Photography

I recently bought some new camera gear, and now I’m thinking of selling a couple of my old lenses. One of them is a Sigma fish-eye lens (10-20mm f4/5.6 for Nikon DX) that I use for extreme wide-angle photos. It’s a trick lens, and while some of the images are interesting, I never really used it as much as I hoped to.

The other lens, however, is the original Nikon DX super-zoom (AF-S 18-200mm f3.5/5.6 VR). It’s not a high-end pro lens, especially in low light, but it has a very versatile focal range. Under most common conditions it replaces a whole bagful of interchangeable lenses. I used it all the time.

It’s amazing how we can become attached to things. I’m not talking about the kind of attachment that leads to gaudy levels of conspicuous consumption. I mean the way we become attached to the useful objects in our lives.

Probably the most common example we are likely to share is our first car. Mine was a Plymouth Volaré, a car that so spectacularly failed to live up to expectations that its production caused the downfall of Chrysler Corporation in the 1970s and ultimately helped destroy the reputation of the entire American auto industry. It was not a fun car to drive or maintain, but it was my car. It gave me freedom and control that I had never had before. I never loved it, but I have fond memories of the places I went and the things that I did and the people who road with me. I felt bad about getting rid of that car.

I felt the same way about the first computer I ever learned to use, a VAX 11/780 at college. I eventually got the job of running it for the school, and it became my job to sell it when we upgraded to newer computers. I remember when it was waiting to ship out — 4 or 5 refrigerator-sized racks of electronics standing in the hallway — and I remember feeling like a piece of my life was going with it.

I’m feeling that way now about that 18-200 street zoom. I own a few other lenses, but I don’t use them nearly as much as I used that lens. Almost every photo I shot with my D200 was through that lens — maybe 35,000 images altogether. I carried that lens everywhere, and I used it to do cool things. It’s not a feeling I’ll ever quite experience again.

Original photography has been a part of this blog for almost ten years. If you’ve met me in real life, then probably at some point you’ve seem me carrying around my camera bag. I thought some of my readers — especially other amateur photographers interested in the kind of photos I take — might find it interesting to see what I’ve been carrying around all that time.

The bag itself is a Tamrac Velocity 8 sling bag. I like it because I can throw it over my shoulder for easy carrying, but when I need to get something out of it, I can swing it around to the front and it hangs with the top up for easy access. I tried a few other solutions, but this was the one that has worked best for me, and I’ve been happy with it for years. It’s out of production now, but Tamrac appears to have replaced it with an updated model.

The bag has side mounting straps for accessories, and you can see a small filter bag mounted on the right. I also sometimes bring a spare lens bag, shown separately on the left here.

Inside the main bag, the one indispensable part of my day kit sits right on top:

That’s a Nikon D200 DSLR. It has a DX-size imaging sensor, which is about the size of a small postage stamp. It’s about 1/3 smaller than the FX-sized sensor, which is the size of a traditional frame of 35-mm film, but it’s several times larger than the sensor in the compact point-and-shoot camera I upgraded from, and much larger than the sensor in my iPhone. The sensor is 10 megapixels, which isn’t much by today’s standards — compact cameras have 12 to 20 MP, and the new iPhones are 8MP — but it was pretty good at the time, and the larger pixels allow each photosite to collect more light, which makes the sensor more sensitive than a compact camera and better able to take photos in low light. Also, for the kinds of shooting I do, 10 MP is more than enough.

The D200 was what’s sometimes called a “prosumer” camera — filling the gap between the entry-level DSLR cameras and the high-end professional gear. Generally speaking, the more professional cameras don’t produce better pictures, but they allow photographers to get good pictures in a broader range of conditions. Among other things, they operate more quickly allowing photographers to time photos better, and since everything that moves under electric power involves magnets, faster cameras have bigger magnets, mostly in motors, meaning professional cameras are heavier. They’re also more durable, with weather sealing and hard metal cases, adding to the weight. The D200 was not Nikon’s largest camera, but it’s pretty hefty.

You might think all those buttons would be intimidating, but they’re just another way to speed up photography. Most of them don’t do anything you can’t do with all but the cheapest cameras, but when I want to change a setting, I just push a button and turn a dial instead of hunting through several layers of menus. Not that the D200 doesn’t have a lot of menus for customization. If a photographer knows he’s going to be shooting one kind of photo for a while, he can set the camera up to make it easier and faster.

Although DSLR cameras allow you to swap lenses, I took almost all of my photos with the lens you see here, Nikon’s AF-S 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6 G ED VR lens. It’s not a high-quality pro lens, but it sure has a versatile focal length — it’s a “street zoom,” intended for unplanned photography where you might take wide shots and telephoto shots one after another, and it would be inconvenient to change lenses. It does occasionally creep the focal length in and out from the weight of the elements when I tilt it far off the horizontal. Nevertheless, I’ve really put it to work, and if you want a great all-in-one lens for DX format, I highly recommend it. I’ve heard that the modern version is just as good, and it fixes the lens creep problem.

This photo also shows my Op/Tech Pro neck strap and a separate Tamrac hand strap. I’m paranoid about fumbling the camera. It’s tough, but a 4- or 5-foot drop onto concrete would probably break it.

All those big motors and fancy electronics use a lot of power, so I keep several recently charged Nikon EN-EL3 batteries in the bag. I see one of these is actually a knock-off battery from the late great ill-fated Calumet Photographic. They were located in Chicago, and I live a few miles from their Cherry Avenue store.

I also carry a pack of memory cards, in addition to the one that’s always in the camera. At the time, professional photographers overwhelmingly used the Compact Flash format cards, which are rather large. I didn’t think to put something in there for scale, but to give you an idea, the folded-up case is just a little smaller than an iPhone 4.

These cards are made by Lexar, which at the time was considered one of the few brands reliable enough for professional photographers. Note that each card was a whopping 2 Gigabytes. Shooting high quality JPEGs, I could put about 425 images on each one, and I have on occasion filled all of them (burning through several batteries in the process). Cards that small are dirt cheap these days, but you don’t want to know how much I paid back then.

Next to the camera and lens, the most important item in my kit is the external flash, a Nikon SB-800 speedlight. I almost never use the camera’s built-in flash. It’s comparatively weak, and since it’s located so close to the lens it tends to flatten images and when shooting people it exacerbates red eye. Having the flash head a little higher seems to help. The head also tilts and swivels, allowing me to bounce light off parts of the room to light the subject broadly from an angle that makes the 3D shape stand out more in a 2D image.

Like all of Nikon’s modern flash units, the SB-800 participates in the Creative Lighting System, which means that the units can be controlled remotely by other flash units, including the built-in flash on Nikon cameras. When configured correctly, they participate in Through-The-Lens metering and can be programmed to provide different levels of exposure in the image. I have a few more of these speedlights that I can bring along in a separate bag if I need to.

The flash is pictured here with its built-in bounce card extended. The bounce card is handy when I’m photographing a person and I’m bouncing the light off the ceiling. It catches some of the light right at the flash head and throws it directly at the subject, giving their eyes a bit of a sparkle.

Also in the picture is the diffusion dome, which can be used to scatter light around the room, so the subject picks up natural looking light from all directions.

The flash uses a lot of power, so I always carry emergency batteries that will allow me to keep shooting if I use up the batteries inside. Although these are Alkaline batteries, I normally operate the flash on rechargeable batteries to keep costs down. I use Alkaline batteries as spares, however, because the rechargeable battery chemistry of the day did not allow for batteries that could keep their charge for months of sitting in a camera bag.

The bulge on the left is an attachment to hold a fifth battery, which makes the speedlight capacitor charge faster between flashes, at the expense of bulk and weight. I can’t help noticing, however, that the number of batteries I’ve been carry around lately is not a multiple of 5.

I also carry a stand for the flash in case I want to set it up somewhere and trigger it remotely from the camera. I almost never do that with this unit, although I do sometime use additional standing flash units to add more light.

I also carry a folding miniature LumiQuest soft box to soften the harsh shadows caused by direct flash. It greatly reduces the distance at which the flash is effective, so I only use it in special cases.

I carry around this cable so I can take the flash off the hot shoe on the camera. I mostly use it with the flash bracket (coming next), but I can also use it to hand-hold the flash further away from the camera.

Here are the parts of the flash bracket assembly, consisting of the round flash bracket itself, the orbiting tilt mount used to hold the flash, and the nodal slide rail used to mount the bracket to the camera. Disassembled like this, the bracket ring fits in the side pocket of the bag, and the other two parts fit into one of the internal compartments.

That photo shows the L-bracket I keep permanently attached to the bottom of my camera. I can use it to quickly mount the camera in my tripod, but most of the time it serves as a place to attach the flash bracket, as seen in the next shot.

Here’s the complete flash bracket attached to the camera and ready for shooting. At the very least, it raises the flash up a bit more, which reduces red eye and throws the subject’s shadow further down behind them, where it’s less visible. But it also allows me to rotate the camera to portrait orientation while still keeping the flash above the camera:

This bracket is especially helpful when I want to bounce the flash off the ceiling, because it allows me to quickly rotate the camera between landscape and portrait orientation while keeping the flash head aimed in the right direction.

As I said, I rarely switch lenses, but I do sometimes clip on my extra lens bag to carry this trick lens that allows me to take super-wide-angle pictures. Because of that, I wasn’t too concerned with the quality of the image — it’s necessarily distorted by the nature of fisheye lenses — so I saved myself a bunch of money and bought this Sigma 10-20 mm D f/4-5.6 instead of a more expensive Nikon lens. It’s worked out just fine.

If I’m bringing the extra lens bag (the weight hanging off the side throws off the balance of the bag more than you’d think, or I’d carry it all the time) I usually also throw in one of my two cheap fast prime lenses. These only have a single focal length — they don’t zoom — but they have a larger aperture so the can work in much less light without a flash. Usually I take the 35mm f/2 D, which has a very natural look with a DX sensor, but the 50mm f/1.4 D is also nice.

I bought these lenses new, but they’re based on a design that is almost 25 years old, so they might not produce quite the high-quality images a modern lens does. They are both, however, awesome for the price. The pro-glass Nikon 35mm f/1.4 G prime is $1600, which is more than twice what I paid to get both of these lenses.

Inside the external filter pack I have three filters. I don’t carry color adjustment or special effects filters, because in most cases I could do the same thing in Photoshop or Lightroom. I carry filters for things that can’t be done in post.

On the left is a polarizing filter. Light reflecting off of shiny surfaces is polarized, so by rotating this filter to match the polarization of the reflected light, I can reduce glare. That’s nice when shooting water or shiny metal objects, but even things you wouldn’t think of as shiny, such as leaves and flowers, often have a subtle amount of glare. Since glare generally doesn’t pick up the color of the surface it reflects from, it tends to wash out colors in images. A polarizing filter puts it back, at the cost of absorbing some of the light, requiring more exposure. Polarization is not recorded by a camera sensor, so I’d have no way to remove it in post. It has to be done at the time the image is captured.

The standing filter is a neutral graduated filter, shading into darkness on the top end. I got it when I was shooting landscapes so I could keep the sky from washing out. It’s turned out to be a little weak, and if I do more of that kind of shooting, I’ll probably want to get one that darkens the upper half more. I could darken the sky in Photoshop, but if the sky is completely washed out, there’s no color information for Photoshop to recover, so I have to use a filter to keep the sky color.

The bottom filter is a neutral density filter, which simply reduces the amount of light getting in the lens for any given aperture. I got it because…well, to be honest, I don’t remember. I must have had an application. There must have been something I wanted to shoot in bright daylight with the aperture wide open for dramatic effect, and I wanted the exposure to be long enough to get some motion blur. Since this is all about camera operation, Photoshop can’t help, so I’d need this filter.

My main 18-200 lens has a 72mm filter ring, but I have an adapter so I can use 77mm filters, which is a standard size. You can see the adapter attached to the polarizing filter.

I also keep this mini-tripod in the case. It’s come in hand a few times when I wanted to take a steady shot (or a selfie) and didn’t have my main tripod.

This was an infrared remote that I got for use with the tripod, so I could easily include myself in group pictures or avoid touching the camera to trigger the shutter. Unfortunately it doesn’t seem to work from more than a few feet from the camera, even indoors. It’s basically useless, and I shouldn’t have been carrying it around so long.

This is a dual-use item from PhotoVision that I use for shooting in natural light. On one side, it’s an exposure and white balance calibration target I can put into a scene when I want an accurate read of the light temperature. (Although I have my doubts that that’s really 18% grey in the center like it’s supposed to be.) On the other side, it’s a reflective panel that I can use to fill in shadows on sunlit scenes. I haven’t used it much lately.

This is for cleaning the DSLR sensor in the field. Just squeeze to get a gentle stream of air. It seemed like a good idea, but I never use it. For one thing, since my main lens is so versatile, I hardly ever swap lenses, so there’s little chance for dust to get in. Also, I rarely review images on a computer in the field, and the monitor on the back of the camera is too small for dust specs to show up unless I zoom in to look for them, so I don’t ever notice dust on the sensor until I get it back home. And at that point I can use a proper cleaning kit on the sensor.

The Compact Flash memory card format is so old that nothing else supports it. I use an adapter at home, but if I want to get images off the camera in the field, I have to use a USB cable connecting the camera to a PC.

That’s about it. About 90% of all the photos I’ve taken with this camera required nothing more than the gear in this bag.

If any of you have suggestions, or want to tell me about photographic gear you find useful enough to keep with you all the time, I’d love to hear about it.

As I’ve mentioned, I’m in the process of porting Windypundit to the WordPress blogging engine, and I’m going to need a new site design since this template is specific to Movable Type. I’m using this opportunity to do a redesign. I’ve chosen a new photo for the header, and I’m using it to select colors for the rest of the page.

And since I’m changing all this stuff anyway, I decided it’s time for some new author photos. I liked the dark, high-contrast look when I created it, but I’m tired of using it now. 

I want a photo that is more friendly, or least less brooding. And I have this vague idea of maybe using several different photos for different sections.

The thing is, I really didn’t want to have to take pictues of myself. It’s a pain in the ass. I have to setup the camera on a tripod with a remote control cable, then walk out in front, take the picture, walk back to look at it, discover I wasn’t standing in the right location, walk back out…over and over until I get something I like. Or until I get tired and declare what I’ve got good enough.

It would be a lot easier if I got someone else to take the pictures. Ideally, someone with real studio lighting instead of a bunch of speedlights, and nice white studio backdrop so I could get full-body isolated cutouts.

I ended up going with Jim Jurica, Editor in Chief of BeautyLook Magazine and an accomplished stock photographer with over 150,000 sales through iStockphoto. I picked Jim because I knew that with his background, he had the technical skills and equipment to produce a nice image, the experience to understand what kind of photo art I’d need for a blog, and most importantly, the ability to direct inexperienced people standing in front of a camera.

Normally, Jim takes pictures of beautiful young women, such as the lovely Jax, pictured above on the cover of the first edition of BeautyLook. However, he does occasionally take pictures of male models and, more importantly, is used to working with completely inexperienced models.

Like me.

2012-08-21-Sunglasses-Smirk.jpg

It was fun. And I think I have a few pictures I can use.

 

Photographers like to tell amateurs that “your camera doesn’t matter.” What they mean by this is that if you want to take nice pictures, you probably shouldn’t get too hung up on the technical differences between cameras. For a broad range of photographic subjects and conditions, the pictures you take with a $5000 digital camera aren’t that much better than those you’d take with a $500 camera, which aren’t much better than what you’d get with a $125 camera.

That’s not to say there aren’t any actual differences in digital image quality, but unless you know how to look for them, they only make a difference in extreme photographic situations. For an amateur like me, the biggest photographic limitation is not the quality of the camera but my own skill and experience.

Still, every once in a while one of those extreme situations comes along. A couple of days ago I went out with a bunch of my coworkers on what we’re calling a “team-building exercise.” It looked something like this:

I decided to see how good a picture I could get of one of the clay pigeons being hit by the pellets from the shotgun, and when I got home and loaded everything into Lightroom, I found this:

I think that’s a pretty good picture. It could be better, but it does a nice enough job of capturing the violence of the shotgun blast blowing apart the clay pigeon.

Probably the trickiest part of getting a shot like this is the timing. If you’re shooting a basketball game, you can see the ball heading for the hoop, and with a little practice you can time your shots to catch the ball as it hits the net. But in this case, I had no control over when the shooter pulled the trigger, and once he or she did, the shot reached the clay in less than a tenth of a second, far too quick for me to react.

The only way I could get a well-timed shot is to put the camera in automatic mode and fire off a burst of photos as the clay neared the top of its arc (which is where people tend to shoot it) in hope of getting lucky and catching it at the right moment. Since my D200 camera body can take 5 shots per second, I figured I had a fair chance of one of the images catching something good.

The clays are about the diameter of a DVD disk, and this one was about 80 feet away from me when it got hit. This is a close-up crop with only about a 2-to-1 sensor-to-image pixel ratio at this size. If my camera had less resolution, the image wouldn’t be this clear.

In order to freeze the action this way, I needed an exposure of about a thousandth of a second. That comes with a trade-off in tolarance for distance errors in focus. At a slower shutter speed, my focus wouldn’t have to be as accurate. That’s a problem because the clay was such a small target against the background that the autofocus couldn’t find it quickly. Fortunately, my camera can autofocus in a locking mode, so I can press a button to set the autofocus on the grass where all the clay debris is landing. Then I just follow the clay up from the thrower and hold the shutter button to take a bunch of pictures at that distance.

If I’d had a lesser camera, such as a compact pocket camera, I still might have been able to get that image, but it would have been grainier, I would have had a much harder time setting up manual focus, and it would have taken the photos a lot slower, meaning it might miss getting one like this. On the other hand if I had a better camera, such as the new Nikon D4 body (I want) with the latest 70-200 f/2.8 VR lens (I want, I want, I want) it could have taken that photo at a higher resolution, with less grain, at twice the frame rate. And I think the D4 autofocus is fast and accurate enough to follow the clays up into the sky as they leave the thrower, so I wouldn’t have had to fiddle with the manual focus.

On the other hand, reading back over this post, I realized I have inadvertently concealed one pro-tip which I used to make that picture, and which you can use to get better pictures too, regardless of which camera you use: Take a ton of photos. I have about 120 boring images of clay targets in the sky, and maybe 20 slightly less boringimages of tiny little bits of debris scattered all over the frame. The photo above is the only image that gives a real sense of the moment of impact.

Over at Gizmodo, Jack Loftus (if that is his real name) is getting all alarmed about people taking pictures in downtown Boston:

It’s totally legal and entirely creepy. A gaggle of gentlemen, armed with cameras and an absence of shame, have taken residence in Boston’s Downtown Crossing snapping what they claim are artful “street photography” pictures of everyday people.

Right off, I love the way he puts scare quotes around “street photography” to suggest it’s somehow not legitimate, when in fact it’s one of photography’s most dynamic and original forms. After all, you can paint a landscape or do a charcoal sketch portrait, but you need a camera to capture something as dynamic as a city street scene.

Robert Frank’s book The Americans is arguably the single most influencial work of American photography, and it’s all street photography. Other influencial street photographers include Eugène Atget, Robert Doisneau, Walker Evans, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander, and Garry Winogrand.

Oh, and upskirts.

Only in his imagination.

Again, it’s totally legal, but apparently the difference between what’s legal and what’s pervy is about as gray an area as you’re going to find in the public photography world. In a WBZ News tipster’s video, for example, one of these totally normal gents bends over behind a group of young women and snaps a picture of what the reporter describes as areas of bare skin. So, just some good clean wholesome photography fun going on in my state capital, is what it is.

Actually, as you can see in the video here, a couple of the photographers do bend over to take pictures, and the reporter speculates that it’s to take pictures of their bare legs, but to me it just looks like a photographer trying to get a low-angle shot of something. It’s basic photogrphy. If you are taking pictures of subjects that are low to the ground (such as children or pets), you will get much better pictures by getting your camera down to their level.

In fact, even if you’re taking pictures of an adult-sized subject, you’ll get a subtly better picture if you lower the camera to avoid the slight distortion that comes from having someone’s head slightly closer to the camera than the rest of their body. Alternatively, if you want a photo to look just a little unusual, you need to use an unusual angle.

(Not actually a street photograph.)

Hypocritically, many of the men…did not appreciate having their pictures taken, nor WBZ video being made of them, and asked repeatedly for the cameras to be turned off. Which doesn’t make them look creepier or ashamed in the least.

I gotta admit, that does seem a little goofy. If you’re going to take people’s pictures, you really ought to tolerate other people taking pictures of you. After all, part of the fun of street photography is catching other street photographers. It’s like when a sniper shoots another sniper.

On the other hand, if you watch the video, one of the photographers points out that the reporter has been repeatedly asking them if they are taking pictures of women and children. There’s a clear implication that this is something creepy rather than an art form that is as old as portable cameras. Perhaps the request to turn off the camera came after a rude accusation.

I’ve done a little street photography, and that part gets tricky sometimes. I’ve been careful not to take pictures near playgrounds or swimming pools, and I don’t talk to anybody’s children. Still, several people have accused me of “taking pictures of children.” I find that a frustrating accusation: I’m taking pictures in a public place, and there are children around. Of course I’m going to get a few of them in my photos. It doesn’t make me a perv.

But that’s a long way from what they’re worried about. I’ve only been questioned by a cop once, and I had no real trouble explaining myself. I could have fallen back on my right to remain silent, I could have pointed out that taking pictures is not a crime, and I could have refused to let him see my photos without a court order. Instead, I just let him look at that photos while I explained that I like to take a few pictures while I’m walking for exercise. He was a decent guy. It ended well.

He had stopped me because one of the parents in the park had complained that I was taking pictures around children. Prudence kept me from saying anything, but I wanted to point out that I’d lived near that park for fifteen years, and before that I’d gone to high school just a quarter mile away, and before that my mother used to take me to the public swimming pool. All in all, I’d been coming to this park for 30 years. If those parents didn’t want me around their children, they should get the hell out of my park.

Anyway, the news story is really pretty bad journalism. If you pay attention, you’ll realize that the story is almost entirely about what other people suspect these photographers are doing, along with some commentary from the on-air personalities that it’s all so strange. There’s very little attempt to figure out what’s really going on. And it’s kind of ironic that the frickin’ news media would get upset about people taking pictures in a public place.

I don’t want to sound like an anti-TV-news snob, but I’d like to think that a newspaper reporter would not have done a story like this. Not because newspaper reporters are smarter or better, but because a newspaper reporter would have brought a photographer, who would have recognized street photography. After all, photojournalists and street photographers use almost exactly the same techniques, and many street photographers were also photojournalists. I’m thinking here of guys like Weegee or the entire Magnum photo agency.

And listen, I’m all for street photography and the art of that practice. The Sartorialist, one of my favorite photo/fashion sites, has made a name and a business out of it. But, if you’ve ever seen the behind the scenes of how that site works, he’ll always ask permission and identify himself to subjects, whether he’s already snapped the pic or it’s a staged one.

Well, that’s how he works, but that’s not how all street photographers work. If you ask people for permission to take their picture, many people will pose for you, and that’s not going to be the candid photo that so many street photographers want.

Also, when you’re doing this kind of photography, you end up taking a lot of pictures just for the heck of it. The scene is changing so fast that if you stop to think “Is this a picture I should take?” the opportunity will be gone. To get good street photographs you pretty much have to take the picture the moment you even suspect there might be something worth photographing.

Broadly speaking, there are two basic approaches to getting candid pictures of people in public. One approach is to be as quiet and unobtrusive as possible and use a small camera to sneak pictures when they don’t notice. Garry Winogrand used a relatively compact Leica film camera to take something like a half-million pictures this way. Modern stealthy street photographers just use small digital cameras.

The unobtrusive approach doesn’t work for me. I’m a big guy, so sneakiness is not a possibility. My approach has always been to just blatantly walk around taking pictures. After working an area for a few minutes, people just start ignoring me and I can get some natural photos.

In fact, the more obvious I get, the less people are bothered by me. Hardly anybody seems to care what I’m doing now that I have a rather professional-looking Nikon D200 camera, and I make a point to have a lens hood, a flash, and a bag full of gear. If I tried to be sneaky with a compact camera, I’d get questioned by the cops every few weeks. But with all that gear, people just assume I must be there for a good reason.

On the other hand, some street photographers would spit at my pictures because I’m using a long lens. They believe in getting in people’s faces with a wide-angle lens, because the reaction to the intrusion is part of the image they want. It’s not my style, but I have to admit, sometimes the reaction to being photographed is half the picture.

Women street photographers have it especially easy in this sense, because hardly anyone ever questions them. Heck, when I bring my wife along, people offer to pose their children for me. If these guys in Boston had brought along a couple of women, the story would probably have morphed into a friendly lifestyle piece about a fun photographic hobby.

So, on that note my fellow Bostonians, I propose this fun social experiment: Descend on Downtown Crossing yourselves, armed with cameras, and complete my next social photography art project. I call it “Pervature: The Lost Art of Capturing Horny Old Men Taking Pictures of Girl’s Naughty Bits, 2011.” We should probably set up a Tumblr or something.

Yeah. Do that. Really, it’s a great idea that’s truly in the spirit of the artform. Except for the bit where you lie about them taking pictures of naughty bits. As I pointed out at the top of this post, there’s nothing like that anywhere in the story.

What they’re doing is all totally legal. Did I say that yet?

Yes, it’s all legal because of this obscure piece of law called the First Amendment to the Constitution. Check it out sometime.

(Hat tip: Rick Horowitz)

As has always been the rule, if you are in a location legally, you can still take pictures of almost anything you can see from there, including federal buildings. And now, here’s an official bulletin from the Department of Homeland Security explaining it. I don’t know it it will really help, or if it will just mark me as a smartass, but I’m going to download a copy and keep it with my camera gear.

(Hat tip, Mark Clayson via Rick Horowitz)

I saw this photo of lightning striking the Statue of Liberty and was impressed. It’s a really cool photo taken by photographer Jay Fine, but what impressed me was that it took less than two hours and only 80 shots before he got the photo he wanted.

As someone who has spent many hours in the early morning, on the coldest day of the year in Chicago, getting frostbite on a finger, going through hundreds of shots just to get one I liked makes me realize that I need more practice. Or maybe Jay was just having a lucky night.
Eventually, sometime after I lost feeling in at least one fingertip, I got my picture.

Cold_Morning_Cropped.jpg

Saturday, February 18 2006, 8:30 AM
Canon PowerShot SD500
I had actually been hoping to get some nice shots that day in the dawn twilight, but none of them turned out well.

A friend of mine sent me a link to a New York Times piece by Randy Kennedy about photographer Mitch Epstein. He’s doing a series of photographs about America’s energy policies, photographing things like gas stations and power plants. As you might expect these days, he gets stopped by police a lot.

I agree with my friend’s assesment:

I remember stories about such things in the Soviet Union or Yugoslavia, thinking how lucky I was to live in America…

I too remember being told about how in Russia the police would stop you if you tried to take pictures of certain buildings. I was glad we didn’t have that here.

As we say, 9/11 changed everything. Suddenly, police got jumpy if they saw someone taking pictures of things like transportation infrastructure and power plants. And they weren’t real happy about having their own pictures taken either.

In one sense, the First Amendment is holding up despite the onslaught. The courts have remained pretty clear on this. Taking photographs in public places is not a crime, and I haven’t heard of anybody getting convicted for it.

On the other hand, just because there’s no law against taking pictures of whatever you want doesn’t mean you are completely free to take pictures of whatever you want. Police can still ask you what you’re doing, ask for ID, and ask to see the pictures. Except maybe for the ID, you don’t have to answer them, and you sure don’t have to let them see your pictures. Most cops are actually well-trained in the freedoms of the press, and if you can manage a professional tone, they’ll give you back a little respect.

But if they get pissed at you for some reason, they can do a lot of things to harass you, starting with detaining you and taking your (possibly very expensive) camera. They’re not supposed to take your camera without a court order, and your lawyer can get their lawyer to make them give it back, but if there are no pictures in memory, or the camera is damaged, they can say it was that way when they got it.

Actually, the cops are allowed to seize your camera without a court order if they’re in the process of arresting you, and a few photographers have found themselves arrested for some catch-all crime like disorderly conduct or interfering with police business. These charges usually don’t stick, but they’ll mess with your life and discourage you from taking those kinds of pictures again. Which is the point, and the problem.

Carlos Miller has a whole website about these kinds of incidents at Photography is Not a Crime.

The New York Times has up a story about distracted driving and cell phones. I only skimmed the story—I’m skeptical about the issue, but I don’t know enough to really have an opinion—because I was looking at the picture. Radley Balko had pointed it out in a passing comment:

I’m trying to figure out how the photo for this NY Times scare story on distracted driving was taken. I can’t really conceive of a scenario where it wasn’t staged. Which means the caption is misleading.

The picture is captioned “At 60 miles an hour on a Missouri highway, a 16-year-old driver texts with a friend as a 17-year-old takes the wheel.” It’s a view from behind and to the right of the driver, showing the him using both hands to key in a text message while another hand reaches in from the passenger side to hold the wheel.

So, how did the photographer get that shot? Did he tell them what he wanted or hint at the result? And wasn’t that a dangerous thing to be letting a couple of teenagers do while he got the picture? My guess was that this was either (a) yet another New York Times credibility scandal, or (b) a file photo.

I emailed the photographer, Dan Gill, and he responded with an explanation:

The picture went with a story I worked on last fall. The story was about social issues at a St.Louis high school; boys and girls…My assignment was to hang out with them and make pictures of how they communicated and tried to meet girls.

When discussing the story with my assigning editor we both agreed it would be…easier and better to ride with them instead of driving separately. By riding with them we could see into their world easier. The subjects were minors, however, the parents were aware we were doing the story.

As we drove around the students soon played their music and forgot I was with them. I looked back through my “raw” take; all of the pictures made on an assignment and found him driving and texting throughout the drive. He said he was texting his “girls”, girls he was interested in. I continued to make pictures of him texting, it was within the scope of the story. At one point, we were driving down an inter belt highway and he continued to text. After a few words with the front passenger, the front passenger reached over and steered the truck.

This makes sense. The picture was being used as an illustration, not as documentation of a specific incident mentioned in the story, so it’s acceptable to use a file photo.

Gill also addresses the danger issue:

Was this dangerous? Yes. Were they doing it for me? No. Was this common practice for them? Is this something they had done before? These are good questions. As a journalist I am here to describe what I witness with pictures. I am not their parent.

Not everyone is happy about that. Daryl Lang at PDN Pulse also exchanged email with Gill about the story, and one of the commenters had this to say:

you are the kind of guy who would rather sit there taking pictures of an accident or some one’s house burning down rather than lend a hand or try to help people involved in the situation. the responce you gave when asked why you didnt say something to those kids or their parents shows your selfishness. if this world is to become a better place, it is certainly not going to be helped along by someone like you, dodging any responsibility toward others, as long as it benefits your needs.

The driver was 16-years old. Does anybody really think this was the first bit of bad driving Gill saw that night? If he had spoken up the first time the kid broke the speed limit or failed to signal a lane change, he never would have gotten the picture. And you know that if Gill hadn’t been there, they still would have done this, and no one would ever know. This way, we have pictures. We know something we didn’t know.

Gill went on:

After the evening was over, I looked through my pictures and picked out 12, three were from riding in the truck and two of those were of the texting/passenger driving scene. Two were published in the Times as part of the story.

Last week a photo editor called with questions about the texting photo. They were working on a story about cell phone use and driving for the Sunday paper and he thought the picture was important.

So, it was essentially a file photo.

As a photographer, I was curious about something. The dashboard has a washed-out blue look to it, but the needles stand out in bright orange. It looks a little unnatural, and I was wondering if it was just a trick of the color balancing or if the photo had been enhanced in some way so that we could see that, yes, the car really was doing 60 at the time. 

As for the color of the needles on the dashboard and the color balance; it’s tough to properly set white balance in the evening in a moving vehicle. The driver’s hand is in direct sunlight and is a little warm color due to the time of day and the angle of the sun. The passenger’s arm and the rest of the interior was in shade and is cast blue by the blue sky. My camera was set for a manual color balance at daylight or 5500 degrees Kelvin.

As I look at the original or “raw” unedited jpeg there is not much difference. I make pictures in the “JPEG FINE” setting; there is plenty of resolution and tonal information to satisfy both newspaper and magazine clients with them. I would rather catch a moment than wait for a RAW file to write to the memory card.

As for post-processing, I don’t do much. A photographer needs to nail his or her exposure and composition the first time…there is no second take in photojournalism.

 Dan Gill’s website is here. Great shots here, here, and here,

Peek at the portfolio of any hobbyist model photographer working in the northwest suburbs of Chicago, and you’ll probably find a picture of Rachel Jay. A marketing manager by day, for the last two and a half years Rachel has been one of Chicago’s busier hobbyist models at night and on the weekends.

I’m using “hobbyist” as a shorthand term for models and photographers who work without benefit of modeling agencies and production studios. Like many hobbies—pottery, jewelry making, woodworking—you do it mostly because you like it, but there’s a chance to make a little money too.

Rachel has a new blog about this kind of modeling. (I stole the term “hobbyist” from her—I was going to write “amateur” but I knew it wan’t right.) If you’re at all interested in the Chicago modeling scene, check out the blog of Chicago model Rachel Jay.

To get an idea of the dedication that serious models put into this hobby, check out her Bring It! list of stuff she recommends models bring to every model shoot.

I did a photo shoot with a model named Jennifer a few days ago, and it’s weird how photography distorts things. I’ve seen her in person from just a couple of feet away, and she’s a pretty girl, but you couldn’t tell it from some of the photos I have here. Check out this one, where the harsh lighting makes her look like she’s in her late 30’s or early 40’s.

There’s nothing wrong with being 40 years old, but Jennifer’s only 26, and glamour photography isn’t supposed to make women look older.

I have to keep reminding myself that this isn’t a glamour shoot. Another reminder of that comes from the fact that Jennifer is wearing the same clothes and striking the same casual pose in nearly all the shots. I wish I’d given her more direction. But I have to remind myself that this was about testing techniques, not getting glamour shots.

I just finished a model shoot. I haven’t got any pictures yet, so if you were hoping for some cheesecake, this post will be a disappointment (I’m looking at you, Ken!) I just thought a few people might be interested in how this works, and besides, I need a break from all the law-and-order blogging.

I did a couple of group model shoots last summer, and they were fun and educational, but now I wanted to try one by myself. The group shoots are a madhouse, with a bunch of photographers rotating through a bunch of models. I got a few good shots, but I need more time to think about what I’m doing.

Also, I wanted to try some experimental stuff. I’m fascinated by street photography—such as the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson, Garry Winogrand, Lee Friedlander, and Robert Frank—and I wanted to try some of that style of photography, but with a model in the scenes.

(By the way, just because I know the names of some famous photographers, don’t for a moment think you’re going to see anything that good from me. I’m just using a bit of the scenery and lighting that is characteristic of the street style.)

That sort of experimental approach might get me some really interesting pictures, but it’s a bit of a problem to do in a group shoot because they are usually done on a TFCD basis. That stands for Time For CD, and it means the models are spending time posing in return for a CD of nice images for their portfolio. But if I’m screwing around with weird angles and lighting, the resulting photos may not be suitable for a portfolio.

I didn’t want to feel any pressure to get good portfolio shots, and I wanted to be able to take my time. For that reason, I decided to hire a model for two hours of shooting. I put out a casting call on one of the modeling web sites, and after a few false starts, I hired a 26-year old model named Jennifer.

After a few false starts, we got together today at 5:30 in the Six Corners shopping district on the northwest side of Chicago. It’s got some fairly old-looking buildings, and I figured that by that time of day the light would be hitting at some interesting angles.

I was planning on a very casual look, and Jennifer showed up wearing faded jeans and a white sleeveless top, which was perfect. Unless you have very dark skin, this is always an excellent choice of casual clothing for any time you know you’re getting your picture taken.

We basically spent the next hour and a half wandering around the neighborhood, with me telling Jennifer “stand over there” and “lean against that.” I was looking for interesting backgrounds with urban shapes and textures. I also tried experimenting with harsher sunlight and shadows than are normally used in glamour photography.

The Six Corners area isn’t quite a classic Chicago neighborhood, but parts of it make for an interesting background. The biggest problem was the large number of all-glass storefronts. Glass is hard for me to work with. At best, it reflects an unwanted scene from across the street, and at worst it reflects me as I take the picture.

It was fun to see how people reacted. Jennifer said she got some looks from guys passing by, and as we were shooting in an alley, some guy drove up and started talking to her. He took a picture with his cell phone and then asked her for her phone number. He wasn’t as creepy as I’m making him seem, but when Jennifer told him she was married he was gone in a flash.

Just to prove I can’t get away from legal blogging, about a minute later, a police car drove by, then stopped maybe 20 feet further on and a female officer got out of the passenger side and asked “How old is she?”

Before Jennifer could answer, the cop asked to see some ID, and asked us what we were doing.

Jennifer answered, “Model shoot.”

“In an alley?”

I shrugged, “Something different.”

Luckily, Jennifer had her ID in her pocket (no purses during the model shoot) and showed it to the cop. I had my ID out, but the cop just got back in her car without looking at it.

I don’t know what the cop was really thinking. Jennifer looks young but not child-like, and even if she was under-age, there’s nothing wrong with taking pictures of her. The cop had wandered over from a neighboring district, so I’m not even sure why she was in that area. I’m guessing the age question was just a pretext to ask us what we were doing taking pictures behind a commercial building. Cop curiousity.

(I did some location scouting with a friend, and he found a really cool place to take pictures out by the airport. It’s a special bit of open public property that gets you surprisingly close to the planes on the ground. It’s totally legal, but I now have the feeling I should bring along a defense attorney to handle the inevitable arrival of the airport cops.)

We wrapped up a few minutes later. I haven’t looked at the pictures, but I learned a few things.

For one thing, I am really out of shape. I’m overweight, and my right knee is screwed up. We barely walked half a mile during the shoot, but my legs were killing me when I got back to the car. I’ve never been an athlete, but I didn’t used to have problems just walking around. I need to get a lot more exercise.

Another thing I learned from wandering around a city neighborhood with a model and $3000 worth of camera gear is that it would be nice to have someone along for security. I got tired of carrying my camera bag everywhere, but I didn’t want to put it down where some opportunistic thief could grab it and run. I don’t usually worry about stuff like that, but photographing models attracts attention. The concentration on the photography also distracts me, unlike my photojournalism work, where I’m necessarily much more aware of my environment.

One thing I already knew is that model photography is as much about giving the models good directions as it is about photographic skill. This shoot confirmed for me that I suck at directing a model. I’m too busy taking pictures, I don’t know what I want, and…well…it just feels funny telling a young lady how to pose sexy for me.

(There’s a whole sub-breed of model photographers, derisively called GWC’s for Guy-With-Camera, who live for nothing else. They’re not in it for the pictures, they’re in it because they want pretty girls to act sexy for them. The camera is just an excuse.)

Another thing I learned is that operating a camera is hard when you’re out of practice. I haven’t been taking as many photos as I’d like to, lately. Even when I get to take pictures, they’re usually photojournalistic, meaning I just point the camera and shoot. The subject is more important than the technique.

On the model shoot, I ended up out of my normal auto-exposure modes a lot, and it was trickier than I remembered. I was worried about stuff like lighting ratios that I haven’t had to bother with lately. I need more practice.

I’ll post more about the shoot when I’ve had time to look over the pictures. It might be a while.

I seem to be the answer man lately. A few days ago, somebody asked me how to fight an eminent domain action, and now someone is asking me about modeling releases for photography:

Hi Mark,

I’m relatively new to photography and have a quick question that I’m hoping you might be able to help me with..

I have been using the istockphoto model release form for every photoshoot that I’ve done because the wording on it seemed very good. I haven’t put all of my photos on istockphoto, especially not the better ones which brings me to my question.

A buyer from istockphoto liked a series of photos that I had up and asked if I had any more. I have a few more that are not on istockphoto and would love to sell them but I don’t know if I’d be able to do that with an istockphoto model release form. I called a few of the other stock agencies and they say that they do not accept istockphoto release forms.. I dont’ get it! Just because there’s the istockphoto logo and address at the top of the form? So does this mean that I can’t sell my photo privately because of the release form template that I used? :(

Thanks so much,

Felipe

Caveat: There’s a lot of bad information out there about model releases, and this might be some more of it. I’ve tried my best here, but I’m not a lawyer, and this is not legal advice.

Photography law is surprisingly complicated for something that so many people are doing these days. It touches on several major legal topics, including copyright, trademark, privacy, and defamation, each with its own logical structure and case law.

I suggest that if you can’t afford to get advice from an actual lawyer, you at least buy a good book on the subject. I’ve found Bert Krages’ Legal Handbook for Photographers: The Rights and Liabilities of Making Images to be a pretty useful source of basic information. There’s also a link to his website in the Photography section of my blogroll.

If you’re a photographer shooting a model, the photography itself is pretty simple (legally). Most of the legal issues arise later on when someone wants to publish the photo. The model has certain inherent rights to control the use of her image, and anyone who wants to use the image for commercial purposes will need her permission to do so. You get that permission in the form of a model release.

For a stock photo sale, the end user doesn’t want to have to find the model to get her permission, so usually the photographer gets the model to sign a release that gives him the right to make further grants of rights to other people. People who buy the photos will be planning to use them in a certain way, and they will want to make sure that the photographer has a release that grants the rights they need.

So, Felipe, the short answer to your question is that you can sell your photos privately if the buyer is satisfied that the release covers his intended use.

Of course, just because you complete the sale doesn’t mean you’re legally in the clear. Strange things can happen.

For example, suppose you take a photo of a thoughtful young lady in business attire sitting at desk. You then sell this photo to a stock service which re-sells it to an ad agency putting together a billboard for a drug rehabilition service. The ad agency uses the picture with the headline “Not all heroin addicts look like heroin addicts.”

One of the billboards ends up across the street from a bookstore that has just hired your model to read stories to children. Parents don’t want to leave their children with someone who might be a heroin addict, so they stop bringing their children to the store, which no longer needs her services and lays her off.

Does your model release cover this? If not, the model may be able to sue the end user for defamation, and for all I know, she can sue the photographer as well. I made up this example, and these kinds of things happen pretty rarely, but if you sell enough pictures, it could happen to you.

When a stock photo service is involved, they may want to assure purchasers that they will not face these kinds of problems, so they require the models to grant extensive rights, reeling off long lists of specific examples that end with catch-all language like “any media for any purpose” and “irrevocable, worldwide, and perpetual.”

So, Felipe, the longer answer to your question is that you need to make sure that you’re protected, and it’s good business to help your customers protect themselves.

My guess is that iStockphoto’s release probably does cover the hypothetical horror story I described. They’d be one of the deepest pockets in any lawsuit, so they’re probably pretty careful. But that doesn’t mean the release protects you or the end user as well.

As for other companies’ acceptance of the iStockphoto release, I doubt the presence of iStockphoto branding has anything to do with it. My guess is that the release doesn’t have the protective language their legal department has decided they need, or it doesn’t have the language they’ve promised to their customers.

(Actually, I just took a look at the iStockphoto standard model release and I noticed that it says the release will be “governed by the laws of Alberta, Canada.” That might be deal-killer for anybody not located in Canada.)

Just because stock services like Getty or Corbis or Comstock don’t like the release, however, doesn’t mean your private buyer won’t find it satisfactory.

Don’t forget, you can always go back to the models and ask them to sign another release for the same photos. It’s a pain, and you’ll have to pay them at least a token amount, but it might be worth it to expand your photo market.