Stranger than fiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


The birth of an idea

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here is the full frame, no cropping.


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

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

So you think you can shoot?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

95,000 behind, what’s ahead?

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

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

What’s old is new -ish

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

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

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

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

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

Old and new

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?



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New rule: the “Oh SH!T” lens

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

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

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

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

Here are some favorite outtakes using this approach.





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

Shifting gears

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


1,000 words …

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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.


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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Innit funny?

Something happened the other day and it took me until about now to understand what really went on. Here's the situation. I was given an assignment to go someplace and make photos for an article. Nothing new here. I pack my bags to get physically ready for what I am to encounter and to render it as the client is anticipating. Load up the car and drive to the location but something is bugging me the whole time. I get those kind of feelings and I learned a long time ago to listen to them.

It's a kind of limbic system awareness that is not always correct but when it is you are thankful. Much like when you are out with a friend late at night and the friend says "Oh, let's cut through here, it's a short cut" and as you look down that dark alley/lonely street/empty park the hairs on your neck stand up and the pit of your stomach starts to tighten. You know that feeling. It's your lizard brain letting you know stuff that our much ballyhooed cerebellum tends to ignore. The feeling isn't good so you convince your buddy to take the long way and it just seems like you saved yourself a lot of getting lost, a flat tire or worse a mugging. Women tend to listen to the quiet little voices in our heads more than men do. While dudes have the same alert network they tend to boldly go on regardless of those nagging "something isn't right here …" notices.

(Meanwhile back at the ranch …) Before I left for the assignment I called the assignment desk to make sure that my info was correct. Yes it's all there just as they sent it to me. Uh, ok. And again as I was driving to the shoot I kept feeling that something was off. None the less I proceeded to get my head screwed on for what I needed to do. Now I don't try to previsualize a shoot as things rarely turn out as we imagine before we arrive. Worse it's not what the client expects having never been "there" and can't see what happens when you are trying to make something out of nothing.

Instead what I do is kind of like a meditation whereby I clear my mind so that I am open to whatever opportunity presents itself to me when I am on location. Sometimes what seems to be a totally worthless situation is actually pretty cool, it's just not what you expected and as a result you are so focused on what is not there you miss what is. Expecting a location with rich saturated colors and strong light but get a socked in overcast day and muted pastels? Make the tone of the image subtle and demure. Why not? Could be cool. Unless your mind is open to all possibilities you will only find what you are looking for rather than what is there. Insert your Zen here.

When I arrive at the location I immediately find out that the information given to me was wrong. The subject that I was supposed to photograph wasn't scheduled for that day at all and there is no way to work around it and therefore nothing to shoot for the client. Made a call back to the desk to explain and headed back home feeling bad. Not for the client, they dropped the ball somewhere and that's that. Not that I was put out, I still got paid for the shoot even if my cameras didn't leave the bag. Instead I was super let down. Granted the shoot wasn't supposed to be anything amazing where the clip would go into my folio or better yet be that "award winner". Ha! No it was just a chance to go and make photographs. Yes I make photos all the time but the bummer of it was that I had gotten into the zone and through the mess up it yanked me back to reality where things go wrong that I can't overcome through either my outright creativity or my ability to work the bad human based situation into a good one.

This scenario has happened many times in my carrier but it took until the other day to finally figure out why when it happens I feel so bad afterwards. Well not bad-bad but more like a real disappointment. I love the fact that I can earn a living doing what I do but that's because I love what I do so much that it is a critical part of who I am. The process of making photos, something I sometimes call "the dance", is almost an out of mind experience and needs to be. Getting psyched up to dance only to have the music stop as you enter the dance hall, man that's just no fun.

So on an up note, I was out the other night and grabbed this very colorful and luminous scene but decided that it was actually moodier than my eyes told me. Ah, artistic lisence!


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!


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.

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.


Voices in my head, voices of my past

I got into a conversation the other day about my background and influences. It was interesting for me to realize that most of the photographers who influenced me have basically nothing to do with the kind of work that I do. And yet they are still very much a part of my photographic self.

As with my post about learning from other photographers who are not necessarily in your niche, I’ve tried to learn from or be outright be influenced by every photographer and even some individual photographs that I encounter. I wanted to be a sponge and from what stays absorbed in my porous head becomes my approach. I think that when you learn one way of doing anything it’s very easy to come out of the process as compartmentalized as your learning method.

We’ve all seen the results: “Ah, you went to (insert important name here) school. I can tell.” Or “Who did you assist for? … yeah I can see the influence”. It’s important to have a style, approach or whatever to your work but it needs to be your own and when you are learning an art form it’s very easy to spend a lot of formative time attempting to duplicate the work of the one artist you most look up to. Then it becomes hard to break that down and rebuild yourself into you.

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Spot on

The other day I had what I’m now thinking of as an “Old Man Moment”. I was setting up a shot and I was walking around with my old beloved Minolta AutoMeter IVF getting readings. The subject of my photos was a bit of a photographer himself and while I was working he and I were talking about photo stuff. So he says to me “What’s that thing you are using?”, meaning my hand held light meter which I was using to dial in my strobes. I explained what it was and what it did. He seemed confused. “Doesn’t your camera figure that out for you?”

That baffled me for a sec. I explained that the camera can’t control the output or placement of my studio strobes and thus I have to set everything manually. He replied that it’s silly that with all the technology we have the camera can’t automatically set the lights. Well with lovely things like the Nikon CLS system it can but with a fair amount of limitations and since I was using 5 lights for the shoot the camera can’t handle all the calculations. Yet.

Then that reminded me of a shoot a few months ago where I was shooting an event and was next to another professional shooter whereby I was close enough to hear: Click! “Mmm, dark.” Click! “Still dark.” Click! “Still too dark.” I mentioned something like “Why don’t you just get a meter reading?” The response knocked me to my knees, “Naah! I’ll just change my exposures till it looks good on the screen.” Turns out the photog only shoots in Aperture Priority and will fiddle with the exposure compensation for a while until the exposure gets right. Holy wasted time Batman!

So it seems that because I own and actually use a hand held light/flash meter I am a bit of an oddity. And because I learned how to use a spot meter, that wonderful tool that is in just about every camera priced above $500, I am also a master of the arcane arts. Ok I understand that yes I learned to shoot on film and before the era of the intelligent multi segment meters which we take for granted. And yes I learned how to judge the reflective values of objects so that a spot meter can be used to determine not only exposure but also to figure out the range of brightness within the scene to be able to figure out how to process the image to make the best looking print/file because I learned the Zone System that Ansel Adams developed.

I guess that I’ve also taken something for granted: me. I am used to my working method and because of it I am an automated photographer and don’t use automated systems except for TTL flash in some situations and AF in poor light. The rest is up to me. I really only use my LCD screen to check my moments/compositions rather than exposure. In this way I can spend more time looking through my lens than at the back of my camera.

Case in point: I was shooting at a night club a while ago and the interplay of people, light and color was pretty interesting. I saw this couple and they were playing with his cell phone. I liked the way their faces were lit by the screen so I got a quick meter reading off his face with my spot meter and shot away. No lost time or lost frames because I botched the exposure a few times to dial it in. Huzzah!

Club 2

Techicals: Nikon D700, Nikon AF-S 28-70mm f/2.8 @ 35mm. Daylight WB. Handheld 1/3sec, ISO 4000.