Recently we had the great pleasure of speaking with photographer Mark Hirsch on a special iPhone project he's been working on since Spring of 2012. Enjoy!
Hi Mark! We hear you have a really cool project you have been working on for a while and we’re thrilled to have you chat with us about it!
Before we get to that, tell us a little about your Photography background.
My background is 20 years in the newspaper industry. I was a Photographer for 13 years, a Photo Editor for 4 years, and then the balance of my career I was visuals editor, and I wrapped up my newspaper career in 2006 as the Visuals Editor for the Telegraph Herald in Dubuque, Iowa. Since October of 2006, I’ve been an Independent Freelance Photographer doing corporate commercial, higher education, and Editorial Photography.
You started a special project called That Tree. Give us an overview of that project.
The project came about as a result of me buying an iPhone in December of last year. Shortly after, a friend of mine, who is a documentary photographer in the Twin Cities, sent me a text and she said, “Oh, you got your iPhone! Isn’t the camera great?” And I sent her a note, “Really?!” Because honestly, I had not taken a single picture with my iPhone. And she sent me a note back saying, “No, seriously, you need to take some pictures with it.” And I think it was January 20th, we had just had a big snow storm in the Mid-west, and I remember I was driving home and I thought I should probably try and make a picture. And there is this oak tree that I have been driving by since I have lived in my rural property for the past 19 years , so I park my truck and I trudge through the snow about 400 yards to this tree. The wind is blowing, the snow is falling and it was just nasty weather. I made about a dozen frames and I said, “Screw this!”, and I made a b-line back to my truck. I got home, downloaded the pictures, opened them up in Photoshop, and honestly I was kind of blown away. I just started laughing thinking, ‘you’ve got to be kidding me!’ I look back on the first digital cameras that we had in the newspaper industry back in the mid 90’s and the resolution of the iPhone] obviously rivals those early versions of the Pro cameras. But, strait out of the iPhone camera: resolution, color quality, everything about it, I was absolutely blown away.
It’s really amazing how far technology has come. I worked in a camera store when those first digital cameras came out and how far they’ve come since then. And now it’s in your phone!
Yeah, the first cameras we had, I was the Photo Editor then, and I remember we paid probably $15,000.00 for the NC2000, which was a AP Kodak and Canon combination product, and that camera was like lugging two bricks around, it was huge! It was maybe about 4 megapixel resolution, and it might not have even been that much, and the iPhone is an 8 megapixel. Now the format I’ve chosen for my project is the Instagram concept of the square format, so I’m using probably 5 ½ to 6 megapixel resolution in my images, but they are absolutely incredible! And I didn’t officially jump in to do the That Tree project that day, but I ended up, as a result of her inspiration, doing just a photo-a-day on my personal Facebook page. It was the 13th of March and I was driving home and I had not fulfilled my personal commitment to posting an iPhone photo that day and I drove by the tree. It was a day with just incredible light and I thought that would be an incredible subject for that day’s photo. So I went down, made the picture, and posted it. A week later my friend Warren Winters, who has a photo agency in Chicago, sent me a note saying he was digging that tree project. And another friend of mine told me, and this is where the name comes from, that I should be doing a photo a day of that tree. Warren then called me and said I should consider doing a full year in the life of that tree. So, officially on March 24th I started the project.
Just taking a picture a day is hard. A lot of people start that project, myself included, and usually don’t get very far with it. But I can imagine that just choosing one subject to photograph every day is a real challenge. How do you stay motivated to get out there and do that every day?
Well, my motivation now just comes from my commitment to absolutely publishing a book as a result of the project. That’s a pretty strong motivator in and of its self. And the other thing is that I am so far committed to this thing, just the time I have invested, that it would just seem wrong to not follow through. I will say that I have missed a few days, not by nature of choice, but by nature of being a Freelancer. It’s pretty hard to turn down a commercial job or a client based job in order to shoot this project. I had two weekends where I was shooting a job for the New York Times in Northern Iowa, so made sure to make an extra photo on Friday because I knew I was going to miss Saturday, and then I made a b-line back home on Sunday to fulfill my next day’s photo. So I had two back-to-back weekends where I did that. I had a photo project that I was doing for John Deere in Nebraska, where I missed 2 days and then I missed one other day where I had to shoot an extra photo in advance because my twin brother got married. So far I have had 5 photos that were not shot live that day and it really pained me to have to do it. My commitment all along was that I would post a photo a day, but then it evolved into a commitment to shoot a photo a day and ironically there are days where I’m down there more than once working on images. We photographers tend to over analyze our own work vs. someone else having someone look at our work and have a more objective perspective. And I might go out and shoot a sunrise photo and just lament it and think, “I can’t post that.” Then I end up later in the day seeing great light and I go down and make another image. And a friend told me I was deleting better photos than most of us shot today, which is a nice compliment although I don’t necessarily agree with it.
One thing that jumped out at me when I was looking at the pictures was that compared to the professional freelance work you do, which are typically large photo shoots that are very busy and full of activity, this project seems pretty solitary. It’s just you and the tree. How do you think that has impacted you?
That’s a really good observation. It’s had a tremendous impact on me. I’m not a guy that I would describe as contemplative or solitary. My approach to photography has always been driven by meeting the expectations of my clients. This project was for me and no one else, so I approached it with a totally fresh perspective. The result is that I’ve taken on a new found form of observation. I didn’t look at things the way I’m looking at things today. I didn’t get down to the minutia. If I had a client job I might preconceive some options before going in, and of course you’re considering all of the technical aspects. Is it going to be a natural light shoot, an artificial light shoot, what hardware am I going to need to shoot it with? Whereas with this project I go in there every day and I don’t have any preconceived concepts because I’ve been looking at this same subject for 280+ days. I’ve seen the tree from so many angles and so may perspectives that I have to be really open minded when I walk in there. And I have to be willing to see the opportunities when they’re presented to me. I’m not a religious guy, I’m not into the Zen philosophy or anything, but I think that by opening my mind, my eyes, and my senses to the possibilities of this tree every day that I get a sense of something like that. Today is a perfect example. I get to the Tree and there is fresh snow so I don’t want the picture to be of Mark Hirsch’s footprints all around this tree so I start way back from a distance, trying to come up with some new compositions. It’s a gray, gloomy, overcast day and those kinds of days all look pretty much the same, so I don’t really have any light advantages for a fresh perspective. Then I moved to a medium perspective but I still was striking out. So I ended up right down by the tree. I discovered an acorn shell that was still attached to the tree. The Bur Oak acorn shell has got something like hairs around it and it’s really cool to shoot itself, but this one was full of snowflakes. Now the iPhone really stinks for close focusing, and I don’t usually use the standard iPhone camera App, but I used it this time because it seemed to be focusing better. I’m as close with my composition as I can with that set-up, its overcast light so I’m not really seeing things, but I make two frames anyway. When I played back the images and zoomed in I was amazed at the details of the snowflakes which looked like tiny little stars! But I thought I need to make this technically better so I get out my tripod and the Manfrotto Magic Arm and am adjusting everything when I bumped the branch! That acorn shell was so fragile that it popped off the tree and landed in the snow. But it didn’t matter, and I didn’t have to be overly technical, because I had already gotten the shot with those two frames. So it was, again, one of those moments where I went in trying to be technical, but by just relaxing my senses and looking around I discovered a cool opportunity right there in front of me. I’ve been a photographer for 25 years and I thought I was a pretty good photographer, but my skills of observation have increased just by nature of the simplicity of the tools I’m using.
When we spoke before you had mentioned that you had used the iPro Lens System. How have you utilized the system in this project?
The kit I bought came with the Wide and 2X Tele lenses. I’ve discovered that of those two lenses the one that I find I use most, as I’m certain of the quality of the output, is the 2X. It gives me a radically different perspective and it pretty closely maintains that same level of sharpness as the iPhone lens. It really opened up some opportunities where compositions that I had seen but there was no way I could fulfill it without cropping the heck out of the final image. I probably have at least 5 images that I have posted since October that have been shot with the 2X. I have been using the wide angle on occasion because it does offer you a perspective that I can’t get with the built in lens, but there is some edge softness that I have learned to work with. And instead of looking at this project as I do my traditional work, this is a fine art project, therefore I have embraced that the softness on the edges of the wide angle lens. And if I compose the image properly to have the subject matter in the center and work with the softer edges of the lens I really like the outcome. And I probably have at least 3 images in the project’s collection that I have shot so far with that lens.
Just to let you know, Mark, we do have two new lenses coming out soon – a Macro to let you get even closer to those snowflakes, and a newly designed wide lens that is wider and sharper on the edges. We learned a lot with the current lens designs and working with such as small inset lens that the iPhone has, so we are able to make improvements with any new lenses that we add to the system.
That will be really cool!
What are your future plans for the That Tree Project?
With the help of a friend of mine we will be Self-Publishing a nice coffee table book with all of the images. I’ve already started work on the layout, too.
When this project is done do you think you will do another one?
I don’t know, but probably! It’s going to seem like a hollow day to not have this commitment, you know? But then again it might seem kind of nice not to have a commitment, too! I mean, I go to sleep at night and my wheels are spinning wondering what am I going to shoot tomorrow?
I’d advise booking a vacation between the projects, though!
What do think has been both the biggest challenge and the biggest reward of this project so far?
I think the biggest challenge is the technical limitations. I’m a professional photographer with every lens from a 16mm to a 300mm f2.8, and with an aperture range and ISO ratings that will allow me to shoot under nearly any lighting condition. You don’t have any of that with an iPhone. With this project I have become a landscape photographer and the best times of the day for that type of photography is around sunrise and sunset and those are the worst times of the day to work with the limitations of the iPhone! So going in knowing those limitations I’ve become a master at getting the most out of the least.
So basically your biggest challenge is the technical side and your biggest reward is overcoming that.
Yep! Yes, absolutely!
Thank you so much for taking the time to chat today! We are looking forward to seeing the book out soon and good luck with the rest of the project!
Mark will finish his project this March. He plans to have the book available by fall of 2013. We will be certain to announce the release of the book! In the meantime, you can see the photos he took with the iPro Lenses here: http://iprolens.zenfolio.com/p723864191
And follow Mark's project on Facebook here: https://www.facebook.com/photosofthattree?ref=ts&fref=ts
Mark’s tools of choice for iPhoneography are:
Manfrotto Magic Arm
iPro Lens System