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Review: Lens Baby Control Freak

Serendipity” is the way to describe a recent interaction between myself and a colleague of mine. It produced several interesting photographic days for me.
You know:

ser·en·dip·i·ty [ser-uhn-dip-i-tee]
n. pl. ser·en·dip·i·ties
the occurrence and development of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way: a fortunate stroke of serendipity | a series of small serendipities.

I had just written to Britt Stokes to comment upon the Lensbaby article that he had written and his response was to inform me that he had just dropped my name to the Marketing Manager of the Lensbaby company to suggest that I might enjoy reviewing one of their specialty lenses. He knew me too well; of course I would enjoy it.

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Featured Photography Profiles

Analog to Digital Part 2: Interview with 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. This is the second part of the interview, read Part 1 of this Interview here….

Britt: Speaking of going down the road and what you’re doing now, what kind of a personal project are you working on currently?

Craig: Well, I’m working on a project that I started in 1995. There’s a couple of wonderful, salt of the earth people that I know, Bert and Colleen Elliot who live down in Trujillo, Peru. They have been there for sixty years serving the people of Peru. I spent about eight or nine days with them in ’95. Right out of college Bert and Coleen got married, got on a boat and went down to Peru, and they’ve been there ever since, doing humanitarian aid, doing Christian work. They’ve started a couple schools, they’ve helped about a hundred or more communities to develop thriving, healthy places for people to live, and communities for people to plug into. Peru has been a war-torn nation for many many years and they’ve been through a lot of that, giving a lot of strength to those people. They are in their late eighties now and I look forward to continuing that project. I hope to going back down and spending some time with them. I’ve got a lot of chromes that I’ve shot of them that I look forward to going back through when I feel like I’ve got what I need and combining it with the digital stuff that I’m shooting now to document their lives. They’re really beautiful people.

Britt: That’s great. On your website there is a phrase that I really like, you talk about “feeding your soul” – is that how you feed your soul?

Craig: Yeah, it is, and it doesn’t happen enough. Being the president of Lensbaby I spend a good portion of my time working on solving problems, and that’s great and to some extent can feed my soul. But certainly it’s close to my heart to be out and documenting the lives of people who I really believe in who they are and what they’re doing. I look forward to more of that.

Britt: I’m just curious, when you’re wandering around the world, what triggers your mind and gives you an idea for a photo? Is there a special place in your brain where you go to get ideas for creative photos or do you have a creative process, or is it all gut instinct?

Craig: I would say that the creative process I have is really clearing my mind. I find that I am most effective, whether it’s at a wedding or doing street photography or on an assignment, when I’m able to be fully introverted, fully in a zen-like state where I am able to observe the world around me and really take it through the filter of who I am and what matters to me. It’s really important to know, critical to answer the question what do I care about, what matters to me? What changes is the the answer to the question how do I see the things that matter to me. If its a connection between a father and son I tend to gravitate to those moments.

There’s so many moments in life to choose from, especially at events and weddings. You walk into a reception and there’s a hundred potential moments that you could be drawn to in that scene and that situation, and so choosing and deciding ‘OK, what part of this am I going to own, what part of this am I going to document, what am I qualified to document?” If I go on a list and try to meet somebody else’s expectations of me I’m going to go in and some of the things are going to resonate with me, but the vast majority aren’t. My process is fairly quiet, where I want to be introverted, I want to be quiet, I want to be still and see what it is that hits me so that then I can really move into that space and document what matters to me.

Photographically, one of the most poignant times for me was in college. I was driving across the country having just left my father at my grandparents house in Colorado. It was an extremely cold winter and I was driving along a canyon and I thought ‘I think there is a reservoir up here, I’ll bet there’s going to be ice fishing, it’s going to be right around sunset and I want to capture the emotion between a father and son that I remember from being with my dad fishing.’ we didn’t go ice fishing but I wanted to recapture the feeling of being in the outdoors and that special time I had with my father as a child. About two hours later I’m driving along the reservoir and, sure enough, there’s people spread out all over the ice with fishing poles. I stopped my 1968 Volkswagen camper, pulled out a tripod, a Canon T-90 and a Tamron 180mm f/2.5 lens – I had to make a quick decision as the light was disappearing so I just grabbed that combo.

The T-90 was loaded with Kodachrome 25, and standing out on the ice toward the edge of those braving the sub-zero temperatures waiting for fish to bite, I zeroed in on a father and son. The mountains and the sunset were behind them, and I was able to document this very tender moment of the boy leaning back against his father as they stood beside their fishing pole in the beautiful evening light. What that really showed me, probably for the first time, was that I am filtering reality. I’m seeing the world around me through my own lens, and taking that realization and using it to my advantage has ensured that, as I go through life, I’m ready when those moments that are most important to me show themselves. Surprisingly with Kodachrome 25 and a 180mm lens at sunset I was able to get the beautifully detailed image with a one-second-long exposure of this tender moment between father and son. The process is a very quiet one for me.

Britt: I love that answer. Thank you so much for your time, I really appreciate you sharing your thoughts with me and our DigitalAppleJuice readers. Do you have anything you’d like to add?

Craig: I would just like to reiterate that I look for new ideas in my frustration. When I’m faced with problems, that’s where I find the best ideas come to me. As unpleasant as it is to experience, for me I’ve found that frustration is essential. As the father of three young children I see them lose their wallets and they’ll just get really upset, or they’ll drop their camera and it’s not working anymore… I just want to take them and say ‘Yeah, but this means you won’t lose your wallet when it’s really got a lot of money in it, in ten, fifteen, twenty or thirty years. And this means you’re learning from this experience.’ I think there’s so many times in life when we just focus on that frustration. I know I have. Really learning for me is to say ‘Oh, I’m frustrated here, what can I learn from this?’ And how can I solve a problem being on the inventing side has really come out of that frustration. Cherishing, acknowledging and nurturing frustration has been key to discovering who I am and what it is that I want to do, to be and how I can best contribute to the world I live in.

Britt: Sounds like you have some very lucky kids. So at the end of the day, do you work on a Mac or a PC?

Craig: I work on a Mac. I don’t care to be that frustrated.

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Featured Photography Profiles

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 11×14’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…