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.

Chickens!

Anyone who spends time with my wife and I know that we have a real, weird, thing for chickens. We totally love the funky little buggers. We think that they are cute, hilarious – especially their odd vocalizations, noble and super tasty when stewed with dumplings.  We can be mid sentence in a very serious conversation but if we find one of those feathered guys in our vision somewhere we will promptly proclaim: “Chicken!” with a huge grin on our stupid faces. Yeah, I warned you about us.

So when I got two assignments lately to photograph chickens I was thrilled. The first was a story about the people at a small farm in Berthoud, not that far from where I live, that teaches people in the burgeoning urban homestead movement how to process their poultry. It’s usually chickens but lots of people are keeping ducks and turkeys too. This day it was just chickens. It was great to see that there was a whole family who was learning how to embrace the circle of life.





It’s been very important to me to know where my food comes from and to respect the sacrifices made for my dinner table. Seeing how the Rameys honor the birds was great to see as was the way that the people taking their class did as well.

Later on in the summer I did work on an article about a family who owns Cottonwood Creek, a pasture chicken farm out on the eastern plains of Colorado. Pasture raised is when the birds have full time access to open land to scratch, peck and eat anything that their little hearts desire. That means lots of bugs, worms and plants: a properly balanced chicken diet the way that nature designed. If you get your eggs at the store and it says “free range” that really is just a marketing term that says that the chickens live in doors but have access to a space outside the huge building for them to walk around in. It doesn’t say how big or wild the space is or much else. “Free range” is essentially the same as “never having seen the sun” chickens only you pay more for the label.

 

Matt Kautz and his family own about 60 acres where their hens roam in rotation so that now mobile roost stays on one plot for more than a week or so and many plots stay fallow to allow the vegetation and bug life to recuperate and be ready for the next roost to roll in.

The children regularly help out taking care of their 5000 hens along with collecting the eggs every day. The kids think that they have 5000 pets to cuddle with.

The hens quickly learn that they roost is where they sleep at night which keeps them safe from predators.

The best part was being able to watch all the hens just being, well, chickens in their natural environment. If you have never seen this you are missing out. Chickens are essentially forest ground dwelling birds and to run around in the grass and brush hunting for bugs is what they are meant to do.

Getting down to chicken level to photograph the hunting hens was amazing. Since they are the descendants of dinosaurs it wasn’t hard to lose sense of scale and see them as tiny dinos making their way through primordial forests. I refer to the above image as “Jurassic Chicken”.

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

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.

More with a little light

My last post where I brought out my handy flashlight to illuminate my subjects face during a long exposure made me remember this shot that I did a while ago. It was for a commercial client of mine Wild Goose Canning who makes canning lines for craft breweries. They needed something cool for advertising but the problem is that the machines are designed for function and not at all for appearance. The problem was: how to make a bunch of stainless steel bars and boxes look interesting especially when they are always seen in locations that are mostly stainless steel. Answer? Light paint that sucker!

So off I went to San Diego in December to shoot the install of a new system showing the set up of the system in both stills and video. The plan was that once the system was installed to do some photos for future advertising. We did a bunch of stuff that worked fine but my big idea was to light paint the system because it would give a look that 1) would be neat-o and 2) would show their canning line in a way that was half sci-fi and half “playboy centerfold”.

The method is simple. Set up the camera on the tripd and line up your shot. Turn out the lights and leave the shutter open while you run around like squirrel on crack with a flashlight adding in the light with brush strokes of your flashlight or in my case three different ones for different effects. It’s a trial and “ooo, THAT didn’t work” process but once you get the hang of it it goes pretty easily. I’ve often said that photography is very much a performance art as you are constantly “in the now” and learning as you go: improvising like any good jazz musician does. Well let me tell ya folks light painting a big bunch of steel is very much like dancing while doing arithmetic at the same time.

Wha?

Yeah. Because you are trying to make interesting sweeps of light with your light “brush” but you are counting constantly in your head. “Slowly up the right side, one-two-three, now arch around to the display panel, one-two, open up the underside for a count of seven … ” like that. If you are really good you are keeping a total count for your total exposure that you’ve programmed into your camera. Most cameras only allow you to dial in 30 seconds of exposure and after that you need and external release or even better one that is programmable so that you can set it for whatever time that you need. In this case I was shooting tethered to my laptop using Nikon Camera Control Pro 2 so that my client rep could see on the bigger screen what we were getting. But that still doesn’t give me more than 30 seconds so I used my ancient Nikon MC-20 remote which allows me to program in a long exposure time. We found that about 1 minute 45 seconds gave me enough time to paint things in while not overly burning in the lights on the machine.

The end result is just what I had hoped for and the great thing is that this is straight out of the camera even though it looks “shopped” to heck.

A little light work

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So you think you can shoot?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rushdie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New rule: the “Oh SH!T” lens

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

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

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

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

Here are some favorite outtakes using this approach.

_DSC6079

Dan

DEVELOPINTELLIGENCE Margarette

MouCo

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

How a $6 cord made my life a lot easier

One of my good clients contacted me a while ago about doing a fairly significant bit of work for them that would take place over three days. Everything was spot on: perfect access, total organization, great client, interesting assignment, oh and the money was nice too! So I was putting everything together and then about less than a week before the assignment date I was asked if it would be possible to be able to get images to them directly after I shot them. Now by directly, I don’t mean next day or even at the end of the day as they were talking about within five minutes or so of my pressing the shutter button because the client wanted to be able to post updated on what was happening as it was happening. Now in a studio shoot or something controlled where I could say shoot tethered to a computer and have an assistant take charge of the incoming images and quickly process/transmit that wouldn’t be a problem. In this case it was a huge issue becasue I was going to be basically constantly shooting and constantly on the move for three straight days with nearly no breaks except to grab a quick bit of lunch. Really. What to do?

Normally I’d just throw my laptop into my backpack and haul that around until I needed to stop shooting and transmit. Nothing new here as we news guys have been doing this for a decade. Woa, that makes me feel extra old! But the problem is that I was on the run and couldn’t really have my laptop running constantly for 8+ hours in my backpack so that I could pop in a card to my card reader, open the image in P-Shop and ftp it to the client every time they tell me to send this or that image. There had to be another solution.

Enter the OTG cable! (Cue triumphant music)

This little guy has been around for a while but nobody seems to have paid any attention to it except for the hardware developer types. What it does is internally change a USB client port into a USB host port. This lets dumb usb ports on things like your smartphone or tablet read devices like external drives and in my important case – Compact Flash card readers. Ta-DA! Thus I quickly got a USB-OTG, which stands for On-The-Go, plugged it into my trusty Galaxy SII phone and she-zam! I could access all my images without having to bother with my laptop. The big Huzzah! here is that there are some solutions for reading camera files out there but unless you are using a camera that saves to an SD card you are out of luck. There has been the camera connector for the iPad for a while but that only works for, you got it, SD, cards. If you are using a professional camera you are using Compact Flash and as a result those connectors are useless. You need an OTG cable so that you can plug your CF card reader directly to your phone/tablet.

Now what I did was shoot RAW/Jpg and then just ftp the Jpg files that I needed, saving the RAW for later processing where they get the full treatment. But for the client’s need of “I have to post updates pronto!” the straight from the camera Jpg works dandy.

I have been looking for some such solution to his problem for a few years and until now have had no luck. Now I will be taking a card reader and my $6 OTG cable with me on all news assignments just in case. And as luck would have it I was saved by this little wonder just the other day: I was driving to an assignment and got the call that the images I was about to shoot was being bumped to the earlier issue and they needed the images not next week but today. Did I mention that it was an afternoon shoot and I was 2 hours away from my computer? No prob! Shot it RAW/Jpg and sent the editor files straight from my card to his delight.

Tech tip: I’m not sure about this but I seems that if your device is charged throught the USB port the OTG will work as is, just plug your card into the reader and then the reader/OTG cable into the device and it will be seen and powered by the device without issue. As I said it works perfectly on my Galaxy SII phone. However it will not work as is on my Acer A100 tablet. It sees the USB Mass Storage Device but can’t power it. Makes sense as the A100 is charged by a separate power supply. If you have such a device you can get a splitter cable that with an external battery will power that silly USB port. So there ya are, a new, cheap and easy way to access your camera files without a full computer or expensive accessory.

OTG

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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