Sunday, December 18, 2016

To Zoom or Not to Zoom- Cowboy Portraits with Zooms

Joshua Jackson is shown outside the arena before the Southeast Rodeo Association event in Birmingham, Alabama on June 25, 2016. Shot with Nikon D600 and Sigma 24-35mm F2 DG HSM | Art at 35mm. Lit with Elinchrom ELB and Quadra Hybrid. Exposure 1/160 at F8, ISO 100

(A slightly different version of this post originally appeared on the Sigma lens site. You can see it here.)

I shoot a lot of portraits. My work for magazines, annual reports, advertising and personal projects has relied on portraiture for years. I use prime lenses for most of these, but for certain kinds of projects, zooms might work best. This article tells about one such situation.

In the spring of 2014 I was talking to an acquaintance and our respective weekend plans came up. She mentioned that her husband was going out of town to compete in a rodeo. She was African American so, at the risk of seeming nosy, I asked if her husband was black, too. She said, yes, and my surprise and curiosity led to a long conversation where she told me that there was a whole series of rodeos catering to primarily or exclusively black cowboys.

That night I started doing research on black rodeos and cowboys. I discovered that the history of African American cowboys and their role in settling the West isn’t that much different from the history of other African American groups- it’s been largely ignored by historians and the media. Estimates are that African Americans made up as much as 25% of the cowboys responsible for the movement West. 

There are, however, people working to battle this ignorance. A number of groups around the country celebrate the heritage of the black men and women who herded cattle, farmed, and built homesteads across the West. With rodeos, trail riding associations, and community outreach groups, contemporary African Americans work to keep these traditions alive and make the public aware of this history. The photographs in Black Cowboys (and girls) are intended to support these efforts and allow the faces of the participants to be shown with the respect and dignity they deserve.
Tyshun Cook is a forklift operator from Lakeshore, AL and is shown outside the arena before the Southeast Rodeo Association event in Birmingham, Alabama on June 25, 2016. Shot with Nikon D600 and Sigma 24-35mm F2 DG HSM | Art at 35mm. Lit with Elinchrom ELB and Quadra Hybrid. Exposure 1/160 at F8, ISO 100.
Often, my first impulse when I start a project is to shoot portraits. They seem to be my most immediate entrance to a group or individual. I find that by shooting portraits, I’m given permission to spend some time with a person, ask them questions, and learn something about them. It gives me the confidence and them the trust to get closer to the heart of a story. This piece was no different in that regard.
Tailgating before the rodeo is an important part of the atmosphere.  Some of the attendees come prepared like Curtis Parham, shown outside the arena before the Southeast Rodeo Association event in Birmingham, Alabama on June 25, 2016. Shot with Nikon D600 and Sigma 24-35mm F2 DG HSM | Art at 35mm. Lit with Elinchrom ELB and Quadra Hybrid. Exposure 1/60 at F8, ISO 100.

As I said earlier, most often, I use primes when I shoot portraits. I plan to write about that process soon, but for Black Cowboys (and girls) my lighting scheme is somewhat different than what I usually use. I’m shooting with a Elinchrom ELB battery strobe with a beauty dish off camera, but with issues of bright sunlight, hats with large brims, and dark skin, finding a solution for a fill light was critical to seeing my subjects’ eyes. I decided to use a ring light on camera. I was able to turn the power down significantly, thereby opening up the deep shadows just a bit, without ruining the effect of my main light.
Aaron Kidd and Todd Morris shown outside the arena before the Southeast Rodeo Association event in Birmingham, Alabama on June 25, 2016. Shot with Nikon D600 and Sigma 24-35mm F2 DG HSM | Art at 35mm. Lit with Elinchrom ELB and Quadra Hybrid. Exposure 1/200 at F11, ISO 100.
Behind the scenes showing set up of above photograph.

My problem was that if I shot with primes, I found that when I wanted to change my composition, I had to either take the time to change lenses- a slow and tedious process with a ring light- or, if I moved closer or farther away, I had to take the time to take an additional light meter reading, since changing the distance from the camera and ring light to my subject changed my exposure, not to mention the effect of the fill light.

When shooting environmental portraits, I find myself most often using either a 24mm or a 35mm prime lens on my full frame Nikons. Occasionally I’ll go as wide as 20mm or as tight as 50mm, but my 24 and 35 get the most use. With the Sigma 24-35 F2 Art, I get the best of both without the hassle of changing lenses or having to adjust exposure. I can stay in one spot and zoom in and out as needed to reframe my subject and show more or less of the scene. The fast F2 maximum aperture is a help when I’m shooting in the low light of arenas.
These last two images show exactly what it looks like as I zoom in from 24mm to 35mm. It clearly changes the feeling of the image to a more intimate look and, even with the ring flash, I didn’t have to change the exposure. It allowed me to work quickly and efficiently with Willie and his horse without spooking the animal anymore than I already had with my flashes.

Willie Green is shown outside the arena before the Southeast Rodeo Association event in Birmingham, Alabama on June 25, 2016. Shot with Nikon D600 and Sigma 24-35mm F2 DG HSM | Art. Lit with Elinchrom ELB and Quadra Hybrid. Exposure 1/80 at F7.1, ISO 100.

Monday, December 5, 2016

This is Dixie

I was winding my way through the backwoods of Mississippi on the fifth day of what I hope will be a three week trip to photograph the rural South. I was thirty or more miles southeast of Meridian and I was getting hungry for lunch, but a town big enough to support a café was some ways off. I passed a small building with an RC Cola machine out front and a hand lettered sign that said “fresh catfish”. I thought it looked promising, so I pulled in.

I walked in the door and realized it wasn’t a café at all, but a small retail food store, albeit an improvised one. There were no windows and the food was laid out on folding tables and makeshift shelves. Oh, well, I thought. I’ll just have to wait to eat.

As I started to back into my car I noticed a young woman sitting on the front porch of the small ranch house next to the store. I waved and she stood up and hurried into the house. I was close enough to see that she had Down syndrome and I guess I had startled her. I didn’t want to make anyone nervous, so I stood by my open car and waited to see if someone would come out. Within moments an older woman stuck her head out of the screen door.

“Can I help you?” she called.

She didn’t seem suspicious, only curious. I explained I was looking for lunch and was sorry to have bothered her.

“There’s a diner in Quitman. And a Hardee’s, I think. They’re about a half hour from here.” She paused, then, “Where’re you from?”

I explained I was from Atlanta and was passing through on a trip through rural areas taking photographs along the way.

“Well,” she said, “you’ve got to see our church. It was built in 1873. It’s one of the oldest in Mississippi. It’s just back that way,” she pointed the way I had come.

I told her I was really doing mostly portraits and would she have a few minutes to come with me to the church to sit for one.

“Oh, no! I haven’t had time to even brush my hair today and I’m in the middle of cooking for a church supper tonight. But I know someone who’d be happy to. Let me call her,” she said as she went back inside. The younger woman peeked out the door for a minute until the older one came back out.

“Sue’d be happy to, but she can’t for twenty minutes. If you want, you can come on in and wait and I’ll feed you lunch.”

“Well, that’d be great,” I said and went up the stairs into the house.

It was cluttered, but seemed clean. She cleared a small space at the kitchen table for me and as I walked over, she held out her hand.

“I’m Pat. This is Dixie. She’s twenty-nine.” I shook Pat’s hand and Dixie offered her’s, as well. I noticed she was wearing a fairly gaudy Christmas sweater.

“Nice sweater, Dixie,” I said. She giggled.

“I have some leftover pulled pork with beef liver chopped up in it I can put over some rice, if that’s OK,” Pat said.

“Sounds good,” I said, hoping it would be tolerable.

She put a large plastic dish in a microwave and turned it on. She bustled around, made me some toast, and continued working in the kitchen. I’m not entirely clear what she was making, but it involved what appeared to be dehydrated potatoes that came out of a large red box. We talked as she worked. She wanted to know about my family and what my wife’s name was. She told me she had buried two husbands, the first from “the cancer” and the second after a tractor had turned over on him. She was on her third now, a preacher and retired maintenance worker. That’s why she was cooking. It’s the wife’s job to do most of the cooking for church dinners apparently.

As we talked, Dixie would come and go from the kitchen. I soon realized she was wearing a different outfit every time she came back, each with a Christmas theme. By the third time, she had reached her pinnacle. Her sweater was decorated with ornaments and little wrapped packages and bows and on her head was “deely bobbers” in the shape of Santa Claus.

At some point, Pat turned the conversation to politics. Dangerous ground, I thought, but let’s see where this goes.

I told her that I thought both candidates had had serious flaws and she agreed with me. Without specifically asking, it was clear she wanted to know who I voted for. I admitted voting for Hillary and she said she had voted for Trump.

“I used to like Bill Clinton,” she said. “That is, until he passed that law saying that anyone pregnant with a Down syndrome baby had to have an abortion. That definitely soured me on him. I mean, my Dixie has been such a blessing, you know?”

“I can imagine,” I said. I considered saying, Wow, I don’t remember that. Or maybe, What? Are you serious? But I thought better of it and just let it go. I was pleased when the phone rang and Pat answered it and said, “I’ll send him right over.”

“Why don’t you take Dixie with you,” she said. “You can drop her back here when you’re done.”
“Well, sure,” I said. We went out to the car and I cleared the front seat of my various supplies and crap to make room for my passenger. I briefly wondered whether Pat often sent her disabled daughter off in cars with total strangers.

Immediately after we pulled into the gravel drive of the church, a large SUV pulled in, too. Sue Pearson got out and introduced herself after getting a big hug from Dixie.

We went inside the beautiful little chapel and Sue told me about its history. After some reorganization in the Methodist Church in the 1940s, most of its parishioners went to other churches leaving this one more or less abandoned. Eventually some local people banded together to preserve the building and now it has services only once a year, but they have an endowment big enough to ensure the upkeep for the foreseeable future. Sue is the secretary of the board that oversees that process.

I shot her portrait sitting in the pews and then, as I started to pack my gear I saw Dixie standing there, so I asked her if she wanted her picture taken, too.
Afterwards, I drove Dixie back home and Pat came out to greet us. I got out to thank her again for her generosity, feeding me and setting up my portrait with Sue.

“Well,” she said, “sometimes you meet someone and you just know they’re good people. I felt that way about you.”

Thank you, Pat. You clearly have a big heart and I appreciate that.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

To Zoom or Not to Zoom- Portraits with Primes

(A slightly different version of this post originally appeared on the Sigma lens site. You can see it here.)

As a photographer who specializes in environmental portraiture, lens selection is critical to the look of my work. Much of the time I choose to shoot with prime lenses. Let me explain why I made that decision for one of my projects.

In 2014, I was given an artist residency at The Hambidge Center for Arts and Sciences in Rabun, Georgia.  For two weeks that year and again in 2015 and 2016, I was given a cabin tucked away in the mountains, dinner prepared for me four nights a week, and encouragement to do whatever I wanted. I had driven through the area around Hambidge a number of times when my wife and I had gone to the Great Smokie Mountains of North Carolina from our home in Atlanta on camping trips. We often stopped at flea markets along the way and the faces I saw at these rural stops struck me. There was an extraordinary range of types and ages and looks. I knew there was a project here waiting for me to photograph. That idea became American Flea.
Mary-Lynn Starkey runs a small flea market near Franklin, NC with her husband Roger. They told me they decided to open their store because they needed some way to get rid of the stuff they had accumulated by going to auction. 
 For me, shooting portraits takes time, primarily because I need to talk to my subjects to get them to relax and trust me. The flea market portraits were no different- in fact, talking to people became an integral part of the process. Many of the vendors and customers will tell you that making money or finding bargains isn’t the thing they enjoy most about the experience. What they really love is the chance to meet and talk to the people they encounter. I found that everyone had a story and they wanted to share it with me.
Charles Brank, AKA Chuck B, sells his woodcarvings at the Franklin Flea and Craft Market in Franklin, NC.
When I work in this way, I think of portraiture as an active process. I’m not a passive observer as when I’m doing a story that requires a more candid approach. I’m actively engaged with my subjects when we’re talking before I start photographing and as the shooting begins, that engagement continues. I set up strobes and I rarely work from a tripod.
Peggy Hines, Randy Hines, and Randy’s mother, Christine Duncan sell odds and ends at the Woodpecker Wood Works Flea Market in Franklin, NC.
Primes, that is non-zoom lenses, were perfect for this style. I don’t want to hang back, zooming in and out to alter my compositions. I want to be actively moving around the space, closer, farther away, higher, lower. I sometimes think of myself dancing when I shoot like this. It’s a metaphoric dance as I try to elicit the best expression or pose from someone, but it almost becomes a literal dance as I change the scene in my viewfinder. The focal lengths of 24mm, 35mm, and 50mm are perfect for showing the environments that are so important to this work. I may even try a 20mm for some of them when I’m in particularly tight spaces and want to see even more if the environment in the frame.
Dodie Allen was helping a friend out by working in his vegetable stand at Uncle Bill’s Flea Market in Whittier, NC.
 All the photographs in this post were taken with a Nikon D600. The lenses were The Sigma Art Series primes specifically 24mm f1.4 DG | Art, 35mm f1.4 DG | Art, and 50mm f1.4 DG | Art Series. All were lit using an Elinchrom ELB with a 17 inch silver beauty dish. Most were shot utilizing Hi-Sync technology which let me synchronize my Nikon at speeds up to 1/4000 of a second. Stay tuned to my blog (or better yet subscribe to it) for an upcoming post that explains Hi-Sync in detail.

You can see more from American Flea on my web site.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Shooting Portraits

From "Faces and Heels- Inside Independent Wrestling" See more here
 The majority of my work has always been of people and the majority of those people pictures have been portraits. The range has been quite large and I’ve shot all kinds of people. I hope the characteristic that is common to all those people in all those places is that the subjects in my portraits seem comfortable. They’re relaxed and appear at peace with themselves. But why? Why do they look like that? 
From"Pursuit of the Spirit"
In many ways, photography, in and of itself, is not that difficult. Learning to properly expose, compose, and print photographs can be mastered with moderate effort. Unfortunately, skill at those elements doesn’t guarantee that one’s pictures will be anything that people will want to look at, much less pay for. All the technological advancements that make photography “easy” can’t tell you what to point your camera at. It will never be able to tell you when to press the shutter button. And, in the case of portrait photography, it can’t tell you how to treat people in order to capture a successful image.

From "European Portraits" see more here
I think the single most important thing to accomplish when shooting portraits is remembering to talk to one’s subjects. A successful portrait is usually one where there is an element of trust developed between the photographer and the person in front of the camera. The sitter needs to feel that they won’t be taken advantage of or made to look ridiculous.  They need to know that they won’t be exploited or sensationalized. In some ways, they need to like the photographer. The most direct way to accomplish this, I think the most honest way, is to have a conversation.
Director of the Zippo Museum in Bradford, PA
I don’t mean to say that this is the only way to make a great portrait. In fact, there are easy examples of photographers who eschew this method and go to some lengths to do the opposite, bullying their subjects into submission as they create their vision of how someone should look. Annie Liebovitz immediately comes to mind and no one, least of all this photographer, would suggest she isn’t a great portraitist. But I think most of us don’t have the force of personality or the raw photographic talent to make this a realistic working method.
From "Day & Night" see more here
When I shoot someone, it’s important to me that when we’re done, they feel good about what just happened, not bludgeoned with demands that made them uncomfortable. It sounds stupid and a little needy, but I want people to like me. Liking me usually leads to trusting me and I find that if they do, the results in the portrait will be stronger.
From "Day & Night" see more here
Talking is the best way to reach this end point, but you have to remember to not allow the conversation to be your monolog. It’s much more important to ask questions and get the other person talking. If you’ve had a chance to do a little research on them, this will be much easier. How did they start their business? Why did they move to their current home? How has having children changed how they think of themselves? Ask them to tell you about how they spend their time on the weekend. Ask them to tell you about their favorite part of their job.
From "Tibet" see more here
None of those questions have one word answers. They’re all what documentary filmmakers refer to as open ended. They all require thought and explanation. They all make follow-up questions easier because they are relatively complex. The photographer can’t help but learn about the person they’re about to shoot a portrait of.
From "European Portraits" see more here
I admit that this is a fairly easy process for me. I’ve been doing it for so long, that I can’t remember whether it was ever difficult for me. I’m naturally a very curious person. I sincerely want to learn as much as I can about anyone I meet. Photography has proven to be the perfect tool to indulge my curiosity. Having a camera gives me permission to ask questions that in other circumstances might be considered too personal or even rude. It provides me with the perfect excuse to be nosy. It’s my skills at talking, not photography, that allow me to go into virtually any environment and come out of it with decent results. 
From "Out on Buford Highway" see more here
I’ve photographed people as widely varied as inmates in prison, neo-Nazi skinheads, Mormons at sacred sites in upstate New York, CEOs, janitors, patrons of rural pubs in Wales, workers in ethnic restaurants in suburban Atlanta, professional dominatrixes, African American rodeo cowboys, and tattoo artists. The thing common to them all is that I am genuinely interested in their stories and thoughts. I want to know why they do what they do, how they feel about their lives, what brings them joy, and what makes them feel sadness.
From "Out on Buford Highway" see more here
The other thing that often happens while talking to a person you’re about to photograph is more specific and technical than the issue of trust. While carrying on this conversation, I try to let one part of my brain stay aware of the visual conditions of the person and the location. I hopefully will get clues as to how to tell this person’s story. Is there a specific prop that I should show? Do they cover their mouth when they laugh, thus alerting me to the fact that they’re self-conscious of their teeth? Should I try to shoot them looking up at the camera because they have a tendency to show a double chin? Is there one corner of the room that will make for a more dynamic composition? While paying attention to our conversation, I’m also letting my eyes do visual reconnaissance. After all, making a great picture is why I’m there.
From "Disappearing Pub Culture" see more here
So what can you do if this whole process seems too difficult and you’re not naturally as gregarious as I am? I have a few suggestions that might help.

1.     In the beginning, keep your photography as simple as possible. This might mean shooting with the available light or with a simple one light set up. Make sure you’re completely familiar with your equipment. Don’t use that new or borrowed or rented camera with controls that can confuse you. At first you need to be able to concentrate on your relationship with your subject and not let the photography get in your way.

2.     Scout your location in advance. This can allow you to avoid struggling with the situation in front of you and distract you from the communication with your subject.

3.     Do some research on your subject. This prepares you with a few questions and will hopefully provide you with information that you’ll want to learn more about. You don’t need to know everything about them, just enough to give you the basis for the conversation.

4.     Pre-light the scene so the person doesn’t have to sit around waiting for you to wrestle with your gear. When I was shooting regularly for major magazines, I arrived at locations a minimum of two hours early to figure out where I was going to shoot and how I was going to light.

5.     Don’t forget to ask open-ended questions. “How do feel about. . .?” “Tell me about. . .” “What was it like when. . .?” “How do you go about. . .?” Almost everyone responds to someone who expresses a genuine interest in who they are and what they think. Make sure you’re that person for anyone who has taken the time to sit in front of you and your camera.

As with most things in photography, you’ll get better as you shoot more. Everything in this article is intended as starting points, not rules. With time and with effort, you’ll discover what works for you and how you can make the best pictures possible. The most important thing to discover is how to make your pictures- not mine or anyone else’s. Yours. That’s where the joy comes from.
From "Faces and Heels- Inside Independent Wrestling" see more here
 A shorter, edited version of this article was previously published on the blog Light Leaked

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

The Best Picture I Never Took

First haircut

In 1989, I did a story on a prison boot camp called Monterey Shock Incarceration Correctional Facility. It was in rural New York State, way at the end of a dirt road. There were no bars, no walls or guard towers, and no visible guns. The program was for young non-violent offenders and, if completed, reduced their sentence from three to nine years to just six months.

It was run like a military facility and the guards were called drill instructors. I spent a total of five days there over a two month period and was able to photograph the entire program with groups of different inmates, from arriving in shackles to graduation day with inmates in jacket and ties. The New York Department of Corrections gave me total access. I was there from 5:00AM to 10:00PM and I could shoot anything I wanted and talk to anyone, anytime. That freedom led me to the best picture I never took.

One morning after calisthenics and breakfast I was passing through the dorm area and went near a bathroom. I looked in and there was a line of toilets, most occupied. No walls between them, no stalls, no privacy whatsoever. Other people, guards and inmates were walking through, so I did too. There was beautiful soft morning light coming in windows opposite and the line of white porcelain, shiny pipes up the wall, gray cinderblock, and a range of skin tones made for an extraordinary image.

I actually brought one of my Nikons with a wide angle lens up to my eye and looked for a moment before lowering it. It was a great picture, no doubt about it. But it seemed unfair to take it. Is there any time when we feel more vulnerable and defenseless than when we’re sitting on the toilet? I don’t think so. I couldn’t bring myself to take advantage of those young men’s vulnerability, no matter how good a picture it was.

I don’t regret not taking that photograph. But I often think about “the one that got away.”

The following are a few of the pictures from that story.
Waiting in line

Dawn reveille

Running to dawn physical training    

48 men shower in 3 minutes

Superintendent Ron Mosicki

Morning PT

Parole hearing
Graduation day

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Elinchrom ELB Review

I got my first generation Elinchrom Quadra in 2010 and I immediately fell in love with it.
I had been using studio/AC strobes for years, but I was sick of the weight and having to be tied to an outlet or generator. Shoe mount strobes were always a possibility, but they were grossly underpowered and dealing with batteries was a pain. There were a few high powered battery strobes, but they tended to be very heavy and very expensive. Along came the Quadra and it felt like my prayers were answered. Small, light, fairly powerful, not too much money, and best of all- they had an LED modeling light which used very little juice. It was bright enough to be of practical value and it didn’t drain the battery with the same speed as the halogen ones in its bigger cousins.

I travelled all over Europe with those Quadras, shooting portraits of small town shopkeepers and residents. They performed flawlessly. At 400 watt seconds, they had plenty of power to give me the apertures necessary. They set up quickly and I especially loved the modeling light. Whether shooting in the low light of a hotel lobby at night 

 or in practically no light in the caverns of an 18th century winery,

 the LED modeling light was a life saver allowing accurate focus and framing.

Later, I began using them with the ECO ring flash in conjunction with my AC strobes. The ability to power way down and use the ring as a fill in some fairly extensive lighting scenarios was extremely useful. The quality of that fill is very different from using a traditional source or even a bounce card as fill and it gave my work an interesting quality that was difficult to define.

By 2012  Elinchrom had updated the battery in the Quadra from a lead gel to a lithium ion battery.  

What a difference! It was significantly smaller and lighter, the number of flashes per charge was much greater, and the recycle time was reduced. These were all welcome improvements.

Now it’s 2015 and I’ve been working with the latest version, the ELB 400, for a couple of months. 

This time the improvements to the Quadra, while still not revolutionary, represent significant improvements. I must admit, I was very happy with the previous iterations, but this new ELB is really way ahead of the older Quadra Hybrid.

The first thing you notice after unboxing the ELB is that the top panel looks very different from the Hybrid.  

Elinchrom has replaced the hard plastic screw covers on the head outlets with quick flip rubber covers. I wouldn’t consider this a big deal, but it does make set up and tear down that much quicker.

Next, you’ll notice that there are two small outlets on the right side of the panel. One is for the synch cord, but the other is a mini-usb outlet for future firmware upgrades. My guess is that this will make it easy for Elinchrom to add more hyper-sync (the ability to shoot with strobes at a shutter speed higher than the normal limit of 1/160-1/250) and TTL (through the lens metering) capabilities in the future. But there may be other features I haven’t even dreamed of that could be added.

The biggest change to the top panel is the reduction and simplification of the controls. The older unit had seven buttons and five glowing indicators in addition to the power display and battery meter. The menu system was fairly cumbersome and un-intuitive. This didn’t bother me too much since I rarely had a need to change my settings, but when I did, using the manual was absolutely necessary. Even then I sometimes got confused.

The new panel has reduced the buttons to six and an OLED (organic light emitting diode) display. Besides simplifying operation, the best part is that the OLED speaks English and is very intuitive. In fact, it’s modeled after the menu system in the ELC AC strobes, so it felt very familiar to me. There’s really no need for the manual- although I plan to keep mine close by for a while, just in case. It’s really easy to scroll through the options of: 1. photocell 2. skyport 3. audio 4. flash mode 5. power settings 6. statistics

These menu choices give an indication of some of the internal improvements to the ELB. The first three are items we’ve all come to expect from quality studio strobes- an optical slave that we can turn off and on, built in wireless support, and a variety of audio settings. The fourth, flash mode, is a major addition. This adjustment lets you choose between standard operation, delayed synch, sequential firing, or stroboscopic firing. I’ve been using the ELB for fairly traditional location photography, but these new settings will be a huge advantage for action sports shooters, allowing them to do multiple exposures and motion studies in ways previously difficult or even impossible without a truckload of gear and assistants. These options have been available in the Elinchrom ELC series for some time. If you’d like to read about my uses of the ELC go to

There are some fairly significant internal changes to the ELB that I’m very happy about, too. The first is that between an increase in power from 400 watt seconds to 424 and the introduction of the Pro Head, I’m getting almost a full stop more juice out of the unit. The Quadra Hybrid had plenty of power for most of the things I did with it, so what this means is that I can reduce the output for my shots, thus getting many more pops per charge out of the already large capacity lithium battery. I don’t have the patience to accurately test exactly how many pops I’m getting, but I estimate that at 50-70% power, I’m getting well over 500 pops- enough for most days of shooting.

The recycle time has been reduced, too. From full discharge to 100% ready, the original Quadra took almost 2.5 seconds to recycle. Not bad at all. With the introduction of the Hybrid, that was down to just under two seconds. Now with the ELB, recycle time is just over 1.5 seconds. I’m a people shooter and having a recycle time that fast is enormously helpful. My most recent projects have necessitated shooting in very public situations (flea markets and rodeos) and the faster I can shoot and let folks get back to whatever they need to be doing, the better.

One of things that sold me on the original Quadra, still holds true of the ELB- it’s easy to use all of Elinchrom’s modifiers with it. There’s a convenient adapter that lets me use all of my softboxes, grid spots, beauty dishes, and octabanks with this little powerhouse. I think Elinchrom makes the best modifiers out there and there have been many times when the ability to pop one of my “baby” heads into a sophisticated modifier has been a lifesaver.

Lately my work has leaned heavily toward a documentary approach and the ELB is the perfect tool. It allows me the versatility and power of larger, heavier strobes in a package that’s easy to carry and quick to set up and tear down. There are photographers out there who rave about the results they get from using multiple shoe mount strobes and I don’t disagree that it’s possible to do that. But for the money you can spend on three or four of the top of the line shoe mounts, you can get a pretty complete ELB system with two heads and batteries. It will give you way more power and flexibility than the shoe mounts ever could. And you won’t have to invest in hundreds of AA batteries anymore, either.

The following shots show a few of the things I’ve been doing with the ELB and Hybrid. I’ve been using a 17 inch silver beauty dish for a lot of it. I really like the sparkle and punch of that modifier used in daylight situations. The African American cowboy series uses the Ringflash ECO for fill. Shooting on sunny days, people with dark skin wearing cowboy hats is a real challenge trying to get detail in my subjects eyes. The ring on low power opens those shadows just enough without over powering the effect of my main light.

If you have any suggestions or questions about anything in this review, please contact me. I'll get back to you as soon as possible.

Read more about Elinchrom and their products here.

If you'd like to see more of my work, go here.
 (above photo by Hastings Huggins,
 (above photo by Joshua McFadden,

Friday, April 10, 2015

Chris Buck's Five Tips for Becoming a Professional Photographer (and my thoughts, too)

Recently the excellent photographer, Chris Buck, posted the following advice on Facebook. Chris has been one of my favorite photographers for a long time. His portraits of the famous and not so famous are consistently surprising and provocative. He's never been a slave to trends- he just continually strives to produce the best work possible.

With all that said, I found his tips a fair bit contrarian. Which is why (with Chris' permission) I'm re-posting them here. Many of my students will tell you that I encourage them to disagree with me. I believe that healthy debate over positions is one of the best ways to learn more about yourself and your opinions. I've taken the liberty of adding some comments of my own in italics after each of his. (Chris, I hope that's OK.)

Here it is:

Much of the conventional wisdom on how to become an advertising and editorial photographer is wrong, so I’ve written up five tips that counter the common narrative. It’s exciting to meet young people who are creative and driven, nothing would make me happier than to see them thrive as professional shooters.

1. Don’t go to College
More and more I’m meeting emerging photographers who are saddled with over 100K of college debt. My advice to young people – skip photo college. You can learn everything you need through books, mentors and short-term courses. It will be a more challenging road, requiring openness, experimentation, and plenty of trail and error but the dividends are astronomical. Imagine spending your twenties with the freedom to live and work anywhere you wanted without a crippling debt hanging over you demanding a substantial and regular income. College is great but spending $150,000 to be a photographer is insane.

Anything I say here has to be taken with a grain of salt since I teach full time at the Savannah College of Art and Design in Atlanta. That said, I can't agree more that taking on huge amounts of debt to get an undergraduate degree in commercial photography is a very questionable strategy. When you start your business, there isn't a client in the world who will care whether you have a degree or even a high school diploma. (If they do, they're clearly an amateur.) All clients care about is whether you can produce what they need, when they need it at the price you agreed to. In fact, most gallerists and curators care only slightly more whether you went to college.

On the other hand, I firmly believe that the more you know about art, politics, literature, cinema, psychology, the world, etc, the more you have to bring to your work. The more interested and interesting you are as a person, the more interesting and complex your work will be. College can be a great place to gain that kind of knowledge. The best photography schools are the ones that require significant coursework in addition to students' majors. The work of students and professionals whose aesthetic views come primarily or exclusively from photography  are little more than technocrats or borderline plagiarists. It's not what we choose to photograph that makes for great work. It's who we are that does that.

2. Don’t be a Photo Assistant
Photo assisting is a procrastination tool. One can make amazing money in their mid-twenties as a photo assistant – and have fun and strange experiences on a variety of photo sets - but what you won’t be doing is building a creative foundation that you’ll need when it’s time to get serious in your early thirties. The longer one waits to transition out of assisting the harder it will be – one goes from making great money to no money (at least initially). A better choice would be interning for a great photographer for a season or two, you’ll be immersed in the world that you want to be a part of, and have the license to ask lots of questions.

Here, I think he's kind of right. Assisting can be a trap and I've seen a few of my assistants fall into it. But, mostly, I've found that when the time comes for them to go out on their own, they start being really shitty assistants. I've had to encourage them, sometimes by firing them, to start their own businesses. When Chris says one should intern instead of assist, I think he sees that as a way of avoiding the trap. I would say that how you do that is what's important. Call it interning, call it assisting- just don't do it for too long.

3. Don’t Move to New York
I’ve met more than one young person who told me that they moved to New York to be inspired and be a part of a creative community only to find themselves feeling isolated and exploited. It seems that there are two kinds of people in New York, those with a vision, and those without who work for peanuts for those who do. New York (and other important cities like Los Angeles and London) is primarily a marketplace – cultivate your vision elsewhere then bring it to market and show us something new. New York welcomes you – but come when you have something to say.

Boy! Do I ever agree with this one, although not necessarily for the reasons Chris gives. I believe that success can be measured in a lot of different ways and being a big time New York or LA photographer is not the only way to do it. I think that success can come by means of a healthy life and a solid family. I believe that great work can be done almost anywhere and being in a major metropolitan area is not the only way to achieve it. I spent most of my career in the Rochester, NY area- not the center of the communications and publishing world by most measurements. But I lived in a big old house on an acre of land and my wife and I raised three incredible kids who are now incredible adults. And I did really good work, work that I'm still proud of. Some of it was for national clients, some for local clients. And while I was doing that, I lived a life that I was proud of, too. And, even more importantly, the life that was right for me.

Now, as Chris says, if/when you feel the time is right, then, of course, move to New York. Dazzle them and continue to do great work. But remember, if you decide not to go, that doesn't mean you're a failure. It means that New York wasn't for you. And that's all.

4. Don’t be Successful
If you’re any good you’ll find yourself at some point as out of line with the culture. Your clients will be uninterested or confused by your latest work. Go with it, as it means that you’re onto something special. Of course one needs to make a living, so hit the sweet spot for your clients too, but keep shooting the less obvious pictures along the way – this will be the work that really makes your name down the road.

I like this and have nothing to add. Well said, Chris.

5. Do be a Hater
I’ve found that I make my most interesting and original work when reacting against a prevalent trend rather than being inspired by some well-achieved work. When you’re inspired by a great photographer you tend to make some variation on that person’s work. But when you react against something you set the bar higher, “these folks are getting it wrong, and I’m going to show them the right way.” For me that means digging deep into myself and asking the hard questions about where photography should be going and how I might help bring it there.

I like this one, too, although the title sounds a little like, "Do be an asshole" but that's OK because the reasoning that follows is sound. I'd add that you need to figure out what's interesting to you and then figure out how to make pictures about that. I've found that if I pursue a topic that I'm kinda, sorta interested in, then the pictures are only kinda, sorta interesting. But when I follow up on something I think is REALLY interesting, then the pictures are almost always solid.

His last line is the best. By asking the hard questions we get the most fruitful answers, the ones that allow us to make the most progress and produce the work that has the most impact. And if you find any of those answers, let me know. I'm pretty good at the asking. The answers, not as much, but I'm still trying. 

Thanks again to Chris Buck for starting this conversation. Please let it continue in the comments section below.