Monday, December 22, 2008

Photographic Eye

I've long thought that many people put too much emphasis on the concept of a "photographic eye" or someone's inherent "gifts" with regards to the potential one has as an artist. In my experiences, hard work has always been a greater determinant of success than "raw talent," and now Malcolm Gladwell has written a book that strongly supports my views.

Outliers is a book about how extraordinarily successful people achieve their success. Gladwell's general hypothesis is that while a degree of natural talent is certainly necessary for success in any given field, once a critical ability threshold is reached external factors become crucial in determining the ultimate outcome of one's efforts. One of the most important factors he discusses is the "10,000 hour rule."

In a study at Berlin's elite Academy of Music, the faculty grouped students into three groups:
A) Potentially world-class talent
B) Merely good
C) Less talented: unlikely to have professional success

They polled these students on their practice habits, and discovered something fascinating: while the "group A" students had accelerated their practice throughout their lives, the B's and C's had not. This sounds obvious, but they could not document a single case of a student who'd achieved "group A" status with less than 10,000 hours of estimated practice time. Further, they could likewise not find a single group C student who had failed to achieve brilliance despite practicing anywhere CLOSE to 10,000 hours. There weren't any students so gifted that they didn't have to practice as hard to achieve that level of ability, and there weren't any grinders who put in the time but just didn't have what it took.

Gladwell produces a number of additional case-studies demonstrating that people such as Mozart or Bill Gates, who most would consider prodigies, only had their great successes after about 10,000 hours of practice at their craft.

The author also uses some interesting data to show that so long as a person has a "threshold IQ," he or she is just as likely to win a Nobel Prize as a super-genius. Once a person is smart enough, many other psychological and situational factors become far more crucial to that level of success.

My point is that a "photographic eye" requires only a threshold level of talent. I believe there are very few people who honestly lack any knack for taking pictures. The biggest difference is the amount of time one is willing to put in: are you willing and able to make the sacrifice of 10,000 hours in pursuit of excellence?

For what its worth, my wife estimates that I spend about 12-16 hours per day seven days every week taking photos, editing photos, planning for future shoots, or studying photography. I'm not at 10,000 hours yet, perhaps, but I'm counting down!

Not Every Bride Wears White....

Ashton's dress definitely qualifies as my most unique wedding attire so far this year....

Here are a few teasers from San Antonio this week! (yes, that's Elvis performing the ceremony)

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Mother of the Bride

My Richard Avedon-inspired portrait sessions have really started to spill into my wedding coverage. This is a shot that I really love, which would never have happened before I started doing that style of portrait session, where the interview process and verbal exchange is crucial to the success of the shot.

I'd reached a point where I felt comfortable that I had enough "bride getting hair done" shots, so I left my second to cover in case anything happened, and asked the mother of the bride to step outside with me for a moment. It was a nice partly-overcast day, but a bit brisk. Knowing I didn't have long, I chatted with Mom for a moment and then asked her:

"If you could have one wish for your daughter's marriage, what would it be."

She responded: "Only for her to be as happy as I've been."

This picture was taken just after her response, and just before the tears came. This image is not a "rockstar" shot with an amazing composition or elaborate lighting. This image matters to me, because I can see in this woman's eyes just how much she loves her daughter.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

The Art of Printmaking

I'll open this entry with one of my very favorite recent images. In this shot, the son of the groom was a little bit apprehensive about his father's marriage and how it would impact his relationship with his dad. The groom's step-father noticed the young man off to one side, and went to comfort him. Capturing moments like this is a truly humbling experience for me as a photographer, and I feel a tremendous responsibility to respect the fundamental dignity and beauty of my clients and their families as they deal with the emotions of the day, both joyous and poignant.

As a photographer who works in both the film and digital mediums, I'm perpetually fascinated in the ways that the rise of the digital camera has changed the way we make and enjoy images. Many of the changes are positive: digital cameras have democratized the art form by making it easier for more people to experience the joys of photography. Digital manipulation has offered new avenues for artistic expression, and entirely new mixed mediums have evolved.

One area that I believe has suffered, however, is an appreciation for great printmaking. Shooting photographs on film is inherently a print-based medium: even if one is only viewing contact sheets, there is a process of physical creation for almost every frame. Most people would at-least order a set of 4x6 prints from every roll they sent off to the lab. Prior to the internet, photographers were primarily judged on the quality of the prints hanging on their studio walls, or those in their portfolio books. Brilliant artists like George Tice became known specifically for their expertise in the darkroom and the amazing quality of their prints.

I haven't seen any studies, but I will guess based on my own experience that most digital photographers and/or their clients probably print only a small fraction of what they shoot. When images are printed, they are typically done from merely adequate home printers or only-slightly-better automated devices at local "labs." Further, when images are printed from digital, there is often the assumption that what looks good on one's screen will look equally good in print.

There is an art to taking a great image and turning it into an amazing print, whether its film or digital. Even if one works on a calibrated monitor, it takes a comprehensive understanding of how a printer renders information to predict the subtleties of how that information will be translated into a physical rendering of the image. Whether shooting film or digital, it often requires test-runs to completely perfect a print to its fullest interperetation of the original image. Black & white images in particular put huge demands on the printer, as the subtle and sensitive rendering of tonality can make-or-break a piece of art.

If you'd like to see for yourself, compare the majesty of a Yousuf Karsh silver gelatin print in a museum to its more mundane doppelganger in a book of Karsh's images.

I'm now offering my clients three print options. Clients can:

1. Print the image themself from the digital files

2. Order a very nice, carefully prepared print from me that will be executed on the best equipment available at a reasonable price.

3. For those clients who want a piece of fine art for their walls, I offer signature prints that I produce in conjunction with a handful of master printers around the country. Whether film or digital, no expense is spared in the production of the fullest possible interperetation of the image. These are the only prints that will bear my signature.

I'm very, very excited about these signature prints, and I welcome clients and potential clients to meet with me and examine my samples in person to witness the difference for themselves.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Leibovitz and 35MM

I've been avoiding Annie Leibovitz.

Its not like she lives in my neighborhood and I duck down an aisle when I see her at the grocery store, but I've been avoiding her all the same. She's become so dominant in the pantheon of modern photographers that liking Annie is almost akin to saying your favorite painter is Leonardo Da Vinci, or your favorite band is the Beatles: not nearly obscure enough to sound like you know what you're talking about.

While travelling in Portland over the holiday, I picked up a copy of A Photographer's Life at Powell's and delved into it. Obviously, there's a reason Ms. Leibovitz is such a dominant force in modern photography, so I won't go into a long discussion extolling her virtues. However, there are a few interesting points to make:

1. Amanda and I feel the book was poorly laid-out with regards to gutter-placement. There are a number of images in which the subject is buried in the gutter in a way that negatively impacts the enjoyment of the image. Its not enough to spoil an otherwise great book, but there are a few images that definitely could be better showcased.

2. The book is quite interesting in that is includes both her personal and assignment photography. Ms. Leibovitz mentions that her partner Susan Sontag had chided her to take more pictures outside of her professional obligations, and Amanda felt that this was solid advice to be passed along to me. I seldom shoot "just for fun" anymore, so while we were in a Camera shop I picked up a used Canon EOS 1n to be my 35mm "fun" camera. My new goal is to shoot at least a few frames every day, even if I don't get it developed immediately. 35mm is a much cheaper and more convenient way to accomplish this mission than either my 6x4.5 or 6x7 rigs.

I'll close by posting a shot I really enjoy from a recent shoot I did for AWAA:

Monday, November 24, 2008

Gimmie Some Gimmicks

The following post contains some technical references to photography equipment and techniques. Wherever possible links, definitions, or explanations have been provided.

If you browse through what's in vogue right now among mid-to-high-end wedding photographers, you'll see the following gear and techniques extremely well represented:

*Off-Camera Flash (either "strobist" or true studio-style lighting, often used to create extreme or surreal effects)

*Extremely large aperture lenses (used to generate extremely thin depth-of-field)

*Tilt-Shift Lenses (primarily used in weddings to create unusual focus shifts)

*Elaborate Photoshop Effects (IE: textures, simulated cross-processing, HDR or effects giving that appearance)

What do all of these popular stylistic tools have in common? They are all out of reach of most photo enthusiasts! Either by virtue of technical difficulty, expense, or both, the average person with a digital Rebel or D40 is unable to produce images with the looks achieved by tools like those listed above.

Back in the good ol' days of manual cameras the size and weight of cinder-blocks, it practically took a graduate degree in photography (not to mention some rockin' biceps) simply to manage a properly exposed and focused image. A wedding photographer could justify his existance simply by owning and competantly operating a Hasselblad, without being expected to produce anything terribly compelling.

In the modern digital era of autofocus, mostly-reliable auto-exposure, and instant feedback, anyone with a few hundred dollars can travel to their local Bestbuy and purchase the ability to achieve a technically adequate record of an event. This scares the heck out of wedding photographers, and has put many of them out of business. Those that have survived, or started their businesses in the modern climate, realize that one of their first requisites for a successful business is to produce images that the average consumer can easily differentiate from those shot by Aunt Margaret or Uncle Bob. Hence the ascendancy of techniques that create a very pronounced stylization of images in ways not open to the average hobbiest.

Now, many of the photographers reading this post have probably bristled by now: "are you calling my 85mm f1.2:L, 45mm TS-E, White Lightning 3200, or Totally Rad Actions pack a gimmick???"

Yes and no.

I use or have used any of the above tools when the situation and/or image calls for it. There's nothing wrong (and a lot right) with any of this gear or these techniques. However, if you study the work of brilliant photographers like Weston, Cartier-Bresson, Capa, or Penn, you can see that none of these tools is requisite to make a compelling image.

My problem is not with the use of these tools to make an image: my problem occurs when the desire to differentiate one's photographs from the amateurs' leads to an ascendancy of style over substance. When a wedding becomes a fashion shoot, when its difficult to find two eyes simultaneously in focus in an entire album, when proud papa's tearful expression is obscured by the torn wallpaper texture... then the time has come to question why we take these photos to begin with and who we are taking them for.

Despite all of the advancements of photographic technology, the most important functions of photography are still left to our organic computers. Timing, the ability to make a connection with a subject, an eye for composition, and the ability to find the good light are still beyond the reach of even those fancy new Nikon D3's. These qualities are crucial to truly great photography, even if they are slightly more subtle and difficult to market.

I'm not saying that I'll never overpower the sun again. I'm certainly not selling my 85L and wouldn't advise you to do so either. I'm simply suggesting that a photographer should ask the following question before using any technique:

"Am I doing this to make ME look cool, or my subject?"

Thursday, November 20, 2008

A Bumper Crop

Since time immemorial, photograph orientation has been described not by the purely objective terms vertical and horizontal, but rather by the functional terms portrait and landscape. These terms implicitly make a the value judgment that a horizontally framed image is the best manner to showcase a landscape and that people are best composed within a vertical space.

Photographers have ignored these suggestions for framing almost as long as the terms have existed, of course.

However, one type of crop I absolutely love has been considered somewhat gauche until very recently: a horizontally-composed headshot.

You'll see this sort of crop commonly in my work: sometimes I'm even more aggressive and crop across the forehead for a very tight framing that emphasizes the expression. By the "classical" standards of portraiture, this would be considered wrong. However, I'm not the only photographer that has started to embrace this look. Why is it that this is now becoming acceptable and even often (in my opinion) desirable?

Television and movies are to blame.

Scarlett Johansson in the film Lost in Translation

Movies and high-definition television programming is all filmed in a 16:9 panoramic aspect ratio. Cinematographers do not have the luxury that we still shooters have to select an aspect ratio and orientation that best suits the subject matter. Thus, whenever you see a closeup on TV or in the movies, you will typically see the person's face framed tighly in a horizontal frame, and usually if you split the frame into 1/3ds in a row from left to right, the subjects face will be one one of the two 1/3 lines. Because we as a society get so much of our cultural and artistic (perhaps using the term loosely in some cases) information from a television, we are conditioned to look for emotional content (such as one would usually look for in a movie "closeup") in this form.

Gerard Butler
in the film The 300

Its fascinating to me to see the way one artistic medium has influenced our tolerances, expectations, and receptivity to forms in another. Motion pictures have long been maligned for various deleterious effects on our society: I find it only fair to assign credit where it is due for opening the eyes of the world to a crop that had previously been out-of-favor.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

I Can Haz Studio

I'm totally jazzed to announce that we now offer full studio services to our beloved clients!!!

For some time now, I've been using a studio over in the cannery for my commercial projects on a day rental basis. Now, in an effort to make high end studio photography available to my portrait clients (especially in these cold winter months where outdoor shoots are, to quote my wife Amanda, "BRRRRRR"), I've entered into a monthly rental agreement that enables me to extend this option to all of my customers while cutting down the prohibitive rental fees.

This should be fun!


Monday, November 17, 2008

What a Beatiful Bride

Click image for larger view

Michelle, on an average day, is a delight. On her wedding day, this wonderful quality was amplified.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

A Boston Engagement

Click for larger image

Here's an engagement photo that I really love. Even though Raina & Jeff are getting married here in Nashville, they live in Boston and really wanted to incorporate their home city into their engagement session. We were fortunate that we were able to arrange to do their e-session up north, and we all wanted to imbue the images with a real sense of place.

I love this photo because its an exciting, cinematic image that's full of romance... but it also incorporates the city (not to mention the Red Sox!). Its very easy for this kind of shot to turn into a vacation-style "this is us in front of Fenway park: SMILE!" but this shot maintains its sense of place in a more subtle way that helps carry the story of Jeff & Raina. I also enjoy this shot for the composition: the way the frame is diaganolly bisected by the skyline, the way the streetlights and crosswalks form leading lines to the couple, and the way the rim-light from the headlamps really pulls the couple out of the background. I have ordered a fine-art silver gelatin fiber print of this shot to hang on my own wall.

Photographer Deathmatch: Karsh vs. Avedon

Yousuf Karsh and Richard Avedon were two of the most important and influential photographers active during the 20th century. Both photographers created images of people, both photographers worked primarily in black & white, and I consider both among my most important influences. However, both men approached their subjects in a dramatically different fashion.

Yousuf Karsh was a self-described "hero-worshipper" who is responsible for many of the seminal images of 20th century luminaries. Karsh utilized dramatic theatrical lighting and carefully considered poses to emphasize the noble and heroic aspects of his subjects, whether they be as famous as Winston Churchill or as obscure as a Ford assembly-line worker.

"I am satisfied that no purpose would be served if I were concsiously to seek to convert what would be a portrait of greatness into a moment of weakness." - Karsh

Albert Einstein
photographed by Y. Karsh in 1948
(original silver gelatin print on display
at the Frist in Nashville! Go see it!)

Karsh did not seek to unnearth his subject's vulnerabilities. Karsh sought to elevate the archetypal qualities within his subjects to the level of immortality. Karsh did not photograph his subjects as an intimate: he managed these individual's likeness to fit an idealized collective image held by the public. Karsh portraits are iconic, but perhaps slightly impersonal.

Richard Avedon, on the other hand, described his approach in the following quote:

"I've worked out a series of 'no's.' No to exquisite light, no to apparent compositions, no to the seduction of poses or narrative. And all these no's force me to the 'yes.' I have a white background. I have the person I'm interested in and what happens between us."

Avedon's portraits have been accused of being unflattering and austere. Avedon probably would've been fired from Glamour Shots. However, the best of his work conveys a sense of immediacy, intimacy, and insight that benefits from this raw approach. Consider the following portrait of Marilyn Monroe:

Marilyn Monroe
Photographed by R. Avedon in 1957

This photograph was taken at the end of a long shoot in which Marilyn "did Marilyn Monroe." At the end of the session, Avedon witnessed a letdown in which the public persona of Marilyn dissipated and the tragic Norma Jean briefly appeared. This portrait is the antithesis of the Karsh approach: Avedon took a public figure and gave us a deeply personal fleeting glance into her profoundly tortured soul.

Richard Avedon had a gift for creating an intimacy in his sessions where subjects let down their guard and allowed him to capture essential, elemental truths.

"When the sitting is over, I feel kind of embarrassed about what we've shared. Its so intense."

As a photographer of portraits, I possess the ability to elevate my subjects or to dig down to their elemental truths. In reality, almost any portrait sitting is a combination of both impulses blended in measure. The balance is tipped by the goals and personality of my subject, by my mood and mindset at that moment, and to a certain extent by chance.

One of the things I find fascinating about wedding photography is how a woman is both completely unique, and yet capable of assuming the archetypal role of bride in a timeless ritual. In an instant my subject may transform from a vulnerable and unique human being into The Bride: a beautiful and confident role-player in a classic drama. One moment I must be Karsh: elevating a bride's timeless beauty. The next moment I'm Avedon: capturing a woman's moments of profound intimacy and raw emotional content.

What do you think? Photographers: with which artist do you identify more closely? Everyone: which artist would you rather have had photograph you?

Mission Statement

I've been out of the blog business for a few years, but a few friends have convinced me that blogging is a great way to communicate with my existing and future clients.

My goal for this blog is to create a photographic discussion that is engaging and informative to photographers and lay-people alike. I intend to publish some of my own work here, but I'll also be posting some of the images that inspire me (fully attributed). I will also be posting questions on here that I hope you'll consider and perhaps reply to. For the most part, there will be no right or wrong answers.

Anyway, welcome to the new Evan Baines Photography blog!

Monday, November 10, 2008

This site is under construction! :)