Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Quick word about Photoshop and post-production

A couple days ago, I was reading a thread in the lighting forum on dpreview, where someone asked for people to post pictures on the thread where no post production or sharpening had been done. I personally thought that was a great idea. Then the flames started...

I couldn't believe how many people thrashed this guy. He didn't attack digital photography or Photoshop. He merely tried to start an open sharing of information. One or two others stood up for him and posted their pictures, which were pretty decent.

How can we go from decades of shooting "in camera" to totally dependent on Photoshop in a matter of a few years? As a longtime Photoshop professional (15 years), I try to keep my post production work to an absolute minimum. I may be very good, and pretty speedy in Photoshop, but why make extra work for myself?

© David Farkas

When I show shots done with studio lighting outside, the conversation goes like this:

"How'd you get that look in Photoshop?"

"I didn't do any Photoshop. It's unretouched."

"How'd you get the sky so blue and get all that color?"

"Location lighting, a light meter, and proper exposure."

"But, it's digital... you don't need all that anymore. Can't you just do it in Photoshop?"

"Sure, but all I have to do is print. I don't have to spend hours and hours in front of my computer screen."

This is where the conversation ends. To some extent digital photography can lead to laziness, or a feeling that you don't have to pay attention to the fundamentals. It's an unfortunate trend.

The experts, of course, never agree on anything, except to disagree. One expert, Will Crocket of ShootSmarter University did an interesting presentation in one of his Photoshop seminars recently. He spent at least 30 minutes showing the audience how to adjust exposure using various techniques in Photoshop. Everyone busily scribbled in their notebooks, trying glean new techniques. And Will went on to produce a nice looking image. Then, he asked, "Now that I've shown you that way, who wants to see the easy way?" Everyone nodded and wondered what magical Photoshop secret would be bestowed on them. He held up his Sekonic L-358 lightmeter and said, "Get yourself a meter, learn how to use it, then use it." Snickering and whispering among the audience. "I'm serious," he said. "Why waste your time fixing in the computer what you should have gotten right in the first place?" I agree with Will on this one.

I've heard the opinion that you have to do Photoshop to be professional. I don't buy it. At our lab, we deal with dozens of pros and studios. Very, very few of them post-process anything. Wedding photographers shoot hundreds of shots at a single event. They don't shoot RAW. They shoot JPG, get the shot right in camera, like they did with their 'Blads and give us a DVD. We color-correct every single image by eye and make photographic prints they give to their clients. There is no possible way they could turn around 800 shots in one or two days like we do. The successful pro realizes that he or she doesn't make any money sitting in front of a computer or struggling with an inkjet printer; he makes money when he's shooting and selling the next job. Period.

Look, Photoshop is a great tool. Do I shoot RAW? Yes. Do I need to process those RAW files into JPG? Of course. But it usually ends there for most files. For some work, I will do a full retouch. The point is that Photoshop can improve good photography, but usually can't make bad pictures good.

To be fair, thought, take a look at the two shots below. One of my students in a Photoshop class I recently taught brought this picture in. She took it of herself with a 5MP point and shoot digital camera. I used this example to show what can be done in Photoshop to save pictures. As a teaching example, I think it's great, but I'd really hate to spend that much time on any of my own pictures.



So, can we just agree to spend more time trying to be better photographers looking through the viewfinder, instead of better photographers looking at a monitor? Or is this asking too much?

Friday, July 14, 2006

Behind the scenes from the swimwear shoot

As promised, here are some of the behind-the-scenes snaps I took at Andre's swimwear shoot on Wednesday.

The rain and wind start up again

Swimwear designer Lila styles Diana

Andre looking through his trusty Mamiya RZ67

Our trusty Elinchrom Ranger RX all wet and loving it!

Makeup artist Valerie works on Crystal

Crystal gets into position while Lila gets the bubbles ready

Test run of the crew gettin' the bubbles going

Andre poses Diana

Arturo steps in to lend a hand...

...and move a distrating trashcan

Finished shot of Diana © Andre Rowe

And there you have it. Another successful shoot. Check out the lighting on Diana in the finished shot above. Two beauty dishes and that Maxi-lite in the back, highlighting her hair and adding a rimlight to her arms. The colors pop and the look is clean. No Photoshop required. Who said film is dead? Don't worry, we won't start that discussion today.

Speaking of Photoshop, I'm teaching a PS class tomorrow at Dale Photo & Digital. Should be a fun three hours. All my students bring their own projects for me to work on. I think that approaching Photoshop with a goal in mind allows for a more complete picture of Photoshop workflow. Not bits and pieces, but start to finsih. This way, we can see how all the tools work together.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Beach Swimwear Shoot

So, Andre asked if I could help him on a shoot yesterday (Wednesday). It would be shot on film with the Mamiya RZ67 and he'd be using it for one of his portfolios. Lila, the designer of Amaya Swimwear, was providing the suits and styling the shoot. Of course I said yes. I had shot for Lila before and her suits always look great. At 9:00AM I looked out my window and saw a torrential downpour. The shoot was supposed to start in an hour, on the beach. I called Andre and he was certain the rain would blow inland by the time we were ready to shoot. Always the optimist.

By 9:40AM, when I met him at the beach, the rain had passed, but the clouds remained. Andre and I both smiled, looking out over the water. This shot would be hot. Not to mention, we had come packing. We had three battery-powered packs with a head each. Andre had his Profoto 7B, and I had brought an Elincrhom Ranger RX and Ranger RX Speed AS. We started setting up and used the 7B and Ranger RX at 45deg angles in front of our first model, Crystal. Both had white beauty dishes. We set even power on each pack for a total of f/22 @ 1/400th. For a backlight, we used the Ranger Speed AS with the Maxi-Lite refelctor, at about f/27.

A little about the Elinchrom Ranger RX Speed AS. 17lbs of weather-sealed, Swiss-made goodness, packing 1100w/s of power. Adjustable range from 5.7 - 1100 w/s in 1/10th stop increments. Quick change battery good for about 4000 shots. Recycles to full power in 2.8secs and min power in less than 1/3sec. All for about $2,000. In my opinion, this pack is the best out there, expecially since it is about half the price of anything close to these specs. And the quality of light with Elinchrom light modifiers is nothing short of divine.

Back to the shoot. Needless to say, by the time we set up, the rain came back in spades. Now here's the beauty of weather-proofed packs. We just kept shooting. Sure, the Profoto was zipped up tight in its Tenba Car Case with just the head cable poking out, but the Elinchrom packs were soaked and loved it. I concentrated on keeping the lens dry with a cloth between every shot. The rain passed and we pressed on.

Diana © Andre Rowe

I truly gained an appreciation for another piece of "can't live without it" gear: my Sekonic 558R paired with Pocket Wizard Plus II transievers on every pack. No cords, no hassle, no delay. I was able to meter and adjust each light individually to get the lighting balance we wanted without breaking the pace of the shoot. Mamiya calls it Digital Wireless Freedon, I call it essential.

We did a shot with bubbles that came out really nice. It was shot at f/32 (the packs weren't even at full power) and we had everyone in the shoot blowing bubbles from out of frame. With all those lights, the bubbles are clearly defined and stand out well against the darkened background.

Crystal © Andre Rowe

By noon we wrapped and headed back to Dale Photo & Digital to get the E6 processed and scanned. By 2PM everything was developed and digitized. Who said film can't be turned around fast? Especially when you have a pro lab at your disposal?

The shots came out perfect as usual. Truly the difference between picture making and picture taking. I took a bunch of behind-the-scenes shots with a "point and shoot" D2X with 12-24DX. I'll try and post those later.

Nikon 400mm f/2.8 at Flamingo Gardens

Nikon D2X - 400 f/2.8 @ f/2.8

David Kipper loaned me his Nikon 400mm f/2.8 AF-S ED lens quite a few weeks ago. I've been trying to find an excuse to get out and use it, but have been really busy. When I wasn't busy, that good 'ol Florida summer rain came to wash away any hope of a shoot. Well, the skies cleared, the sun came out, and Andre and I went 'a shootin'. We met up at the shop to throw some gear together and head over to Flamingo Gardens .

We packed up the 400 first, then figured we'd bring a few other goodies as well. Along came the Nikon 200mm f/2 VR, which is a great lens in its own right, the 1.4x, 1.7x, and the 2.0x Nikon teleconverters. We also figured that even though this was a Nikon long glass shoot, any day worth shooting is worth shooting Leica. We threw in the R9/DMR, the incomparable Leica 180 f/2 APO, the 70-180 APO, and the 100 f/2.8 APO Macro, along with the 2.0x APO extender. It was an APO kinda day, what can I say?

After grabbing a Gitzo 1327 Mountaineer with my favorite head, the Gitzo 1376M Offset ballhead and the daddy of all monopods, the Gitzo 1588, we were off to shoot. Luckily, we packed everything in a Delsey Pro trolley (wheels are nice).

First stop was the flamingo area. I started shooting the Leica 180 APO. Because of the quirky v1.2 firmware (I forgot to reinstall v1.1 before we left), I found my exposures were a bit wonky. I switched to manual and became good at guessing (didn't bring my meter with me). Andre set up the tripod and started with the 400 on the D2X. We had planned to meet up with Dennis Paul a.k.a. Nikon Denny, and sure enough, there he was on the other side of the pond. He was shooting with his D200 and 300 f/4 ED, a very underrated lens in my opinion. A minute later Jon Graham came by donning his M7. We officially had a convention.

Leica R9/DMR - 180 f/2 APO @ f/2

After shooting a few with the Leica, I traded off and took my turn with the D2X. Out on the flamingos' island, about 50 feet away, we spotted a serious looking iguana. I threw the 2x teleconverter on for an 800mm f/5.6 combo (1200mm equiv. on D2X). This is one sweet lens. It whips into focus instantly, despite its 10lbs size. The viewfinder image was crisp and stunning, even at 5.6. Even with about 13lbs on it, the offset ball held its own. I like to keep the pan control totally loose and the ball just tight enough to stabilize the camera. Smooth and steady. Who said you need a fluid head to hold the big stuff? At under $300, this head rocks. Oh yeah, and the iguana pics turned out pretty damn decent. The 2.0x took a bit of edge off the 400, but not much.

Nikon D2X - 400 f/2.8 AF-S with TC-20 @ f/5.6

We got our shots and moved on to a swampy, large pond area with trees all around. It was like a little piece of the Everglades. One thing I learned quick. Shooting at a 1200mm equiv, you have to keep your shutter speed up. I have lots of soft images shot around 350th and 500th of a sec. What works for a 300 doesn't for this guy. I also have a tremendous amount of respect for "real" wildlife photographers. Tracking birds in flight with a setup like this is not an easy task. Waiting for them to give you the proper expression is even more demanding. Andre and I both realized we just don't have the patience for this kind of thing. Fun occasionally, yes, professionally, no.

Nikon D2X - 400 f/2.8 @ f/2.8

An ibis (I'm told...not so good with birding) landed on the coin-op feed dispenser at the railing of the shooting platform. We figured he had positive results from this tactic before. For a subject five feet in front of me, the Nikon was way too long. I switched off back to the Leica DMR and the 180 APO. Shooting handheld, and loving shooting wide open at f/2, I got up close and personal with our feathered friend. I do love how the DMR holds the highlights. Of the cameras I've used, the Leica has the best whites I've seen. Really nice, clean whites with lots of detail and almost no blow out, even in high contrast lighting like we had.

Leica R9/DMR - 180 f/2 APO @ f/2

Deciding not to be dinner in addition to lunch for a bunch of hungry mosquitos hanging around the pond, we trekked on. While I shot some action shots of giant tortises, Andre got some killer shots of a large lizard on an elevated shots with the Leica.

We headed to the aviary, where it was feeding time. This is not a good time to shoot. All the birds are all thinking about one thing, and it wasn't posing for us hot and weary photogs. After we checked out the bald eagles, we checked out. Four hours in mid-90's temperatures carting around entirely too much gear, we sought out more air conditioned pastures. So we gave up early, but we did live to tell the tale and shoot another (hopefully cooler) day. Looking at the pictures, you may realize I shot everything, Nikon and Leica both, wide-open. Why wouldn't I? Leica lenses are designed with full aperature shooting in mind, and I'd hope an $8,000+ Nikon lens designed for sports and wildlife would hold its own at 2.8. I was not disappointed.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

First Post

Well, after much encouragement to do so, I have joined the modern world and started a real blog. Certainly, with so much happening in the world of photography these days, finding things to write about shouldn't be much of a problem. This is still somewhat new to me, so we'll take it one step at a time.

First, a little about me. My name is David Farkas and I have been around photography my whole life. My family has run a professional photo lab, Dale Laboratories, for about 35 years. Our motto is that we do anything from everything. From B&W to E6 to digital proofing and poster prints, we do it all. Our 12,000 sq. ft. facility is located in Hollywood, FL.

I started taking pictures when I was about 7 years old. I learned darkroom techniques, how to load my own film, manual exposure, and all that good stuff. By the time I was 14, I was selling my photographs and entering competitions. My father, Dale (of same name as lab, yes), was not sensitive to the feelings of an aspiring adolescent photographer. He was brutal and honest. After I'd shot, developed, and printed my own images, he'd tear them to shreds. I remember seeing some alley shots in some photo magazine, and thought I'd try the same. He took one look and said, "What's this?! This is trashcan school photography. You're better than this. Freshman photo students shoot like this. Move on." Ironically, I'd find out several years later in photo school that he was dead on the money. I stopped shooting trashcans and alleyways. His comments ultimately made me a better photographer.

I shot mostly nature and wildlife. I did try my hand at photojournalism work at the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel during high school and even had a full two-page spread in color. This was not my passion, though. What I did find through that was a love for publishing and design. I started using Photoshop in 1992 (version 2.5.1), and shortly after picked up PageMaker and Quark XPress. With my good friend Steven Goldman, we published an independent music and culture magazine, The Alternative. We got to interview the likes of my favorite humor columnist, Dave Barry, and a new band at the time, Green Day. Sure, we got loads of free music and concert tickets, but the real fun was putting the rag together each month.

I eventually became enamored with motion pictures, and decided to pursue this in college. At RIT, I learned about filmmaking using 16mm. While there, I lived in a place called Computer Science House, where I was surrounded by some of the smartest and most interesting people I had ever met. I also became familiar with networking, UNIX, programming, and the Web. Around this time, the Web was just starting to show up on the radar. I had my first homepage in 1995, back when there weren't a lot of corporate websites and the dot-com craze was still years away.

Still in Rochester, I worked for Kodak for two years as a second level tech for digital imaging workstations. Kodak provided some of the best training in customer service and team building I had ever experienced. We had roughly five to ten hours per week of training, and our team of ten had the honor of the highest level of customer satisfaction in the company (98.5% excellent). I'd take this experience and put it into my own business years later.

A friend of mine from school, Sean Stanley, wrote an amazing screenplay called "Blue Skies". He and I would spend a whole year working on this project. We did everything necessary to get the project moving, except raise the $1.6 million for the film. Still could be a great movie, though.

Around this time, Dale asked me to come back to Florida and help him out. I agreed. I'd come back for one or two months to do training and some computer updating to our digital imaging systems. Well... I like to call this the longest two months ever. That was eight years ago.

Several years ago, after being solely a photo lab, we decided that it was time to become a camera store. Personally, I was not keen of digital before this. Sure, our lab was one of the first in the country to adopt Kodak Photo CD and digital scanning. I had been involved in digital imaging (mostly professionally) for the better part of a decade. But, before this time, I really didn't feel that digital cameras were up to snuff. Now, of course, the times have changed and I'm a huge fan. I still think there's a place for film and I occasionally shoot some, but this is a whole other topic.

Starting out from scratch in retail, I decided that there were some simple rules that I'd follow.

  • I would only sell products that I would personally use. No cheap stuff.

  • We wouldn't sell boxes. We'd sell service and knowledge. People were amazed that when they bought a camera from us, we'd spend about half an hour with them, setting up their camera and actually showing them how to use it (and that we charged the same price as Best Buy).

  • We'd have a hands-on policy. This meant letting people use the equipment to take real pictures outside the store. We eventually extended this to our innovative rental program. People could rent anything that we carried and apply the whole rental amount to any purchase.

  • We'd give classes and hold workshops, most free, to educate our customers. Our staff would be made up of photographers, not salespeople.

  • If we didn't carry a product, and three different people asked me about it, I'd carry it. We aim to be the one-stop for all things photographic.

Well, all of these rules seemed to work out. We've grown by leaps and bounds and are expanding our retail space this year. We're also going to build a full photo studio to rent and hold workshops in. I have found helping people become better photographers very rewarding. I love being around photography and am still a hardware junkie at heart.

I hope this blog gives me the opportunity to extend this to a greater audience. I look forward to sharing my thoughts.