Cameras, Computers and the Creative Process: A Conversation with Celebrity Photographer Mark Mann

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Portrait photographer Mark Mann has worked with an illustrious roster of clients. He’s taken some of the most iconic images of public figures ranging from former presidents to Rihanna, Stevie Wonder and Willie Nelson.

As a #DellInsideCircle member, Mark uses Dell Precision mobile workstations daily in his studio and on the go. We sat down with him to hear his thoughts on the role of technology in art and how the tools of his trade allow his subjects to shine brightest. We also joined Mark on a recent photoshoot – check out the video here.

Matt: You started out shooting on film, but at what point did you turn to digital photography?

Mark: The first digital camera I encountered was 20 years ago, I was intrigued at how you can take a photo and play it on your TV. I started shooting on film and learned darkroom techniques etc. so I ignored digital for a long time but then I did a cover shoot using film for a magazine in NY, and the editor-in-chief said he didn’t like the styling and wanted a reshoot. The problem was that the models now were in LA, so suddenly I had this insane turnaround where I had to go to LA and deliver the pictures the day after. Thinking through the logistics, there was no way I’d be able to take the photos, process them, scan them and send them to my retoucher in time, so I decided the only way was to shoot digitally. I got a digital camera, reshot the images and retouched them on the plane ride home to give to the magazine the next day. At that time a lot of people didn’t know how to retouch digitally so for me it was learning on-the-go.

Matt: What roles does technology play in art today?

Mark: I see myself as an artist, and creating art is my personal passion. Nine out of 10 times, you get a brief from a client on the internet. Photography is done 99.9% of the time with a digital camera so it’s not a mystery what the image looks like. Nowadays you often have an art director and creative director standing over your shoulder. Decisions are made incredibly fast, and when you finish, they look at it and ask, “Oh, can we change this background?” That’s when we start photoshopping and doing image manipulation, so technology has a huge part to play from start to finish in the creative process today. I’ve never taken editing classes, but I’ve picked up Photoshop skills along the way.

Matt: You started using Dell Precision workstations last year – how’s the experience been so far?

Mark: I was taking photos with greater megapixels on the camera and found that it was taking much longer for my 3-4 year old Mac laptop to transfer and edit the files. Mac was all I had used for 15 years, but someone suggested that I look into a PC. So I reached out to Dell and they were incredibly supportive of me trying new things. I was scared because I didn’t know how to use a PC, but it had the benefits of being a faster machine; was less expensive yet performed better.

Software compatibility during the switch wasn’t an issue as I mainly use Adobe Creative Cloud, mostly Photoshop and Lightroom. It was probably muscle memory with new shortcut keys that took a couple of weeks to get used to. I had used a couple of file sync applications that were developed for Mac users but it was easy to find good alternatives.

 There are a lot of creators that still use Macs but my Precision workstation works faster and better with Adobe Creative Cloud, suits my needs, and if I need to replace it, it’s less expensive. I remember when I got my first PC, the Precision 5530. I opened it up, and my son asked, “Can I see?” There was a photo on the screen, and he went to pinch it and it zoomed in. I hadn’t even realized it was a touchscreen – we were both so impressed!

I am super happy with my workstation, and I have convinced people to start looking at it too. When VR started to take off a few years ago, I went to these VR fairs, and everyone was working on PCs. That was a big indicator to me that Apple wasn’t catering to us as creators and don’t offer enough processing power for the work that we do.

Matt: What are your top 3 pieces of tech?

Mark: My Leica camera is my most cherished possession. My Dell [Precision 5530] 2-in-1 – I’ll always have it, and I can’t function without it because it’s the best. Another tech gadget I can’t live without is my new 3D printer, which is so relaxing to watch. The least technical thing that I own is my 1967 Austin-Healey Sprite 2. It’s a car with no fancy features, but I truly love it.

Matt: When it comes to your creative work and tech, what do you recommend investing in?

Mark: Learn what you need and use that knowledge to guide your purchases. At the end of the day, the most expensive camera is not going to automatically make you a better photographer. When mastering a craft, if you learn how to do it the hard way first, when you get new tech, it becomes easier to adapt. A couple years ago, we bought the cheapest 3D printer just to learn how a 3D printer works, so when something goes wrong, we know how to deal with it. We’ll get a better one now that we’ve learned the quirks.

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