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Archive for the ‘history’ Category

Beautiful Music, High ISO

Jan 11

In Equipment, history, Thoughts at 9:04am

The recent D4 project was a terrific project for the studio, made more so by the company I shared shooting it. Bill Frakes did his usual wonderful sports stills, but also filmed a beautifully evocative video of Istanbul. Take a look at his site, Straw Hat Visuals. Corey Rich once again defies gravity in his adventure sports video work, seen hereMatthias Hangst shot amazing action, and Vincent Munier once again took on difficult and daunting landscapes. Humbled and honored to be in their company. Bill Frakes and I, especially, go back a long ways. He is one of the truly significant standard bearers in the history of sports photojournalism.

Charlie Gabriel, Preservation Hall Band. Nikon D4, 200mm, f2, 1/160th, ISO 12,800, Tungsten AWB.

Technology marches on. We now have cameras that perform well in the realm of ISO numbers previously only associated with highly complicated math problems. I took the prototype D4 into Preservation Hall, and made some portraits during the day, then lingered for the evening show, and shot available light. Below is Charlie that afternoon, under flash conditions. D4, ISO 200, 1/80th, f5.6, cloudy WB, lens at 26mm.

The Hall is tough to work. Wonderful ambiance, and almost zero usable light. I found this out years ago when I shot there for Sports Illustrated prior to a Super Bowl. I squeezed a few pictures because that night because they gave me a pass to put up a flash–a Norman 200B–in the ceiling. It amped up the light just enough for Kodachrome 200. But the stuff I tried with existing light was pretty much DOA.

So shooting the picture up top at 12,800 ISO was definitely a revelation. The quality of the light in that venerable music hall is still super warm and soupy, but…I could work. That’s the bottom line with new gear. Does it help? Does it make the job easier? Does it open the door to a picture?

Technology and me have always had a love/hate thing. I love that fact that it can help create pictures I want to make. I hate the fact that even relatively simple items come with a manual the size of War and Peace.  I’m still pretty much a Neanderthal on the computer, and of the fancy gadgets I own, like an Iphone, I probably use about 20% of its capacity. (I’m definitely not one of those folks who pitch a tent outside an Apple Store for days and days when a new gizmo is announced.) The younger guys at my studio either chuckle or turn away when I attempt post production, or the loading of new software on my computer. And certainly, my blog is not where you would come for a highly evolved technical discussion of the shape of the pixels. There will certainly be sites out there which will, eventually, take this camera apart, like a car in a body shop, and look at every gear, bell and whistle. Not here. I work at the technology stuff a bit, but, you know, life is short, and I’d rather shoot. Or dream up a picture I want to shoot. Or write. Or, best of all, be at home with Annie.

But I have to admit, despite my stumbling gait, my path as a shooter has fortuitously crossed over with new camera tech at some crucial times. When I made climbs up the mast on the Empire State Building, I was fretting as to what single lens to bring up with me. Didn’t want to do the fisheye. I was working for Geographic, and many editors there are not wildly enthusiastic about distortion. The available older versions of super wide rectilinear glass were problematic. I was chagrined. But–presto! Right about then the 14mm f2.8 rectilinear came out. Fast, sharp, and not flare prone like its predecessors. I immediately went in to rent it for my last climb. The guys at the counter, who knew me pretty well, casually asked me what I was shooting, and, excitedly, I told them I was climbing the antenna on ESB. They took the lens off the counter and said, “You know, dude, you really should just buy it.” Which is what I did. Later that week, on my fourth climb up there, I got lucky with the light, and the lens.

The above version is not the select Geographic ran. It’s later in the morning, as the sun got stronger. Here’s what I was worried about up there. It wasn’t falling. It was repeatedly loading new film cassettes into the camera. I was levered backwards at about a 45 degree angle, pushing off the mast with my feet, hanging onto the aerial with my left hand, and shooting with my right. Because even back then I couldn’t see anything up close, I also had a pair of granny reading glasses taped and tethered to my neck. Juggling a bunch of stuff, in a word. My panic time was those moments I reloaded. A dropped film canister from that height, if it finds the street, could kill someone. I would have loved a 32 gig card, but those were many moons in the future.

When digital dawned, I had no idea. I stuck with film as long as I felt I could, and then made a jump for survival to this fancy camera known as a D1X. First thing I shot with it was a Kentucky Derby, and my brothers Mike Corrado and Skip Dickstein had to show me what do with my cards after the race. I was hopeless, but I didn’t care. The digital camera felt like a film camera. There was a shutter, and a lens. I frankly didn’t care what was happening inside of it. Plunging on, and resolutely placing faith in the old adage that the Lord looks after a fool, I ended up shooting the first all digital coverage in history of National Geographic some months after this first outing.

Fast forward to a camera I was just tickled with, the D3. Thought, as I have mentioned, I would go to my grave with that camera. It simply suited all the needs I had in the field. Then, the D3S came out. I thought, nah, don’t need it. I’m cool with what I have. But then, Geographic assigned me to a story on the electrical grid of the United States, and I realized I was about to spend a ton of time in helicopters at night, observing the illuminated grids of various cities. The D3S promised better chip performance, and improved results at high ISO. So, I re-upped. Sold my D3 cameras and bought D3S models.

It was good that I did, I think, as the lead to the story was a night view from a chopper, with long glass. The technology I employed, at this point unthinkingly and reflexively–excellent high ISO, VR in the lens, bright viewfinder, accurate AF–the myriad of camera advances I often now just take for granted, helped me come back with pictures that night from that very expensive chopper ride.


D3S, 200-400mm lens, ISO1600, f4, 1/125th. Lucky shot. Goldman Sachs building, lower Manhattan, with virtually every room lit up.

D3S, ISO 1600, f2.8, 1/60th. Lucky with the sunset.

So I guess that’s one big question that drives all this. Our eternal responsibility as photographers is to deliver the best possible quality image we can manage back to the client. And that’s become a part of the digital equation every shooter has to work out as a personal and professional decision. What’s the best gear for me, relative to my work flow and my mission? Shooting night sports for the wires back in the day, when everybody on the sideline was pushing the hell out of tri-x, it didn’t really matter too much if you were still shooting an F2, and the guy next to you was shooting an F3. But now, shooting ones and zeroes, the machinery used to shoot that same game has an impact on the quality of the pictures produced, for sure.

That night in Preservation Hall, I got to test high ISO response at 12,800, which is an ISO territory that is completely alien to me. And the results, relative to that speed, were terrific. Now, if you’re always shooting in that realm, you’re probably working a tough gig, photographically. Being at that ISO a lot might mean you’ve got a badge and a gun, and you’re up very late at night. And you might be sitting in a non-descript car that’s filled with candy wrappers and crumpled fast food bags, sipping bad coffee, and trying to sight a lens through a rain pocked windshield as Tommy Two Toes passes yesterday’s New York Post with an envelope in it to Mikey Gaga on a street corner somewhere in the Bronx. I mean, maybe.

Or you could be shooting sports at night under bad light. Or you might be a music shooter, or perhaps theater and dance is a specialty. Or, you’re a news shooter whose job it is to observe and record, despite the adversity of the conditions. The mission at hand is, at least partially, the driver for the choice of gear.

For me, I’m looking down the pipe of a six week job, starting pretty soon, and, given the parameters of that job, this tech evolution known as D4, is, I feel, another one of those fortuitous bends on this long road, and it arrives just in time for a task at hand. High ISO capability is yet another one of gifts placed on our doorstep as shooters. I honestly hope to not have to use it too much, but it sure is nice to know it’s there.

More tk….

Starting Off, Looking Back

Jan 2

In history at 8:39am

2012. Twenty years ago, at this time I was headlong into shooting my first cover story for the National Geographic. Lots of clicks downstream from that now, to be sure. (Most of them, blessedly and appropriately, remain unseen. So many bad frames in pursuit of the few worth spending time with.)  And changes. Man, is that an understatement. High res digital cameras have replaced film cameras. Hard drives store pictures, not little yellow boxes. Kodak’s stopped making carousel projectors. Photographers go to the magazine far less often, given digital transmission. Ties and jackets are seen less frequently.

But, the main mission, over time, has remained. Tell a good story in pictures. The major components–photographer, picture editor, designer, magazine editor–are all still in place, and the interplay among them is ongoing and largely unchanged.

This video looped on a continuous basis in Explorer’s Hall at the headquarters of Geographic for many years, and was seen by lots school groups, tourists and visitors. Geographic graciously gave us permission to put it on the blog. It’s a fun interior look at how the magazine puts a story together, if you can stand the time warp and the truly embarrassing haircut I had back then.

Here’s the funny thing about persistence. Bill Douthitt and I are still at it. We start another story in a couple of weeks. Like unruly children, we refuse to pipe down or go away. Bill continues to shape coverages as only he can, and his warped brilliance remains a lifeline when things don’t go well in the field, as is often the case. (He won a Picture Editor of the Year award for his efforts on the sight story. And in the video, he actually appears rational.)  The upper echelon of magazine management is all different now, of course. Bill Marr art directs the look of the book. And the shop is run by a photographer, Chris Johns, which is appropriate, given the pictorial bent of the magazine. As a shooter, in the field, he turned a two lane strip of pavement into one my favorite stories ever published in the magazine–The Hard Ride of Route 93.

The people change, but the pictures remain. I look forward to shooting some more of them in 2012.

More tk….

Gifts

Dec 30

In Friends, history at 9:16am

Round this time of year, I usually send a message to my buddy Bill down at the Geographic about the richly rewarding experience of the passing of time, the accumulation (hopefully) of yet another year of wisdom and experience, the wonder of change, the increasing depth and importance of friendship, not to mention the shooting of a few more good frames. (The latter of course, unlike the certitude of aging, is never a given. There have been years gone by when I’ve looked around and thought, wow, I really shot a bunch of crap this past twelve months.)

The language of my missives is often ornately descriptive, flowery, even. A rhapsody to the passing of time. Then of course I yank his chain and say something to the effect of “There goes another year down the drain.” He generally responds by advising me to do something that, when considered, is anatomically impossible.

Good picture, bad picture. Tick, tock. Keep breathing, sometimes, seemingly, right through the lens. A day with your eye to a camera can be like a breath of fresh, beautiful air. At other times, back there at the eyepiece, it can feel like a bad asthma attack. So it goes, as they say.

Still, despite frustration, pitfalls, bad jobs, errant pixels and the like, passing another year with a camera in hand is cause for celebration, which is good to be able to say. At this point in my life, the calculus of making pictures is an interesting one. Not too often does it come down to, “Hey, let’s go take some cool photos!” and off I skip into the sunset, with a DSLR, a fast zoom and a light heart. As time marches, I factor in the love of the click times the degree of difficulty/expense figured against the fee, minus the arthritis in my knees divided by the 3:30am wake-up multiplied by the length of the line at JFK over the missed connection plus the cranky subject doubled by the weight of my bags. The sum of that is…..I still go shoot.

I guess I’m feeling that Father Time thing especially this morning. I’m looking down the pipe of a huge and physically challenging job for a client starting soon, and I put on weight last year, writing the book. So now, back to the gym, and back to occasionally seeing Ederin, my boxing teacher. I’ve known him now for over eight years. Massively quick, and fit, he regularly makes me feel clumsy, stupid, slow footed and witted. (To make a photographic analogy, think about the first time you took the camera out of the box. That’s how I feel every time I get in a ring with him.) Recently, he was counseling me to keep him away. “Joe, think of me as a zombie, and if you let me get too close, I’ll bite you and infect you!” A few minutes later, backpedaling with spaghetti arms, he was closing in, up against me, chest the size of a movie screen, smiling maniacally, face close to mine, shouting, “I’m a happy zombie now Joe! I’m eating you!”

But then, every once in a great while, I connect. I move through a combination with authority, my legs and arms working in concert, and when I hit his target mitts there’s a flat, satisfying crack that bangs off the cinder block walls of the gym and reports back. On the rare occasions when I do that, Ederin spreads his arms out and nods. “That’s it,” he says. He thankfully leaves out the “dumb ass.” Christ, he could be a photo editor.

But, with the passing of time, there are gifts. One I’ve come to appreciate as I’ve stuck with this is the sense that, much more important than the ever crucial, actual photograph, is, at least at times, the connection that photo might make to someone who views it. And what might happen around that photo. I guess, it’s about the wonderfully important, positive effect of pictures on our lives. It isn’t about whether it’s your best photo, or how hard you struggled as the shooter to make it. It’s about the reaction to it, and how that might affect someone’s life in a hopefully good way. You become linked to that person, even if you don’t know them. Ever see those projected maps of the world used by the FAA, and air traffic controllers? In the early part of the day, as flights get in the air, there are lines tracing the flights, city to city, all over the place,  like the beginnings of a spider web. As the day progresses, so many planes are aloft, the earth might as well be a ball of string. Same thing happens when you throw a picture aloft. It takes flight, and makes connections. Destinations? Multiple, and unknown.

Thankfully, I’m connected, wonderfully, with my good friend RC Concepcion, and his lovely wife Jen, and daughter, Sabine. They are dear friends. And recently, they gave me a wonderful gift, a kind of a present that started with a picture. Win, lose or draw, good day or bad in the field, things like this are the reason to keep putting your eye into a lens.

A gift I gave myself this year was finishing Sketching Light. Again, many thanks for patience whilst I doodled and bumbled. My dear friend Syl Arena gave it a thumbs up on his blog. Seeing as Syl knows his way around a Canon speed light better, literally, than the Canon engineers, his positive review was very welcome. I always tease Syl about being like that Denzel Washington character, Eli, from the movie. He has the book of Canon in his head, and he travels the world dispensing its wisdom.

Ron Martinsen also was wonderfully gracious over on his blog, citing the book, and showing some of the spreads.

I’m reading this book now and loving the hell out of it. It’s going to be my holiday vacation companion (even more so after I get my Kindle Fire on Christmas <g>), and I think you might enjoy doing the same. This version has more depth and details as well as a couple chapters to set your bearings before he dives in to the good stuff. Based on a 2 hour skim of the entire book, I see nothing that will keep this one off my highly recommended list, so I’m going to jump the gun and say this is a “great to have” book.

Many thanks for the kind words, guys. I’m quite sure the long suffering, ever patient Peachpit team–Ted Waitt, Lisa Brazieal, Charlene Will, Kim Scott, Scott Cowlin, and Sara Todd–appreciate them, too. They were about to transform themselves, I think, from being book editors into a SWAT team, and show up in my driveway with a bullhorn. “Just give us the book, Joe, and nobody gets hurt.”

More tk in 2012…..Happy, safe, and blessed New Year to all…..

Changing New York

Oct 3

In history at 10:24am

Been rattling around the city quite a bit of late, and made a quick snap of what I presume is electronic sign maintenance at the north end of Times Square. TS has always been a whirlygig of light, but what it was, back in the 70′s, when I first moved into the Big Apple, was positively quaint compared to what’s out there now. Comparatively, it could have been the equivalent of an old movie marquee on a otherwise darkened main street in a small town somewhere, as opposed to the computer driven maelstrom of neon, LED, tungsten, merc vapor, and what-have-you sources of illumination that are out there now. There’s a tidal wave of wattage in Times Square, flaring across the masses, who respond with pinpricks of point and shoot flash in return. Those little flashes basically light the air five feet in front of the lens, but hey, in New York, that could be interesting air, and worthy of a flash solution.

A far cry from the first time I climbed the Coke signage at the upper reaches of the Square years ago.

As I said, quaint, right? Every bulb had to be changed by hand…..more tk…

Full Circle

Sep 8

In history at 7:54pm

I’ve often commented on how a photog’s life runs in circles, and there are pictures you make and people you work with that somehow, either stick with you, or you encounter again, many years after that first set of exposures. This weekend, there will be a small gathering of friends of the Ground Zero exhibit, with Tom Brokaw in attendance, and saying a few words. We both worked on the update of LIFE’s One Nation book, Tom writing the new forward, and me shooting the ten years later portraits. Not the first time we have ever gotten together.

Almost 30 years ago, we went to the top of Rockefeller Center, just when he was taking the reins of the NBC evening anchor chair. It was the opener for a cover story about Tom for People magazine. Good guy, knowledgeable journalist. And of course, in the distance….

More tk….