Analog to Digital: Exclusive Interview with Photographer Craig Strong, Inventor of the Lensbaby

In the beginning, there was light, and we captured it with film. Next came digital cameras, and then came the Lensbaby. Created by professional photographer Craig Strong, the Lensbaby has had an impact on photographers, and their ideas and images. Craig is a photographer turned inventor... his love for photography started at an early age, and after college he went pro, working as a photojournalist. He also had a steady business shooting weddings and portraits. I recently had a chance to interview Craig for our digitalapplejuice readers. Here is the first installment of two...

Britt: Photography is always evolving... today, we’re dealing with a lot of digital natives. Our kids in high school now probably never shot film. It’s interesting to me to see what kind of changes there are in an analog photographers move to digital, such as you and I have done. How do you think that is going to affect the photographers that never shot film? Do you think that will have any impact on them in the future?

Craig: Instant feedback brings with it excitement for photography. Shooting digitally is similar to us getting our images developed at the one hour lab (although I don’t think there were one hour labs when I was in ninth grade). I was taking my 35mm print film to the lab and they were doing their magic. They would take this piece of exposed film and turn it into prints and negatives. It wasn’t until college, and I started learning from people who were serious into photography, and especially newspaper photographers, it was a lot cheaper to roll your own film and develop it and print it than it was to send it out, and a lot quicker for a newspaper. It was a natural progression for me to get intimately involved in the process of photography through working in the darkroom.

The process of photography is changing to where a print comes off an inkjet printer if you’re doing it in-house or you upload the file and it comes off of a printer that prints it optically with a laser. That’s obviously very different from what you and I experienced, but the end result is potentially the exact same. I don’t think there’s a huge difference. What may happen, and I can see it to some extent with the Lensbaby, is that people are getting much more interested in the process. In the same way that my journey led me to the darkroom and staying up until 3:00 in the morning making prints, as they become more serious many photographers are spending time learning and influencing the process that had previously been out of their control. It’s bringing people to say, 'Well, that’s great if I can do this or that in Photoshop, but how else can I do this?'

Photographers are exploring how it used to be done, what really made prints look so organic, and in answer to these questions, many of them are going back to film. They start with their 18-70 zoom and their digital SLR that they are making great photographs with. As they become more excited about it image makers are more interested in the process, whether that’s the hands-on of using a Lensbaby to control things like selective focus in ways we never could before, getting a Holga and shooting on film or actually going into a darkroom and printing. It’s a different progression. It is similar to the process we went through to learn photography but today photographers can learn the art of making great images much more quickly. They can become excellent photographers by discovering much of their photographic vision long before they need to learn the process.

Britt: I find this an interesting idea, that as a visual artist you don’t necessarily have to breathe fixer fumes to achieve a good print these days. It is an interesting concept to me thinking about the process of photography and thinking about how I do things now versus how I did things twenty years ago. In your previous statement you mentioned the Lensbaby; what made you become an inventor and create something cool like the Lensbaby?

Craig: That's a great question. I never really saw myself doing what I’m doing now. There wasn’t a big plan for me to go off into a business other than photography. I was doing well and very happy with what I was doing as a professional photographer. Eventually, though, frustration was what made me an inventor. My most useful homemade gadget when I was shooting film was the flash diffuser I couldn’t buy that I made out of a Tupperware lid. Once that worked so well I went to Goodwill and bought every Tupperware lid I could find so I could make a better one and have a bunch of them laying around (because I would lose them all the time). The first Lensbaby came about because I liked the look of selective focus lenses but I wanted something to experiment with that didn't cost me $1,200 for a Canon tilt/shift lens. I just wanted to make some crazy images and I have a lot more fun with things that don't cost me so much I have to worry about them. The very first Lensbaby prototype started as an 50-year-old Speed Graphic camera that my sister bought and gave me for my birthday in the early nineties. I removed the lens from the Speed Graphic, mounted it to a short piece of shop vac (vacuum) hose, cut a hole in a body cap that the tubing snapped into and started shooting all sorts of stuff with it. I took it to weddings and photographed the wildest images I had ever created, my clients loved the photographs. It was just something to play with at the time, not anything that I considered a business, especially not to the extent that Lensbaby has become.

Britt: So now that you’re several years into making Lensbaby’s and on the second major revision (of the commercial version) and expanded the line quite a bit... what do you think about what Lensbaby’s are doing to the look of photography that you’re seeing?

Craig: The fact that people want to buy this lens seems feasible, but the enthusiasm that users have for their Lensbaby’s is far beyond my expectations. And the application that they are making of this lens to just about any subject matter really blows my mind. Honestly I’m much more impressed with the photographers who’ve found such impressive and unique ways to use this funky tool than I am with the Lensbaby itself. I’m really excited about people trying new things. The willingness to try new things, coupled with frustration, has changed my career, changed the way I look at life. I’ve been very impressed with what I’ve seen. I think it is inherent in the fact that so many photographers, like you said, a lot of them, even many of the professionals, have never shot film. Everything they’ve done in photography has been brand new for them in the last several years. Lensbaby lenses are just one more aspect of that. Photographs that people have created with Lensbaby lenses just blow me away time and again. Much of my amazement with these images has been because they are far beyond anything I would have imagined using the Lensbaby for.

We came out with the Pinhole/Zone Plate optic for the Optic Swap System and it replaces your glass (the Composer comes with the double glass) and you just swap it out for the Pinhole/Zone Plate cup. The Zone Plate was a last minute addition to our system. Shawn Linehan whom we work with and does fantastic graphic design suggested the zone plate as one of the options for the optic swap system and I looked into it. I had no idea what it was. The zone plate is by far my favorite Lensbaby optic now. I’m seeing completely differently than I ever did because this is a new tool that interprets light and subject matter and detail and, well, everything in a way I never could have imagined. I’m putting this on my camera and I’m seeing things, I’m looking at the world saying, ‘here’s an image that I never would have seen before' because of this tool that I’ve got on my camera.

Someone picking up a Lensbaby for the first time often experiences a 'Wow!' moment when they realize that they can create images of completely different subject matters than they've photographed before. It’s important to find a way to apply new tools to the subject matter you’ve always photographed. In addition, photographers can broaden their horizons with the kind of pictures and the kind of subject matter they choose with these new tools, be it fisheye lenses, Lensbaby lenses, tilt/shift lenses or Holgas. Each one of these non-traditional tools has a resonance, a spot where they really fit into someone’s style and the way they see the world. I’m excited to see people trying something new and finding that place where it resonates with their personal vision.

Britt: When digital started coming into the photography scene, I thought it would be a long time before digital eclipsed film and analog style photography. Every few months it seems we see a new digital SLR with more features and more megapixels. Where do you see digital photography and photography in general going over the next ten years?

Craig: It’s funny you say that, because about two weeks before I ordered my first digital SLR someone came up to me at a wedding and asked ‘So, do you have a digital camera? I said ‘Nah, that doesn’t really apply to what I do, (I knew there were professional cameras out there but they cost $15,000 or $20,000 dollars for the SLR’s), maybe I’ll get one in 10 or 15 years.’ at that point film was really required for the kind of photography I made my money with. Two weeks later I had just found DPReview out of the blue, I think I actually did a search because I heard someone saying ‘Canon’s coming out with this digital SLR’ for $3,000 or $2,000 I don’t even remember what it was, but it was the D30 that can print film-quality 11x14’s. And I went ‘What? That’s not possible.’ And so I went looking and I think I was the second person on the list at Pro Photo Supply (www.prophotosupply.com) here in Portland. I picked up that Canon D30 the day the first shipment arrived; it changed my career, it changed my photography.

And obviously the Lensbaby came out of that because I wouldn’t have done all of the necessary experimentation to come up with the Lensbaby had I been shooting exclusively with a film SLR. I had not experimented much with photographic techniques since I was in college. I had a developed very comfortable vision, something that I was comfortable with, of what photography was, how I used it, what my role as a documentary photographer was, and I didn’t really see a need to try a whole lot of new things. I had my three prime lenses and a couple of zooms and that’s what I needed, just as long as my camera bodies worked. Once I got the D30 I immediately started trying new things, and my vision started to change, and as far as my personal artistic vision (and I’m getting older so my vision changes anyhow), but the excitement for photography came back and I felt like I was in college again where I was trying something new and trying to get my mind around paradigms that I’d never understood before.

I’m rambling here, but I’d have to say based on having told someone that digital photography wasn't for me and then two weeks later ordering my first dSLR I am looking forward to being surprised by the future of photography in this digital era. Things are changing so much... you look at that D30 and in two weeks my paradigm shifted from being ten to fifteen years before I get a digital camera to two weeks later putting one on order. There are a lot more of those kind of innovations and changes to come in this industry, thats the world we live in right now. Things are changing. Paradigms are shifting, there’s a lot of technology that hasn’t been fully utilized that's maybe just in the mind of the inventory right now that I think is really going to dramatically affect photography. It’s going to affect how we see the world, and it’s going to affect the images we create. I can’t really guess; I’ve got some things in my engineering notebook but I wouldn’t say those are going to categorically change anything.

I am excited about the stuff that is out there that will be changing how I see the world, the tools that I have in my hands. On the other hand, I know that I have a digital SLR in the (Nikon) D300 that’s able to keep me happy as a clam with more than enough features for me to play with and to figure out, for the rest of my life. With what I’ve done thus far I’ve decided that I have a camera which is all I need. I’m sure that when the D800 or whatever comes out with the full-frame (sensor) and the HD video, and hopefully it’ll have some other features, because I don’t think the HD video is something I have the time to work with right now, but there will still be something that entices me to do an upgrade. But at the same time, I am still photographer, I have the tool I need that potentially I could create and continue to grow with for the rest of my life. There’s a real dichotomy there too, ‘cause while I have everything I need, I know there’s going to be something else that’s going to bring me along, and get me excited down the road, and I have no idea what that is.

Read Pt 2: Analog to Digital: Interview with Craig Strong, Inventor of the Lensbaby here...

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  1. the secret says:

    the secret…

    The more you apply it, the more the Law of Attraction Works….

  2. [...] June 22, 2009 by Britt Stokes   In the beginning, there was light, and we captured it with film. Next came digital cameras, and then came the Lensbaby. Created by professional photographer Craig Strong, the Lensbaby has had an impact on photographers, and their ideas and images. Craig is a photographer turned inventor… his love for photography started at an early age, and after college he went pro, working as a photojournalist. He also had a steady business shooting weddings and portraits. I recently had a chance to interview Craig for our Digitalapplejuice readers. This is the second part of the interview, read Part 1 of this Interview here…. [...]

  3. Adam Miller says:

    Great interview with @strongcraig! http://bit.ly/Kvr18

  4. Britt Stokes says:

    My new article is now posted – take a look: http://bit.ly/Kvr18

  5. Craig Strong says:

    Check out the first in a two part interview by Digital Apple Juice with me: http://is.gd/13UvP

  6. Craig Strong says:

    Check out the first in a two part interview by @dappjuice with me: http://is.gd/13UvP

  7. Analog to Digital: Exclusive Interview with Photographer Craig … http://bit.ly/1aoVrD

  8. Analog to Digital: Exclusive Interview with Photographer Craig Strong, Inventor of the Lensbaby:

    .. http://tinyurl.com/nmobp9

  9. Analog to Digital: Exclusive Interview with Photographer Craig Strong, Inventor of the Lensbaby | DigitalAppleJuice.co http://bit.ly/13xY7z