A couple of quick questions about workshops in the next year. Answer if you can...

I've taught portrait lighting workshops from time to time and I get mail almost weekly asking me "when is your next workshop???".  I'd like to add in some workshop experiences to my repertoire and my schedule next year but I'm a marketing geek and I don't want to offer something that no one really wants. So I have some questions and by you answering them I hope to understand what kind of workshop you would like me to teach and where, in the U.S. we should have workshops. I'm also interested to hear if anyone in the E.U. is interested. 

So, here are my questions:

1. Do you have any interest at all in taking a workshop on portrait lighting with me? 

2. Would you want a "hands on" experience, a lecturing/demo experience or a mix of the two?

3. What cool cities in the U.S. would you travel to if we did workshops there? (I vote for Denver to start....).

4. Would you travel to Austin, Texas for a workshop?

5. What would you like to come out of the workshop with? New techniques? More confidence? A new circle of friends?

6. Any interest in a workshop teaching best practice of portrait lighting with continuous lights?

7. Would you rather just have dinner, go out for drinks and sit around talking about photography with me till the bars close? 

Answer all the questions, some of the questions or none of the above questions. Make up new questions. Tell me not to waste my time. Tell me to spend more time on this. Go all freeform and just comment about your experiences and what you like and don't like about workshops you've lived through. It's all very useful to me. But I would like to hear from as many people as possible. You can be anonymous, this will not be graded.  Thanks for your input.  Kirk

P.S. Don't mention names but I'm also interested in your stories about the best and the worst workshops you've taken and what made them so bad or so good. Thanks, KT

Another article about pre-planning and getting packed for a shoot. 2100th post.

Happy Halloween. 

(I wanted to get that out now because I'll be working all day on the actual day.)

Here's a mantra guaranteed to raise your anxiety levels a bit higher than they probably need to be but it's something I've come to believe and it rattles around in my head when I'm preparing for any event that includes clients. It goes like this: Anything that's not in my direct control I consider to be out of control.

In short, when I plan my role in events or projects I assume that nearly everyone else involved with screw up somehow and jeopardize the show. Pretty paranoid outlook. And to be fair it only comes true about 50% of the time...

But I do my best to minimize the possibilities of accelerating entropy by making sure I've planned and double checked everything I can. 

During the next four days I am booked to shoot portraits, events, celebrity meet and greets and social photography in venues ranging from dark clubs to darker restaurants to race tracks to offices in tall buildings. I'll be working in seven different venues. I'll be uploading images to shared folders in the dead of night and will do some printing after midnight on Saturday.  

Let's start with the camera selection and talk about files. I'll be walking, running and moving most places on my own two feet so camera weight and lens weight becomes critical. I settled on shooting with two Olympus EM-5 cameras with two in reserve as back up cameras. Every camera gets three batteries to start and a fast charger is in the side pocket of the bag. That's twelve fresh batteries  to start with. I doubt very much that I'll go through more than four per day but, hey, I'll be ready if I need them. I'm bringing along four 32 gig SD cards and four 64 gig SD cards. Don't plan to fill up more than one per camera but, hey, I like to have back-ups, and they are light. 

I'm bringing the two excellent zooms from Panasonic, the 12-35mm 2.8 and the 35-100mm 2.8. I'll use them for just about everything but the portrait work. In that part of the job I'm going for slim slices of depth of field so I'll be leaning on the 60mm 1.5 lens. So nice at f2.  As back up I'm bringing the 17mm 1.8, the 19mm Sigma, the 25mm 1.4, the 30mm Sigma, the 40mm 1.4 Pen lens, the 45mm 1.8 lens and the 60mm Sigma. Coverage. If something goes down I'll have a "near enough" focal length to replace it. I'm happy with all the lenses. They're all first rate. 

I'm bringing two of the fl600r flashes. One to use and one for back up. I'm also bringing a Yongnuo 560 type 2 for some additional ceiling bounce on the celebrity "meet and greet" portraits. I'm bringing an adapter so I can mount that flash on my light weight tripod. No extra light stand needed. Every flash gets two sets of batteries. I doubt I'll really need more than one set but, hey, I like to be prepared.

Knowing I wanted to use a ceiling bounce I did have the client contact the venue to make sure the ceilings were white. Of course Murphy's Law says that they'll be painted green by tomorrow afternoon. That's why I have a six by six foot sheet of white nylon diffusion material added as padding in the bottom of the camera bag along with some thumbtacks. If fate intrudes we'll make our own white ceiling. 

Midnight printing? What could go wrong? Yes, I have three times as much paper as I'll need. Yes, I've tested the printing and the profile I'm going to use. But, what if the printer goes down? We'll we've got a second one in Belinda's office that uses the same ink cartridges and paper. We'll presto change it out. What if the fault is with the computer? We've got back up laptops standing by. What if the power goes down? Of course we have an inverter and some big marine batteries. 

And it goes on and on. I try to pre-plan for any contingency but there are some that come up and are more or less insurmountable. If we can't plan for em we can't fix em. But there are a lot of situations that can be salvaged with a little planning. 

I plan on having an assistant drop me off downtown in the mornings and pick me up at the end of the day. If something happens to prevent that there are also taxis I can grab at local hotels (pocket full of transportation $20's at the ready=please get a receipt). But guess what? I've also packed a bus schedule...just in case. 

I've printed out the agenda, I have cell numbers for all other suppliers and all critical client contacts. 
It should be fun. But It's only fun for me if I have all my ducks in a row. I hate to try shooting while worrying about details. Now, for a good dinner and early bed. Those early calls come quick.

Errata:  I returned the  front focusing Nikon D7000 to the store today. Of course, while I was there I happened across a pristine, perfect Olympus EM-5 with battery grip and the salesperson dropped the price for me to $525. I've tested it and shot it this afternoon and that's my final selection for the birthday camera. That's what I really wanted in the first place. If you find a camera you really like you know you've become obsessive when you stock in four....just in case. Nothing like getting used to something and having it discontinued.

Next on the acquire list for me is the new Olympus 40-150mm f2.8. I handled one and it's darn near perfect. It would be a wonderful lens to use for theatrical shoots. Might even try shooting some fast moving cars with that one but I'd probably want to use it on the Panasonic body for that.

Finally, this is the 2,100th post I've written for the Visual Science Lab blog. Unbelieveable. That means that if you've read from the very beginning your eyes much be very tired. Thanks for hanging in there with me and supporting my writing. If you want to celebrate you could always order your own copy of the novel. I also re-read the LED book recently and it's not bad! I'll put the links below and I'll thank you in advance for your brilliant buying decisions. 

Best, Kirk


Another fun work day. And a camera saga. Oh the glory of total camera failure...

Let's get the camera prattle out of the way first. My Pavlovian response to my birthdays is to rush out and buy a camera. I tried to contain myself and I made it all the way through my actual birthday with no acquisitions. I was so proud. But a large (and unexpected) royalty payment came in the last minutes of the day, via e-mail, and trigger anew the whole acquisitive process. I know the camera I emotionally want; it's the EM-1. I know the camera I would like to own for a longer time; it's the Olympus EP-5 with the new EVF finder. Why? Because it is so beautifully designed and assuages my nostalgia for the original (to me) EP-2 Pen camera that I really did love very much. Well all of it but the sensor....  I think I've got a line on a good, very lightly used EP-5 tricked out the way I want it I just need to be patient for a week. 

So, here's how the downfall from camera chastity to camera sluttiness occurred: I need to do some overnight printing for a fast approaching assignment. What does that mean? Well, after a full day of shooting (maybe till midnight or around there) I need to come back to the studio and make 40+ small prints before I return to the job the next day at seven. I may seem as though I operate by the seat of my pants but I really do test stuff before I head out and do it. I like to know that I'll be able to pull of what I'm about to promise. Keeps the clients much happier.

I needed a box of Canon lustre pro inkjet paper so I headed up the clogged highway to visit my friends at Precision Camera. I found the box of paper and tried to find someone to ring it up. But in the search I walked by the used Nikon shelf and happened to see a Nikon D7000 camera body offered used at a reasonable price and, in a moment of weakness, bought it as a back up body for the D7100. The logic was pretty flawless: pretty much the same menus, the same basic feel and control set up, really good high ISO performance and appreciably smaller file sizes. I bargained a bit and the next thing I knew I was heading home with it and, truth be told, I was pretty happy with my decision. 

I had an assignment to deal with this afternoon. I shot a series of marketing images for the people at Zach Theatre. They needed new creative visual content for the upcoming play, A Christmas Carol. 
What a perfect opportunity to break in the new camera!!! I packed it along with a few lenses and a bucket full of lights and umbrellas and what not. But old habits die hard and even though Precision Camera prides themselves on thoroughly checking out used cameras before sale I would never leave the studio to shoot a job without a backup camera in the bag so I grabbed the D7100 to back up for the D7000.  I set up the background first. Always. And then I got around to lighting everything and when that was done I grabbed the new camera, the used D7000 out of the case and put a lens on the front. Then I had the marketing intern step in so I could make a few test shots. 

Funny, when I blew up the test images nothing was sharp. Nothing. I tried another lens and got the same results. I tried a third lens and then gave up and tossed the camera into the bag and pulled out the thoroughly tested D7100. We did the whole shoot with that camera and the Nikon 18-140mm. All the images turned out great. 

When I got back to the studio I put the camera on a tripod, pulled out a home made focus tester and got to work on the new/used/offending D7000 body. I wanted to determine if the fault was just a calibration issue that could be user fixed. Nope. Even at +20 steps of correction or -20 steps of correction it was uncorrectable. Frustrating but better to find out before a major, unrepeatable project. Back the camera goes for a refund. Another hour spent driving up and back down Mopac Expressway. I'm resolved to just wait for fate to deliver that beautiful Pen EP5 to me...

Now, on to the job. The folks at Zach Theatre are doing the classic Dicken's, A Christmas Carol.  They needed images of Scrooge and Tiny Tim against white. They'll cut out the people and combine them or put them into other graphic elements. Zach is using an organizational software program called, BaseCamp, so I'm in the e-mail loop for every step of preproduction. Kind of fun. Almost like being omniscient. 

The packing was straightforward. Starting with the background we used a white muslin that packs down small and works well. We bought it in 2002 for a Southwestern Water Company annual report and I've been using it ever since. It's not as graceful a white background as Super White background paper but it does the trick when you are working fast, don't want to worry about light reflected back to the subject and you don't mine a little tone in the background. Works best when your art director's production team is highly proficient at dropping out backgrounds. 

I lit the background with two Elinchrom D-Lite 400s firing into matte silver surface umbrellas. The main subject is lit from the left (as you see the image) with a 60 inch Softlighter umbrella and from the right with a very powered down second light firing into yet another 43 inch silver interior umbrella. All four of the lights are Elinchrom D-LIte 400s.

After metering with a Minolta flash meter 5 I set the camera to ISO 200, 1/80th of a second, f7.1. Knowing the large expanse of white would serve as an auto reference I got lazy and used AWB for color. The camera nailed it perfectly.

We shot 350+ raw images which were post processed into 96 compression Jpegs at the full 6000x4000 pixel size. 

In this wide shot you can see the placement of umbrellas. The shot is wide angle so the background seems smaller and further away. 

We wanted the kid, William, to be on "Scrooge's" shoulders but our older actor has had some back issues so we needed to find a creative work around to make the shot happen. We ended up putting Tiny Tim on a ladder and compensating for the difference in heights by putting Scrooge on a step stool. I think it matched fairly well. All of the positioning was very stable which allowed me to get a wide range of expressions. If the kid had really been on Harvey's shoulders we would have had to take more breaks and work much more carefully...

Our make-up artist steps in to re-powder and actor's forehead. 

With the combination shoot coming to an end the marketing people stepped in to bring William down safely off the ladder. This shot should give you an idea of how we set up the shot.

Sad tiny Tim. 

Happy Tiny Tim.

We were in and out in about an hour and a half. We tried lots of different exposures and combinations. The D7100 was flawless. The 18-140mm was a good, all around lens for this kind of work. I had all of the files post processed and on a memory stick by dinner. 

First thing tomorrow the used D7000 goes back. I guess life can't always be perfect.  But it's been darn close lately. 


The background. Pay attention to the background. The background anchors everything else.

People agonize over where to put the "main light." Then they agonize over fill light ratios (very "last century..."). They get all fixated about hair lights but what they should really start with when designing the light for a portrait is the background light. The damn thing anchors every part of the photograph.

I don't like flat backgrounds. They work for some projects and, when the client brief calls for a white background it really does behoove you to make the light distribution across the span of white as flat as a pancake, metaphorically speaking. But dark backgrounds are a whole different thing.

When I'm getting ready to do a portrait my first big decision is, "What do I want the background to look like?" Once I decide that I get to work. For a recent session with my friend, Fadya, I knew I wanted to use my crusty, old gray canvas backdrop. It's appropriately laid back and neutral. It never competes with the main subject. I also knew that for a single person portrait I would want a circle of light that went from higher intensity in the middle and progressively fell off to the sides. The image above is a starting example. In the final images the edges aren't as dark as they are here because I've added a main light and even when it's flagged there's still a higher level of illumination that tends to fill in the dark shadows a bit.

The biggest concern for me is how the edges of the light circle look and how gracefully they fall off into the surrounding tone. I hardly ever use a bare light in a reflector because the edges are too sharp and to abrupt. Sometimes I'll use a small source covered with diffusion and it works but the fall off to the edges always depends on the power output and it's not as easy to control the look in smaller spaces. I prefer using either fresnel fixtures or grid spots.

I don't own any fresnel fixtures that do flash so the default for flash is the grid. I have four strengths of grid: 10 degree, 20 degree, 30 degree and 50 degree. I use 20 in all but the biggest rooms where I might have the luxury of moving all the lights far apart from each other and far apart from the components they are lighting. The further away the lights are the more natural they appear because of the more protracted fall off they give over distance. I usually drag the 50 degree out in the smallest rooms where the background is very close and we need a quicker spread of light to make the same circle on the background. I hope that makes sense.  Grids are good for flash but I prefer the immediate feedback of fresnel lensed fixtures that pump out continuous light.

A fresnel is a glass with concentric circles designed into it. Most are on the front of spot lights. The combination of the internally positionable bulb inside and the collimating nature of the fresnel itself gives a wide range of possible spot diameters in a single package. It's like magic. It's light magic.

I love being able to put a fresnel behind a subject, aim it into a background, adjust the beam width and have a perfect background light. It's so fun and easy. The edges of the fresnel spot are as soft as those of grid lights, maybe softer. The elegant transition from hot light to soft edge adds something wonderful to the aesthetic nature of a portrait (or a product shot).

The single downside is that most spots are not controllable when it comes to output. If you use a "pot" (potentiometer ) to turn down a tungsten fixture the light gets redder and redder as the voltage drops, instantly giving you a mismatch with your main light (and a less color accurate light sources; lower CRI).  If you can't move the light back away from the subject (in this instance a background) the only other way to control it is to introduce something between the light and the subject to reduce the illumination. But putting just anything in the middle can mean that the light is wholly influenced by the intervening material. Opaque diffusion just softens and spreads the light uncontrollably.

In the movie biz the lighting guys solve the problem with "nets" and screens. Metal screens, similar to the material used on your window screens is used right in front of the fixture (directly on or within a few inches of the front surface) while nets are used in place of scrims inches or feet from the front of the light. Used correctly they diminish the strength of the light without changing its character. That means that the hardness/softness of the light doesn't change much and neither does the spread of the beam.

Here's how I solved the "over lit" background issue in my recent photo shoot:

Here's the fresnel fixture that lights the background. I'm careful to keep the barn doors out of the light path so they don't cast hard shadows at the edges. I have a Westcott fast flag directly in front of the light. In fact, I have doubled it to get the level down where I want it. 
Light on loan from K5600 lighting. (200 watt HMI).

Here's another view of the light shining through the net which is supported on a small boom running about a foot in front of the light. If the net is too far from the light and too close to the subject there's a risk you'll see the pattern of the net. But you can see this as you are setting it up. 
If it happens you need to put the net closer to the light source. 
Just be sure that if you are using tungsten you don't
use the light too close to a plastic or nylon net. It might start to smoke 
and it's always a bummer when the sprinklers go off......

Once you have the background light set you'll find that everything else more or less falls into place. This is how movie sets are lit. This is how the big boys do it. Practice, practice, practice. 


Preferred camera of the day. Olympus OMD EM-5 with the Sigma Art Series 60mm f2.8 lens. Yummy.

It seems like an eternity since I've been downtown for a good Sunday walk through the city. After a nap with Studio Dog I headed to the studio in the early afternoon to go through the ritual of choosing the "camera of the day." We used to think of cameras as precious items that were costly and more or less permanent choices. Now I think of cameras as parts of life that are as interchangeable as your jacket or your favorite pair of pants. You like them but you get bored using them all the time. You crave a little diversity, some spontaneous choice. At least I do. I spent my last weekend with the GH4 camera and the impressive but boringly perfect 12-35mm lens. I pressed the newly re-appreciated Nikon D7100 into service all during the work week. I was ready for a change. A realignment of sorts. 

I pulled the black Olympus OMD EM-5 out of drawer number three and clicked on the Sigma 60mm lens. Nice and long. So different from the wide orientation I played with in Saratoga Springs and, even with the battery grip attached, the camera seemed tiny compared to the "work" camera. 

I had one interesting insight about this camera today. I had the EVF set to high refresh rate on all three of the EM-5 bodies and it reduces "lag" to the point that I can't see it but I realized that it does so by reducing the overall resolution of the screen. Since I don't do a lot of (any) fast moving action with my cameras and I'm not a sports photographer I changed all the cameras back to normal and the big difference in image quality that I'd been seeing lately between the EM-1's I've been playing with and the EM-5 seemed to subside into a much vaguer and subtle difference. Not so much to get all fired up about. 

I dragged the camera all around town and shot sparingly. I met a VSL reader out on Congress Ave. He was sporting a Panasonic GX7 and was obviously having a blast. We chatted for a block or two and then, true to our concept of "Lonely Hunter, Better Hunt" We split up and went our own ways. 
After visiting a pristine small town in the northeast Austin all of a sudden seems so downmarket. So shabby and grungy. Sixth street seem to swell today with drunken football fans lurching from seedy bar to seedy bar while the ever increasing bands of street people seemed more aggressive and pungent. I remind myself that every big city has nice spots and not so nice spots but it's a bit embarrassing that our downtown has become so "low rent" especially so given the high rents...

But I am hardly a social anthropologist so I just looked for things to shoot that seemed interesting to me. 

The building frenzy continues unabated. Condos everywhere. Two of them opening within spitting distance of Barton Springs. But the cranes look so dramatic against the blue sky. 

This is a new, giant condo building across the street from Whole Foods on Sixth and Lamar. Do you think adding several thousand new tenants will increase downtown traffic? At what point does growth strip away everything that made a city special in the first place? Time to head to the next cool spot?

I love street art. I'm so happy someone found this particular spot to put up this particular piece of art. Just in time for the "Day of the Dead." It sits in a window opening on the old Children's Museum building. Nice.

It seemed like the camera and lens could do no wrong today. Everything I pointed the combo at seemed fun to me. And the in body IS makes this particular cheap lens sing. 

Tomorrow is my birthday. I think I'll start out with a swim at Barton Springs followed by coffee and a bowl of Cheerios and walnuts. Maybe a run up to the camera store to see if they have any more used EM-5s. Some strategic future planning with Studio Dog. Coffee with Frank.  And then dinner at Asti Trattoria with Belinda. That should make for a nice day. Especially so if I can bargain for a great price on yet another camera.....

......it never stops.

If it was your birthday and you could rationalize getting another camera for less than $1,000 (and your spouse didn't need to know...) what would you buy?  No lenses please! That's too personal. But I would love to hear what camera has you interested right now.  In this moment. Hypothetically. Just for fun. Go ahead. Post it in the comments. It would be nice to hear from you on my birthday.