Stuff I did while I wasn’t here

Apparently I’ve been busy doing stuff and then not writing about it. Blogging is mostly dead, which is why I have decided that it’s the perfect moment to start doing it again and using it the way I have been using a blog since 1999: to keep track of stuffno one cares about but me1.

Anyway:

1. I wrote about being shot by Zack Arias and Bernard Brand on Dedpxl.com. It was awesome and I miss those people. If you’re interest in taking photos of people, go stand in front of someone’s camera.

2. I also had to decide who to give an Hasselblad to and I couldn’t say “give it to me”. That was cruel.

3. I am teaching in Dubai again in March! One of my workshop is sold out, the other has limited spaces, but the two I think are the most fun (self portraiture and mixed media) still have places left. GPP also asked me to write about the BTS of one of my self portraits, so here it is.

4. I ended up in a book about running. Really? Really. If you are thinking about training for your first 5k that is what you need. Honestly: those women got me to run a marathon.

5. I was interviewed for BBC radio, with people like Gregory Heisler and Diana Scheunemann. My plan of always being the worst person in the room seems to be working great!

  • 1. This is going to be super-useful when I'll finally commit some major felony and I'll need to remember where I was on friday, jan 23rd 2015. "Blogging, that's where, officer!". And then I'll rot in jail.
  • .

All work and no play make Sara a dull girl

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For the last few months I have mainly worked and worked and worked, on stuff that pays the bills. I’ve also helped other people with their own projects for the last edition of the GSFP. I’m super grateful for both things, but I need to work on my own stuff to function properly and lately I haven’t.
Even after all these years, photography is what I do to keep the pieces together.

When I need to unwind and have fun, I usually work with the same people, who might need photos for their portfolios and trust me and let me play as much as I want. What I wanted to do, among other things, was to actually test my Canon 5DMark III against my Fuji X-T1 in the same situation and see what works for me and what doesn’t.

I honestly don’t care about the gear-bukkake and the side-by-side comparisons with charts and numbers and tech-specs and all that stuff that can be found basically everywhere. I have two cameras and wanted to see how they behave when I do what I do, knowing that the Canon is the girlfriend I grew up with and the Fuji is still a moody mistress sometimes. I also knew it would be unfair to shoot with my favorite lens on the Canon (the 100 2.8) and the kit lens on the Fuji, but I can only use what I have: feel free to send me lenses. No, really: do.

Where the Canon wins, for me:

1. It’s perceived as a camera from the person in front of you. This can be a good thing or a bad thing, but I don’t shoot candids and that little uneasiness in my subjects is part of my process. I like that they are aware of me and the camera and that at some point they need to decide to let me in. I’d probably use a large format if I knew how to operate one.

2. I’m not 100% sold on the EVF: each time I shoot it goes black for an instant, while with the Canon there is no interruption in what I see when I look into my eyepiece. I guess it’s a matter of getting used to it, but still. Generally speaking, the Canon is faster.

3. A lot of people say there’s not much difference in terms of quality between a full sensor and a crop sensor and it might be true for what they do, but I definitely can see a difference in terms of detail in the skin, eyelashes and all that stuff that my clients actually pay attention to. Sure, a DLSR is no medium format, but still.

Here’s the Canon 100% crop

Canon

And here’s the Fuji 100% crop.

Fuji

I’m sure part of it is also the lens, but I can see that the pixels are a bit squashed together in the Fuji, the way it happens with any smaller sensor. Can you see the difference when you are looking at the two images on a screen and they are not cropped? If you can you’re better than I am. I had to check the metadata (in case you’re wondering: Fuji on the right)

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Where the Fuji wins, for me:

1. It’s small, it’s light, it’s unobtrusive. I have arthritis and even if the MarkIII isn’t the biggest camera around, at the end of the day my hands and my back are not happy.

2. Jpeg quality straight out of camera. I don’t know who took care of placing inside my camera the magic gnomes who translate RAW data into jpeg files, but I hardly ever touch the Fuji jpegs. With the Canon, I only use jpegs to sort images, but it’s RAW or nothing and everything is post processed, at least a little bit. Especially when it comes to color.

3. The people who sit in front of my camera seem to be more at ease. Elena commented on how much she liked the sound of the X-T1 shutter without me asking about it. I thought I’d never use the tilting LCD (come on, it’s totally for noobs!) and here I was, using it all the time because it means I don’t have a camera in front of my face and I don’t have to squat all day. It’s like working with my Rolleiflex. Not as awesome when shooting vertically, though, it would be great if it tilted that way as well.

4. Self portraiture. Oh my goodness, would I hug the person responsible for the Fuji app! I’m an old lady and not having to run back and forth like I’ve been chased by a pack of dogs is such a nice thing. I’ll probably post something about this at some point.

So, would I sell my Canon gear and switch to Fuji? No. But I’m waiting for a medium format Fuji. Make it happen. Pretty please? I’ve been a very good girl.

And here’s why the whole Canon vs Fuji pixel-peeping-thing doesn’t mean much to me: those above are a bunch of shots that I took for Elena’s portfolio. What I wanted for myself was completely different. I used an image from the rolls I shot with the Rolleiflex, photographed it holding it on a window in my kitchen (the resulting file on the left), printed it on the little Canon Selphy CP800 and then played with pins and fire and pieces of glass and shaking the camera around.

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here’s the very complex and super professional set I was using. I could have duct taped the print on the desk, it would have been the same.

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And here’s Ale who took a picture as soon as he started smelling something burning. His face is probably commenting the fact that I have a step ladder right next to me and instead I end up balancing on a wobbly box while I use one hand to handle the lighter and the other one to hold the camera. Now that I look at it, I could have ended up burning my hair. Oh well.

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Anyway, I ended up playing around a lot and honestly for what I go for, a razor sharp image is just not important.

montaggio

US Workshops and seminars- Atlanta and Baltimore

In one month I will be in Atlanta, hugging the Arias family again and talking about photography. A week later, I’ll be in Baltimore hugging the Hobby family and talking about photography.
I’m a hugger and I rarely shut up, what can I say.

I’ll be talking about shooting people and all the little stuff that isn’t written in your camera manual: I’m not one of those people who says that technique doesn’t count. It does. Learn it. Improve. Study. Struggle. Take it apart and put it back together. Never settle.
But to me photography is like a language and technique is grammar: it makes your message clear and pleasing to read, it helps you not being misunderstood, it gives you confidence in the way you’re telling your story. But what I care about, what I’ve always cared about, is the story behind the grammar, the characters, the tone. You can make mistakes and still have a compelling story, and anyway grammar is easy to learn (boring sometimes, not always fast, but not hard at all).
Portrait photography in particular, is less of a story and more of a conversation. If you speak beautifully but don’t know how to listen, it’s going to be lousy.
And it’s never just about you.
Photographers have huge, fragile egos: we think our photos belong to us because we were attached to the finger pushing the button, but over the years I learnt that every portrait is a collaboration between photographer and subject and that the more you learn how to take care of the person in front of you, the better the picture is going to come out. That can be learnt as well.
If you’re anything like me, you’re way more comfortable interacting with a camera than you are interacting with a human being, but you don’t have to be a “people person” to be a people photographer. We’ll talk about that for four hours in the Behind the Portrait Seminar. I’ll tell you everything I know and you can come and ask about anything you might want to know. Come with a question, (metaphorically) squeeze me like a lemon, don’t go home without an answer: I’ll try to make it a good one. Or at least the best one I can.

And then in the afternoon I’ll talk about what I *really* like to do. If photography is a language, who says we can’t make up words? They put “selfie” on the dictionary, for duck’s sake, stop thinking you need to follow a bunch of rules some dead person set for themselves just because you read it in a book that one time.
Photography is child’s play. And by that I mean it’s super serious and super focused (have you ever watched children at play? You’ll know what I mean) but it’s also something that you can make up as you go.
Not if you want to be a photojournalist, I guess, but even the World Press Photo had to change the rules because people were getting a little bit too carried away. Don’t resist it: join the dark side. I am your father.
Exploring the borders of photography, that shifty space where you’re not sure you’re allowed to be with a camera, is exciting and fun and can teach you a lot about “regular” photography.
I like to consider myself a photojournalist for worlds that never existed.

And again, I’ll try not to drone on and on about the technique. The technique part is EASY.
And to prove that, here’s a bunch of little videos I made right after Magpies was published, as a reward for some of the people who donated to my Indiegogo campaign:

The Baltimore workshop is sold out, the Atlanta workshop only has 3 spots left and there’s still plenty of space for the seminars. If you want to come and watch me wave my hands like a mad italian, here’s where you get your seat.

First month: what I’ve learnt so far

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It’s been a month since I started documenting my parents, which is proving to be something I care about more than I thought I would.
For all the reasons I wrote about here, this is a project that excites me and scares me at the same time.

I’m way out of my comfort zone both because of the setup I’m using (which is wide lenses and so far no artificial lights, while I’m usually happy around 85-100 mm with a big softbox) and because this is my first time working with something that’s in front of me rather than directing my subjects for the image. I’ve never watched a documentary photographer work and honestly I’m pretty ignorant about the process: I usually just look at the final images and don’t think about how they were shot. But this is so different from commercial photography and there are a few things I’m learning along the way:

1. Being organized. I’m pretty anal retentive when it comes to keeping my hard disks in order, but even the biggest commercial gig I had so far is tiny, compared to the amount of photos I’ve been taking so far. At the end of each day I download my cards, I rename the files with a YYMMDD_001 format, I write down some notes to help me remind what I was doing or where I was or anything that might help me navigate through the images later.
I also go through the shots and assign 2 star to anything that doesn’t suck really bad (there’s a LOT of those. A LOT lot) and these go to another folder, to be printed tiny. When it comes to see how images work together, I still think having a physical print is easier.

2. Shoot now, think later. The hardest thing for me is still shooting while stuff happens. I missed a gazillion good pictures because I wasn’t fast enough and I’m left with a gazillion “a moment after something happened” images. This is frustrating. To add to the frustration, the light in my parents’ house is pretty dim and there isn’t a single white wall. The Fuji x-T1 is behaving really nicely so far, but there are a couple of shots that would really improve with a strobe or ten.

3. Learning the distance. Wide angles are weird for me to use. I always end up being closer than I’m comfortable with, so I have to find ways to make myself invisible while being on top of people. My parents don’t seem to mind having me around at all, it’s more a problem on my side. I’m also so used to normal and tele distance that each time I place my camera in front of my face I end up being too far away. At the same time, I’m finding out that being the photographer rather than the daughter means keeping some sort of emotional distance while I’m with my parents. I’m not judging anything I see, I’m just documenting it and I found myself deflating a couple of situations that in the past would have ended in a big fight (between me and my mum).
This, to me, is very interesting. I’m also learning a lot about my family, because if you stand next to someone long enough they start talking. Piecing together the stories is like building a jigsaw puzzle without the lid from a box in which several different jigsaw puzzles are mixed together, but when two pieces fit, it’s awesome.

4. Digging deeper. This first month was about testing the waters and become a little more confident with the new camera, the new project and the new process. I just wanted my parents to have me around and not freak out. I’m starting to see a lot of things here and there that are interesting, that explain a lot about the person I am and the way I think. It’s hard to scratch the surface and see my family and the house I grew in with a set of new eyes, but that’s the goal for the next months. I have a list of images that I know I want to get and I’m adding to that list each time something pops to my mind. I also need to remember that I’m trying to tell a story and include details and the surroundings.
After the first month the risk is to take pictures of the same things over and over and I need to keep looking, keep digging.

5. Suck until I don’t. I thought I knew how to take pictures. When you do something long enough it becomes comfortable, it’s easy to get complacent. Change a thing or two and the pretty house of cards you built starts rattling. Change some more and everything collapses. I had to learn how to operate a camera again. I focus on light, and framing go to hell. I frame my photo, and forget to change ISO back to 400. I have everything perfect, and the battery dies on me because I’m mostly using the LCD (it feels like cheating, but the fact that I’m not covering my face with a camera seems to work wonders in the “becoming invisible” thing).

And when I’m not shooting like a mad woman with two left hands, I’m preparing for my US workshops: if you’re in Atlanta on august 16-17th or in Baltimore on august 23-24th, come join me!

Making myself accountable

In the beginning was the word and the word was most likely something like “aurghwaaaaah”.
You weren’t there, no one was there, and the meaningless cacophonic sound that was probably uttered is long forgotten, buried under the amount of amazing words that have been spoken since.
That is what’s painful about beginnings: they’re so full of promise and potential, but most of the time that potential is securely wrapped in a bundle of nonsense and feces you need to dig through with your bare hands. No one has kept track of Shakespeare first little story (his mum didn’t have “facebooketh” to report it), but I bet my camera it sucked. And it was probably exhilarating at the same time.
I’m in that place at the moment, swinging between damnation and redemption as the shapeless project in the back of my head is beginning to surface. I tried to drown it a couple of times, but it keeps coming back, so I guess I’ll just give in and start working on it.

On one hand I’m exploring image destruction in a darkroom, and even though I’m as proficient as a nun on a stripper pole for the first time at the moment, this is right up my alley. On the other hand, though, I decided to spend the summer documenting my parents and for some reason this is scaring the shit out of me.
I blame it on David Alan Harvey, Steve Simon (whose book I just read again, and it seems like this time it struck a nerve) and Eric Kim: talking to them made me want to venture into new territories and push my photography in new directions (new for me, at least), but this came with a new set of problems.

First of all, I’m NOT a documentary photographer. I don’t do reality and for me the decisive moment is the one when I ponder whether to wear heels knowing I will have to walk for more than ten meters. I never spent time building a photographic essay, and I have almost no idea how to do it correctly.
Secondly, taking pictures of my family is probably going to be way too intense for me: how do I keep an honest point of view when the heart of the subject is so close to mine? How to I find the balance between objectivity and making my point of view come across? Where do I draw the line between what’s too private to be captured and what’s important as part of a story? Do I keep shooting when I see something I want to capture even though it’s a “charged” moment (e.g. the relationship between my mother and her mother, who’s now living with my parents, is often tense, but it’s something that I think might need to be explored)?
Thirdly, I’m used to constructing the image, using artificial lights and controlling the environment, and it’s going to be hard to find images instead of bossying them into existence. I’m also very comfortable between 50 and 100mm and I’m planning on mostly using wide angle lenses. I foresee a lot of cursing for stuff suddenly being in the frame.
Lastly, do I give them the possibility to veto my work? I usually do for portraits, since what I do is often finding the sweet spot between capturing the core of a person and flattery, but I don’t want to go for flattery in this project, not only at least.

I already told my parents I’ll be around them with a camera the whole summer and they just said that’s ok with them and went on doing what they were doing, which goes to show that I’m probably freaking out over nothing.

It’s not like I have a deadline, a client or an editor to please: if nothing good comes out of my camera, I’ll have spent more time with my parents, and I can just bury the files into some remote hard disk.
At first I thought I would just keep this whole thing under the radar until I had something good to show, but on second thoughts, I decided I needed to make myself accountable because part of me is already starting to find ways to back out.
I also might need advice: how do you turn someone who basically writes fan-fiction about furries into a good essayist?