More words from a Master

When I’m in the office I constantly have something playing on my second monitor that I can learn from and be inspired by. I’ve been listening to a lot of episodes of Inside The Actors Studio, that amazing series on Bravo where they interview great actors and directors about their lives and the personal aspects of their craft. I was just finishing the end of the episode with Al Pacino and he said, to paraphrase: “You want to keep trying to see things fresh and not know what you are going to do. It’s like I’m doing this for the first time. When that stops happening, I’ll stop acting. Because then what’s the point? Then it’s a job.”

This totally encapsulates how I feel about my work. I hate, hate, hate repeating myself. I loath to have to be one of those guys who finds a signature image/look and keeps doing variations on that one photo for years because it makes them famous and thus brings them work. If that happened to me I’d hang up my cameras and get a meaningless job because all the joy would have been sucked out of my photography. I don’t do this for the money. I do this because it thrills me. Every day is different. Every shoot is unique. Every subject new. I don’t ever want that to change.

So part of the challenge is to make subjects that I’ve shot before seem totally new. Push-push-push. And man is that sometimes tough but to me there is no emotionally and artistically acceptable alternative. To not push is asking for a kind of soulless death. (Yeah kinda dramatic I know but hey! … that’s how I feel.)

I was sent to shoot one of the many vigils and outpourings of support for the numerous students who have committed suicide lately because of the pressure, intimidation and bullying regarding their homosexuality. I’ve shot these kind of things before and they tend to be mostly the same. I do find that they tend to be a group of people with a common emotional experience but they rarely seem to personally connect with anyone but who they came to the event with. So after the moments of silence and a few hushed and teary words of support for the cause they started to put out their candles and shuffle home. I did all the basics: wide shots high and low, groups leaning on each other with the candles warming their faces against the cool blue of the night sky, tight shots of the few tears that appeared. All that. Job done but nothing different. The client be happy but I wasn’t. I wanted something different. I saw a group that had kept their candles alive and had formed a circle. I said hello and then laid on the ground at their feet pointing my lens up. That worked. Something different. Job better done and a shot from old territory that is fresh to me.


Technicals: Nikon D700 @ ISO3200, Tungsten WB, 1/30th sec. Nikon AF-D 28mm f/1.4 @ f/2.8.

I’ll cover your flank or not a back seat driver

I met Lindsay Lack about 3 years ago, I think, when I put
together a gathering of local news and documentary photographers for a night of
drinking and pictures. She and her hubby had just recently moved to Denver
from Iowa where she had finished a
few internships after graduating from the Missouri
journalism school. Great gal, good shooter. I kept in touch with her and she quickly
became my assistant and friend.

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11 hours, 1755 frames but I got more than just soggy shoes

So my friend LuLu tells me that she and her long time sweetie Chris were finally getting married. Since their little mountain town throws a huge party on 4th of July they thought "why not join in?"  She is a chef and he is the drummer in the popular Phish tribute band Phix so you know that it was going to be a good time. How's the day going to start?, I ask. "Well", she says, "we are riding the fire truck in the parade and there's a kazoo marching band …" AaaahG! I'm in! How can you pass THAT up? So I assigned myself to be their officially unofficial photographer.

Well the area has been getting monsoon weather lately and it didn't let us down – as in downpour. It rained and rained but luckily it stopped for the hour of the ceremony and some family pictures then it rained during the reception but then it cleared for the big fireworks display that this tiny town somehow finds the money every year to put on. Which is odd considering how many cities canceled their fireworks due to budgetary issues. Anyhoo it was a total hoot. This little town is nuts in the best mountain hippy way possible. Here's some of my faves:

During the parade, which is about 6 blocks long, there was this kid who made this hat from a cardboard box. Love it!


Except during the ceremony I pretty much shot everything with my Nikon D700 and Nikon AF-D 28mm f/1.4 wide open. I so love this lens.


Lu 2


 Like I said: it rained but that didn't stop them from dancing like the happy bunch that they are. I found the hard way that the weather seals on the D700 work really well. I was totally drenched shooting the dancers but the camera acted as if nothing happened. Whoo-Hoo!



There were dogs everywhere and not a clean one in sight.


This is the kind of shot that frankly you just couldn't get a few years ago. It's shot with my AF-D 28mm f/1.4 wide open at ISO 3200 at one and a third seconds; yes with a tripod. The files these days are so clean at what used to be insane levels of sensitivity that it's stunning. Combine that with long exposures that don't give hot pixels and an available darkness shooter like me is in heaven. This was done at EV-2 which is a stop below the lowest light level that Nikon says that the camera will autofocus at. By using the autofocus on the guys Nike shirt I was able to get a focus point in conditions where our eyes could never ever register as sharp. Man do I love this technology.



The red glow is the fire fighters setting off fire works while the moon shines through the evening fog. Kinda spooky huh?


Things we can do now

I fully admit that I an a gearhead, technology junky or in other words: a nerd. I love the tools and arcana of my work. However I don't get emotionally wrapped up in them as it's just a waste of time. I don't care who made this neat-o tool/toy so long as it works and gives me options that other things don't. Anyone who knows me is aware that I have more gear than I may need but not as much as I want and yet I end up using all of it at one time or the other. It's not just for show folks!

However I am not one to rush out and get the latest anything. I wait for the fix because they rarely work right the first time especially anything involving software. I wait and see if this new thing is really great or just hype. So given that: here's a little story.

I've been using the Nikon D700 for a while now and I simply love-love-love it. The D3 came out and rocked the world. When it's baby brother the D700 hit with essentially all the same systems but in a smaller body I just walked out and plunked my money down. I knew that there were going to be some aspects of the thing that weren't going to be quite "all that and a bag of chips" but what the heck?

Well frankly I think that the cameras we have these day are a pretty big bag of chips and the D3/D700 are the cats pajamas. They enable us to do things that we really couldn't have done just a few years ago. We used to be able to only make photos where there was more than a certain quantity and quality of light. There were some places that frankly if you could make photographs they resulting quality was very poor.

It wasn't that long ago when Fuji came out with their Fujicolor Press 800 film that gave us, at the time, the unheard of professionally usable ISO of 1600 when push processed. It may sound funny but that was a big deal and opened up a lot of opportunities. Did it really look good? Well it was ok but everything else looked horrible. However that film and it's glory wasn't an option for magazine or commercial photographers – that was a newspaper shooter thing. Magazine/commercial guys have quality requirements that just weren't met by that film when pushed. So they didn't shoot in situations where you could/had to use the 800 pushed or not. Their work was usually capped at ISO 200 because for color they shot slide film and ISO 400 slide film never got to be worth a darn.

That's the way that the world was and for those of us who lived and worked back then to a degree we still have that in our heads … "Can I get a way with ISO 400 here?" Well that's all changed in a major way. My D700 gives me resolution that rivals medium format and ISO's that are beyond anything that film ever produced and beyond the digital cameras of the last generation. I now have to get used to walking in to a situation and saying "Oh cool! I'll just use ISO 3200 and it will look great!" It still freaks me out and it will for a while. I'm making photos in places that you just coudn't shoot in before. Wha!

Ooh! Then there's little thingys like Live View which I was certain that was going to be worthless – viewing through the LCD playback screen had to be a joke. Nope it's ver-ah kuhl and I've ended up using it alot. So much that I have a function button setup in my main shooting preset. So no more "Hail Mary" shots where you are shooting high or low angles without knowing what the lens is actually seeing.

Case in point:

Technicals: Nikon D700, Nikon AF-D 28mm f/1.4. 1/20th @ f/1.4 ISO 2000 Tungsten WB. Sandisk 4GB Extreme III card.

I shot a story about how with the economy being what it is people are flocking to restraunts and bars happy hours for the discount drink and eats. This place was rocking but dark-dark-dark. A year ago I'd walk in and start trying to think of how to light it so that it looked natural since the ambient lighting was so low. Granted I cheated with my 28mm f/1.4 "The Secret Weapon" but bear with me. @ ISO 2000 the file looks like it was shot at maybe ISO 400 from cameras that were state of the art two years ago. I could have gone to a higher ISO but this combo gave me what I wanted.

Now I didn't "see" this shot. I was behind the bar and put my camera between some pint glasses pointing up at the ladies. There was no possible way for me to get my eye to the viewfinder so I used Live View for composition and focusing; switching it off for the final frame. The depth of field on that lens at f/1.4 is very very small as I've shown before – one major reason I used it here. I could not have gotten a sharp point of focus by guessing or by hoping that I had an AF point that I could get on the face of the gal at the right but not focus on the glass just below her head. This is fargin cool stuff.

There are new worlds that are opening up to us just because we have cameras, and some lenses, that give us the ability to produce quality images in now new places. We will be seeing the world in new ways just because this technology is being used by insightfull and creative photographers. Thinking about that gives both the nerd and artist in me goosebumps

Party pix

I was sent to cover the hub-bub at the Colorado State Republican Victory Party on the 4th. Anyone who has done this knows that it's usually boring as all get-out. A bunch of candidates, their families and policy wonks milling about drinking heavily – you hope! – and watching tv. Oh yeah!  THAT'S going to make for good photos. Even if yer candidate looses he's not going to openly weep into his scotch so that you can get an good emotive photo. Nope. But then trying to make something visually interesting out of the painfully boring is usually our/my job.

I was initially to follow 3 candidates in hotly contested races but, to my delight, two didn't attend the event. That left me following only Nick Kliebenstein. That's a great thing as these guys don't hang around in a tight group and making my way around the Marriott in the dozen or so small party rooms and the big ballroom filled with about 400 people would be awful. As I said: sometimes a boy gets lucky.

Nick was not as prompt in getting there as I was so I wandered about and just shot stuff to keep me from getting bored. Yes I said that out loud. Once he got there I was just in "hang out" mode. Nick's a great guy and his wife, and aide Matt were delightful to spend time with. Makes my job even easier!

I brought a fair amount of gear because I didn't know what I would need. I quickly found that with just my D700 and beloved AF-D 28mm f/1.4  I had the ticket for this kind of chaos: wide enough to give me some air around my subjects but that fab f/1.4 gives me an amazing separation between the subject and the stuff around him. It's like how you use a longer lens to separate the subject from the background but with a wide angle view. Man-alive I'm glad that I kept this lens during the DX chip era.

So here are some snaps from that night. All of these except for the last one was shot with my D700, ISO400, Tungsten WB, AF-D 28mm f/1.4 @ f/1.4 around a 1/90 sec.

Ah the glamorous side of being an on air tv personality!


Watching the results trickle in, I was echoing her sentiment.


Oh come on! If you saw this kinda light tell me that you wouldn't shoot it too.


Here's Nick telling some supporters that he had essentially chewed off all his fingernails in anticipation of the results.


Aide Matt, Nick and Nick's wife Krista kept checking Nick's Blackberry for more up to date results than was coming over the 8 bajillion tv feeds that were going on. It never looked good.


"Hey why don't you go make interesting photos of people waiting around and watching tv?" Gad! Well that's what it was all about. I must say that this is the shot that makes me love that 28mm f/1.4: the catchlight in Nick's eye is perfectly sharp but look at the lovely out of focus background that is a cluttered mess if sharp but isn't so it doesn't.


Now this one was done with my AF-S 17-35mm f/2.8. In these situations when there is a scrum you tend to do a "hail Mary" overhead shot. After a while of doing these you get to know kinda where you need to point you lens to get a usable framing realizing that you need to shoot wide to allow for the necessary crop to level out the nearly always tilted horizon you get when not looking through the lens. Well I have one of my control buttons on the D700 set to activate the Live View mode and since I do a lot of "No-looky" shots this function is just the bomb. I was able to shoot Senate candidate Bob Schaffer talking to the press after his concession speach and see exactly what I was aiming at. This is a full frame shot – no crop. Man I love our tools these days!


Well as we all know the Republicans didn't do very well so the Republican Victory Party was neither Victory nor Party but I actually had a good time. I didn't get anyone crying into their Martini's but we will go through the whole excercise again in a few year so who knows?