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?

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

 

Backed in a corner

Even when you have a plan, especially when the client has a plan, I always assume  that if something doesn’t go to plan I need a backup and maybe a backup of my backup. As was the case when the Wall Street Journal sent me to photograph the new CFO of Ch2MHill for a story about how he is trying to expand the company’s ability to put mobile technology at the ready which will not only save them money but give them an advantage over their competition.

Now I was given, as is often the case with jobs like this, they had a shot list for me and one of the things that they wanted was that along with a few portraits I was to shoot him at work and interacting with the people at the company if possible. Ok, cool. My kind of thing. So being me I brought along a lot of gear as backup. Even if I could have pulled off the job with one body, and a fixed lens with a small softbox for fill I packed the car with options. Just in case.

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Grab the pitchforks …

… the President is coming to town! Well it really wasn’t that bad at all. Last week President Obama made the first presidential visit to Boulder Colorado in something like 60 years. That made it an even bigger deal ya know? I was given an assignment to help cover the hub-bub and happily I got to photograph the protests. Ok I would have loved to be pointing my lens at Obama but all that stuff is so clean and staged that it’s more like shooting a stage producton or some kind of celebrity thing. Yeah there are some good moments that happen but it’s rarely my thing. I prefer photographing regular people being their unconstrained selves. Thus my afternoon with the protesters was far more interesting.

I gotta say again that Colorado people are almost too nice. I am not really complaining as I love where I live. But there was a distinct lack of, well, venom that would have made for much more dynamic photos that day. Screaming and carrying on as uncivil as it is simply makes for more energetic images. Alas who should turn out to express their displeasure at their leader? Nice people. Gad! The photos were better than I would have thought and the best part was that all these pleasant protesters, is that an oxymoron?, made my job easier as none of them gave me any guff about being part of the, what do they call us, “the lame street media”?

Obama rally 2012

Pulling a rabbit

I was reading one of my industry blogs the other day and there was a bit about essentially “How can you screw THAT up?” It was in the context of if you have all the gear you could want, as large a crew of top level assistants/wardrobe/hair-makeup/post-production professionals as you want, a bunch of stunningly gorgeous models and a week at an amazing and exotic locale … how can you not make photos that people want to look at? You have it all and frankly pretty easy to boot. Upon reading this commentary I thought, in the squeaky little kids voice of comedian Gabriel Iglacias, “Yeah!”

It’s not jealousy talking here at all. It’s just a statement of fact. Most of us professional photographers don’t get the breaks whereby we get paid big money to hire an army of people to make everything happen “just so”. Most of us have constant conversations with new and old clients alike where we have to say, often, “yeah but if that’s your budget for this project we are going to have to shave something off because we just can’t pull it off for that kind of money.” We have to think on our feet, adapt, improvise and overcome the various obstacles that come with every job that we do. The ones that can do the seemingly impossible stay in business far longer than those who can’t.

If you read the blogs of any solid working pro or watch enough BTS videos you quickly get the sense that not every photographer gets to have things go his way. That’s only in the movies ya know. But some of us have it worse than others and some are used to it more than the rest.

There is a particular kind of let down which occurs when you get to the location of your shoot and you realize that everything you had hoped to find to work with isn’t there. There are a million such scenarios: have to do portraits of a big leader of industry only to find a cube farm or at best yet another of the worlds most boring conference rooms to shoot him in. Or maybe it’s a supposedly big event that should provide lots of energy for exciting images but it turns out to be mostly old dudes sitting around on lawn chairs. Maybe it’s the performer that you admire and are supposed to get interesting and intense images of but the dude is too grumpy/tired/depressed/stoned to do more than slump into a chair. You know, that sort of thing. Hey it happens!

Well I had two of them go down last week but like the ninja that I tell myself that I am, I found a way to elevate the painfully boring to the level of “Hey! That’s not too darned bad!”. I take it in stride because that’s what I’m supposed to do. Failure is not an option. Ever. The best part is that after delivering the goods I got a note from each client to the extent of “Hey I know that conditions of the shoot didn’t turn out to be nearly as cool as we had hoped but you really shot the hell out of it and the images are great, thanks!” Now THAT is cool. Makes me fee all professional inside.

Here is a shot from a similar situation: I was to make photos of the head of a software company for a profile piece. Problem was, they had just moved into a new building that still had the old occupants logos everywhere,  everything was still in boxes, the head guy was only going to be in town for one day and had a ton of phone meetings lined up. I was given ten minutes between calls to make my shots. Luckily my subject turned out to be a super nice dude and was as accommodating as his schedule would allow. I shot the jebus out of it doing three set ups in that time and even with the cluttered mess about me made him look cool, intelligent, professional and personable.

My favorite was the last thing that I shot when he went back to his desk to answer the phone again. I saw the colors and reflections of the buildings outside and simply asked him to look up at me. Four frames later, the phone rang and that was the end of the shoot.

Gorilla

I’d love to be able to just connect the dots: this person here, light it this way, have all my trusty people do their magic and all that but I’m not sure that it would suit me. I’m not a huge fan of walking in an saying to muh-self “Argh! NOW what do I do?” but it makes me feel great when I pull off a magic trick and my clients know it.

 

People in Denver are too nice, or: don’t you hate when …

Don't you hate it when you go to a riot and a friendly rally breaks out? What a bummer! I was alerted to the fact that there was going to be an Occupy The Courts protest event here in Denver on Friday and thought "Well, yeah!". I don't cover hard news much any more and that's cool with me. I've been a feature story/essay kinda guy since I realized that not only is there no real carrier in it the chance of getting hurt, arrested by mistake or maybe even accidentally shot, just really wasn't my idea of a good time. I spent some time in my formative years working with the Detroit police covering their night operations and while it was both exciting and was a great learning experience I quickly saw how it just a matter of time until something unpleasant would happen to me.

Since then I've covered protests and a few riots and while I am equipped with a proper military gas mask and all the padding and gear necessary to protect me from possible harm in those situations they tend to not happen in my neck-o the woods for one big reason: people here are nice. Gah! Nice people don't often make dramatic photos very easy to make. Here is an exercise for ya: imagine take a general news picture. Ok? Not that interesting but if done well isn't that bad to look at. Now add to the scene four police officers wrestling a dude to the ground while he's kicking and screaming. Hmm, that's a more interesting image now isn't it? If said officers decide to reenact the famous "Rodney King" tape, now we are talking not only an image that you can't help look at, albeit maybe in horror, but some kind of award is likely to come of your image making efforts. That is the kind of thing that is worth getting out of bed early for. Right?

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Goodbye my old friend, it’s nice to see you again

I was on assignment the other day to do photos for a story about an exercise trend/fad that is based on classical ballet barre work. Yadda yadda. Anyhoo the client wanted some video for their web edition. Hey, no problem. Well actually it a real pain to do stills and video but hey if that's what the client wants then that is certainly what they are going to get. While I was doing my thang when I had a quick realization that the soon to be much ballyhooed Nikon D4 was going to be announced and with it will be, for me at least, a paradigm shift. Notice the quick mirror self shot that I did upon reflection, HA! I kill me!

  Mirror

There I am with my trusty and to a large extent beloved Canon HV20 camcorder dangling from my neck along with two Nikon D700 bodies to do stills. Often when I have to do stills and video for news pieces I have a lot more gear on me: usually each body has a pro zoom, 28-70 f/2.8 and 70-200 f/2.8 to make things nice and heavy, and the camcorder has an external mic attached, which makes for a very cumbersome working method. In those situations am quite like the guy with too few arms. Not fun but I get the job done. Oh and to make matters worse I will often wear a backpack where my extra microphones, wireless rig and a tripod with fluid head is stashed for all the video problem solving that often comes up. Again, not a simple rig to use. But soon this will be simplified with the new bodies that are coming out.

What? Why aren't you shooting with DSLR bodies that do video? Well I'm glad that you asked. First off, I don't do that much video that needs to be done at the same time as still photography which is my main occupation. Then there is the fact that except for the D3s all the Nikon bodies that do video are the consumer bodies with the crop chip and brother let me tell ya that once I got my full frame back I promised muh-self that I'd never buy a crop chip body again. You can't tell but that there self shot was done with my "secret weapon" Nikon AF-D 28mm f/1.4 that is essentially an insanely overpriced normal lens on a crop body but with full frame it's is a glorious and crazy sharp wide angle. There is no comparable lens for the smaller frame cameras so there you go.

I was not going to purchase a D3s just for video, no way. I prefer my D700's as they are smaller, lighter and less than half the price. If you are an independent such as I am you need to justify spending any money on equipment against how it will not just pay for itself but actually make you money upon that purchase within 18 months. Otherwise it costs you to own it and it is simply a waste of money. Not good business practice there. Yes I know about all the dudes shooting the Canon 5DII and all that but again there is no reason for me to purchase an entire Canon rig just to shoot some video from time to time so forget that noise bucko! Besides the 5DII has a much slower frame rate, horrible AF and is built like a toy. Yuck.

I got my HV20 before the VDSLR rage hit and within a month of me getting it it made me money and has continued to do so ever since. Also almost every client has cared not a whit about what video camera I've used. What they want is quality video that goes on the web. How I get there doesn't matter.

In the getting there even simple pro-am camcorders like the old HV20 do a better job of shooting video than DSLR's because they are set up from the get-go to do video. They autofocus and autoexpose properly and easily. They are physically set up to allow you to use external microphones and monitor the audio without adapters. They have the controls right where they need to be. Not to mention that they are cheaper to purchase than a new DSLR body. Can't go wrong. Except for the need to have another thing dangling from you while you make pictures. Oh yeah, that.

As I suspected, much of that has now changed with the Nikon D4 for three reasons: it is supposedly going to properly autofocus in video mode, it will allow you to make exposure adjustments while recording video and most importantly and fit's into the "why did it take so long?" department – you have a headphone jack so that you don't need an adapter to monitor your audio. Huzzah! Finally a DSLR that will harken the end of me lugging the HV20 about.

Does this mean that I've put in for a D4 for pre-sale? Nope. No chance. First off I never buy version 1.0 of any product much less one as expensive and complicated as a pro DSLR body. Second I'm waiting for the D800 or whatever it will be called that will be the little brother of the D4 for the same reasons as listed about my D700's. Lastly, I don't need one yet. The HV20 still works great, makes me the monies and doesn't need to be replaced. Yet. I do think that in about a year I'll put the old girl on the shelf with the other cameras from which I've moved past. The D700's will be with me for some time as they are simply superb cameras in every way. If I could get a D700 with the new video capacity then I'd honestly be set but alas it is not to be.

 

As they say "Time … marches on!" and for this here cowboy that's a good thing.

7 hours to civilization

I'm having dinner at a little steakhouse near Omaha. It's the final leg of a long day of driving, 600+ miles, to a small Iowa town in order to do a story about the Iowa Caucus. I hate to even say the term but “flyover states” like Nebraska and Iowa get a bad rap. They have their own kind of beautiful and are filled with honest, hard working people with no pretense. But they are sparsely populated and essentially rural where except for a few places that my buddy who works on Wall Street would barely call cities. These states are filled with tiny and isolated towns that are little more than specks on the map. So as I left Denver this morning I really didn't come to anything that amounted to more than an oversized truckstop until I got here whereby I decided that I could get a brew and hot slab of bovine tastiness of actual quality. Luckily in this world of homogeneity there are always the usual suspects of fast food joints but unless I really have to I bypass those. Neither tasty nor cheap but if that is all you have …

My bag of snacks from home has kept my hunger at bay, some of my mothers left over holiday cookies are always a welcome addition, but this stop as they say hits the spot. The steak is quite good and Kacey my spunky waitress properly tempted me with their freshly ground horseradish. Yeah!

Ya see, I love traveling for pleasure and tolerate traveling for business. Being a “foodie”, craft brewing aficionado and over-all city boy, I tend to like the finer things that are hard to come by in small towns in say, South Dakota. Coming home is not just because my wife and familiar bed is waiting for me but I can often finally get, sorry for the tone of snobbery, a proper meal and pint.

When the wife and I travel it's often to locations that we pick specifically for their food/drink options. We might swing by a monument or museum between eating stops so as to work up a good appetite for the next round of gustatory delights but that's about it. A bit ago the wife and I decided that for our ten year anniversary we are likely going to go to Vienna to celebrate. When we mention this people say things like.”Oh Vienna is lovely, very romantic and filled with history and culture!” But we reply “Yeah, a history of great cheese, sausage, schnitzel and beer. Oh and the architecture isn't bad either.”

So given that bit of background you can understand how my friends upon hearing that I was headed the hinterlands of rural Iowa, yes I know that's a bit redundant, gave me a sad look because they know that I would be in the land of meatloaf and boiled potatoes. Well certainly not MY meatloaf that is.

But let me say this: all of the people that I've spoken to in Iowa to set up appointments, access and subjects have been flat out the nicest people I may have ever spoken to. Friendly, open, accommodating and humble. I'm looking forward to meeting them and documenting their lives. Should be a hoot. However I know that I will be in the flat lands where there is no looming mountain range to give you a sense of direction. I hate that.

Much like when you spend time in a foreign country, and to many Iowa qualifies as such, it will be a wonderful experience but it will also be great to be home and back into my usual groove. After the story runs I'll do a post about that.

Lani and The Stachettes

Since I work almost exclusively on location I am in some ways a bit jealous of the dudes who have the time and budgets to create entire sets for their subjects to be photographed in. So one of the things that I try to do when it suits subject and when it is f rankly even possible is to find a way to take a location and make it look better/different than it does with just a bit of tinkering. Sometimes that means moving object or furnature around, sometimes it means doing things with light and other times it means coming back at a different time or day so that it works for your intent.

I was doing some promo photos on location that went into the late evening that was going to include a number of set ups for a variety of looks that the client wanted. During the scouting I noticed this interesting lawn with a tree and stone path that led to some steps. I thought that it wouldn't work when the light was soft but after dark lit up it could be amazing with a bit of work. The energy was great that day and I mentioned that if we had the time and inclination after all the other shots to try something different and lo everyone was up for it.

Thus it was almost dark when I dragged all our gear down the road and had my assistant get us a bunch of candles from the home that the majority of the other photos were done at and had him set them up along the path. This brought color, warmth and a sense of depth to the image. At camera right I had a head with a 40 degree grid spot and CTB gel placed up the hill aimed at the tree for a moonlit backlight feel to give in addition separation between the girls and the dark moody background. On camera left I put another head into my 43" Octabank and put it up about ten feet pointing down about 45 deg aimed at the groups delightfully animated front girl Lani. After a number of shots we brought out more candles and put one in each of the other girls hands to light their faces for additional texture and mood.

Now, if this was done in a studio it would be a pretty big set to build and that would be the hardest part. The lighting would be easily controllable as it would be done in the dark with only the candles burning in during the exposure and everything else being lit by strobes but in this case my fill light was the moon! Being locked down on my tripod kept the camera steady but the girls had to remain motionless during exposures of up to 8 seconds including Lani who was doing all the wacked out poses for me. Yet when I said "Hold it!" they did and slap me silly, the frames are sharp.

So here is my favorite from that series: a photo that I had no idea would happen and certainly not like this when I drove past on my way to the shoot.

  Lani and the Stachettes

 

Technicals: Nikon D700, Nikon AF-S 28-70mm f/2.8 set to 45mm. 4 seconds @ f/5.6, ISO 1600, Daylight WB. Camera on Gitzo 1320 tripod. Lights triggered via Pocket Wizard.

A salute to the troops, all of them

I was sent to do a quick few shots the other day for a little story about a local veteran who recieved the Congressional Gold Medal for his service as a translator during WWII. I got talking to one of the people who works at the retirement community that the guy lives in and was told "Boy, you should talk to some of the other veterans that we have here. The stories they can tell … don't want to loose those!" And she was right, these guys, and gals, who put their lives on the line for their country tend to be very quiet about their experiences and as they get older we are likely to not only loose perspective but even just the stories and history that their great committment produced. Thus I cleared some stuff off my calender and headed down with my video camera to get a few of the guys to sit for me for a few minutes and tell me something about their time during war.

Some saw combat, some didn't. All were changed because of it. All the uncles on my mothers side were in the military and as such I developed a lot of respect for the people in uniform. So here is my little tip of the hat to the vets.

 

Stick it out and turn it around

I will unabashedly admit that I like for my images to in some way feel like you/I are “right there”. Personal. Intimate. Up close. A sort of sit on my lap and let me tell you a secret kind of thing when ever possible. It’s not always an option and in many ways for good reason. I’d love to see football shot from the perspective of the players: to mount remote controlled cameras into the lineman/wide receiver’s helmets would be amazing but they would never let you do that. But a boy can dream right? And dream I do. I love remote cameras for getting a perspective that you just can’t get when the camera has to be attached to your face. Then again not everything lends itself to that either because the logistics of camera placement would be either insane or would just be a lot of work to get possibly one frame that is interesting. Or worse after all that work of getting there early and setting up the remote you get nothing usable or interesting at all. But between having my camera attached to my head and triggered by radio when it’s “way over there” there is a middle ground: the camera on a stick.

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Get out of the way

The last few weeks have been pretty brutal but good. Lots of shooting, new clients!, but also a bit of fun to keep me from going totally insane. What always happens, it seems, is that the wave hits whereby I’m popular and busy as heck and all the normal life stuff gets thrown into a basket to wait upon my triumphant return. Now that the wave has subsided I can get to all the stuff in that there basket and play catch up for a few days until the next wave of work comes in of completely indeterminate size and duration.

Thus I was having a lovely cuppa joe this morning, playing catch-up on things and started reading the post that John Stanmeyer did whereby he talks about the inside story of the making of his photos for the National Geographic article about how Brazil has had a dramatic shift in their population growth largely due to the popularity of soap operas and how that altered the cultures view of women and the size of families. No, really. True story. But I digress …

As I was reading his account I was looking at the photos he posted and doing my EXIF reading thang and about halfway through I had two complimentary thoughts:

1)      She-zam Andy! (That’s a joke you old folks will get, the rest of you just chuckle a bit to play long)  … it seems that John not only basically used one lens and one bodies to shoot this project, a Canon 5DII with a Canon 16-35 f/2.8 and a 24-70mm f/2.8, but it seems that he used the same body as well. The serial number seems to be the same for all his posted shots. He may have used other glass but in the shots he posted in his blog it was just these two. Now this is not going to be another “How EXIF data got me inside his head” post, because the led me to the next thought,

2)      He basically only walks around with one camera and one lens, got it? If you go to his website he lists his gear with is two 5D Mark II bodies, the 16-35, the 24-70 and then three fixed fast lenses, the 24mm f1.4, 35mm f/1.4 and the 50mm f1.2. That’s it baby! He doesn’t work with glass longer than 70mm.

The conclusion of these repetitious points is that Stanmeyer, like many other magazine editorial photographers don’t use as much gear to get their photos and some would think. Studio photogs have loads of lighting gear, sports photogs have loads of long lenses and setups for remotes and all that but the guys who shoot for publications like National Geographic on stories that deal with people load up with more research and luck than gear.

Photographers are intensely gear centric; far more than just about any other artistic profession other than musicians. We tend to ogle shiny new toys far more than we go out and use the toys that we have. Guys like Stanmeyer, David Allan Harvey and Alex Webb know exactly what they want to shoot and how they need to shoot it: people in an intimate setting. No fuss, no muss. To do that they use one body and often a single focal length, something in the “normal” range of 35-70mm. In comparison your news photographer basically doesn’t have a clue as to what he will need for the day because it all changes constantly. Thus when I am to cover a news assignment I carry one body with my 28-70 f/2.8, another body with my 70-200 f/2.8, my 17-35mm f/2.8 in a pouch along with a 1.4 converter for the long zoom, a flash and more gear in the car just in case.

BUT!, and you know that there is always a but, I prefer to shoot with one body and if possible a fixed lens, 35mm f/2, 50m f/1.4 or my beloved 28mm f/1.4. Nothing more. I have come to feel that as lovely as gear is, and believe me I have plenty of it, it often slows you down physically and mentally. I believe that the all-in-one zooms that many amateurs gravitate to are anything but a benefit to someone learning to make quality images: if you have an 18-200mm lens what kind of subject matter are you going to shoot, everything? Come on, pick a subject, gear up for that and focus on it.

There is something very creatively freeing about only having one focal length or a relatively small range of focal lengths to work with. This is why I’ve gotten such a kick out of making photos with my phone over the years: no options other than trying to make something interesting happen within the frame. Simplify, simplify. In this manner you spend more time looking for and creating images than fiddling with your many options and the gear that brings the same.

If you have less to work with in terms of tools, you can focus on what you can do with the tool that you have. Sometimes less is more and sometimes almost nothing is a whole lot. Whenever I can I try to strip the gear down to as little as I can.

When I was given an assignment to cover a big fashion show I made an effort to go early so that I could cover the back stage activity which is always more interesting than the event as seen from the other side of the curtain. Although I had with me a lot of gear including long lenses to get the runway shots that I had to have, boring!, when I slipped behind the scenes where it was very crowed I only took a body with my 35mm f/2.0 and worked that for a while:

Stage 1

Stage 2

Stage 3

Stage 4

I really don’t think that having more lens or body options would have enabled me to get “better” images here. If anything they would have slowed me down and distracted my vision.

 

How not to hunt

There is an adage which goes something like “don’t go looking for something because that’s all you will find”. Unless I get an assignment whereby the client tells me exactly what the client wants with a shot list the best way that I can assure that I will come back with interesting photographs is to not go looking for any particular image. Instead I try to go into the situation as untainted by prior expectations. I want to take every experience as new and fresh: hopeful for the unexpected.

The worst case is when I have to shoot something that I’ve shot before. When this happens I hear myself saying, “Nope. Shot that two years ago. Hmmm nice but similar to a shot from five years ago. Oh! I could … huh-uh. I did that and it turned out nice enough for my folio. What else is there?” It can be daunting and for me that’s the fun: to always find something new no matter how familiar you are with the subject matter.

Some people say that if you are in a visual rut you should take a trip to someplace far away that you have never been to before. The new environment provides loads of stimulation due to the foreign and exotic nature of your surroundings. It’s both the appeal of much of the imagery we love about National Geographic and a good deal of the phrase “Wow! If I was in Africa/Japan/Russia/wherever I’m sure that I could make great photos!” … the places and people don’t look like what you are used to and instantly take on an interesting quality.

But what if you could do that, see things as exotic, while in totally familiar territory? Besides all the savings in travel you would constantly be seeing new and amazing things. That’s what I try to do. It’s not easy but for me it’s the way to be.

So I got assigned to cover another triathlon this year. I know ‘em and I love/hate ‘em. This one was blesses with some lovely light so that helped but as much as I love to play with shadows I made a point to not do that at all. I forced myself to find a way to make photos of a subject where I have limited physical access to different from what I’ve done before.

So one thing that I did was put my camera on a monopod and trigger it with my remote cord. That way I could shoot straight down on the swimmers as they swam past me on the floating dock. There were loads of images that were, EH!, but this one made me happy. I think that it’s the feet which I didn’t expect.

Photo by: Jonathan Castner

Next time I’m going to get a housing and get in the water with them. I wonder if I can shoot UP?

The start of something new

As I’ve said before I simply love to photograph things in motion and the emotion that comes from it. That has led me to as I like to say “shoot any sport but not really with anything longer than an 85mm lens” mostly because I want to take a personal approach to my subjects whenever possible. You just can’t be personal when using a 400mm lens. You get out of a persons comfortable “conversational distance” when you get beyond about 4 feet away. Try this: while having a serious conversation with someone notice that you are most likely within 4 or so feet away from the person. Now while continuing to chat slowly start stepping backwards and notice how it feels to be speaking from 5, 6, 8 or then 10 feet away. It feels like there is this emotional gap between you and the other person that is similar in size to the distance you physically are from each other. Funky huh? So when trying to show any kind of intimacy with the subject you have to often be in that conversational space. Thus the 85mm lens comment. Got it?

As in my work such as the documentaries on the wrestling team and the culture of the roller derby team I want the images to make the viewer feel like they are right next to the subject of my stories and that is because I am physically right there when I take the photos. But there are some special aspects of physical activities that aren’t about motion but the ripple effect it produces on the body and the emotions. It’s in the eyes and written on the face and body.

When I went to cover the Tough Mudder event that was happening in the mountains surrounding Beaver Creek, Colorado I had an idea. Ya see the Tough Mudder is kinda brutal. It’s a 9 mile course that is based on a British special forces training exercise whereby each participant simply needs to finish. In it you run from obstacle to gnarly obstacle and basically get beat to a pulp. Greased monkey bars anyone? Well I knew that it was going to be visually interesting but besides the photos of tired runners climbing walls and running through mud fields to hop over hay bales while being blasted with fire hoses, I knew that the most telling images would to me be at the end. Not them struggling to cross the finish line but what they looked like at the end of it all: exhausted, elated and filthy.

Therefore I set up the most basic of studios: white seamless paper on a north facing wall near the finish line and went to find interesting faces. To keep everything simple I shot all the portraits with my AF-D 50mm f/1.4 set to f/2.8. That was it. I got everything out of the way to quickly get a few frames of the dirty and often still gasping Mudders. Did I mention that the event took place at an elevation of over 8,000 feet?

  Kerry

Nathan

Katrin

Mychael

Tyler

Rob

This is going to be the beginning of a series that I plan on doing where I shoot portraits of the finishers of endurance races and other physically punishing events. I’ve done some research and hope to get long distance runners, cyclists and the like. No professionals, just (ab?)normal people who enjoy getting kicked in the shorts.

It’s not what it seems …

I’m not a sports photographer. I’m just a photographer who likes to shoot sports. Wha? Yeah it has to do with that thing called “the score”. I don’t care who wins and many times the game winning hit, kick, basket, goal or what have you doesn’t happen in a very dramatic way. If it’s soccer, which I love, that game winning goal might happen early in the first half when neither of the teams thinks that much of it as there would be loads of time to catch up and flip the score. So even if you get an image of that quick shot which had little visually going for it, well, it’s not that much to look at. Many times the best and most interesting images that come from a sporting event have little to do with the final score. Instead they are found moments of motion or emotion. Those are the ones that I most dig.

I forget who said it but I was covering a golf tournament and was moving along with a few other press photogs and someone said, “It can be a lovely day, great weather, gorgeous backgrounds, nice light, good angles, perfect access and regardless of what moments we capture all we are going to bring back are photos of guys playing golf”. That really hit me. Except for a few publications who are dedicated to being visually important and are willing to explore the sporting world beyond “the game winning” image most publications who visually cover sports are doing so often want literal imagery. They want a photo of “Steve Bigun of The Flaming Bongos who clinched their win over The Blue Nothings” regardless of how boring it is. ArrrGH!

So like many photogs I make sure that I get the necessary action/winner shots but I try really hard to make the rest of my coverage more interesting than just “that”. But I’ll tell ya, if the sport doesn’t have a ball it is often very tough to make it interesting. For instance even worse than golf are foot races. I’ve covered the famous Bolder Boulder 10K race quite a few times and man-alive you bring back lots and lots of pictures of, uh, guys running. The trick is to have tricks and to dig deep to attempt to see something that isn’t that obvious.

So when I was assigned to cover the 5430 Triathlon I knew the pitfalls: running and cycling. Not bashing cycling at all, I was the captain of my cycling team, but guys on bikes are just as boring, if not more so, than running. I do think that swimming is fun to photograph because the water makes things interesting due to it’s non-linear and thus slightly chaotic nature. Thus, having shot this kind of thing before, I knew that the best opportunities for interesting images are during the start and transition from swim to land.

The light was less than amazing due to clouds on the horizon. I’ve shot this before with a glorious sunrise but not this time. But with the blue sky, everyone on black wetsuits and red caps it made for some interesting color. Shot this while the first wave contestants were getting final instructions. To me it’s largely a study in rhythm.

5430 Triathlon

As they headed to the water I went onto the dock where they pass on the way to the open water and with the camera held with the grip up so as to get it as close to the water as possible I shot the next wave as they passed by. I had no way to see through the viewfinder but once you get to know your lenses and how focal lengths see, it’s not that hard to “blind” shoot and get pretty close to what you intend to capture.

5430 Triathlon

Earlier I set up a camera as a remote at the waters edge to get a low angle on the competitors as they left the water and got on land. To me this can be some of the more interesting images because they are on this course backlit and are dripping. The back lighting is a problem but just using regular fill flash doesn’t do the trick for two reasons: 1, your flash sync speed isn’t fast enough to prevent ghosting of the motion and 2) light on the camera isn’t interesting at all.

My solution was to mount the camera on a ground plate with a wide-ish lens and trigger the camera via my Pocket Wizard radio remote. I then hooked two of my Nikon SC-17 TTL sync cords together so that I could attach my SB-800 in high speed sync mode and not have that little delay that happens when you use the wireless TTL so that I could predict my moments more accurately. Using high speed sync eats up flash power so I used a Nikon SD-8a battery pack to reduce the recycle time down to about 1.5 seconds. This all enabled me to get 8-9 feet from the lens axis and produce a more dynamic and sculpted light on the wet motion.

5430 Triathlon

So even though I shoot sports to me it’s really just an excuse to try and photograph things in motion and if possible the emotive/evocative moments that surround the game.

 

A video confession

I’ve been watching a lot of tutorials on video color grading lately. For those of you not working with video in a professional context that means that I’ve been learning how to adjust and tone the video that I shoot much like you work with still images. But not at all.

 

Ya see when I become Emperor things will be made consistent. We won’t have 32 different terms for the same thing so that when you learn a new discipline that really isn’t that far away from your main body of knowledge you don’t have to pick up a thousand new words for things that you basically already know how to do. Thus I’ve been learning how to “color grade” video using basically the same kind of tools that I’d use to process a still photo. And friends I gotta tell ya I just can’t believe how picky these guys get about the subtleties of the color in their video, I mean wow.

 

So why the heck am I torturing myself with this rot? Well I’ve been editing a large-ish video project that I’ve been shooting for a local client of mine and it’s made me want to have a better and larger set of processing tools. I have an excellent video editing suite but in the past nearly all my video work has been news/editorial and just like when being a still image news photog you aren’t supposed to play with the image in post. But for commercial work it needs to be cleaner, more interesting and maybe even slick. Depending.

 

This is a lot like how I had to learn how to actually use Photoshop for more than cropping. Now when I’m shooting portraits and the client wants, for instance, some skin smoothing I can do that easily. But back “then” I had no idea how it was done.

 

Now I’m not interested in doing feature films at all as that is way too much like work for me but I do really enjoy shooting and editing video. Much like the audio based multimedia that I’ve been working with for years video is just another way of telling stories. Unfortunately in the past when I’d have my video camera rig on me I would also have two still cameras as well making for a very clumbsy me. It’s very hard to shoot stills and video of the same time and not make a mess of it. But I had clients who wanted both and since they were paying for it and knew that it means that you have at best adequate stills and passable video, I did the best with what I had to work with.

Oh and for those of you who haven’t seen the mess that video editing looks like here is a screen shot of all the cuts, bits and tweeks I had to do just to get that two minute and a smidge piece to look that way. Ugh!

I got my first video only assignment last year and it was a very freeing experience. I was to shoot the annual fireworks held at the University of Colorado’s football stadium, (boring!) but we got a torrential downpour (Yah, bad weather!) so I spent two hours with my lens not pointing up at a bunch of meaningless flashing lights. The weather became the story so I shot it that way. Considering that I put it together on daily deadline and did it all muh-self I’m pretty happy with it all things considered. It’s raw and such but for my first “real” news video I can live with it. (It’s much better than the stuff I did when I also had to shoot stills!)


 

So anyway I’m doing more commercial video now and it’s freaking great. I’m be able to get good sound, put the subject in good lighting, and do two dozen takes with varying angles to then edit it together and with some post production have it, well, look good. She-ZAM!

And it’s funny because I was at a very cool seminar a few weeks ago all about better reaching advertising clients and one of the topics was “do you need to shoot video as well” and the consensus was that if you can that’s cool but to do it right takes more than just handing you, the qualified still photographer, a camera that shoots video. There is the audio, the lighting, the direction of the subject and all the editing/grading that makes it work. But I was chuckling to myself because I am not nor will I ever be a junior Spielberg but I do think that I can fake it all well enough to have people write me a check for the work that I do.

Oh and I’m just about 3 chapters away from finishing “On Directing Film” by David Mamet and I think that his insights may have effected my still photography brain even more than my moving pictures brain. How did that happen?

Crossing the line

One of my greatest inspirations in developing my photographic self was the work of Frans Lanting. He was just about the first wildlife photographer to find a way to not have to use long lenses to photograph animals. He wanted to photograph them in ways that were more personal as you would with people or subjects that you can physically get close to. Besides using lots of patience to enable the use of wide angle, or at least normal focal length lenses, he also tried to break down the need for critical sharpness. He pioneered the use of selective sharpness and abstracting blur to show motion and the energy of the animals.

This was pretty important to a guy who had spent more than a few years with his camera locked down on a tripod and was trying to get away from all that I did and find what I wanted to be. What really got to me with his work was how dynamic and present it was. He let things be clear when they needed to be and let them be amorphous when it tells the story better. The visual, and thus, emotional boldness of it all really hit home to me.

If you know my work you know that I often let things go blurry and abstract. That’s all from Frans influence. He explained in a seminar I attended that he was teaching that for each subject there is an amount of motion induced abstraction that is either too much or not enough and you have to find the sweet spot for it. This was the film era so when he was in Borneo he couldn’t get the instant feedback that we now do so he had to experiment a lot to get to know what works.

But then sometimes you don’t have the time or ability to fiddle about and see what shutter speed will give you the look that suits the situation, you need to get it right the first time. This is where all your practice comes in handy. You have to know for: 1) what speed the subject is moving, 2) what focal length you are using, 3) how close the subject is and 4) what speed you can effectively hold steady in a panning motion will all come together to make that one time shot useful and not just an “almost”.

Too sharp and it looks like a mistake. Too blurry and it looks like a mistake.

So the other night I was on assignment for a story about the popularity in tribute bands. You know the ones “They look like ‘em, they sound like ‘em”. The Beatles, Van Halen, The Grateful Dead … there are hundreds of bands out there on tour packing the place giving people the experience of the real thing at a fraction of the cost of the real McCoy and usually in more intimate settings. Anyhoo I was shooting a U2 tribute band and they started out their set with the singer walking out into the crowd with an Irish flag waving behind him. I was in the pit shooting and as he walked past me I slowed down my shutter and pulled this shot off:

Band

To me it’s very painterly and it feels right.

Using the “not so remote” camera

It’s not common for a photographer to be the subject of an others imagery and I am certainly not used to being photographed while I work. Yet when my friend and assistant Lindsay sent me this shot the other day I thought that it was actually pretty cool.

Me

Ya see what I was doing was not adjusting my camera controls but composing through the LCD with the camera, my beloved Nikon D700, in Live View mode. But rather than holding the camera in a position, like over my head, and then composing through the LCD I had to hold the camera low and compose. Well then, why not just kneel down and shoot “normally” and focus/compose through the regular viewfinder? That wouldn’t have given me what I wanted. My head needed to be above the camera to get the effect that I wanted and the only way to get the camera in position was to go through this gyration.

You see the subject was partly a person who was out of focus in the “background” but I wanted her eyes looking up. Rather than the normal shooting method of lowering myself to get the angle I wanted and potentially distract her and change her gaze I needed my eyes to be somewhere for her to naturally look at above the camera. Thus the reason that the camera is below my head. I was able to engage her in conversation and in that manner subtly direct her without the bothersome “Can you lift your head and look over there, no, there” kinda mess. A regular person doesn’t take very good posing direction and when I’m in documentary mode I never to that because it spoils the mood and energy that I am witnessing.

  Glass

Technicals: Nikon D700, Nikon AF-D 50mm, ISO 800, f/1.4 @ 1/30th, Daylight WB.

So I totally forgot about this shot until Lindsay sent me this delightfully unflattering image of me at work. It reminded me of how often I use the Live View mode to help get the camera into places quickly that I can’t get my whole self into in order to make an interesting-er image by using it as a semi-remote camera. If you have a camera with such capacity I recommend that you give it a try.

 

Throw half your brain out the window

I tend to be focused on making images that are both interesting and technically correct in that order. It took me a while to not make photos in the other order. One of the pitfalls of coming from the landscape photography background is that there is often an inordinate amount of effort in that genre to produce as technically correct images as possible. As a result a lot of what you see is what I would call superbly crafted but voiceless work. On the other hand you have the “art” photographers who tend to shy far away from things technical and as a result delve into visual realms that are horrifying to the craft minded photographer. The art guys want to be personally expressive at any cost and as a result they often make what I would call images where they are trying too hard to be unique and their sloppy work detracts from what they are trying to convey.

It’s all about balance, right? So I try to bring “feel” to the photos that I create without making either the techniques that I use, or the lack there of, apparent. I think that whatever you use to get the job done is less important than the work itself. With some clients and assignments I can be loose and with some more crafted. It all depends on the circumstance. And I’m not one for nostalgia – I don’t go out of my way to intentionally make my images look low tech, warm/fuzzy or in any way retro. It’s just no my deal.

However, you know this was coming didn’t ‘cha?, when I came across this shot the other day I initially flinched because I tend to abhor lens flair. But darn it, it looked right! Like a good photog I took the shot and didn’t worry about if it fit with my typical shooting approach. It’s fairly low in contrast, has a bit of a warmish tone to it and I left it that way because it felt right. The kid is listening intently to a the championship finals of a Texas style fiddle competition. I guess that makes it doubly old time-y.

  Fiddle watcher
My way of measuring an image, or a song or any piece of art, is "do you understand what the artist is trying to tell you?". If what you see is something interesting, evocative or arresting, then the work succeeds. If what you see is the artists hands all over the work and not the artists soul or storytelling ability then the work fails. A lot of my work fails when I try too hard because typically my brain is trying to make things fall in place because I am exercising my will upon the image. When I turn my brain off and let what I see become clarified by what I know how to do then the image tends to work and in a free flowing and natural manner.