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Category Archives: Philosophy
The image you see was posted recently and I’ve blogged about it, but today I want to use it to illustrate what I am about to talk about. Never mind that Apple has my desktop computer that I use for image editing, and until I get it back I can’t really access any of my images. Hence today’s basis for discourse.
I will ask you to get through the next 2 paragraphs without eyes glazing over. Bare with me.
18% grey reflectance is the calibration for light meters. On the Zone System scale it is dead in the middle, Zone 5. “Average grey” is another term I’ve heard to describe it. So if you point your camera at something and use its internal meter, the value it uses to determine exposure is reflected light calibrated to Zone 5. Depending on your metering (spot, wide area, whatever), what gets read back is an “average” reading based on what exposure would be for an 18% grey card.
The reading your light meter (or camera) gives you may be the correct exposure. Or it may not be. It depends. The exposure will certainly be “average,” at least by the camera’s standards.
Before I put you to sleep I’m not really talking about light meters or exposure here. I’m using it as a metaphor to illustrate the difference between professional photography and, well, less than professional photography. Professional anything – photography or otherwise – lives closer to the edge than “average”. On the bell curve, it’s not that hump in the middle.
I was asked by a friend recently about recommendations for photography for her daughter’s wedding. This, and the tiresome, ongoing blathering on photography blogs about the state of photography today, including the inevitable “death of professional photography” (it’s been dying for, like, ever, you know) got me thinking. Always a dangerous thing, but here you go.
The “death” of professional photography has always been linked to technology. First it was any type of consumer camera, then miniaturization (roll film), then digital, now Instagram, yada, yada, yada. Tomorrow it will be something else. You the consumer, have great tools available to you to take really nice pictures. Or Uncle Fred can take really nice pictures at the wedding. After all, he may have a D4 or a 1DS, or whatever. Damn nice camera. Takes great pictures. May have “better” equipment than the pro you hired.
But you are not, nor ever will, be buying the camera. You are buying that matter between the ears of the guy using that camera.
Why photography is singled out I don’t know – you or Uncle Fred or Aunt Sally or the kid down the street can go to Home Depot or Lowes and get the materials to do what a professional contractor would do, you can work on your car, you can cut your own hair or do your own nails. The decision process is the same. You make a decision on what you are willing to do, and, perhaps more importantly, what effort you want to put into it and what results you expect out of it. And then you decide if the differential between what you are willing to do and what price you are willing to pay for it is worth any perceived differences.
Therein lies the point.
Take a look at the featured image for this post. I don’t care how good Uncle Fred is or how good his camera is, Uncle Fred will not produce the above image by pointing his camera and pressing the shutter button. Not unless he also understands and uses supplemental lighting (and not stuck on his camera), makes exposure and composition choices, and finishes the image by spending some time in Photoshop. If he does then he certainly qualifies as knowing what he’s doing and can produce professional imagery, even though he may not be a “professional” (one who makes his living at it) photographer.
And I’m only talking technique here. There is also posing. And expression, And composition (OK, I already mentioned that). And, perhaps most important of all, the vision (or style) of the photographer. That’s the secret sauce.
It’s that simple.
Now, whether professional photography is worth it to you depends on if and how much you value the difference between what a snapshot can give you (Instagram’d or not) and what a crafted image can give you. There are subtleties here. The difference between something of professional quality and something not of professional quality (furniture, clothing, a repair job – you name it) are the details. If you are happy with an 18% image, then having a professional produce it probably isn’t worth it to you.
I also hear a lot about how “kids” (defined as anyone younger than me) don’t want prints anymore. Although a topic that can be explored more deeply later on, the situation is the same. A professionally produced print (hopefully of a professionally taken image) is not the same as one done at a one hour photo. It has its place, but it’s not the same. Nor is the print the same as seeing it on your computer monitor or iPhone.
There has never been more photography, nor more access to great photographic tools, nor more photographs, then there is now. Of course, that statement could have been made at any time between the invention of photography and now. And also this statement: as access and numbers grow, so too does the quantity of 18% images in the world. The signal to noise ratio remains, only there is a lot more noise.
No tool can think. No tool manipulates itself. If you buy the same saw that the master craftsman uses, it will no doubt cut that same line in the wood. Or at least it has the potential to.
The bottom line is, as always, getting what you want. 25 years from now, when tastes – and you – change, would it be worth it to you to have that professionally crafted image – hopefully in print and framed – or a “nice” picture? On your iPhone. You know, “nice.” Average. 18% grey. Without the subtleties. Will the processing done in Instagram still be to your taste? Or will the trend have moved on by then?
If you are in the business of selling something (your service, a product, whatever), how it is presented means everything. You know this. Your consumer will make value judgements like if he doesn’t give a crap about what’s on his site/brochure/ad, certainly he doesn’t give a crap about what he does for me. If he goes low road with snapshots, certainly he’ll go low road with me. Which is fine if that’s how you want to be paid.
As a consumer, not every image is that important. There are, however, certainly some images that are. You know that, too.
There are times when an 18% world is fine. There are others – often fleeting – when it is not. Don’t make the mistake of staying in one all of the time.
The highest price paid for a portrait of loved ones is not having one.
Maybe because it’s the fact that I am lock-free (you always seem to want what you don’t have) but I’m really into blowing hair. What were once rejected images (sometimes) have become favorites as of late. What they have in common is wind blown hair.
This image I took of Lana a few years ago during a trip to Malibu:
Updated with my current taste in glamor post processing, the wind whipping through her hairs adds a sense of movement in addition to the aesthetics. I also find that partially obscuring the face actually highlights it – like a curtain being drawn back. It also echoes the movement of the dress.
I did no skin retouching on this image – it’s all Lana.
I am fairly conservative when it comes to skin retouching; I do not like the plastic look popular today. You can instantly tell it’s not real. Sometimes the image does call for flawless skin (tight headshots in a beauty style, for example). I know I have it right when people ask “Does she really have flawless skin or did you retouch it?” If it was obvious, they wouldn’t have to ask. Intuitively you may know, but that question has to remain in your mind – or it is not real enough for my taste.
I also tend to scale back if an image is to be used for a model portfolio. The agency would want to see and portray the model – not a heavily retouched version.
But in editorial images such as this, there is more flexibility. And thanks to Lana and her beautiful skin, the decision to not retouch was an easy one.
The strong triangular shadow caused by my speedlight (and her hair) might be objectionable, but overall I think it works. It is up way too high, but, then again, so was Lana. Had she been lower the expectation would be for it to fall below the nose line for Rembrandt style lighting. Because of the limitations of this location shoot I worked with what I had, and I think if anything that shadow adds interest. Or, at the least, it’s forgivable.
This was taken at Point Dume, a fantastic location. The wind can be quite strong, especially on top of the bluff. The rocks on the face of the bluff make interesting backgrounds for telling all sorts of stories with your camera. Including beautiful women with flowing, windblown, hair.
Bringing a fashion flare (a term best employed by Lindsay Adler) to portrait photography seems to be the rage. Sue Bryce increasingly incorporates a fashion look into her glamor offerings as well.
I’ve been playing around with it myself.
Part of the look I achieve through wardrobe and how it is shot, and part of it comes from post processing technique.
This is an image of Rebecca I shot months ago that I decided to play with in post processing.
To me, what adds a fashion look to this image is the pose, camera angle (slightly below), and the very flat lighting. It’s interesting that this style is, to me, actually easier than traditional portrait lighting where lighting patterns are very important.
The crop (or lack thereof) also lends this feel to the image. It is borderline here; the loose crop places more emphasis on the clothes and less on her, making it more a fashion image than a portrait. But it does look like it could be used on a magazine cover (with plenty of room for the masthead), and that’s the look I wanted to convey.
With some variations to the pose and camera position to account for different body types, any woman can be successfully photographed with a “fashion flare”.
Some folks claim there is nothing new in photography. The Renaissance painters and ancient sculptors probably heard similar complaints.
While people have certainly been photographed before – perhaps countless ones with the same lighting setups, or that landscape or product shot, there is unquestionably a uniqueness lent to every image that a photographer takes. Even those intentionally copied – not just inspiration drawn from – are difficult to reproduce exactly.
Photography, like every other art form (or craft, if you want to categorize it that way) evolves. It draws from what was built before. Even the pioneers – Weston, Stieglitz, Adams, Cartier-Bresson – drew from other photographers or other art forms.
It’s interesting that some are seen as providing never-before-seen work, while the reality is often quite different. What is unique is how they lent themselves to their art – they made it unique. Photographers made landscape images before Adams – but none quite like he did.
We all stand on the shoulders of others; as a photographer, I admire other photographers, many of whom came before me but others that are contemporaries as well. When I was younger I found myself trying to emulate them. But as I grew older and started to develop my own style, I recognized and appreciated how I liked to work. I’m probably like many artists: there comes a maturity where you no longer want to emulate someone but rather find improvement in your own work, to evolve your own aesthetic.
And rather than trying to reinvent the wheel, there are some broad shoulders I could lean on to help.
Ansel Adams was the first great influence on me. I appreciate his aesthetic, and even though I am not a landscape photographer, what he taught I liken to an engineering approach to photography. To me, Adams codified it. He provided recipes for deterministically reproducing images. He provided tools to translate what you saw and felt into photographs, predictably, reliably. To me, his Zone System still applies (in principle if not chapter and verse). His was the ideal.
If Adams provided the steak, then Bert Stern added the sizzle. As a commercial and advertising photographer, Bert had the lifestyle as one of the first “rock star” photographers that most (including me) fantasized about. And yet his images still speak to me. I draw many stylistic queues from him; to me his genius was his ability to reduce an image to the bare essentials, all the while retaining a feeling of quality and richness. I attribute the minimalism I see in many of my photographs to Stern.
Don Giannati is a mentor. His glamor work kick-started my interest in glamor and beauty photography, and he’s given me much to consider. This is one influence that I have actually met, worked with, and continue to learn from. I still have “aha!” moments from Don – such as the principle of subject centric lighting (something he learned from the great Dean Collins, but I never appreciated it until Don explained it).
Joe McNally’s use of strobe built upon what I learned from Don. While I have never met Joe, I have all of his books and videos. If there is one person who has had the largest influence on my lighting and my way of thinking about lighting, it is Joe McNally. I blame Joe for my insistence on creating my own key – virtually every time I am in a controlled shooting situation.
There are others – both professionals and amateurs alike – that I continue to build my aesthetic from. Photographers like Sue Bryce, retouching heavyweights Calvin Hollywood and Aaron Nace, and friends on Flickr.
My style is my style. But I didn’t get there alone. I have many people to thank. And my journey, thankfully, is not over yet.
This is an image I shot last year on a dry lake bed outside of Las Vegas. I’m hoping to return and get more desert and dry lake images. Again, it speaks to my desire for simplicity (there isn’t a lot of contention in the background now is there). I am actually not providing my own key (ironically) as the time of day we are shooting at has the sun in the wrong position to get those mountains in the background. So I am actually short lighting her using the sun as key (she is facing directly into it, although the turn of the head short lights her). A strobe is providing fill.
This is my style. But I see Stern, and Giannatti, and McNally in it. They may or may not have shot it this way, but because of them, I did.
The best camera is the one you have with you – Chase Jarvis
I found myself in San Francisco last week. I had some time to kill one morning, so I took a boat tour of the Bay. I had a small pocket camera with me (high quality pocket camera – but still a pocket camera). I had no plan except to get your ordinary, touristy shots. With a little luck, maybe something to actually keep.
So, even before the boat pulled away, I started shooting. You never know, right?
Well, what I didn’t know was that AC (America’s Cup class) boats were in for a warmup race to the America’s Cup race scheduled for next year. And, as it turns out, the boat I was on was passing right by the boats about an hour before the start. And shafts of light were highlighting some pastel portions of the city and backlighting the sails of the boats. So I captured as we went by, proceeding to the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz, and all the usual scenes from the Bay.
When I returned home I started editing (post processing) the images. What I pulled out was this, a somewhat unique image of San Francisco:
I wish I could say I planned for the rowers in the foreground to add depth and interest, or even my position relative to the lighting. I of course cannot. But this image never would have been found had I not had my camera with me. You know, the best camera – the one with you.
Living near a beach provides one with many therapeutic benefits (when one actually makes the effort to travel those long, hard, 4 blocks – but that’s another story). Actually, this year has been better than most. So not only is my tan pretty good now, but I find appealing images on my hard drive as well.
That’s because I have gotten better at bringing a camera with me – something better than an iPhone, yet still convenient enough to always carry with me. I save the big rig for planned shoots. For spontaneity I have begun to appreciate small. And convenient.
Not only does the beach offer therapy for the soul, I have found it equally good at what photography offers: capturing moments. Feeling rather Zen? Capturing the moment seems to enhance the experience. And later, returning to the moment is possible by viewing the images.
The images, however, are not out-of-camera. The photographer knows that the camera captures only the foundation of the image. The rest is built in post processing – what was seen, what was felt, needs to be added back in. Just as the meal is more than the raw ingredients, the spice of the scene has to be added to bring out the flavor of the image. This is the difference (well, one of them at least) between the photographer and someone with a camera.
Those planned shoots I almost always create my own key. Those unplanned ones with the pocket camera I use what is there. Planned shoots use the best that I have and whatever is necessary to create the image. Unplanned ones, I use what I have at hand. But these are the only differences – what happens leading up to the moment of capture. Half the battle has been fought. After the photons have been rounded up work still needs to be done – this part is the same. Regardless if I am shooting people, or seagulls, the art of photography is in the final image. And the final image is the product of both capture and post production.
Even if it is just a Zen moment.
I was inspired by an image by Bert Stern (surprised, right?) of a model wearing a man’s black shirt, jacket, tie, and a bowler style hat. What made the image was the hat and that 70′s tie – it was graphic, yet simple, a trait of Stern’s that I very much am drawn to.
Well, things didn’t exactly go as planned. That sometimes happens. The images just did not speak to me.
Jessica and I shot some things that she needed, and, just before leaving, I talked her into putting on a white man’s shirt and shooting some high key images.
These turned out to be the ones that really spoke to me.
I love tone-on-tone images anyway, and in B&W I have always loved the subtlety and the softness of them. Even though there is a lot of light (4 lights, in this case) they are still emotional to me. Usually the more light you add the less emotional images can be; there are times – and I think this is one of them – where this isn’t true.
I admit to playing it fast and loose with the nose breaking the cheek line – but it isn’t hanging off into space and I felt like the hair keeps it from being too prominent. And I really like the gesture.
So in the end we didn’t end up with anything like I had originally planned.
This is not entirely unexpected, as the starting sequence of images is a little iffy in terms of getting good material. We were just getting warmed up, and hadn’t really gotten into the flow of the shoot yet. This is the first time I had shot with Jessica, so we were still feeling each other out. Again, not unusual. For this reason I often tell subjects not to wear their best wardrobe, or go for the shot we really want to nail, at first. That should generally come somewhere in the middle of the shoot. That last sequence can by iffy, too, as we start to get tired – but this time it worked out.
Shooting with women in men’s clothing has its challenges. Loose material can be a problem – it adds bulk. It does add a casualness and a unique, comforting look – something that will make its way into my portfolio.
I still have the bowler hat; I’m sure I will try again.