A little something from almost nothing

It amuses me whenever someone walks over while I’m working and asks what camera and lens I’m using. I always oblige because I love what I do and enjoy talking about my life and craft. The person asking the question will often say something like “Oh, wow. I’d love to have one of those” meaning my gear. Well, why don’t you? It’s just money, I tell them. They always look shocked when I say that: it’s just money. If you need it, then get one. If you don’t then don’t bother as it’s not necessary.

Really it isn’t.

Take a look at this video that I ran into the other day. Seriously watch at least a minute of this. It’s amazing. This kid wants to be a badazz prog-metal drummer. He didn’t let the fact that he’s poor and unable to afford a proper drum kit stop him. Thus, he made his own kit of of, eh, stuff. Then he put in a whole lot of work to gain the skill necessary to pull off complex drumming like this:

He didn’t let something as trivial as not having a $3000 drum kit let his dreams vanish. He made it happen. That’s what a dedicated artist does: find a way to make your passion for creation become reality regardless of the difficulties. BTW I found the video because it was re-posted by the band who he is covering and they thought that he nailed the song. Huzzah!

Back to the whole “gee, I wish I had your camera” conversation. Amateurs tend to have a gear fetish because they haven’t figured out that the real magic tool is in your head. I’ve had so many people talk to me about my gear and I can’t remember anybody asking me why I chose a particular lighting scheme or how I came up with a composition.

Buying the gear is easy: it just takes money. However the process of learning to think like an artist is hard as heck and sorry folks you can’t just buy that. It takes lots of time and frustrating hard work. Just ask the drummer kid. He knows.

Last month my wife and I attended a funky event called The Barbarian Dinner whereby all the attendees are expected to dress as their favorite sort of barbarian and bring a knife. No napkins or utensils are provided. You eat with your hands like a good barbarian does. Oh and all the beer that you can drink is a bonus as well. We went last year, had a blast and I figured that I’d shoot some video so that they could promote it for next year. I decided to shoot the whole thing with just my phone and gimbal. That’s it. I could have used any and all of my other gear but I decided that it was only going to get in the way. Besides, we weren’t there as a film crew, we were there as participants.

This is what I ended up with.

Moral of the story: a good idea well executed will always beat no real idea but lots of toys to play around with.

New boundaries

This has been a long time coming. As you may have figured out, I’m all about telling stories. I’m driven to find elements of other peoples experiences and find a visual way to connect the viewer to my subjects. Yet at the same time, I personally get to go interesting places and see interesting things that are not directly part of my assignment work. I began to feel that these experiences, especially my love for adventure motorcycle travel, would be in some way inspirational to people. I thought that maybe I should be sharing these trips using the skills that I have.

So after all this time being behind the lens I’m going to be in front of it. This is odd but I think that it will be cool. I spent quite a while pondering how to pull this off as a one man band, doing all my camera and audio work, while on the road documenting my travels in the manner that I almost could if I was telling the story of someone else. Then I had to practice because having the skill set and mind set to video a subject is different than when the subject is yourself. And I had to start somewhere!

Thus I put together the first piece of an ongoing set of observations based on where my motorcycle takes me both physically as well as internally.

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 …)

Boldly immodest

This was a shoot that I really don’t normally do. Almost all of the people that I photograph I would qualify as normal-ish but in some way exceptional. My subjects tend to live their lives based on what they know/skills or their talents rather than their image. Scientists, artists, maybe the occasional athlete, business people. They are not necessarily uncomfortable hanging out with me and being in front of my lens it’s just that they don’t do that sort of thing very often. Their experience could be a bit off if not handled well on my end. It’s important for me to make them comfortable with me and my goal is to make an image that speaks truly about them as a person while being interesting enough for the average person to want to learn more. “Who is this fellow? … Huh, particle physicist,  … facinating” That sort of thing.

I know from years of experience that asking my subjects to do funny things or to take any sort of direction the way that you would expect to do with say a professional model just isn’t going to work. They don’t know how to interpret my even simple directions such as “turn you shoulder more to me and lift up your chin a bit” will be wildly exaggerated and require me to walk over and physically pose them like a human Gumby Doll. Again making them feel awkward. So, yeah I don’t do that sort of thing very often.

Then I got this assignment and I knew that it would happily be the opposite of my usual procedure. Shinesty makes outrageous clothes for outrageous people. Therefor I knew that their president and founder Chris White would be up for whatever I came up with.  When a subject asks me “what do you want me to wear” and I think that they have a good sense of humor I will reply “Do you have a chicken suit? Ha-ha-ha! Right, just wear what you want” But with Chris I said, go get stupid. He knew what to do.

I got to work: there was a huge American Flag in the waiting room and a crappy couch. I moved some things around and boom! There was my frat house scene, perfect for Chris and his ensemble. The lighting had to be as unsubtle as Chris and Shinesty are so my main light was my 5 foot soft silver parabolic umbrella placed directly behind the camera.

That’s it Chris, more sleeze … more sleeze, make your grandma embarrassed.  Perfect!

The mystery of a moment

Somebody told me once that the real trick to photographing the real world is patience. That if you stand in once place long enough something interesting will happen right at your feet. This is pretty much the basis of all documentary and reportage photography. Only you attempt to figure out where and when that interesting thing is likely to happen then you go there and wait. Street photogs know this too. Same deal. Find a target rich environment and get ready to pounce.

A while ago I was out late and was behind the bar at this cool place talking to their master mixologist about how he comes up with new tastes. That’s “bartender” for you beer-and-a-shot folks. Anyhoo there were a few people seated near me and where apparently good friends from the energy coming off of them. I grabbed this frame:

I almost remember what they were talking about but to me there is so much going on here that I don’t want to.  I want to imagine and let my mind go wild. No knowing in this instance makes the image even more interesting. The gestures, expressions and the oddness of the moment really get me.  This is one of the things that I most love about still images: they hang there forever. We never get to see how this resolves. Come back later on and there is still those two claw like hands, the side-eye and touch of arrogance.

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.

Bounce House

I’m gonna tell ya, someone needs to make bounce houses large and tough enough so that us big kids can go nuts inside. Bounce houses are the perfect padded room to let your inner nut case out of his cage and let that freak go wild. I’m so jealous of those little fellas who get to play in them.

Was at a place with one the other day and got this shot of Ruth, what a perfect grandma name, waiting for her grandson to get properly worn out while safely inside the inflatable color riot. I mean the insane colors, graphics and those two different moments going on: the quiet one that Ruth is having and the behind her that little dude clearly intent on mayhem. Love it.

This was a classic case of: find the rough composition where you know that something is going to happen and then wait for the pieces to fall into place.

Spook

The end of summer

Wha? It’s the end of fall you dolt! True enough but let’s be nostalgic for a bit. I mean that’s all the rage innit? Here’s a frame that I got at the local end of summer fair. Not much to say here: I just like the framing and moment. The tool of choice here is my Fuji X100s. The perfect camera for invisible in plain sight work.

Fair

It’s all about having a perspective

It’s not because I’m used to it, though I am after all these years, but the world is just so boring when seen from where my eyes are normally at. It’s painful really. As a result I constantly strive to find a different way of seeing things. Getting my camera away from my usual eye level is pretty much a given with me. Is it more interesting from the perspective of a five year old? A dog, a bug? Maybe if I took the shot from a Shaquille O’Neal level would that be neat-o? Would it be even cooler if I took the shot while standing on Shaq’s shoulders? Ah, now we are getting somewhere!

I wear out all my shoes and jeans at a stupefying rate because I’m always kneeling, crawling and climbing to get a new angle. If there is a chair, ladder or overlook position available, I’ll be up there at some time to get a high angle. If there is anything on the ground, it will most likely end up in my hair or on my shirt because I’ll be down doing “the worm” to get a super swell look at things from the eye level of a cocker spaniel.

One of the reasons that it took some people a while to find the exact angle that Ansel Adams got for some of his famous images was that he didn’t shoot them from remotely eye level but from a platform on his car:

When we got the whole “live view” option on our cameras back in 2009 it made for much more precision when shooting overhead shots. It was no longer a “hail Mary” shot but a “Well looky there!” shot. If I can shoot tethered I can use live view when my camera in a position that couldn’t possibly include my head to get, say, perspective of being inside something. Perspective! I try to do my best to see things from 360 degrees around my subject to the best of my ability because somewhere in there is a perspective that is, well, interesting. Inclusion, exclusion … options and opportunities.

A while ago I was commissioned to do photos of Renegade Brewing here in Denver. If you have ever been in a working microbrewery you know that they are kinda cramped and getting perspectives can be tricky. I was up on the deck with Brian O’Connell the owner and head brewer while he was making a batch and after working a bunch of things I went really wide and high to get this:

Renegade

It was my fave frame of the day because it’s just different. And different, hopefully in a thought provoking way, is what I live for.

Amber waves

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

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

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

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

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

WSJ-Sorghum 2

WSJ-Sorghum 23

WSJ-Sorghum 20

WSJ-Sorghum 21

WSJ-Sorghum 17

WSJ-Sorghum 16

WSJ-Sorghum 14

WSJ-Sorghum 12

It’s not illusion …

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

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

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

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

Stairs

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

At the edges; an afternoon moment

Twist

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

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

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

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

Allison, or the moments between

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

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

So here is my fave frame from our time together:

Allison

Canned spontaneity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Accenture

Why? … Science!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And thus:

ECM

Still life with right angles

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

Mond

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