2.12.2016

Packing for a three day shoot next week, but, "no pressure," it's here in town.

I have no intention to stop writing the blog. 
Sorry if that seemed to be implied in this morning's post.

A year and a half ago I did a bunch of photography for a wonderfully school here in my area of town called, St. Gabriel's Catholic school. Here is the website and most of the photographs on it came from that shoot. I got an e-mail last week asking me if I had any time in the very near future to come back and do some more shooting. It seems that they've expanded the campus and finished up some very nice additions to their already very first class facilities. We'll be making photographs of the students but this time we'll also be working on photographing the students in the context of the architecture. I was able to offer them Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday of next week.

It's kind of a dream assignment because the school is in a very affluent area, is well served by the parents, and is in a beautiful location in the hill country, to the west of downtown. The children are wonderful and the staff of the school uses our work well. The one difference this year is that some of the images we create will be printed quite large (think wall sized) and used as display art around the school. In the past the kids were the single most important part of all the photography; in this instance it will be a mix of people and interior design.

We have three days of photography scheduled and, since the additions are new to me, I asked if I could come out and scout. We did that on Weds. The new interiors are very well done. They are modern and open, with very "of the moment" furniture design and lighting fixtures. I'll be spending three full days there so I am also happy to report that the cafeteria food at this school is also well above average. 

With all the basic logistics figured out I sat down this morning to figure out the fun stuff: What to use as camera gear on the job. So, finally, a need for big files. Mostly available lighting, supplemented occasionally  by small flashes. A need for wide dynamic range and great low light performance as well as fast, sure focusing. And a lot of the shooting is dynamic and will be handheld. 

What's my plan?

The Nikon D750 is the perfect combination of features and performance. The D810 is better on paper but since I'll be doing a lot of handholding the extra pixels are sure to get lost in the kinetic mix. To move fast I'll use two D750's, set identically, but with a different lens on each camera. Just for grins I'll put a quick release plate on each body and bring a big, wooden monopod with me to provide a stable platform.  The small flashes are a no brainer and I won't waste time talking about them.

That leaves a selection of lenses. The fun stuff. The lenses are the singular part of every shoot that makes a bigger difference than the number of pixels on the sensor, or the brand on the front of the camera. I decided that this would be the perfect job for a two lens set up, complimented by a few bonus optics on standby, in the bag. 

First up, a wide angle solution. Hmmm. Research, research.... I narrowed down my choices and decided to go with the Sigma 24-35mm f2.0 Art lens. Not a very wide selection of focal lengths but all focal lengths that I use often and understand well. I rarely go wider than 24mm and by the time I crest 35mm I'm really ready to just move on and grab a 50mm. The 24-35mm is big and heavy but one stop down from wide open it's probably sharper than anything I've shot with since the old Leica days.

I put the lens on both camera bodies and made sure (with a LensAlign tool) that we didn't need to do any radical micro-adjusting to get a really sharp image and then I used the Visual Science Lab electron microscope to look at the latent photonics test image on the sensor to evaluate the combination's nano-acuity.  The melange passed with flying colors. Much sharper and higher performance than the Zeiss Otus 24-35mm Ostrich lens. Oh, that's right, they don't have a high speed, wide angle zoom... 

It seemed obvious to me that a perfect complement to the Sigma 24-35mm f2.0 Art lens would be the 50mm 1.4 Art lens. I just happened to have a copy which I just happened to have calibrated on both cameras yesterday evening, before dinner, so I dropped that into the bag as well. 

At that point I was seriously wishing Sigma would hurry up and introduce their 85mm f1.4 Art lens to round out the trinity of what should be every working photographers most used trio of optics but that hasn't happened yet. I'll put the Nikon 85mm f1.8 G on the camera and be pretty happy with the combination. But I'll keep my checkbook handy should those rascals over at Sigma get motivated...

The working combo is (at least starting out) going to be the wide zoom on one body and the 85mm on the other with the 50mm 1.4 Art and the Nikon 24-120mm f4.0 zoom in the bag. The 50mm because everyone should always try to use their 50mm for whatever they can, as God and HCB intended; and the 24-120mm for those times when image stabilization is just flat out highly recommended.

Since I'll be moving from class to class, and from building to playground to gym and back to the cafeteria, for six or eight hours a day for three days in a row, the other important consideration is to wear good walking shoes. And since the boys wear coats and ties to class I think I'll go with the sartorial flow and do so as well. That makes my shoe selection the Timberland Oxford classics. in cordovan. 

Now, how to pack? Hmmm. Seems like a situation for an Airport Security roller case from Think Tank. 

The icing on the cake? The school provides really good coffee to faculty, staff and photographers all day long. Seems like a good way to spend the better half of a week. We'll see how the gear selection survives initial contact with the assignment. 


Changing gears is sometimes about hitting a wall and realizing you missed the door.


I have a persona on the web. To some I am a techie guy who has a typical liberal arts education, has had some modest successes over the years as a commercial photographer and who has parleyed the fear and boredom of the years from 2007 to 2012 into a modestly successful bout of book writing and, by extension, blog writing. Most of my readers know that I swim, that I have one child, a dog and a wife of some 35 years. I've tried to keep my political viewpoints out of my public writing and I've worked to keep my views about religion personal. So, in fact, most people know very little about who I really am or what motivates me to do what I do beyond the usual, human responses to fear and greed.

While walking with my wife and my dog through our quiet neighborhood this morning I found myself taking stock of how my life has changed over the last twenty years. A change that I should have resisted more. Controlled more. In 1995 I felt as though I had a modicum of control over what I did both for a living and as an art. My audiences were the ones I actively attracted by actually meeting them. In person. Face to face. My portraits were made with tools that I loved for a number of reasons. My approach to making the portraits was nearly always predicated on a very personal view of what portraiture should be, not what popular, and every changing markets might dictate.

I had yet to write my first book or type my first blog. My days consisted of making beautiful work (at least I thought it was so), having face to face meetings with clients and friends and colleagues, and then spending many quiet evenings reading everything I enjoyed; from novels to poetry to economics. I subscribed to the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times because it seemed important to be both informed and to have a foot in both political camps for balance.

When photography changed, along with everything else that was touched by the encroachment of the digital hegemony, in the early part of this century, it was like an anchor was cut loose for our art and even the previously codified flow of our everyday lives. The relentless drumbeat from media everywhere was about the unalloyed advantages of "being digital", of being one's own publisher and of being "on" for every cycle. A relentless march to the future that rewarded the media much more than the message, the number of followers more than what was being said or shown. Followers equalled eyeballs, which were connected to mostly functional brains, which were connected to credit cards, the exercise of which could conceivably create new income streams for "artists."

The problem was that the race for eyeballs and money led to unexpected consequences and behaviors. Instead of continuing to do the work I loved the lure of creating media and content that would sell to a mass market was alluring, intoxicating and seemed so much smarter than working in a small and contained market. The trade off, which exists for almost anyone who wants to grow an anonymous market, is that at some point you have to give your audience what they want. Not what you genuinely have to say but what they genuinely want to read. It's an enormous trade off and one that sociopaths have very little problem with. Just separate what you like from what you do for money and off you go. But the issue is a bit more complicated for people who aren't sociopathic and have a warm affinity and attachment for the things that they love to do well. Which for me is meeting people and making portraits.

I was playing around with small flashes and cheap, optical slaves in 2006, about the time that I was active on David Hobby's Strobist site. I did an image of then Dell CEO, Kevin Rollins with the small lights and wrote about it for a magazine. I also posted an article about the nuts and the bolts of the shoot on Strobist. Which led to an offer to write my first book with Amherst Media. I was living the new, social media marketing dream.

But. But. But. The process of writing a book took me away from the ongoing craft of working on portraits. Of shooting and doing what I really loved. The first book took six months to write and illustrate and when I finished with it I told myself I'd never do it again. It took so long. The effort was so concentrated and, worst part, I wasn't moving my art, craft or brain forward, I was crafting an educational resource based on stuff I already knew by heart. But then the book hit and sold very well and it became a focus point for me. People called me to do workshops. They called to interview me. They did all the things an artist with an ego thrives on. They played to my desire to be someone in my field. An expert. Someone who has "made it." And that's the most dangerous and destructive part of moving away from the things you love to embrace a different persona that's inauthentic and not genuine. And most of the attention given to me by web sources was in service of me creating "free" content for them; one way or the other. The interview or the copied blog post.

The ego accepts every offer. And the ego goads the brain to move in the direction that yields the most self-esteem building gratification. More books equal more eyeballs. More validation of your position as a successful and business savvy photographer. But the books required care and feeding. Any publisher will tell you that the writers who are successful are the ones who jump in and help with the marketing of their properties in any way that they can. I proceeded to do my part by writing this blog and flogging the books when I felt like the balance was right.

And all the time the web and technology and the media is ever changing and morphing and the targets are constantly moving. I started trying out new stuff all the time. Moving ever further from my own, innate and satisfying targets from decades before. Digital had killed my tools (or so I thought) and relegated me to a desperate and ongoing search to replace them with (woefully inadequate and homogenous) digital replacements. And all the while my artistic vision was fading. Ever more diluted by my bifurcated searches for general relevance, applause, and a desire to seem relevant within the context of a new generation of imagers. I was trying to constantly keep up with the younger Joneses even though none of them possessed a map to the future either.

I bought my first EP2 on a whim but stayed engaged in the Olympus system partially because of a huge surge of readers who seemed to hang on every word I wrote about the system, regardless of whether it worked for my real, personal vision or not. I never lied or accepted graft but somehow my sense of not only being part of a new community, but also a taste maker within it, kept me buying and writing about cameras that were ancillary to my core aesthetic. My way of seeing images and translating them.

By the fifth book I had come to realize that my "artist self" had been totally sublimated, suffocated and left in cold storage by the combination of income, ego stroking and delusions of using the eyeball base as a market to sell books to. To extend my reach as a "web personality" which might deliver me opportunities.

But the things that keep coming my way are truncated and compromised, to a certain extent. Witness my brief and rocky relationship with Samsung. Was a one week trip to Berlin, in the clutches of Samsung handlers, really valuable enough to make up for using a flawed camera? I could have easily dipped into the business checking account and sent myself to Berlin for a peaceful week of shooting, unencumbered by one dimensional marketing serfs. Some of the cameras were interesting but would I have ever even tried to shoot with a camera that has no EVF or OVF if it had not been offered as part of being in the program? Of course not.

I must seem naive now to so many people who know that there is no "free ride" and that all the web stuff is really just extended B.S., is a massive shift of value from the owner of art to the endless distributors of art waiting for ephemeral payment while the old hands at the aggregators and the many thieves on the internet actually get the payments. In a sense my years of blogging were/are my own form of resistance to just getting my own work done. Shooting those singular portraits I want to shoot for an audience that never, ever came from the web. And still doesn't.

It's interesting to have had all this play out in a public forum. It's like broadcasting potty training. Highly embarrassing at times and in the end it's all more or less poop.

Where does it all end? Well of course, in the grave. But at what point does it dawn on an artist that you've ceased to do your authentic art and you have moved into the more or less "blue collar" job of maintaining a web presence with the hope for tips and affiliate income, and that by doing so you've relegated yourself to modifying what you talk about into stuff you think will have wide interest, including techniques you know by heart and gear that's nothing more than transient entertainment?

Well, at least this confessional outflow is more interesting to me than whether or not the new Pentax camera will have HDR bracketing. Of course, my fear in publishing this particular piece is the very real possibility that I will be writing for myself, alone in the near future.

Ah well. What value is a blog if we can't interject a bit of honesty from time to time?


2.11.2016

Taking a break from cameras to just look at work where I was pleased with my light.


I like to go back a few years and look at the work I was doing then to see what changed and what stayed the same. Currently, I am using more fill light and almost always using light on the background. Introspectively, it feels like I've erred on the side of being too careful with my light these days which takes out the tension, contrast and, well...drama of the image.

I think I'll go back to the studio and move some of those fill lights back a little bit. Or maybe turn them off.....

2.10.2016

Why a Sony RX10 mark 2? Why not???



So much of our indulgence in photographic gear is motivated by history, legacy and lunacy. The old dinosaurs of the industry remember the days of old when bullet proof cameras were the suit of armor worn into imaging battle by legions of photographic infantry. A camera destined for photojournalism was deemed to be professional only if it did certain things and had certain attributes. For some reason these parameters have been passed down from generation to generation like some commandments from strict gods. To wit: The camera must be made entirely of heavy metal, you should be able to drive nails with it. Even though tons and tons of great work was made with cameras that had to be manually wound from frame to frame the introduction of motor drives meant that every professional camera that came after had to shoot at 3,57,10 and how 12 or 14 frames per second to be used by the pros!. And recently, the misguided mantra about necessary professional cameras is the one must always be in hot pursuit of the most megapixels on the biggest sensor ---- but more importantly, the sensor must be full frame to make the cut.  

All this means bags full of heavy and expensive gear that costs a fortune. If we were all working for clients who needed to blow up all of our images to sizes that would fit on the sides of buildings this might make sense. But the reality is that our targets have changed radically over the years and what we need in cameras is so different from yesteryear. 

The last five professional photography assignments I have done this year have been done on cameras that don't look like or feel like the cameras of the distant past, reworked to evoke confidence in the present. We didn't need to pull out the 36 megapixel, full frame camera or the 24 megapixel camera. I shot two jobs with the Panasonic fz 1000. The photos were good and the client was very happy. I shot one job with an Olympus EM5.2 and the photos looked good and the client's were very happy. And most recently I shot two jobs back to back with the Sony RX10 cameras and I was very happy, the client was very happy and, it was probably the optimum way to shoot the job in question ---- if your brain is willing to start with a clean slate. 

I have had some time to do a few video tests with the new (to me) RX10 mark 2 from Sony. It's not just a good video camera, it's an amazingly good video camera. In fact, when I've come across several pre-reviews from highly excited bloggers covering the hot new (buy it now, buy it now!!!!) Sony A6300 I looked at the con column and realized that the RX10 mark 2 checks way more production feature boxes than the newer camera. Things like a real head phone jack. A 29 minute run time in 4K and the package comes complete with a really good lens. 

The reviewers are breathless about the latest innovations which they apparently overlooked during their cursory date with the RX10.2. Things like: A clean HDMI output so you can use external digital recorders for endless takes. Customizable zebras. S-Log profiles. Focus Peaking. 100 mbs XAVC S files in 4K, right in the camera. Non-line skipping video for much higher sharpness and fewer artifacts. Etc., Etc. It always amazes me when people leapfrog over a bargain in the blind pursuit of the latest package ---- even when the new package is less capable. 

I kiddingly wrote that this year might see "The Rise of The One Inch Sensor Cameras," but now I am more or less serious about it all. I keep looking through 4K video trying to find a fault but, with the exception of high ISO noise limitations (high ISO being a crutch that allows people to think they know what they are doing instead of really learning how to light stuff well) I haven't found any Achille's heel in the mix.

I like the RX10 type 2 because it is so damn capable. So already packed and ready to go! And so perfectly sorted for a vast swath of photographic projects. But the cherry on the top is that this camera is also perfectly suited for a photojournalistic style of videography. Keep a variable neutral density filter (62mm/same as the Panasonic FZ 1000) in one pocket and a couple extra batteries in the other and you are pretty much prepared to shoot at the drop of a hat. Which always brings me back to the same conclusion: The obsession about "ultimate" cameras and lenses is for the entry part of the commercial market. It's the lighting that separates the artist from the gear jockeys. But lighting gear isn't usually nearly as glamorous and much harder to wear (without dire affectation) to the hip, neighborhood coffee shop. 

Below are two samples that I love from the original RX10. 


An ISO 1600 image of a musician on stage at the David Bowie Project
modern dance/concert in 2014 at the State Theater. 

A landscape of flat Texas, between Fredericksburg and Johnson City.
Probably my favorite, personal example in a genre I have very little 
affinity for...

If pushed one could make a business with just one of these little cameras and some decent lights. Very few clients would ever know you weren't shooting with a throwback to an earlier time. And they would like the video better than anything coming out of a Fuji, Nikon, Canon (non-cine) or Olympus camera. Pretty amazing for a retail investment of $1299...

I am running an ad, below, for Lesa Snider's Portrait retouching class. It's the same one I ran yesterday and I'm doing it because I was stuck in PhotoShop today, trying to turn a woman's hair from bright red to a dark brunette without messing up the detail and character of the hair. I watched Lesa's segment about doing that very same thing in her video and it worked so well. I was very happy to remember that the segment was there. It was also a good refresher about using the "refine edge" tool. I thought I'd give it another "two thumbs up" for anyone out there that might want to improve their portrait post production.

Here it is:





2.09.2016

A Fun Selection of Online Learning Classes From My Online "Alma Mater," Craftsy.com


I rarely put up ads on the blog. I don't want to interrupt the flow of articles that a lot of my audience has come to enjoy. But, in fact, we worked really hard up in Denver, Colorado to produce some online programming that is fun and educational. If you are the kind of person who enjoys taking workshops or spending time on various learning channels fleshing out your technique and your knowledge of photography you might really enjoy a lot of what is on offer at Craftsy. 

Many of you comment on my portraits; the lighting and the rapport with subjects. In the class above I give a detailed presentation of how I like to light. Not the routine formulas endemic to the web but exactly the way I like to light and interact with my subjects. I have a beautiful model and I play with my favorite lighting and modifying tools in the course. The Course lasts about two and a half hours, in sections. With the link above you can get the course (forever online) for about $25. Or five Venti Latte Coffees at Starbucks. You can go to the link and sample the course for free! If you pay the $25 and don't like the course you can get your money back. 

In addition to the Studio course above I am also including, in this blog, a discount link to a course that is a bit more basic and covers a lot of beginner topics as well as some Lightroom-Lite at the end. It's a fun course because it teaches but it's narrative in nature and each section is a fun adventure. I love the stuff we shot with a family at a horse ranch up in the mountains. Go and see the intro. You might like it. It's certainly something fun to watch if you are socked in by weather and can't get out to photograph on your own!


In addition to my two classes above I've actually gone through the catalog of classes offered by Craftsy.com and picked out a number of my favorites in the photography section. I like them and found them valuable so I thought you might too. Here they are below, in no particular order:



One of the original Craftsy Photo Classes and 
still one of the best! 

I met Lance a couple of weeks ago in Denver
and found him to be really fun and knowledgeable 
this class reflects what he teaches in hands-on
workshops in Ireland and Iceland, as well as 
cool places around the U.S.

How to make what we shoot into a cohesive
train of visual thought.


So, Lesa is the author of "PhotoShop, the Missing Manual" as well as a dozen other bestselling books on Photoshop, Lightroom and all things Post Processing. She is a superstar in that area and this is one of her first Craftsy.com workshops. It was right up my alley. I have been working in Photoshop for twenty years and I still learned about a dozen really great techniques to make the portraits I've shot look incredibly better. This one is a must for anyone interested in making images of humans look amazing.

Of all the people I met in Denver her course was almost perfectly aligned with what I needed to learn.

I am seriously signing off to go watch "Perfecting PhotoShop Portraits" one more time. I'm retouching 21 portraits of architects tomorrow and I want to get comfortable with some new techniques.

Suspend disbelief and click on a few of these links. It doesn't cost a cent to go and look.

That's my commercial message for the week --- now back to our original programming.