Another day in photography. The death of my original Photek Softlighter...sigh.

nothing to do with today's adventure but continuing in my series of early Rene Zellweger images.  This taken back in 1991 with an EOS-1 camera (the original) and the totally cool but largely overlooked 135mm soft focus lens, also from Canon.  This is a scan from one of my favorite prints but you can see some spots where I neglected to spotone.  Life moves fast.  Spotting moves slow.

Zang.  My alarm clock on my phone starts ringing at 5:45 am.  I am deeply unhappy to ever be up at this hour but for the sake of a good client I persevere.  In the shower I'm thinking about the schedule for the day.  I start out in Texarkana taking a group portrait and then individual portraits.  On this project I'm shooting a formal portrait against a very  fun, light grey (almost metallic) seamless background using a big soft light and a reflector.  Then I take the subject down the hall to a really wonderful library room and use the soft, diffuse light coming through the windows to make an available light, environmental portrait.  I'm using a 100 mm f2 lens for these and I love the soft yet hard look of available light.  Whatever.  The client will have a selection of images both ways of every person we shoot.  I'll set up from 8am till 9am and then spend a half hour trying to do some really nice interior architecture shots.  The company I'm working for has exquisite offices in every city I've been in.  I make it to the offices early and start scouting.  Fun to scout when no one is there as their consciousness doesn't flood the space and skew what I feel when I look at a room.

Funny, but I really think that to be a good portrait photographer you really have to be attuned to a person's emotional energy.  You have to sense the sensitive points to avoid and ferret out the things that bring energy and joy to a sitter.  The more empathetic you are the more you'll be able to distill from the collaborative dance of a portrait sitting.  Some people open right up.  Some require careful handling.  But it's a double edge sword for a photographer because when you are really in tune with other people their thoughts and emotions have a way of impinging on your thoughts and emotions.  An art director in tow changes the energy of a shoot by changing the way you might selection a position within a room.  You have to leave space for their collaboration and this diminishes your insight driven choices by dint of the shared vision and shared responsibility.  Anyway, there was no one in the offices except for me and the housekeeper and I was able to feel my way through the space and try to connect to areas of interest to me.

We start early and finish right before lunch.  I've shot eight gigabytes.  The worst part of every photo shoot is the moment after you've shot the last image because you know that you'll spend the next half hour or so cleaning up, repacking, dragging your gear to the car and repacking the car.  There's an extra layer for me this morning...I have to navigate through road construction and detours and find my way back to Longview, Texas.  Google tells me that it's about two hours and nine minutes of driving time but I disagree.  With the additional construction on the roads it's closer to two hours and forty minutes.

I hit Longview around three pm.  I'll need to eat lunch and find my way to the regional airport before 4pm.  I'm not flying anywhere, I'm doing a bunch of photos of two jets.  I swing into a Whataburger.  Haven't been to one in a couple of years.  Did you know you can get whole wheat buns now?  The burger is okay.  It's just energy at this point.  I get my bearings and, with the help of a local person, find my way to the airport and to the private hanger I need.

The pilots are fun.  We move a Lear jet and a Citation jet around with a cool little tractor thing that's electric.  When we get them positioned just right in relation to each other I work em over with everything from a 20mm equivalent to a 105 equivalent.  Then we bring in the models and have them meeting on the tarmac and then working inside the Citation.  We don't fire up the engines so the plane's AC is not on and the cabin starts to heat up as the sun beats down.  Next up is a shot of four pilots with the planes in the background.  I decide to use my precious Profoto 600b battery powered light with a 60 inch Photek Softlighter 2 umbrella to fill in the guys' faces.  Swear to the photo gods (or at them): it was as calm as a Buddhist Priest on Prozac when I set the light and umbrella up.  I even clamped the strobe box to the stand for ballast.  But the 5 o'clock American Airlines flight taxied past us and I turned around to watch the light and stand rush to kiss the concrete in excruciating slow motion.

And here's what separates the pros from the ams:  I looked over my shoulder at the (potential) death of my favorite light, shrugged my shoulders and said to the client,  "Well, that's why I've got another one in the car."  We continued the shoot and didn't stop to deal with the stricken light until after the last frame was shot and the last model sent on his way.  The bad news?  The Softlighter 2 will have to be retired.  It's bent and bashed.  I'll save the diffuser.  Maybe even the black cover.  But now the back up will move to the number one position and I'll order a new back up when I get back to the studio.  The good news?  The umbrella acted as parachute and shock absorber for the precious light head.  No other damage was done.  Flash tube, pyrex cover and box are all in "like new" condition.  Lesson?  There is no lesson.  Sometimes crap happens and if you want to be in the business you need to know how to deal with it and move on.  And you always need a backup plan.

Once the planes were back in the hanger and the photo gear back in the Element I drove off to find another wonderful hotel in which to rest my weary bones.  By this point I had 12 gigs of data to catalog and back up on multiple drives.  Tomorrow I drive to Dallas (2 hours with the good graces of the travel gods) and stay at the Four Seasons in Las Colinas.  A much needed down day after three fast paced shooting and travel days.  Thurs. we head for the last lap with a full day booked in my client's incredibly modern Dallas offices.  Tomorrow morning I'll wake up in another $100 "Inn" (homogenized across the United States) figure out the "make your own waffle" bar and then move on.  I won't suffer through the weak, light brown coffee because the gods of travel have seen fit to reward me with a Starbucks just a block away.

Before I go to bed tonight I'm going to do a little memorial service to this particular Softlighter 2.  You see, this was my original.  I've had it for over a decade.  We've bonded over many a good and even a few bad assignments.  It's lovingly softened the light on a thousand faces.  It's always been graceful to set up and gracious to take down.  I can't remember when I've ever been as sad about the passing of a piece of gear as I am about this simple umbrella.  That in itself is a testimonial to the power of well thought out products.  Here I hang my head and stop.  Grief forbids me to add any more.


Wolfgang Lonien said...

What a great blog post Kirk - thanks for sharing, and keep them coming. And I fully understand the grief about not-so-expensive-yet-valuable items. Kids are like that as well.

A propos kids: just finished your first Minimalist Lighting book, and it was great! I will recommend it to anyone I know, and I was very surprised to see Ben in there. Great job, tho at times I thought: "Hmmm well that was still during his Nikon days, an update about more Olympus non-TTL non-dedicated stuff would be nice." - but then again, new gear never changes the principles, the rules, the basic need-to-know stuff, and that you handled very very well.

So a double thanks. It's just great when real pros share their knowledge and thoughts like you do.


kim guanzon said...

You are my hero, Kirk!

Martin Yeates said...


you're a big romantic softie, who'd ever of guessed that, love the posts, as ever your words paint a thousand pics.

Steve Burns said...

Kirk: Your second paragraph is right on the money! It has me thinking back on all of the subject and client interactions and influences in shoots gone past.

Umbrellas going over? Hah. I think the first time I put up a Photek out side, about 15 years ago, it went over in a puff of wind, taking with it and protecting a Dyna-lite head. The Photek, died, the Dyna-lite head well it survived, and was made to look just about good as new with some body shop skills learned in my early 20's.

BTW, the folks at Photek have been very good to us replacing what was replaceable in the past. Love them!

AroundOmaha Photography said...

I love my Softlighter also. Economical, tough and way flexible.

Just out of curiosity, were you shooting this with a Canon? I was curious about the 100mm f/2.0 lens as Nikon doesn't have one and that would be a pretty long lens on Olympus for shooting room portraits.

kirk tuck said...

AroundOmahaPhoto, You got it. I'm shooting this job with the 5Dm2 I picked up for video. Thought I'd give it a whirl. The "camera bag" for this trip includes: 5d2, 100, 50, 20, 24-105 from Canon. Also, the e30 with 14-35 f2, 35-100 f2 from Oly. And the EPL with VF2 and the 20 and 45-200mm lenses from Panasonic. Very eclectic sack "O" glass......

kirk tuck said...

No more umbrellas outside!

Anonymous said...

Why don't you have any help ? Is it budget or can't you find anyone who's up to your standards ? I believe you can do a better job with a good assistant, he or she can deal with the packing, hang on to the light stand with your beloved softbox,see that you don't leave anything behind and help with the driving. I know you think an assistant interferes with your creating the right vibe for your portraiture but that sounds like BS to me.
Get some help !

kirk tuck said...

Anonymous, I'd rather change careers that have to haul around an assistant and be in constant contact with them for 16 hours a day on the road. The ratio of set up time to shooting or driving or post processing is so fractional. The rest of the time you just have another person to look out for, amuse, etc. I don't get why I need an assist to set up a couple of lights and shoot with a digital camera in a fixed location. I use em when I'm shooting a big production but I am amazed that photographers need their hands held ALL the time.

Can you really imagine that it would be fun and inspiring and productive to sit in a car and talk to an assistant for 6 hours of drive time to east and west Texas?

As I'm sitting here typing this at the Four Seasons Hotel in Dallas I'm thinking that budget is and isn't part of the deal. With an assist to do the half hour of set up and half hour of packing each day (more or less) you need two hotel rooms, two sets of meals, two per diems.

In the film days I could see the rationale. You needed someone to keep loading film. Lighting was more difficult, the gear more ponderous. But now it seems like a waste for many jobs.

You may think my point of view about the entourage changing the dynamics of a portrait shoot to be "BS" but this isn't about cookie cutter photography. If I don't do it my way I don't want to play.

I'd rather lose the umbrella. And who would I trust to drive my finely tuned Honda Element?

Another issue, with the wholescale cut back caused by the recession most of the professional assistants I know/knew had to find day jobs to support themselves. Far fewer are available, on short notice, to head out of town for five days in a row.

kirk tuck said...

In the reply above the sentence

"As I'm sitting here typing this at the Four Seasons....." The next sentence should be, "But maybe it is partially a matter of budget. With an assist....

too much typing.

Anonymous said...

Every artist has to do things his own way. Art is making order out of chaos. By that measure, the more people involved the more chaos. The more chaos the less art.

Not everyone needs a nanny.

Anonymous said...

If you are camping out at the Four Seasons Hotel in the middle of a photo shoot you sure don't need our advice on how to run a photography business.

AroundOmaha Photography said...

Ahhh. I figured it was a full frame camera! :)
Once you've had a chance to look it over I'd be curious for your gut level assessment of the video from the 5D2 versus the Oly. I'm taking steps toward an LLC and considering whether Nikon, Oly or Canon best fit what I want to do. I could see myself with a 5D2 and EP1 or EP2 for contrasting capabilities. I've done some event work with the EP1 and find it great with primes for casual, low light events. On the other hand Nikon doesn't have an answer to the 5D2.

Keith said...

Thanks, once again, for pandering to my licentious leanings and urges by putting Rene's pouty lips as a lead for such a sorrowful story. It worked, you cad- I read through the entire story wondering if the "director's couch" was utilized in the making of the corporate photos. (Gads, I have been reading too many feeds from FOX.)

Alan Fairley said...

Re: assistants. Ever think of getting the corporate client to supply an on-site gofer to help with the grunt work (and holding light stands) or does that require too much supervision, etc to make it time and energy effective? BTW, love "that's why I have another one in the car"!!

Don said...

At one point in my career I had two full time assistants, a full time darkroom printer, an office manager and a producer.

Been there. Done that.

Sleepless nights when payroll was coming due and cash flow depending on clients not being flaky (and yet giving all the indicators that they were gonna be)...

I would rather do it alone now. I have no problem getting assistants - hell, I get offers for people to come and work for free weekly.

It is that I am so comfortable working with my gear - putting it where I want it. Do I long for a gofer now and then? You bet... but that can be anyone who can carry shit, not necessarily photographers.

I want the shoot to be a fun, intimate time, with me and the person I am shooting. I love the personal attention I can give to the shot.

To 'anonymous' above... BS? On shooting alone? Well - as they say... better to be thought a fool than to speak and... well, there ya go.

I see videos of shooters with all kinds of 'hip' folks all around, loud music playing, people 'grooving' to the shoot itself.

That is NOT everyone's style, ya know.

I have used assistants a few dozen times in the past year or so. Nothing wrong with that at all when I NEED the help, and it is a big set. But driving all over with someone who is a glorified gofer is not fun for me. It just isn't.

In the day, my full time assistants were highly motivated, total self starters, incredibly driven to be photographers in the future, and willing to do everything that needed to be done to make my life as easy as possible.

Let's just say that that type of assistant is a bit harder for me to find... and maybe that is partly because of my age, my expectations, and the chaotic way my life is currently fashioned. But it is my reality for sure.

Lately they want to hang with the girls, do their own thing, have to leave early, will get to it tomorrow, and texting - did I mention texting?

And that, anonymous, is not BS.

But it is a little sad, in its own way.

Bold Photography said...

I was on a shoot with my family - and had my favorite modifier - the 64" PLM on my battery powered big strobe (the interfit), and a gust of wind was strong enough to pick it and almost 20lbs of sand bags up and knock it over. The PLM saved the Interfit, and I kept shooting, but I was quite upset.

That being said - PLMs aren't that expensive, just hard to get as they're constantly sold out.

As much as the idea of shooting with an assistant appeals intellectually - it's always tough to get the 'right' one.