Spending Time With Elliott Erwitt

will van overbeek's photo, originally uploaded by kirkinaustin.

Kirk Tuck and Elliott Erwitt walking to the Humanities Research Center at UT Austin. Photograph ©2009 Will Van Overbeek.

I was privileged to spend the better part of a day with one of the greatest living masters of photography last Thurs. My very dear friend, Will Van Overbeek, asked me along on a mission to pick up Elliott Erwitt from his hotel, take him to the Harry Ransom Center (home of one of the largest collections of historic photography on the face of the planet) and join a tour of the facility with the photo curator, Roy Flukenger, and world renowned Houston photographer, Arthur Meyerson.

We stopped by a display in the main lobby. It was the first photograph ever done.

After the tour Will, Mr. Erwitt and I went off to lunch. We decided on a Mexican food spot called, El Azteca. Located on the east side of Austin, on East 7th street, it's been an Austin favorite for 58 years.

After that we made a quick stop at the Progress Coffee shop where I cajoled Mr. Erwitt into showing me his Leica MP (inscribed with his signature by Leica....) while we drank Machiattos and then off the to Lyndon Baines Johnson Library to see the joke telling LBJ animatronic display. Mr. Erwitt was moved to make a few photographs.

We ended up at the Blanton Museum for a sound check and a run through of his slides and then took him back to his hotel.

He's an amazing photographer. I'm so happy that the Austin Center for Photography brought him here to speak.

Just amazing. And much appreciation to Will for including me in the adventure.

A fun day for a photographer. That's for sure!


Available LIght Photos of Zach Scott Theater's Spelling Bee Play/Musical

Two images from the 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.
(click on the pix to seem em larger).

Shooting theater productions is fun. Or it should be. Actors are acting, someone else has done all the lighting for you and there's lots of contrast with pools of bright, intense light and equal areas of stygian darkness.

I've written before that taking good photographs of a live production helps hone your reflexes and pushes you to anticipate action. My problem yesterday was that I paid too much attention to the play. And it was hilarious, which made me laugh, which made the little steam engines, or whatever makes Image Stabilization work go into over time.

The play is hilarious. But between bouts of paralyzing laughter I felt duty bound to get some sharp, well exposed images that the theater could use in the newspaper to sell tickets.

First thing I did was figure out a good white balance which is harder than it sounds because some lights are standard whites while others were gelled blue and others yellow. In fact the white balance changed by quadrants on the stage. I tried to figure it out and settled on a custom compromise. 3600K.
Seems to have worked out pretty well. In the old, old days I might have brought a color temperature meter but I'm equally sure it would have been useless since I would never have had the right filter packs with me to effect the proper change, and, if I did the resulting filter pack would have sapped precious photons from film I was already planning to push process.

I brought two cameras with me because I'm always certain that the one time I come with a solo imaging machine will be the one time Murphy's law cripples it and leaves me with no options. Last night it was pair of Olympus cameras, the e30 ( a darling camera with lots to recommend it) and the e520 (which doesn't focus as accurately as I would like with an f2 lens in the dark but is cheap as dirt and works well outside......). I used the e30 with my new "favorite/how did I ever live without/OMG/gush lens, the 35-100mm f2. Sounds kind of stubby but when you remember that we Olympus shooters got shortchanged on chip size (just kidding oh brethren...) the whole thing kinda factors out into a 70-200 f2, which is something special.

If you don't shoot Olympus you've probably got a genuine 70-200mm in your bag so you know how much fun that grab bag of focal lengths can be when you are standing stage size and trying to get "two shots", "three shots", and a few random close up solo portraits. And I know that your D700, D3, 5D is less noisy than my e30 but I also know I'm shooting a stop wider than you.....

I figured I'd be pretty noise free if I stayed around ISO 800 so I tuned up the camera and got to work. The lighting was such that I spent most of the evening shooting at f2.5 in between 1/250th and 1/500th of a second. Combine that with the nifty four stop IS in the body and you've got a pretty interesting handful. For the few times I needed to go wider I grabbed on old, battered 14mm-54mm and made due at f3.5. Not glamorous but workable.

There's not much I'd change about the e30 body. The finder is nice, the displays are good and the controls are positive. The one thing I would change about the e520? I'd make it into another e30. We'll see about that over the weekend....

The theatrical gods of photography graced me last night by allowing me to shove all my images on one 4 gigabyte card. That sure makes burning a DVD for the marketing director an easier task. I slogged home around 11 pm still chuckling about the one "home schooled" character in the play who "makes his own clothes and even makes capes for his cats".

I've been shooting for Zach Scott Theater for 17 years now and I would say that I've benefitted more from the relationship than the theater has. They keep me constantly working on technique, introduce me to theater that is challenging and new (and which I wouldn't have the insight to find on my own...) they introduce me to incredible talent (who are easily recruited as models) and they throw fabulous parties.

In addition to all that they send out several hundred thousand printed pieces a year to the upscale demographic in our town. With my credit line prominently displayed. It's really nice marketing. If you haven't thought about shooting a little theater stuff in your town you might consider. Could be good all around.

Two thumbs up for the 35-100 and the e30.


A blog from two years ago.......about small lights

Mike the Model for Periscope Ad. Austin, Texas
Lynn For Periscope Ad Campaign
Grant Thomas for Tribeza Magazine.
Pat Patla for AMD
Mr. Froutan for Accelerate Magazine.

When I started taking photographs most photographers were limited by their materials and the available tools. We bought lighting systems that were designed for studio work (my Norman 2000 weighed 38 lbs. without heads or attachments). Going on location was always a major undertaking requiring assistants, lots of extension cords and portable gas generators. We often shot with 4x5 view cameras and were looking for exposures between f16 and f32 on 100 iso film. Since the advent of digital we’ve been trying to make everything smaller and faster. Digital is a different animal. In most cases we’re trying to supplement existing light rather than over power it. The photo above was taken for a client called Periscope. (top: Mike the Model). We shot our model on a rainy morning in downtown Austin, Texas.

We wanted the model to be just slightly lighter than the background but without seeming obviously lit. I placed an Nikon SB-800 flash on a Manfrotto 3373 light stand and dialed down the light intensity until I liked what I saw on the lcd screen of my Nikon D2x camera. The nominal exposure was 1/125 at f2.8 at iso 100. I used a Nikon 28-70mm 2.8 lens. This was the last shot of our session and it occurred after we were officially done and the art director had left. I was loading my cameras into the car and talking with the model. I decided to go for one more variation. Total set up time: 2 minutes. Total shooting time: 2 minutes. Total tear down time: less than two minutes. This is the shot chosen for the campaign.

All the photos in this gallery were shot with the same kind of equipment. The photo of Lynn in the conference room is lit with four Nikon flashes. Several are bounced off the ceiling, one is in a small softbox and one is outside in the hallway. All are triggered with radio slaves and every piece of gear fits in one case with wheels that fits in an airline overhead luggage bin. There will always be a place for large studio strobes but that place is not on fast paced location jobs.


Considering smaller and smaller cameras.

Life became more interesting for me a few years ago when I bought a Sony R1 camera. It was what is commonly referred to as a "bridge" camera. Not really a point and shoot and not really an SLR. But 10 megapixels and continual live view. A fun, articulated finder that could be used as a waistlevel finder, ala the old Hasselblads. But at its heart it is a point and shot. The viewing is done on screens, both on the back and through the viewfinder. But what made it fun is that you and your subject are not likely to take the camera that seriously....

So why am I writing about this? Two reasons: 1. Canon has just announced a camera that I think will have a profound effect on the bottom end of the professional photography market and maybe the entire market. And, 2. I've just done a few jobs wherein I used point and shoot cameras to supplement my traditional DSLR's with good results.

Let's start with the Canon announcement. The camera is called a G11 and will replace the Canon G10. The 10 is an emminently usable gem of a camera that packed 15 megapixels onto a small chip with really convincing results-----as long as you shot your photos at ISO 80 or ISO 100. When you sauntered off to higher ISO's you got more and more noise as the density of the sensor started working against low noise.

Everyone who has used the G10 loves it except for the noise. They love the form factor and the very good image stabilization and the very high resolution. But almost to a person they remark that Canon would have made the perfect camera if they had resisted the "megapixel race" and just kept the sensor at 10 megapixels. Apparently Canon listens. The G11 will have a sensor with 50% fewer pixels and the pay-off is a promised two stops increase in performance vis-a-vis sensor noise.

So, in a matter of weeks you'll have access to a small camera with these benefits: 1. A fast, sharp lens. 2. A very quiet operation. 3. Low noise up to at least 400 ISO. 4. A professional hot shoe for all kinds of flashes and flash triggers!!!! 5. Raw file capability. 6. Fast shutter response. 7. A flash sync capable of going all the way up to 1/2500th of a second. And finally, 8. A solid metal body.

Assuming that your style of photography is the "captured moment" or "street" photography or even work in the studio with continuous or electronic flash lighting you could do a ton of work with one of these cameras......all for the princely sum of less than $500 (US).

I've used a Canon G10 for many photographs. For a while I made it a habit to shoot professional work with both a D700 and, if time permitted, the little guy. And sometimes the G10 worked better. More depth of field, easier to use live view mode, etc.

If you've read my ramblings over the past few months you know that I am continuing to explore the idea that, as we go further and further into the web as the outlet for our photographic work, the concept, execution, lighting and subject rapport will trump the physical superiorities of expensive professional cameras. Content will finally become about content instead of being about craft.

The barriers to entry into professional photography have always been multi-tiered. The first line of defense in the preservation of the professional space has always been the myriad complexities of operating the machinery. But the real magic has always been the ability to think and be different from everyone else and to be able to express that genuine eccentricity in your work. Craftsmen seek perfection, artist seek expression. The craft used to be the country club dues that allowed one into the inner circle where opportunity lay. Now it lay all over the place but because the barriers are falling, one by one, the entry level "craft" intensive work has become commodified and adhering to the laws of supply and demand the market is consistently lowering the cost to the final user.

But, and this is important, the price of creativity has not become commodified because there is no way to replicate it. Art and vision is like a virus that replicates itself each time mankind in general find a "solution", a "formula" and a way of making current art a commodity. That's the magic of it all. People will pay for vision before they pay for craft. If you can combine them both without letting craft set oppressive boundaries you'll have chance at the winner's circle.

Coming full circle I see the G11 (and all the copycat cameras that are sure to come) to be a change that reduces the weight and structure of photography making the process more transparent. The hope is that this will push down the formalist restrictions of the process and free up the vision of the user.

I used to be a camera snob until I set up some lights and a 14 megapixel SLR in a mixed light set up and looked at the previewed image on the back of the camera. One of my clients took a shot with his iPhone. The iPhone snapshot looked better. Now I'm up for anything that works.

I mentioned a project I worked on earlier in the year using a point and shoot camera. It was for a client who need some landscape imagery for use on a web site. I shot wild flowers and roadways and overpasses and landscapes. One day I shot everything with a Canon SX10 camera. The 28mm equivalent lens on a 7mm sensor gave me sharp and detailed focus on flower right in front of my face and kept the monolithic road constructions a hundred feet away very sharp.

I shot with the P&S because the work was supposed to be used only on a website. The client called and got permission to use them in another project. My client is a ten year veteran of the business and can read files as well as I do in PhotoShop. Her monitor is as well calibrated as mine. If she looked at the image at 100% and found it usable I certainly wasn't going to question her judgement. Bottom line? The image looked great on a spread in an annual report printed on glossy stock. Really great.

I'm buying two of the G11's (cameras should always travel in pairs.....) and I intend to use them for any professional job I come across that would be improved by their unique properties. In fact, with the exception of jobs that call for very narrow depth of field looks I can think of few instances where the cameras would not be competent.

Finally, I sat with a photographer this afternoon who has done much work in Europe for National Geographic Traveler. He was showing me a story about shooting London with cameras that cost under $1,000. His camera of choice (this was a few years ago) was a Sony V3. His work was wonderful. Street shots full of movement. Challenging lighting. Interior shots. Even great dusk shots.

He had hedged his bets by shooting some shots with a Canon 1DS camera (state of the art at the time). While the bigger camera was better at very high apertures most of the street scenes and general images were equally good on either camera.

It's a brave new world. It's time to be brave about separating our perceptions about cameras from our intentions about art. I'd love to hear from people who are shooting professionally with cameras like the G10.