March 29th Sunday Rants and More.

    A central Texas track meet.  Kinetic waiting.

First up:  "Live fast and die quicker."  As Americans we seem to think that living brutal, jam packed 18 hour days is a smart, productive and reasonable way to live.  But as my friend the cardiologist says,  "The faster you live the quicker you die."  And the irrational desire to do everything in your life in a rush also serves to kill your creativity.  Example:  You learn 50 things about lighting this week and intend to learn 50 newer things about lighting next week.  This presumes that knowledge is some sort of commodity that can be put in your mental bank to be called on when needed.  But the reality is that knowledge must be integrated and adjusted in your brain if you want to use it successfully.  Each step in learning must build on a base of knowledge that has to be experimented with, tried, assimilated and personalized before it becomes worthwhile.  You could drink an entire bottle of Vodka in one sitting but you might not admire the productivity gains that would ensue.  

I've looked back over the last twenty five years and tried to understand how I learned what I know now.  This is the process that comes into focus as I adjust the "way back" machine and distill how I grasped knowledge from the thousands of random facts that I tried to grab like a glutton at an all you-can-eat Mexican food buffet:  I learned an intellectual concept like "depth of field" from one of the Time/Life book, The Camera. I looked at the pictures that were given as examples and I thought I really got it.  Then I would go out with my camera and practice by shooting everything for weeks with my 50mm lens set at f2.  I would photograph my girlfriend and her friends and the salt shaker on the restaurant table and the lone, surviving flower in the pot on my back porch at this aperture like it was a sacred thing.  And then I would stand in the darkroom for hours rolling film and clanking around with developing tanks.  Then I would print the images that I thought looked coolest (Usually my girlfriend in her underwear or something else prurient).  I'd come to the conclusion that my lens wasn't spectacular at f2 and I would come to understand that maybe f2.8 or f4 would be enough depth of field to keep the important body parts sharp while also keeping the eyes sharp and putting all the non essentials out of focus.  Several weeks of daily shooting, film development and printing would be enough to give me a certain mastery of that one technique.

Then I'd go back and read some more and realize that the effect I had been perfecting might be better served by the use of a longer lens.  So I would go back and spend another couple of weeks shooting the half naked girlfriend until I mastered that technique.  And so it would continue.  At the same time I was learning about light and lighting but I also took that in one step at a time, working on it until I had achieved a certain mastery.  

In a year or two I finally got the hang of: shooting with good exposure.  Using the right focal length and aperture.  Developing Tri-x to get the right tonal balance and grain structure. Printing on graded, fiber based paper.  And the learning was built on trial and error and what my swimming coach would call, "time in the water."  That is the great secret.  Not trying to swim as fast as you can until your heart bursts or your muscles cramp but spending time getting to know the water.  Getting comfortable in the water.

Now I look on the web and everyone is begging to have all the secrets to photography right away.  But they are missing the biggest secret.  That it is the time you spend learning one step at a time and integrating it into your technique that matters most.  It's time in the water.  Or time making trials and errors that leads you to the kind of understanding of any craft that you get with your gut and your heart and not just with your head.  You have to live your craft.  It's not enough just to "understand" it.

But the real question is:  "What's your hurry?"  For the professionals who are reading this column the answer might be revenue but I would respond that trying to push the curve on learning stuff is just like trying to force someone to love you.  Never works.  Love grows over time.  Love grows with respect.  Love grows comfortably.  It's the same way with a craft that you love.  So, whether valid or not, professionals might feel they have some excuse.

But what can be said for people for whom photography is a hobby?  Is it more important to have an endless, shallow progression of short affairs or to fall in love and take your time growing the romance?  Too much metaphor?  Maybe not.  Most of the people I know who are incredible photographers are incredible because photography is a true love, not just an obstacle course to plow through.  And the love doesn't come from bragging rights of having mastered the style of the day but in having refined the style of a lifetime.  And that's the real key.

So what if you can memorize David Hill's style, David LaChappelle's style and Platon's style and haphazardly regurgitate them on command?  It doesn't move the game forward for anyone and the endless mimicry will only leave you feeling shallow and unfulfilled.  The move forward comes when you master technique because it unlocks a look that makes your own style possible.  The game moves forward when technique becomes subordinate to the subject.  The game moves forward when you show work that evolved from your personal and unique response to the object in front of your eyes.

Many newcomers to the craft have the mistaken point of view that copying the work of the people they admire in the field is part of some learning curve that will inform and instruct them in a good way.  But do you see this in literature?  Do you see groups of English majors copying Milton's poem "Paradise Lost" in order to become better poets?  Are art students tracing Picasso paintings in order to become better painters?  Do dancers put diagrams on the floor in order to follow in the exact footsteps of the master dancers?  No.  It's silly.  If you copy the masters the most you can expect to become is a poor, diluted copy of your emulated idol. And that serves no one well.

The beauty of our humanity is our diverse and individual nature.  Technique should exist to be of service to our diversity, not to squelch it.  Learning should be the process of integrating knowledge and technique in a way that builds mastery.  It's counterproductive to see your part in learning as being the absorbing "saw dust"  for someone else's "brain dump vomit".

So how do you do learn for life?  The first step is to slow down and absorb knowledge at an optimum rate.  Don't be a binge drinker of facts and step-by-step learning.  Be a sipper, a taster.
I often leave the house with one old film camera, equipped with one lens and one roll of film.  I spend an afternoon walking around with the camera on a tripod looking for the kind of shots that will make that one lens sing.  If I do this enough I come to know the lens.  I come to trust it.  Then I go out with a different lens and go thru the same process.  On Saturday, after my chores and obligations I went for a walk around Austin's Lady Bird Lake with an old Mamiya 645 camera and a 210mm f4 lens.  I took one roll of 220 film which gave me 30 potential images.  No screen on the back.  No Polaroid test film.  I slowed down and carefully chose my shots.  The tripod helped me concentrate on framing.  The central area meter got me in the ballpark but needed to be interpreted and tweaked with the experience of 20 years of shooting transparency film.

I shot one frame for every scene I thought had promise.  On Monday I'll take that film to the lab and when it comes back I'll study each frame to see what I got right and what I got wrong and that will slowly seep into the correct part of the photography brain and become sorted as good knowledge base for future shoots.  

Today (Sunday) I went out with the lens that is the Yin to the 210mm's Yang, the 45mm.  I walked through a different part of town and stopped here and there to line up a shot and work on composition.  I spent two hours out shooting and I learned some important things about composing with a 45mm lens on a 645 camera but I didn't actually take any shots.  I didn't see anything that looked just right.

And that brings up my next point:  Sometimes just going out and looking, really looking at stuff is more important than "bagging trophies".  When you feel like you've got to come back with something you burn film, you burn energy and you burn your  future discrimination.  You start to settle for "interesting" instead of "exactly the way I wanted to see this."  And that will kill your eye and your art.  It's okay to go out loaded and come back without having fired a shot.  It's a way of saying that the art exists for the art not for the sake of goals and quotas.  And really, would you want it any other way?

My favorite story about this is one my friend Wyatt McSpadden told me about his project to shoot BBQ joints all over Texas for his book, Texas BBQ.  The book was a personal project and he told me that the difference between doing it as personal work and doing it as an assignment was huge.  He once drove four hours to a BBQ joint in Texas that someone had raved about.  He was anxious to get a great shot but when he got there nothing about the scene resonated with him.  Nothing tickled his person vision.  Nothing excited him.  He told me that had it been an assignment he would have fallen back on his bag of lighting tricks or he would have put on a "trick" lens or something to salvage a shot.  Since he was working on his own dime he had his own permission to look at the place, reject it as a photo subject and to drive away.  Which he did.  He wasn't willing to waste his creative force on a shot that didn't reflect his point of view.  His style.  His way.

And if you look at the images in his book each one is a masterpiece.  Not just "pretty good" or "good enough".  Each one is jewel like in its objective measure and not one is a piece of colored glass.  You only become an artist at this level by having the courage to reject "second" quality seeing.  Or as every book on negotiation tells us, you only have power when you are able and willing to say, "no!"  and stick to your guns.  Only then do you have the leverage you need to win your negotiation or become true to your own vision.

Wow.  That was a rant!  But I'm not done yet.....

I have one more heartfelt piece of advice for anyone shooting digital cameras to make portraits for art as opposed to portraits on commission (although I believe the advice is relevant for commercial shooters as well.....) and that is to turn off the review function when you are shooting in earnest.  Oh my God, that seems so counterintuitive.  But here's why.

If you use the little screen on the back of your D3 or your Canon 1DS mkXXX  you will self limit your own creativity.  You will be shooting, worrying about the number of RAW frames you have left, and wanting that immediate feedback and you will get to the point where you see a frame that looks "perfect" to you in the moment.  You'll show it to  everyone in your entourage and everyone will agree that it is the "perfect" frame.  And you will stop shooting and go on to the next photographic opportunity. But creativity is never so simple and so quantifiable.  In a sense this truncated reaction to your art is like castrating your muse.  You'll never know how good it would have been if you had let the shoot run its natural course.  You may have been minutes from the crescendo, seconds from orgasm only to have looked at the little authoritarian screen and called the game before the goal.

I'll make the analogy with shooting portraits and seduction but it's the same in any kind of iterative photographic art.  When you begin the portrait process there is a lot of exploration and experimentation that is conceptually a lot like flirting.  Then there is a long and involved collaborative exchange that is like foreplay  and then the fine art portrait session enters a brief period where all the frames seem like magic.  The images are superb.  The constant shifting and experimenting is exhausted and yet you and your subject still dance around looking for some pose or expression you might have missed.  Finally you both realize that the energy has been dissipated.  You smoke the metaphoric cigarette and go your own ways. But the secret of this photographic intersection is that without instant feedback you feel compelled to push the boundaries, to explore new ways, to push further.  If you constantly shot Polaroid tests or slavishly looked at the screen you might be tempted to stop at the "flirtation" or the "foreplay" and have missed the magic of the photoshoot.

In these situations the feedback gives you just enough information to kill your further initiative and to render you ultimately unfulfilled.  It's enough to use the screen and the histogram at the very beginning of the shoot in order to make sure the lights are set correctly and the exposure works but any more than that and it becomes both a crutch for the weak and a diabolical mechanism bent on pushing you to a premature ending for all involved.

The "not knowing" interjects a level of uncertainty in the mix.  The uncertainty is part of the essential faith in creation that gives your muse room to operate and gives your mind more incentive to explore and expand.  Turn off the screen and turn on the potential to go beyond what you currently recognize as being "good enough" and venture into  realm where you go beyond your own expectations (which provide a concrete limit) and into the realm of the possible, flecked with chance, which provides the fresh air and faith in intuition that breath life into photography.

Final Part of the long Sunday Rant.  To consider yourself an professional artist you have to also become a professional appreciator of photography.  It's not enough to know what the top ten "hot shooters" of your generation produce. In order to get the "inside joke" or the "true enlightenment" you really have to know what all happened before you decided to take an interest in photography.  Really interested in portraiture?  Well,  Platon and Peter Yang are pretty good but you might as well go mining in the same shafts they did and get inspired by the giants that inspired them. People like Richard Avedon, Irving Penn, Edward Steichen, and Alfred Steiglitz.  Knowing only the guys who shoot for Maxim is like knowing what's on sale at Wal-Mart.  If that's the only place you shop then you might think that plaid, poly slacks are high fashion and that Chinese dress shoes rock your world but your truncated view may be very self-limiting.

Sadly, an education on the web seems to be like shopping at Wal-Mart.  The top information shown on a search is the information demanded by the masses.  The more esoteric the information is the less frequently the great unwashed bring it to the fore in the great crucible of networked knowledge.  Grab an actual, printed, history of photography  book and dive in.  I pretty much guarantee that you'll be blown away by the fact that many of the styles and interesting points of view that you admire today have their genesis in the work of masters from history.  And you may be additionally amazed by the fact that even without the benefit of digital cameras and massive infusions of Photoshop the actual originators of photographic taste and invention actually made superior images specifically because they had not been diluted by endless emulation and theft. 

But don't be too impressed because most of the best early work stole directly from the masters of portrait painting that came before them.  I've never seen a more compelling portrait than the face of the angel in Leonardo Da Vinci's painting,  The Madonna on the Rocks.  And perhaps I never will.  But it's advantageous to know the source of much modern fashion imagery because I tend to learn so much more profoundly from first hand sources.......

The second book is out.  The week is good.

One more thought:  About the economy.  I believe the market has bottomed and is returning to health not based on anything that Mr. Obama and his crew have done but because the generations in the ages of 18 to 40 were brought up on TV and video games, don't have the patience to read long and complicated stuff, have ADHD and have lost their collective patience with the idea of the recession.  A younger person I talked to today summed it up.  She said that back in January all of her friends were eating at home, saving money and worried about the economy. About two weeks ago they got bored with all that and went back to the way their lives were pre-AIG.  They realized that they still had their jobs, the same income, etc. and they didn't give a frick about retirement because it was so far in the future.  There you have it.  The recession has been called because the people who count (the spenders) are bored with it.

It's about time.  I was getting antsy.


Book Number Two Has Arrived.

Wham.  Opened my e-mail folder this morning and had a raft of e-mails (a gaggle?) either congratulating me on the arrival of the second book or yelling at me because I hadn't informed my friends that it was coming today.  I didn't know either.  I was working with April 1st as a delivery date.  

I headed to Amazon and there it was:  "In Stock". 
You can find it here: Kirk's Second Book.

If you live in Austin, Texas you can probably find a copy at the world's greatest camera store: Precision Camera and Video.  They try to keep all the cool photo books in stock, just in case.....

The book looks great.  I'm so happy to be working with professional designers and editors because they always make me look a couple dozen IQ points smarter and keep me from trying to put five or six different type styles on a page.....

If you are not a photographer don't bother buying the book.  You'll just get bored.  If you are a photographer or know one, are married to one, raising one, etc. you might want to grab them a copy as it will provide one person's version of lighting (described with good humor) and will keep my 13 year old in track shoes......

This is my second one to see the light of day and I enjoy the process more and more.  In many ways it's like being asked to dump all the stuff I've learned in the past 25 years onto a pile on the ground and then arrange it in a meaningful way.  Problem is there's way too much stuff crammed in the brain and not nearly enough room in 128 pages to parse it.  

That being the case, each book acts as an installment and it is through the graces of my publisher, Amherst Media, that it is somewhat organized and coherent.  But there are many volumes to go.  This is the second installment of five planned books.  

Look, we're all friends here so if you find something in the book that needs to be fixed, or something that you think I need to cover more, drop me a line at Kirktuck@kirktuck.com and let's talk about it.  It might make for a great future blog.

If you buy the book I hope you really like it.  If you buy it in Austin say "hello" to the folks at Precision Camera and Video for me.  If you buy it at Amazon I'll always appreciate a nice review.  If you hate the book you are probably too busy to review it so I'll understand. :-)

Thank you to everyone who helped out, posed, suggested, nagged or otherwise made this possible.  Next blog will be back to my usual cynical self.



A Long Sunday Non-Rant.

   My favorite street shooting combo.  D300+35mm 1.8

The tool and the intention.  Why do I like some cameras and why do others leave me cold?  It's because good images come when the camera becomes invisible and you can concentrate on reacting to whatever is in front of you.  My latest nomination for the best street shooting tool? That would be a Nikon D300 with the new 35mm 1.8 (here's Nikon's official info...) scrunched on to the front.  Why?  If you've read my previous blog about 50mm lenses  you know that the angle of view on this lens has immediate appeal to me.  With 8 elements in 6 groups, and one aspheric element, the resolution and contrast should be just right.  But the real reason I like the combo is that it works well together as a small, light package.  The D300 is overshadowed by the D700 and D3 but is a great imaging machine in it's own right with fast focus, great metering and a really good imaging sensor.  I bought my lens from Precision Camera here in Austin for around $209.

The primary reason I gravitate to the D300 over the D700 for my own personal use has more to do with the overall feel of the cameras.  The smaller shutter and mirror in the D300 means the camera is quieter in operation with a very sweet shutter sound.  The 700 has a more abrasive mirror snap and a harsher shutter run sound.  It's like the old hi-fi analogy of "tubes versus transistors".  

The lower physical profile of the d300 with the 35 mm 1.8, along with the noticeably quieter sonic profile makes for a less intrusive candid shooting tool.  The D300/35mm 1.8 is absolutely the most ergonomic digital camera I've shot with so far.  And at $1,000 less than it's full frame cousin.

This is not intended as a criticism of the D700.  I love that camera in commercial shoots because of its low noise and because of its full frame sensor.  It's just not my first choice for personal art.

The runner up camera in this race to put together features, handling and quality have to go to one of my all time favorites, the Sony R1.  First, let me tell you everything that's wrong with it: The electronic viewfinder could be lots better (but it works).  The raw file processing time could be much faster (but it barely works).  The autofocus could be much quicker when shooting indoors.  But none of this really matters to me because the camera is so much fun to shoot with.

You may not have noticed but a lot of people like point and shoot cameras because of the ease of composition they get with the live view screen on the back of the camera.  Well, the Sony R1 has a really nice live LCD that can be viewed from a number of different angles, including flat on the top of the camera just like a waist level finder.  

Couple that with two other vital features and you've got a camera to be reckoned with:  An aps sized sensor (same size as the sensor in the Nikon DX cameras) that shares alot of attributes with the very sharp and very well regarded sensor in the Nikon D2xs.  A real, Carl Zeiss zoom lens that is sharp, contrasty and sharp.

When the R1 first came out people didn't know how to classify it.  The $1900 purchase price and the slow focusing drove off many people for whom this camera would have been perfect! After a while Sony did a rambling discontinuation that was official in some countries and unacknowledged in other countries and then, eventually, the R1 was remaindered in the U.S. market for somewhere around $600.  Since it's zoom lens goes from 24 to 120 (35mm equivalents) and the 24 has very little distortion, I use it as my primary architecture shooting rig and it has passed the critical inspection of several very savvy art directors.

If you see one of these used you might want to pick one up.  They are still highly competitive for many uses such as studio still life, landscape and other slow moving genres.  Here's what they say about it at DPReview:  Sony R1 Review at DP

And here's what Michael Reichmann says about it at Luminous-Landscape.com:  LL Review

Now,  on to my traditional Sunday Rant:  "The Cream of the Crap".  I read this quote in an article about the pleasures of still shooting film.  The whole idea is that the film shooter goes into battle with a plan and conserves his resources (which include not only film but also creative energy) and chooses his targets with forethought and discretion while the digital shooter rushes in a napalms several square miles (hundreds of digital frames) then searches through the ruble to see what he was able to bring down.  

I loved the line but I'm not sure I totally agree with the premise.  I think brilliant artists need to constantly experiment and make lots of mistakes to come up their share of good stuff.  Kierkegaard believed that genius and creativity were much like farming in that fields needed to be rotated in order to yield good crops.  And that's what creative experimentation is all about. Be like my friend, Keith.  Choose your targets.  Shoot till you know you've got the shot and then stop.  He's the first guy I've seen with a D3 who can actually shot 10 shots instead of 200 and know when to stop!

(short rant over.  now on to real Art!)

Do you really like good photography?  Really?  Then you must see Wyatt McSpadden's book, Texas Barbecue.  Two reasons why:  Wyatt is a master of natural light and his portraits and images are astoundingly good.  Really astounding.  Secondly,  his work is not that crappy, precious "cutting edge" manipulated crap you see everywhere else.  He's the real deal.  He's not trying to sell you on a style or a new set of Nikon flashes.  He's not flinging around his credentials (but has em if you need em....).  He's just one of the smartest, best shooting photographers who's work I've ever seen.  See it here at Amazon:  Wyatt's Incredible Book!

Here's Wyatt's website:  BBQ Rocks!

Finally, on the subject of books.  If you have an interest in studio lighting and you haven't done a lot of it you might want to snag a copy of my new book:  Minimalist Lighting: Professional Techniques for Studio Photography.  If you need more info check my site:  kirk's site.  Thanks for reading.  Please invite photographers and other people you know who may be interested in our blog.  

Have a great week!  Kirk


Fifty Millimeters. The Glorious Optics of Yesterday.

Ben Tuck.  Post Swim.  Nikon 50mm 1.2 ais.

My first camera was a Canon QL17 which sported a reasonably good 40mm lens.  It was soon replaced by a Canon TX SLR camera with a Canon 50mm 1.8 lens that seemed to remain locked on the front of my camera for most of its usable life.

When I look through my current equipment I find that I have hoarded a large number of normal lenses including:  Nikon's manual focus 50mm 1.4 and 1.8 lenses, two manual focus Micro lenses (both 55mm),  Nikon's auto focus 50mm 1.4 and 1.8 lenses, a Leica 50mm Summicron and 50mm Summilux for the M cameras and assorted "normal" focal lengths for the Olympus E-1 and the ancient line of Olympus Pen "half frame" film cameras.  I won't even start to recount the number of normal lenses I have for medium format cameras.

All this begs the question, "why?"  Well, first of all, every one of the normal focal length lenses is a superior performer.  One stop down from wide open every single one of them starts to really shine when it comes to sharpness, contrast and intangibles.  Two stops down and they beat every zoom lens on the market.  (We can argue forever about the new top zooms from Nikon).  They sit beautifully on the cameras instead of sticking out like some Freudian flagpole. This enhances the cameras shooting profile and makes the whole ensemble less intimidating.

But all of this would be moot if the angle of view wasn't so compelling.  I love the angle of view that a normal lens gives you.  Shot correctly it can seem wide or narrow.  Shot close at near wide open apertures the 50mm can give you incredibly shallow depth of field as in my shot of Ben.  But the real bottom line is that this is a focal length that matches my residual vision. Meaning that if I distilled everything else out of a shot this is what would be left.  

Those of you who are amateur mental health care professionals will probably wonder what motivates me to own so many different iterations of the 50mm.  Clinically, you might just go with exaggerated fear of loss but in reality I think it's the idea of being like a painter and having multiple brushes, each of which provides a different and distinguishable nuance to the canvas. The 50 1.2 Nikon does shallow depth of field with a sharp "core" better than anything out there.

The 50mm MF 1.8 Nikon does great sharpness across the entire geometry of a full frame better than any of its brethren (except for a few macros), while the Summilux does exquisitely sharp center with soft, happy, mellow edges better than anything else.  Couple that with a little rangefinder focusing and you've got and incredible package.  I bought the normal autofocus lenses around the time when the only cameras you could get from Nikon and Fuji were cropped frames with smaller viewfinders which impeded the focusing of fast manual lenses and I hold on to them because I find the Nikon D300 and the FujiFilm S5 Pro to be really spectacular cameras for different uses.

And, of course the obvious advantage of the fast 50's is their light gathering capability.  A sharp fast lens wide open can be two stop faster than the best zooms.  That equals two full shutter speeds of hand-holdability and action stopping!  Just like having VR in every lens.

The sweetest thing of all for a Nikon shooter like myself (edit: now a Canon shooter!!!)(newer edit: now a Sony photographer)  is that the current generation of Nikon digital cameras, like the D3, D3x, D700 and D300 actually make corrections for the short coming of the lenses attached to them.  I have found the 50mm 1.2 to be much improved in its performance with these four cameras.  The other lenses seem sharper and contrastier as well. One of my favorite new combinations is the old Nikon F4s (film camera) with the new Nikon 60mm Micro AFS.  The lens is impressive on digital cameras and even more impressive on the old film camera.  The combination drives me to shoot more film just so I can marvel at how well it all works together.

Even though I have lots and lot of 50's and related focal lengths I would say that my total financial investment is less than $2,000 or about the price of one 14-24mm Nikon Zoom lens. If great wide angle work is your interest you really only have one compelling choice.  I don't see that way and I'm thrilled to be able to match my optic to my vision of the moment.  I'm just about to buy the new Nikon 50 1.4  AFS just for its center core sharpness.  Stay tuned and I'll get a nice review of its performance together.

Finally, a friend really liked a quote I threw out on his discussion site the other day.  I want to share it with you:

"There is no real magic in photography, just the sloppy intersection of physics and art."
Kirk Tuck,  March 2009

Please help me spread the word about this blog.  I'd really like to open the dialogue to as many people as we can.

Best, Kirk


Short Term Bleak. Long term unknowable.

I have some friends who claim to have lost half their money in the collapse of the stock market. I try in vain to remind them that it's just paper losses until they actually sell off the stocks and take the loss.  We've heard much about the "lost decade" in Japan and I worry that we're about to have our own period of loss but in a different way.  While the Japanese were paralyzed by their inability to move spending and wealth building ahead we are losing the idea that the arts matter.  That Art matters.  That there is more to life than profit and loss.  We are abandoning the liberal arts in an ultimately failed attempt to monetize every facet of our lives.

I've been in the photography business in one way or another for nearly thirty years.  I've run a freelance photography business for over twenty years.  And I've lived through four or five nasty recessions.  But I've never seen the overwhelming fear mongering and terror that this downturn has brought.  A day doesn't go by that a colleague doesn't call to ask if I want to buy some of their equipment.  To ask if things are slow for me too.  To ask if I've seen any glimmers of hope. All I can tell them is that the markets have always seemed cyclical to me and that perhaps in a handful of months, at the most a year, all this will pass and life will go on.

And down deep I believe it.  I believe that so much of what's gone wrong with the economic machine is just abstraction.  The profits didn't exist so the losses can't exist.  I know it is naive but I think we should stop right where we are and reset the whole machine just the way we would reset a laptop computer.  Whatever you have right now is what you start over with.  No one gets bailed out but everyone gets three square meals a day and shelter.  I don't want to bail out billionaires but I don't want to be callous to the victims who have no resources.

The most important thing photographers can do in this time is to get out of their studios and keep working.  "What? Work without clients?"  Absolutely.  Work to stay engaged.  Work to provide a continuing discipline of eye/hand coordination, but most importantly work to create the new body of work that will push you into the next upcycle with a fresh vision and a fresh offering.

I included a photo of Austin's Barton Springs Pool as a testimony to longevity and endurance. The city has grown up all around the pool and yet it still flows down to the Colorado River every minute of every hour of every day.  Our resolve and vision should be like that stream.  When confronted by a boulder we'll never have the sheer power to move it aside but we can keep our fluid agility and sweep around the boulder and by doing so continue our journey uninterrupted.

I understand today that the photography I did for corporations before the fourth quarter of last year will never return in the same way just as the water in streams is never the same water as that which passed the day before.  And, as in a science fiction movie, I understand that my commercial survival hinges upon a hyper accelerated evolution into new markets and new ways of selling.  But all the things I hold dear; swimming in clear, clean water,  helping Ben with his homework, listening to beautiful music, being loved and loving people are not contingent on my financial success or the return of the traditional photo business.  I am a person first and a photographer second and as long as I don't confuse what I do for who I am I will be happy.

Examine the roots of your happiness and understand that everything comes with two opposing forces.  Lack of business means more free time.  Free time means, potentially, more time to do the art you always wanted to do.  Life is weird and we only get to do it once.  If we focus on the stock market we invite our own pain.  If we focus on a beautiful subject we are rewarded with a connection to beauty and a connection to art.  What price to put on that?


Go Fly a Kite.

This is a photograph of me flying a kite at the Zilker Park Kite Festival in Austin, Texas.  ©2009 Ben Tuck.

The last week seemed to be a train wreck as far as the economy goes.  I sat at my desk trying to knock out more copy for my book on lighting equipment while keeping a window open on my desktop for Google News.
I watched the Dow spaz down a couple hundred points.  I heard "experts" predict the collapse of civilization as we know it, precipitated by the the decline and fall of the American Empire.  And then it dawned on me.  I had fallen into the trap of reading about life instead of living it.  I was listening to experts who developed their expertise in the "bricks and mortar" days.  They understood manufacturing and traditional demand models but something became clear to me.  The experts really don't understand the post 1999 economy any better than the man in the street and probably not nearly as well as the under thirty year old in the streets.

What do I mean?  Well, in the last downturn back in 2001-02 we all waited for the computer manufacturers like Dell and HP to rescue the economy by building and innovating our way out. But it didn't happen that way.  It was the ascendency of Google and Amazon and Ebay that rode in like white knights to get things moving again.  Business models that weren't truly understood by traditional investors were instrumental in building the new economy's momentun.

Now all traditional eyes are on GM and Chrystler and Dell, Inc. but the analysts are missing it again.  It's the Twitters and Facebooks and  some new technologies that I haven't even heard of yet (but which are well known to a younger generation) that are already laying the foundation for two things:  An increasing global interconnection and future prosperity.  YouTube didn't exist in 2002 but it may be more important than cable TV right now.  The intersection of computing and entertainment programming is almost complete.  Everything will change and the people who understand the new paradigm will benefit in the short term.

What does this have to do with photography?  Well, here it is in a nutshell:  The emerging market for images is young and totally wired.  My son spends more time with his iPod Touch than he does watching TV or cruising the web on his laptop.  His information comes from a loosely gathered network of "Touch Available" media that includes news feeds, online games, constant e-mails and more.  He's never going to be a traditional newspaper customer.  He's never going to follow network prime time television.  He's skewing the market for advertising messages more and more to the web.

So, we traditional photographers have been chasing more and more megapixels in our cameras with the rationalization that astute customers can surely see and value the improvement.  No.  It's not true because it's not relevant.  We're busy asking the wrong questions.  There's a new trend and it's all about speed and audience relevance and we traditional photographers may be on the wrong side of the equation.  Like traditional economists in an untraditional economy.

   ©2009 Ben Tuck.  Kirk Tuck with Kite.

The trend is diffusion into the market with as few barriers as possible.  It's not nearly as important to deliver the highest degree of technical complexity as it is to have images totally informed by the media in which they will exist.  And tailored for the intended audience.

Newspapers are dying off like plague victims.  The photographers who are suddenly set adrift have many choices including trying to find another newspaper at which to work or shifting their focus to a new target market.  They might find it easier to find new markets for their images than finding new continuous employment.  In my field, corporate photography, clients have gone into deep freeze. I could look for new market sectors in which to try and duplicate my past successes or I can look for new markets for my skills.

As the photography markets fragment I know I'll have to do more diverse kinds of photography and I will have to monetize my other skills sets.  As my friends know, I am hard at work on a fourth book and two previously written books will hit the market this year.  But that's not enough to offset the loss of income from corporate imaging.  I will also figure out how to market my marketing skills to aid smaller companies by providing a full production service to them.  I will need to teach workshops and have already contracted to do so this summer.  Finally, I'll take a chance on the Fine Arts market this year.

The hard part is trying to service each of these individual business units while keeping my vision uniform and fun.  But as long as I proceed an organic way, one business idea supporting the others rather than in opposition to each other, I think I'll be fine.  What won't work is trying to go back to the way things were.  Clients don't want a return to the uncertainty of the film days nor do they want to go back to a pricing model that they just don't understand.  Going forward, that will be photographers' biggest challenge.  How to align our financial needs with the position of clients who seem to have all the advantages.

The answer is in service, delivery, image differentiation and being able to rationally explain the value proposition of original imagery.  I've been reading Beckwith's book, Selling the Invisible, and I think I get it.  We need to deliver what our clients need without regard to "state of the art", "best in class" or "cutting edge".  We need to make sure that the value proposition to the client is clear.  Here's an example.  Given enough time I can light a board room until it looks like a showpiece from Architectural Digest and, given enough time with a CEO I can move a shoot to the point where I get exactly the expression and body language I want.  With an unlimited budget and total access I can create the ultimate portrait (or at least I think I can) but, the reality of the marketplace is that my clients are generally not looking for the the kind of investment of time or money that was spent producing the shot of the Queen of England by Annie Leibovitz.

They'll have fixed budgets that might allow for a half day of lighting and prep followed by 20 to 30 minutes of their CEO's time.  Their question is not what I can do with unlimited resources but what I'll be able to reliably deliver with time and budget constraints.  That's the message we need to deliver to our clients:  We understand the difference between delivering a very good portrait and a perfect portrait.  Or product shot.  Or event coverage.

Okay, so what does all this have to do with kite flying on a Sunday afternoon?  Just that the world that currently surrounds me is not in disarray.  The sky is not currently falling in my zip code.  The sky is clear and blue.  Hundreds of families were out flying spectacular kites in a sixty degree, ten mile an hour breeze.  I do have work in front of me and money in the bank.  No matter how special "old school" economist think this particular recession is I know it will pass. In fact I think the economy will turn around by June and that all these scary unemployment numbers are trailing edge indicators of a recession that is almost over.

Flying a kite is all about hope and possibilities.  And faith.  Faith that your kite will find the right wind.  That your string won't become tangled.  That gravity will not defeat you today.  It's the same as running a business.  Keep your string untangled and your eyes on the kite and you'll have success.  Just being out with your kite is a success.

Final note:  Ben is taking a photography class at school.  We went out today to play with kites and cameras.  He took some great photos of dogs and kites.  He's taking photography in little bites.  He still thinks it is fun.

    ©2009 Ben Tuck.  Bulldog at Zilker Park, Austin.