Joshua Tree

There’s nothing better than photographing what you love.  One of my passions is rock climbing, and here in Southern California Joshua Tree National Park has been a veritable second home for me.   So in light of the time that I spend out there I’ve decided to work on a photo book highlighting the park.   Here’s a teaser image!

Joshua Trees lit up for a long exposure at night.

Joshua Trees lit up for a long exposure at night.

Saving the New Mothers of Nepal

Toward the end of 2012 I got to go on a grand adventure to Nepal with writer Jesse Seiver to do a story on maternal mortality rates.  We were privileged to join a group of American doctors on their trip to Ilam.  Here is the story on the National Geographic Assignment Blog.

 

A Nepali woman receives an ultrasound while a Nepali nurse learns to operate the machine.

A Nepali woman receives an ultrasound while a Nepali nurse learns to operate the machine.

 

 

Saying Goodbye

Last week I lost two of my climbing partners to a climbing accident in Peru.  I’ve shot photos of these guys in some crazy places, and some of the best adventures that I’ve been on were with them.  I’ve lost count of how many friends I’ve lost, but over two dozen is a safe guess.  It begs the question, are these sports that dangerous? Or are the people that I am friends with just pushing boundaries.  I know that they knew the risks, but did they really believe they were at risk?  I mean deep down?  We will never know, but as much as I feel sad that they are gone, it’s not because they didn’t live enough.  They lived more in their short lives than most people could live in 100 years.   I’m saddened because of what they could have done, and for the families that they left behind.    RIP Ben and Gil.

Photo Trolls.

Contrary to popular belief, art does not take talent. Art is language, and just like verbal languages it takes years to become fluent, and even longer to be a master. Even then you may have only mastered one style, one “language” amongst many. Yes, the talented have an advantage, but it can be learned, and if the talented rely only on talent they will fail. I don’t believe I have any talent, other than working at something longer and harder than the next person.

Just like everything else my generation is interested in, art has turned toward instant gratification. I can see why Jackson Pollock first mounted a splatter painting on a gallery wall. It was new, it was beauty in chaos, and it flipped the bird to the conformists who did it the old fashioned way. Even still, Pollock’s paintings have a rhythm and aesthetic to them that is rarely mimicked, and has yet to be improved on by any modern splatter painter.

Today people splatter paint for an entirely different reason. Not to make a statement, or for any existential reason, but simply because it’s easy, quick, and looks kinda cool. Ask any modern painter to do a portrait, and most likely it will look like picasso’s rendition of a picasso. I fear my generation may be called the generation that lost art.

What will the future citizens of earth say about our place in the history of art? I imagine it would be something like “They had no clue what they were doing, but what they did do was not difficult, and they could usually accomplish it in an afternoon.”

I was listening to NPR today, and they were talking about the lack of formal training in the major art schools. Students are encouraged to come up with contemporary concepts, and are not educated in the skills required to wield a paintbrush or sculptors tool. They end up with out of focus videos of fat people rolling around naked on the floor, or a book with the pages on the outside… (that last one was my idea, don’t steal it.)

Photography is the same, and the worst part of it is so few people can see the difference between a total amateur and a seasoned professional. I’ve always dreamt of the portfolio review where the photo editor or art buyer did not say a word to me, and just picked up my book and examined my work. That has never happened, even at the biggest magazine that I’ve worked for, I’ve had numerous reviews where they never even look at my work.

This is why I think that trolling has entered the photography world. If you aren’t familiar with the concept, trolling comes from the internet comment and chat world. It’s the act of commenting with the intent of creating the largest amount of interactions with other people, usually negative, and almost always rude, aggressive, and inaccurate. It comes not from the troll under the bridge, but from the “fishing” term of towing a baited hook behind the boat.

Photographers have begun to troll. Artists in general have begun to troll. If they can’t make something well, they make it either big, or shocking. Take for example Terry Richardson, what he does is not difficult, and for the most part it’s porn. He’s become famous from it though, and is now a highly sought after photographer. Look at the art that graces Burning Man. It’s huge, it’s not usually very good, and for added effect let’s just have some flames shoot out of it…

Is that what it takes to make it now? Maybe I should have a portfolio that shoots flames at the art buyer, just to get their attention. Or perhaps I’ll put my head down and wait for people to become desensitized to the flair and start looking for people who actually know how to use a camera. Either way, I hope this is seen as a pep talk for my generation, and not finger pointing, I just want to see us do something great. With enough Ritalin I believe it is possible for at least one of us to focus on one thing long enough to create a masterpiece.

Artist Market… Total scam.

On a whim I thought I’d check out the “Artists Market” website that supposedly gives a list of agency contacts, magazine contacts, galleries and such. It’s 5.99 a month, so it seemed worth while because other sites that do this kind of thing are usually hundreds of dollars to subscribe to. Well. Here’s a photo showing the Ad Agencies of California I think they might have missed a few. Even worse, the contact info once you open the links is just their website… This is a scam, don’t waste 6 bucks.
California.

A letter to those people building my website

Millions of years ago, in internet years, all websites were custom built. They were either expensive, or horrible to navigate. I learned how to build my website in photoshop of all things, and each page was an image designed to look like a website, and it was horrible.

Not everybody was as talentless as a web designer as I, in fact some people managed to make masterpieces with the limited technology. The best sites are the ones that just work. By default these websites end up looking extremely simple. Subtle things like a change in the color of text hint at another level of depth in the page. It took me weeks to build my websites from scratch, mostly because I had no idea what I was doing and would have to start from scratch every time I learned something that improved the site. Also, because I was trying to build websites in photoshop.

Now I can “build” my site in a few hours, and that’s just a matter of filling in blanks in a pre-built template. It’s simple, looks expensive, and best of all, it’s cheap! I think that there is a sort of “moores law” of websites though, that states that every 18 months we will pack twice the amount of coding into a website designed to do the same job. What once was just a simple portfolio has turned into a complex pop up with buttons, fades, and a cute little jingle. There’s now slideshows in the background that somehow are supposed to make the photo that you’re looking at more interesting.

As a result, I’ve spent three months looking for a good template to replace my current site.

I understand, web design has come a long way, and you are flexing your coding muscles, but I just want to show my photos. If you went to a photography gallery, how are almost all photos framed? Thin black frame, white matte, nailed to a wall. Simple.

Take a look at Sebastian Kim’s website, Simple, elegant, no frills, perfect.

If you build it, those of us who want to avoid learning code will buy it.

2011 – Looking Back

As a self proclaimed “nomad” I tend to get antsy when I haven’t been on a major adventure in a few weeks. To keep myself appreciative of the kind of life that I’ve been able to lead thanks to a well chosen career and great friends like Lou Lesko helping me along the way.  I sometimes have to reflect on the last year and outline the best parts. Here’s how 2011 shaped up for me, and some of my favorite projects of the year.

Manatee

I got my start shooting for National Geographic in the underwater world, and although I’ve since moved on to mostly shoot above water, it’s one of my passions. I’m slowly but surely continuing my work on manatee, and hope to take it to the other side of the world and continue shooting dugong, a much more difficult subject that is a close relative of the manatee. This project was at first a way for me to start learning how to shoot the animals in an interesting way, but once I arrived in Florida I saw that most of the animals were covered in scars from the boats, and were nearly constantly pestered by the tourists. Expect to see more work from me on Manatee in 2012.

See my manatee photos on National Geographic Stock

Manatee in Three Sisters Springs, Florida.

Haiti

Haiti was a chance for me to start working with a wonderful photo editor named Leah Roberts.  Lou Lesko sent me to Haiti for the National Geographic Assignment Blog - See those stories here, and here.  It was also a chance to bring something new to photography.  I worked with Tomnod, a crowd sourcing group out of San Diego to put together a way for people to join me vicariously on the expedition.  Using satellite imagery to follow my ground based photography the viewer could not only see where I was, but they could see before and after images from the Haiti earthquake.  It was a huge hit, and quite possibly the first time this has been used in photojournalism.  I hear that Time magazine did something similar a few months later, I hope they got the idea from Tomnod but I don’t know.

A boy in City Soleil, Haiti.

Mongolia

Mongolia was one of the few projects that I did this year for National Geographic that narrowed my role down solely to the photography.  The project is headed by Dr. Albert Lin and was heralded as a huge advance in the field of archeology.  Dr. Lin took new tools into the field and used modern science to aid his search rather than the antiquated trowels and brushes that we associate with archeology.  We also used the predecessor of the Tomnod format as a way to crowdsource the search for ancient tombs by having millions of citizen scientists search through the satellite imagery for anomalies.   Here’s a link to the National Geographic page on the project.

Of course, besides the National Geographic photography that I was doing, I made my living shooting fashion, commercial, and adventure photos.  Here’s a gallery of favorites from this year.

I also got to try my hand at filming and producing television!  This was an entirely new angle for me, and I enjoyed (some of it) immensely.

Here’s a teaser from the Mongolia special I helped put together.

http://video.nationalgeographic.com/video/player/specials/in-the-field-specials/expedition-mongolia.html

After this I filmed for Discovery Channel’s “Deadliest Catch” in Alaska, when that comes out be sure to Check out footage from the “Kodiak” to see my work.

Check out some of the personal video that I put together this year at http://www.youtube.com/user/Benhorton83?feature=mhee

I also wrote a number of articles, reviews, and blog posts for other websites and magazines, had my photos published in editorials around the country, I produced a new portfolio book from Blurb, and of course, have a grand personal project that I am not ready to tell anybody about. So 2012 if we manage to live through this coming apocalypse (I am not a believer) will be my best year yet.

Not another App

I have five minutes to waste so I do what we all do.  I pull my smartphone out of my pocket and flip through page after page of useless apps.  Nothing grabs my attention, I try googling, but even the vast repository of information that is the internet can’t seem to bring about anything interesting enough to burn through five minutes.  I deleted Angry Birds ages ago, and the games I have kept are old and uninteresting.  The next step is to visit the app store and see what the technophiles have created in their get rich $2 at a time scheme.   Rarely do I buy an app, but I’d heard good things about this one, sitting there at the top of the list.  Vidify they call it.   I don’t read the description, I go straight to the screen shots which look clean and well thought out so I buy the app.  By now my five minutes are up, so Vidify is lost in the many pages of apps on my phone for the next week until once again, I’m bored staring into the screen of my Iphone.

It’s simple, and my first forray into using Vidify takes me maybe 40 seconds.  Immediately I wonder why nobody has thought of this before! As simple as it is, there’s so many ways to see the app.  In the most simple possible way I could just use it to put music to the video I have on my phone, or to combine a few select clips that should go together anyway.  Pretty quickly I decided to upload a number of my videos from youtube onto my phone and see what Vidify could come up with.  To edit what it came up with myself, in Final Cut, (or that horrible program IMovie which isn’t actually any easier to use than Final Cut) would have taken about 20 minutes, not to mention the time it takes to export the video.  Here’s what Vidify did in 30 seconds. Worth a couple bucks?  I think so.

Contour

A few years ago I was  kayaking with my friend Ken Hovie.  He’s the go to guy for news crews looking to get footage of downriver races from the competitor’s viewpoint.  Strapped to his helmet would be the forefather of the miniature camera. They were called “lipstick cams”  and they had a cable winding around to Ken’s back where a large uncomfortable waterproof pelican case full of hardware for the camera was strapped.  Ken still totes a camera for TV, but now the whole thing is the size of that tiny lipstick cam strapped to his helmet.

Miniature cameras have given the creative filmmaker and photographer new options that not too long ago would have been a great way to lose or destroy expensive cameras.  They have greatly reduced the number of “impossible” shots.  These little cameras have gone to space on weather balloons, and I’ve personally sent them hundreds of feet underwater on nothing more than some fishing line.

With the flexibility and low costs, everybody is picking them up for all kinds of uses.  Family ski trips and self-absorbed athletes overwhelmingly dominate the demographic.  I know of a number engineers that have put them on remote-controlled helicopters and robots, and photographers that use them to get new angles on old subjects.  The demographic that I’m concerned about and am writing for are the people who want the best camera for their money.  That’s everybody.

Before I started messing around with the Contour brand, I went online to review some of the other comparisons that are out there.  In truth, video quality coming out of these little cameras is all pretty similar.   The defining factors are in the build quality, the ease of use, and the specific needs of the user.

On a recent shoot where I spent 4 weeks working with a TV show that I’m not allowed to talk about I really tested the Contour+ that I’d brought with me, and I compared it to the three GoPro’s that they had provided.  The GoPro’s came with an LCD backpack, Battery Backpack, and pretty much every mounting attachment  that they make.  The Contour came as is, along with every mounting attachment that they make.  Both camera’s were set up with underwater housings.  I’d usually skip over the out of the box observations but I think they are pretty important to note mainly because it affected the rest of my shooting that I’d do with the cameras.  One of the Go-Pro’s front LCD screen had detached and was falling back into the camera so was nearly impossible to read.  Another wasn’t working consistently so I ended up side lining  it and using only a handful of times when I needed an extra.  Greatly contrasting the shape and confusing menu of the Go-Pro was the svelte and sturdy feeling Contour.  The buttons were simple to use, and sturdily snapped into place when recording started.  Instead of having an LCD screen like the optional one that can be attached to the Go Pro, my Contour links up to my IPhone via Bluetooth where I can preview my shot and change settings on the camera.  There’s an actual menu rather than the obscure letters and numbers that show up on the Go-Pro’s tiny little front LCD.

The Discovery Network owns everything I shot in Alaska so in the interest of not getting sued, I’ve shot a few other video’s and timelapses to show what it’s like working with the contour.

This first video is an example of using the contour to record b-roll and to document a photoshoot that I was on where I wanted to get video, but didn’t have the time or extra hands to hold a second camera.

This is the main reason that I want one of these cameras, I would have loved to have had a Contour+ Mounted to my shoulder on a recent shoot that I did in Haiti.  It would have been doubly beneficial because the + also records GPS coordinates and I could have used it to track my travels through Port Au Prince for this interactive piece I put together with Tomnod.

http://tomnod.com/explore/?r=haiti

Most people however arne’t as interested in using these for photojournalism, but more for the self glorifying action shots that adventurous athletes love to upload to Youtube.   Now I’m not a great surfer, so I risked ridicule to bring you this next piece.

One nice thing about the Contour that is an immediate bonus over the GoPro is that it’s housing focuses underwater.   The GoPro can’t focus underwater with the stock housing.  It’s necessary to buy an aftermarket housing from a company like Eye of Mine in order to get usable underwater footage.  The savings you might have had buying a GoPro just went out the window.
Getting the opening shot of the duckdive would have been impossible with the stock GoPro.

The camera took a beating with my poor surfing skills, but none of the parts ever showed any weakness whatsoever.  The longer and thinner body of the contour also seems to be less affected by the water than the wide front face of the GoPro.

Can’t afford a boom for your big HD camera?  I just mounted the Contour+ on a painters pole to get some new angles of a famous boulder problem near LA called “Masters of Reality”.

Contour Vs. Go-Pro – Details

Form
The Contour is sturdy, and well designed.  It is slightly larger than a Go-Pro and they have completely different forms.  The Go-Pro is a little box, modeled more off of a point and shoot camera.  This leaves its largest side facing into the wind, and water.  That’s bad for high-speed applications where drag can pull it away from the composition, but good when you want to mount it flat against a wall or something.   The contour is long and thin, easily pulled through the water and was my choice when using a painters pole to drag the camera through the water while the boat was moving.   Really though, the shape is a matter of taste.

Function
Go Pro uses digital buttons and a little LCD screen, but figuring out what BoF P1 and R5 all stand for while getting bashed around in the waves took me a bit to get used to.  The good news is that the camera is adjustable on the spot and in or out of the housing.  The Contour is best adjusted when connected to your phone or computer, but gives you three presets to work with on the fly.  I almost never hook it up to change the settings as I have the three I use most dialed right in.  I prefer the sureness of a button that moves and locks into place over the digital buttons on the go pro.  I never missed a shot with the Contour because the button I never had any trouble with the buttons, I did miss shots with the Go-Pro.  The rotating lens on the Contour is a huge plus for me, allowing me to quickly level my shots regardless of how the camera is mounted.

Image
Out of the box the Go-Pro is somewhat over exposed and the Contour somewhat underexposed.  You don’t have to decide between the lesser of two flaws though, as the Contour is adjustable.  Hook up your iPhone and Contour via Bluetooth and preview your shot and adjust your exposure.  Other than that the image quality itself is comparable.  Both cameras give you many options with HD, time-lapse capability,
30 or 60 FPS at 720 though the Contour is certainly built more for Video as it doesn’t have a “shutter button” to take stills.  I never used it on the go pro anyways.  I always put it on time-lapse, set at 1 photo every 3 seconds and worked a scene that way.  That way when the camera is at the end of a boom or in an awkward place (if it wasn’t I’d use my SLR) I didn’t have to pull it back in to take another shot.

Price.
Both cameras have a range to work with.  If you don’t need Bluetooth and GPS then you don’t need the Contour+ which is a bit more expensive than the Go-Pro.  They have models that don’t need underwater housings, and others that are just the basic camera.  The difference is that when I bought a Go-Pro I felt ripped off, but not when I bought the Contour.


Rant

Photographers are artists, and artist inherently are easily distracted.   It doesn’t  help that in the modern digital world our work is completed on the same device that supplies us with Facebook, Twitter, news and video’s of cats doing funny things.  A photographers workflow is as personal as other people’s morning ritual, asking us to change our ritual or throwing the odd wrench into our system doesn’t so much focus our wrath, it’s more of a intensifying of our distraction.  When a program isn’t working correctly or keeps crashing (even on my infallible MacBook Pro) I’m only about 1/4 second away from clicking on the google chrome app in my browser and being led down that rabbit hole.

 

I like the idea that my programs are updated automatically, that I can install plugin’s to Lightroom and Photoshop and so on; there was a time though that we’d read about what this new plugin or update consisted of.  Now in this age of the “Cloud” we don’t wait to hear if the updates work before our computer secretly downloads everything.  While we’re on the subject, all my programmer friends say that the “cloud” is just a facade, not a real cloud.

 

I would hope that this will force programmers to get their programs and updates working well before sending them out to be downloaded by the masses.   So far though, Text Edit is the only program I have any control of on my computer, and the result is this short piece.  I’m off to hold down my power button for a few seconds.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.