The Monochrome Challenge, in which we shoot in black-and-white only, continues…
There is certainly no paucity of opinion about why it’s so hard to make a living in the 21st century as a photographer. A growing consensus claims the problem is that “everyone is a photographer” because every has a camera. It’s a pretty solid idea, and it’s difficult to refute.
But I have some different notions about it.
If you have seen documentaries like The Corporation or Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, you probably have a pretty firm grasp of the idea that right and wrong have little bearing on the actions of corporations, and that corporations are the most powerful institutions in the world. As long as that’s true, photographers will struggle.
- In 1991, I learned of an opening for the chief photographer job at a major state university. I applied, as did many in my field, and didn’t get the job, despite the fact that I felt certain I would have been a great choice. The selection was made by a committee, and they picked an applicant who was the most “quailfied” on paper, but was such a terrible jackass they had to fire him 18 months later, and I knew when they hired him it was a mistake.
- In 2016, during a period when I felt our editor (who was later fired) was trying to force me out, I applied for a staff photographer position with the media relations department of a very fast-growing organization. I felt I was perfect for that job as well. The position went to someone who seemed to have all the perfect qualifications and accreditations, but early on, I would not only see his work and wonder why it was so weak, I would see him at events we were both covering and be mystified at the way he was photographing the situation. I remember one time I was at the front of a large meeting room photographing a keynote speaker, and getting pretty good stuff, only to look up and see that photographer at the back of the room 30 yards away, and I never saw him move. The images they send to my newspaper are mediocre, far beneath what I would demand from a professional photographer.
- Two years ago local hospital hired me to shoot some images of their new medical staff members. They were happy with the images until the people who hired me left or were fired, when the corporation decided they were “going a different direction” with the staff photos.
- This year I was approached by a long-time admirer who worked for a growing financial institution, who told me he wanted to bring me on for a number of projects. I shot one for them in March and they paid me, but then I didn’t hear from them in many weeks. I emailed them, and they came back with, “In the past couple of months, the Marketing and Communications Committee of XYZ has discussed various budget items…” Okay, a committee, where ideas and creativity go to die. This was followed by… you can guess: they sent our newspaper an unbelievably terrible photo of their latest groundbreaking ceremony. Good enough for a committee, I guess.
- A newspaper in another community sent us some storm damage photos this week, two of which were obviously shot with a cell phone through the windshield of a car as it made its way down the road. How is this good enough for … anyone?
One very frustrating thing corporations do is refuse to tell you not only why they didn’t hire you, but even that they didn’t hire you. “Please contact me and let me know your decision” is always met by silence.
What can we conclude from these odd outcomes?
- Corporations have difficulty recognizing talent, and can only understand tangible credentials like certificates and degrees.
- Corporations make their money by getting more for less, and are often inclined to try to cheat photographers and other artists in the less-tangible fields by offering them something non-monetary, like “exposure.” I had someone offer me exactly that… “a chance to hand out your business card”… recently.
- Money people almost always discard artistic endeavor as being too expensive, and rely on cheaper alternatives, the way that the Chicago Sun-Times did by laying off all 26 of their photographers and training their reporters to take pictures with their phones. An overworked PR clerk with an iPhone seems like enough to the people with tailored suits.
- Corporations by their very nature are mostly concerned with the next month or the next quarter. Their vision is to keep the stockholder happy when the next report comes in, no matter what that night cause in five years.
- No corporation needs or wants journalists. A journalist takes pictures of people when they get laid off by corporations. The creative and photographic banality is part of why a corporation desires boring, “safe” people. Corporations don’t actually seek out creative people, people who scratch and claw to get to the truth.
I don’t want to sound bitter, and compared to a lot of other photographer’s complaints on social media, I don’t.
Add to this that someone recently posted a link on social media to a CBS story about LGBTQ people being concerned they are being passed over or even fired because they are “out,” openly practicing their sexuality.
Do I think I have lost job opportunities because I am an atheist? Yes. Do I think it’s possible I could be fired because of it? Yes.
I thought about all this as I received yet another grimly disappointing photo, submitted to my newspaper, from a photographer who was chosen for a position for which I applied.
All is not lost, however, only misplaced. I am employed as a professional photographer, and the community regards me as a rock star. I do good work, and we publish it every day.
As someone who appreciates language and its correct, accurate use, I am aggravated to conclude that the photography community has completely usurped and perverted the word “bokeh.”
Originally, this term, sometimes loosely translated from Japanese as “blur” or “haze,” referred to the quality of out-of-focus portions of a photograph. Thus, it didn’t describe how far out of focus something was, nor did it describe how much of a photo was out of focus.
It’s been vernacularized. Since we live in a society of abbreviators, it has become a catch-all abbreviation for any occasion we use or see selective focus or shallow depth of field.
“Wow. Look at all that bokeh!”
“You need a 50mm f/1.2 to get more bokeh!”
“I’m a bokeh slut.”
We’re all using this term incorrectly, which continues to erode the beauty and precision of language. A good analog for it might be “LOL,” which once stood for “Laughing Out Loud,” but which today is a word unto itself. LOL.
Another enduring myth of photography is the sensor size myth. We see it every day: photographers buy large sensors because they have “better bokeh.” In fact, sensors have no effect on bokeh at all, and their effect on selective focus is thoroughly misunderstood. Depth of field is the result of aperture, focal length and magnification. The reason it is so prevalently associated with sensor size is that with a larger sensor, you have to move closer to the subject to fill the frame with the same lens. Moving closer makes the depth of field shallower, but the sensor size does not.
Maybe what fools most of the people most of the time is that photographers don’t move closer and end up with more of the image out of focus, as in the following examples…
This is all part of a sour evolution of photography from mastery to money. Not only do the camera and lens manufacturers want you to believe their myths, they encourage consumers to espouse these myths, and they do. Not only do we hear a lot of “should I buy XYZ?” but also a frightening amount of “you should but XYZ.” It’s an unambiguous victory for commerce, but a crippling obstacle for artistry.
Sometimes when I remember events in my life from when I was younger, I wonder why I didn’t take as many photos as I imagine I should have. I am, after all, a professional photographer, and I should have been the one to document that ski trip in 1990, that nighttime glow-in-the-dark Frisbee game, that beautiful 105mm lens I sold.
So why didn’t I take all those pictures back in the film era?
- It wasn’t like that back then. Digital photography, particularly smartphone photograph, has created the misperception that we all need a thousand photos of our lives every day, and if you aren’t photographing every meal and every sunset, you are a flip-phone neo-Luddite.
- Shooting lots of frames equalled expensive processing, or in my case, laborious darkroom work. It’s easy to forget that one of digital photography’s most revolutionary aspects is its affordability. You can shoot 10 or 100 or a 1000 images, with very little added cost. Have you priced a roll of film and the price to get it developed lately? It was expensive in 1990, too.
- I actually was taking a lot of pictures. If I shot 20 frames at a friend’s birthday party, his wife might have shot three frames with her point-and-shoot.
I often feel this way about the slim number of electives I took in high school. I see kids today active in sports, farm and ranch, yearbook, web development, cheer, and more, and wonder why I wasn’t. But, it wasn’t like that back then. My school allowed one non-academic elective, and for me, it was yearbook.
I want to marry these thoughts with a trend I have been observing recently…
There is a huge hipster/millenial move right now toward shooting film. I certainly find any efforts to amp our creativity to new levels very laudable. I don’t, however, think shooting film is the way I want to go, and here’s why…
- If you are scanning your film to create a digital product, you are shooting digitally. The only way to shoot completely analog is to develop your film and print your film using an enlarger. Doing otherwise creates an unnecessary and wasteful step in creating a digital image.
- Photographers are feeling out-competed by a crowded market, and want to step aside and be thought of as geniuses or magicians again. I feel this, too. Rank amateurs are learning to photograph the Milky Way by watching YouTube tutorials, taking that away from professionals.
- When digital arrived on the scene in the late 1990s, it was the solution to all the problems we faced with film. With film, grain was obvious at even modest ISO settings, film stuck us with one ISO setting for each roll or film, film faced the possibility of accidental exposure ruining film or paper, film required a time-consuming process that created pollutants, film only allowed a limited ability to review images in the field (Polaroids) and and film had a higher-than-digital cost per frame.
- Some photographers claim they like the “look” of film. But photographers almost always make some kind of “look” edit in software to their scanned film files, usually in a way they could do better with an original digital file.
It’s absolutely true that I made many great images on photographic film during the first half of my career, but it is equally true that I heard many great songs on AM radio when I was growing up, but I haven’t tuned to an AM radio station to listen to music in 20 years.
I feel convinced that this hipster movement is just a fad. I’m certainly glad that someone out there is having fun with film, I am aware that there are reasons to keep film alive, and I am in possession of a number of great film cameras in good working order. But there are very few new film cameras being made, film is getting harder to obtain and more expensive, and when was the last time you used an enlarger to make prints in a real darkroom?
If you feel like you are struggling creatively, maybe you don’t need either film or a new digital camera. Maybe you need to find a narrative. You need to take your imaging from technical recording to storytelling. You need to push the limits of fundamentals like light and composition. Nothing between your hands will inspire you as much as anything in your heart.
Note: I wrote this here first, but used it as my June 1, 2019 column.
Sometimes I like to get out old gear and shoot with it, with the goal of making certain I don’t rely too heavily on technology to get my job done well. Yesterday I was inspired to dig my Kodak DCS 720x out of its box at the bottom of the gear cabinet to shoot a football scrimmage at the local college, and although that technology is from 2001, I made some great images with it. Look for them in my newspaper next week!
I read recently that Kodak only made about 1600 720x cameras. I’m not surprised, as the company was already deep into its inexorable slide toward bankruptcy.
It’s no secret that I am a lens guy. Old and new, cheap and expensive, I think photographic lenses are fascinating. I have quite a few lenses, from the tiny, dusty, fixed-focus, brassed-up lenses on my Kodak Retina, to the heavy, complex f/2.8 sports and news zooms I use every day. But if you ask me to name an all-time favorite… wow. All those lenses. But, my all-time favorite lens has to be the 85mm.
I have owned three, the AF Nikkor 85mm f/1.8 of 1990s vintage, the Nikkor 85mm f/2.0 of early-80s heritage, and my current 85mm, the AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.8G.
Over the years I read that the oldest of the three, the f/2.0, wasn’t great, but my experience differed. It was an amazing lens. The least of the three was the AF from the 90s, optically similar to the others, but built with a lot of plastic, including a plastic bushing in the focus chain that wore out and made the lens stiff. Eventually Nikon stopped supporting it so I could no longer get it repaired, and I stopped using it. I eventually gave it away.
My current 85mm is a real gem. I wrote about it a couple of times right after I got it, but I thought it would be helpful to mention that after three years with this lens in my bag, I use it as often as I can, from weddings to portraits to commercial work, with lots of occasions when I grab it to photograph my wife Abby or our dogs.
Our photographer friend Robert used it to photograph Abby and me in November, and those images are among my favorite all-time images of us.
In class in October, I handed this 85mm to a photography student, Daniel O’Danielle, who used it for about 30 minutes. The next week, she had a new one on her camera. I also recently talked about this lens with another photographer who has one, Dan Marsh, who also sang praises about it.
I thought of all this last night at sunset. I grabbed the 85mm once again and walked out to photograph the peach blossoms in my orchard. It didn’t disappoint me.
My wife Abby and I gave this camera, the Fujifilm FinePix S4500, to Abby’s daughter Chele and her husband Tom in 2013. Tom used it extensively on a trip we made to visit him that year in Baltimore, to photograph a D.C. walking tour.
Abby and I have several FinePix cameras (like the HS30EXR,) which have become our favorites when we place having fun at the top of the list, like when we are hiking, on the road, or at an event like family reunions. Smaller cameras like the these, in a class referred to as bridge, walkaround or crossover, allow the handling of a DSLR while offering the convenience of a point-and-shoot or even a smartphone.
- The S4500 features a versatile wide-to-telephoto zoom lens, but doesn’t not have a zoom ring or a manual focus ring, relying instead on a W and T rocker switch around the shutter release for zooming. There is no option for manual focusing, though I seldom use manual focus on my other bridge cameras.
- In hand, this camera handles like a camera, not like a toy or a computer, which is why Abby and I were attracted to it.
- The sensor in this camera is quite small at 6.17mm x 4.55 mm, both to keep the camera compact, and to make it cheaper to manufacture.
- There is an electronic viewfinder and a display on the back of the camera. For my work, an electronic or optical viewfinder is a must, though I know most people get along fine with the arm’s-length view that smartphones provide.
- Color is good; this is a Fuji strength for me, though not everyone agrees.
- High ISO noise makes the camera unusable in low light. I tried to make a feature photo of the score table at a basketball tournament, and it was a mess.
- The S4500 has a real PASM exposure dial, a must for me. Of course, it can fall back on green box (red in Fuji’s case) mode and scene modes, which I never use.
- Like a lot of lenses on this class of cameras, this 24-500mm “equivalent” zoom is a jack of all trades but master of none. It is an especially mediocre telephoto.
- Other controls are where I like them, though over the years I’ve worked with so many cameras (due to teaching photography), I almost always have to search for where electronics engineers put them. Making the same functions a little different in every camera generation and every brand doesn’t really serve photography, but is all about marketing and creating entertainment in camera sales.
Like all tools in our photographic tool box, the FinePix S4500 has a place. It is fun and easy to use, lightweight and quiet, and does a lot more than a smartphone. I am very glad we got this one for Tom and Chele.
In the 2000s, camera makers like Nikon and Canon introduced digital single lens reflex cameras (DSLRs) equipped with so-called full-frame sensors, imaging sensing devices that were the same size as an antiquated piece of 35mm film.
I have one such digital SLR, the Nikon D700. It is a professional machine on every level, from build quality to image quality. It is big, heavy, and built like a tank. It is so heavy, in fact, that I am a little glad I don’t use it every day at work. My D300Ss are heavy enough, but don’t begin to challenge the D700.
Much of the weight of cameras like this is one reason mirrorless cameras are overtaking DSLR sales. Combined with better electronics systems that can be made lighter and faster-operating, mirrorless does away with all the mechanics of the mirrors and pentaprisms.
A deceptive concept about formats is that larger formats exhibit “better” selective focus in the form of shallower depth of field. But the truth of this is buried in marketing and the internet. Depth of field isn’t controlled by format size, but by aperture and magnification. Larger-format afficianatoes don’t seem to understand that when shooting with a camera like the D700 with the same lens they might have on a smaller-format camera, they have to move closer to fill the frame with the same subject. That’s what makes depth of field shallower, not the size of the sensor.
I had this discussion not long after I bought my D700. You can read it here (link).
The D700 was one of Nikon’s earliest moves into the 36x24mm sensor market, and despite having been replaced by numerous newer models, the D700’s build and reputation create a higher than average cost on the used market.
Taking the idea of “full-frame” another step, we ask, “Is full-frame digital better than a full frame of 35mm film.” The answer overwhelmingly yes. Properly implemented, digital photography in general is far better than film photography: less noise, less risk, less waste, less time, more sharpness, better color, and on and on. (Coming soon: why the resurgence of film is folly.)
When I grab my D700, which usually has a larger lens on it, I feel it immediately. All that brass and glass tugs at my elbow and shoulder and reminds me why I try to lighten my load when I am able.
While I was writing this, I handed the D700 with the 28-70mm f/2.8 on it to my wife Abby, and she exclaimed, “Oh, my gosh, it must weigh 50 pounds!”
Files from the D700 are smooth, sharp and low-noise, and even with RAW file compression turned on, have a remarkable amount of color data. Despite the size and weight, the D700 has never let me down, and I hope to continue to make great images with it for the foreseeable future.