7.26.2009

General Observations about Camera Equipment and the enjoyment of photography



The first three images above are swimmers from our little neighborhood pool swim team, the Rollingwood Waves. I've been the defacto team photographer for the better part of nine years because that's how long my son, Ben has been on the team. This summer I made a conscious decision to shoot the whole season with an old Olympus e1 and some older lenses. That's what pushed me into the squishy repudiation of state of the art. Here's why: I was getting so wrapped up in the gear. Do I take the 70-2oo or the 300 2.8? Full frame on the D700 or smaller crop on the D300? What if they get wet? Maybe I should brings some wides for group shots. Now my bag weighs twenty pounds.

How about I just bring a splashproof e1 and a 14 to 54 and a 40-150 zoom? Covers the equivilent of 28-300 and two thirds of the kit is relatively impervious to everything but total immersion (incidently, my favorite swimming book is Total Immersion Swimming...) and the longer zoom can be replaced for around $150. Then I started looking at the Jpegs I was getting and was loving the skin tones so much. One thing led to another......

What I discovered is that when the camera is less important it's easier to make the subject more important and the immersion in the moment more transparent and less contingent.

I just came back from the Creative Photographic Retreat in Dallas, Texas. I was one of eight photographers and Photoshop experts who were asked to participate in the workshops. I put together a one and a half hour lecture on shooting with battery powered flash and gave the lecture twice a day on Friday and Saturday. We played with scrims and reflectors and umbrellas and radio slaves. It was an interesting crowd. Most of the attendees were there to learn better photographic technique to use in creating scrapbooks. I was the only male on the roster of speakers. 98% of the audience were women.

I'm used to speaking in front of groups that are mainly men and I noticed some profound differences. Men tend to be most interested in the process. How things work and why they work. Woman want to know what to do to improve their images. The image is the pay-off. With men the pay-off sometimes seems to be, "look how sharp this is!!!!!". With the women in the CPR program it was more, "look at how beautiful my (grandson, brother, husband, father, best friend, etc.) looks now that I figured out the lighting, photoshop setting or whatever."

It sounds odd but I think being a teacher there changed the way I think about photography by more than a few degrees. Now the question I ask myself is, "why do I photograph?, What am I trying to say? Who is my audience?" instead of pondering which lens might have better chromatic aberration control or corner sharpness.

I learned different ways to explain basic photographic principles and I learned that everyone comes to photography on their own time and at their own level and it's hard to rush it. I've been doing photography for so long that everything seems old hat and technically simple. But I helped a grandmother get up to speed with her new Canon Rebel xtsi and her Canon flash. And here's the deal....I think she'll make better photos than the guy who has everything in his camera bag but no idea why he's photographing...and the difference is that the grandmother has a passion for her subject and not for her gear. Think about it. A passion for the subject, not for the gear. Stops a gear nut like me right in my tracks and makes me look at what I do from a different perspective.

After spending three days with a bunch of motivated women learning to come to grips (and grins) with their cameras I think the thing the field of photography might find useful is a much bigger dose of estrogen....

There were four gear nerds in attendance but they happened to be the instructors. All women under 30, all sporting Canon 5Dmk2's and all sporting the latest Canon "L" glass. No exceptions. All of them were quick to dismiss flash and lighting in general. If it couldn't be controlled with a collapsible reflector then the light wasn't right. At first I was dismissive of them for being dismissive of using lights. But I looked at their work and realized that they had really mastered available light technique to an extent that made most rank and file gear nerds look like beginners. A lot of mental give and take. On both sides of the aisle...

The weekend did reinforce what I had been feeling over the last month as I made my (now famous) transition from Nikon and Kodak gear to Olympus cameras. It was just as I imagined. Once I removed the idea of "superior equipment as the talisman of photographic power" I came to grips with the reality that all the best of photography is about seeing clearly. And feeling strongly about the subject. Which for me is generally people.

The only camera I took with me for the weekend was the Olympus e520 with the sweet little 14mm-54mm zoom. The camera is currently selling for around $350 on Amazon and will surely be discontinued within weeks. It is steadfastly not the "state of the art" but it is small and very light and fits into my hands perfectly.

As I stood in the classes and helped people navigate the menus on their big Canons and a smattering of Nikon D3's I couldn't help but notice that I was outgunned by all of the attendees. And at the same time I felt a tremendous sense of freedom. That I could pursue my own course rather than be a standard bearer for a brand.

Here's a news flash! The e520 gets a bit messy in the noise department above ISO 800. In the old days my mind would start screaming for an upgrade. Now I'm thinking I should just pull the monopod out of retirement and work at ISO 400. When you use the flashes on manual (with various ratios) all hooked up to radio slaves, all the cameras become equal. When you use f 5.6 or f8 all lenses become (more or less) equal.

I found my favorite radio slaves. More important than a cameras or lenses (written tongue in cheek---) is, of course, great remote triggers for my flashes. I recently stumbled across a brand called Flash Waves that are tiny, have ten channels, work really, really well and have an "on-off" switch for the receivers. They run $200 for a transmitter and receiver and have one thing other brands lack----easily and multifaceted connection options. There's a traditional pc sync, a hot shoe and a port for quarter inch plugs and 1/8th inch plugs. Wonderful. I used a set with an Olympus fl50r flash, a Metz 54, two vivitar DF 383's and a Profoto box and nothing gave them pause. They will definitely replace my now morbidly obese, older Pocket Wizards.

Speaking of flashes. When I switched camera systems the one thing that gave me pause was switching out the Nikon strobes. Even if you are a Canon or Olympus die hard you have to admit that Nikon kicks everyones' butts when it comes to flash. At least that's very true if you use TTL. I did some research and, with many reservations, I ordered two of the Vivitar Series One DF-383 flashes from Amazon for $120 each. Fired them up for the workshop. They work well, a little slow in recycling (alkalines....) but the neat thing is that they have built in optical slaves and when you put them in the slave mode it overrides the energy saver mode that usually shuts them down in five minutes to save batt juice. They worked well as TTL flashes on the Olympus cameras. The light is a touch bluer than that from the fl50r..... Nothing some filter gel won't fix.

The guys from Olympus lent me an fl50 and an fl36 for the workshop and I think the Fl50r is awesome but I don't think I'll drop $500 on a flash that doesn't have any sort of sync terminal. It's a choice between hot shoe, Olympus' proprietary (controlled by on camera flash) optical triggering system or nothing. Come on boys, let's get the plugs back on the flashes! Nice looking results, though.

A few thoughts on the business of photography. I think we are at a critical stage in the business of photography and we need to start planning for the recovery. We need to start having meetings and happy hours and breakfast gatherings with all the photographers in our respective areas and get some solidarity on moving prices up. We provide the images that move businesses forward but we act like we're selling commodities like a Walmart and the race to the bottom won't help anyone. Once all the knowledgeable practitioners leave the field clients will no longer have a "good, better, best" choice. All that will be left will be, "I'll get to it as soon as I finish with my real job." or, "Well my wife thought it looked professional!" or "I shot it with a XXXXXX it's got to be professional quality." At some point we have to educate clients about the value we bring to the table in assignment photography. Why is it that the ASMP can't talk about setting ballpark, suggested prices for photography? Why aren't more people using Fotoquote when they bid? Why are so many people willing to leave so much money on the table????? I don't have the answer but it sure is time to start the dialog.