A pro switches camera systems

I commit to the Leica S007

One of the most difficult decisions a professional photographer has to make is the decision to commit to a whole new camera system.

Unlike an amateur photographer, the professional has to commit to buying into a camera that will be useful (and a money-maker) for many years, not the least because the equipment is going to be expensive, and the costs amortized over many years. The professional has to take the long view, building his cameras and lenses as needed. The last thing he thinks about is chasing marketing fads.

It was with this background in mind that I made the decision to make the Leica S007 the next camera for my professional shooting, for reasons I will address shortly. For well over 20 years I relied on a Contax 645 and their excellent Zeiss lenses and I never regretted that choice. The camera served me well, allowed me to make a good living, and still works just fine. But the Contax is an “orphaned”camera, no longer supported by a manufacturer that left the camera business altogether. Should one of its circuits or shutter fail, it may or may not be repairable. It was time to make that big decision, to find a replacement camera for professional use and for the long term; thus began my search.

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An early morning photograph from Salem harbor looking East. Leica S007 with a 35mm Zeiss Distagon lens using the Contax-to-Leica adapter. I used a 3-stop graduated ND filter to even out the exposure between the foreground and background.

In the professional realm, there has been a bit of a “format war” between 35mm-size digital sensors of ever-increasing pixel counts, and removable digital backs for medium-format cameras. My Contax 645 and its Leaf Aptus digital back fell into the second category.

A couple of years ago, it seemed as if the high-end options in 35mm sensor cameras would negate the quality differential obtainable from a large-chip detachable sensor, resulting in the demise of the market for medium-format digital cameras. This has not turned out to be the case, and paraphrasing Mark Twain, reports of the death of medium format digital have been highly exaggerated. In fact, the market segment is now quite active and competitive, and for good reason.

At the upper reaches of quality are removable digital backs that attach to cameras whose “DNA” comes from the days of film photography, my Contax 645 being one example. Such digital backs can be moved over to studio cameras for product or architectural work, allowing for perspective swings and tilts. Outside of the studio, however, this approach still leaves you with a camera that looks and feels like a film camera.

I gave serious thought to transitioning to a 35mm full frame camera, but stopped short because I had grown to appreciate the technical advantages of large digital sensors and that indefinable “medium-format” look. Simply put, even with my dated equipment, when used within its “comfort zone”, the image quality was spectacular.

It must be that special image quality that has led to the resurgence of medium-format digital, and led me to consider the Leica S system even though I had never thought of that company as a “player” in that realm. They seemed to have gotten right a long-term solution for me, for a number of reasons.

First off would be the ability (via the adapter) to use all my existing Zeiss lenses that performed well on the Contax 645. This eases the financial burden of adding a whole new set of lenses while allowing me to transition to Leica “glass” over time—smart thinking on Leica’s part.

Second was the S camera itself. Without sounding like a fanboy for Leica, I have to say that the company has placed the camera in the sweet spot between 35mm DSLRs and traditionally styled medium format cameras. It looks and feels good in the hand, an elusive quality that makes a difference in professional shooting situations.

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I spotted this painted lightpole at a local supermarket. Leica S007 with a Zeiss 120mm Apo Macro-Planar using the Contax-to-Leica adapter.

Third was a certain attention to details rather than an emphasis on marketing gimmicks. To cite one example, the USB connection at the camera end uses a rather expensive locking connector normally used on laboratory or medical equipment. Speaking as one who never trusted the flimsy Firewire connection on the Leaf Aptus, this was a welcome improvement.

I will finish with comment on optical vs. electronic viewfinders. Now that CMOS sensors are the norm, it is possible to pull the lens image off the sensor and direct it to an electronic screen. I have no quarrel with that trend and it certainly allows for smaller lenses and bodies. But to repeat what I said above, reports of the death of optical viewfinders are highly exaggerated. The view through the Leica S viewfinder is gorgeous, and a lot easier on my tired eyes than the various 35mm cameras in my cabinet.
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A rare double rainbow at about 6PM in Sarasota, FL. Leica S007 with a 45mm Zeiss Distagon lens using the Contax-to-Leica adapter.

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Some interesting vacation photos

We spent the month of February in Sarasota, FL at a rented upper floor of a house of some friends. I took a lot of what I would call “snapshots”, but also got some interesting photos which I include below.

I had three cameras with me, one my Rolleiflex 3.5f  film camera, and two digital cameras, both medium format. I had volunteered to shoot the wedding of the son of a friend of mine, and this was my first actual wedding assignment; my studio was commercial only during the heydays and I had no real experience as a wedding photographer. These guys deserve credit, it’s a tough gig, with lots that can go wrong, not the least of which is the testy attitude of the bride or groom or relatives.

Usually, in my commercial work, I would be accompanied by an assistant (maybe two), and hauling a pack of lights, studio flash, and it would all be a big production. This time, I went out with a single portable flash mounted on the camera.

At any rate, the end result was pleasing to me, and to the wedding parties too. They were ecstatic, which is more praise than I ever got as a commercial shooter.

After the wedding, it was time to relax and then I turned to the trusty Rollei, loaded with Kodak Portra 400, my usual “go-to” film. It is fast enough to handle most lighting situations, and it scans well on my Epson V750 scanner. At the same time, I was in the process of buying a new digital camera, a first for me in many years, to replace my aging Contax 645 with a Leaf Aptus digital back (now obsolete).  I will have more to say about that purchase in another posting.

Sarasota scenes-2A running shoe store in downtown Sarasota. This is an interesting contrast of blue and orange colors, which are opposite on the color wheel. The square format of the Rollei was a perfect fit for the subject.

Sarasota scenes-1We found this store selling shaved ice at a tourist part of Sarasota, FL. I had to brace my camera on a table and use a shutter of about 1/8 second to get an exposure. The colored lights are what make the shot.

Sarasota rainbows-1A rare double rainbow seen from the balcony of the house we rented. It was late afternoon, with the sun quite low in the sky. I had to use some Lightroom adjustments to darken the sky and bring out the rainbows.

When photography is dishonest

“All photographs are accurate. None of them is the truth.” – Richard Avedon

I came across this ambiguous and mysterious quote from Richard Avedon while searching for portrait ideas for a project I will be starting soon. It was Avedon’s portraiture that I turned to for inspiration.

The iconic photographer had a long and successful career as a fashion photographer, while also building a huge body of portrait work of actors, celebrities, the famous and the not-so-famous. At the end of his life, with worldwide adulation safely in hand, he pulled away from the glamour world that had made him famous, and chose instead to photograph more everyday subjects. In one case he applied his distinctive “minimalist” style to his aging father; in another, he spent time in the American West, photographing miners, poor families, and sundry other subjects.

There is stark contrast in his treatment of the famous and the ordinary of human existence. With some exceptions, his portraits of celebrities are what I would call “respectful”: he clearly intends to leave the viewer with a positive impression of the subject. Whether the subject is a grizzled old actor, or a beautiful young actress, his camera is revealing in a pleasant way; the picture makes you wonder about the interior soul of the subject. There is no sense that Avedon is trying to steer your emotions about the person, or put another way, impose his values onto the portrait.

But now let’s turn to the work of his later years, particularly the American West series. In his minimalist style, straight on poses against a plain white background, we are presented with the polar opposite of his New York celebrity work. It is unmistakeable: the ordinary people in front of his lens are deliberately made to look degraded. Miners are shown just as they emerge from the grime of the mine, their bodies coated with black dust, their faces black, and their expressions too. Images of mothers holding their children are devoid of any beauty, the faces of both clearly implying great misery and depression. No one is happy, no one is smiling, the pictures are relentlessly gloomy. As a body of work, the intent is clear: these are people of a lower order. Their lives, their existence, is miserable, and he wants to make that clear.

It is only in seeing the contrast of the two phases of his photographic career that the essential dishonesty of his work shoots out at you. Celebrities are the beautiful people, their lives “work”, and they deserve to be admired, even worshipped. But his everyday people, well, they are almost disgusting, or at best pitiable.

This kind of thing has been going on for a long time in the creative arts. It has become a world of celebrity worship, combined with deliberate contempt for the dignity of everyday people going about their lives. I don’t see it ending anytime soon.

More still life photography

With the cold weather keeping me indoors, I worked on yet another studio photograph, this time a still life with a military theme.

As an aside, I mention that in the world of photography today, it is rather unfashionable to portray anything “military” in other than a negative light. The same holds true for law enforcement in general–there can be no suggestion of approval or regard. So in this sense the picture below is something of a revolutionary act. So be it.military3-1There are two departures from customary practice in this shot. First, I used a Zeiss Softar 2 filter over the camera lens to give a gauzy, nostalgic look to the image. Without the filter, the picture was razor sharp and less emotive. Note how the filter imparts a lovely halation , or glow, around bright objects, especially the rose. The picture really demands this. Second, I filtered a single Fresnel spotlight with an amber gel and this was the only light source. The gel imparts, again, a warm, nostalgic feeling. The unfiltered source was just too neutral and harsh. A white reflector to the left filled in the shadows and kept them from going to full black.

The Art of Tabletop Photography

During the many decades of my shooting career, a majority of my time was spent doing tabletop photography, what I like to describe as “life on a 4-foot-square of plywood”. I spent my days arranging food, computers, medical instruments and other “stuff” on a sheet of  plywood covered with a surface of some kind,  with a background material placed behind.

The artistic level of it all could vary tremendously, ranging from what we called “plop and pop” photographs of hundreds of pill bottles, each taking a few moments to get in place, to complex arrangements of dozens of objects that might require day a day or more to get just right. I remember one assignment for Stanley Tools in which the art director and I spent hours moving a single wrench on a piece of metal plating until he got it just right, at which point the actual exposure took a few moments and then we were done.

Like all really good photography, the end result looks simple and easy to accomplish, but in reality is fiendishly difficult.

This is especially true when it comes to tabletop photography. In general, the products themselves are not especially photogenic, thus a photograph only reaches greatness when you achieve mastery over lighting and the background or setting. It’s a job for absolute control in the controlled environment of the studio.

I regret that I am now seeing a lot of tabletop photography that fails to meet the standard of excellence that I expected of myself (and others), as photographers and clients attempt to shortcut the whole process. To take just one example, various eBay vendors now sell collapsible light tents that you light up from the outside in a fixed, “boilerplate” configuration, at which point you put the product inside and aim your camera from a hole left in front. This will get you a nice, high-quality snapshot, but not a refined advertising illustration.

To do it well, tabletop photography requires the highest skill in both creative or artistic ability, and technical ability, not to mention an expensive studio equipped with a ton of expensive lighting and camera equipment. It is a skill that took me decades to master and do well.

When I closed my studio there did not seem to be a demand for the exacting tabletop work that sustained me, and I had grown tired of standing in a darkened room day after day. I moved on to less formal shooting, such as portraits and landscapes, something I enjoy immensely.

But recently, the old urge hit me again, and I pulled out the lights and the 4-foot-square of plywood to test myself, and the images are shown below.

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I spent two days pulling this shot together. It’s basically a beauty shot but was a test of all my knowledge of styling and lighting. The background was hand sprayed with yellow and blue. The glass received coats of dulling spray, fake ice, fake drips and a final water spray. I tried several “bow-ties” before settling on the one shown.

still life-2Unlike the above photograph, this shot took only about an hour to pull together. My wife supplied the glassware and the ribbons, and I played with them until the arrangement seemed right. This picture did not just “happen”; it was hard work.

still life-3Another shot that looks easy but isn’t. It relies on the color opposites of orange (the yoke and the fork) and the cyan blue background paper. It is formal in its symmetry and the square crop.

still life-4Fake apples, a metallic plate and a metallic green background. The shot did not look complete until I added the small sprigs. Sometimes a small detail like that makes all the difference between an OK shot and something truly interesting.

The story of my photographic journey to Forgotten America

I have finally published the photography book I have been working on for many years. Its title is “Main Street USA”, subtitled “A Photographic Journey to Forgotten America”.

This book of pictures and commentary illustrates something tragic that has been taking place in America for many decades, namely the decline of manufacturing in the cities and towns of the America between the coasts, what I call Forgotten America. It is a story of the sad effects of globalism and outsourcing, the deliberate gutting of the country’s productive manufacturing base, and the resulting devastation of people who deserve better. It is a story as current as the latest headlines.

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It all began over a decade ago when I closed my advertising photography studio. I accepted a job teaching photography at a trade school located 100 miles west of the Boston suburbs, my home for almost 50 years.

I had spent most of my adult life in the prosperous cocoon that was, and is, the greater Boston area. It is a region that has largely avoided many economic downturns, due to its concentration of high technology enterprises, military contractors, university research and medical establishments, not to mention many old-line financial fortunes.

The situation just 100 miles west of Boston was another story altogether, as I quickly discovered. Turners Falls, MA, where the school was located, had seen better days. It was once a thriving small city with a solid manufacturing base. Over the years, the companies that once provided good-paying jobs moved their operations overseas, usually China, and Turners Falls declined. On my way to lunch one day, I stepped on a used hypodermic needle on the sidewalk; clearly, something was amiss in this tired old town.

I began to take pictures of the people and places of western Massachusetts, only dimly aware that the region was quite typical of large swaths of the American countryside away from coastal enclaves such as Boston. But it took the death of my wife from cancer in 2009 to open my eyes completely to another tragedy, the globalism and outsourcing that had destroyed places like Turners Falls.

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This is an image from the book. It shows Ben in the office of his auto repair business. It looked like a movie set from the 1940’s.

Perhaps as a way to heal the grief I was feeling, or just to get away from the house my wife and I shared for decades, I decided to make photographic excursions into the land between the coasts. I loaded up the car with cameras of all types, added Cory, the Corgi dog I had acquired after my wife’s death, and set out to a series of Super 8 motels in New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia. I made several of these expeditions a year apart.

These journeys were revelations. For the first time it hit me that a kind of sadness had settled into the places I visited; the people had lost hope. Once-bustling downtown Main Street was almost deserted in the middle of the day. The shops had closed, the windows boarded up with plywood. The local movie palace was gutted and turned into cheap apartments; the tenants were barely hanging on. It all became the subject of my camera lens and it felt right to document what was before me.

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Another image from the book. This Woolworth’s store was boarded up. 

At the same time, I did not want to give in to despair. I made a point of photographing signs of renewal, where it could be found.  Many tired old shops and restaurants hosted friendly people who seemed to be in good spirits, even though their surroundings hadn’t seen a fresh coat of paint in decades. A sense of community prevailed, and in many ways the people seemed happier than the jaded and acquisitive elites of the Boston area.

It took the better part of a year to assemble my work into a coherent book. It has arrived just as these same elites have started to realize the truth of my images, and the story behind them. Perhaps my efforts will advance some much-needed change.

Note: The book is now for sale through Amazon. Just do a search on the title.

Softboxes, lighting and other uTube fictions

Once you get past the snapshot stage of photography, it becomes obvious that lighting skill is what separates a snapshot from a professional photograph.

In times past, lighting skill, like any other skill, built up over time, often by learning from a seasoned professional, or perhaps through seminars and classes. Implied in this process was an understanding that real skill has no shortcuts; it is an accumulated wisdom learned through years of experience.

But now we come to the Internet. What used to be considered a lifelong learning curve has been replaced by innumerable uTube videos that promise to shortcut the process of learning and reduce it all to “ten tips for better lighting”. This is part of an overall fantasy that the hardest life skills can be mastered by finding the secret gimmick.

I once considered producing a series of lighting videos for uTube consumption, but have abandoned the idea because uTube is now saturated with videos from photographers who have no real understanding of photographic lighting. Everyone and his uncle thinks of himself as an expert. Any tutorials I might produce would get lost in a sea of misinformation, and ignored by viewers who think that lighting is just a matter of finding the secret lighting device or lighting setup. If only it were that easy!

Part of the problem is the way lighting is part science and part art. The science part is what nobody wants to bother with, because it can be difficult to understand, and seems irrelevant to making beautiful images. But actually, if you can get some of the physics into your artistic head, it simplifies lighting greatly and makes your job as a photographer a lot easier.

With this preface in mind, let’s take a look at how lighting has changed over the years, which will then lead directly to the silliness I am seeing now on uTube.

When photography came into the world in the 1800’s, there was only natural light, electricity was yet to come. Of course, natural light comes from the sun, and the sun has its own lighting profile and thus it has been for the last two billion years.

From a physics point of view, sunlight is a point source. The sun is enormous in size, however it is far away. In a full sunlit sky, it appears as a disk the size of a coin. Light rays coming off the sun arrive on earth as straight lines, what optics people call “collimated light”. When these rays strike an object, they cast a shadow, that is, a shadow is the area behind the object that blocks the rays. These shadows have sharp edges because the rays are parallel.

Another characteristic of sunlight is that it is unchanging from one spot to another. It is plainly clear that you can walk around in any space lit by the sun, and the intensity of the light won’t vary a bit, again because the rays are parallel and arriving from a great distance…a really, really great distance.

The earliest photographers learned what painters already knew, that sunlight is not good as a portrait lighting source, for the reason just mentioned, that it casts sharp shadows. So just like painters, they sought out light sources that were more flattering and pleasant, and this led naturally to “diffused” light. This whole realm of diffused light is now the source of endless hokum and nonsense about lighting for photography; more on that in a moment.

Diffused light, or soft light is “uncollimated” light, to use the physics term. It is rays of light coming from a surface instead of a point source. At any given point on that surface, light rays can emerge at any angle in a fully diffuse situation; or some of the rays can emerge parallel and some scattered, as is the case with light diffusion. Or put another way, there is a range of diffuse light from none at all, as in sunlight, to fully diffuse as in a sheet of thick white plastic.

Looked at in this way, it is a simple fact that a softbox, a matte white umbrella, and a diffusing panel with a light behind it are all going to produce a highly diffuse light. The effect on a subject is identical, provided two conditions are met: the size of the diffuse source is the same, and the distance to the subject is the same. This can be easily tested in a studio and I defy anyone to tell me differently.

Now this is where the hokum sets in. Both manufacturers of lighting gear, and photographers themselves, have attempted to claim that it is a lot more complicated, and the uTube world is filled with videos purporting to demonstrate the magical qualities of special lights or fixtures.

Take for example the so-called “beauty dish”, apparently designed to make someone look, well, beautiful. It is really nothing more that a round, semi-diffused fixture, a halfway point on the diffusion spectrum. You could get the same effect with a lightly silvered umbrella, or a light diffusion panel of the same size. There is no mystical “beauty” light coming out here.

I am not implying that all lighting fixtures are the same from a practical point of view. A reflecting white umbrella is quick to set up, but can’t be used close up because the shaft of the umbrella will get in the way. A softbox takes a bit of fiddling to assemble, which takes time, but it can be placed as close to the subject as you want. A diffusion panel requires setting up two things: the panel and the light itself. Furthermore, about half the light hitting the panel will be reflected back toward the light, which means it will give you about one stop less light than an equivalent softbox. So you can see that every solution to diffuse light has its pluses and minuses, like most things in life.

In many decades of shooting, I have used every kind of lighting fixture, and can offer some simple rules, which may or may not line up with the video advice on uTube.

For most subjects, a good starting point is a softbox about the same size as the subject and placed about the same distance away from the subject. For example, use a softbox of about 36 inches square for a typical head and shoulders portrait, and keep the light about three feet away from the subject. Used in that way, the light will have a pleasing “wraparound” quality in which the shadows have soft, feathered edges. Of course, placing that light is key, and that skill takes a long time to master, but at least you will be starting out with something that can work. This will work for lighting a wristwatch, a human face, or an automobile. I made a lot of money lighting up people and products with a single softbox, carefully placed, with a fill card reflector on the opposite side, again carefully placed.

On so many of the uTube videos, I see the diffused source placed far from the subject, say a 30-inch beauty dish placed out ten feet from the subject. Because the light is coming off the fixture at all angles, most of the light is just lighting up the room, not the subject; in other words, most of the light is wasted. To make things worse, the light that does reach the subject is directional, and must cast hard shadows that are not flattering to people or things. This is just one example of the poor advice offered on these channels.

In this post it would be impossible to provide a course in lighting; there is too much to cover. But at least I can make you aware that not everything you see on television is true, or even commonsensical.