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 …)

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.

 

2 in 1, or: my visual Gemini life

My work for the last few years has developed this neat-o split personality. I do portraits and I do reportage. Sometimes I get to do that for the same assignment which is to me very cool.

I do a lot of business profiles and to me it’s important to not only make the head dude/dude-ette look cool but also, if at all possible to show the people who work there who don’t wear the fancy suits. When you realize that the big guy that you are photographing has maybe ten minutes to spend with you, ya need organization and the ability to make a lot happen in no time with no fuss. That’s when I drag in all the cases of lights and stands and impressive looking stuff. I make a plan which usually consists of  2-3 different looks in one general area so that I can be as efficient as possible. I usually figure that I really only have five minutes to get “John Bigbooty, President of Megacorp, with their new SuperWidget XL2”. Once that is done I pack up all the gee-whiz stuff and go light and mobile: one body and usually just my 24-70 which which to head back to the engineering lab where they are hard at work developing the SuperWidget XL2 PLUS.

I love these assignments as they very clearly represent my two selves: the lighting it just right meticulous me and the freewheeling “screw the technicals – this is neat-o!” me.

Case in point: I did photos at a Denver company called MMLocal who is making waves with their small batch and rather artisan pickles. It’s run by two friends who are super dudes and they were a lot of fun to shoot for the five or so minutes that I could pry them away from running their quickly growing company. BTW I really lucked out here. They look a bit a like, dressed alike that day so I make the shot sorta monochromatic by shooting them against the side of their big galvanized cooler where they ferment their sauerkraut. Made their brightly colored product stand out.

MMLocal1

Then I headed to the production facility and got this shot of one of their guys putting in a batch of pickles into the steamer for canning. Moody!

MMLocal2

Case #2. It’s a small world and I was sent to shoot my buddies at Renegade Brewing once again. Brian O’Connor their founder and head brewmeister is a heck of-a guy but with a big expansion under way is the “one armed paper hanger”.

Renegade 1

Then it was back to shoot the pirates in the brewhouse making the end result of Brian’s master plans.

Renegade 2

I love these gigs. It works all of my brain and forces me to be as creative as possible in the shortest amount of time. My head often hurts at the end of the day but I like it that way.

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.

Copy cat, copy cat!

“It
is better to fail in originality than to succeed in imitation.” Herman Melvile

I had a very interesting thing happen the other day. I went
to my mail box, the physical one, and on the cover of a publication was an
image that stopped me in my tracks. So I went inside and showed it to my wife
whose eyes got very large upon seeing it. “How can they copy you like that?”
she cried. She was rather upset at it all and I thought it was funny. Why?

 

Well the deal is that the cover shot was what appears to be
a poor imitation of one of my images. How can I say that? Well it goes as
follows: I have a photo in my folio that I produced a little over a year ago
where the same subject, but not same exact person, is standing in essentially
the same spot, facing the same way, posed in a very similar manner, shot with
the same angle of view, from the same perspective only without my better and
more dramatic lighting.  Big deal – it’s
a co-inky-dink. I’m not so sure.

 

Ya see I know the publication. I know the editor who
assigned the photo. The editor has seen my folio. The person who made the image
may not be fully aware of me and my work but the editor is. I’m not sure whose
idea it was but the person in charge had to have known in the back of their
mind that the image was familiar.

 

Or it was intentional but not as a “copy” so much as an
inspiration. I get that. I have lots of inspirational images that float around
in my head. Inspiration is important. I never tried to imitate anyones work let
alone copy an image. I did and do look at other peoples work and learn from it.
As I’ve said before I will sometimes think to myself “What would Joel Sartore/Albert
Watson/Joey Terill/some other cool photog/ do with this complete mess of a
situation?” Then I’d put my twist on that bit of inspiration.  

 

Truth be told I’m just about to go to a shoot that was inspired
by someone else’s work. Well not a single image, more like 2-3 different ones
from different photographers, and what I’m going to be doing will not look like
the shots that gave me the “Ah-HA!.” Similar kind of location but, different
lighting, different subject, different mood and my own twist on top of it all. That
will end up being a shot that is mine and not one where you can say “Mmm, didn’t
Whatshisname shoot something like this?”

 

Still for the photog who may or may not have been inspired
by my image: either way I’m flattered.

Words from masters of other arts

I ran across these two short bits of thought that totally made sense to me about our job as a photographer in capturing visual moments. Unless you are doing still lives in the studio there is always some variable element. If the subject is a person then even if they are the most trained actor/athlete there are a whole range of different ways that they can perform the same action. It's our job as photographer to direct, and in camera via our decision to make the exposure and then which one of our exposures to use, edit to deliver the moments that we want. Which brings me to this though on directing from Steven Spielberg:

Then on the other hand you have the freewheeling journalist/documentary approach where you have no real control over what is going to happen and you are improvising along with the elements around you. Most of my work is like this and the jazz great Sonny Rollins puts it perfectly here:

But there there is a world where you need to combine both and be able to turn the director and improviser on and off in a moments notice. I find that this is really hard and when I do it my brain gets tired from using the clutch all the time with all the gear changing. Stay too long or too shot in one mind frame and things go wrong. It's all about balancing the knowing of what you want and letting the rest flow. Ooooooooommmmmmmmmm!

What’s my motivation?

In the editorial world there is a pretty tight ethics boundary that just about every publication that has a reputation for being a news source adheres to. Basically, you don’t mess with reality. That often makes your job as a photographer easy because if it doesn’t happen you can’t be blamed for not photographing it. However it is also a tough thing when nothing is happening, the light is awful, the environment is worse and time is short. That’s when you start pining for your lights, a good wardrobe for the subject and maybe a gothic cathedral to shoot in. But that’s not reality. That’s portraiture.

Being both a personal and professional Gemini I have two sides to me: the documentarian who likes to show up with nothing more than a D700 body, my 24mm, 50mm and 85mm lenses with a flash that usually doesn’t leave the bag. Then there is the portrait photographer who shows with a backpack full of cameras, lenses, a big case of high powered strobes, a big bag or two of lighting modifiers and stands along with maybe a case of extra stuff so that I can put light in tough places or remove light if I so choose. Then there is the makeup artist and a concept that is often bounced around at a meeting with atleast one editor type and a pre-arrainged location that is deemed to convey the idea that we have for the photo. Oh and there is some person to be in front of my lens. 

But given all that extra junk used to switch from “reality” mode to “created reality” mode the guy behind the lens is still the same dude and I try to be the same ethical fellow regardless of how much artifice is brought in.

Since the lens points both ways how you photograph a subject is a indicitive of what kind of person you are. Portraits often say as much about the photographer as they do the subject – so many choices are made by the photographer about the image before the subject even wakes up that day. However to me the subject should not be the photographer. All the work that goes into making the photograph should, in my opinion, reveal something about the subject and not be about the wacky idea that the photographer convinced the subject to go along with. 

However many of the “top” editorial portrait photographers are about the idea behind the photo and not really about the subject. Well that may be ok for them but it’s not me. Even if I have a great idea for a portrait I still want you to look at it and see anything except the subject. I want to be a conduit for some aspect of the subject be it their strength, humor, prestige, frailty, sadness or whatever. I want to be drawn to them as a photographer so that my viewers will share that fascination.
I ran across a very thought provoking piece on NPR the other day that was talking about the ethics of portrait photography. Give it a listen and few thought cycles.