Thursday, August 27, 2015

Why So Serious?

It dawned on me this evening that perhaps I am taking my creative life, my creative exploits, just a tad too seriously.

Thanks to the glorious web scouring power of Reddit (no seriously, thank you guys), I was made aware of a rather strongly worded (but absolutely appropriate) retrospective analysis of, in this case, the advertising industry, and its enormous tax on the person behind the creative spirit. "A Short Lesson in Perspective", a blog post written by an advertising industry staple, Linds Redding. I've read about his work before, mainly in third party articles (never knew he ran his own blog). I came across his name primarily due to the awkwardly similar situations we are (well... were, unfortunately) both in. Men with a time stamp on their lives. His (I reiterate, most unfortunately) came, whereas I'm still waiting on mine. I can't laud him enough for providing a bit of perspective before his passing.

Linds Redding came down with cancer, the kind of wildly metastasized, non-recoverable variant that locks one in a hospital for extended periods and rather permanently retracts one from the typical trappings of Western capitalism. Which is to say he spent extended periods of time outside his accepted working environment, thus permitting him perspective of life within and outside of the industry we creatives tend to regard as a holy grail of sorts. I believe he stated in his post that it only took 6 months (in the grand scheme, a remarkably short period of time) to acquire the re-balanced perspective necessary to write his post. I do recommend all those who fancy themselves artists married with business read it, it's quite sobering. And at the same time obvious, but as Mr. Redding states several times, something we're all quite good at deceiving ourselves into believing.

I don't have cancer. My situation is less predictable, which is not to insinuate I aim to upstage a creative powerhouse postmortem ("My death is worse than yours"), but simply provide a frame of reference. When premature death inevitably takes me, it will be sudden and unexpected, and I will not have the opportunity to experience a 6 month detachment from work-as-usual, life-as-usual. It will simply happen and I will fade without comment. There will be no time for me to develop perspective, which makes me all the more appreciative of the glimmers of introspection others provide in respect to their lives and the sense of impact with which they part this earth. And that is a most important thing to me, a necessity before a happy passing, to know that I've had impact. Some of Mr. Redding's remarks on the creative person's ego suddenly come to mind.

Since beginning my business in photography 3 year ago (nearly 4, now... wow), the sense of creative stagnation has gotten worse with time. I am photographing the same way every day, and what little time left for personal shooting is spoiled by nagging considerations of a style guide designed to minimize perceptible risk in the look and quality of images in a commercial sense. The longer I spend engaged in this specific style of shooting, the less willing I am privately comfortable with experimenting in my own personal artistic expression, to the point where, today, every photograph I take feels lessened by virtue of not being commercially viable. My time may be short when I eventually bleed out, at random, internally, and it bothers me to think that I might spend the last minute-and-a-half of life thinking "Damn, my photography really sucked the last 4 years".

The definitive guide to every photographer's life cycle. Not remarked are the points at which more rational people abandon the pursuit of photography entirely (most just after the "HDR Hole").

On the great timeline of a photographer's life cycle, I'm just past the "HDR Hole" and working my way back up in opinion of my work. Not remarked in the graph, however, is the impact of commercial focus in one's practice of the trade/skill/art. It really does function as a flat line, with less permission to experiment with technique leading to atrophied knowledge and thus an anemic quality of photograph. And Redding's description of the pace of creative work is absolutely accurate - my days are filled with work to the point of exhaustion, to the point where creative energy is a thing only remotely available through irresponsible alcoholism ("Jet Fuel", as I've come to call it), and like the "Morning After Test" a majority of those endeavors get passed over in the glazed eyes of a hangover and resigned to a digital graveyard. It makes money, it supports a lifestyle and a family, but so long as it standard there will always be a permanent glass ceiling to the acquisition of the most coveted goal of a creative, self actualization.

That all said, I'm not going to stop my pursuit of photography as a viable business and living. A key benefit of my situation is that, as a freelancer, I set my own schedule, I accept work on my own terms, and am not obligated by the terms of the contracts I sign to engage in the kind of competition Redding's life in advertising obligated him to wrangle. As he mentions, however, we creatives are a self motivated sort, and often saddle ourselves irrationally with lofty goals and obligations for the benefit of those who may or may not reward us for that uncommon drive (the "bean counters"). In my case, I've swallowed the concept of self sacrifice for market benefit hook, line, and sinker. And it needs to stop. I do not want to spend my last moments lamenting creative energies exhausted to sell a few homes, rent a few listings, and make wealthy people a little more wealthy. Because, in the end, they aren't likely to care.

I am taking more vacations now. Enslaved by the commanding reminders, notifications, and e-mails of my Google calendar, I've made it a point to specifically schedule time for myself in advance so as to not accidentally inundate myself with working shoots those specific days (admittedly I'm still perfecting that trick). Two weekends ago I forewent the standard barrage of a dozen or so shoots for a retreat into the Appalachians, and for the first time exercised knowledge and employed experimentation in the creation of astrophotography, a medium I've always admired but never taken the time to indulge. And it was a much needed recharge. So long as I keep committed to indulging such blind freedom from perceived obligation once a month, I think perhaps an otherwise unsustainable machine gun beat of work might actually be that crucially little bit more tenable.

Who says cell phones can't function as stellar cameras when you just don't care?

So I want to thank you, little as it may be worth at this point, Mr. Redding. I want to thank you for being brave enough to deny your own self deception, for being brave enough to look back at your life's body of work and calling it what it really is. Because not many people, at the end of the line, would ever be willing to admit the nihilist futility of a thing so much time was invested in. And in your bravery, I only wish you could know that you've introduced a little much needed perspective to the lives those artists who would otherwise continue headfirst into persistent self delusion. Very personally, I appreciate the reminder that self actualization will not come from overindulgence in the commercially safe, the commercially viable.

I think I might turn off the electronic level in my camera for the first time since buying it today.

Rebuttal to "How Mirrorless Cameras Could Save the Photo Industry (But Probably Won't)"

Perhaps less a rebuttal than more informed counterpoint. Michael Heath, a University of Pennsylvania IT product analyst, was frank enough to divulge early in his article regarding the decline of the camera industry that he is not a working, "professional" photographer (and I insist on using quotes because the definition of "professional" is an ambiguity at best in today's market). By contrast, I've kept my head buried in the bosom of the camera market nearly 15 years, watched it change and evolve in the thick of the "digital renaissance" of imaging, developing and growing among the first generation of photographers for whom digital is the most accessible medium (versus film). Many of Mr. Heath's points make perfect sense, but arguments of causality and correlation inspire a little pushback from somewhere deep in my gut.

I'll start first with possibly the only point outright refutable (which I believe to be an error of shortsightedness, not looking far enough back in the timeline of camera sales). Mr. Heath presents a chart that I've seen far too many times mirrored on various camera industry rumor sites (43Rumors, MirrorlessRumors, etc.). The chart portends to show declining interchangeable lens camera sales in regular cycles since 2012, which certainly is not incorrect (whee, double negatives).

DSLR vs Mirrorless Camera Sales from July 2012 to January 2015,
generated from CIPA aggregated data on

This chart has always struck me as little more than superficial competition fuel for the inane DSLR vs Mirrorless camera feud plaguing the already brand-loyal tribalist realm of the ILC consumers. Cameras in these categories are not broadly competitive with the smartphones it is suggested they're up against. What is more telling is reaching back to when the original iPhone was released and analyzing the brutally fast disappearance of the compact camera market, the true competitor to the smartphone.

CIPA Camera Production aggregated data from 1933 to 2013,
presented by from Sven Skafisk.

It should be telling that the smartphone category of cameras extends well beyond the confines of this chart so as to make it at all reasonable to fit in a rectangular, web friendly box. By 2013, the smartphone portion of the digital camera market extends to nearly 1.3 billion units. In the 6 years it takes for the smartphone market to mature, for iPhones to find competitors in Android devices, for apps markets to present offerings like Instagram and Vine and trigger an intense focus on the quality of mobile phone video and photography, it takes only 3 years for the compact camera market to crash from a sales "high" of ~100 million units down to under 30 million, a more than 70% decline.

Now, by comparison, the DSLR and Mirrorless sales manage to remain fairly consistent through this period of smartphone growth. Among consumer digital imaging technologies, they are still relative new kids on the block, and among working professionals there will always be a market for these higher end bits of technology. However, being more working tools in nature, they are purpose built for the accomplishment of very specific goals, namely the intent to produce a higher-end image, and though the working man may certainly abuse his tools, they are nevertheless built to last (else he wouldn't buy/use them).

The camera Mr. Heath describes, the cheap, simple, unobtrusive brick that takes the deliberate thinking out of the equation in the capture of an image, already existed, and has already been overcome by the Darwinian consumer culture of the tech market. Perhaps Michael had never seen this data aggregated before, but it's perfectly clear (to me) that the rise of the smartphone and advent of digital image sharing on the mobile device clearly correlates with the blisteringly quick decline in compact camera sales. With smartphone cameras featuring up to 1" sensors, bright and fast f/2.4 lenses, brilliantly coded software tricks to expand the potential for mobile image capture, and the pertinence of a voraciously media consumptive culture that images be shared immediately, it's not surprising at all that $200 bricks with 1/2.3" sensors, sub par LCD screens, slow boot times, small batteries and no direct web connectivity fell into obscurity and vanished as internet culture evolved beyond their relevance.

Complexity of modern camera designs is certainly off-putting to the typical consumer, but that is because the typical consumer is no longer a viable target audience. That class of consumer has very clearly made its bed with the smartphone and unless camera manufacturers begin partnering with mobile phone manufacturers in maturing the designs of smartphone cameras I don't see camera manufacturers ever courting the typical consumer again. Which is to say they could possibly learn a lesson from DXO in their release of the DXO One, assuming they're even interested in trying to get that market share back.

Producers of Mirrorless ILCs are at an awkward sort of advantage in the current market, the same sort of awkward advantage enjoyed by their predecessors once upon a time. Canon and Nikon have long had firmly entrenched market popularity being the progenitors of autofocus in consumer cameras and the first big engines in the digital age of imaging. That popularity (and profitability) led them to conservative business practices for fear of upsetting their own stability in the established market, hence why compact digital cameras were allowed to atrophy so steadily with the smartphone's rise - they were unwilling to engage in necessary risk to retain market relevance.

Mirrorless camera makers have no such established market for the typical consumer. While more approachable with revolutionary designs and touch screens, they are by and large intended for the photography enthusiast, much like the entry level DSLR designs of Canon and Nikon. Having once placed enormous faith in the viability of the typical consumer market to carry them with profit-by-volume, Canon and Nikon remain unwilling to bend in established design trends for fear of destabilizing even their "prosumer" markets, and thus even that market will be allowed to atrophy and slowly whither. Mirrorless manufacturers have nowhere to go but up in their camera divisions, given that they never had any established market position prior to 2008 (just before compact camera sales took their nosedive). The freedom of no expectations or established trends allows for greater innovation in Mirrorless cameras, seen in unique processing engines, innovative shooting modes and integrated connectivity to the smartphone (just look at Olympus' E-M5 Mk. II and its art filters, story mode, high resolution shooting with IBIS and amazing WiFi app). Mirrorless may thrive just fine ignoring the typical consumer, maintaining focus on the consumer with a preconceived goal of learning photography as opposed to the guy who just wants to tap a screen, share on Facebook and be done.

My friend Rob's E-M5 Mk. II, alongside a Sarnac Pale Ale, because no self respecting
photographer fails to properly imbibe prior to shenanigans.

Mr. Heath is absolutely correct that "every mid to high-end camera... is, essentially, a complicated evolution of the film camera", but I maintain that is by intent and for the best of those cameras and their intended market. I don't suspect the typical consumer would want to use any sort of boxy touch screen device with some phallic optic extending uncomfortably forth from its body. The form factor alone simply does not align with the expectations of an imaging device set forth by the mobile phone market. It's simply not a war worth fighting, and that's okay. Capitalism may emphasize the value of vigorous competition, but in this situation I believe technology would benefit greater overall by the collaboration of camera manufacturers and mobile phone manufacturers. The availability of such powerhouse rendering engines such as EXSPEED or TRUEPIC integrated in a mobile phone, with tailor made optics and a great underlying sensor to match, would be fantastic.

That said, the camera market is indeed " the precipice of a permanent contraction", and personally I find that both true and inevitable for the likes of Canon and Nikon. Like the big banks of 2008, they're used to a lavish "lifestyle" funded by compact camera sales that they'll never get back, and their conservative approach with their higher end camera designs is losing them market share slowly and steadily among working professionals. For the likes of Olympus, Panasonic, hell, even Leica and Pentax, they never developed a crutch out of their compact cameras offerings, and were more than willing to cut that fat from their manufacturing budgets in the last couple years. They are more than sustainable with their appeal to the prosumer and higher end camera market, and at least in the case of Olympus, even profitable.

Sony I choose to abscond from in comment. They make the imaging sensors used by the majority of the market anyway, so making cameras for them is more or less masturbation.

A final note, I'd like to address the multitude of comments decrying the human species for became fat and lazy and incapable of wiping its own ass for sake of not wanting to learn how to use the toilet paper roll. Photography, as a social ecosystem, is remarkably dense and ultimately unaware of itself. It feels unfair, to me, to hold the Average Joe up to the same standards of curiosity and desire to figure things out, to "do it right", as I hold myself to (and as I've assessed, most photographers hold themselves to). It is no new thing that Mr. Average Joe wishes for doors to open for him, for the toilet to wipe his ass (I believe it's called a bidet), and that his camera will do the picture taking for him. Being denizens of this tight ecosystem of curious, DIY-minded people, we've come to expect such enthusiasm toward the exertion of effort as we find for ourselves, but that's simply not the case. This is not to say we are "better" people for our insistence on learning the intricate, underlying workings of how a machine operates and how to operate it most efficiently, simply different, because frankly not all things require such exhaustive study and often times we wind up reinventing the wheel (just because you did it differently does not mean your did it better).

On the whole, a good read from Mr. Heath, and I appreciate his vicarious motivations to get my mental gears a-turning!

Wednesday, August 26, 2015


Pardon me while I take a moment to complain.

There is often a lack of attention given to one's working environment. In an office, layout of spaces is a facet of efficiency, how many bodies can be reasonably crammed into single space (or so that it my experience as far as offices go). In the creative industry, work space layout is less restricted by the demands of absolute efficiency, but when one's work space is ultimately one's home, the parameters by which it is constrained amount to where it can fit in amid the necessary trappings of day to day life. Herein lies my complaints about my current living situation. My home does not have the space to accommodate the kinds of creative activity I'd like to indulge.

Home for me is humble, a two bedroom apartment shared with my partner and our pet bunnies and bearded dragon. Our kitchen and living room are something of an open concept space just past the front door, once bedroom functions as the bedroom its meant to be and the other serves as a shared office. And that's it. Room to keep studio lights set up, room to even set them up temporarily and tear them down, does not exist. And as much as the mutual office is great for those nights spent relaxing and playing games with my partner, it's a piss poor environment in which to engage in the very private and personal exercises of anything akin to creative work, be it photo editing or, in this case, blog writing. It's becoming a critical problem for me as I'm growing in my photographic work.

The loathed office. Ideal for cooperative gaming,
appalling for actual work, creative or otherwise.

Particularly bothering me tonight is the desire to write, about which subjects to write, and flesh out mature photo essays on subjects of interest. The need to avoid diversion is obvious, but in such a small home of universally shared spaces they are impossible to escape. To gather the focus to even write this bitchfest of a blog post I'm sitting in the living room to avoid the diversion and self consciousness associated with working on such material with eyes potentially over the shoulder, but even now the activity of the bunnies and eternal allure of white noise on the TV is an overwhelming distraction. The patio of the apartment complex isn't an improvement, what with the droning buzz of dozens of air conditioning units, sirens in the night air and planes flying in to land at the nearby airport. For once, I understand the appeal people find in moving greater and greater distances away from development and civilization.

Even in the exercise of creating half assed blog posts,
the M. Zuiko 7-14mm f/2.8 plagues me with lens flare.
Ideally I'd be writing on any number of topics cataloged in a running list amid the solitude of a quiet basement, perhaps with lyric-free ambiance playing in the background, and with the room to set up a reflective table, take a few snaps of the night's subject, quickly process commit them to my usual verbose prose. Tonight, the best I feel capable of doing is complaining about not having a place to set up such a studio apparatus, snapping a few photos of my miserable work spaces and sharing the claustrophobic realms in which I do my work, all the while gripping with a pang of guilt knowing others work in far more miserable spaces and don't feel nearly as compelled to complain. My standards are admittedly high.

Possibly the only place in my humble abode capable of
providing me any semblance of necessary solitude for work.
To get absolutely basic with my complaints, it boils down to displeasure in the shared office and hatred of my computer desk in general. Creativity, for me, requires a strong sense of privacy, and space in which to self express is a necessity. I simply can't get that here. The simple solution is to move, but this isn't the cheapest area of the contiguous United States in which to live, nor is the process of moving particularly stress free. A standalone studio space was a brief thought, but effectively snuffed when it amounted to effectively doubling monthly rent obligations for less space than simply waiting a couple more years, saving and buying a house with the same amount of room for a single, smaller mortgage payment. Patience, as usual, is the deciding factor.

I'm done, for now. A temporary solution can be found, and I have admittedly spent more time being annoyed than being inventive with solutions to my perceived space constraints. Now pardon me, a bunny just hopped into my lap and it's suddenly hard to type, even to complain.


As an aside, the images above were quickly snapped with the M. Zuiko 7-14mm f/2.8. I've been using it extensively in my real estate work for the past 2 months, and on the whole it is a huge upgrade from the limitations of the 12-40mm f/2.8 when it comes to the wide end. I've come to find the 8-10mm focal lengths indispensable in my work, and after years of finding the 12mm focal length in both the PRO zoom and f/2.0 prime lens variations more than wide enough, suddenly that focal length feels utterly limiting.

Flare, however, persists in being an issue with the lens. Most of the time I've been able to work around it either by intelligent positioning or using my hands to shield hard light sources, but it's nonetheless problematic. With nothing else in my optical arsenal to compare it to, however, I'm still unsure if it's a deal killer for the lens or simply life as usual with such ultra wide optics. My use cases are never particularly easy, of course - contrast laden scenes are endemic to interior photography.