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Feats of Artistic Strength Award: Jorge Colombo and The New Yorker iPhone Cover

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In case you haven’t already heard or seen it, Jorge Colombo has used the iPhone app “Brushes” to create the cover of The New Yorker (May 25, 2009). This single event marks a turning point in the creation and use of available technology. These works of art, which are essentially digital finger paintings, are showcased on his website.

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Mr. Colombo is hereby awarded the “Feats of Artistic Strength Award” because it might be the most high-profile example of equipment being inconsequential to the vision of the artist. To paraphrase Jodi Friedman’s recent blog post at MCP Actions Blog,

A professional camera does not a professional photographer make.

Everyone experiences this. You might call it techno-envy. We see the famous photographers shooting with the new Canon 5D Mk II before it’s released to the public. We see the incredible short film he made with the HD Video capture feature. And thus begins the inner dialogue:

My brain: You’d totally shoot images that looked just like [insert famous photographer] if you ONLY had that $2500 camera and that $1600 lens! Look at the bokeh on that thing!

My wallet: You’re kidding, right? That’s like a year’s worth of groceries! Your kid can’t eat Canon glass for dinner!

My brain: But with that equipment, just think how much better my photos will be! It has better resolution and therefore my photos will look amazing and I can start charging more for them! Then we’ll be eating caviar!

My wallet: Yeah. I bet if you bought that new $500 driver you’d hit the ball just like Tiger Woods, too. Or maybe you’d still hit it into the woods. Only further.

We’ve all heard time and time again from other photographers, and especially the famous ones, that it’s NOT the equipment that matters. It’s the photographers. But how those marketing campaigns from Canon and Nikon sing the sweet music of megapixels into our ears! Here’s the manufacturer’s information from one of the leading photo retailers:

The Canon EOS 5D Mark II improves upon the EOS 5D by increasing the resolution by about 40% to 21.1 Megapixels and adds a Live View feature that allows users to preview shots on the camera’s high-resolution 3.0″ LCD display. It even incorporates the ability to record full motion HD Video with sound, so you can capture the action as well as superb images.

Who wouldn’t want a camera that’s teeming with megapixels and shoots HD video? It continues:

Other professional quality features found on the Canon EOS 5D Mark II include 14-bit A/D conversion, Auto Light Optimizer, Lens Peripheral Illumination Correction, 9-point AF plus 6-point assist AF, 25 Custom Functions with 71 settings, and 5 metering modes (35-Zone EV, 8% Partial Spot, 3.5% Spot, Center-Weighted, and Pre-Flash E-TTL II). Altogether, the Canon EOS 5D Mark II has been designed to serve the needs and interests of serious enthusiasts as well as professional photographers who are in pursuit of the perfect image.

And now for the rant.

Doesn’t that description make it sound as if you could pick up the camera, and with a minimum of experience or knowledge, take a great photo? Hopefully none of us believe that, or else I’m sure just putting the newest, most techologically-advanced tennis racquet in my 3-month old daughter’s hands and she’d instantly turn into the next Serena Williams. But even with natural ability, she would still need years of hard work and practice to become a pro. Babies aren’t just born and start walking in the first hours of life. It takes several months and many falls and bruised knees to get up on two feet. The advantage babies have is that they don’t have a brain trying to telling them there’s a shortcut that they can purchase. Only their desire to walk keeps them trying again and again, until their feet, ankles, knees, and legs all work in harmony and they achieve their goal. Parents know it doesn’t stop there. Onto running and climbing up things. They don’t see roadblocks or obstacles. All they see is opportunities.

It’s an overused metaphor, but it’s so common because it’s so true. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not telling you to buy bad equipment. I heartily agree with Vincent Versace’s advice to “Buy your last camera first,” but not for the reason you might think. Should you scrape together that extra $500 to get the higher-end model? Certainly. But only because it’ll last you a very long time so you can learn to know it inside out, and use it to its fullest capacity. You should know what every button does, where every setting is, and what they do. You should be able to operate the camera without looking at it.

The quality of your glass also plays a huge role in the quality of your images. But again, price doesn’t have to set the bar here. Canon makes a 50mm f/1.8 lens that costs less than $100 and produces incredibly sharp images and decent bokeh. In fact, before you drop a few thousand dollars on a new camera, invest less than $100 in an inexpensive prime and see if a whole new world doesn’t open up through your viewfinder. Yes, the more expensive lenses have the ability to record better in-camera images. But that doesn’t mean that they make better photos. Only the person squeezing the shutter has that ability.

Pick a lens and fall in love with it. Every lens is unique, like a new friend. They each have their own unique abilities and their own nuances to discover, and what a fun thing to have to do…photograph more! You’ll soon learn exactly what your lenses can and can’t do; where they are their sharpest, where they might vignette, how long it is before their weight makes your forearm ache.

The bottom line.

Yes, expensive equipment records better images than cheaper equipment. There’s no getting around that. What it will not do is magically turn your image into a better photograph. That’s a fine distinction, and I’m going to repeat it so you won’t forget: better equipment does not make a better photograph. It just records the image more accurately. If you can’t frame an image well, the camera will not do it for you. If you can’t adjust the exposure for extreme backlighting, the camera won’t do it for you. Its job it to do its best to record what you put in front of it. What you put in front of it, how you frame it, how you light it, how you expose it…that’s all you. Some of the most iconic photos in our history have been taken by completely manually operated cameras which didn’t have even a fraction of the raw computing power that today’s entry-level DSLRs have.

Back to the beginning.

Think again about Jorge Colombo’s iPhone drawing. Did he have a finely crafted paintbrush, a beautifully handmade palette, an lovely studio with north-facing windows to let in just the right amount of light? No. He was on a busy street in New York, looking (and smelling) a hot dog vendor’s cart. He had an iPhone and a $5 application, and he recorded the scene as he saw it.

We do the same thing with a camera. It doesn’t have to cost thousands of dollars. In fact, the most well-known image of the US Airways flight that landed in the Hudson River was shot…on an iPhone! It didn’t come from a 21-megapixel camera. It came from a 2-megapixel cell phone. And it was on the front page of hundreds of newspapers around the world.

How you know when to buy new stuff.

The only requirement for a piece of equipment is that it allows you to get the job done. So if you’re constantly shooting weddings in darkly lit churches, and all you have is a kit lens that only opens to f/4, you’re equipment is limiting your ability to make good images. That’s when you look at purchasing glass that’s capable of allowing you to do your job and shoot in low light.

I remember reading an interview with a photographer back when I was a teenager where this same question of expensive vs. cheap equipment came up. He said he never paid attention to someone’s equipment. Instead, he looked at their photos. It doesn’t matter how much your camera cost. Jose Villa and Joe Buissink (among others) still shoot film, and their images are spectacular. Don’t think that you need a 21-megapixel camera to get the job done. Be in the right place, the right time, frame it, and shoot it. A photographer’s camera is only as good as the photographer pressing the shutter.

A sports star was once asked: “How did you get to be so successful?”
He replied, “Two words: good decisions.”
And the inevitable reply: “How did you learn to make good decisions?”

He said, “One word: experience.”
“And how did you get experience?”
“Two words: bad decisions.”

Whether it’s bad decisions, bruised knees, or another photo that didn’t turn out the way you had hoped, nothing is a failure. You learn. After a while navigating your equipment becomes second nature. A poor image was a bad decision. And knowing what makes a poor image gives you the experience you need to make better images. Soon your good images will outnumber your poor images. And then your great images will begin to outnumber your good images.

Before you talk to your wallet, shoot. Shoot everything. From every angle. With every f-stop. Learn your camera. Learn your lenses. You can’t outsource it, it’s an investment you have to make on your own. You won’t know if your equipment is holding you back until you know what it can do. So what are you waiting for? Stop reading and learn your equipment. Go shoot!

(Though before you do, you might want to check out this awesome video of Jorge Colombo actually creating the cover!)

Todd Bissonette - Great post. I wish I had an assignment for everytime someone said to me…’That’s a great camera, you must be a good photographer!” I only wish it was that easy, then I could just go out and by a new camera whenever I wanted to get better! Of course, someone said, “If it was that easy, everyone would do it…”

Guest Blogger on MCP Actions Blog

Go check out the guest post I just wrote for Jodi Friedman’s MCP Actions Blog! It’s all about soft proofing in Photoshop. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, you should already be reading it. Enjoy!

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jason - this was a great article. i’ve struggled lately with color management. thanks for the insight.

Phillip Mackenzie - Thanks Jason! I’m so glad it helped!

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Memorial Day, 2009

I hope that all of you are having a fun, wonderful and safe Memorial Day!

In all the revery, though, let us not forget the reason for this day and the sacrifices that those of previous generations made for our country. I know that many of you have friends, siblings, or other family members who serve or have served our country in the armed forces, and your thoughts remain with them today.

In all the vast canon of writings of and about war, there has been a poem that has always remained with me since I was a little boy and heard it read by Linus on a Charlie Brown special. “In Flanders Fields” was written by a Canadian physician who fought on the Western Front in 1914 in The Great War (what we now call World War I) and wrote what might be the single best-known poem from that war.

In Flanders Fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

– Lt. Col. John McCrae

Happy Memorial Day.


On the Shootsac Blog!

Well I awoke this morning after having not been online since late yesterday afternoon, got online, and found that my last blog post was featured on the Shootsac Blog! I was floored to find this considering that Jessica Claire is one of my favorite wedding photographers, and she left a wonderful comment on my blog below. Thank you for your kind words, Jessica!

And if you’re a photographer who doesn’t own a Shootsac or a Hip Slip, you owe it to yourself to check them out!

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My New Hip Slip from Shootsac & A New Beginning

Have you ever sat there and watched the minutes tick by and by, ever so slowly, as UPS or FedEx seems to wait until the last possible second of the day to bring you your long-awaited package?

If you know me, you know how excited I was to get my Shootsac…my lenses have never known a better home! It’s like the Porsche of camera bags. Well just before the WPPI convention this year, Jessica Claire (the genius behind Shootsac) announced the Hip Slip…a Shootsac for your laptop! And since my MacBook Pro is strapped to me like a safety blanket wherever I go, what better gift could I give it than to carry it around in the new Porsche of computer bags?

Of course I ordered it faster than a Porsche goes from 0-60. I had no idea when I would get it…there was only an estimated ship by date for pre-orders. Well, this past Friday, I came home to find a large, beautiful, white package on my front step. If my baby daughter hadn’t been quite so testy, I would have torn into it right there on my front step.

Shootsac Hip Slip

And as I stared at the lovely black and white packaging, I decided that with this new computer bag, I would mark a renewed beginning in my photography business. Up to this point, I have shot weddings and portraits, but not nearly as many as I want to and I have not been able to keep up with all my editing because of my other jobs. That all ends now. I’ve always been a believer in signs, and this one seems perfect. A new home for my beloved laptop, and a new start for my business.

So this means some promises. Both to myself and to everyone else. I promise to be the best photographer and best person I can possibly be. For my daughter, my wife, my family, my friends, my clients, my colleagues, and my future clients and friends I haven’t met yet. No excuses. It’s time to start living life the way I want, not the way others want. I know so many people feel trapped by their jobs and unable to change their lives the way that they want to. I know we can do it. You can do it, and I can do it. All the reading about how to take hold of your dreams and how to work better, smarter, be more focused…all of it is meaningless unless you take that first step and admit to yourself that things can’t go on the way they are. They must change. They must.

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Thank you, Jessica Claire, for making this fabulously awesome bag that has become the sign of my renewed dream of life. You are truly brilliant and for that and your inspiration, my thanks is endless. I figured you probably belonged on this cover instead, so I did my best:

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If a computer bag could be sexy, it would look like this:

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For those of you who have followed my blog for a while, you’ll notice that there’s a different frame around these photos…just a little taste of things to come…soon!

And for those of you who need to make some changes to your life to achieve your dreams, let’s do it together. I’m ready. Are you?

UPDATE: Shots of the Hip Slip in action are coming!

Riz - Great post, Phillip! This is what I have been going through for a while now. Trying to take those steps with you.

Phillip Mackenzie - Thanks Riz! Always glad to know there’s company…and if you ever want to chat about this stuff just give me a shout!

Phyllis Helton - Your post is inspiring, Phillip. Like Riz, I’m in the same boat you are and do want things to change. Here’s to us all getting serious and getting seriously busy (in a fun way, of course!) 🙂

Phillip Mackenzie - Cheers to that, we’re all in it together!

jessica claire - no, thank YOU philip! exactly what i needed to hear today to kick me into gear! you’re blogged: http://www.shootsacblog.com

Lisa - You can’t ignore the signs – your work is beautiful, and I’m thrilled to read that you’ve decided to dive in feet first and GO FOR IT! Enjoy the journey… 🙂

Bri - This was a great post – made me smile 🙂

whitney elizabeth - woohoo, look who got on the shootsac blog!! by the way, i love fast company magazine too!!!

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kevin - Hey Phil Iremmember you from el grande de coca cola playing drums and acting in la. at the whisky a go go I wonder if you remmember me. hope all is well with you. Wouldlike to hear from you

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