Tuesday, September 25, 2007

But What do you DO?

I (this is Neil talking) get asked every once in a while what is it that I do here at the studio, besides use a camera. Like many other things, my duties changed quite a bit with the switch to digital.

I’ve always been the new information grunt of the studio, meaning that I am the unfortunate soul who is assigned to read about new or changed or re-discovered ideas or equipment that may be of use here in the studio.

In another essay, I noted that we used the same cameras for twenty-plus years. The biggest “workflow” change in one long period of years came when we switched film speed, or sensitivity to light, of our basic film. We had to re-test to establish the best quality exposure at what “speed” or ISO rating, and then adjust our hand-held light meters to that setting. It took about five days, mostly waiting for the film to be developed a couple times as we tested and re-tested.

Ah, the good old days.

Now, our “film” (i.e., camera) needs changing every couple of years or sooner, as the camera/sensor combinations that make a modern digital camera are improved enough that we need to “upgrade”. And the software tools we use are in constant flux (upgrades, improvements) and I have to be up on all of those. Oh, and then … there’s the NEW software ideas and programs that we need to be aware of.

Each time any kind of camera or software change happens, the “workflow” of how we process the images through our system changes, and often in quite-often-unforeseen ways. I’m the person who sorts through all the new cameras and decides which are worth all of the:

* Money
* Time spent learning the new camera

Then, I have to determine its best file (image) handling processing steps. I test the camera out every way we might use it and master all the settings and features of all these complicated new professional units. I teach Miriam (and myself) how to use it, and then when we’ve got it down comfortably and repeatably, plan how to phase the new camera in and the old camera out.

Note, each camera’s images have their own best-practices procedures that are NOT well-stated by the manufacturer. So, I sit down and run images through all our standard workflow patterns, learning where we need to change from our current practices for best quality AND best “through-put”. I make a number of large and small prints from images, and we pore over them to see which techniques and practices worked best.

This takes us into the tools of our processes … the software.

I have other words that I often use in my own head in place of the term “software”. Software sounds … soft. You know, easy-going-gentle-small-brook-water-skipping-over-stones style soft. My other terms are more…realistic. And not repeatable in polite company. Or any company that I’d care to keep.

We use Photoshop, of course, and we use quite a number of other software programs for various purposes. I am the person who scours the web and consults with professional peers, looking for programs to watch. And study. If something looks perhaps useful, I test it on my own computer. Find out its real strengths and weaknesses, and whether it does something worth the interruption to our people and systems. Is it REALLY useful enough to merit the disruption and re-training that will be required? Then I figure out what changes need to occur in how and what we do in OTHER programs because of using the new one.

Then, of course, I train everyone here how to use the new program in (I always hope) a better workflow. This consumes hours and hours of my time every week, and is necessary to keep us where we always have been, at the top of our professional peers.

Since the advent of digital, we make up to six major workflow/software/hardware changes each year. Because for professional photographers, digital doesn’t mean “point and click”. To produce top quality art in the digital age, it takes time. And equipment. And software. There are still no shortcuts to quality.

But it keeps me out of trouble, and out of my staff’s way. Most of the time.

Monday, September 24, 2007

A Note from Neil - Historical Perspectives on Camera Technology

It is just weird these days ... for the first 25 years we had the studio, a camera was a camera was a camera. And now, it isn't ... at least, it's not the same.

The main "tool" we thought we worked with for all those years was the camera. By my third year, I'd settled on the Mamiya RB67, and we also purchased one for Miriam when she joined the business. We then used our RB's for the next 22 years. (That's the old RB in the image with me. Lotta metal, huh?)

Now we change every cameras every couple years. Why? Well, it has to do with WHAT has changed with the digital revolution, and we’ll talk about that in a moment.

Film cameras are either small format, medium format, or large format. Our old RB’s were medium-format cameras, as they used 120/220 sized roll film. The negatives it produced were 6x7cm, or roughly two and a quarter inch by two and three-quarter inches, with ten on a 120 roll of film, and 20 on a 220 roll of film. "Small" format cameras were 35 mm and smaller, and "large" format was anything bigger than 120/220 roll film. For example, a large format camera might produce a 4x5 or even a 8x10 inch negative.

The RB67 was a big hunk of steel, aluminum, glass, very little plastic, and it came in several main pieces. There was:
· The body, which was just a several-pound cube that held the mirror, the shutter, the control systems for the other parts, and the catches that all the other camera parts attached to.
· The lens, which was mounted to a collar on the front of the body. The RB lenses were huge by 35mm standards. A small RB lens (physically) was four inches in diameter, six inches long, and weighed two or three pounds by itself. The lenses we normally used were longer, and weighed more like four or five pounds.
· The film was wound around an "insert" (quite a trick to train a new assistant to do!) that fit into the film back, and was then attached to the back of the body. It fit onto a rotating collar, so we could take horizontal or vertical images by rotating the film back, not the camera.
· And to see what we were photographing, and to focus this beast, we had a choice of methods – i.e., glass - that attached to the top of the body. The ground glass that we focused on was attached to the camera body, and we had several choices, depending on how bright we wanted the central part of the viewing area or what kind of focusing aids we wanted. There were no auto focusing capabilities in these cameras!
· We had choices in the "hoods" that fit on over the ground glass. There was a pop-up viewer that shielded the sides of the viewing area so you could see the ground glass even in daylight, and folded down when not being used. Note, you looked DOWN through this viewing device.
· There was a "chimney" that was about four inches tall, with a big eyepiece at the top, and with this you also looked straight down at the ground-glass focusing screen. This gave a better quality image than a simple pop-up hood, and of course, weighed in at a pound or two itself.
· There was also a pentaprism, that big sort-of-pyramid-shaped device similar to the viewing system on the tops of 35mm film cameras, and with this, you looked into the camera from behind it. With all the glass of the many mirrors in this device, it was two or three pounds by itself.

These cameras weighed about 15 lbs fully loaded (without the tripod - which added another 10 lbs or so) and were tough enough to throw through a plate-glass window, pick up and use without even thinking about it. They had no electical parts at all, no batteries, no meters, no auto-focusing, nothing. We always bought used, and even then, the bodies and parts would last fifteen years or more of daily, heavy-duty professional use.

The only thing that changed in all those twenty-plus years was the film we put in the back of the camera. Kodak, Agfa, and Fuji kept making better films every couple of years, making it sharper, the grain smaller, and the ability to get pretty colors in unusual light better. And so we'd decide to change the film we used occasionally.

Digital changed all that. In the ‘olden days’ we kept the camera and changed the film we used. Now we get new cameras every year or two, because the ‘film’ is the camera’s sensor and its accompanying computer processing chips. As the manufacturers make camera units with more resolution (finer detail sharpness), less noise from higher "film" speeds (noise is electronic garbage that gets into a digital sensor when its signal is amplified by quite a bit to "see" in darker light, so some pixels show strange colors or ligh/dark readings), better capability to give good color in strange or mixed-source lighting, and better dynamic range (how wide a spread from dark to light it can record detail in), we invest in new equipment.

We certainly haven't worn out our "old" digital cameras when we replace them. It's just that the "film" part of the newer camera is enough better that we change.

As I said at the beginning of this, it's just weird these days.
I (Miriam) just got a nice email from a mom that made me feel like it is all worthwhile.

“Thanks again for the wonderful session. You were so thoughtful to take time to get to know Eric, and thus captured the essence of who he is. I have been telling everyone about you, and look forward to doing business with you in the future! Fondly, Annie Nelson”

Here is one of Eric’s portraits - and it was a pleasure to get to know Eric and his mom!

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Sessions, sessions, sessions!

I had so much fun photographing last week. I thought I would just share a few highlights.

Casey Higgins is a senior at CV. We met his mom, Helen through our work with the Boys and Girls Club of Corvallis, a charity we support (she is the director). Like a lot of 17-year-old guys, there were other things he probably would have rather have been doing than portraits. But he was a good sport and great to have in front of the camera.

John Carpenter is pastor at the Oakville Presbyterian Church. Miriam grew up as an active member of this historic country church so finding that some of their parishioners had purchased a gift certificate for his family was very exciting! John, Mary, Hannah and Heidi were all involved in the home consultation. We decided that this portrait needed to say ”Oregon” to everyone viewing it. We chose the Falls City falls for the trees and water.

Megan Miller is a High school senior from Lebanon. She saw our display at the Northwest Horse Expo. No horses in this session but we have plans in the works for doing that next spring.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Labor Day Adventure

From Miriam:

We just got back from Sunriver where we always spend Labor Day weekend with my family. We like to go to Central Oregon because there are so many great places to hike.

Here we are at the top of Mt. Tumalo with the Three Sisters and Broken top in the background.

L to R: Miriam’s dad, Huck (89 years old!); brother Bruce’s family: Linda with little Nora Jane and Willamina due to make an appearance at New Years, Bruce, Gavin and Claudia; brother Greg; sister Janet, family: husband Stewart, Eleanor, Aaron, Brett (Kate’s husband), Kate, Tonya (Aaron’s husband), and Janet; Neil is standing on the far right and Miriam, Lars and Anna are crouching in front. (Nels spent the weekend in Seattle with fiance, Danielle.)