I had to go shopping for shirts today. I have way too many shirts but I didn't have just the right shirts for an upcoming job. I'll be shooting for three days at one of the fancy downtown hotels for a high profile, high tech firm and, as usual, in discussing the project with my client I asked about dress code.
My client being a practiced hand at large, corporate stage shows just tossed out, "standard show black."
"Just like the guys from the event production company." She referenced a company that I have worked side by side with, literally all over the world.
Show Black is as follows: black shoes, black socks, black dress pants (not jeans), black belt and a black, long sleeve shirt with a collar. The shirt can be either a button up dress shirt or a long sleeve polo style shirt but it should be dull black, unwrinkled and professionally presentable. And the entire outfit should blend in nicely with the black drape around and in front of the main stage.
The purpose of wearing "show black" is pretty simple; if you need to transit an auditorium filled with an audience you don't want to take away attention from the main speaker, the panel or the on stage presentation or demo. If you are working the show in the capacity of photographer, videographer, director, lighting technician, A/V specialist or stage set technician you need to always remember that the client and their presenters should be in the limelight and you should be functionally invisible.
Many, many years ago when I first started photographing at major shows for Dell, IBM and Motorola I showed up for a stage show event in a nice pair of black jeans, a white, button down shirt, and a pair of Nike trainers. The head of the staging company (who has been a friend now for 30 years) walked over and asked me, "Do you want to keep this client? Do you want to come back and work tomorrow?" I nodded. "Heres' one of our shirts (black button down oxford with his company logo very discreetly embroidered on the pocket), go and change and tomorrow be sure to come in black "business casual slacks" and black leather shoes. Clients are paying to see your work, not you."
In a moment of rare clarity I took his advice and upgraded my show wear. I've successfully worked at major events for those three clients (and many others ) for the better part of thirty years. And in that time I've watched executives or journalists transit in front of a stage in white or light colored shirts and khaki pants and it seems like every set of eyes in the audience watched them as they made their way across the room; the bright, white shirt like a magnet for peoples' attention.
I have five or six presentable pairs of black dress pants but the closet was getting low on black shirts. I did a show two weeks ago and by the third day I was on my last presentable black shirt. My preference these days is black golf shirts --- I like the Greg Norman ones but there are a few other brands that are very low key and well cut to my build. The material has more give than cotton broadcloth and the latest fabrics are eminently breathable. If I was fat I would stick to button up oxfords but since I have no discernible belly bulge I'm safe for the moment in tighter fitting shirts.
And my wife would tell you that my supply of black leather shoes will never run out. I love functional dress shoes. I know I am a living anachronism but I also have a shoe shine kit and black shoe polish and I don't show up for shows with scuffed toes. (Love the way that sounded when I said it out loud).
One more thing about wearing show black and having a couple of cameras over your shoulders--- the client's team instantly knows who you are, why you are there and what your are doing; even if they did lose your badge on the way into town....
Call Time. I learned even earlier than my sartorial education that the start time of my client's program is vastly different than my "call time." On the first full day of the show I'm working this week the online agenda says that the main tent session will start at 8:00 am. And yes, that means the show will probably start at 8:00 am. But on the production schedule, which the attendees will not see, are line item call times for various production positions. The stage techs' call time is 6:00 am. It could be earlier if there needed to be a pre-show rehearsal.
My call time is 7:00 am. This means I check in at the main auditorium no later than 7:00 am. One reason for this is to provide comfort to the client. If they see your face when they walk in for last minute changes and check list stuff they know you're there and ready and it's one less person to worry about. They know they won't be getting a call ten minutes before their CEO walks out on stage with a photographer on the other end making a lame excuse about traffic or a flat tire. Your early call is one more check on the check list that means "all systems go."
But the early call time is more than just padding. Many times a request for special coverage will come down before the show. On a recent show several speakers came into town with no headshots for projection on the big screens to announce their upcoming presentations. All the other speakers had headshots and they were already dropped into templates for the program. Since I was on time we were able to set up, shoot and deliver new headshots that fit the template just in time.
I love showing up early. I can get acclimated, drink some coffee, talk to the show techs about anything special I need to be aware of ( a surprise award presentation? ) and get a feel for the disposition of the client. I routinely offer to show up early for the production company that's designed and implemented the stage design so we can run through some lighting cues and get them some photo documentation for their portfolios. It's a quid pro quo because, if they like you, the production company is quick to recommend you to big, new clients.
Crew Meals. On some shows I am asked to wear a coat and tie since I'll be working in the middle of a group of similarly dressed executives. In those situations it's pretty much assumed that I'll have lunch with the audience. When we are asked to wear show black and fit in behind the scenes the presumption is that we're separate from the invited guests and audiences and we'll eat in a space reserved for the crew.
The food is usually the same in the crew craft service area as what the hotel or convention center is serving to the show guests, it's just that we're in a room off the stage and the food is presented buffet style since everyone's schedule is, by necessity, staggered. This is great because we can blow off a little steam without potentially embarrassing ourselves --- at least not in front of the client....
It's also great because we aren't subject to the delays that the guests might encounter, such as long lines at buffets or long service times for sit down lunches and dinners. We don't waste time waiting.
I usually head straight to lunch as soon as the last speaker of the morning surrenders his/her podium. I want to eat quickly so I can sit down at my laptop and grind out a selection of images to send to the social media person on my client's staff for quick dissemination. I don't usually have time to eat a leisurely lunch on a big corporate showcase because I tend to be scheduled pretty tightly and there seems always to be a voracious appetite for ever newer images and video as the day drags on.
The Bar. Occasionally you'll have a long term client who sees you as part of their team and invites you to have a glass of wine or a mixed drink while you are attending and photographing receptions, etc. That's very much an exception. I make it a general rule to leave the bar and the alcohol to the guests and the marketing people from the client company. They truly might not care in the moment but if something goes wrong and karma catches up with you for writing a column about not needing dual memory card slot redundancy, and you lose some important images, the client may suddenly remember that one glass of wine and head down the road toward blaming your "reckless" drinking for their loss. Not a pretty position to fine one's self in.... Better to wait till the end of the night and have a drink at the lobby bar. Or, better yet, remember that you could make it to the 5:30 am morning master's swim the next day and skip that performance robbing glass of chardonnay altogether .
Memory Card Management. You are working fast and shooting tons of stuff. Eventually your memory cards fill up. You have more fresh cards to stick into the camera but what, exactly, do you do with the cards full of potential prize winners that you've worked so hard to fill up? I have a goofy system for that. I buy little coin/change envelopes at the office supply store. They are fairly small and have lick-and-stick closures. I get the yellowish manilla colored ones. When I fill up a card I lock it then fill out a time and subject description on the card and seal it into its own envelope. If I have duplicate cards I do an envelope for each and write "B/U" (for back up) on one of them. When I get back to the studio and start ingesting files into Lightroom I copy the files from the main card onto two separate hard drives with custom file names and some detailed exif. I keep the "B/U" cards separate and safe until I've done all the post processing and have delivered the final images to the client (also in duplicate -- nowadays on 64 GB memory sticks/flash drives). Always better safe than sorry. Those little envelopes have saved me a lot of grief..... You can reformat and re-use one set of cards as long as you have one set put aside for the inevitable "rainy day."
Bill Hard and Bill Fast. You should bill for everything you originally discussed and also bill for any additions requested by the client during the run of the show. Did they ask you for print outs? Bill it. Did they ask you to come in earlier than originally agreed upon? Bill that. Were you promised an onsite meal but missed it because the client added a file send request that needed to be done ASAP? Grab a meal from the hotel restaurant when you have a chance and be sure to bill it. Does the client need a second version of the show on a second hard drive to send to their boss in San Francisco? Bill it. It's easy to get nickled and dimes at a fast moving show but you've got a smartphone and you should know how to use a notebook app to keep track. They would bill you if the shoe (black) was on the other foot.
Also, bill quick. Don't dally around after the show is over. Don't go on vacation and decide you'll bill when you get back. The excitement surrounding the show is like perishable food. It's best eaten fresh and begins to smell after it's been around for a while. Hand your client a bill with the deliverables while the show is happily fresh in their minds and remind them that you are happy to accept their corporate credit card for payment. Money in hand is well worth the meager percentage you might lose to execute the transaction. Wait too long and the show won't look as exciting in the client's rear view mirror. Then they may decide to go on vacation before they get around to picking around the edges of your invoice before sending it along to accounting; where it will go to the back of a long line of invoices from other vendors from the same show who were more motivated to get paid quickly than you were.....
First in line is always better. More to follow.
Random Thoughts After a Long, Hard Week of Working in the Trenches of Video and Photography. Sept. 22. Phones, the "Cool" lens and general angst.
It's been a physical week. I had a very traditional photo assignment on Monday which required shooting portraits and environmental shots at three different, blue chip law firms and at a company that provides insurance to the legal industry. I say that it's been a physical week because that job had me packing and unpacking a lot. I was able to stuff everything into one heavy backpack but it was one heavy backpack.
I used small lights, off camera with triggers, and tried to do justice to portrait subjects in a series of quick encounters. But really, it's the packing and moving that wears one down. Tuesday was one of those relentless post processing days when the jobs done on Saturday, Sunday and Monday finally get ingested, tweaked and sent on to web galleries for their brief moment in the sunlike glare of clients' attention.
I was back to the location work on Weds. with portraits at yet another law firm. I was using the big LED panels (Aputure Lightstorm) and four of them are a heavy package. They shared space on my multi-cart with plenty of light stands and grip gear. But the portraits I did that day were some of the best I've ever done. A lot of the quality had to do with the particular subjects but I'll give some credit to the lighting. When you finally get the perfect mix of window light and panel light, and all the planets line up correctly, if you are lucky enough to get it all balanced and sprinkled with magic pixie dust you sometimes get a gift from the photo gods. But sometimes you just get photos that are more or less in focus. I had a smile on my face when I looked at the final files this time....
Thurs. was the back-to-back work, stills and video projects for Zach Theatre. Flashes and a seamless background for full length shots of two actors at a time followed (in a different building) by two interviews (lit with LED panels) and some really fun footage of a full rain effect (with tap dancing) on the main stage. The video, when mixed with stills from the tech rehearsal this coming Sunday will get smooshed up together to make an promotional piece for "Singing in the Rain."
I have figured one thing out. A way to lighten my load would be to lose the sandbags we use to keep stuff from falling over. But then stuff would.....fall over. A few years back Calumet marketed plastic sandbags that were meant to be filled with water at the location and then drained after use, but before packing. They worked okay for the first four or five times I used them but on one shoot, in a nice setting, they started to leak and that was the end of that. Ah well.
It's also the week I started to add some additional weight training to augment my swimming. Nothing big but even adding 50 curls with 20 pounds is enough to make one sore if one has been avoiding their weight bearing exercise....
By today I was dog tired and, after noon swim workout, I could have used a nap but instead I started reading reviews about the photographic capabilities of the new iPhone 8s. And I started thinking in earnest about computational photography. I don't think I'm breaking any new intellectual ground here when I make the statement that I sure as hell would not want to own stock in a traditional camera company from here forward.
The inclusion of portrait modes on the new iPhone 8s that emulate the traditional optical look of out-of-focus backgrounds is going to take a huge chomp (once again) out of the low and middle tiers of the market for professional photographers. Once those cameras transition from beta computational software to the full implementation they will be able to do the few things that kept larger formats alive in the eyes of the majority of the market. They'll provide big files with lots of detail, much less noise, and the ability to drop backgrounds nicely out of focus.
Ah, but we'll still survive because we know how to light portraits! Right? Ummm. The beta software includes the ability to change the lighting on human faces. Game over for a lot of people who were able to make a living because they could put a TTL flash with an umbrella on a light stand, get close on exposure, drop the background out of focus and depend on the generous latitude of raw files to save butt in those times when the TTL didn't quite work the way the photographer wished. And yes, you can change the background in the iPhone software. Oh, and the screens are much higher quality than just about anything on current enthusiasts' cameras.
If I were just starting out a career in photography I'd be running for the exits so fast.... With a few well thought out accessories you and your new iPhone could be competitive with a lot of newly minted pros. Imagine if these phones ever fell into the hands of really accomplished photographers and you'll understand why I think traditional cameras are not long for the world of general photography.
In two years there will be three classes of cameras left: the smartphones (95% of the market), mirrorless cameras with killer specs and great video (for the few working pros who are left) and traditional Nikon and Canon DSLRs for the errant dentist or nostalgia buff. It won't be pretty on the blogs...
But I am here now and still working so I'll write about a fun lens I used for a ton of stuff this week. I've written about it before but I'll recap: I bought an Olympus 12-100mm f4.0 Pro lens to keep my first Panasonic GH5 company. I found both its optical qualities and its image stabilization to be quite good. So I've started using it for more and more work. I used it for most of the work I did at law firms in the early days of the week. And I used it yesterday, with the GH5, for both the actor images against white and the director and choreographer interviews I did in 4K video in the afternoon. I love this lens and camera combination. Everything that comes out of the camera is sharp and sassy but not exaggerated.
The one lens that I played with this week that's even better is the Olympus 40mm-150mm f2.8. I used it wide open to make one of the most beautiful portraits I've made in years. But you just can't beat the range of the 12-100mm f4.0. And the remarkable thing is that most of the time I've been using it wide open. Pretty stunning. Everyone should run out and buy one immediately. Or not.
So, how do I feel about my recent decision to bulk up on GH5's and attendant lenses? Pretty damn good. Nearly every estimate request and bid request I get these days calls for some part of the project to be video. I was negotiating a three day event for next week and the client was pushing back on price. I pushed back too but I wanted the job. I would have ended up reducing the price if I had to but in the process the client noticed that I was also offering video services on my website and asked if I could also provide some conference b-roll video. I said, "yes" and all of a sudden my original bid was fine and reasonable.
How much video? Roll on a speaker for 20 seconds in the middle of a session. Get some quick footage of people networking during the breaks. Show a few angles of a panel discussion. Get some footage of the band on stage at the ACL/Moody Theater. It's all stuff that will fit well around the photography I'll already be shooting. This is what the whole hybrid concept was really meant to be.
It also works in reverse. I've been hired to shoot video interviews and had the client's marketing team enjoy the process we use with their executives enough that they were willing to add a day just to shoot portraits and some interiors. And if you think about it every single day of commercial use just about pays for one individual GH5. But none of this would work if the footage out of the cameras wasn't great. It is. In both directions. Just thought I'd throw some love to my current favorite camera. Made my favorite camera partly because of the lens contributions from Olympus. They're a better fit for me that some of the similar Panasonic lenses.
The GH5 is definitely a keeper.
I'd like to say that I'm planning to chill out this next week but we're already gearing up. I shoot the tech rehearsal for "Singing in the Rain" on Sunday (mostly for video b-roll) and the dress rehearsal on Tues. (mostly for marketing photography). I use any downtime on those days to do post production on the content. Then, it's a Weds. - Fri. corporate event with two handfuls of GH5 cameras. Photos and video, followed by more days of post. I've learned it's good to make hay while the sun shines. The marketing mood and the national economy have a tricky habit of turning bad on a dime...
An almost behind the scenes look at my lighting for the actors who
will star in "A Tuna Christmas" at Zach Theatre. In between shots.
I've pretty much cut the cord when it comes to electronic flash. After a long career of dragging heavy strobe boxes, heads and mono-lights onto location after location I've had enough. And it's never just the box and head or the mono-lights that make the process of lighting things on location such a pain in the ass, it's also the cabling, connectors and extension cords that add sheer drudgery to every job outside the studio.
In the days of nickel-cadmium double A batteries and wimpy hot shoe flashes the bigger flashes were a necessary component when lighting large groups, big products or big rooms with power hungry medium format cameras and films. Now, not so much...
The worst part of location jobs seemed to be the lack of nearby or functioning electrical outlets in whatever area in which we needed to shoot. We'd get an assignment to photograph a group of executives at a company and when we got there we would find that the location the marketing team had reserved was in a major foot traffic area in a company headquarters and that the nearest A/C outlet was 75 feet away. And on the other side of a hallway. We'd set up out lights and start stringing out extension cords. Once the extension cords were laid down we'd need to spend time taping down any part that crossed a walk way. If we needed more than one outlet our budget for gaffer's tape could get out of hand...
When I switched to mono-lights it fixed on problem (all light heads being tethered on fairly short cables to one pack) and added another. Now all four or five lights used on a temporary set would need their own power cable and those power cables needed their own extension cords. Major pain, as each cable had to be taped down so inattentive executives and their legions of helpers didn't trip over the cables and injure themselves.
I tried to go with a total battery powered system back in 2007-2008 but I was stymied by the need for all day power (so of our shoots run 1200-1500 exposures) and the need for more power than most of the cost effective speed lights delivered. I like shooting at ISO 100 or 200 and I like to use big umbrellas and soft boxes and the venerable Vivitar 283 or the Nikon SB-800 just didn't deliver.
NiMh batteries were helpful but we found ourselves changing out the four batteries in four or five flashes four or five times a day. And much of the cost of big brand name portable strobes was based on their ability to be controlled from the camera position which was a feature set we didn't need for my style of photography. Now almost every generic brand offers the same kinds of controls. But we still don't really use the remote setting features.
No, the real split between my flashes and alternating current came this year when I became aware of bigger, lithium ion batteries coupled with fairly powerful generic flash products from companies like Neewer, Godox, and Fotodiox.
I dipped my toes into the bigger battery, better performance for less money market with a couple of Godox V850 flashes and I've never looked back. Two of them made for perfect tools when lighting up a standard white background. Even with ISO 200 I'm getting f8.0 on the background above while using the flashes on manual at 1/8th power.
My next step was to play with the Godox AD200 flash which provided a bigger battery and more power, along with an interchangeable flash head. It's a really nice flash and it bangs away at 1/2 power just about forever; especially if you are using the bare bulb head. But what I really wanted was just a bit more power and a day's worth of flashes. That's when I found the Neewer Vision 4, 300 watt second, battery powered monolight. It features a big lithium ion battery that's said to be capable of delivering 700 full power flashes. I use it at 1/2 power for quick recycling and I used it that way for about 500 flashes at a shoot yesterday and still had about 3/4ths power remaining when we wrapped up.
My set up for two people, full body, on a white seamless was to use the two smaller Godox flashes at 1/8th power directly on the backgrounds. I made little BlackWrap(tm) flags to cut the light spread to keep it off my subjects. At 1/8th power the flashes recycle almost instantly and will keep popping pretty much forever.
My fill light was the AD200 firing into a 72 inch, white umbrella at 1/2 power. I used it about 20 feet back from my subjects. It was the perfect fill light.
My main light was the Neewer Vision 4 firing into a 60 inch, white umbrella that was positioned about 15 feet from the subjects (looking for the inverse square law to help me even out the light across the two actors). The light was triggered by its included remote trigger which trigger the other three lights which were set to "S1" which makes use of their optical slave modules.
With no cords to manage and no extension cords to act as potential liability lawsuit triggers I was able to position my lights wherever I needed them and to work more quickly than ever before.
I might add a second Neewer Vision 400 but....then again I may just keep on working with the exact stuff I've outlined here. Seems to be working for me well right now.
Happy to say "goodbye" to extension cords, power cables and haphazardly functional wall outlets. I'm now back in the studio watching four battery chargers flashing away for the lights and another two flashing away with camera batteries. Relaxing.
Happy Photographer writes blog about camera size and weight
versus the need to bring the lights...
Some of us photographers who cross over and do video like to talk about the benefits of "hybrid" shoots where we "light once and then shoot twice." By keeping the lighting instruments the same and using the same cameras for both disciplines the big idea is that we lighten our load of equipment and get multiple kinds of imaging stuff done quicker. And, as far as I can tell, it works pretty well most of the time. But never in this particular proposal of processes have I ever indicated that getting smaller and lighter cameras is an important part of the hybrid equation. I'm not thrilled with the weight savings of smaller, mirrorless cameras any more than I am thrilled by the overweight nature of professional DSLRs. The reason I don't particularly care about the weight or size of cameras is that so much of my work is done using various kinds of lighting equipment.
I was all excited about shooting a marketing piece for a theater today. We planned on shooting various actors on a white background. I'd mastered lighting a traditional white out background with my Apurture LightStorm LED lights and I was getting ready to pack when my art director e-mailed over so final notes. The actors would be dancing and moving and might be jumping as well. Well, that kills it for the LEDs. I can't freeze someone mid jump and keep them sharp with continuous lights. I got busy packing up the flashes.
The number of lights is basically the same so I wouldn't mind BUT..... after we shoot the marketing piece for one production, and wrap up the gear at that location, we're breaking for a late lunch and then setting up in a different building to shoot two video interview. Which, of course, do not call for electronic flash. So I'm right back to the requirement of packing two sets of lights. Oh joy!
You can make the cameras as light as you want. You could even put your lights on a diet, but for most of the stuff I shoot we're hauling around a set of background stands and a nine foot roll of background paper, six to eight heavy duty light stands, flags, three or four sand bags, a sturdy cart. apple boxes, a hundred feet of heavy extension cords, soft boxes, umbrellas and the various hard and semi-hard cases required to keep all the breakable stuff unbroken. Saving two to five pounds on camera gear is a drop in the bucket in the overall equation of a couple hundred pounds of (necessary) lighting gear.
Today we'll also need to bring along a large duffle filled with sound blankets because the space we're assigned to shoot in is as hot as the hood of a black car in a Texas parking lot. We need to take the edge and echo off the voice recording. By the time we pack white masonite for the floor and another c-stand and fish pool for the microphone we'll just about have the Honda CR-V filled to capacity.
I know that some of you will chime in and tell me that you do photography strictly for the love of it and I'm happy for you. I'm not sure I chose the right career ---- sometimes it just feels light a combination of logistics and weight-lifting with a few moments of imaging tossed in...
I dream of the day when I can take just a small bag with a camera and a lens or two. But it's the lighting and accessories that make it feel like "work."
Really should have gotten a couple of assistants for this job. They could be setting up while I get in a noon swim. Now that would be delicious.
With a flurry of back to back jobs the studio is starting to look like a warehouse.
We drop off one set of gear and grab another. The image above is as neat and clean as it's been in months....
The magic ingredient for commercial photography success, besides having a trust fund or a wealthy spouse, is a non-stop stream of coffee. Comes in handy when the client "needs" those shots the next morning and you're still on location wrapping up the shoot at 7:15pm.
Photographers tend to fixate on those "magic" cameras but I think the real
magic is in bringing the lights and knowing how to use them.
That, and getting along with people.
New discoveries or the relentless display of craft?
An individual's aesthetic wiring directly relates to their choice of camera types when it comes to photographing what we might call their vision. I would argue that there is a spectrum between pure documentation of the subject matter, divorced from technical considerations of presentation, and the other extreme; the exercise of technical virtuosity which would consist of the highest level of craftsmanship.
At each extreme point of the spectrum either the lack of desire to embrace technology, or the wholesale embrace of technology, becomes an impediment to the most effective presentation of a subject --- or a visual idea.
In less extreme examples we can see how this bifurcation of intention in photography; the pure documentation versus the value of craft over context, drives the choice of tools individual artists embrace in order to bring their vision to fruition.
In thinking about those whose focus is to document an event, a person, a scene, etc. with respect for the content and the energy of the image I would put up as examples photographers such as Willian Klein and Robert Frank. In the opposite camp; those to whom craftsmanship and mastery seem to be more important than subject I would point to landscape photographer, John Sexton and supposed documentarian, Stephen Shore.
In their time both Klein and Frank selected cameras not for their ultimate image quality but for their fluid nature and their transparency in terms of getting an image on film interpreted only by their selection of the moment of capture and the selection of an almost reactive composition. In an age where the standard camera format of commerce was the 4x5 inch camera, and a medium format twin lens camera was considered to be a snapshot camera, these two artists (and others such as Henri-Cartier Bresson) chose to work with the (then) tiny 35mm cameras made by Leica, and then added insult to injury (in the eyes of their generation of photographers) by using fast, grainy, less sharp black and white films.
Their images all have an immediacy that allows us to more directly connect with the objects of their observation. Once the images were captured the images were printed in more or less direct methods. While the printers may have cropped slightly or burned and dodged a bit there was nothing like the wholesale manipulation of images that we routinely see in contemporary post processing where many times the captured image is a vague chimera that will be added to and massaged endlessly by today's oppressively addictive software.
In my past role as a specialist lecturer at the University of Texas at Austin I used to take my advanced photography classes to the Humanities Research Center to see actual prints from the HRC's vast collection. We would don on the white cotton gloves and sit around an expansive wooden table and personally handle and view the quintessential photographic work of the 20th century in its purest guise, as black and white prints (mostly in sizes from 8x10 to, at the largest, 11x14 inches).
I was always left cold by the pristine work of photographers such as Minor White or even Edward Weston while any number of works by Leica toting social documentarians could perk my interest (and appreciation for their clarity and speed of seeing).
In one session we were looking at a portfolio of prints of Henri-Cartier Bresson's work. One print was a larger version of a photograph of the Pope, in Vatican City, in a throng a people. A student pointed out that HCB had missed focus. The Pope was not in razor sharp focus. We all sat back and looked at the print for a while and decided that the moment captured (and the way it was caught) certainly outweighed the technical shortcoming of the camera's operation. To be in the right spot at the right time with a functioning camera was much more important than not having the photo at all. In retrospect I have been considering how that image would have worked in a smaller print. Something like a 6x9 inch image on an 8x10 inch sheet of paper. Would we have even noticed the slight softness of focus on the Pope or would the smaller size render the technical deficiency moot?
This always starts me thinking along the lines of "What if HCB had used a bigger camera with a higher potential image quality?" Having shot with a small Leica, a Rollei twin lens, and 4x5 inch cameras I feel confident in saying that he made the right choice of camera and film for his vision and his immediate circumstances.
When I look at the work of Robert Frank I understand that, with the ability to use the camera almost without conscious thought, and with the discreet profile of the small, handheld camera, Frank was able to capture moments of social documentation that were so unguarded that we feel the emotion of the people in the moment instead of just the study in sociology that most journalism-style photography presents.
While held in high regard by many I can't stomach the lifeless virtuosity of most large format nature photographers. They really tell us nothing about nature or our place within it; they only use their naturalistic subjects as foils for their own clinical vision. Their intention seems to be to find in nature scenes that they can use as a base canvas upon which to showcase their skills and technical mastery of otherworldly tonal control, contrast and arch preservation of detail. When their audiences see the work they respond to the way the artist's control glorifies the experience of viewing replicas of nature by providing an alternative representation of what is generally visually mundane in situ.
One imagines these large format artists marching through the chaos of the woods with a folding view camera, stout tripod and a backpack full of film holders, looking for a vignette that can be forcibly composed into a structure considered "harmonious" by the masses and then stolen from its colorful and chaotic place in nature into a black and white showcase of gloriously rendered detail and order, with all the contrast of a Japanese pen and ink image. There is no impression of timeliness or emotional reaction to their moment of discovery, no AHA!!! instead one feels the plodding nature of a researcher who leisurely sets up a camera and then, in a series of investigations works around the subject more or less begging it to yield some meager measure of intrinsic magic to give even the meanest spark of life to the artist's experiment in technical perfection. As sensual as kissing a porcelain mask.
Since these artists have the time, and additionally live and die by the highest expression of technical mastery, their tools of choice are the 4x5 and 8x10 inch cameras and a selection of films with the finest grain and the highest resolution. The classic representation of detail being more important than the subject itself. But the "seeing" doesn't stop with the rigorous capture of the scenic-ly mundane it continues in the dark room with another bout of arduous perfectionism until the photograph is as much a manipulated reference as a purely photographic print. The value, according to curators, is in the artist's interpretation in the final print of the original scene, not in the power of the original scene itself.
Another way to look at all of this (at least in the eyes of the great audience of every man) is that few people outside the small (and shrinking) world of educated artists and art historians see the value of abstract painting, action painting, and non-representational painting in general. The further paintings diverge from hard core realism the less appreciated they are by most audiences. The masses demand as much verisimilitude to reality in their paintings as can be wedged into them. In this way the virtuoso photo-realistic painters, as well as those painters who just happen to be very compulsive, are publicly adored (and quickly forgotten).
In the current field of photography we seem to have same kind of situation that existed in the 1950's and 1960's. The middle of the curve of photographers seems obsessed with the need for "perfect" digital cameras. They define "perfect" as the cameras that can most accurately reproduce the scene in front of the camera in terms of sharpness, resolution, contrast and overall color correctness. They are willing to spend many multiples more money over less well appointed cameras in order to get these camera attributes so that these photographers can dogmatically pursue the creation of a "perfect image".
While any camera today can make a beautiful, reasonably sized print, there is a mania to have the camera that will make the biggest print with the least noise and the widest dynamic range. The maniacal pursuit of technical perfection blinds many to the charms and virtues of alternate tools. While a Zeiss Otus 85mm lens might be the sharpest lens in the photo cosmos it's just one focal length. If an artist has an elastic (and more interesting) and expansive personal vision of reality that requires being able to switch angles of view with speed and agility then the Otus becomes an encumbrance to his/her vision. It may be that a camera with an almost endless range of angles of view helps bring his/her vision into existence.
A frail or aging photographer with a lively and unique vision may not be able to physically carry all the bits and pieces of the "perfect system" out in the field. The weight of "perfected progress" might hinder him or her from even leaving their home to engage in their art. But what if their vision could give birth to great work with a smaller, easier to handle camera and a small selection of good lenses? Would their work be less valid? See the work of Jan Saudek https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jan_Saudek
When I look across so many arenas of photo sharing; from Instagram to Google+ and to some of the old standbys like Flickr I am generally much more drawn to images that display immediacy and authenticity than I am to cleverly contrived and technically flawless images that lack any sort of contextual soul. It's rare that an image from a Sony A7Rii or a Nikon D810 is revered in social media for its imaging qualities --- they are almost always "liked" and "favorited" for the angle of composition and insightful moment at which the subject is captured, or the subject's gesture or expression, not in the way the camera's noiseless purity is displayed. More often, these days, the most interesting work is coming from the least complex of cameras --- iPhones.
There is a giant cult within contemporary photography that ignores the human magic of storytelling and instead concentrates on trying to show the essence of a boring thing because a certain type of subject is a more pliable canvas on which to demonstrate the camera operator's mastery and control of their special tool. Wouldn't it be so much more interesting if they had a story, beyond all their proficiency, to tell?
I would suggest to anyone who really wants to see better to practice actually seeing by putting the A7rii/D810/5Dsr in a drawer and rummaging around to find that old point and shoot from ten years ago. Something like a Canon G9 or some Coolpix or an early Sony RX100xxxxx. Put the camera in "P" mode and go looking for subject matter than interests you for more than just its ability to serve as a canvas for your craftiness. Look for the beautiful smile of sensual person. Look for interesting clouds. React to a sweet expression. Consider a quickly fading gesture. Watch the light play across someone's elegant face. Find a moment that speaks to your sympathy for our shared existence. Reject easy opportunities just to show off your chops.
Turn off the review mechanism of the camera and just point the camera at things as they interest you, bring the camera to your eye and click. You might just be amazed to find that if you stop contemplating perfection and start embracing serendipity, and the honest reactions of your emotional self, you may like the images that arise far more than the sterile work of proving your camera is a better artist than you.
Finally, I write about discovering scenes, gestures, etc. And of technologists also on a search for perfect foils for their art, but there is another way. I consistently look back at the work of "constructionists" like Duane Michals whose work is neither "discovered by happy accident" or the result of hours of arduous manipulation and obsessive control in the the darkroom --- after being captured by the "Best Camera in the World". Instead, he imagines and then directs photographic stories that resonate with so many audiences. His stories bubble up from his life. He constructs a visual narrative but without the artifice of perfectionism. It's a third way of seeing that we don't talk about enough. It's powerful and, reading the story of his career, you can see that the camera, or type of camera he uses, is unimportant. A minuscule part of his act of creation. Seems imagination is one of the most powerful tools of all.