8.21.2014

A look at yesterday's job through the rose colored glasses of non-perfectionism. A tale of two camera systems.

 This image of a corner of the Denver Convention Center has absolutely nothing to do
with this particular blog post. It's sitting here on top of the page because I like looking at the 
colors and the shape. Done with the Pentax K-01.

Starting the day with an active meditation on seriousness.
And the cult of coffee-ism. 

One of my favorite Austin ad agencies got me hooked up with a cool software company which one might call a "start up" if not for the fact that they have nearly 500 employees, offices around the world and tons of income. One thing they did not have, and which they understood the need for, was really nice photographs of their top twelve executives. Yesterday we aimed to fix that. In a previous meeting we worked together to craft a creative brief that called for me to a formal yet edgy and modern portrait, a series of action portraits at a conference table, capturing hand gestures and facial expressions as in an interview and then, finally, a waist up portrait in an exterior hallway (beautiful architecture everywhere).

The men and women we were photographing were already "warmed up" for their media experience because many of them had been interviewed for a video project the day before. 

I found a conference room that faced north a got beautiful, diffuse but directional light during the entire day. The back wall was a beautiful soft green/teal airbrushed glass. I had every intention of lighting the crap out of every shot and brought along enough gear to light up the entire floor of their office in this exquisite bank tower but when I started figuring out the shooting angles and how I wanted to pose the people for the interview shots and formal portraits I instantly saw that nature had done a much better job with the lighting than I ever could. It was just up to me to position each person to get some good modeling on their faces. This sounds optimistic but it turned out to be so true. Perfectly done lighting without lifting a finger. All of the flashes and light stands and umbrellas stayed in their cases and my most important tool of the day was my tripod. 

I had planned to shoot everything with the Panasonic GH4 and the two f2.8 zooms but.....

I was seduced by the lure of two other camera systems. The Samsung NX 30 and the Nikon D7100. The odd couple. The "hey, let's go all experimental today" cameras. Why? Who besides a good psychiatrist can really know?

Just for the sake of rationalization let's say that corporate portraits are one place where narrow depth of field imaging sells really well and I wanted to make sure I could get that look (in spades) from one of the cameras. The second rationalization is that I think the Toshiba 24 megapixel sensor with no anti-aliasing filter (in the Nikon D7100) is going to be a cult sensation. According to DXO tests it delivers nearly 14 EVs of dynamic range and it's amazingly detailed. I thought this job might be a good shake out for this recent addition to the tool kit. Even with it's funky but solid 18-140mm super-zoom kit lens. 

The day was fun and we worked at a nice pace. We had people schedule at 30 or 40 minute intervals but as with most freeform executive suites the players swapped schedules with each other all day long. My real goal was to slow them down, get them into the spirit of the shoot and not to relent until we had three good shots in the can for each person. At first I leaned on the Nikon and the zoom but I kept tossing the Samsung NX 30 into the mix with its ultimate lens, the 85mm 1.4.  I was shooting that combo at ISO 250, f2.2 and 1/200th of a second and I loved nearly every frame I pulled out of that camera and lens combination. While the operational aspects of the NX 30 are no where near as solid as the Nikon camera the lens and the sensor in it made up for all the finesse and structural nuance Nikon could build into their picture taking machine. 

Easily the best six portraits I've done this year I did hand held with the NX30 and the 85mm 1.4 lens. The pity is that I don't have permission yet to show them off. Once the client's website goes live you know I'll share them with you but for right now you just have to take my word for it. All the stuff I know about artificial lighting and state of the art cameras just went out the window and the stuff that will make it into my portfolio, from that full day of shooting will be from the NX.

It's eerie when you finally connect with a camera; when you finally discern it's reason to be there. I had to overlook the fidgety function controls and the fact that every frame seemed to see a slightly different color balance (thank goodness for raw files...) but in the end it's the highly sharp center surrounded by lush and glorious out of focus areas, provided by a premium lens, that nailed it for me. At the end of the day I had two wishes. First, I was wishing (hoping) that the rumors swirling around in a tiny part of the industry are true and that Samsung will both introduce a new, pro or prosumer camera body with an even newer  sensor. And that, if they do I get my hands on it soon. In the company of their 85mm 1.4 I would consider a well finished pro came to be a marvelous, dedicated portrait camera for studio and location work. 

The proof of the pudding is in the eating so I'll stop writing about the NX 30 and just leave it with this: With this lens and the current sensor  the Samsung imaging chain is easily on par with any APS-C camera out there from Canon or Nikon. I don't have enough experience with the Fuji's to make a statement about them. With this in mind the NX30 is going with me on my next high ISO shoot over at the theatre. There's a dress rehearsal for a one person play coming up and this focal length and sensor combo should be perfect. 


 The NX 30 body under discussion.

The Luscious Lens. May be the best one out made just for DX format.

And that brings us to the question of "what the hell were you doing with a last century paradigm Nikon body at a Kirk Tuck photo shoot?"  Well... hmm. I think I touched on this earlier but my experiences with Sony camera bodies and flashes, Panasonic camera bodies and flashes and just about everybody else's cameras and flashes has been at best, mediocre. While I may be missing some secret tricks or something it seems that most people's flash/camera combos don't do a great job of mixing ambient light and strobe. They are also a bit inconsistent for me. I'm sure someone has mastered the flash riddle on mirror less but I'm just not there yet and I've booked about $10,000 work of event work this Fall. The kind of assignments that call for flash in dark ballrooms and racetracks at night and in concert performances at night, etc. 

Whenever a new type of assignment crops up I tend to review the way we handled similar assignments in the past. How can I get the images my clients want with the least amount of fuss and failure? When I divested my Nikon gear back in 2008 the one tinge of regret was the fact that their flash equipment, and its integration with the bodies, was the first perfect match in the digital age and it's still, in my humble opinion, the top of the game in 2014. By that I mean I can focus in near darkness, on a guy in a dark suit, push the shutter button and nail the flash exposure with no real intervention from me. 

Remembering this pushed me to head over to Precision Camera and check memory against reality. I tortured my favorite sales guy for a while and discovered that my memory and reality matched up pretty well. The flash performance of the iTTL flashes and the current Nikon bodies is great. Having settled that I started imagining the working situation: Impromptu group shots requiring wide angles of view. Couples and foursomes requiring the middle range. Speakers at podiums requiring longer, maybe 200mm equivalent angles of view. That's when I started researching the Nikon 18-140mm zoom. According to DXO, DPreview and the invincible Ken Rockwell this lens is very sharp even wide open. At nearly every focal length. It matches the Toshiba sensor in the D7100 well. In many regards it's the perfect extra long ranging zoom lens. It has one huge, major, gasping flaw: It has more distortion than a car radio turned up to maximum volume. Brutal amounts of distortion. It requires minus 7 correction at the wide end to cure barrel distortion while the pincushion distortion which comes into play from 35mm onward requires a +8 correction to cure it well enough. 

If I were buying the combo to do architecture I'd have my brain examined by several professionals. Wouldn't work at all unless your client designed fun house mirrors. Ditto with product shots of products that are largely composed of straight lines. Amazingly weird. But for grip and grin photos in the Four Season's ballroom it's the best. Fast focusing, four stop image stabilization, sharp wide open and the equivalent (for 35mm frame dimensions) of a 28mm to 210mm lens. Amazingly good for what I have in mind. A specialty tool, like a hex wrench, that exists to do one thing well----social, event photography. 

At any rate that's as much as I can rationalize my purchases. But I will say that after seeing the performance of the naked Toshiba sensor I am thinking of using the D7100 camera (with a different lens) as the view camera of the studio for images requiring very high resolution. I did put a 55mm Micro Nikkor on the front and at f5.6 and ISO 100 the detail seemed endless. And profoundly sharp. 

Now, for all the linear and literal readers out there. Don't get your boxers in a bind. I am not abandoning the m4:3 cameras and lenses I've been using with much happiness for the last six months. They are much more fun to carry about and much more fun to use with manual lenses and with continuous lighting (my personal quirks abound). If you've read the blog for long you know that the gear inventory never stands still.....and that I think it shouldn't stand still. Curiosity is part of the art. The tools are woven into the process. And the D7100 is a wonderful camera with which to shoot flash on the run. No excuses.


So, between the two APS-C cameras, and the various strange lenses, the shoot for the technology client went very, very well. What a gift not having to light everything. I packed up and headed home to do the post processing. Because I was working with people who are not "on camera" professionals I felt the need to do lots of shots to catch the best expressions. When you couple the human needs with the fact that there is zero recycle time with available light my frame rate soon got totally out of control and when I finished downloading the UHS-3 SD cards I found I'd shot 1600+ images. Which occupied nearly 28 gigabytes of hard drive space, times two (the backup drive). 

I brought the files into Lightroom 5.6 (thank you Adobe for the instantaneous Cloud upgrades...) renamed them and started my edit. This morning I'd worked the pile down to 650. If you look at it from a per set up basis it's really only 18 shots per set up, per person. I'm loathe to edit further because at a certain point an errant art director will start saying, "Is this everything we shot? It seems like we shot a lot more. Oh? We did? I'd like to see them....all." 

The files started life as 20 or 24 megapixel raw files. In the case of the Nikon files they are shot as 14 bit images with lossless compression. The images are huge. Way too big (note to camera industry: Kodak gave us raw file capability in all file sizes in their DCS SLR/n camera. Why can't we have that in all of our cameras? I'd love a half sized RAW file in the Panasonics and three or four smaller files in the Nikon and Samsung.). 

I exported the files as 1800 pixel wide, mildly compressed Jpeg files and sent them along to a gallery on Smugmug.com. That way the client, the agency and I can all look at the images and discuss them with each other remotely. They'll pick finals and we'll retouch em. Even the wonky lines from the 18-140mm lens.

On a business note I thought I'd share one aspect of billing a job like this. These are all busy people. We did the shoot yesterday but they may not get around to making final selections for a week. Or a month. Or ever. You just never know. So I bill jobs like this in parts. The first bill goes out as soon as the gallery goes up. That invoice covers the shooting and licensing fee for the images we created. It also covers the cost of editing and then creating the gallery. 

Once the client and agency make their selections we'll send along a second invoice for the post production and retouching of the files along with any additional usages they may have decided upon once they've started working with the material. 

If you do billing like this you start the clock on payment right now. Today. If you wait until the end you might be starting the billing cycle clock thirty days from now (or longer) and you'll suffer by not having the cash flow and profit from work you've already done. 

Finally, as always, remember that Samsung sent me the camera and the lens I discussed above for free and that I also participate in their Imagelogger (image sharing) program. I'm never shy being critical about their cameras. I don't pull punches but you need to know the provenance of the camera and lens so you can evaluate my experiences with the knowledge that I may be introducing some unconscious bias. As with all gear: try it out for yourself or only order it from a store that has a liberal return policy. Every hand and brain is different. 

Check back in on Monday. I am taking delivery of two HMI lights from K5600 Lighting. They make all kinds and sizes of HMI lights for the movie industry.  I have high hopes for these small but powerful, daylight balanced, continuous light units. One is an "open face" and the other a fresnel. There will be much spirited portrait play in the next few weeks. Count on it.

8.19.2014

A tangential answer to a reader request and a revisitation of a good book about the marketing and business side of commercial photography.



After the (unexpected) success of my first two books the folks at Amherst Media asked me to try my hand at writing a book about Commercial Photography. I was happy to oblige because I felt that after two practice rounds I had finally found my voice and, after nearly thirty years of being in and around the business, I felt pretty certain that I finally understood the things that worked (for me) and the things that didn't.

I had experienced professional photography from the other (client) side having spent nearly eight years working with photographers as a creative director in an ad agency. I understood the issues of copyright and licensing after having been indoctrinated for years by the ASMP and having recently served as a chapter president.

While the book was enthusiastically picked up by several colleges as a primer on the business of photography the more generally audiences seemed to be underwhelmed by the whole idea. And I guess it's fair because so many of my readers don't do photography for a living. Why should they soldier through the ins and outs?

But today, after a post on Fear, which was a thinly veiled post on marketing, Malcolm (a VSL stalwart) suggested that I pen a book on the subject. So this post is my response. It's my way of saying, "I already did" and I like it the very best of all the books I've written and illustrated for Amherst Media and wish it had the mighty sales legs of the Minimalist books.

If you want to be a photographer, or you run any sort of small service business, you might really enjoy and benefit from reading it. I think it reads-----nicely.

If you are dead set against works of non-fiction I can happily point you to the novel, THE LISBON PORTFOLIO. Either way we can hardly go wrong.




I'm loving the bidding posts on APhotoEditor! Wanna see how a well regarded photographer bids corporate jobs?

Tune in here: http://www.aphotoeditor.com/2014/08/11/pricing-and-negotiating-executive-portraits-for-a-large-agency/

Wonderful Machine ( a repping and photographer consulting firm) opens the trench coat to reveal a bid for a large, east coast, advertising agency who needed to hire a photographer to make executive portraits exactly the best way possible.

I'm both a little jealous by the wonderful-ness of the job but I am also more motivated (after reading) to make sure that my fees go up year after year and my tolerance for budget jobs goes down year after year.

The actual posted bid is the most interesting part of the article but it's sure nice to also see the thought process....

Come back here and let me know what you think in the comments!

Kirk (who is currently pricing too low!) Tuck.

Regression to the Prime(s).

Zeiss 80mm Planar on a Sony a77. Delicious combo.

Happens every time. I get a new camera from a new company and I start reading all the propaganda about how great their high speed zoom lenses are. When I shot with Canon, Nikon and Sony I drooled over and bought those fast zooms. How could I not when everyone else was doing so? The promise is always the same: a wide range of "must have" focal lengths instantly at my service, coupled with a maximum aperture that seems fast enough to do almost anything. And here's the sad part: Every time I ponied up and bought the holy trinity of fast zooms I found myself, one or two jobs later, pining for the primes.

Yes, the 16 or 17mm to 35mm f2.8 zooms seem sharp enough but are they sufficiently well corrected to be used for what I think they should be used for (architecture and technical work)? Invariably not. And I hardly need a wide zoom to photograph people. I would almost always be better off with the well corrected prime lens. Perhaps a nice 21mm f 2.8 Zeiss? Then, when I'm playing around with the longer zooms it always seems to me that f2.8 on an 85mm prime or a 100mm prime gives me a little extra pop and sparkle, a bit more bite than the wide open apertures of the 70-200mm behemoths.  Not to mention that there are times when one actually wants to experiment with what happens visually when we use our fast primes at or near their widest apertures. None of this takes into consideration the comfortable formalism of being cosseted by not having to choose variations in focal lengths...

I bought a Nikon D7100 a week or so ago with the idea of using it for quick events with on camera flash. Nikon's flash system has always been really good. I figured the camera, along with the 18-140mm zoom lens would be a great "grip and grin" system for walking around in dark conference halls and gala ballrooms making flash lit snapshots. No question that the focus is quick and the files are great. But within a day of buying the camera and zoom there I was, back to pick up an AF 50mm (even though I have  drawer of fun, manual focus 50's.).  And then a couple days later for a 35mm lens. I just like the way prime focal lengths work with my brain.

I have a Samsung camera that was sent to me for evaluation and it came with a nice 18-55mm zoom lens and a very competent 50-200mm zoom lens. I shot a bunch of "test" frames with the NX30 camera and the zooms and the images were good but I quickly got bored and put the camera in a drawer. Then I started getting unexpected boxes via Fed Ex. First came a 30mm f2, which got my attention. It's a fun lens and close to the 50mm focal length on a 35mm film camera. It was the lens that made me pull the camera back out of the drawer. But the fun quotient jumped up ten notches when the next box came and it had an 85mm f1.4 NX lens inside. Now the camera and the small collections of primes is packed in an Airport Security wheeled case for use on a job tomorrow. No question, the zooms would do the job well enough but the primes do it with added fun.

This is not a new phenomenon for me or anyone else who shoots both for fun and business. We're always covering the bases and then dropping in a bigger dose of fun. And it's usually all about the lenses. Take my Panasonic system as an example. I made my initial lens selection when I bought the GH4 and it included the 12-35mm f2.8, the 35-100mm f2.8 and the 7-14mm f4.  All great lenses and all more than enough for my use in still photography and video productions. But I just had to add those unique and quite sharp Sigma dn Art lenses (19, 30 and 60mm). Then I realized that I really wanted a fast 85-90mm equivalent so I grabbed one of the Olympus 45mm 1.8's. But that made me realize that a nice, two lens, travel and art system would be well served by tossing in a 17mm f1.8. The 45mm and the 17mm do make a nice duo but they are both well balanced by the addition of the 25mm f1.4. And so it goes.

When I pack the bags for work I tend to take the zooms. When I pack the bag for fun I tend to take the primes. Rarely do I pack both. When it comes to shooting I think I have the most binary brain. It's always this or that but never both. It's either an assortment of primes or two wide ranging zooms on two bodies. It all seems easier if you can start the day making that overarching choice and ignoring whatever you chose to leave behind.

When I need to go bare bones it always makes sense to consider a wide angle to short tele zoom as a sole optic but it never works that way for me. Maybe it's my history and habit born of repetition but if I can only bring one body and one lens it's invariably a prime that finally, after an agonizing selection process, makes it onto the camera and, nine times out of ten, it's a 50mm equivalent. Something about balance. Anything wider is too wide. Anything longer is too constricting.

When it all gets distilled down my taste in cameras and lenses is all about regression to the prime.

The Business of Photography and Fear.


It is so easy to become paralyzed by fear. Especially in a fragile, freelance business where nothing is certain and change is always on the menu, and the menu is always on fire.

Will the clients send the checks they promised? Is the marketing working? Will the economy tank again? Will your skill set become obsolete? Have you hedged your bets? Will your bookie break your legs?

Through my many years of hard won experience I can now tell you the answers:

Yes, some clients will send the checks they promised, right on time. No, some clients will always need to be cajoled, reminded and prodded to get a check to you and those are the first ones you cut loose and never work with again. Why? because they help fan the fires of work anxiety and you don't need em. Find the clients who keep their promises and nurture and respect them by always keeping your promises.

Is the marketing working?  Yes. No. Maybe. Good marketing is consistent and it's done over time not in sporadic binges. The marketing itself doesn't bring in signed contracts it brings you an invitation to come in and pitch in person. But you have to ask if you want to be invited in. Marketing is the introduction. Some of your marketing won't connect with the markets. Some will. The most important parts of the puzzle are to craft materials that show the benefits of your work to the client and to do this consistently. They want to know how you can help them and not the other way around. In advertising circles there is an old saying from clients: "Only half of my advertising works. If I only knew which half I could save a lot of money..."

Good marketing identifies client needs and offers products, services and features which benefit them.

Will the economy tank again? Yes, probably the split second you get yourself out of debt, get into a groove working on your marketing plan, and feel like you've finally found your pace. But if you can make it through the trough okay you'll have no trouble riding the next wave. That's the trade off. When the market tanks again the one thing you really can't do is to stop marketing. The players who market in the depths of the downturns aren't using marketing to look for work tomorrow they are making sure they are well positioned to ride the next wave.

Will your skill set become obsolete? No. Visual talent and good taste never go out of style. Yes. Everything we do now will need to be re-framed in a new way just minutes down the road. We had to learn the mechanics of digital imaging but digital cameras didn't change the way we saw. We had to learn the technical side of non-linear video editing but the new approach to technical issues didn't change the ever present need to tell good stories. Cameras and computers should be like water. They should swirl around the image and the story not BE the image or the story. Work on having a point of view. Work on crafting a narrative. Be flexible with the tools you use to record these treasures. Most people just have the tools. If your only mastery is of the tools then you sit precariously on the edge of constant obsolescence. If you can tell a story the tools are only tools....easily interchangeable.

Have you hedged your bets? Did you make those monthly contributions to the retirement account? If haven't you should know that crafty investors don't look at their retirement accounts so much as a final allowance to be carefully husbanded until the end but as a giant buffer against all kinds of lessons life delivers. The more you save the easier it is to say "no!" to bad clients and their bad work.
The more you have in the bank the easier it is to do good work. Did you start other businesses or pieces of business that are separate from your primary freelance business? It's nice to have a secondary source of income for those times when you need to spend a little while creating a new set tool set for the primary job. I write stuff. It makes life less scary when the photography business slows down.  If I couldn't write I would find something else. Make my own vodka. Own a laundry. Something unrelated.  Old wisdom says "invest in your business." New wisdom says, "Be diverse and spread the risks---and rewards."

Ah. the bookie. I'm betting most of us here don't gamble. Or at least don't gamble big. And certainly not with organized crime in the mix. But if you are running your own business you are already playing the odds and some are looking for the big pay off. I find that the business of photography is a long, long play with no big, unexpected payouts. It's the anti-lottery. You just pull on your boots everyday and go ride the fences of commerce and make sure your stock is healthy and the watering holes aren't dry.

Fear is a price we pay today for something that may never happen. It's good to be prepared. It's good to acknowledge risk and uncertainty, and it's certainly good to plan. But the way to deal with fear is to acknowledge the things that trigger fear and then move on. You'd never make payments on a car you'll never receive and that's how I try to look at fear and panic when they erupt in my brain. If I do my work as well as I can and I make decisions based on facts instead of emotion I generally have a fighting chance of talking myself out of the fear and anxiety and just do my work. When I finish each day I can stop and look over what I've done, figure out how to do it better tomorrow and then walk out the door----free and calm. At least that's the goal. Everyday.