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Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

Required Reading

Nov 13

In Books at 7:55am

Greg Heisler and I grew up into the uncertain profession of taking pictures for magazines about the same time. Which was wonderful, as you could watch his extraordinary talents literally change the face of magazine portraiture and the use of color right then and there, in real time.  And not so wonderful, like when you would be called into a meeting with the creatives at a mag and they would throw one of his recent triumphs down on a table in front of you and say, “We want our pictures to look like this.” Gulp. Read the rest of this entry »

Big Data, Big Book

Jan 15

In Books at 5:42am

 

I recently shot for a new book called Big Data, which gets a handle on heavy seas of ones and zeroes we navigate everyday of our modern lives. The book pops from the ever prescient noodle of author/photog/entrepreuner Rick Smolan, who long ago helped forge what was for a period of time, an almost yearly photographic gathering of the tribes called the “Day in the Life” book projects. Beginning with Australia, the projects reeled off an impressive number of countries, all willing, apparently, to host 100 of the world’s top photogs for the photo equivalent of a quickie. (My thought, at least occasionally, was something on the order of, “Haven’t these poor people suffered enough?”) Read the rest of this entry »

Friends With Books

Jun 27

In Books at 10:19am

Tim Mantoani, for most of the last 5 or 6 years, has been a man on a mission. His self assignment was the most daunting of tasks–to document historically important photographers, a group notably reluctant to trade places and get in front of lens instead of behind it. Further, he could not simply go to the photographers, and meet these constantly circulating creatures at such places as hotels, or airports, which they are known to frequent abundantly. No, he had to convince them to come to the camera, in this case, a behemoth Polaroid 20×24. Not exactly a street camera, its lens offers up a remarkably beautiful study of the subject standing in front of it, in this case, photographers, holding a print of their favorite, or most famous image. The camera, married with Tim’s simple, one light approach, has a certain stately quality, a rectitude, if you will, it seems to stamp its subjects with. Given the somewhat motley, ragtag assemblage of subjects constituting Tim’s project, this is a good thing. With each turn of the page, the book gains power,  authority and fascination. The photogs’ choices of imagery alone is intriguing, and offers a visual road map to some of the most famous images ever made, along with a look at the person who made it. It’s a worthwhile investigation on Tim’s part, a benchmark of photographic determination and tenacity. Well worth the time it took to create it. Very worth the time to turn the pages. Here’s a link to more info. And below, some of the subjects.

Neil Leifer

Barbara Bordnick

Douglas Kirkland

Jay Maisel

At the Polaroid studio, and an amazing array of portraiture.

Alex Webb has been on the streets and borders of the world, shooting color in his truly distinctive way, for over 30 years. The result is his new book, a startling, arresting survey from one of the most expressive color shooters in the history of the field. He has always been not so much after the facts of a place, but more of the feel of it. Called The Suffering of the Light, it was cited by American Photo as one of the books of the year.

Alex’s photographic energy flows from the street. An inveterate wanderer, he has never really hewed close to a narrative, rather, letting the wander itself become the narrative. You don’t really get the specifics and information of a place on earth, having looked at one of his many books, but you do get an emotional notion, be it a quiver, or a shudder, feel in the gut, for what it might be like to be there. He’s continually able to mesh the disparate, seemingly conflicting elements of turbulent, vibrant street life with a beautiful awareness of light, and the results are not so much answers or facts, but questions in color.

His mate, Rebecca Norris Webb, also a color photographer, just published an personal reminiscence of her time growing up in South Dakota, called My Dakota. Recently profiled in the NYT lens blog, the book is an intensely personal journey through open spaces, running counter to her most recent book, The Glass Between Us, which largely dealt with walls and confinement.

We all feel things when we’re kids, without really knowing what they mean, and those feelings, when you’re a photographer, inevitably surface in your work. The book is a return for her, I suspect, both visually and emotionally, to truly open skies and an earth not papered over with concrete, such as here in New York where she currently resides. Remarkably evocative, there is no urgency to the turn of the pages. Rather, with its color palette and framing, it encourages a certain languid type of looking, a slow and thoughtful pace, similar to the pace one might adopt if one were actually confronted with the heat, the skies, and the land of a truly sparse place such as South Dakota.

By contrast, there is an urgency to Stacy Pearsall’s book, Shooter. Though not available quite yet, it has already provoked strong reaction. Long time picture editor Jim Colton, formerly of Newsweek, currently at Sports Illustrated, said in a review: “The powerful images put a face, not only on our troops, but also on the civilians who are involuntarily brought into the fray. The images do not glorify but rather document the reality of war….through both critical and intimate moments. After seeing the photographs, the viewer will feel like they’ve just ridden shotgun with our troops abroad.”

There is the intensity of the observation of combat, made all that much more compelling by the simple fact that Stacy was not simply an empathetic observer, she was a soldier, on the streets with her unit. The fact that the soldiers she photographed were her friends, people she lived with, walked with and ate breakfast with, makes the book more than simply a compelling document. It makes it personal and emotionally resonant.

And Ron Martinsen, who just topped a million viewers of his blog, came out with a definitive guide to printing. Printing 101, An Introduction to Fine Art Printing, came out as an eBook recently and has rapidly gained a following as a definitive guide to getting the most out of your ink jet printer. Replete with interviews with printing masters such as Eddie Tapp, John Paul Caponigro, and Greg Gorman, the book is a 90 page road map to great prints.

And Steve Simon has chipped in with his latest book, The Passionate Photographer. A veteran observer of the human condition, Steve offers not only his pungent and heartfelt images, but a large store of practical advice for the shooter thinking they might be poised to take a plunge into the world of documentary photojournalism. As the cover suggests, he takes you through, step by step, the logic behind the passion–the planning, the research and the underpinnings that go into any sustained documentary effort. If you are taking up a camera with documentary intent, it’s well worth the read.

More tk….

A Book About Possibilities

Dec 5

In Books at 5:42am

It’s actually real. Just got sent a copy, and physically held it in my hands. It’s hefty, at 420 pages. I was feeling good for about thirty seconds, but I am cut no slack in my studio. Drew came up to me and nodded approvingly. “It’ll make a good doorstop,” he said.

So it goes. I do have apologies to offer, because this book was supposed to have been done long ago, and there are some folks (bless them) I’ve heard from who have left their pre-orders ride for over a year. Really, truly, apologize. The last couple years have been assignment work run amok, and I’ve had to improvise and re-invent our studio schedule constantly to just keep going out on location. (Which is where I am today, in an open field with a bunch of folks looking at me and expecting that I should know what to do next. Heh, heh–are they in for a surprise!) The delays weren’t entirely self-inflicted–I did wait to experiment with some light shapers, radio TTL and the like as they came on board. And, thankfully, we have been very assignment driven for the last year and a half. Lots of shooting. No down time.

This book was a long and winding road indeed. I looked at tried and true methods, new technology, big flash, and small flash. I experimented with lots of light shapers, both store bought and found, in the studio and on location. I pushed light through umbrellas and windows, off walls and cardboard, and into soft boxes and panels. I disclosed everything I did, via text, sketch and/or production photos. As I mentioned in the intro sections: “There’s a ton of basic information in this book. there are pictures, sketches, production photos, notes, and metadata. In most instances, I’ve divulged virtually everything you could want to know about any particular shoot, short of the color of my boxers. They’re generally blue, by the way, though I do have a couple of pinstriped numbers, and on really big shoots I wear my lucky thong. Joe make joke.”

A great deal of the book coalesces around the use of one light, be it a speed light, a Quadra, or something bigger. I also gaggle two or three speed lights into single sources (so they behave as one light) which is currently popular with new tools and light shapers coming on board.

Advanced techniques are discussed, but the book starts with one flash, hot shoed to the camera.

I take a look at radio TTL, and the new Pocketwizard technology, and examine all manner of triggering, from PW’s to Skyports to line of sight TTL to good old fashion manual slave operation.

There are lots of  production pix, such as the above, courtesy of Jay Mann, and sketches all over the place, courtesy of Numnuts.

The main deal with the book, and why I wrote it, actually, was to cover the gear, the nuts and bolts, the machinery if you will, very, very thoroughly. And then, having done that, get to the much more important questions about why we shoot. As I say, the “how” serves the “why.” There are several chapters called TITIK by my irrepressible editor, Ted Waitt, short for, “Things I Think I Know.” These are simply life lessons derived from 35 years of photography, all over the world, for all sorts of clients. Things to be aware of. Things to avoid. How to behave when things go wrong, knowing that they often do. Advice, if you will, on how to survive and navigate these perpetually uncharted waters.

Why big flash instead of small flash? Why does a certain face need a certain light? Why f11 as opposed to f2? Why would you choose one face over another? How to move fast, in a swirl of uncontrollable events, and keep your cool, light well, and come away with pictures. Building trust on the set, with models and crew. Self assigning, the key to everything. Mixing big flash and small flash. (The lede to that section: “THE BIG LIGHTS FORM YOUR SENTENCES. The little lights are the punctuation marks.”)

How to tell stories with light. How to use light as language. The underpinnings are technical, to be sure, and information about technique abounds in these pages. But the soul of the book resides in the realm of reasons we are compelled to use that technology to  shoot. And why, despite repeated failure, we never, ever lose that boundless enthusiasm the eye exudes when it is comfortably nestled into a lens. For those moments at the camera when everything works, I express thanks.

“…. I remain thankful to be a photographer. In the midst of the torrent of technology we swim in daily, the unchanging mission for all shooters is to make pictures that arrest the eye of the viewer and describe our chosen subjects eloquently. We are part of an honored tradition, that of storytelling, which goes back to the dawn of time. Those prehistoric people, painting on their cave walls—were they doing anything different than we are now, with all our pixels and technical wizardry? I think not. They were leaving their footprints, and telling the story of their times, and their lives. With those ancient pigments on those rough walls, they were saying one simple thing: Remember us.”

Remembrance is important, and the discussion of how we achieve significant remembrance, for us and our subjects, is ongoing and important. As I say, again, in the intro section….

“The discussion is important, because talking about this stuff makes us all better shooters. It’s just that when the talk starts and stops at the numbers, and the whole world revolves around the precious, soulless hardware in the bag, we miss the point. The point is the picture. The conversation starts there.


So we do need to know the numbers, and that’s a beautiful thing because they are, indeed, knowable. There are good, clear, reproduc- ible, precise approaches, distances, f-stops, and shutter speeds here in this book, and elsewhere. Sure-footed knowledge of technique feeds your pictures, and grows your confidence. and that confidence enables you to pursue ever more aggressively the answers to the far more interesting questions that are really the heart of the matter.


So read on, if you will. Study the numbers. Learn the techniques. Ask the questions. Create your own beautiful pictures. Risk failure. Court disaster. Entertain possibilities.”

This is a book about what might be possible when you pick up a camera.

More tk….

Shooting Fireworks

Jun 13

In Books at 5:22am

Summer’s here! Time to shoot some fireworks. Below is a small instructional essay from the Life Guide to Digital Photography. I’ve shot some of the biggest fireworks displays in history, so I just kind of dove back into those to remember things I did right and things I did wrong. And things I didn’t think of at the time, or should’ve remembered to do. If you read this, or get the book, you might have an easier time than I did, being out there thinking, “Geez, I wish I had remembered to bring….”

Everybody loves to shoot fireworks. It has lots of connotations—holiday, patriotism, hot dogs, weekend, kids, family. Time to relax. Time to shoot some pictures.

Okay, make a checklist. Camera. Wide angle zoom. Telephoto zoom. Flash cards. Cable release. Spare camera battery. Tripod. Headlamp, and hand held flashlight. Watch with timer function. Black card. (More on that later.)

That’s pretty much the photo kit. What else to think of? Rain gear, both for cameras and you. You can get fancy rain gear designed for cameras and lenses, or just use plastic bags and baggies. Couple of bungee cords to keep the bags on the camera if the wind starts whipping about. Water and power bars—you’ll be out there a while. Bug repellent. Comfortable clothing and shoes. The car might be quite a ways away, and you’ll be walking a fair piece.  Advil. (Advil is always on my equipment list.)

Anything to do beforehand? You bet. Scout the location. Best to know what you are getting into, where they shoot the fireworks from, what the background will be like. How big will the display be? How long will it go for? Most fireworks displays are well over in a half hour or less, and if you are stumbling around in the crowd looking for a spot and trying to setup in the dark, you’ll just be starting to make decent exposures as they light up the sky with the crescendo and say goodnight till next year.

That’s right, next year. Most big shoot ‘em ups are yearly events. Argh, the pressure!

So scout. Get your spot. Get there early. I mean early. Like, be the first car in the parking lot. Pack a soft cooler sling bag, throw an icepack in there, and know that in that bag is your sustenance till maybe late at night. For jobs like this, my Ipod and earphones are a must. Maybe a collapsible chair, and a small waterproof tarp. Think your way into this. What could go wrong? It’s a photo shoot, so the answer to that is, just about everything. Try to ensure success by envisioning the shot and the potential problems in making the shot before you walk out the door.

Like, do you need a permit to put your tripod down? Did you have to call the town about this adventure? Most likely not, but in this post 911 world, photographers are often treated as being just this side of a recidivist offender, so it might be worth a phone call.

Okay, prepped and ready. Time to frame up the shot, which is a bit trickier than you might think. First off, when I shoot fireworks, I always get my frame, plus about 20%. I can always tighten up, but I want to give those fireworks room to play up there in the heavens. Frame too tight, you’ll have tracer lines of color going right out of the upper part of your picture, creating lines of interest that will pull your viewer’s eye right out with them.

So give them room to breathe and determine whether the shot is horizontal or vertical. Remember that most fireworks pix, if they are just of the explosions in the sky, are, at the end of the day, an exercise in color, nothing more. Even something as splashy as a pyrotechnic display needs context. So perhaps you can frame up with the object that is being celebrated, such as the Statue of Liberty. Or use the semi-silhouetted crowd as a foreground element. Or boats and bridges out in the water, with the water acting as a giant reflector board filled with color.

The variations that may occur with your framing are the reason to have at least a couple lenses with you. As mentioned above, two reasonable zooms, one wide and one telephoto, should do you fine.

Metering? Yikes, how do you meter a fast moving rocket moving through the black sky? The answer is, you don’t, really. This is a situation to shut off a bunch of the auto this and that on the camera, and go manual. Also, make sure to turn the flash off. Some cameras will read the darkness in in certain modes and activate that puppy. Ever see the opening of an Olympics, where thousands of people are using point and shoots, and their flashes are going off like crazy? Know what they’re lighting? The shoulder of the person in front of them. Fireworks, unless you are trying a radically different approach, are generally a no flash zone.

Okay, now set up manual. Fireworks are brighter than you might think, so you don’t need to open the lens really wide, which is a bit counter-intuitive, I know, ‘cause it’s dark. But my experience with fireworks wide open is that you drain the color out of them. They’ll just register as a white streak. Be careful. You can over-expose fireworks quite easily.

F8 is a reasonable starting point. Some photogs I know go even lower on the aperture scale, down to f11 or even f16. Over time, you will find which settings work for you. (I used to take notes at the end of a fireworks job, just to keep myself tuned up for next year. No real need for that anymore, as the metadata tells you what works and what doesn’t.)

Set the shutter to bulb. This mode keeps the shutter open as long as the release button is pushed. But you are not physically pushing that button are you?! No! This is absolutely a job for a cable release. Nowadays, most cable releases are simply electric cables which jack into the camera and activate the shutter. When you punch the button on the cable release the shutter is at your command, and will stay open as long as you want. And, very significantly, the button you are pushing is not on the camera or the tripod. With lengthy exposures, even the slightest jiggle or vibration is the enemy.

This is important, because at f8, the shutter will be open for a while, meaning anywhere from four to 10-15 seconds. (Remember if you have a foreground element in the picture, such as a monument, you have to make sure that lit up monument is exposed properly. In many ways, that foreground object will determine the length of your exposure.)

Again, due to the brightness of fireworks, you can work at a reasonable or even low ISO. Something in the neighborhood of 100 or 200 will do fine. The faster your ISO, the shorter your shutter speeds, which will deprive you of recording those wonderful tracers of light into the sky.

Some shooters time the launch of the rockets and open their shutter accordingly, keeping it open for, say, 8-10 seconds, then closing down. This ensures that they will record the path of the pyrotechnic into the night sky, and it’s explosion. This is a fine approach. Give it a try.

Others use a black card. A black card is just that, a black card. Nothing mysterious or fancy. It can be a piece of black cardboard, or foam core board. Or it can just be an index card covered with black tape. (Be sure it is not shiny tape. That might pick up slivers of light and reflect it back into the lens.  Use a matte black type of photo tape, often called gaffer tape.)

This way, you can keep your shutter open for very lengthy periods of time, and record multiple starbursts. You open the shutter, and shoot one explosion, then cover the lens with the card, and wait for the next. You can experiment with this trick, and produce really terrific results by layering multiple fireworks into one picture.

(Also, say, you have the Brooklyn Bridge as an architectural element in the foreground, and the proper exposure for it is f8 at 10 seconds. This limits your fireworks shooting range, right? Gotta get the bridge right, so the exposure is a done deal. But, with the black card, if you are quick enough, you can uncover just the upper portion of the sky, while blocking the area of the lens which is recording the bridge. This is dicey. You have to move the card quickly, hovering it around where the bridge ends and the sky begins. If you have ever made a black and white print in the darkroom, think of this as burning and dodging right at the camera lens. Can’t keep the card static or it will create a hard line of obvious exposure change. It has to hover, quickly jiggling around that sky bridge borderline. If you pull this off right, you can keep your lens open for several batches of fireworks, extending over 20-30 seconds, filling the sky with color. But—this is an  experiment! Back yourself up by shooting some “straight” frames.)

At the beginnings of the digital rage, this technique was a bit problematic, because seriously lengthy exposures produced a lot of digital noise. The longer the shutter is open, the longer the chip is “on” building up heat with every passing second. That sensor heat would really fray away at the quality of the digital file you would be trying to produce. Bad news. Long time exposures were the Achilles heel of early digital cameras. Predictably, advances in digital camera technology have smoothed out a lot of those problems, but it is wise to experiment with your particular model and see what its’ tolerances are. As you might suspect, the higher end models handle long exposure well, while the more basic cameras will have limitations. Get to know what your camera is capable of. In many current cameras, you can turn on a function called “long exposure noise reduction.” Hugely helpful.

Other bits and pieces: Don’t shoot all night long at one exposure. (If you are on bulb, you definitely won’t anyway.) But this is an occasion for bracketing, and shooting as many frames as possible. Also, shoot right away when they start! Fireworks displays can build up a lot of smoke over a series of explosions, and if you are smack in the wind pattern that blows that smoke towards your lens, you can end up thinking you’re shooting a war zone. So shoot immediately, and fast.

Have a good 4th of July. Try some of this out, and have a hot dog on me. More tk….