatt McSpadden. (Wyatt's new book, Texas Barbeque, is nothing short of fine art---in every sense. From the images to the graphic design).

If you know someone who is struggling to make a career in commercial photography work I hope you'll think about recommending my book to them. It goes on sale the first of September but it is available for pre-order right now at Amazon.com.

And now, back to our regularly scheduled blogging........

Examining Modern Mythologies about Camera Equipment. Part One. Intro.

Top photo: Commerce Street. San Antonio. e300/ 25mm
Majestic Theater Box Office Detail. San Antonio. e300/ 25mm
The Emily Morgan Hotel. San Antonio. e300/ 25mm
My Father. San Antonio. e300/25mm
Downtown San Antonio. e300/ 25mm
Ben with Raspa and Pentax digital camera. San Antonio. e300/ 25mm
The Alamo. San Antonio. e300 / 25mm
The Emily Morgan Hotel and Street Light. e300 /25mm
Fence detail at Austin Power Plant. e300 / 14-54mm
Austin Music Hall. e-300/ 14-54mm
Crane, Downtown Austin. e300 / 25mm

Chain Link Fence. Austin. e300 /25mm

I remember the real moment that digital camera lust sunk its teeth into my hide. I was shooting with a Nikon D70s and Nikon announced the D200. The math major that lives in part of my brain started making impassioned noises about the clearly superior resolution that I could obviously expect if only I had the courage to upgrade (spend more money) on my stuff. Then when my D200 started back focusing and had to be sent in to repair the little math voice convinced me that the D2x was a superior solution and I should rush out and get one of those "for the sake of" my clients. And of course I did.

Recently the siren call of the D700 reached my unwaxed ears and my math major segment teamed up with my science guy (who lurks around in my brain with that guy who knows "everything") and bullied me into believing that full frame finders and clean files at 3200 were the final keys to the holy grail of photography. And I plunged headlong into the full frame abyss. But it didn't make a damn bit of difference in my photography.

That's when English major/Art student guy came to the front of my brain to play "bombastic, chaotic change" tunes with my photographic obsessions. "Purge it all!!!!" he screamed, and I did. And when the last gleaming Nikon lens and the last hallowed body left the studio and was consigned to someone else's tender care I breathed a sigh of relief and wrote about it in a blog.

When people found out that I bought some Olympus gear to replace the gear I no longer wanted they got the underlying message all wrong. They thought I was saying that Olympus trumped Nikon for some obscure matrix of reasons and that I was into the discovery of some new equipment paradigm. Nothing could be further from the truth. On paper the Nikon bodies trump the Olympus cameras at almost every turn. Sharper files. Better noise characteristics. Faster processing. More bit depth. Greater lens selection. etc.

But the silly truth is that none of these are especially cogent anymore. We've hit a spot that's analogous to the car market. You could buy a Lexus, a Honda, a Toyota, a Buick, a Ford or a BMW and all of them will commute to and from work quite well. All of them will easily go the speed limit. All of them will easily go much faster than you will ever need. And they will do it with nearly equal levels of quality and efficiency. Choosing is now mostly a matter of budget and taste. One way or another you'll get from north Austin to South Austin on Loop One at the same 15-30 MPH (during our famous rush hours). And you'll arrive at your destination at about the same time.

I think we're there with cameras. Most applications for images are going to the web. File sizes are small. Bit depth is small. The only important metric/function anymore is the vision of the person behind the viewfinder. The vision they bring to the table. We did perfectly wonderful portraits with Nikon D100's. We did perfectly wonderful sports shots with Canon 1D's and Nikon D2H's that sported all of four megapixels.

Well, I could talk about this on and on but for me the proof is in the pudding that I make. With no great inventory of cameras ( I have the following Olympus cameras: e30 ($900, 12 megs.), e520 ($350, 10 megs.), and the e1 (currently $350 and 4.9 megs). I like the cameras and used them recently to do manmade landscape photographs for a road authority. At the sizes the images will be used the images from all three cameras are pretty much identical. The two cheaper cameras have the best feel. The colors and exposures from all three are just fine (I still shoot in manual for all my jobs).

So I'm happy to have the equipment I do for the jobs that I take. But do I really even need these cameras?

I started thinking about it in earnest and the opportunity came up to buy an older Olympus camera for $150. I wrote a check (how last century is that?) and I became the proud owner of an e300. It was the second e series camera that Olympus made. It's claim to fame is the 8 megapixel Kodak chip. Otherwise there is not much to recommend the body. But it is endearing in a very dorky way (a nod to the engineer that's burrowing into one of my cerebral lodes ) with it's squat and wide design and it's sideways mirror movement.

I put on a 25mm lens and spent the day shooting with the camera. I was stunned to find out that the color, contrast and indeed, even the sharpness of the files was much more pleasing to me than the files from all my other cameras. All the images I've included here come from that camera and shooting for just a few hours. I am smitten. The age and purchase price, coupled with the stellar performance totally repudiates the vicious amounts of money I spent previously in keeping up with every stumble forward by the camera industry. If you print to moderate sizes you will have gained precious little in the obsessive replacement of model after model since 2004.

I'm certain that a small handful of photographers can make good and compelling arguments for more pixels and better noise performance. But let's be frank and understand that they are specialists and that for the great majority of us who print 12x18 inches, at a maximum, the benefits of ownership are far outweighed by the reality of our craft capabilities and our chosen output.

All of the images here are from the e300. I curse myself for writing this as it may cause a run on the used inventories of this camera. Anyway. The images above work for me. Your mileage may vary. And again, I'm not suggesting that you liquidate whatever system you have to buy something else. I'm just suggesting that we've reached a point where, perhaps, the next upgrade that comes down the pike is anything but crucial.

I've downsized the images for the web but if you click on them you'll be able to see them at 1500 pixels. I'll continue this exploration. I have a commissioned portrait to do tomorrow so let's see how the $150 body handles studio strobes and flesh tones. Till then, stay cool.