2.12.2012

Re-inventing the portrait for myself.



When I first learned how to do portraits I learned from a Brooks Graduate.  We used at least three lights.  We carefully focused a medium format camera and we worked slowly and methodically.  The only job I've held as a photographic assistant was a short stay at a two generations old studio right next to the Texas state capitol building.  The owners, all highly trained photographers, made their living serving two constituencies.  They made official portraits of each state representative and senator for display in the capitol and for use by the state officials.  These were all done in black and white.  They were also the official provider of formal portraits for all the sorority girls at the University of Texas at Austin.  All the portraits done by the studio were shot on 5x7 inch black and white Ektapan film and developed by hand.  The images of the sorority girls were done in a style that called for the girls to be draped in a white fabric that left their shoulders bare but covered any hint of breasts.

The girls were photographed with an ancient portrait lens which obscured any skin detail and many faults.  The lighting came from ancient Photogenic studio electronic flashes that we wheeled into adjustment on large, caster equipped light stands.  The lights were a mix of giant beauty dishes and soft banks.

Once the girls were photographed it was my job to pull the film from the holders, transport it down to the large lab in the basement and tank develop all of it.  We had a drying room just for film, with lots of taut lines and clothespins or metal clips to hang the film from.  Once the film was dry I would contact print it on "printing out" paper.  This was a paper that would slowly fade away with prolonged exposure to daylight.  It kept the customers from keeping the proofs and not coming back for their prints.

Once an image selection was made I would print the images onto soft surfaced, Kodak Ektalure G surface paper.  We used this paper because it was nice and thick and, with the G surface we could use actual lead pencils for spotting and retouching.  At the end of a busy day the whole staff would sit around two tables in a sun splashed room spotting with pencils.  It was a skill that made spotone-ing with brushes look simple.

My problem was that with all the soft focus and all the retouching (both on the 5x7 inch negatives and on the prints) I couldn't tell the customers apart.  And I suspect that only close friends and families could really discern who was in the frame.  But I learned a lot.  I learned that in the old days one followed the proforma of the day and that lighting had rules....

I didn't last long because I was young and impatient and I hated the style of photography we did.  And said so once too often... Ah.  Reckless youth.

When I started to shoot portraits for myself I had as resources my experience with the formal studio and my training at the hands of the Brooks master photographer.  A died-in-the-wool PPofA (Professional Photographers of America) stalwart.  Lots of rules.  Lots of "this is the way it's done."  Good technical grounding but a whole different time period of aesthetics.

I experimented.  I liked softer light and sharper film.  I liked deeper shadows and less retouching.  And I like what you could do with just two lights.  One for the background and one for the person sitting in front of the camera.

For the last twenty years I've lit portraits in pretty much the same way.  Usually with flash and usually with big, soft light sources.

Now, I'd like to re-invent my portraits.  I want them to be more intimate and direct but I still want the light to be soft and contrasting.

Today I asked Belinda to come to the studio so I could test out the little Olympus 45mm 1.8 lens on the EP-3 camera.  I set up two of the 1,000 bulb LED panels behind a four foot by four foot 3/4 stop scrim and put them over to my right.  I set the camera at ISO 250 and shot at 1/125th at f2.8.  And I liked everything I shot today.  The Olympus shoots square if I ask it too and Lightroom 4.0 shows the file square if the camera is set that way.  Belinda wanted a black and white image for a marketing piece so I made the conversion in PhotoShop's black and white adjustment panel.

I think I'll spend the rest of the year re-inventing the whole idea of portraits.  Now that I can do what I want, handheld, with LED lights, with a micro four thirds camera and a really nice lens.  Why not?

Another version with a little post processing for fun.



Just a few notes on some technology that I'd ignored:

I used the Olympus Pen EP3 to shoot this image.
It has a very, very fast and accurate face recognition control for autofocus.
You can even tell it which eye to focus on.  Closest,
Furthest, Left or Right.  It works.  It's amazing.
It's accurate and it beats the hell out of 
racking the lens in and out trying to get an exact
focus and then having your subject move slightly and 
throw it all out of wack.

This was the most revolutionary part of my little 
portrait session.  I could, for all intents and purposes, 
ignore the chore of focusing and be certain that the camera
would select exactly what I would have.
What a burden lifted.

Thank you, Frank.


Getting ready for the new cameras. Jockeying around with the inventory.


Change is interesting and, I think, non-linear.  More like two steps forward and one step back instead of a graceful and ever escalating, upward spiral.  I've shot with all kinds of formats but since Olympus introduced the EP2 back in 2009 I've been drawn in the direction of smaller, lighter and more fun cameras like paparazzi are drawn to Snooki.  Sometimes I over step and sometimes I under step.  For a while I was three systems deep in smaller cameras.  Just two systems deep if you count the Panasonic and Olympus micro four thirds cameras as one contiguous family of mini-cams.  But I've been rationalizing the whole mess.  I've sold off a few Canon bodies.  I'm concentrating on the full frame bodies only.  I've bid farewell to two fine cameras, the 60D and the 7D, so I can concentrate on thinking about the full frame lenses in a singular way.  I've sold off all the EFS lenses and beefed up the fast Zeiss Primes.

Now I have the full frame Canon field covered with multiple cameras and I can consider those my "old school" professional tools.  To be used for clients who like "big" and "megapixels" and big brand names.  But I don't shoot with them nearly as much as I do the little cameras.  In fact, if I didn't shoot as a professional I'd sell them all and just concentrate on the little cameras.  More particularly, the Olympus Pens and the GH2.  (Because of its combination of resolution, hot shoe, EVF and good performance, I've come to regard the GH2 as the lifeguard in the pool of m4:3.....for now).  

While I'm excited, like everyone else who shoots with m4:3 Olympus cameras, about the arrival of the OM-D, I think I'm even more excited about all the cool lenses that have been introduced and are being announced.  So I cleared out even more inventory of non-related systems in order to make room and generate cash to add to my stash of lenses.  On friday I  added the Panasonic/Leica 25mm 1.4 Summilux and the Olympus 45mm 1.8 to the mix.  I was going to stretch and go for the 12mm Olympus lens but I'd like to see how the 12-50mm performs first.  I'm not as interested in wide angles as I am middle and slightly long focal lengths....

I haven't taken the 45mm out of the box yet because I'm captivated by the Summilux right now. (I've shot with borrowed 45's a number of times...).  I walked around and shot with the Summilux yesterday and had a blast.  It spent the day attached to an EP3 and I loved it.  The lens makes mechanical noise when it's just sitting there with the camera on.  That's been reported by most users.  I don't know what it is that makes the noise but I've decided not to care.  

The focus, under every condition that I shot, is fast and accurate.  The center two thirds of the image is radically sharp from wide open on down and the stuff I shot at f4 was pretty amazing.  My friend, Frank,  educated me about a unique feature on the EP3 that (in a moment of blind snobbery) I had overlooked.  If you set the camera to enable face recognition AF you can also select which eye you'd like the camera to focus upon.  The choices are:  Left, Right, Closest, Furtherest.  I chose "closest" because that's how I shoot portraits.  I tried it over and over again yesterday and it's a great, fast way to work.  I'm glad I have friends who are more open to experimenting than me.  It makes the camera a much more potent portrait camera.


I walked my usual weekend route and passed by the Littlefield building as the clouds and the light shifted.  The metering was on the money and the lens rendered a very crispy file.  As you probably know, I shot with Leica M and Leica R cameras for nearly the entire decade of the 1990's and I love the look of the Leica lenses.  While the Panasonic lens is a design by Leica with all the construction done in Japan it still seems to have some of the Leica DNA.  The files have more "weight" to them and there seems to be more contrast between tones.  I've only shot several hundred frames with the lens and only on a 12 megapixel camera but what I see is very, very good.  I'm sorry I waited so long to get this lens.


I know the nuance is largely lost to the vagaries and insults of web presentation but this simple shot of flowers is a telling example of what the fast prime lenses are all about.  The focus on the flowers is as sharp as I could ask for.  At 100% on the screen the range of tones within the purple of the flower is richly variated.  And the background goes out of focus in a smooth and visually pleasing way.  

But here I must be truthful and say that while the Pan/Leica lens is great it's not leaps and bounds better than some of my older Pen lenses (except at it's widest aperture).  So why did I shell out for this modern version?  After spending a few years zooming in and out to check manual focus I was ready to capitulate and go with some auto focusing options.  In fact, in a circular way, it was the EP3 that drove me there.  The autofocus is so good it was a shame not to use it.  


You can preach to me till you're blue in the face about the need to have super deluxe, noise free, high ISO's but I'll preach right back to you that it's more important to have high ISO if you hobble yourself with 2.8 and slower zoom lenses.  The image above was shot at ISO 640 in very, very low light.  The fast aperture obviates the need to crank up the amplifiers and bang away at the files.  I'm not necessarily a Luddite.  I do use a Canon 5Dmk2 from time to time but the whole noise thing seems over blown to me.    Give me a fast lens, a fun camera and some in-body stabilization and I'll be a happy camper in most situations that are bright enough for old eyes to see in.  Your mileage will vary, profoundly.  Test your own technique before accepting mine.


I photographed this little tableau at the W Hotel.  I used an ISO of 1250, at f4 and hand-held the camera at a quarter of a second.  I love the fact that anything I stick in front of an EP3 automatically gets image stabilization.  I can hardly wait to test the stabilization in the OM-D.

So, if I'm so amazed by the 25 Pan/Leica why did I also buy the 45mm 1.8 Olympus lens?  Why not?  It's a great focal length for the kind of portraits I like to do. I've shot with it and found it good.  Judging from work I've seen my friends produce with it the lens is probably as sharp wide open as the 25mm and it helps me fantasize about a time in the near future when I am able to shoot everything I want with just a bag full of m4:3 cameras and lenses.  

I'm photographing some portraits with the 45mm this afternoon and throughout the week.  I'm sure I'll have something to say about it in short order.

It's kind of funny.  I've been reading across the web this week about famous photographers who are making a transition in the opposite direction.  They are rushing to embrace the promise of medium format digital cameras.  Zack Arias has written a long blog entry about how amazed and impressed he is with the file quality of his new medium format camera.  David Hobby recently revealed his adoption of medium format as well.  Even my friend, Paul, has joined the exclusive club with the latest Hasselblad MF.

Several of my newer readers wrote to me directly asking me when I was going to "dip my toe" into the MF waters and see what it was all about.  They assumed that medium format was a  very new category and a fast growing one for professionals.  Well, I guess my answer is:  Been there, done that.  Box checked.

Back in 2008 and 2009 I was asked to extensively test and review three different medium format cameras over the course of the year.  I spent "quality time" squeezing the best performance out of each camera, exploring their proprietary raw files and dealing with their quirks.  Here's what I wrote at the time:




If you read through the reviews please keep in mind that, at the time of the reviews we were just starting to see announcements for 21 megapixel cameras from Canon and that Nikon had not year dropped anything bigger than 12 megapixels on the markets.  At the time 12 megapixels was considered a good standard for professional cameras.  It was a different time.

I'm happy to see the prices on the current MF cameras start to drop.  I think the benefit is not in endless resolution but in the size of the sensor and its relationship to focal length.  The benefit for portrait shooters has always been the use of a longer focal length for the same angle of view, with its attendant faster drop off of depth of field.  It's a look that's hard to duplicate.  If you are rushing to the big cameras just for the resolution then you've missed the train already.  But these camera sensors are still smaller than the 6c6 cm of the old, film Hasselblads. 

I'll be happy to sit on the sidelines and watch everyone embrace the new cameras in an attempt to differentiate themselves from the middle of the photographic Bell Curve.  If it works and puts more clients in their corral then more power to them.  But as Buckaroo Bonzai said,  "Wherever you go, there you are."  

The week ahead should be fun. I can hardly wait to see which company announces what this week.  It's just part of the continuing process of re-inventing photography....


This is an image from a 40 Megapixel Phase One back.  Is there a difference?  What is it?  How would you describe it?