10.20.2014

Moving past career paralysis. Pro or Amateur.




I thought I hated traveling but I've found recently that I only dislike traveling when I don't have a good reason in my head to go. Last week we took a couple days off, added them to the weekend and went off to visit the boy at college. His mom and I wanted to see how he was doing. Neither of us had seen the college he chose so we were doing that "anxious parent" thing of making sure he was safe and well. We needn't have worried. He seems to have made a series of good choices.

But the trip served to take me past traveling just for client service or with some sort of art mission in mind. I was traveling for non-photographic reasons probably for the first time in 25 years or so. Because of that I took only one camera and one lens. That's also very unusual for me. I usually take at least a back up body and a secondary choice of lens.

I made due with a Panasonic GH4 and the 12-35mm. I only shot when I wanted to. I depended on Belinda to do most of the "Ben in dorm room, Ben in dining hall, Ben with friends" shots and I pulled the camera out sometimes mostly just in response to things I found beautiful.

I felt blocked in my career lately. I was suffering from the paralysis that comes from, "been there, done that" syndrome. In a nice way taking a break from the expectation of photography helped me see more clearly the deep rut I'd allowed myself to fall into and the quick method of course correction for rut stuck people. It's to stop working and to start playing. 

That's it. That's all. By subjugating the camera to the reason for my travel (to see Ben and his new environment) I was able to defuse the single-mindedness of the relentless photographic process and use it the way I used to. And that was to make photographs that I liked of things that seemed important or beautiful to me.

Traveling with no photographic purpose is a way of letting go for me. Fewer cameras and fewer expectation of photography served to distill the pleasure into digestible little doses and helped me stop being obese with imaging.

Less investment of purpose. More enjoyment of being in the moment. Photography in the service of what I love instead of being in love with photography and scrabbling to find ways to express that misguided love. Who knew?

10.15.2014

Get "The Lisbon Portfolio" Kindle version on Sale!!!


I am doing a "countdown" sale of the electronic (Kindle) version of the Lisbon Portfolio on Amazon.com. Today the price is only $2.99 (regularly $9.99) in a day or two it will jump up to $4.99 and then go to $6.99 and then, at the end of the week, it goes back to the regular price. 

I thought I would do this for readers who are feeling a bit cash strapped right now but might want to join in the fun and adventure with our hero, Henry White. If you've been waiting for the price to drop it just did. But only for a few days.

Read the reviews and then get my book for less than the price of a medium sized latte at Starbucks. 

You'll be happy you did. I'll be grateful you did!

Observations about using a Nikon D7100 for work.

This image is from Balmorhea, Texas. It was shot with 
an Olympus EP-2.

Earlier this year a client took me by surprise. We didn't communicate as well as we usually do or maybe I just didn't pay attention very well but... we did a photo shoot of an actor in a number of different characters in front of a white background. I thought the client would be using the images in print ads and on the web so I was very, very comfortable shooting it with a Panasonic GH4, a camera I had used extensively and knew I could rely upon for just about anything. I used one of the best m4:3 lenses, the Leica Summulux 1.4 and we lit the whole thing with studio flash so we could freeze any action. I shot at the base ISO and metered carefully. The raw images looked really, really good. 

Then, casually, the final client announced that they were very excited to have such nice images to work with on their posters! Yikes! Could an m4:3 file stretch up to 24 by 36 inches and still look great? My old prejudices, fueled by the group hysteria of the web, overwhelmed my ability to evaluate empirical evidence and see the reality that the 16 megapixel files from the GH4 were very much up to the task. Perhaps a Nikon D810 would have given us more detail but what the client produced in the real world was right on target. 

Too bad for me that I am reactive and reflexive and a bundle of anxiety. The minute we finished the shoot, with the fresh information about the intention to produce posters, my mind rushed to the worst case scenario= the files might not work. (The problem with being an anxiety inflicted freelance photographer is that one tends to worry about every detail and every step and works on back up plans to ward off  imagined disaster, always forgetting that photography is rarely a life-or-death undertaking). 

I decided to add camera inventory I could use for future giant blow ups.  I did some quick research, looked at my potential budget and all the vectors crossed at intersection of resolution/cost/no "AA" filter and track record. I rushed up to Precision Camera and bought a Nikon D7100 and some extra batteries.

I bought a 50mm 1.8G, repurposed my Nikon 55mm f2.8 Micro and also grabbed a very well reviewed 85mm 1.8G. With that selection, a 35mm and a couple of zooms I had a kit that I felt was a good candidate for high res, high enlargement imaging. Should I have bought a full frame camera instead? Maybe. But at ISO 100 and 200 (my usually studio ISO settings) I sure doubt that I would see much difference. Certainly third party tests didn't show much (if all all) difference.

Since buying the camera I've done back and forth comparisons with the GH4 and I'm relieved to find that the GH4 is within a nano-whisker of the level of detail and, with the X lenses (35-100 and 12-35) is, overall, very competitive with the Nikon. Finding that out meant additional rationalizations would be needed to justify keeping the Nikon (beside the fact that some clients seem comforted by tradition). The one I settled on was flash performance. Yes, the Nikon has more accurate exposure in flash modes than does the Panasonic. But is that reason enough to keep it considering the few times per year I use on camera or slightly off camera flash anymore? Maybe, but I'm pretty sure I can sort out the Panasonic flash situation, given time...

At any rate I decided to use the Nikon D7100 with the 85mm lens to make the 100 portraits I'd been hired to do yesterday and the day before. We'd be working in a makeshift studio in a large training room at the client location and doing everything with studio flash. The camera seemed appropriate given its crispy file rendition, its double card slot which allowed me to shoot 2200+ raw images to one SD card while simultaneously writing smaller Jpeg files to the second card slot for quick web gallery images. The battery life is really good and the magazines and web sites all say that the PD autofocus of the camera is fast and sure even under low light...

I worked with assistant, Amy, the past two days and we worked together as though we'd practiced... The white background was lit within a quarter stop all the way across. It was neatly framed by two large, black flags just out of the camera's view. We were doing a very particular style which will be subjected to lots of post production so our main light was a large beauty dish covered with diffusion. 

The camera was set up and meter readings taken everywhere. In fact, we metered at the start of every session. We also did a custom white balance each morning---just to be sure. It should have been so easy...

First issue. While the camera and lens say f8 the light absorption of the optical system is probably two or three tenths of a stop. It's hard to evaluate that on the rear screen (which always looks cheery and perky!!!) but when you pull files into a raw converter it's pretty obvious. Since there's no review in the finder (where the image would be protected from ambient light contamination and screen reflections) you really are at the mercy of histograms while in the field and I find that the histograms are calibrated to keep jpegs from blowing highlights which means that relying upon the histograms in cameras means darker raw files. Not that big of an issue at ISO 100 or 200 as there is a ton of headroom in the raw files from the magical Sony or Toshiba sensor. But still it's an extra pain in the butt. 

With a well set up GH4 you would see the disparity between measured light and light on the sensor immediately in the post review in the EVF, along with info about aperture and shutter speed settings. Not so on the Nikon. When I stopped to bring up a review at one point I mis-used the four way control on the back of the camera and inadvertently changed the f-stop by 1/3 stop and the shutter speed by 1/3 stop. I didn't catch the mistake until our next break but there really wasn't much change on the camera's rear screen, only on the computer monitor back at the studio. On the GH4 the exposure change would have been immediately apparent on the EVF. And the f-stop and shutter speed are constantly shown on my rear screen between shots. Not so on the Nikon. If your camera is at eye level on a tripod you cannot see the top window with its indications and you can only see the technical information if you go into the preview mode and then toggle the view to see more information. Operator controls seem crucial to basic photography and at this juncture the EVF just spanks the hell out of the OVFs for relevant control. 

I haven't really thought about camera buffers since the days of the Nikon D100 and the Fuji S2 but man oh man does the D7100 ever come crashing against its buffer again and again. I initially had the camera set for lossless compressed raw files at 14 bits with lens distortion correction enabled. As I hit the buffer again and again one after the other settings were compromised. First I switched to lossy compression of the raw files. Then I switched to 12 bits. Then I turned off the distortion correction. Even then I would still hit the buffer when shooting quickly to catch a fleeting expression or gesture. Yes, I know it's 24 megapixels. Maybe that's why Canon lets you choose raw image sizes....

But if you never used a better camera it might not bother you. Using the GH4 means super fast processing and a much deeper buffer. It's very raw to hit the wall with that camera. The immediate comparison was eye opening.

Next issue. All of the moonlights we use have 100 watt modeling lights. While the illumination is sufficient to quickly focus a new GH4 the D7100 seemed to struggle a bit to lock focus in the same basic light levels and it was a bit frustrating. Since this metric (fast focusing)  is the crux of all arguments in favor of traditional camera designs I was more than a little stumped. Maybe it's a sinister case of marketing over reality. Maybe the only thing DSLRs really do well in the focus realm is AF-C. They sure aren't a step up for in-studio AF-S....

At one point yesterday I was photographing a person who was easily six feet, six or seven inches tall. Remember, I'm the optimum height, five foot eight. I stood on my little Pelican case and stretched but it was clear that I needed to use live view in order to really be able to frame and shoot the images well. After years of using great live view in Panasonic, Olympus and Sony cameras the comparison with the Nikon live view was-----stark. Really stark. Snail focus. Long lags. Crappy live view boost. Took me right back to the early, ugly days of digital. I got the shot but I was miffed at the low level of tech being delivered by my camera.

So, bitch, bitch, bitch. The bottom line is that the files are very pretty, we're experienced enough to catch and work around the issues and the job got done with little muss and fuss. And the files are very, very good. Nice tonality, no burned highlights, great dynamic range. But all in all, for the use in mind I will reach for the GH4 or the Olympus EM-5 next time. Even if only for the lovely implementation of live view on the rear screen for photographing tall people. I believe that, at ISO 200 with good lenses on both cameras, both would exceed all quality parameters with ease and headroom to spare. So why not work with a camera that makes shooting easier and more fluid?

Will I keep the Nikon and the flurry of lenses I've gathered in? Hmm. I guess so. Unless you want them... But it's hard to imagine any shoot other than a flash centric one or an "ultimate possible resolution" one in which it would make more sense than an m4:3 camera.

I'm actually anxious to get my hands on a test body of the NX 1 from Samsung as it might meld the best of both worlds when it comes to handling and resolution. I've never tried on camera flash with a Samsung camera so I would guess that's a whole other adventure.

I imagine the only sensible reason for Nikon to continue to make traditional cameras lies in the low light performance and much narrower depth of field of the full frame sensor. It get the appeal of the full frame cameras having owned six different varieties but I find it interesting and revealing that all six of them are in someone else's hand right now while I have a rich bounty of smaller, EVF enhanced cameras that seem to swirl back to me over and over again. While Sony's A7 series is a bit compromised it is my idea of one path to the future of photography. (Fix the shutter noise, the focus speed, the vibration issue and the battery issues, please!!!).

I'm interested to hear from those of you out there who have gone in the other direction: from EVFs and mirror-free back to the older technology. What drove you to accept all the compromises of the older technologies? What is it about mirrored cameras that has their claws in you? I'm not really very interested in hearing how much people who've never extensively used EVFs love their viewfinder cameras. That's like people who've never tasted chocolate protesting their love for brussel sprouts instead. Really though, I change my mind occasionally. I like the "romance" of the older tech. It also reminds me of twenty or so years of shooting. Nothing wrong with it if you really like it....

Just a note. I'll be out of town from tomorrow till the end of the weekend and posts might be light. The only electronics I plan to take on the trip are contained in my iPhone and I'm not about to start writing long posts on that. If you see me in Saratoga Springs be sure to flag me down and say hello.



Kindle book now on sale!


10.12.2014

If you want to see how I play around with lighting portraits in the studio you could check out my Craftsy.com class.



I write about how I make portraits here on the blog all the time but I wanted to remind you that I also did a class on studio portrait lighting for Craftsy.com. My approach to the class is a bit eccentric but filled with step by step learning. We play with lights. We play with cameras. We pose and interact with Victoria. And the cool thing about the Craftsy classes is that if you pay once you can come back to the class again and again. No limits. The format is also interactive so you can post questions and I answer them as quick as I can. 

A lot of the class is done with hot lights and some LEDs along with studio flash. Back then I was shooting with a Sony a99 but the information is transferrable across all camera types. I'd love to have more of my VSL readers give the class a spin. If it's not your cup of tea Craftsy has a great money back guarantee. You're not really taking much of a chance. When you get snowed in you know you'll want something fun and photographic to watch.....




Besides, how often do you get a chance to see me look nervous live?

Packing for three shoots without the chance of coming back to the studio to shuffle gear.


Every once in a while the scheduling demons conspire to make life difficult. A classic case is the one I'll deal with tomorrow. I am working with one of my favorite assistants and I'm not making many brownie points with her by asking that she be at the studio door at 5:45 in the morning. I hate getting up that early but here's the way it all turned out. I have one client who booked me to shoot portraits of a board of directors in Johnson City, Texas. They wanted to get the photographic work done before the board goes into their session at 9:30 am. 

We're shooting at a remote location and just to make it challenging we're doing seven environmental portraits outside, starting at 7:45 am. We'll photograph each person outside and then lead them into the interior location where we'll also shoot their conventional portraits against gray seamless paper.
Sunrise is at 7:31 so 7:45 is pretty much a start time mandated by nature....

When we get to the location Amy and I will set up the background and Elinchrom moonlights in our interior location, test and measure everything and then head outside to find an appropriate location close by for the environmental stuff. We'll be using three lights and several reflector panels for the interior shots and we'll use two heads plugged into the Elinchrom Ranger RX AS system for the exterior location. The two heads will have diffused beauty dishes on them. I like to use big beauty dishes outside because they are less effected by winds.

The interior set up will require five light stands and a set of background stands. The location gets its own tripod and camera so we don't make mistakes by trying to constantly adjust one camera between the two locations (which will have totally different exposure and color balance parameters). Much easier and safer to just bring along two tripods and two camera systems, set them for their dedicated environments and be done with it. 

The exterior location requires three heavy duty light stands, a Chimera panel with subtractive (black) surface and three big sandbags. I never want to set up a stand in an exterior location without firmly anchoring it to the ground. I would rather have gravity as an ally instead of a foe. Go sandbags!

We'll be going back and forth from one set up to the other for each board member. We staged it this way so that each person could come at their appointed time and not have to wait for me or wait between the interior and exterior sets. 

Once we finish with our last individual portraits we'll have five or ten minutes to reset for a group shot of all seven people in an exterior location. At that point we release the clients back into the wild and start high speed re-packing maneuvers, break everything down and get it back into the Honda CRV in some semblance of order.  Essentially we'll have produced two shoots in the space of about two hours in Johnson City. I hope we are as efficient as I think we can be....  Because.....

We hope into the car and rocket back up through Austin and on to Round Rock, Texas. Our goal is to be at the next client's location by 11:15am or 11:30 at the latest. Once we're there we'll load in and set up a totally different feeling light set up with a long roll of white seamless paper and several big light blockers. Once this is set up and tested we'll send a test image to an art director in the Ft. Worth/Dallas area who will lead me through any aesthetic or technical changes we need to make to the lighting design. 

After we get approval we'll spend the rest of Monday and all day Tuesday making portraits of 96 people. Then we pack down again and head back to Austin to unload in the studio and start creating web galleries for each of our clients. 

So, how do I keep organized for essentially three different lighting set ups on three different locations? I actually sit down with a piece of paper for each shoot and sketch out the basic lighting diagram I'll be using. It's a lot like the lighting diagrams that we've done for my lighting books but with more details. In fact I try to draw everything I think I'll be using. This helps jog my memory about clamps, connectors, baby light stands and other stuff. Once I've done my diagram I picture myself setting up each piece in the diagram. If I'm setting up a background I need to remember the stands and crossbar but also some clamps to keep the paper from unraveling. I might also need white tape to tape the leading edge of the background to the floor. 

When I envision myself setting up a background light I envision the small stand, the actual light, which reflector I need for the spot grid I'll be using and even the cord, junction box and extension I'll need. When I look at the quick line drawing of the subject it reminds me to bring clothespins to pin baggy outfits and a make up case to kill some shine.

In case of exterior diagrams seeing the "picture" in advance reminds me to bring along the light stand with the one adjustable leg so I can get the stand straight on sloping ground. I am also reminded to bring along a flash light since a good part of our set up will be outside before sunrise...

The diagrams help. On the other side of each sheet of paper I do a check list of gear and I check it off as I pile the gear near the door. Believe me, it helps. I can remember everything I need for one set up but three or four set-ups with different lights and different cameras is a whole different animal. 

One thing I'm trying out today is putting tags on each stand bag with an inventory of what is in each of the stand bags and rolling stand cases. That way Amy can find stuff quicker and repack in a way that will help us on the next location. Am I overthinking all this? Well, I'd say if you've ever found yourself on a remote location unable to shoot because you over looked one small and inexpensive (but critical) item you'd know my answer. 

Diagramming your shots also helps you to focus on what you're trying to get from each one. There's nothing worse than showing up and winging a shoot only to discover after the fact that your impromptu genius doesn't stand up to the more leisurely scrutiny of post production. And there's no way to fix most stuff after the fact no matter how good you fancy yourself to be in PhotoShop. 

Now we'll see if we can get all this stuff into the vehicle...



A small by-law of Murphy's Law: If you don't bring a posing stool the place you end up will only have bulky, high backed leather chairs which will be no damn good for making portraits.

After these two shoots I'll get back to work on the sequel to The Lisbon Portfolio. 


Kindle edition now on sale. 
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