A photograph.

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I was watching an interview this week with one of the most influential photographers on the planet, Joe McNally.  He was talking about how there are so many “technically perfect” images out there, but they all lack something.  Let’s face it, with the birth of digital photography, the number of photographers out there has exploded.  That is not necessarily a bad thing, but it does make you pause for a moment.

What makes a great image?  To me, it is a “real” image.  I’ll admit that I love all the technical aspects of cameras and lenses.  I am a gear addict and I have the credit card bills to prove it.  However, I don’t aspire to be the photographer that posts hundreds of photos online of just very nice perfectly exposed images of (enter subject) ______________ .

To me, you lose sight of the real purpose of the camera when you actually have hundreds of images you like!  I only have a handful of images that really stand out in my mind.  Images that I look at from time to time and feel like “Yea, I nailed it.”  It does not even have to be exposed great.  But, it has to speak to me.  To you.  To someone.

So, what is a great image?  A couple of clients recently told me that they enjoyed my work because it captured the essence of them.  That was such a huge compliment because to me, that is photography.  The camera is just a tool.  When I look through the lens at someone, I am not really thinking about exposure.  Sure, I have to properly expose the image.  But, I want to take my photos to the next level.  I want you to look at one of my images and “know” that person, family, etc.  Their quirks.  Their mood.  The good.  Heck, even the bad.  It’s real.

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The first known photograph was around 1826.  Was it a posed image?  No, it was two guys on a roof in France.  (snooze) But, it was real.  It documented something.  A moment.

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I try to document someone each time I pick up the camera.  Are they funny?  Are they boring?  Do they hate being photographed?  Do they hate me?  I don’t know.  But, I want to find out.  I don’t really pose people because I feel like you lose something when you do that.  Sometimes I’ll just stand there staring through the lens at two very uncomfortable people for like 3 min.  Awkwardness will always give way to something real.  You just have to be patient and ready to press that button.  But, it will always happen.

Here is a moment.  I did nothing but hide behind a tree.  I waited for a few minutes.  Staring.  (stalking – LOL)  After forgetting about me and what the heck I was doing, this couple just started being, well, them.  This photo will not win any awards, but it was one of their favorite pictures.  That’s all that matters to me.

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I guess I am a documentary photographer.  But, what does that really mean?  Any time we pick up a camera, aren’t we doing it with the sole purpose to document something?  A moment in time.  A good moment.  A bad moment.  A happy photo.  A sad photo.

Life.

Sometimes you just catch a moment like this.  LOL  They were fun…

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My favorite photographs say something, without words.  They let you in.  I love people.  I love being let into these little worlds for an hour.  Sometimes 8-10 hours.  To see people for who they are.

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Chambers 2274I get what Joe McNally was saying and it makes sense.  Sometimes I feel like as photographers, we are competing with each other to make the best image using the best recipe of photoshop actions in order to achieve some mystical looking image.  However, that image, no matter how perfectly exposed or processed, is just a pretty picture.

-Chris

My gear, updated for 2014

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It seems that we (and when I say “we” I am referring to us photography geeks as a whole) simply love to talk about gear.  I know I do.  I have always viewed photography as a beautiful fusion of art and technology, using these amazing instruments capable of controlling light to capture moments in print or screen.  Images often say more, and without words.

People often ask “What gear do you need to shoot a wedding?”  Well, the simple answer is “a lot.”  To do it correctly, you need to choose the best lens for each shot.  Some people use a single zoom lens the entire day.  I don’t like that approach.  You can’t really make a motion picture with one lens.  You need to mix it up in order to create a certain mood or look.  That’s my opinion at least.  I use at least 4-5 lenses every time I shoot a wedding.  I might use 3 to do a simple family session.

So, above is an iPhone shot of my gear tonight.  It was time to clean out my bag so I felt inspired to organize these tools for a formal group shot.  Enjoy…

 

Manfrotto Professional Roller Bag 70

Nikon D3
Nikon D800
Nikon FE (35mm film camera from the late 1970s)

Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8  A workhorse lens.
Nikkor 70-200mm VR f/2.8 Pure optical perfection. My favorite.
Nikkor 24-120mm f/3.5-5.6 AF-D Mostly used as a backup.
Nikkor 85mm f/1.8G The “Cream Machine.” Great portrait lens.
Nikkor 50mm f/1.8G Inexpensive, but classic.
Nikkor 50mm f/1.8 ai-s Old manual focus lens.
Nikkor 18-35mm f/3.5-4.5 AF-D For wide shots.
Nikkor 60mm f/2.8 AF-D Micro Macro lens.
Nikkor 70-210mm f/4-5.6 AF-D Back-up telephoto lens from 1980s.

Nikon SB-910 Speedlight
Vivitar 285-HV Speedlights, 2 of them (re-issue tanks from the 1980s)

Phottix Strato II Multi 5-1 Triggers & Receivers

Lexar and Sandisk Compact Flash & SDHC cards

Powerex and Eneloop AA & AAA rechargeable batteries - These are a must

Hoodman Loupe - Great to check the LCD in bright sun (and feel like Spielberg)

Rocket Blower - To get rid of dust and keep sensor clean

If I need to use a studio strobe, I take my lighting bag, which has an Alien Bees B800 320 watt strobe and Lithium Battery Pack.  I use a large Paul C Buff Soft Box all mounted to a Manfrotto light stand.  It is a simple set-up for portraits in the field.  If I need another light, I will just use the Nikon SB-910 with a diffuser.IMG_4768

The Nikon D800

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I went against my own word this week.  I have been telling fellow photographers over the last year or so that I would never, ever, under any circumstances, get a Nikon D800.  The file sizes are too big.  I don’t need 36 megapixels.  Etc.

Well, I was wrong.  The files are still huge.  But, and this is a very big but, they don’t really have to be.  I was looking at the RAW file sizes from my D610 and they were running around 21-30mb each.  I read that the D800 files are around 70mb each.  Yes, they can be, but that is only if you shoot 14 bit uncompressed RAW.  If you change the D800 to capture in 12 bit lossless compressed mode, you can cut the file size down to ~35mb, similar to a D610 in 14 bit mode.  Ok, but 12 bit is not as “good” as 14 bit.  Really?  Maybe not.  However, I would challenge anyone to take a RAW image in both 12 bit and 14 bit modes, process them in Lightroom, and then post or print those photos for others to see the difference.  From all the research I have done, there is no substantial difference unless you are pixel-peeping the highlights at 500% zoom…and even then it is negligible.

Here is a great video comparing the D800 to a $20,000 Hasselblad with a 40 megapixel sensor.  The Hassy is running in 16 bit mode and even then, these photographers were shocked at how well the D800 compared to the medium format camera.

Of course, there are advantages to a $20,000 medium format camera, but are those advantages worth $18,500 more?  Not to mention the cost of a lens, which could run you another $5,000?  I know I cannot justify that cost.  Of course, I am also not shooting for Cosmo and getting paid $50,000 per session.  The advantages of medium format are inflated in the digital world.  They’re there, but as you can see in that video, they’re not as critical as in the film days.

So, back to me being wrong.  The D800 is actually quite versatile.  You can shoot RAW 12 or 14 bit files into card slot #1 (compact flash) and JPEG small basic files into card slot #2 (SDHC).  For fun family photos you can shoot with this great camera and use small JPEGSs.  When it comes time to put these massive 36 megapixels to work, you can use the big RAW files.  When I shoot my next wedding, I will likely use 12 bit RAW compressed files, which will keep my workflow smooth.  For family sessions and portraits, I will likely shoot 14 bit uncompressed files because I will only be taking about 50-100 photos.

Moving forward, I am thrilled to have the D800 in my bag.  The D3 will remain my primary photojournalistic tool.  I see no reason to upgrade to the D3s or D4 yet.  The D3 is a tank and shoots 9 frames/sec with 12 megapixels and can easily produce usable images up to ISO 6400.  The D3 is no-nonsense.  No video.  Nothing fancy.  It just goes.  It has been dropped, kicked, and run over by a car (yes, see my October 2012 post).  The D800 will be my portrait camera.  I see this as a great combo that covers everything from weddings, sports, family, and to formal portraits.

In the end, not many people “need” 36 megapixels, but it sure is nice to know they’re there if you want them.

Making a shot: “Daring family”

Sometimes you work with a family that just loves to have fun.  This is one such family.  The mom wanted a shot in front of the beautiful red bush across the street.  Mind you, this was not their property.  First, we got permission.  Once we secured the rights, it was go time.

There were many problems in this setup.  First, the sun was behind that red bush making this side the only option.  It was 3pm and the scene was very bright.  Sweaty uncomfortable bright for a September.  I needed some level of shade for my lens.  I also wanted a nice long throw (focal length) to compress the scene and not make them look too awkward so close to the bush given the limited space we had.  I could not put them on their own yard as the sun was just too overhead and bright.  That would require 3 assistants and huge reflectors.  It was just me, myself, and I.

So, the plan.  We carried the couch across the street and placed it in front of the bush as best we could without being directly touching.  The space was limited to about 5-7 feet between the active road and the bush.  Next I set up my strobe.  I used and Alien Bees single strobe on a Manfrotto light stand with large Paul C. Buff soft box set to 1/4 power (400 watts).  This was camera right and served to wash a nice soft blend of light across the family to compensate for the brightness and the dappled light that would occur.  It was not the best setup, but it was the only real option.

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making a shot

CAMERA SETTINGS: Nikon D3 with 70-200 f/2.8 lens shot at 125mm.  F/6.3 at 1/160 ISO 200 and Cloudy WB.  Phottix wireless triggers communicating between the camera and the strobe.  Roughly 40 feet away from the family.

So, with a little safety secured and no cars immediately passing by, I had the family pose as fast as possible and managed to get some nice photographs.

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In the end, it looks like a simple outside shot in their backyard with no real setup required.  But, in reality, it was very tricky and I am quite pleased with the results given all of the variables involved.

Things are not always as they seem in photography and people often ask me how I got a shot.  Well, most of the time it is just “being there” in good light or working a situation really really hard to achieve the final product.  This was one of those shots where I knew they wanted something and I had to be confident that I could get it.  …no matter what.

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A moment…

This is one of my favorite shots in 2014. Technically, it is not “perfect.” For the ‘togs reading this, the only light source was a window. I turned all the lights off in the room and used that window. (sort of a big soft box given the hazy day outside)

Nikon D3 with 24-70 f/2.8 lens at ISO 4000

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The reason I love this photo so much is that it is NOT technically perfect. But, to the family, it is an amazing image. That little girl was so intrigued by the dress, perhaps wondering what it was like to be a princess herself. I waited and waited and then there it was. The light from outside washes softly on her face as she stares in awe.

Moments like these fire me up to go out and shoot again. They don’t always happen, but when they do it’s great!

-Chris

Making a shot: 2 Lights and a reflector

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For the photographers new to studio lighting, this is a basic explanation of making a shot with a couple of lights and a reflector.

GEAR:

(2) Paul C. Buff 35″ Octaboxes
(2) Alien Bees studio strobes (320 watts and 640 watts)
(1) Simple gray background
(1) reflector (white)

Nikon D3 camera body
Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8 Lens
Phottix wireless triggers

SETTINGS:

ISO 200
f/5.6
1/200
Flash White Balance
Matrix Metering
Manual Mode

116mm focal length (I like the 70-200mm for the ability to really control the background with lens compression)

THE SHOT:

I wanted to really keep this image zoomed in tight. The strobe on camera right is on about 1/8 power and providing the main subject lighting. The strobe on camera left is basically aimed up and above the subjects at about 1/8 power as well. This allows the background to be lighted as well as feathering a little soft light on the subjects from above.

The problem that might occur in this situation (especially with light from above) is the creation of dark areas under the eyes. Placing the reflector against the stand on camera left took some of the light from the main strobe and bounced it back up at an angle to fill in the faces. So, it is “almost” like a 3 light set-up. In subsequent shots, that reflector also served as a fill light for the side of the chair.

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Above is the final image with not much done in post, just a little white balance correction and some sharpening. This can be done without a reflector, but that little touch of light can make a big difference.

-Chris

The Dyson DC07…one badass vacuum

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If you have ever seen the show “The Walking Dead” you will know what I mean. My wife thinks I am nuts, but I truly have some weird fascination with this vacuum. I figured I would take a break from photography for a night and talk about this kick ass filth sucking machine. Like a dust eating Walker, this thing looks like it has been through an apocalypse. 10 years, 2 homes, 2 kids, 3 cats, and a dog. Despite that torture, this beast keeps on rolling. With its fierce cyclone sucking action it kills dust bunnies without even remotely feeling bad. It has no remorse.

Look at this thing. This is the Charlton Heston of vacuums. See that? Yea, that’s duct tape. Despite its hot pink color, it serves to secure the entire handle assembly to the base. Why? Because that’s how this vacuum rolls. Like a weary-eyed sailor on shore leave looking for his next tattoo. It also serves as a reminder of the night this vacuum and I had a little scuffle. Somehow it got tossed across the kitchen and yet it continued to finish the job. We won’t talk about that.

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It never cries. It never whines. It never feels pain. It has been 10 years. I tried to buy another vacuum a few years ago, but it embarrassed itself trying to keep up. It ended up in the trash within a year.

So I finally decided to wash the pre-filter for the first time this week. Dyson recommends you do this every few months, but I waited 10 years. Why? Cause that’s just how we roll.

This thing smells. It has sucked dust, water, puke, kitty litter, hair, food, gum, a few barbie accessories, and a bunch of other highly un-recommended objects. Why? Cause why not? The smell of burnt something mixed with litter has sort of gone away, and that is a shame because it makes me think it might be getting a little soft.

Oh, the tubing is also torn and its also held together with duct tape…not pink, but gray. If you extend the tubing too far it begins to rip even more. But, it still sucks. Every single piece of plastic has been clogged and beaten at some point, but it still sucks. It’s on its second plastic dust chamber because the first one broke off after a fall. It still sucks. Oh, and that chamber is supposed to be turquoise, but Dyson sent me the wrong color. Nothing really matches any more and there are more scratches on this thing than a cat’s post. It has deep gouges and irremovable hair wrapped around the belt drive thingy near the brushes…but it still sucks.

Look at this thing. It is a mess. It has been through hell. It is severely abused, but 10 years of dust warfare and it smiles as we enter its 2nd decade of service.

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I gotta hand it to Dyson. They make a heck of a vacuum.