APE: I talked to you about a year ago right after Canon announced the new 5d markII that shoots video. I called because I wanted to talk with someone who was actually a filmmaker and a photographer to get their opinion on the new product. We got into this huge conversation about film vs. digital and I’ve always wanted to get you on the phone again so I could record the conversation and make a post about it.
I think our conversation was actually a challenge to me. I have a great affinity for film, and it has been interesting to really start studying and testing new systems like the Red and the Canon 5d Mark II.
APE: Originally you were still stuck on film, as many people are, because of limitations you’d discovered shooting digital.
I think I will always be stuck on film and anyone who grew up on it will be. I understand the client’s point of view on a movie poster or big advertising campaign and why they need it to be shot digitally. They’re building an image sometimes from 36 files and they don’t want to have to deal with the back-end post production of scanning all that film. I get it. Digital is a really a quick way to do something.
APE: Didn’t you have a retoucher who preferred to scan a negative over getting a digital file?
All of the good ones do. The 6×7 negative, there’s not chip that’s that size and film has it’s own look and color palette. We’re never going to lose that. The retoucher I’m working with now, who has done some of the biggest fashion and advertising work for the last decade, would much rather work from a film negative than a digital file in terms of skin tone and color. In fact, he even still sees photographers who prefer shooting only on 8×10 polaroid and scanning those images. There are cases where he is making a composite with the skin from polaroid and the product from a digital file. So, when money is no object, digital is just another tool.
My feeling is, when film is the best thing to be used in a certain situation and you love film then you should use it. I love the way a negative comes out of my Mamiya camera or my Leica camera. I love the way it looks straight out of the chemicals, the first time you see it. I never feel that way with a digital file. With digital you have to work hard to get that feeling. I think most people who became photographers did so because they had that one moment in the darkroom where something came up and they looked at it and went “wow that’s cool.”
In the long run, the idea is still the key to the whole thing. If it’s not a good idea and it’s not a well executed photograph from the get go it doesn’t matter. You can make a bad picture on film and a great picture on digital. The percentage of bad pictures to good pictures is still the same and it always will be.
APE: Tell me about the testing you did?
Well, a large aspect of digital photography is the digital tech, or techs, who come to the shoot and help capture and process files. If you’re a company like Warner Bros. or Fox you want a digital company to manage all those files for you. A photographer comes in does his thing and leaves and you have a digital company manage everything. This has been the bulk of my digital shooting experience, and I wanted to test some of the smaller cameras against the big Hasselblad with the p65 back that we use on big advertising shoots. There is no denying that the file produced this way is very very big and impressive, but it is also a very cumbersome and expensive way to work. So I started comparing those files to the Canon 1ds Mark III and the 5d Mark II.
APE: What’d you come up with?
In some ways I like the Canon better. It looks like a smaller file to someone who isn’t familiar with how things work, but the difference between is negligible in terms of resolution.
APE: What about on a billboard?
I think the distance that you are from the billboard makes it so the resolution is not an issue. You know those billboards they have all over LA now, the digital billboards. Apparently those files are very small, so they have to be down res’d to be usable anyway.
APE: What about the clients? Aren’t they demanding that you shoot with the camera that gives you bigger files?
I’ve been doing both and I show the client on screen and it’s funny how often they pick the shot from the 35mm digital. The Hasselblad is almost too medical in a way. You have to do a lot to it to make the skin look good because it’s so detailed.
APE: Isn’t working with digital difficult on set with publicists and celebrities and the whole gang of people who show up at those shoots? Especially when you’re tethered?
People are now used to seeing everything immediately and so it’s more detrimental to come in and do a job where the client expects immediate gratification and you try and tell them they can’t have it. I think that was also the case making movies in the 70′s and 80′s when all of the sudden the video monitors got good enough that there were separate camps setup so everyone could watch video playback. I’m sure the first generation of directors that were dealing with video assist went absolutely bonkers because their actor was coming up and saying maybe I should do it like this or they were running back to hair and make up. And then they got used to it and figured out ways to make it work.
APE: But, hasn’t that turned a movie production into a $100,000,000 project because they have to do so many different takes?
Yes, but it’s just the inevitable progression of it. People just expect a different kind of thing. That being said, I think there is a conversation to be had with the actor where you say “look I want to photograph you and get you to not think about me photographing you.” And honestly, I don’t think that people who are being photographed want to see it as it’s happening. They think they do but once they see it they really don’t. They think “I did my stupid thing where I turn up the corner of my mouth, I’ve got to remember not to do that.” Then you’re telling them something and they’re only thinking about the corner of their mouth. We would all do it, we’re human. First thing people think of when they see the picture is not the context, but what they look like in the picture.
So, it makes it harder for a photographer to find the picture. I’ll give you an example. I just photographed an actor for the cover of a magazine. I was shooting digital and I wanted to try a little different lighting thing, so before the shoot I tried it on my assistant and it looked really cool. When I got the actor in the same setup, it was awful lighting for his face. That’s just something you can’t know until you get your subject in front of the camera. Now if I’m shooting film I would just keep going and say now let’s try this next and try to find my light. But, I’ve now got the publicist, the hair and make up and his people seeing these pictures coming up on the monitor. For all I know the publicist is standing behind me pointing at the monitor and shaking her head to the actor, and there goes his trust in me.
It’s really important that the subject feels confident that the photographer knows what they’re doing. Because, if you’re a celebrity you can have anyone you want to take your picture and it’s your career and business on the line so if you don’t look however it is you wanted to appear, it’s a serious problem. So, with people being able to see the first frames the photographer shoots, he doesn’t have time to figure out the face. It’s no different than shooting a still life. Just like Edward Weston figuring out how to shoot that particular pepper. Each one is different, and you have to find your way. It is just, with film, you could find your way without everyone on the whole shoot watching you.
APE: So, how do you do this digitally now?
What we’ve started doing is create almost a video village like on commercials where we have a second monitor setup and we tell everyone there’s a 5 min. delay before you will see what we’re doing. I run back after 30 shots, do some quick edits, make adjustments and throw it up on the other monitor. We put a little color and exposure package together digitally so when they do take a look it’s ready for them to see. I’m trying to get it back to a polaroid experience where the monitor is black in the background and there’s not a bunch of thumbnails where the actor comes back and starts pointing at thumbnails and wants to see them. There’s never been a situation in the past where someone has sat down and gone through all your film and It’s very strange when that happens now. I try to make a black box around the tech and keep him a little like the wizard of oz, you know, don’t look behind the curtain, there’s no one there,that type of thing.
I do think a photographer has to make a stand for what process will make the best picture, and take the time to educate the client about the choices he has made. I think everyone is figuring out their system because there is something you miss when you keep interrupting the moment to examine the moment you just captured.
APE: And, that’s working?
Yes, it’s working although by the end of the shoot they end up crossing the barrier, but you still get that first impression. And quite honestly if I’m shooting someone who gets the whole thing they don’t want to see every picture anyway. Once they see what I’m doing they’re ok with it. So, you have to gage the person and see that they can give you what they need.
APE: On one shoot we were on you told me that earlier in your career you would script everything out beforehand and then later on in your career it evolved into being a little bit more loose and finding those moments.
Yeah, when I was young I was just inexperienced and I felt like I had to do more homework so that if nothing presented itself I had backup plans. I use to even come up with questions to ask to get different responses like surprise or laughter or whatever and I would tape these questions to the back of the camera and I would make sure and pick the right music too. I still do my research but I try to leave enough time to get something that surprises me too. If you’re too intent on getting your list then your subject never gets to their list. I learned that almost more from directing than from photography. If you have notes every single take for the actor they’re so busy trying to do what you want them to do that they never get to do what they want to do. They have a list too. You’re dealing with a professional actor and if you can get them acting a little bit you unlock this whole bag of tricks and experience they have.
I remember a line from a biography about one of my favorite directors where he said, always roll one for them after you get the one you like. After I get what I need then I always say now you do what you want to do and I’ll just follow along. Some people are like no, no you tell me what to do, but some really open up at that point, and great stuff can happen. And, you’ve got to indulge them because even if they go over to a spot where the light isn’t as good or the background’s not good, they might give you something new. I think the thing to remember too with shooting pictures is that it’s just a picture right. It’s just clicking the button and you need to quit being such an editor in your head saying oh, that’s not a good picture. The road to a good picture is through a lot of bad ones.
APE: Do you think you’ll ever switch completely over to digital?
Do you remember the transition from chrome to neg? Photographers used to shoot chrome all the time but then they switched over and for a long time I was shooting both because I couldn’t stop shooting chrome in certain situations, the light was too perfect for it. I’m sure it will be the same way with digital.
APE: Ok but some things are still better on chrome but now you shoot neg. Why is that?
I haven’t shot chrome in forever just because it’s less versatile. It takes longer to shoot, you have to be way more precise and it’s harder to make prints out of so that went away a long long time ago once prints got good enough.
APE: Interesting. So, maybe the same will happen with digital eventually. Digital is way more versatile.
Yes, digital is more versatile but film still looks like film to me.
APE: Yeah but how did you transition from chrome to film because nothing looks like chrome, right?
Yes, you’re absolutely right.
APE: How does the current economic climate affect your decision to take on a job?
In my head there’s always three reasons to do a job. It’s either money, creative or relationship, or a combination of those. So, a job is not always about money, but it certainly is tough when budgets are slashed to the point that you can’t have the support crew you need, or you lose out on a job to another photographer who basically decided to “buy” the job in order to get the work in their portfolio.
APE: Photographers are obviously not happy about fees being reduced, and the practice of undercutting. Is this just the new way, and are we in trouble because of that attitude?
No, because there will always be a fee structure based on ability and experience and there’s only a certain number of people who can do these jobs. I think it will roll more with the economy. If everyone is making money you’re going to hire the best person but if the economy is down you need to cut some corners and people need to adjust and restructure their budgets to make it work.
If you’re a freelancer that’s what you sign on for when you get into it. No one promises you that you will always get the fees that you got last year or that people will still call you. This business is littered with people who had really high years and now can’t get work. That’s on every photographers mind. There’s nobody that’s bullet proof to making a living, so you have to be careful. You can’t assume since it went one way one year it’s going to go that way the next year.
APE: But, you’re still confident that there’s a future for photography, right?
Yes, absolutely. When I’ve been successful it’s because I’ve been trying to do something that’s a challenge and that’s interesting to me. As long as I’ve done that I’ve been ok.
APE: So, what does the future hold for Sam Jones?
Shooting pictures is my main emphasis, I just shot U2 for Rolling Stone. I also have some film projects in the works, both dramatic and documentary. One of the things I am excited about is using smaller cameras like the 5d to make films that were simply not affordable a few years ago. I have a few esoteric and decidedly non-commmercial ideas up my sleeve, and being able to make those projects happen without outside financing is very intriguing.
APE: Wait, what? Last time I talked to you we were both trying to figure out how anyone could do something serious with that camera.
Well, they cracked the chip and made it manual so you can manually adjust exposure and shutter speeds and then several companies developed follow focus systems and mounts for it, making it way more viable for a cinematic application than when we last talked.
APE: I think having video in your still camera is awesome but it’s really irrelevant if you have no filmmaking skills, right?
Filmmaking was never about the equipment, except in terms of budget. Filmmaking is storytelling, and if you don’t know how to do that, there is no piece of equipment in the world that will help you.
APE: Ok, so why would you pick a 5d over a Red or 35mm or 16mm then?
Well, I wouldn’t, if I had financing. Having the choice to use any camera at all, I would always still choose 35mm. That is the look all these other systems are trying to duplicate, and it is what I use whenever the money is there. But having the financial freedom to go out and say, make a film about the world’s only giraffe jockey, or a documentary on the best chorizo in Los Angeles, well, maybe the 5d is the perfect camera for that, because you can make something that looks very good for very little money, relatively.
APE: So, you can make a movie in your garage then?
Well, yes and no. You still can’t cut any corners on nuts and bolts of filmmaking. You still need a crew–a soundman, an assistant cameraman, a DP or at least a gaffer, etc. And you can’t skip the finish, it takes a lot of post work to realize the potential of the camera. It’s just an interesting new tool that has many possibilities, and is definitely cheaper than the Red or any film-camera system.
APE: What did you shoot your Wilco documentary on?
16mm black and white film stock. Most of the up front expense of that documentary was in the film, processing, and camera rental. But the post production cost as much as the entire shooting budget.
Look, the bottom line is, there are so many ways to produce a project these days, and there is so much speculation about where the photography and film businesses are heading, but one core thing hasn’t changed. Quality work will always be rewarded, and there will always be an audience for powerful images and storytelling. As equipment becomes more affordable, maybe more people will have a chance to make something interesting, and that is always a good thing.