Category Archives: photography

Susan Sontag’s “On Photography”

But despite the presumption of veracity that gives all photographs authority, interest, seductiveness, the work that photographers do is no generic exception to the usually shady commerce between art and truth. Even when photographers are most concerned with mirroring reality, they are still haunted by tacit imperatives of taste and conscience. […] In deciding how a picture should look, in preferring one exposure to another, photographers are always imposing their standards on subjects. Although there is a sense in which the camera does indeed capture reality, not just interpret it, photographs are as much an interpretation of the world as paintings and drawings are.

Susan Sontag, On Photography

Via my old friend Chris I’ve been picking at Susan Sontag’s nearly forty year old essay on photography, written well before I was even born, and it’s a little dismaying how fundamentally different things aren’t now. Some things really don’t change much. Well worth a read if you, like me, had somehow not been shown it before.

End Of The Year Thoughts: Photography

Whew. Seriously, the last day of 2013 already? What a year, folks. And, rather than bore you with a recap of it, here instead is a list of thoughts I’ve had rattling around about photography as you encounter it on the internet. A lot of these are inspired by my time spent recently trawling around 500px looking for some lighting inspiration, the rest come from helping customers at the day job. As always, my perspective is as a fine art and portrait photographer, I don’t consider any style where simply being in the right place is the entire first half of the battle (photojournalism, sports, travel) to be governed by the same rules as the styles where you’re out to create and not just record a moment. But that’s a separate issue all together.

So, without further ado, some thoughts:


  1. Good gear is always worth what you paid. I promise. Yes, better gear is worth more money. It’ll last longer, make your life easier, give you more options, let you spend less time swearing, and (often) will be more versatile.

    Flipside: I would only ever recommend buying what you expect to need, with about 10-20% more than you currently think you do. Take the money you’ll save by not going to a higher price point needlessly and apply it to another piece of good gear that does something else instead.

    In general, you’ll know when to move up to a higher price point because it’ll become the only thing you can find that does _______ that you’ve been trying to. Unless you can already fill in that blank with something, I’d stick to the middle range gear aimed neither at beginners nor at bored doctors and already-famous fashion photographers. The middle of the pack is a sweetspot for most photography, and there are some real gems to be found in it.

  2. When you’re getting started, spend most of your time figuring out what it is you want to do. There’s a lot of gear, and a lot of advice, and it’s all pretty much bunk if you don’t know what you want to do. My kit is very, very different then it would have been if I had decided to spend my time shooting birds instead.

  3. There’ll come a point in gear shopping when it can’t be avoided, but as often as possibly avoid unitaskers. It’s true when Alton preaches it, and it’s true in photography too. A tool with a dozen uses is always a better return on your money than one thing that only has one purpose. You’ll get a lot better shots by reacting to what you’e given that by trying to make circumstances fit the narrow slice your unitasker demands.And, for what it’s worth, I will insist until my dying breath that every prime lens on the market is a unitasker. It gives you one look. You will find with regular use that there’s one type of photo it consistently gives you that it excels at, and a lot of others it never will. A good quality constant-aperture standard zoom is only more expensive until you realize you need five primes to pull the same weight. Buy primes hesitantly, and only when you’ve hit a wall where you just can’t get that look without them. Or, if you’ve just fallen in love with that one look that they do and you’ve decided to commit a bulk of your photography to it. That second one’s not for me, but I’ve seen people who can flat-out rock it.But when someone tells you to skip a zoom and just buy a 50mm prime, be really, really skeptical. Especially if you haven’t decided what it is you want to do yet.

    [Personal note, the biggest benefit to primes is f-numbers faster than 2.8. Past f4, I dare you to pick out the difference between most primes and good zoom at the same focal length. Buy a zoom or two, shoot around. Find what focal lengths you shoot at most, then buy a prime in there for those times when you need shallower DOF.]

  4. The single best thing you’ll ever do is to start putting the lighting first. The second best thing you’ll do is learn the light should come from the sides and not above.

  5. You probably need a bigger light source. I mean, yeah. Probably. And, if you’re in doubt what to do about lighting, then you definitely need a bigger light source. Buy a parabolic umbrella, you won’t regret it.

  6. The third best thing you’ll do is admit that every single in the history of ever has been dicked with, adjusted, or altered. There’s no such thing as an honest photo, and learning all that boring stuff like black clipping, gamma, saturation, sharpening masking, and yadda yadda yadda will give you way more results than any lens or body ever will. A copy of Adobe Lightroom was the single most cost-effective thing I ever did to push myself up a notch. People were willing to swear I had bought a new camera. Just saying.


  1. If you can’t take a good picture of a pretty person, you have some real issues you need to work out. They’re doing the heavy lifting for you, as far as most viewers are concerned. Not to say you should get discouraged, I’ve taken plenty of unflattering pictures of pretty people and “I’m making sure the camera thinks you look as good as you do” is common patter for me at shoots anymore. But, still, if you’re taking pictures of good lookin’ folks and they don’t already look halfway to stellar, I’d hold off on hanging that shingle out just yet…

    Corollary: It’s really stupidly easy with good light and pretty people to take good photographs. People will love them and you’ll get lots of empty comments and likes. But if that’s where you stop, they will be boring and immediately forgettable. Any photo of a pretty person in pretty light that doesn’t also have ambiance or meaning is just a fashion ad. And the thing about ads is they’re meant to have text on them. You know, to give them a purpose.

  2. Ambiance trumps concept every time. Concepts are sticky things, and I’ve seen a lot of otherwise decent photos fall into the Deep Well of Hokey because they couldn’t let the concept go. Ambiance is better, and it’ll make a viewer linger. Concpets tell, but ambiance asks. And asking is good. Photos should make me ask questions. Just not “What the hell were they thinking?” That’s the wrong question.

  3. Light everything as if it were a nude. What is it about nekkid people that makes photographers break out an A-game they’ll leave on the table unless a model piles clothes on it?

  4. Speak of nudes, do you really need boobs to sell it? Your image, that is. I mean, I like boobs as much as the next guy, and I’ve shot boobs. But, in my trawl for lighting references lately it’s become obvious that “boobs” are conflated entirely too much with “art.” Here’s a helpful reminder, if the only reason you have a naked person in your photo is because they look hot, that’s porn. There’s a time and a place for porn, and you can have artful porn, but don’t go thinking you can just insist it was Art and it’s somehow different. If the person’s only there to get someone’s juices going, you’re shooting porn bucko. (Hint, this actually extends to boudoir and lingerie shoots too.) (Bonus hint: all lingerie ads are basically porn. They may be the most valid reason to take well-lit pictures of a tall gal in her knickers, but the back of your mind should always be reminding you the reason she’s in her knickers is to look sexy. It’s right there in the last word: sex. Don’t lie to yourself.)

    Megan inserts at this point that she thinks the previous disclaimer is a fairly male assessment, and she’s never looked at a lingerie ad and thought that. I counter that even when targeted at straight women the point of them is to show how you would better attract the male gaze, which is sorta the flipside of the same coin. I’m also assuming, based on portfolios I see online, a very large chunk of people shooting lingerie stuff are dudes, which colors it a bit more. This may apply less for women shooting lingerie as that power dynamic is different, but hey, YMMV.

    One last thought here, and it’s a bit more rambling so bear with me. Most nudes I see are more what I’d think of as studies. There are some really good reasons photographers love shooting nude forms. Doing so will teach you how to control lighting very, very quickly. It will do so because all of a sudden you’ll actually pay attention to what it’s doing, something you mostly won’t when clothes are helping pick up the slack for you. But, keep in mind that drawing students also spend a lot of time with nudes. Most of them don’t fill a portfolio with those sketches though. Shoot them, learn what you need to, show them on your blog or Flickr or what have you. But there are a lot of nudes out there, unless you’re doing something more than “celebrating the human form” with them, maybe skip the portfolio and just accept that they were studies.

  5. You suck at titles. There’s no shame in numbers, untitled, or titling a photo for the model. But, you’re shooting hundreds to thousands of pictures a year: they don’t all need titles. Honestly, none of them do. Spend more time shooting, less time being cute. Blue Dream, White Queen, and Sacred Shivers aren’t photo titles… they’re next year’s featured fragrance lines.

  6. Your photo is going to get stolen. Take a deep breath, calm down, and admit that now. If it’s online, it’ll get stolen. Period end. No amount of watermarking will stop that. Don’t believe me? Remember that time Capcom stole the cover for their own game off of a blog? more than an isolated incident (even if somewhat notable) to convince you? Why not trawl PhotoshopDisasters posts where stolen stock photos made it all the way to production with the watermark in place? PSDisasters Watermarks

    Starting to come to grips with the fact that it will be stolen? Good. Now, instead of putting a huge watermark on your images (which will do nothing to actually stop it being stolen, clearly), if you’re worried about losing money to this take the actual steps of shelling out and copyrighting your photo. Embed your copyright info in the meta. And then if you must keep watermarking your photos still, show some reserve and decorum and keep it small so I can actually see your photo, k?And for the love of the gods, pay someone to make you a logo and don’t just type your name in the lower corner in papyrus. There is no quicker way to spot an amateur playing at being a bigger fish. NONE.

  7. If your HDR image looks like a newly-discovered Thomas Kincade, you’ve gone too far. HDR is both the Kincade of photography, and the solarization effect of the new millennium. It’s not going to age well, and it’s going to turn off more people than it turns on. Or, at least, I hope it does. Just… show some restraint, yeah? Used right HDR is a wonderful tool, especially at night, to fill in the dynamic range our eyes can see but our cameras can’t. Used wrong, and, well…

Why We All Take Pictures of The Same Old Shit

We’re not here to capture an image, we’re here to maintain one. Every photograph reinforces the aura. Can you feel it, Jack? An accumulation of nameless energies.

Don Delillo, “White Noise”

In turn from a nice article by David White on Oxford’s Tall Blog.

Finally Posting: ETC’s Caesar Shots

Now that my fine friends at Eclecticpond have had a chance to introduce all of these shots the way they wanted to, I can do a summary post for you all. This series was a lot of fun for me, and I’m pretty happy with the results. The idea came from a Cracked article which linked to some awesome old criminal photos taken by the police department of New South Wales in the 20’s. These were just common criminals, but the mugshots were surprisingly elegant, like a piece for Esquire and not for one’s permanent record.


Mr. Moore Here Sold Fake Opium. No, Really.

So, that was the starting point. I like the slightly angled focus plane, which seemed likely to be the result of an un-evenly adjusted bellows lens, and the choice of framing and the diptych were all elements we wanted to keep. But, this production of Caesar was being set in the ruthless world of a modern Western business, so, we wanted less of the old-timey feel and more of the cold, heartless world of CEOs. For that, I took more influence from David Fincher’s way of portraying the world, with harsh shadows and an unnatural blue tint washed over everything, giving it a very clinical feeling. The results, I think, are stellar.











The set-ups for all of the above were pretty simple. All of them were shot with an 85mm PC Nikkor fully tilted either one way or the other. The head shots were done with a single small softbox close by, and the full body shots were done with a strip box a good 8 or 10 feet from the actor. The directing for them was also pretty simple. Since we wanted ‘mugshot’ as the tone, I just asked them to take a neutral pose, unless they had an angry character, in which case they were to look so. The lighting diagrams are below, and pretty self-explanatory. The cool blue cast was done with some highlight split-toning in LR, but otherwise it was just some simple corrections for tones, crop, and the occasional horizontal distortion correction.



ETC’s run of Julius Caesar opens, appropriately enough, on March 15th here in Indianapolis, and features a gender-inverted cast and updated corporate setting to go along with the original language. You can order up some tickets for one of the shows here:

On Photo Gear

An oven doesn’t make a great cook. A camera doesn’t make a great photographer. You don’t need fancy gear to make beautiful images.


I know what people are trying to say with this. I do. I get it. I’m one of the first to say that our world has a sort of gear fetish, a cult of the ever-newer. I get it. But, pithy, over-simplistic sentences like this don’t help anything either. A good cook can make something good with a bad oven, sure. They can make a lot more better things faster with a good oven. And even that’s too simple. I dare you to try making a milkshake without a blender, or shred cheese without a grater. Go ahead. Try it. Not so fun, right?

There’s a reason I recently jumped systems to Nikon, and it certainly hasn’t been the thrill of writing the payment checks. And it’s because in any profession, there is a nearly symbiotic relationship between the professional and their tools. A better camera won’t make you a better photographer by itself. But if your camera is what’s holding you back, then getting a better one will. But that’s not tweetable, is it? It’s tough to look at your gear and your photos and know, really know, when faults were due to the gear, and when they were due to you. But you need to. Sometimes you need better gear. Often you don’t. There’s no simple way to tell which is which every time. It’s messier than that. But, for what it’s worth, here are things I look at and think about before I upgrade gear.

  1. Do I know all of the specs of my current camera. All of them. Not just sensor size and AF points. How many of those points are cross-type? At what EV do they act up? When do they fail? How does the camera handle exposure? Levels? How much headroom do files have? If I miss an exposure, how many stops can I push or pull it before the image breaks down? How does it do in strobes? In ambient light? On a tripod? What’s the x-sync? What’s the real x-sync I can cheat above the stated one? And so on.

    If you don’t know your camera’s specs on that level, then how can you even begin to know when the camera is failing, and when you are? Tech review sites are a great place to get a basic idea of that intimacy, they’ll tell you the theoretical limits. But make sure you burn the frames yourself and spend that time in post and in the field learning your tool and how it behaves when you use it for your work. Unless you shoot test charts and brick walls for a living, the real measure of a camera is how it handles in your day-to-day work flow. You’ll find a lot of those “deal-breaker” idiosyncrasies and flaws never even affect you. When they do every single time, well, then maybe you’re looking at a real reason to upgrade. But be prepared to answer what it is that you’re hoping to overcome. It should be a concrete answer, not something wussy and nebulous like “well, maybe some more resolution might be nice…”

  2. Lenses are investments. People always tell you the glass matters more than the body. Largely, I agree. But as with everything, you need the right glass. And I don’t just mean the biggest, fanciest glass everyone’s drooling over. This is a tool, remember. Something you’re in symbiosis with. The right glass is the lens that will accomplish the goals you need it to, every time you need it to. Sometimes that’s a big pro lens, there’s no escaping that. Sometimes it’s a $400 refurbished consumer telephoto. It depends on what you shoot, and how. But the fact is, it’s only an investment if it’s something you both need, and will keep. Otherwise, it’s an expense at best, a waste on average.

    Why? Because a different lens will only deliver better photos if you know what you intend to do with it, and why you need that focal range, that aperture, and that sharpness. If you can’t tell the difference in total image quality from two focal lengths on the same kit lens yet, you’re not there. Keep at it. You will be. And then it’ll be painfully obvious to you what you need from a lens. Then it’s a matter of finding the one that does that, which is way easier than guessing at lenses you might need. Cheaper, too. Even when that one lens is more expensive. And then you get to call it an investment.

  3. Learn how to edit. An “edit” is not just a change made to a photo, it’s the process of looking over a body of work and choosing what’s good, what’s trash, and what needs poked at until you know it’s good or trash. There’s a combination of things that go into this: a knowledge of subject and composition, of lighting, of in-field technique (aperture choice, ISO, shutter, handshake, etc) and post-editing technique (levels, white balance, sharpening, noise reduction). Be diligent about editing. Be honest. Be hard on your photos. If you’re shooting five hundred photos, why expect more than a dozen will be good? Why expect more than maybe one or two will be great? They won’t. I can take a hundred shots in controlled studio lighting with a model and they still won’t. Poses don’t work. Lights don’t fire. You miss your exposure. You miss your focus. You get too close to a light and stop down and you pixel level is all fuzzy from diffraction limitation. All this happens, every time. Experience minimizes it. Honest editing shows you the consequences of all of it, and makes you come to terms with them. It also teaches you the greatest secret of them all: most photos absolutely suck. Being a good photographer is knowing to only show the ones that don’t.

    Spend the time to know which ones don’t. Stick with whatever gear you have until you can. Once you can figure that out, then you’ll know what else you need. It might be a new body. Or lenses. Or studio lights. Or a tripod. But whatever it is, once you know how you shoot and what part of your gear regularly fails you where, it’ll be more than immediately obvious what you need.

    Then, go get it. And repeat it all.