A little light work

One of the main reasons that I became a photographer of people and their personal worlds was to go places and learn things. I accepted a long time ago that although I’m a pretty smart dude I didn’t and can’t know everything but that I was gonna try to learn something every day that expands my world in some manner. Thus it’s quite often that I get an assignment and I get excited not just at the opportunity to possibly make photos that I’m proud of but to learn something truly interesting.

As some may know a big new trend/fad/fashion in eating is the gluten free diet. I’ll skip all armchair quarterbacking on this topic thank you but I will say that I like my pasta with extra gluten! Yummy. Anyhoo the deal is that the gluten free movement has opened a lot of new horizons for people both the eaters as well as those who produce what we eat.

I got an assignment to photograph a small company north of Fort Collins Colorado who is making gluten free malt for making beer and they are doing well with this. Most gluten free beer is made from a sorghum syrup but that makes for a pretty tasteless product. The people at Grouse Malting are using millet and have found a way to malt and roast the grain to enable brewers to make a gluten free beer with real flavor. Huzzah! For me the great thing is that they malt their grain in house with a classic process called floor malting. They built a big room that is temperature and humidity controlled to allow the grain to begin the process of sprouting which converts the starches inside into more simple sugars that the brewers yeast can convert to alcohol. It’s an art/science blend as they have to manually turn the grain with shovels and inspect it to know when that batch is ready. This is a pretty cool thing that they are doing as there are very few floor malting facilities in the US and to their knowledge Grouse is the only one who has figured out how to do this with millet.

Thus, I had to photograph the malting room! However I quickly saw a number of things that I’d have to overcome to get an interesting photo in there. Problem number one: it’s like a sauna in there with all the humidity. Steamy! Problem number two: it’s lit by a single wall mounted light. Problem number three: it’s dark as heck and I needed a malter dude at work. How to pull this all off?

Easy! Almost. First step was to find my composition and that meant my Nikon AF-S 17-35mm f/2.8 on my trusty Gitzo G1320 tripod way down low to show the malt on the floor. Just shy of 24mm did the trick and f/11 would hold the foreground/background sharp enough. I mean let’s face it, I was shooting in a steam room so infinite background sharpness just wasn’t gonna happen folks. ISO 400 gave me an exposure of one second which was enough to accomplish two things: enable my malt dude to pour some malt from his shovel to show motion while he himself stood still and the other was to light paint him and the malt in the shovel with a flash light.

What? Yep a flash light. I used my hand around the lens of the Inova X2 to produce a thin beam that I could use to light his face and the malt in particular to make them pop out of the steamy darkness. I always have a flashlight with me for a number of uses and this is a great reason to always have an additional and flexible light source. That said I put my beloved problem solver the Nikon SB-800 pointed towards the far right corner and triggered it wirelessly from the built in controller flash of my Nikon D700. This gave some separation and kept the gloom at bay.

Less than a dozen frames and we got this:
Grouse 6

BTW I love to learn from other photographers and am quite curious as to how they solve their particular problems. I picked up the Inova x2 by recommendation from the amazing photographer Robert Seale. You can’t have too many options when it comes to lighting things.

I’m am fookin’ Rasputin!

Sorry for the delays in posting. The last few months have been a long blur of often fun and occasionally well paying but more technical than artistic jobs. Not a lot of down time which is kinda how I like it. It’s not the sorta life that most would want. Don’t get me wrong, I dig it but it would be hell for most. When people think about becoming any kind of professional creative they think about the fun, maybe glamour and certainly all the great opportunity to live a live of expression with the bonus of getting paid to do so. Yep, that’s pretty cool.

But!

Then you have a weekend like I had.

On Saturday afternoon I did one of the last couples interviews for the Denver In Color project that is coming to a close and it was a good one. I felt pretty good in that we got a super cool gay couple who in many way reminded me of the balanced and cooperative relationship that I have with my wife Angela. Was cool. So I came home and proposed taking us out. Shes a writer, as I’ve mentioned before, and had been hard at work writing all day so my plan was perfect: get some ribs from our favorite BBQ joint and take them to one of our favorite local breweries to chill out for the evening.

Fast forward and we are there having a great time tucking into some seriously good food washed with a lovely pint, just my gurl and me. Ahh! Just minutes after dinner I start feeling like I ate too much. It’s easy to do with stuff that good. But ten minutes later on the way home I start honestly feeling ill of the “Gosh I hope I don’t barf in the car” sort of way that really ruins a great day not to mention a date night out with the lady.

Wind the clock forward about a hour and a half and yepper! I’m sick as a dog. I’ll spare you the details but the term “projectile” is often used. And in this case was used for hours on end. Not good. No sleep that night; alternating between shivering and puking . I wake up Sunday afternoon feeling like I’ve gone three rounds with young Mike Tyson. Body barely works, my mind in a haze, can’t eat anything, dehydrated as heck. Aw-ful. I slept a bit but mostly just sat on the couch in a daze. The wife did her Google magic and finds that I caught the Norovirus which is that nasty thing which wipes through all the people on cruise ships that we’ve read about on the news before. Joy! Said that I would be out of commission for 3-4 days easily.

Nope.

Can’t happen.

I’ve got two shoots on Monday and neither can be rescheduled as they are right on the publishers deadline. Argh.

So what happens? Monday morning I get up automatically at 6am as I always do, get a cuppa joe and go to work after not having eaten in essentially two days. I was maybe 70% functional. However I was only partially dead and that’s more that I need to get things done. Why? I’m a professional and people are relying on me. Not just to show up but to do my job as well as on my best day. No second chances, no excuses.

This “wisdom” was the first thing that I told to my new intern Chrissy when I picked her up Monday morning to assist me the first time. (Say “Hi” Chrissy, they are all looking at you …) I explained my weekend and said “… so this is the life. This is what it takes”. With that we were off and running. Ended up being a really fine day. The photos were good, the clients happy and all crises were avoided.  Moral of the story, Never Say Die! BTW Chrissy is a total champ so expect to hear more about her in future episodes.

Here is the ab-fab Chrissy and I standing in for our subject the owners of the Grimm Brothers Brewhouse shoot that we did. Amazing beer! (For new readers, she’s the cute one)

Chrissy at Grimm

Amber waves

It was the kind of phone call that only a few of us get excited about. It went something like this:

“We’d like to send you to Nebraska in the middle of winter to to photograph a farmer way the heck after harvest for a story about the harvest. We have no idea if anything his happening but we need the photos in three days and if possible enough coverage to put up a photo gallery on the web. Are you up for it?” A sane person would tell the person on the other end of the conversation to see their doctor about getting a stronger prescription for their anti-psychotic drugs. But a lunatic like myself said “Diggity! I’m on the way.”

Off I went to shoot a package for the Wall Street Journal about the historic event of China buying huge amounts of sorghum from US farmers, like Mike Baker the guy with the farm in Nebraska. This started in 2013 but got big in 2014 and the demand is increasing. So much so that farmers like Mike are now selling sorghum for more money than corn on the open market. That’s a big deal. Especially in Nebraska home of the “Corn Huskers”.

Well they were right: not much farming going on in January or as Mike calls is “the down season” where he usually spends quality time with the family and was about to go with them to Mexico for a week of scuba diving. Much nicer than the 5 degree weather we had that day on his wind swept farm out on the plains. But Mike is a great guy and I just hung out with him for the day as he was going to take a truck load of is sorghum to market in neighboring Kansas where he could get a few extra pennies a bushel.

This was a lot of fun. I’ve been going loads of portraits lately and not that much reportage so this was so refreshing. My new-ish setup is still two bodies but now with my trusty 24-70 on one body and my 50mm f/1.4 always set to wide open on the other. That’s really the way that I’m seeing things now: back to basics just me and the subject whenever possible. However when Mike headed into the silo I grabbed my well worn 17-35 for the shot of him peering out of the hatch and the shot of him inside the silo. The light in there reminded me of Edward Westons peppers series. The way that it subtly bounced around was pretty cool. The sorgum in my shoes, down my neck and all the irritating dust from that stuff was just horrible. My eyes and throat were raw for about two days afterwards. Oh well. You sacrifice for your art. Right?

WSJ-Sorghum 2

WSJ-Sorghum 23

WSJ-Sorghum 20

WSJ-Sorghum 21

WSJ-Sorghum 17

WSJ-Sorghum 16

WSJ-Sorghum 14

WSJ-Sorghum 12

It’s not illusion …

… it’s magic! Seriously. Ok to make sense of this it’s confession time: I am a multitasker in a major way. I have two monitors and the secondary one is where I put my tool bars and such when I’m editing photos or video so that I can have my bigger main monitor dedicated to my image workspace. However over on the second screen I often have the news, YouTube videos or when I find something cool a tutorial/webinar going on. I don’t need 100% of my brain working to edit photos, work on promos or send out invoices. Thus I use my ability to process multiple streams of information to my benefit/need for information. It works for me and it freaks my wife totally out that I can do this. She needs total silence when she writes.

I was listening to a webinar the other day from a highly successful commercial photographer and he kept saying two things that really stood out. 1) I’m not so much a photographer but an illusionist, and 2) sell the fake!. This is because like so much of commercial photography his work is based on composites rather than single “straight” images. Not that there is anything wrong with this practice; it’s just not what I do. Nor is there anything wrong with the photographer that I was listening to. He’s very good at what he does and is an inspiration to many. Heck, I have one of his books of portraits! More like what he does is the opposite of what I do.

I don’t want to fool people into believing that some amazing image is real that really isn’t. That’s why I don’t do fashion or glamour photography: I like imperfections in people as it’s what gives them character and frankly I dig character. What I want to do is show people amazing things that are totally real only they didn’t get a chance to see it until I revealed it to them. No slight of hand, no mirrors. Just letting them see the magic that is hidden in the mundane.

The other day I was out with my friend Dan the architecture shooter and I grabbed this frame:

Stairs

I showed it to him and he said “Wow! Where did you find that?” I pointed to the staircase that we were standing next to. I loved that he sees buildings and space with his wide angle “all seeing eye” perspective and I do the same but with my pseudo-macro funky details view.  That’s my job: give perspective to the dazzling but hidden things that surrounds us. That is, to me, an more interesting trick than to make up something and convince people that’s its real.

At the edges; an afternoon moment

Twist

I was someplace waiting for something to happen. Typical story so far. The other typical aspect was that the time that I was told to be there was wrong by about 45 minutes. I was so early that there was seriously nothing going on. So I did what I always do: go looking for photos – ones that I see and want and the client most likely has absolutely no use for.

After wandering about for a while I looked down and there this was this dappling of light through the trees that made a kiss of light on this girls arms and the tie at the back of her top. Dunno about you but it feels like a summer evening to me. Two frames and done.

It is often a good idea to as we say “Arrive early and leave late” because so many things happen at the edges of both events and also light. This one happened at both edges simultaneously.

I wish I was paid more often to make photos like this one: it’s so much more interesting and satisfying than just about anything else that I do.

Allison, or the moments between

While on assignment to do portraits of a business student at the University of Northern Colorado who was part of a program focusing on the ethics of business practices I had an interesting situation: an subject that expressed two very different attitudes seamlessly. Wha? Ok here’s what I mean. Allison is a very nice young lady who is quite smart and has an almost effervescent energy. She laughs easily, is very comfortable with herself and when she is talking her face lights up into the kind of smile that makes you think that she is having the most wonderful time. An easily likeable and engaging person. And yet when she wasn’t talking she had this gentle and slightly fragile demeanor. It was as if a switch would flip: laughing bubbly chatty and the (click!) quiet and reserved but with an intensity in her eyes. It’s was very interesting how this worked. I shot her in her “normal” happy energy mode but occasionally she’d flip that switch turn into that smart but shy girl. True to my nature I shot both of the ladies as/when they presented themselves. I feel that if something interesting is in front of your lens it’s your responsibility to capture that moment. I mean, that’s my job right?

Side note: as always I bring a bunch of lighting equipment for any portrait assignment but in this case I didn’t use any of it. We had amazingly soft and warm light bouncing about the buildings on the CSU campus which was more interesting and flattering than just about anything that I would have come up with. I ended up using the graphics that the buildings offered as a backdrop for the portraits and really liked how when paired with my Nikon AF-G 50mm f/1.4 wide open her shirt and the dappling of the wall behind her blended nicely.

So here is my fave frame from our time together:

Allison

Canned spontaneity

Basically when you get an assignment you are given one of two situations. Either are given a sort of carte blanche, go make interesting photos, or you are given a specific layout that you need to work within. Sometimes you get both with the exciting but dreaded words, “cover story”.

Most of the time I am in what I call “wind me up and let me go” mode whereby I am left to my artistic methods to visually discover my subject.  I love these because I can just be a curious kid in total wonder of the things that I discover and show how that experience effected me.

But sometimes you are trying to find that which not only is visually interesting but fits into the design that an editor or art director decided upon most likely without having met the subject or seen where the photos are to be made. These can be tough on a number of levels. First is to try and find something that even remotely looks like the page layout demand. This is often crushingly difficult. The next, and maybe in some ways is tougher, is to find a way to make something interesting happen within that limited layout. Especially when photographing a regular person who is not used to being photographed and as a result is feeling very out of their element and not used to getting direction from a photographer. Making organic moments in these situations is tough.

A little while ago I got an assignment from the Alumni magazine at Colorado State University to photograph a set of their noted past students. All-righty, good enough. Oh then there’s the kicker: they all have to be not only vertical, ok …. , and have plenty of negative space on either side of the subject so that we can lay the text of their story over that. Ugh! Wha? On location no less? Man, you guys must really trust me or somethin’.

This is the kind of situation where the easiest and maybe best way to do this is to get a room and turn it into a studio with a nice seamless/muslin backdrop. Clean and direct. But seeing that I was going to be shooting four of these for the same issue I couldn’t shoot them all on the same kind of background. I had to mix It up. So I did what any insane photographer would do: try to shoot something environmental and if that fails bring out the seamless as a fall back position.

So I head to my subjects office to find that it’s, well an office.  Not too badly designed but not much more than a cube farm. Her office is tiny too which is a shame for upper management with 20 years experience. BUT! The entry way is cool.

I’m often telling people that there is usually something interesting in their normal space that they walk by every day and never realize it’s neat-o factor. That’s my job: find the neat-o. So I set up my lights all based on three factors: 1) I’m using the edge of the wide entryway to frame the left side of her and need to have the panel on the far wall on the right do the same. She is placed in the middle of those two elements. 2) The glass wall of the conference room that is behind her is frosted so I placed a strobe with a blue gel on it will match the blue outfit she’s wearing. 3) I had little depth to work with because she is standing in a hallway. Therefor I had to light her in a way that didn’t spill over onto the glass or elements that are framing her. That meant grids. I put my new favorite light modifier a 30” octabank with a 40 degree grid on it at camera right to act as a main light and put a 7” reflector with a 20 degree grid on it down the hall a bit at camera left to give her some subtle edge definition. Technicals worked out, the rest was all about making her look interesting.

Since the composition is critical I locked my camera down on the tripod and using a cable release triggered the shutter. This enabled me to easily engage her in conversation without worrying about any wonkiness in the design. As much as I like to be able to move and react to my subject and the changing environment this was a situation where it was all about connecting with her within the visual context of the multitude of frames that I had set up.

When I do portraits I try to use our conversation to subtly guide my subject through a range of mental and emotional states so that I can get a set of different expressions and feelings from them in a short amount of time.  You have to hope for and prepare for the unexpected for when that happens you gotta get it. In this case I asked her how having such an impact on her clients world feels and she spontaneously did this which is my favorite frame of our session.

Accenture

Why? … Science!

The other day I heard that an artist’s style is what you do all the time as well as what you don’t do often. These are usually the product of how you learned your craft; often due to the slavish following of a teacher/schools method or ones singular devotion to and the intentional imitation of an artistic idol. Some develop style intentionally and others stumble upon it. In my case it’s a product of some influences that you might guess and others not.

For instance I realized that my largest influence upon what I choose to photograph and how isn’t related to any artist in existence. It is not because of a teacher since I didn’t have one. It’s because of the fact that I never planned on becoming a photographer or any other sort of professional artist. Nope. I was going to be a scientist. First going into physics, then bio chemistry then eventually going to have a psychology major and a philosophy minor before realizing that I was going to make my living doing something that didn’t require a college degree to give me the gateway to my career.

Ya see, an artist is largely interested in their personal experience. How something makes them feel or think. It motivates them to communicate things through their media that are highly personal in a very public way. Each work that an artist does is saying “This is important to me. Pay attention!”

A scientist is largely interested in the word that is outside themselves and often in a world that is beyond what they could personally define as experience-able. The extremely small word within cells, the vastness of space, the hidden workings of the universe, that sort of stuff. Scientists want to know why and how. They devote their lives to making sense of things that didn’t make sense before. They say “This is real and I can prove it”.

They are both after truth: one is their subjective truth and the other an objective truth. So as a result I often am asking myself “why is it that way?” before I ask “how is it that way for someone?”. Not that I’m a an overly logical dude.

My wife once told me that I am the blend of the Star Trek characters Worf, the passionate Klingon, and Data, the inquisitive android. That really thrilled me. As Lyle Lovett’s song says “Nobody knows me … like my baby …”

Back on point: I tend to start projects with my logical self and then tell that human calculator to go take a hike and I then let my inner six year old run loose. I often tell people that when I’m making photos that I try not to think that the brain gets in the way. And it does. When I don’t need it. But when I do need that brain he’s there to figure it all out and then go away so that my kid can continue to wander around giddy at how neat-o the world is.

When I was on assignment to do images for a story about a company that does super rigorous testing of electronics and was shown their room that is a total RF-proof cage to test radio antennas. My scientist brain was fascinated by the idea of it. But what to do? It was just a big white room with all these radio wave absorbing tiles. Then it hit me: radio waves are ripples of energy and that means that they are a form of pattern wherein the subtle changes in the pattern produces the signal that we can use to transmit information. “Hey kid … patterns!”

And thus:

ECM

Still life with right angles

As I’ve said before: I try to not imitate any artist that I know of. Ok I in the past I have occasionally tried to summon some mojo from the gods, so to speak, but in the end it is always my voice that comes out of me. But I do admit that I am drawn to certain things that reminds me of other artists work for often unconscious reasons and the results are unexpected. When I first noticed these things it was not: “Hey look! I went an copied the style of Paul Strand!” It was much more of a “What the heck did I do there? Huh, that’s got a bit of Gene Richards going on. Wow. Cool. How did that happen?”

Mond

Now it’s a matter of saying “Aw check it! I went all Mondrian on that shot.” BTW I love how Mondrian divided space. Hate the rules behind it but love the outcome. Wow, that’s totally me in eight words.

Stranger than fiction

Two things came up lately that has prompted me to make this confession. First off I came across an interesting opinion piece on PetaPixel where the photog who wrote it talks about how heavily modern commercial and PR photography relies on digital image manipulation. I won’t call it “retouching” as reconstruction is more like it. The reliance is so great that in many ways the industry depends as much or more on PhotoShop than the photographers who supply the base images for the manipulation.

We know what we are talking about: composites where the final image is made up of 30+ separate shots, bodies of famous people being reshaped, skin being rendered into that which resembles a rubber mask devoid of texture … all that rot. Images that look impossible because they are. They are fantasy. Illusions. Somebodies preconceived notion of what things, and people!, are supposed to look like.

As a result we have a populace who feels inadequate with their appearance, “I must be ugly. Look at how perfect her skin is in that ad!”. They feel like failures because their lives are pale and hollow in comparison to the dream like worlds that their favorite celebrity seems to live in. They believe what they are shown even though what they see is a lie being told in the name of commerce.

The second is that I made a new friend the other day who is a professor of political science at UC Davis who’s research focuses on the media and how what it does effects our society: policy and discourse. We got to talking about her work and the reality that people are misinformed constantly by the media. Not that it’s a huge conspiracy, it’s just the way it works. That and the fact that the media is owned largely by only 6 or so companies so there is very much a unity of voice in the news world.

Since the bulk of the media is based on things other than factual “news” reporting, things like (fashion, sports, entertainment) most people form their opinions about what is important from as much commercial/advertising imagery as they do from supposedly unbiased reporting because they consume so much of it all. Yet when you look at how when one bit of misinformation gets through the news fact checking filter it becomes very hard to remove it from people’s minds. Fact becomes fiction. Moon landing anyone?

When you add it all together it’s amazing that anyone knows which way is up anymore. Maybe we don’t.

I try. It may be futile but I’m going to give it my best go and always. I was thinking about all this and it hit me that I am a visual non-fiction storyteller. I don’t retouch. The clone tool is to remove dust spots not blemishes. I don’t/won’t try to create imaginary worlds for my subjects to be superimposed upon. Every image that I show in my folio and to my clients is a real moment. No fakery. No “I’m so clever” going on here. If I were to do so it would, to me, mean that I am more important than my subjects. Than I can create reality better, whatever that means!, than the most splendid thing that actually exists. Mostly though, if I am a fiction photographer, what purpose do I serve? What is the intent of my work other than to make money and aggrandize myself?

No, that wouldn’t do. Let me instead elevate the common. To show the strength, nobility and decency that lies not just within us but around us as it quietly goes about its humble work. Yes, let’s do that. I promise to show you the truth as I see it in all its imperfect glory.

Loving

P.S. For those of you in the fiction creation world: no offense intended. I’m pretty sure that you live at a pay scale that guys like me will never touch. Must be nice. But my heart just can’t let me live happily on those terms.

 

The birth of an idea

I don’t try to think too much about my work. By that I don’t mean that I don’t care, far from it. Rather I try to not spend too much time in my head. I want a gut feeling. An organic, spontaneous, “where did THAT come from!?”  I used to think too much and that would stifle my ability to be creative. Learning to not think is hard but it helped me be receptive to the quiet inner voice of almost crazy from where interesting things come.

I do find though that once an idea presents itself I need some kind of framework to put it in for it to finally have it make sense so that I can flesh it out. A working title often is my method to do this. Even if this notion has little to do with the way that people will relate to the final image or project that’s ok because I get the depth of understanding that I need.

Case in point: my story about the wresting team. It started out as a simple profile that I wanted to do about a wrestling coach and how he relates to his team in such a different way than just about any other kind of sport. I did the interview with the coach before the photos and that ended up being critical. During the interview the coach mentioned that he was the new coach but he wanted “to create a dynasty” with the team. That’s when I realized that it wasn’t a team in a sports sense but a team in the warrior sense. So I knew that I was going to have to shoot the project in B&W and to show them as a finely honed elite military squad who relied on each other for survival. It turned out that I was right about that in more ways than I would have expected when I started the project. A simple profile turned into a 12 week and 5 part multimedia project.

I’ve been doing a portrait series of chefs that I respect and that project came from the idea that I was going to shoot them on my YashicaMat twin lens medium format camera with one light. Nunno why but it just came to me. I wanted to be limited by the fixed lens, the slowishness of film and all that was a great creative push from being able to use loads of lights at levels of sensitivity from the digital capture world that is just not possible with film. Oh and I’d only give myself a single roll of 12 frames to get what I need. Just to make it harder on me. Why not?

Then a bit ago I realized that I want to do a series that shows my respect for and love of craft brewers. But I didn’t have any notion of how I was going to show them. As a homebrewer and occasional competition beer judge I am intimately familiar with the craft.  One of the reasons I so respect what the masters of the brew craft can do is that making sublime beer is very very hard to do. That knowledge was a help but only to a degree. That is all “thought” stuff. I didn’t have a feel. A way to emotionally support what my brain will eventually have to turn into imagery.

Thus I did what I often do when there is neither client nor deadline: nothing. Just let something come to me. If I have nobody to satisfy but myself I can afford to take my time. But lo and behold over the last month I got a number of assignments to photograph a number of breweries and brewers. Lucky me I got to photograph Adam Glazer the head brewer of Fort Collins Brewing. I happen to personally know Adam from his days not very long ago when he was just a guy who was winning a lot of awards for his homebrew. Now he’s pro and doing quite well thank you.

Where was I? Right what to do with the brewer portraits! So I was making photos of Adam for a story about water quality, since beer is mostly water it’s quality is critical. While we were up on the scaffolding where he was overseeing a brew in action in the kettle I decided to get a shot from where I wasn’t. I just stuck my camera out at arms length and fired a few frames while he was looking at the young beer boiling away.

Here is the full frame, no cropping.

Adam

I realized when I got back to process my images that that one was the winner. Not for the client but for me. And it had to be B&W as the subtle colors in the scene didn’t bring anything to the shot. The mood is there, all the steel and light and steam. It hit me: while I’m trying to show the chefs as artists of edible performance the brewers are alchemists working with big machines to transform 4 simple ingredients into a myriad of liquid experience.

So now I know how to proceed with this project thanks to Adam, a properly framed instinctive shot and the environment that he was in to make me see past myself and what I know so that I can visualize a feeling.

So you think you can shoot?

I bet you can. In a way. Sort of. Maybe. Uh, …

Let’s first define our terms. In the modern era wherein everyone has an image making device loads of people are off making tons of happy snaps. Some are actually pretty good. Most is what you’d expect from a total amateur who is point and shooting: boring representations of objects. And a good lot of it is down right rubbish where the most insipid subject-visual approach combo is supposedly brought to the height of glory by processing the jeebus out of it with a “push here for ART!” button. Ugh.

Ok we’ve established that you can make “photos” but can you really shoot? No processing gimmicks. No easy subjects like your wacky family or hipster/cool friends who easily do neat things on command. No cats either, major apologies to my wife – a hard core cat person. What I mean is: can you with a straight, un processed image make interesting images from quiet/boring/hard to approach subjects in compromising conditions? Really? Let’s see …

Go to a city council meeting and make interesting images of the guys behind the desks. They don’t do much do they? Awful lighting isn’t it? Dreadful background too. Don’t ‘cha wish you could have better angles to work? Yep.

Better yet shoot one dude at a podium talking about, I dunno, economic forecasts. That’s some excitement. Bet he’s lit from either a single ceiling light that is right over his balding head and renders his face into a ghoulish, eyeless lump. Since he’s the only guy talking, every time you trip your shutter it sounds like a shotgun going off in the room. She-ZAM! I didn’t think my camera was THAT loud?!?! Makes you rather self-conscious don’t it?

But still, given all that photographic horror, can you make an interesting image with that to work with? Yes? No? Maybe? Go find out. Seriously. I don’t care what your usual subject matter is; try it. Makes you work pretty hard. Find something graphic, some moment, something that makes you want to look at the image.

Case in point: Last night I was on assignment to photograph the famed author Salman Rushdie giving one of his lectures about all the things that are important to him: literature, politics and philosophy, to people at the University Of Colorado. He’s an eloquent speaker and very smart guy. Interesting to listen to. Not much to watch. He’s very reserved physically with a quiet voice and dry sense of humor. He kinda just stands there. Oh and I only had five minutes to get what I needed before I was escorted out of the building. No pressure!

I got the shots that I needed. The ones where he looks scholarly and slightly intense – gesticulating in speech. No prob. That’s a matter of spending time to learn his approach to public speaking, while shooting him of course!, and like a good sports photog pre/re acting to his subtlest movements to get some sort of gesture that elevates the composition.

This one is my fave for two reasons, 1) it’s a little odd which as you might have learned about me so far – I like, and 2) it’s a mirror image of what many would wish that he would do: gag himself. This is when knowledge of the subject comes to play wherein I know about the price on his head in the radical Islamic world because of his book The Satanic Verses.  Simply put, they wish that he’s shut up. In the case of this frame it’s the wonderful illusion that photography can produce when a moment is captured and the mind is allowed to fill in the blanks. To me it looks like he’s covering his mouth in front of the microphone but he’s actually just nervously wiping his beard. Still, it’s funky and different.

Rushdie

So go where there is a guy yapping at a podium and try to make something interesting in only five minutes.  Ya think you can shoot?

95,000 behind, what’s ahead?

I got a call the other day from someone who after seeing what I shot and how it ran in the publication that I was on assignment for the company wanted to purchase my images for their company’s new marketing campaign. Sweet! I love calls like that. So I go to my archive and pull the images.

And that got me thinking, “I wonder how many images I shot last year?” So I did a search in my archive and found that I made just a smidge over 95,000 images in 2012. I kinda fell out of my comfy chair with that number. I knew that I’ve been busy but she-Zam! For us old fellers that equates to something like 2650 roll of that film stuff you hear about in history class. The funny thing is that despite how busy I’ve been I don’t shoot as much as I used to with some things. Continue Reading →

What’s old is new -ish

As I’ve been doing more and more video work with my dandy, nay amazing, Nikon D800 I’ve been finding that being an old timer is actually quite a benefit. That’s because I know how to manually focus a lens. Wha? Yeah! No kiddin. I fully admit that I use AF alot as, well, it works. I learned a number of years ago that especially in a sports type situation that ever since the Nikon F5 and N90s came out that the technology was besting our hand/eye coordination. I at that time would have no issue with flipping on the “auto-frikas”, as I call it, and often marvel at how in focus my pictures would be. Up till that time one of the things that truly defined a professional was focusing ability. It was a hard earned skill believe me.

I remember when I got my first 300mm f/2.8 lens. I sat by the side of the road and would spend hours focusing on the cars that drove past me cursing like a drunken sailor trying to keep the license plates in focus. It is SO hard to do. But if I was going to use that thing for sports and I couldn’t keep a wide receiver in focus why bother even having that big chunk of glass if I didn’t have sharp photos let alone the important diving catch into the endzone that won the game? Practice, practice … ugh!

Well when the F5 and EOS-1 came about the era of having to endlessly practice your focus with long lenses went out the door. The technology make it not only easy but standard place. From that time on it was not considered to be a crutch but normal to use autofocus. As a result so many photographers simply use AF constantly: no need to spin that little ring on the lens at all. Well, almost …

Ya see, the autofocus on DSLR’s in video mode is even worse than the first AF SLR cameras of the early 1980’s. So much so that you have essentially no choice but to manually focus. Here’s where being a dude from the film era is another benefit: I can focus that lens pretty well, thanks. The problem is that many AF lenses aren’t really set up for manual focus. The feel of the ring or even it’s design/placement is more of an afterthought to the manufacturer because, well, it’s an AUTO focus lens.

So I went shopping. Or as I say to my wife “Bless me for I have E-Bay-ed”. I got some dandy old Nikon AI-S lenses: a 28mm f/2.8, a 50mm f/2.0,  and the tiny 85mm f/2.0 the youngest of which, the 28mm was built in August of 1981. They are all in pristine condition, are super sharp and focus like butter. When put on my D800 and new steadycam rig it makes for an easy to move, focus and shoot rig for much of my video needs. Considering how tiny they all are, 52mm filter, they are also great for general work especially if I have to,  say, hike two miles to get to my photo destination. I’m calling them “The Three Amigos”. Yep, I’m a silly person.

Old and new

That not a studio … that’s a closet!

I got a call from the editor of the varsity magazine for the University of Nebraska. It was the kind of assignment that sounds wicked cool: “Need photos of a hall of fame football player Dale Klein who is now an aerospace engineer who works on rockets and satellites”. After chatting with Dale I got pretty hyped as he told me about the huge mockups of rockets in their building that would be great backdrops and props for the portraits. Visions of all sorts of neat-o images were dancing in my head as I drove to the campus where Dale works. However that pesky little voice, like the Roman auriga – the guy who drive big wig generals and such around, was whispering in my ear reminding me that “you are only human”. Meaning … wait for it hot shot, don’t get excited yet.

Sho-nuff, when I get there we find that due to the high security of the goings on there I am allowed to photograph Dale in a conference room about the size of a large bathroom. What? No towering rockets and big engines and all that? Oh … kay … now what?

Improvise! It really helped that Dale is a super nice dude who was good enough to bring a bunch of memorabilia from his glory days. Props really help liven up a dead shoot ya know!

Thus, given a tiny room that is mostly taken up by a big table and chairs and limited time I went to work. I immediately came up with three set ups that I could quickly set up that were essentially next to each other which is critical as I could barely fit Dale, myself and my lights into the small space that I had to work with. You see, setting up, testing, shooting, tearing down and repeating the process three times eats up a lot of the clock. Being efficient is critical if only because you can’t only keep your subjects energy up and focused for so long.

Hail Varsity 1

Hail Varsity 2

Hail Varsity 3

Then at the last minute I got an idea. I begged for three more minutes of Dale’s time, grabbed the jersey that I had taped to his jacket, gotta have lots of gaff tape on location folks!, and draped it between two stands to give me a red frame for him. This is my fave of the day.

Hail Varsity

As the end of our session, my brain hurt, my editor was thrilled and I felt that I once again pulled a hat out of a rabbit. Never say die. There is always a solution, you just have to work hard.

It’s business and it’s personal

I look at a lot of photos every day that aren’t mine. I believe that it’s my job to be aware of what is going on in the world in general and the world of photography specifically. This gives me inspiration, ideas for stories and occasionally I learn something that I can apply to my own work or business to move me ahead. Let me tell you that if you are a fellow photographer and are doing interesting work in the fields of photo-j or editorial then there is a good chance that I watch your work either in it’s published form or, even more likely, through your blog or a forum such a APAD. I look at the images, read what you are saying about your work and yes I read your EXIF data, it’s just what I do.

One of the things that I find interesting is how often the work that some photographers show as their official portfolio is not the same as their so called “personal work”. In some cases the images that are on the blog or shown to their fellow photogs is radically different than what they show to the people who might hire them. They may get hired to do colorful and snappily lit photos of dudes in suits but they spend their weekends working on a long term, and essentially unpublishable, project on flea markets that is shot with a leaky Holga. Why the dichotomy?

I don’t get it.

A few times I have shown my work to potential clients and one of two questions have come up: 1) how much of this is published/commissioned work?, or 2) what are your personal projects?

My response to the first has always been that my folio comprises of images that I’ve made for a client. This is because I want to show what a client can honestly expect me to be able to do for them in the context of the limited time, access and such that a professional commission would provide. I don’t think that it’s honest to show an editor a bunch of photos that you did when you took your time, called in favors, shot and re-shot till you got it right under the most perfect conditions. That doesn’t tell the client what you bring back in a real world situation but what you can do when everything goes perfectly. Then if you get a commission and your subject is cranky, the location is boring and the lighting is dreadful the client will wonder why the resulting images aren’t as spectacular as the ones in your folio. Oops!

As for the second question I reply that to me every assignment is personal work. I throw myself into the assignment with all that I have given the constraints of the time, access and money allotted to the project. Why wouldn’t I? Also I believe that if I have and idea for a project that is good enough for me to pursue as a photographer then I should try and sell the idea to a publication/client and make the effort more than just an exercise. Thus many things that eventually show up in my folio or promotional work may have started as, “I’d like to make pictures of …” and ended up as “I’d like you to pay me to make pictures of …”

Therefor in my work what you see is what you will get. My self generated work has the same look and feel as what I get paid to do because I’m the same guy in both situations.

Here is a shot that I did for a German magazine to cover the rebuilding of Aurora Colorado in the aftermath of the movie theater shooting that killed 12. This took place at the apartment building across the street from where the gunman lived. There is nothing about this shot that is really any different from how I see things when I’m not being paid. Just because I’m a Gemini should I have a split visual personality?

Aurora

 

Giving thanks: the girl on the merry-go-round

I had an interesting memory tonight and it goes like this. I
don’t know her name and I don’t really remember what she looked like but I
strongly remember what she means to me: the first and very lasting application
of psychology to my photographic work. Up until the point that I met her, I’ll
call her Claire, I was a total landscape/fine arty photographer who never really
tried to photograph people. I was awkward and shy.  Regardless, I was given the assignment by my
intro to Photo-J teacher to go and photograph a stranger; which was a
horrifying thought for me at the time.

I timidly walked about the neighborhood with my camera for looking
for someone that I had the guts to approach. For reasons that I can’t totally
remember there was this girl about my age on the merry-go-round that noticed my
camera and basically told me to come over and make photos of her. Well that
certainly got rid of my need to ask for permission, right?  So off I go and she is totally hamming it up
and mugging for my camera in the worst way.

For some reason this wasn’t what I wanted and I was kinda
bothered by her enthusiastic but un-honest presentation of herself. However I
had the idea that she would keep being a fool for me for only so long and then
she’d tire of all the stupid posing and would eventually present a real moment for
me. It was a waiting game. The problem was that I only had two rolls of film in
my pocket and she had a seemingly endless supply of silly faces and deranged
poses.

The real game began. What I did was to take a roll of film
and put it in the camera but not load it. I would point the camera, wind the shutter
and snap away. After a while I’d open the back, remove the roll of un exposed
film and then put the same roll back in only to do the same thing: make
pointing and clicking movements without actually exposing the precious film
that I had.

After about maybe fifteen minutes of this mutual silliness
she did what I thought: get the pretense out of her system and I began to
actually expose the photographs that I really wanted to make.

I’m pretty sure that my photos from that day, by my current
standards, were horrible but I listened to my inner voice which told me to
humor the subject and wait for the legitimate moment – the honest moment rather
that what the subject thought that I expected.

I still do this kind of thing: take photos that are destined
for the great delete bin in the sky because I don’t want my subject to know
which moments during our brief time together are the ones that I truly value. I
will click and click away knowing that much of what I am shooting is total
crap. But between the crap images are ones that I like and the ruse that I
employ makes much of the good stuff happen.

So Claire, if that’s your name, thanks for helping me  learn that even clowns have real tender
personal moments when they finally get out of character, let their guard down
and become humans again. It is the job of I, the photographer, not to take the
images that you want or expect but to wait and be ready for when your silly
mask comes off and the person briefly emerges. That is worth all the effort.

New rule: the “Oh SH!T” lens

I had a seriously “where have you been all my life!?” moment
a while ago and it goes like this: When I go to shoot a sporting event the lens
of choice is usually my trusty Nikon AF-S 400mm f/2.8 which often gets a Nikon
TC14BII converter added for the extra reach that you need when you really can’t
get close enough to the action. If any of you have shot football, soccer,
baseball and whatnot you know the drill. You can pretty much head out the door
with just a body and that huge lens and be covered because anything shorter isn’t
of much use. As much as I love shooting with a normal or wide lens it’s
essentially pointless except for artistic scenic renditions of a neato stadium
if you get, say, spectacular late afternoon light. Sports is a long lens world.
Not exclusively but largely.

Except for that .5% of the action when it spontaneously happens
in your lap. The seasoned football shooters that I knew when I got my start
called it the “Oh shit” lens because when that running back heads down the
sideline and the defender does a leaping with arms spread wide tackle upon him
it almost always happens about fifteen feet from you where your big lens is
useless. That’s why the shooters in the know carry a second body around their
neck with a 70-200, or maybe even wider, just in case something cool happens
that isn’t “way out there”.  It’s a very
useful camera/lens combo to have when you need it but I swear I can’t recall
home many games that I’ve had my second body and lens digging into my neck and
never pushed the button on it because not one thing happened on the field where
the “oh shit” was needed. But when it is BOY HOWDY! Is it cool. Thus I’ve done
this for years …

..but never in a studio setting. Why? The beauty of the
studio is that you have control. Or do we? I rarely shoot in a pure studio,
almost always on location, but when you are doing a portrait session you as the
photographer are specifically taking things into hand. You pick the location,
the angles, the lighting, where the subject is going to be and to a large
extent what the subject is going to do and you pick your gear for what you want
to get out of your time there. But what happens if while you are say fiddling
with your lights or whatever the subject does something unexpected and
interesting? Do you have a camera with you? No? It’s on the tripod over there
preset for your “perfect” composition? Then you missed that cool shot didn’t
you huh? Now you feel totally unprepared and if you are like me kinda silly for
missing what may have been the single most interesting shot of the day because
it was so spontaneous.

So what I’m now trying to always do is bring two cameras to
a portrait session and keep a body with a 50mm lens or so around my neck for
those “oh shit that’s cool!” moments. For me those are always the keepers.

Here are some favorite outtakes using this approach.

_DSC6079

Dan

DEVELOPINTELLIGENCE Margarette

MouCo

And yes I do believe that if you do something interesting, read as silly, in front of me I’m darned tootin’ going to shoot it.

Shifting gears

I was halfway through a superb BLT sandwich for lunch today when
I had the following thought “Why haven’t cameras taken on the same approach as
cars”. Ok I can see that this makes no sense so I’ll rewind a bit. The wife and
I were having lunch and watching an old episode of Top Gear, the British “real”
version, and they were trying to find the first car that drove and felt like a
proper car and not some working proto-car. They decided that the Austin 7 was
the mold that all other cars followed because it’s control layout made sense
and didn’t require three arms and a leg to operate.

The blokes on Top Gear came to the conclusion that in the
development of the automobile all cars up to the Cadillac Type 53 in 1916 were
experiments in mechanics and what we would now call user interface: how you
physically operate and control the device. The Austin 7, which came about in
1922, took what the Type 53 had right: the now familiar pedal layout, electric
starter, steering column mounted controls … and put it all together in a
package that was 1/4th the price of the Caddy and with that licensed
the Austin 7 to numerous other car manufacturers around the world. The pattern
was established and since then, 90 years now, we have been quietly grateful for
not having to be genius gymnasts in order to drive a car: everything is right where
it needs to be.

Why haven’t the camera companies done this? Every time a new
camera hits the streets the controls are different in some way from even the
model that it replaced. You have to relearn your basic tool every time. Worse
you get used to the old camera and have to fumble your way through the new and
improved one for maybe a few months just so that it becomes second nature. I
got in the habit of toting around the owner’s manual because until I had
accessed every necessary function two dozen times there was always going to be
a “Huh?!” moment on a shoot where my expensive professional tool was turned
into a near useless doorstop. Out comes the manual; flip-flip-flip, Oh! Push
this button while rotating the sub-control wheel, scroll down to this menu and
change the mode to …. GOTCHA!

That gets boring, if not frustrating, real quick. The
computerization of our cameras has been a boon in terms of our ability to have
minute control over our tools but it’s made much of this flexibility and power
needlessly difficult to access if not harness. We just get more buttons, more
functions, more menus and more ability but most of us really only need to
access about ten controls to use our cameras, focus, ISO, aperture, shutter
speed, shutter button, playback, delete, protect, flash compensation and white
balance. The rest seems like it’s thrown in to impress the non-professionals who,
let’s face it, way out number us pros but buy enough gear to keep the price
down so that we can afford it.

I ended up stumbling in to this mode of thought with two
different photographers just last week. One is a journalist who was bemoaning
how his spiffy new D4 has control layouts that are just different enough from
the D3’s that he used for years that he has to stop and think, always a bad
thing, on a shoot so that he can access this function or that. The other is my
buddy Dan the Architectural dude who has been loving his wicked D800 for about
a month but mentioned that it’s so much more complicated, kinda his words, that
he can’t find that sweet function when he needs it. Out comes the manual which
is awful when the client is standing next to ya while you look like a total
tyro. Worse, he is setting up a shot and the camera starts doing something that
he didn’t intend, like bring up the Virtual Horizon, and then ya can’t get it
to stop. Argh!

The easy way would be to just shoot a Leica as they haven’t
changed the button location since the invention of radio. Ok not really. They
had to put a screen and buttons on the back with the digital M series but
everything else is just like it was in 1958.

This is why I use cameras that all are the same model and as
a result have the same physical layout. When I first went pro my bodies of
choice were the Nikon N90s and I eventually had three of them. First one, then
two so that I could run the standard wide lens/long lens two body combo that
newsies need to have. But when one of my bodies broke and I had to borrow a
friends F4s for a shoot I was flummoxed. I knew the F4 well but it was
impossible to seamlessly go from one body to the other while covering news and
not have to constantly remind myself where the shutter dial was. That’s when I
got the third body: a shelf sitting backup.

To me, your tools need to be not an extension of your hands but rather an extension of your mind. Just as you practice a myriad of concepts to turn them into useful techniques you practice working with your tools be that a hammer or a paintbrush. When the tool changes that well formed system of muscle memory is fouled and your creative/reative abilitly will be to some degree lessened untl you have reproduced that prior level of mind/body/tool integration. Although I love getting usefull new tools I loathe having to slow down and practice using them so as to truly make them usefull.

As of tomorrow things are going to get more complicated
as I will take possession of a new Nikon D800 body. Not to replace my D700’s;
they are and will be for some time my work horses. But for commercial work and
HDSLR video. Luckily the control layout isn’t that different than what I’ve
been used to for four years. But there will be differences and I will have to
deal with that. Sigh!

WhenI become Emperor, I will gather all the genius industrial designers and kinesiologists
and figure out how to design stuff with the least amount of  buttons and menus necessary and then make that
stick. Yeah, like that will happen …

 

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