Saturday, May 28, 2011

More than just photography...

You may (or may not have) noticed that my business name goes by the subtitle "arts & photography." As we sit on the eve of an event that I'm a part of that is not photo-centric, I figured it might be a good time to delve into one of the subsets of those "arts" I reference.

Specifically in this case, it is playing the drums. I've been playing drums off and on since I was in middle school with a focus on the drum kit. While the kit is the main area where I'd been taught, I've also had some experience in percussion sections for small youth orchestras and a percussion group back in secondary (high school). For the most part I've played for youth groups and churches but there have been a few detours into other venues. Tomorrow evening I'm getting to play with Paul Emerson of The Stillpoint Band as well as 9 other bands including Todd Agnew and Courrier at the Nutty Brown Cafe & Amphitheatre. The concert is to benefit WaterNow which works to provide clean water to people who desperately need it in developing countries. As this is for charity, I'm not getting paid but I still roll that into business because I have had paying gigs before but this should be the biggest secular venue I'll have played and should be a ton of fun. I know we have a rockin' set and others will jam out a bit too to different degrees. In any case, it's all for a great cause and at $10 (pre-sale) or $12 at the door, it's a great deal!

Beyond this event and the drum kit, I also own and play the djembe (a single hand drum pictured on the left) which I love jamming out on. The cajon (a wooden box drum often fitted with a snare) is another fun instrument I dig. You sit on it while playing and can get a great drum & bass sound for such an ultra-portable piece of percussion. Playing with acoustic or just more mellow sets adds a good deal of diversity and flexibility to mesh with just about any accompaniment. Perhaps I'll be able to venture more into that as opportunities arise but for now it's just great to be able to play Sunday mornings!

I've also dabbled in writing but as of yet, none of that has seen the light of day. It turns out that it's tough to write and put something out there. If it was just music it might be different but when you put out lyrics it always seems almost too personal. With that said, why not right? Don't anticipate any albums out anytime soon though, the photography side of things is taking up enough of my time! That and non-business activities...

Well, I need to wrap this up and get moving as we have one more practice session tonight before the fun really kicks in tomorrow. If you're in the Austin area, I'd love to see you at the Nutty Brown!

Friday, May 27, 2011

Digital camera progression and reccomendations: Part 1

Old school cameras...

Sony Mavica
I was reflecting on the the cameras I've used, and have used and thought that it might make a decent blog so here it is. We'll call it part 1.

My first real experience with digital cameras came with a Sony Mavica which saved images onto a 3.5" floppy disk. Those were the days... I think I had access while working a summer job in San Marcos Texas and it was used for photographing manhole layouts as we surveyed them looking for open conduit. It is a whopping 0.3 megapixels but still pretty great for it's time. I wound up getting to play around a little with it at the office and got to experiment creatively with pretty decent results, all things considered.

Yup, these were still relevant media back then... wow.
This model was still way above my available budget so my first owned digital cameras were glorified webcams with batteries and something like 8-16MB of storage. Just in case you're needing a point of reference as to how small that is, one photo off my current camera would take out about 12MB alone. The quality was dubious but it took photos and could stream small video as well which for the time was pretty revolutionary.

I still used film for pictures that might actually need to look nice in print, an old Canon point-and-shoot that I eventually had to retire thanks to one end of the battery terminal breaking off. The ability to shoot many pictures without having to get them processed to view them was addictive and I finally purchased my first proper digital camera that could produce print-worthy images in what would be my last year of college.

San Diego area, taken with a Canon point & shoot

It was a Toshiba PDR-M60 and boasted a magnificent 2 megapixel sensor and it took me through the next 2 years. The main drawbacks that eventually became clear was the limit on the memory card size. This camera took me from Longview to Austin and helped pass the time in what would turn out to be my new home town. It took some very decent pictures when it came down to it, they just weren't big. At this point it did everything I needed it to do and as it was the best I'd used to that point, I was happy with it.

About that time I was also given a donated Minolta film SLR that had some issues but was still usable.The inner lining was torn and for some reason I couldn't verify the film was loading right which led to two instances of me shooting a full day only to learn after trying to develop it that the film was blank. That was not fun. It did however get me interested in SLRs, it was a taste of things to come.

After about a year being in Austin, I did get megapixel fever and upgraded my Toshiba to the Kodak point-and-shoot (Kodak EasyShare DX4530 5MP pictured at right) that would eventually land me my first professional photography job and usher me into the world of DSLRs. I actually got hired to do a wedding with that Kodak but I knew just enough back then to know that a point & shoot like that would not have the recycle time to grab as many quick moments as would occur for that sort of event. As a further indictment of my absentmindedness back then, I'll tell you how I stumbled into Nikon...

Taken with the Kodak at a KOA in Wisconsin

As the wedding was fast approaching, I wound up popping by a Ritz camera shop. I talked to the salesman and wound up mentioning I had a film SLR and asked if the lenses might work on the digital body. Somehow discussing the finer points of this like whether Nikon mounts fit Minolta lenses didn't come up. Thinking that they would, for no reason in particular, I picked up a Nikon D50 with a kit 18-55mm lens. It wasn't until later that I discovered that the brands the merged were not Nikon/Minolta, it was Konica/Minolta and there weren't even adapters to make those two brands speak to each other. I might have started with a Canon, which were and are cheaper had I known this. Still, it turned out just fine. I wound up shooting with that D50 from Beginning of 2006 until late 2009 when I upgraded to my next Nikon DSLR.

I now shoot with a Nikon D90 which is a great camera. I've now had it for around three years and have officially started my professional career with it. As you can see from my work, it is quite capable of producing some fantastic images. It was the first camera body I had that could remotely trigger flashes, the first with high definition video capability, and the first that got me up to 12 megapixels which is great for enlargements. I can got into more detail later but suffice it to say, it has served me well. With that said, I am finding myself bumping into some ceilings. Talking with some other pro photographers at a networking event, I was given the first of what would be a few nudges that are pushing me in the direction of full frame sensor cameras.

When it comes out, and I have the necessary funds, the Nikon D800 is in my sights. Currently the camera in that first tier of the upper echelon of full-frame sensor cameras is the D700. I mentioned the funds because this camera body (not including the lens) is $2700. As much as I'd love to be rolling in cash from a booming business and appreciation of my art, I'm not there yet and that body is having to wait. It really is about just getting that little extra wiggle room in difficult lighting situations as well as pulling that little extra pop that full frame sensors afford. Many may not notice an appreciable difference between full frame and cropped sensor cameras because they view most images via the internet or photos that are 16x20" at most. Still, used correctly, the full frame cameras can do things you just can't do as easily with cropped sensors. When you're photographing in fast paced, lower-light environments, the difference is especially appreciable to the photographer at least. But I digress...

I aim to write a review of the more recent cameras over the course of the next several blogs so you can learn a little about my experience with them and hopefully it will help inform you if and when you go out to buy a camera. If you do go with one of the cameras I write about, please consider clicking on the image/link of it which will help support my endeavors in the world of photography. Thanks!

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Stock photos

I've had the idea of selling my photos on stock photo sites suggested by a number of people and it kind of sounds like a good fit at first. I love taking pictures of nature, getting outside and shooting street photography, and of course just photographing generic everyday items. You never know what sort of need there might be for those types of images right? There is a market for those things but many of the popular outlets seem to throw the photographers under the bus, highly undervaluing the work and effectively running themselves and others into the ground.
For this reason I think having my own private stock portfolio is probably going to be the best way to go, perhaps networked with several other photographers in a co-op of sorts. There would be a few primary differences between this setup and microstock companies like Corbis and Getty that would hopefully be closer in model to the original structure and pricing of stock images. There would be tighter control on the use of an image. Lets say perhaps that once a photo is licensed for a business's website or promotional brochure, it won't be used for anything other than portfolio or personal use by me.

I came across the following blog that illustrates an issue that comes up with microstock thanks to another blog I was reading and it really is ridiculous. I know that when I see a generic photo representing a company my alarm bells go off. I want to see an authentic representation of the business I'm looking into and if they're willing to gloss over the reality of their setup, who knows what other corners they've cut and how that will come back to bite someone. I can't imagine I'm alone in that perception.


Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Optimizing online images

It is becoming apparent to me bit by bit that it is necessary, or at least advantageous, to customize each photo for the size and use that it will be used for.

This has come about by seeing great photos I've put up look so-so on my Facebook page. When viewing the shots full size on the computer they look just right, crisp, defined, and so on. When looking at the exact same shot scaled down, some of the pop and definition just doesn't hold. In the interest of time I've not been worrying too much about that but more and more I'm leaning towards showing just a few web-sized images that remain true to the large-scale result. On these blogs I do have a bit more control and they do look better thankfully but I want you to see all my work as I do (in so much as that is possible considering issues with monitor calibration).

In case you're not aware, the exact same image can look very different depending on your display's settings. Some software has the ability to read calibration settings and some don't. Some computers are set pretty well by default and others don't. Apple displays in general are pretty well calibrated whereas other displays are usually widely variant. I recently calibrated my LCD television and was astounded at how far off it was. But calibration issues aren't the main thing I was talking about with my initial comments about customization for the web.

Web images are typically smaller to be faster loading and friendlier to a wide audience with varying screen sizes. More often these days people are catering to larger wide screen sizes and faster internet connections so images are getting bigger but popular websites like Facebook also have to think about all that hosting space that gets eaten up so their images are by necessity smaller which can mean smaller size as well as file compression which does degrade image quality. As such, it is a good idea (as it turns out...) to custom edit images that will be shown at a size that is often an eighth (or less) of the original image size. Contrast, sharpness, and saturation are three things I've noticed suffer when a third party has to compress or re-size the image. 

Just exported

Above you can see the difference between the two images. The one on the left, when viewed full size is plenty bright and crisp but when it was shrunk down, it lost some of that vibrance and clarity. The photo on the left was adjusted once it was closer to the web size and is notably different. Without getting into too much detail, I'd say the key is to get your image sized as close as possible to the size your online outlet will actually show, then review it to ensure it's qualities are true to the original file's appearance.

That's all I've got for now, stay tuned for more soon!

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Living and Learning

One of the keys to learning is to go out and do it as much as possible in as many ways as possible.

I'll make this a fun-serious-fun sandwich so bear with with me here!

Lesson #1 - Networking
This morning I got to meet up with a new local networking group that my friend and neighbor Holly had invited me to. She is a partner with J. Hilburn Austin (Men's Custom Clothier) and had mentioned the group several times and for one reason or another I'd not gone until today. In any case, meeting a bunch of professionals from a variety of areas was great and the purpose was in fact fulfilled. I got to speak with several people who were kind enough to either look into collaborating with me or help me get going with this business. I had actually already benefited from a direct referral Holly gave me to a small business consultant she knew through this group, a gentleman named Orlando. He (a part of the Small Business Development Center) and I have already started brainstorming and working on some research. In any case I met some new folks and possible collaborators ranging from the business side of things to potential musical gigs. 

Just getting out and observing other business people is a great learning experience and I'd absolutely recommend it to anyone at any stage of planning or running a business or franchise. 

After attending the networking event I headed off to a local mall for what turned out to be an unexpected learning experience. 

And now for some less fun more serious talk...

Searching the other day for photo gigs I'd come across a posting for a website that was looking for photographers to take photos of hotels for their site with the purpose of showing the reality of the facility and amenities to compare with promotional photos that may or may not be photoshopped or taken in very controlled atypical conditions. It sounded like fun so I put my hat in the ring. They asked that as a test, we photograph this local mall and post the raw images for their consideration to see if my style and vision match up with what they're looking for. That brings me to lesson number two.

Lesson #2 - Permissions and Considerations
Check with property owners or the management before taking photos. I'm always a little wary of infringing on anyone's turf but at first thought that since it was a public mall, taking unobtrusive photos wouldn't be an issue. As a security guard said, and later the manager I went and sought out confirmed, they don't allow photos on their premises. The main reason given was security of the facility and they don't want detailed imagery that could be used for nefarious purposes of various types. On one hand, you might think this silly. Just about everyone has a camera on their phone at least and often they also can record video. Certainly teenagers and young adults alike must have all sorts of footage of the place. Beyond that, if someone was scoping it out, there are surely more discreet and detailed ways to achieve it, not using a very obvious digital SLR. With that said, a pro camera can provide much more detail with a lot more capability so perhaps it would more of a threat. The thing is that as photographers, we do have a certain responsibility to be mindful of policies and seek them out if we're not aware or even sure about them. 

I had no ill intent whatsoever but even so it is essential to be mindful of what we're photographing, what audience they may have is, and how they might be used (or misused). It's a very difficult dialog to have because there are so many ways to interpret and use photos. Should tourists not be able to take pictures of landmarks or shopping venues because there are a few bad guys who might happen to see the photos and use them to study a target for burglary or worse? Where does the line get drawn? Generally speaking if you're on public property, photos can be taken of whatever and if it's visible from public property or your own private property, it's fine. With that said, there are some places that even would like to prevent that around their location. The fact is that even if it is seemingly ineffective policy, it is our responsibility to try our best to comply with it, especially if it's meant to help keep us safe which is something we all want.

Upon getting approached by the security guard and told nicely that photography was not allowed in the mall, I went to their office and asked what it would take to get permission to photograph. The permissions were not immediately available there and I was referred to the corporate contact. I'm going to check and see if I might be able to provide promotional photos for them and even left my business card. I think the moral of this story is that in cases like this, it is best to seek permissions first and just be mindful of the purpose, use, and audience.

Speaking of storms of different sorts, here are some shots of the burst of weather we got a few days ago that included much needed rain! The downside is that we may have had a mini tornado or at least some pretty decent straight line gusts that knocked some fences and roof shingles out. I was looking out the window and at one point saw some items flying high in the sky. I thought maybe it was just cardboard at first but after hearing and seeing the fence damage I'm wondering if what is pictures is a section of fence about 50 feet up... Thankfully no one was hurt that I know of and the rain was definitely needed!

Notice the multiple specs of far-off debris in the air in addition to the larger chunk of what might be fence...

So that was kind of heavy... and now for something completely different..

Photo competitions! I'm going to try and find a few to enter and see what happens. Some have pretty steep entry fees but others are totally open (save registration). It would be nice to get some validation that way although the kind words of many of my past and current clients are really all that matters. That reminds me, if you are one of my clients, please feel free to write me with your thoughts about my services, I'd very much appreciate it!

Friday, May 13, 2011

A moment of clarity,

I just had a moment of clarity with regards to my perspective on photographing people and I think it makes a great tagline...

You are real. You are beautiful.

I believe there is beauty in everyone and I like to capture those moments when real people, being real, show that intrinsic beauty. It may or may not show 24/7 because goodness knows we have ups and downs and sometimes visually things don't come together for a lens. Still, that beauty is there and it's my job to catch those moments so you can see what others see that you often can't.

Of course that tag doesn't just apply to people. I was outside and made it to a nearby water retention pond that doesn't have any developed trail or park around it and found a ton of naturally occurring wildflowers, grasses, and some small fauna in the form of bees and butterflies. It's amazing what you can find if you just look around!

I'll have more in store for you soon so stay tuned!

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Medical Concentration

This past week was pretty amazing even though I found myself in a medical facility 3 times over it's course. The good news is that only one of those occurrences was actually an emergency health-related issue but even that one occurrence turned out to have a happy ending and some good came of it.

It started off with an opportunity to join a neighbor of mine in taking some photographs of a local spine specialist. We were having a small neighborhood get-together, started talking and things just fell into place. He was doing some video work for their promotions and website and needed some updated stills, I was free. Perfect!

Medical portraiture was something I didn't have in my portfolio even though I'm pretty familiar with the setting thanks to my own little tussle with cancer. We wound up heading to the facility Wednesday and everything went really well. Being able to photograph some mock consults, procedures, and portraits was a lot of fun especially given that our handler was having a blast walking around in a hospital gown as our model patient. We covered the entry way, consult rooms, the physical therapy area, a procedure room and waiting areas, all of which were very nice.  Of course there are challenges as well in making sure we didn't get actual patients or patient information in a shot to preserve their privacy but overall it was just a great experience with some results everyone is very happy with.

Later that afternoon when back at home I got a call from my wife that a family member had been rushed to the hospital and so I hurried to meet her there. It had sounded very dire at first but thankfully turned out to be less critical than initially thought. As we rotated ourselves and some other family members in to visit, I  found myself witnessing an amazing sunset and cloud patterns as well as a very cute new nephew.  Naturally I had my camera with me and photos ensued. At one point I was sent to grab some food for my lovely lady and unfortunately it was also right at the golden hour so a 20-30 minute round trip turned into more of a 30-60 minute endeavor. I'm a sucker for sunsets...

And that was just one day this week.

The next day I got to play both chauffeur and paparazzi to my good friend Roger who was going in for some physical therapy. He was looking for some photos of his experience and I was of course happy to oblige. As he went from task to task I tried to capture the both an overall frame and the focus of the exercise. It struck me how so much of our indoor lighting is actually so much more dim than we think it is. This speaks to the incredible optics we have in our eyes and figuring out how to pull that same sort of clear data with a photographic equipment takes a little work! Of course Roger was working harder than me as his personal torturer therapist gave him task after task to complete. It was cool that part of it involved the Nintendo Wii Fit Balance Board and concluded with some good old fashioned electro-shock therapy! It is worth noting that the electro-shock was in no way related to the Wii...

So there you have it, 3 medical events all with their own unique photographic opportunities. Of course that's not all that happened this past week but I'm saving that for my next blog post which will be coming shortly!