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Ken Milburn, Digital Adventurer

by Sessions Staff | June 22, 2011

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How do photographers keep pace with changes in technology? To find out, we interviewed Sessions College online faculty member Ken Milburn. In a forty year career, Ken has managed to combine his passions as a photographer, writer, artist, and teacher, as well as explore the potential of digital image processing. This interview explores the inspiration of working with great photographers and the charms of shooting in Panama City, where Ken now lives.

Q: In your career as a photographer, your work has ranged from fashion and advertising to art photography and digital art. How has your approach as a digital photographer changed over the years?

One big change when I first got started was when I first realized how much more dynamism and expressiveness my photos could have if I did my own processing. So my dear father turned me on to two of his close friends who had their own darkrooms and after a few months of working with them, he financed my building a darkroom in the laundry room of our garage. I ended up, that year, contributing a great deal to our school newspaper and to the graduating class album.

The next big change came when I realized that the highest demand for color photographs was in the commercial and fashion world. Because I couldn’t afford (and didn’t want to spend the time) processing my own Kodachrome, I put much more effort into making sure everything was as right as possible when I pressed the shutter button. Working for photographer Cal Bernstein really taught me how to make sure that was the case when I shot color. We even bought, tested, and refrigerated large cartons of Ektachrome and Kodachrome. Working in Hollywood, we could drop off the film the evening of the shoot at pick it up the next morning. All the slides would immediately go onto a light table and Cal insisted we immediately throw away anything that had any kind of a problem.

Q: How did things change with the advent of digital photography?

It was a game changer, of course. As a digital photographer, every day and in every way, there are more and more ways to interpret what you’ve shot. Today, when I take photos I’m not only keeping the photos that I know will be “adjustable” to produce something even more stunning—I’m also keeping parts of photos that could be used effectively in other photos… especially skies and backgrounds.

But the really big revolution was something Ansel Adams became a genius at doing with black-and-white images processed in a digital darkroom. He divided the brightness areas of his images into “zones” and then adjusted the brightness and contrast within each of those regions until the overall effect was much more like the feeling of being there in person. Today, more and more ways are being invented to make our computers re-interpret the brightness zones in an image and those processes collectively. Processes called “tonemapping” and HDR (High Dynamic Range) enable us to effectively “see” all the 4,000+ shades of color and brightness that our eyes can see instead of the mere 256 that gets recorded when captured by film or a digital sensor. You see the some of differences made by an expanded color range in the before and after shown below:

panama city photo by Ken Milburn
Two views of Panama City

Q: Which great photographers have inspired you in your work, and why?

Many great photographers have inspired me in a variety of ways: Berenice Abbot, Ansel Adams, Jay Maisel, Annie Leibovitz… But the photographers I will never forget are three geniuses that I worked for: Stanley Ciccone, Cal Bernstein, and Lee Lacy. Stanley became the editor of Australian Vogue, but when I processed all his photos he was shooting as many as 16 full page newspaper fashion ads every day for Macy’s of California. When TV took over, Stan moved to Australia and became the chief photographer for Australian Vogue magazine. Fashion and glamour photography are still one of my primary interests. Because of that, I decided to move from San Francisco to Los Angeles and interviewed every famous photographer in search of an assistant’s job.

It took me forever to catch Cal at a free moment, but when I did, I spent the next year working for him. During that time, I also became very interested in video, and was lucky enough to meet Lee Lacy, who had one of the most successful TV commercial production facilities in LA and who did all the commercials for Alka Seltzer and the Koala Bear commercials for Quantas Airlines. When Quantas asked us to shoot commercials showing the places they flew to, I spent the next three months as second unit director and got to go to amazing places such as Alice Springs and catching kangaroos in the Outback.

Q: Last year you authored Casco Viejo, a coffee table photography book chronicling social change in the old quarter of Panama City. What are some unique challenges and pleasures of photography in Central America?

The biggest challenge is to avoid being robbed. Despite the fact that Panama is one of the few economies that’s on the upswing, there are still many poor people for whom thievery is one of the few paying jobs, and cameras are one of the easiest things to re-sell because (ironically) everyone here wants to take pictures.

At the same time, Panama City one of the very best places to take pictures I’ve ever lived in. The sun rises at and sets at 6 every day. There are breezes coming from both oceans, since they’re only about 100 miles apart.

panama city sunset photograph
Left: Typical Casco Wiring, Right: Sunset at Plaza Central

Panama City is full of skyscrapers, hoity-toity estates, beautiful “home-made” downtrodden ruins full of poor folks, amazing art buses, a couple of the biggest and most varied shopping malls on the planet, incredibly beautiful women who are mixes of all races and cultures, stunning birds and butterflies, and Panama Hats and Indian molas.

There are also several races of ethnic Indians who have their own “sub-governments” and whose married women all wear native art uniforms. The Kunas are the world’s second smallest race, only slightly taller than the Pygmies. Oh, and it also happens to literally be the “crossroads of the World,” thanks to the Panama Canal and the fact that dozens of airlines find it a handy place to visit between destinations. Although Spanish is the native language, English runs it a close second and signs in English are everywhere.

(See previous Campus News interview for more images/information on Casco Viejo.)

Q: How do you as a travel or documentary photographer develop an eye for capturing the moment?

I think the best technique for capturing the moment is to always have a camera handy and always have the exposure set in an “automatic” mode so that you can at least try to grab the shot the instant you see it happen…without fiddling with adjustments. But by the same token, it’s always a very good idea to review what you’ve shot, the very first chance you get. You can set your camera so that you’ll see the settings the camera used when you took the picture. So you’ll know instantly how to change the exposure and to provide more or less depth of field to to use a higher shutter speed and or ISO when you have to stop or increase (as appropriate to the subject) camera or motion blur.

It’s really not rocket science…just practice, practice, practice. Don’t stop until you think the picture is worth paying for…even if you have no intention of ever selling it.

panama city vista, Ken Milburn
Sweeping the Tourist Walk

Basketball Soccer Laundry

Q: What other projects are you working on at the moment?

A: I am writing an eBook that explains the most essential things to know about state-of-the-art digital photography in terms that anyone can grasp. The book, tentatively titled KISS Digital Photography, will be designed to be quickly and interactively referenced, so that you can use it in the field. It’s going to be highly illustrated with “Pictures of the Moment” that are visual examples of a situation to which the given procedure has been applied. Several other authors are doing similar projects, so for the moment I’m just writing bits and pieces on my blog Access Digital Photography (http://www.accessdigitalphotography.com/). As that collection builds, I’ll keep refining how I want the book to “look and act.”

Q: How important are Photoshop or Lightroom to your work?

I wrote the first national review of Photoshop when it was called something else and was used by Lucas Film for creating special effects for movies. A few months later, it was bought by Adobe and the rest is history. I also designed the user interface for Mannequin, the precedent for HumanCAD. When it was introduced, it won a national award at a large trade convention for best software product of the year.

Today, I can’t imagine living without Lightroom. It does 100% of the work you need to do in processing for about 80% of what most photographers do (I’m making up those percentages), doing it much more intuitively and in much less time… which leaves lots more time for doing the specialized things that the other 20% just can’t be successful without, such as picky retouching, layer blending, merging several images as a means of creating a panorama, HDR image, Puppet Warp and Liquify for re-shaping images, Content-Aware fill, greatly-expanded 3D imaging, and more. To name just a few!

HDR panama city image

Beach panorama, view of Panama City.

Ken’s most recent book, Casco Viejo, is available from blurb.com.

Sessions Staff is a restless soul who loves to share Campus News stories with current and prospective students.