Like you are there

Lately I’ve read a lot of articles and videos talking about lenses in the context of “interesting” and “boring”. I noticed that all of the lenses in the “interesting/beautiful” category were either very wide/very long or very wide aperture, i.e. F/1.4 or wider. Ok, I get it. Lenses like that create a perspective that is different than what we see with our eyes and as a result produce a perspective that unto itself gets notice either through the separation of the subject from the environment or the huge inclusion thereof. However to me many people use lenses like those more as an effect than as a way to better tell the story.

I’m sure that you know what I’m talking about. The huge sweeping vista shot with a 17mm super wide to show the expanse of something but unfortunately doesn’t have a composition that leads your eye through the frame to anything other than the thought of “wow, that’s a big space with a lot of stuff in it”. On the other end is the super shallow depth of field image usually shot close up with an F/1.4 or so lens. Now I dig this sort of thing when it’s done well but I usually just think “Yeah, she has lovely eye lashes but she’d be prettier if her ears weren’t just fuzzy blobs.” Yes using a shallow depth of field can make your eye go straight to that one thing in focus and hold you there but making it an interesting composition is tricky. It can often just be a lazy way of not making a completely boring shot not that boring but little else. Sigh!

Another thing that I noticed about these articles/videos is their almost universal disdain for middle range zoom lenses. The F/2.8 24-70mm was treated like something that you would scrape off your shoe. Boring. Uninteresting. Mundane. Lacks magic. I would never use this lens. Blah, blah. But I got insulted. “Hey, that’s my jam that you are dissing! What the heck?” Well, not really but it does make for added drama in the post, right?

I think that I do about 90% of my work with my F/2.8 24-70mm zoom. Why? Well a number of reasons. First off, that range of focal lengths doesn’t have an obvious “look”. It’s not that wide and it’s not very long. I think of it as, “This is how the world looks standing here with both eyes open or … with just one eye open”. There isn’t a dramatic perspective but rather a realistic one. That’s what I go for. I want the viewer of my images to feel like they are standing there with out effects.

If the first thing that I notice about an image is how it’s shot: the lens, the processing, and not the moment and content then frankly I’m not gonna easily be impressed. If the first thing I notice is the great composition, the lighting, the moment … you know, the content of the art, and then afterwards realize how it was shot then I wanna buy that photog a beer. Great job dude/dude-ette!

The other main reason that I use a 24-70 a whole lot is that I photograph people in non-studio/controlled environments. I have to be at a conversational distance of 3-5 feet and anything wider or longer than that range just isn’t necessary. Don’t get me wrong. I do sometimes grab my trusty 17-35mm or my 70-200 and that does the trick. I always have my 50mm F/1.4 in my bag and that is pretty cool at times. But they are usually reserved for “problem solving” roles.

So the photo to go with this bit of babbling was shot a long time ago at the Colorado State Republican election “victory party” when the results where’s exactly going their way. It was made with my favorite lens, my old Nikon AF-D 28mm F/1.4 shot wide open. I just love the way that it looks by having a wide look at things but not having the normal “everything is in focus” feel that wide lenses bring. (Wait, you just went on and on about …)

Mise en place

Mise en place (French pronunciation: ​[mi zɑ̃ ˈplas]) is a French culinary phrase which means “putting in place” or “everything in its place.”

There was a discussion over at The Online Photographer where they were talking about their difficulty of losing memory cards. This baffles me how anyone who takes their photography seriously would be so sloppy with things like the management of their memory cards. No offense intended but it makes me wonder how people work/live without having put much thought into how they want to regularly accomplish repetitive and important tasks. I am not the most OCD person by any stretch. I’m pretty loose with most things that frankly aren’t that important. My doG you will never see a photo of my insane desk or you will be certain that I’m a mental case. But when it comes to my photography I have attempted to have methods for everything that I do.

It started with a column that the late great, and hugely inspirational to my budding photographer self, Galen Rowel wrote back in the middle 1980’s about how to work with these newfangled automated cameras. He talked about how different it was to go from his lovely all manual Nikon FM2 bodies to the then space age N8008 and F4. Remember them? All the buttons and functions and information in the viewfinder was confusing and overloading. Being also a pilot he likened the experience to the difference from flying Visual Flight Rules, VFR, to Instrument Flight Rules, IFR. VFR is when you have a nice clear day and you can see for miles and it’s just like, eh, taking walk at 20,000 feet. La-de da! What a nice day for a jaunt. VFR is when you can’t see where you are going and rather than looking out of the window you are watching all of your dials and gauges that tells you where you are, where you are going and what the conditions out there are like. A pilot under VFR can fly in total darkness, fog what have you and safely get to their destination without really seeing anything. But to do that you must learn to trust you instruments.

One of the points in that column was that you need to know what instruments are important and when. Looking at all the information from all the instrument makes things harder. You need to know what to do and when to do it. He ended up saying that much of our new camera technology is lovely but always necessary. That it’s better to be an automated photographer who has important functions internally automated than to rely on external automation, the camera, to do the thinking.

I totally got it. Galen was talking about training yourself to produce systems of thought and behavior to work subconsciously so that your active mind can focus on more important things like framing or anticipating the moment. From that I began on finding everything that I could about my photography, and frankly other elements of my life, that were repeating and find methods of making them efficient and then purely habitual. For instance, I don’t have to think about packing any of my bags when I head to a shoot as I always pack them the same way regardless of what I taking. All situations regardless of load out have a standardized packing scheme. You can give me one of my bags in total darkness and I can quickly find what I’m looking for. That’s 85mm or teleconverter or remote release is always in the same place.

Thus mise en place. A chef spends time before service prepping everything that they need and putting each ingredient in a particular container in a particular place so that when an order comes in everything is ready and at hand. Shallots? Chopped and in this bowl here. Basil? Chiffonaded and right here. Squab? Cleaned, prepped and in the cooler at their knees. If they had to run around looking for stuff and chopping away to get things ready for your steak au poivre, you’d never get fed as the kitchen would be a tangled mess of panicked cooks.

Maintaining my files, used to be film – again remember that?, is no different.  Have a system, always do the same thing and you know what’s going on.

So back to the “where did my memory card go?” problem that started my dissertation. If everyone had the simple method of:

  • Make photos
  • As soon as you get home/office/base of remote operations offload all images to two + locations while applying all relevant ITPC data about the files
  • Only after verifying that all files are safely off the memory cards, format the cards in camera to be ready for the next shoot
  • Put the clean cards back where they are stored

Then you will never lose cards/files so long as you always do that above process.

You should also:

  • Use a labeler so that all of your cards have your contact info on them so that if you drop the card somewhere and it is found it can be connected to you. You should also do this with all your photo gear!
  • With same labeler put a singular and incremental number of the card for reference. This is important in a number of ways. First if you are having issues with a card you can easily know that “card #4 is giving me problems and may need to be replaced”. Also if you have a long shoot that spans multiple cards you know which ones you have used. Always start the shoot with card #1.
  • Accept that you need multiple cards for a host of reasons i.e. you shoot with more than one camera, it’s a long shoot, cards go bad …
  • Keep your cards that are not in the camera in a protective case and that case should not be black. If it is black, as my Pelican card case is, then put a big stripe of brightly colored “Hey dummy! I’m over here!” tape on all sides so that if you drop it you can easily find it. My tape is an obnoxious fluorescent yellow. I put it on all of my caps and small black photo stuff. Never lose them again
  • When cards are empty have the cards in the case with its identifying number label facing up and when they are full that side down. Thus you can easily tell by looking at the card holder the condition of your cards

So my stuff looks like this:

As a working pro I often come back from a days shooting having shot on 2+ bodies and created thousands of files that may span 6 or more cards. I don’t use huge cards because I don’t want to have a card failure and lose files that way. I often travel for multiple days of shooting and that could create files that easily span a dozen cards. If possible use cameras that have two card slots and set the camera to create backups on the second card. That is one less way to lose files but of course more cards to keep track of. But regardless have a method that works well and stick to it.

 

In the details

I think that it was a natural extension of how I learned back in my landscape photography days that I’m much more interested in the small things than big picture. By that I mean that I’m not really one for the all encompassing wide shot. There is just too much information and except for certain compositions that are very wide it is designed in a way to let your eye naturally sweep through the scene to land where the real subject is. I like those but they are hard to get because those situations are either very rare or very specific. Me, I wanna see things that are almost hidden because they are subtle. By simplifying the amount of information you easily understand what I as a visual communicator am trying to tell you. You! Look right here and notice this. Got it? Cool huh?

So when I saw this couple all dressed up and waiting on the street corner it wasn’t the look on her face but what her hands were saying and the strength of the color palette that did the talking. Got it? Cool.

hands

People are flowers in the breeze, or … It’s all about timing

I don’t know what it is but I seem to work in the dim a lot. Rarely do my assignments take me to where the light is bright, the sun is full and I have to deal with almost too much illumination.  Rather I’m so often working in less than ideal light from a technical standpoint. This has always been the case it seems.

Back in my early years shooting landscapes and nature everything was shot on slow chrome film there ISO 64 was standard and the high quality ISO 100 films were just coming out. Yeah the stone age huh? With that sort of thing you were shooting at f/11 on ISO 25, Kodachrome baby!, on a tripod and during the golden “hour”, more like golden 20 minutes, your exposures were in the 1/4 to 1/2 second range. Well the tripod kept the camera steady, no problem there, but you were constantly cursing any breeze that might cause that flower in the all important foreground to move just a tiny bit and render it unsharp.

Now with our amazing digital cameras it’s much less of a problem as you just crank the ISO up to 400 or 800 and off ya go! No more problems with softly swaying flowers. Ta-DA! But things are different when you are dealing with not just lowish light and slowly moving things like flowers where you can kinda predict their action and trigger the shutter at the right time. Put a person in place of that flower for a low light portrait and you see what I mean. I do this all the time where the ambient light is ISO400 1/60th @ f/2.8 or lower. Now that’s fine in a reportage state of mind. You just crank the ISO to 1600 and you get nice sharp photos with a 1/250th shutter. Oh wait! I need to light this and make the subject look good because we are indoors and all the light is coming from the ceiling creating that lovely “mask of death” look that’s so popular in Milan this season. UGH! Now what? Yep you gotta bring in the strobes and light your subject in an interesting and largely flattering way. Therein lies the rub.

Now we are going to be in the f8 region if we want the portrait to be environmental, again what I do all the time, or wider if it is much more about the subject than the space around. Both provide technical issues. If we are shooting at say f/5.6 then to blend our ambient light in given the above situation then our shutter speed is going to be a 1/15th. That is well below our threshold for hand holding so out comes our trusty tripod to keep the camera steady but it does nothing for keeping our subject sharp especially if we are trying to get expressions that are fleeting as they tend to be. Now I can just again crank the ISO to get a faster shutter speed but the problem is that my lights have a minimum output and raising the ISO makes the lights essentially even more powerful. Speedlights are often the cure because they have much less output than my monolights but it’s hard to get even illumination from them when in a four foot octabank.

Here is such a situation. I got an assignment to photograph at the Hazel Dell mushroom farm in Fort Collins Colorado. They are one of the few mushroom farms in the region so all the top restaurants in the area use them. The main grow room is very dim, mushrooms like it that way, and very humid. I shot Jim the owner at f/4.0 and 1/15th ISO 400 with one color balanced octa at camera left. Jim is a great guy but at a 1/15th keeping his laughter and expressions sharp was tough. As William Albert Allard said, “There is no such thing as a snapshot with a half second exposure.”

Hazel Dell

What they don’t tell me

I have no problem admitting that I’m a bit of a behind the scenes (BTS) junkie. If you are in my office you will regularly see, if not the news, some sort of tutorial or BTS video playing on my secondary screen while I’m working on something else. This is because I want to not only be learning constantly but about all things possible. What has been really bothering me is that when photographers post BTS videos they so often forget to tell us anything substantial. We get “here’s our location, here we are laughing while the model gets her makeup done, check out my cool shoes, check out this neat motion swoop we did with the video rig which almost shows my lighting setup, here are some artsy frames of stuff that doesn’t really show us anything except for how artsy we are, here’s a clip of me gesturing to the model and fade out to my logo” … all in 93 seconds. I’m sorry folks but what the heck does that tell me, a fellow photographer about how you work, any maybe more importantly: what does it tell a potential client about what you are like to work with? Not a whole lot.

The intent of these sorts of promotion pieces, because that’s what they are, is to inspire people to hire you. Otherwise they are nothing other than frippery to stroke your fragile ego. Now don’t get me wrong, there are some photographers who do it right. However I’m usually having to watch one two second section ninety eleven times to see that one important, to me, thing that is glossed over. BTW it seems that almost always when a BTS is posted by a major magazine, Vogue, or company, name of importance, they post the most meaningless and content less versions of this. I mean if you are going to post a video of Annie Liebovitz on set with Robert DiNiro how is it possible to not show us or tel us anything interesting other than “yeah that’s Annie and Bob”?

What I want to know is: why did you do what you did? More importantly when the subject is a person: how did you interact with the subject? I sometimes get the internal thought process but I never seem to get the photographer/subject communication. I more than anything else want to hear how Annie and Bob chat and what directions she gives him. I never get this! There is never audio from the actual shoot that means anything. Instead we get upbeat music and not the voice of the supposedly important person in the video: the photographer. I even watched a BTS where all the models were briefly interviewed and glowed about how wonderful it was to be shot by “some big name dude” but we never heard a word from the photographer during the entire video. How is this possible?

I will give a nod to Peter Hurley. Since he is a headshot shooter and is a major instructor these days he knows that his interaction is a critical aspect of what he does so he is very good about including his interaction with the subjects. Him aside the rest of you out there need to don a mic and let us in! It’s the subtlety of interaction and your personality that in many cases is going to clinch the deal of you getting that job. Your folio says that you can shoot. You as a person, and a BTS is a great way to show this, says what it is like to work with you.

Just a thought for ya!

Pic o’ the day:

This is why I always have a camera in my hands. I had just arrived at the location and was walking about getting a lay of the land to plan out my shoot. My handler and I stopped and I looked down. There was Ricky standing in this green tape box with green shoes. Click!

Ricky

 

2 in 1, or: my visual Gemini life

My work for the last few years has developed this neat-o split personality. I do portraits and I do reportage. Sometimes I get to do that for the same assignment which is to me very cool.

I do a lot of business profiles and to me it’s important to not only make the head dude/dude-ette look cool but also, if at all possible to show the people who work there who don’t wear the fancy suits. When you realize that the big guy that you are photographing has maybe ten minutes to spend with you, ya need organization and the ability to make a lot happen in no time with no fuss. That’s when I drag in all the cases of lights and stands and impressive looking stuff. I make a plan which usually consists of  2-3 different looks in one general area so that I can be as efficient as possible. I usually figure that I really only have five minutes to get “John Bigbooty, President of Megacorp, with their new SuperWidget XL2”. Once that is done I pack up all the gee-whiz stuff and go light and mobile: one body and usually just my 24-70 which which to head back to the engineering lab where they are hard at work developing the SuperWidget XL2 PLUS.

I love these assignments as they very clearly represent my two selves: the lighting it just right meticulous me and the freewheeling “screw the technicals – this is neat-o!” me.

Case in point: I did photos at a Denver company called MMLocal who is making waves with their small batch and rather artisan pickles. It’s run by two friends who are super dudes and they were a lot of fun to shoot for the five or so minutes that I could pry them away from running their quickly growing company. BTW I really lucked out here. They look a bit a like, dressed alike that day so I make the shot sorta monochromatic by shooting them against the side of their big galvanized cooler where they ferment their sauerkraut. Made their brightly colored product stand out.

MMLocal1

Then I headed to the production facility and got this shot of one of their guys putting in a batch of pickles into the steamer for canning. Moody!

MMLocal2

Case #2. It’s a small world and I was sent to shoot my buddies at Renegade Brewing once again. Brian O’Connor their founder and head brewmeister is a heck of-a guy but with a big expansion under way is the “one armed paper hanger”.

Renegade 1

Then it was back to shoot the pirates in the brewhouse making the end result of Brian’s master plans.

Renegade 2

I love these gigs. It works all of my brain and forces me to be as creative as possible in the shortest amount of time. My head often hurts at the end of the day but I like it that way.

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

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 →

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 …

 

1,000 words …

The adage “a picture is worth a thousand words” holds true in many ways that we don’t often think about. I had a revelation the other day about this phrase and said it in this manner: “A photo is worth a thousand words but most of them are only true to the photographer”. Wha? Yeah. Let me explain.

We know that in that “decisive moment” there are lots of big conscious choices that the photographer makes among which are: lens selection, how to render  depth of field, how much time to show in the image, the angle/perspective that the image is take from and quite importantly – what moment was captured. But think of all the other decisions that went into the process such as the choice of subject matter, time of day, possible interaction with the subject on behalf of the photographer which in large or small influenced the events before the lens … lots of editing goes on before the all important “CLICK!” ya know.

Then there all the things that the photographer decided NOT to photograph and show us. More and more I am aware of what I don’t photograph. I mean think of it: the whole visible world around us is filled with possible subjects and images and yet we only focus, ha!, our lenses upon the most tiny fraction of what we could make interesting images of. Just as out mistake/opps!/not quite there images say something about what we committed our shutters to and from that our decision process in the creation of our images so does the stuff that we don’t even bother to shoot.

I remember the story about when Ansel Adams and Dorthea Lange were working on the Richmond project. Lange was going to photograph the people and Adams the scenery but as soon as they arrived Adams was running around shooting portraits and Lange was fascinated with the landscape. Wha? True nuff.

So picture a given scene, let’s call it a restaurant, and you are to make photos at that location. What do you choose and why? You could focus on the lovely architecture of the building, the industrial design of the equipment, do still lives of the table settings, tight shots of the perfectly composed food, documentary images of the staff working, abstract images of the interplay of the lights on walls/floors/objects, portraits of the owners, lifestyle images of the happy patrons … blah, blah, blah … you get it. What do you choose? What do you exclude? Why?

I love seeing the whole take of other photographers not so much for the great images that they create but also for their sketches – the ones that didn’t bear fruit. From that I see their mental working process and also, in the periphery of their discarded frames, what they didn’t spend any time on. Sometimes I see real possibilities in the corners of those forgotten moments and wonder what might have come from them if they were investigated. Could be cool, could be crap. Who knows?

I do know that the images that we show to people are because of all this subtle editing and choosing along the way of getting to that keeper of a shot the photographer has decided what for them is real, important, is true and needs to be seen. That makes each image very, very personal and as a result highly opinionated. Not in a bad way but in an understandably exclusionary way.  When we show an image we are in effect saying “I believe that this is the most important thing for you to see and only this tiny part of what I witnessed is, to me, worthy of your consideration”. When you think about it, that’s a pretty arrogant thing to do but that’s how it works folks don’t come cryin’ to me about it.

Thus I will expect you to look at this here image and wonder what has gone wrong with the boy. I honestly was about to have dinner one night and looked up and made this image before my clams got cold. No intent, no fuss, just something that looked interesting and for this, it’s enough.

Orb

Just a thought

I ran across the following thought just now as I was catching up on some stuff. It has everything to do with photography and my way of looking at life. Grand aint it?

“Human beings took our animal need for palatable food … and turned it into chocolate souffles with salted caramel cream. We took our ability to co-operate as a social species … and turned it into craft circles and bowling leagues and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. We took our capacity to make and use tools … and turned it into the Apollo moon landing. We took our uniquely precise ability to communicate through language … and turned it into King Lear.”

What we do is a total refelection of what we are not just as individuals but as a species and how we are hard wired. I’ve always said that if I lived in the 1600’s I would constantly be on a boat on an expedition to see “what’s over there?” Dispite our proclivity for doing horrible things our species is pretty darned cool and the world that we live in thrills me.

Here is an out take from an assignment that I did the other day.

Divorce auction