5.31.2010

Busman's holiday. It's like a Sunday but I have nothing to rant about....

I don't know about you but after a long, tough week of commercial photography and swim meets and weddings and videos nothing relaxes me quite like a nice hot stroll thru downtown Austin with a favorite camera and lens.  When I go out walking there's really no agenda.  No picture quota.  No pressure to come back with something "fantastic".  I just walk and wander and get my camera feet wet.

I started my walk around 3:30 pm over by Flip Happy Crepes, just south of the river.  The tables and chairs always seem to have otherworldly colors that make me happy.  Then I crossed over the pedestrian bridge and I was happy I was paying attention to my space because I got to watch kids jumping off the arches of the next bridge over and into Town Lake.  Some were jumping from thirty or forty feet in the air. Their insouciance was palpable and their unrestrained joy at risk taking made me a bit envious.

I stumbled through the west side of downtown and stopped at Jo's on 2nd street for an ice tea.  It was in the high 90's outside and the ice tea gave me a bit of brain freeze for a couple of minutes.  Hasn't happened to me in a while.  I swung around to Six Street and made my way back up to the Whole Foods Store on Lamar Blvd.

I was using my Olympus e30 with a 14-35mm f2 SHG lens on the front.  I didn't see many interesting people and all the buildings are starting to look the same to me.  A sure sign that it's time to travel some more.  I'm really longing to get back to Rome or Milan and meander through crowds of tourists and Italians, hunting for good images.  But that can wait till the Fall when the crowds thin out and the prices fall.

What I wanted to see today was if there really is magic in the SHG lens.  Problem is, during most of the walk there was nothing to aim the magic at.  Goes back to what the Zen guys say,  "The harder you try the more distant the reward."  The combination of the heat and the holiday put the downtown dynamic on hold, but that's okay. Just the walking is also part of the creative process.

I had a contemplative walnut, oatmeal, chocolate chip cookie and a small coffe with milk at Whole Foods and chatted with an old friend.  Then I continued the return phase of my walk.  The part where your car seems much further away than you remember.  On the way there I walked past a green wall that shields a construction site.  Young trees were planted at skimpy intervals along the temporary, plywood wall.  At last.  Something I could sink my camera into.

And so I did.  And I'm happy with what I shot.  I love the saturated green and the skinny trees.  I had a conversation with a friend who's life is very, very different from mine.  He's very successful in his field and very well thought of.  We've made different choices.  Neither of us has made the wrong choice, just different.  I can't imagine having a real job.  Having a schedule beyond the capricious and mercurial schedule of a freelance photographer.  I can't imagine eating lunch in my office every day or not being able to "call it a day" when I'm bored or tired.

I imagine my friend can't imagine a life where you don't really know if, or from where, next month's money will come from.  Whether or not clients will emerge, just in the nick of time.  Whether or not the checks will come in time to make the next mortgage payment.  Not knowing if what you've saved for the kid's college education will cover the real costs.  Whether your idea of art will find a market.  And much more.

I chose a life of insecurity and freedom.  He chose a life of security and responsibility.  Neither is perfect and yet there isn't really an intersection either.  There's no way either of us can now trade for the attributes of the other's experiences even if we wanted to.  It's too late for me to become a famous brain surgeon or corporate attorney.  To cash in and become truly secure.  It's too late for him to have the kind of extended adventures and close calls that only youth can survive.

One way is black.  One way is white.  Intermixing them is a fool's errand diluting both sides and, in the end, yields nothing of real value.  There's no way of knowing which fork of the road is the one that will make you happiest.  There are no wrong choices.  The only regret is not making a choice.

I really believe that one can't be an artist without being strongly opinionated.  That doesn't mean you constantly argue with people.  It means you don't argue with yourself.  You know how a thing should be.  You make things the way they should be.  That's all you can do.

Whatever your choices, I hope you have a great week!  Kirk

Business Decisions versus Personal Shooting Decisions.

It's interesting how equipment decisions get made.  I would have been happy spending the rest of my life as a photographer shooting with the Hasselblad I used to create the image above.  And, after experimenting for over a decade with black and white films and various processing routines I would be just as happy spending those years shooting Tri-X and developing it in D76 at a 1:1 dilution.  And I would be ecstatic to print all the resulting images on Ilfobrom graded double weight paper.  But that paper was put out to pasture years before digital was even a seedy leer in the eyes of any photographers.

If you've read my column you probably know that I've spent the last year shooting with Olympus DSLR cameras and lenses and, for the most part, have been quite happy with them.  Most of my clients have moved the majority of their advertising to the web or some other electronic avenue and so the size of the files isn't really meaningful to them.  Armed with a couple of e30's and some hand selected SHG glass I think I would have been very happy to shoot with nothing but the e stuff for years to come.  At least that was my intention.  And if I shot only for myself I do think that 12 megapixels with really nice color is the "sweet spot" most of us were looking for in the first place.  But one thing I've learned in this business is that nothing stands still.  Everyone is a looking for a marketing advantage and when they find one, they press it.

The wild cards in all my presumptions about gear are the advertising agency clients.  The art directors.  The creative people on the front line.   Over the past year we did many images that were destined for small space ads in print or for use on the web in websites and in presentation materials.  People loved the Olympus colors and really got the idea of differentiation of vision.  Then the economy recovered and the one Achille's Heel of the smaller camera sensors emerged.  Raw resolution.

My single largest ad agency client, someone directly responsible for hundreds of thousands of dollars of billings over the past decade, did two things.  First, he worked with a photographer in Dallas who just bought a high megapixel (21+) camera and was very evangelical about it's attributes.  Second, he designed a piece for  a client that was:  1. 11 by 17 inches, with full bleed images.  2.  Destined to be printed on very expensive, gloss paper stock.  He started comparing the raw resolution and detail he got from his Dallas shoot to some of our preliminary tests on 12 megapixel cameras.  And then he threw down the ultimatum:  High resolution camera or no assignment.

Whatever his understanding of photography he had parsed what he considered to be defining attributes for his projects going forward and he made the determination that he would set out his own expectations for his creative suppliers.  I had three choices and I didn't particularly like any of them.  1.  I could rent the gear I needed for the job.  But I was certain that, if the job went well, he would partially attribute our success to the gear and I'd be renting the gear many times, over the course of the year.  Not to mention that local rental houses have different lenses than I normally use..  2.  I could tell him all the reasons that I think the 12 megapixel paradigm is the "sweet spot" and how much I like the colors, etc. and take my economic chances that he would choose to work with more compliant partners.  This is not a person who is confrontational, and we've worked together for 20+ years.  He obviously saw differences that were/are important to his work.  If I chose the second course of action we would still be good friends, he still might hire me to do work that was headed solely to the web but........

The third course of action, and the thing I wound up doing was to listen with intensity to what my client was saying and to react in the way that would, long term, be most profitable for both my working relationship with him and my piece of mind.  I bit the bullet and headed to Precision Camera to decide on a new system.  Having done six video projects with Will van Overbeek and his Canon 5d mark 2 I was already leaning in that direction.  I like Nikon stuff okay but the video in the 5d mark 2 is pretty convinciing.  I also ran my decision making process past "no nonsense" architectural photographer,  Paul Bardagjy and he gave a big thumbs up to the Canon 5d2.  It's the camera he uses, along with just about every shift lens ever made, to do all of his current business.

In fairness, I did play with the Sony cameras,  the a850 and the a900.  In the end it was the lack of a big line up of lenses and the lack of any video capability that was the final determiner.  I reached deep into my beleagured and weary wallet and plunked down for a Canon system.  I'm sure everyone will want to know what I bought so I might as well divulge the list here and now:

Canon 5d mk2,  24-105mm L zoom,  70-200mm f4 non IS L zoom,  20mm 2.8, 100mm f2 and the "nifty fifty", the 50mm 1.8.  I toyed around with getting some Canon flash but I've never been very impressed with the flash capability of the system, especially having once been a Nikon flash user, so I stuck with my current cheap favorites and ordered a Vivitar 383df dedicated to the Canon.  I use a macro on a bellows quite a bit so I bought a very inexpensive Fotodiox EOS bellows and am using a nice, older Micro Nikkor 3.5 lens with an adapter ring for my high tech wafer and microprocessor work.  There are a few things I'd like to add including the 28mm 1.8 (which Will says is his favorite) and the 85mm 1.8 (which is similar to the Canon 85 I had back in the non-AF days.  I also owned the EOS film cameras and many of the lenses so I am more than passingly familiar with the system.

What's my verdict?  When raw resolution is at the top of the purchase order this camera delivers.  I like it for the most part and I think the menu is easy to get used to.  The 24-105 mm is very decent but not in the same league as the Olympus 14-35mm.   The 70-200 f4 is very sharp, even wide open.  And it's much lighter than the Olympus 35-100 but the Oly lens is so sharp and the out of focus areas are so delicious that I can't let go of it.

Here's the bottom line:  To get the most out of the Canon,  to get what I paid for,  I have to shoot at 21 megapixels and shoot in RAW.  That's how you maximize the perceived difference that the clients demanded.  But you end up with so few images on a CF card.  You end up churning your computer's hard drive and processor.  Storage becomes an new concern. Etc.  If enough people are interested in the Canon 5d2 I'll write my review but frankly, I don't have much to add to all the stuff that's out there.

So, what happens to all that cool Olympus stuff?  Well.  I keep shooting with it for all the same reasons I did in the first place:  Better jpegs.  Better out of camera colors.  The most interesting normal focal length zoom I've ever shot with.  The perfect file sizes for shooting theater, events, travel, etc.  In many ways the systems are complementary.  I think of the Canon as my "print advertising camera" and my Olympus stuff as my "all purpose toolbox".

Some friends suggest I simplify by getting rid of the Oly stuff and just ramping up with Canon gear.  They assume I'll do this eventually anyway.  But they are forgetting that I already own the best camera system in the world.....the Olympus Pen Cameras!!!  And as long as I can shoot video with them, and put all kinds of esoteric lenses on the front ( like the 14-35mm f2 and the 35-100mm f2) it's silly to sell off the 4:3 bodies.  Life has changed.  We're not shooting the same stuff all the time.  It's nice to have different tools.

It's the reason I still have so many other cameras.  It keeps things fresh.

Long version:  all I've written above.

Short version:  follow the money.

Just thought I should continue to divulge.  That's what readers have said they value.

From Book Cover to Bride.

When I started working on my second book I needed a model so I could illustrate the techniques I talked about.  I tried to press my sometime assistant/full time friend, Amy into the position but she was having none of it.  She did have suggestion.  It was Heidi.  When Heidi walked into my studio I knew that Amy had me totally figured out (not that I'm hard to decipher.....).  She had enormous, happy eyes, fabulous Italian lips and elegant cheekbones.   The three of us had a fun day shooting with large and small umbrellas, bouncing sunlight into the studio and generally dragging out all the lighting gear and putting it through its paces.  Heidi was wonderful to work with and barely complained when I forgot to send along a check with my usual dispatch.

When we put the book together I supplied several different images for the front cover.  My publisher had different ideas (and in retrospect I can see he was right...) and chose one of the images from the available lighting series of images I'd done with Heidi.  She made the book cover in a photograph with a black background.  Funny thing,  in a book all about studio lighting it was one of the images we made with the bounced sunlight through the west windows.

I recently got an e-mail from Heidi,  she said she was getting married and looking for a wedding photographer.  About six weeks later I showed up at the door of a house in south Austin and met Heidi and her attendants.  We had a rollicking good time before the wedding, during the ceremony and afterwards at the Mean Eyed Cat bar on West 5th St.  Unlike some weddings that seem to have undertones of psychosis and virulent "family issues", this was one of the sweetest weddings and collections of people that I've experienced.  It sounds corny, but it was a privilege to attend.  And a blast to shoot.

If you've been reading lately you probably know that my fickle personality has me playing with two and a half camera systems at this point.  So I used all three on this project.

I started out shooting the "getting ready" stuff on a Canon 5Dmk2 with basically two lenses:  the 100mm f2 and the 24-105 L zoom.  I like the out of focus rendering of the former and the handholdable "shoot anything-ness" of the latter.  I shot sRaw (9 meg setting) and was mostly delighted with the files.  I kept the ISO under 800 and didn't touch a flash with the combo.

I shot the ceremony and most of the group photos with an Olympus e30 and both the SHG zoom lenses. The 35-100mm is a wonderful lens to shoot a ceremony with.  Fast enough for available light with an ISO of less than 800.  Sharp enough to shoot wide open with impunity.  The 14-35mm lens was my "go-to" lens for the reception.  Super sharp at f2 and well done, in body, IS meant that I rarely reached for a flash.  Only when the last of the daylight vanished and no photons stumbled in thru the windows did I ever reach for a flash unit.  When I did I just used a Vivitar 383df (dedicated to Oly) dialed down two thirds of a stop.  Right on the money every time.  As an aside, I bought a couple of the 383df's when I first started toying with the Olympus cameras and I always thought I would upgrade to the FL50r at some points.  But here's the deal:  The flashes just flat out work well in TTL mode, they recycle quickly enough and they are much lighter and less complicated than the Olympus flashes.  As an added bonus they also feature a simple to use, built-in optical slave that makes them very usable as slave flashes with any system.  You just set to "slave" dial them down as low as 1/16th power and forget them.  The optical slave cells are great.   In most rooms you'll never have a misfire or a non-fire.

How much do I like these flashes?  Well, I just ordered a dedicated version of the same flash for the Canon camera.

I also mentioned my "half" system.  What the hell am I talking about?  Of course, it's the Olympus Pen cameras.  I've taken to bringing the Pen EPL with a Panasonic 20mm 1.7 with me everywhere.  So after I pack up the car and get ready to leave one location (the ceremony, for instance) I might notice something really cool that needs to be shot.  Since the EPL is over one shoulder or around my neck I'm ready to lift it to my eye and go.  I did that a lot.  I also keep it handy when I'm taking a break for delicious BBQ or a quick bathroom break.

Here's what I like about shooting weddings.  Especially casual, fun and happy weddings like Heidi's:  You have active permission to be the ultimate voyeur.  People expect to be photographed at weddings and no one questions your right and imperative to be there clicking.  You can explore the interesting faces at whatever distance you like.  You can linger over a shot and get it just right.  Shimmy to the left to get more of the out of focus couple in the background and so much more.  You get to shoot in a way that you wouldn't get away with out in the street.  At least not over and over again.

I would do weddings in ernest if all the brides were like Heidi.  But I've been to weddings, a lot over the years, and even some of the nicer people I've known turn into psycho killers under this form of duress.  I think I'll reserve shooting weddings to an occasional pastime.  I certainly admire those who do it every weekend because, to do it well requires not only a good eye and good technical skills but also endurance and a modicum of grace under social pressure....

I had another fun project this weekend (actually two more......).  On friday evening (in 96 degrees...) I headed to the pool at the Western Hills Athletic club ( where I spent ten exciting years as a board member....) to photograph the kids of the mighty, Rollingwood Waves, as they held their second full out swim meet of the season.   This will be the tenth season that my son, Ben, has participated in the summer swim league.  Last year he was one of the volunteer assistant coaches.  This year he's one of the big kids that all the little guys look up to.  Our kid's head coach is Whitney Hedgepeth who won a gold and two silvers in a recent Olympics.

In our league all the parents have to volunteer to work to support at least four of the seven swim meets.  You could end up as a timer, a stroke judge or, most dreaded of all, an age group parent.  The ultimate hard job this year is age group parent to the six and under boys.  There are 40  kids in that age group this year!  If you have this hallowed position you are responsible for making sure they don't kill each other, choke to death on Skittles, and you have to lead them up to the ready bench in time for their events.

I've done all of those jobs and probably would still be relegated to six and under rodeo if someone early on hadn't known what my "day job" was.  Since that time I've become the official photographer for the mighty Rollingwood Waves.  My job is to document every swim meet,  photograph the kids swimming and hanging out, try to catch kids in mid air dives and strive for heroic swimming portraits.  After every swim meet I edit five hundred to a thousand images and create a web gallery on Smugmug.  Since my board position creates an obvious conflict of interest I can't really sell the images and make a profit.  But I don't want to train parents to expect free photographs either (these are families that live in one of the  wealthiest neighborhoods in central Texas) so I charge for  "personal use digital downloads" and all the proceeds go to the Eanes Education Foundation which supports our local, public schools (Westlake High School, where Ben will go next years as a freshman, is currently listed as one of the top 100 high schools in the entire United States...).

At the end of the season we have an awards ceremony for the kids and the families.  Speeches are spoken, awards given and received, dinners devoured and, at the very end, we put on a slide show of all the best shots from the season.  Since we try to include every single child, and we also want to have all the funnest shots in the show it tends to go on for 12 to 15 minutes.  We get the teenagers to produce a music track.  Every year we figure out ways to improve the projection.  It's all fun.  Now that I've worked with Kevin Ames I'll be rigorously calibrating the digital projector this year.....

This is another chance for me to do three things photographers need to do:  1.  Meet the influential people in our area.  2.  Showcase my photographic abilities, and 3.  Get a lot a practice getting close and photographing people.  A side benefit is that I get the endurance exercise of carrying around an Olympus camera with a 35-100 on one shoulder and another camera with the 14-35 on the other shoulder.  Do that in the late afternoon heat for three and a half hours and you'll either drop over or emerge stronger.  I'm hoping for the "stronger".

This week projects came in threes so even though I had the swim meet on Friday afternoon/evening and the wedding all day on Saturday,  I got to throw in a video project with my dear friend, Will van Overbeek, right after the swim meet.  We did a video piece in our continuing series for Glasstire Magazine.  This time it was on the prom being thrown by the arts organization housed at Flatbed Press in east Austin.  We did interviews with the two women throwing the party and shot a lot of footage of the festivities.  After a couple glasses of champagne we headed out.  We'll be editing this week and I'll try to post a link to the video.  We shot it with Will's 5d2 and a couple different primes.

Seems to me that our local economy is springing back to life.  I hope it's that way all over the world.  I guess this catches me up for now.   Hope you have a great week.  Kirk