A Youth Misspent at the Printer.

When I ran an advertising agency I spent a lot of time doing press checks at the printers around town.  Never done a press check?  Sounds more glamorous than it is.  Or to quote early Ian Fleming, "It reads better than it lives."  Most printed pieces aren't very chic.  They tend to be utilitarian and straightforward.  You go to the press check to monitor quality.  It's your job to make sure that the guy whose responsibility it is to make sure all four colors line up together, and that there isn't a color cast or banding or weak colors does his job correctly.  And, as most veteran art directors will tell you.....most press checks happen in the middle of the night.  After a nice dinner and a glass of wine you tend to sit around the house waiting with a certain amount of dread for the phone call that lets you know, "We'll probably have your job on press around 11:00 pm."  When you get there you'll find out that printers have a whole different way of telling time and it's usually an hour behind whatever watch you're wearing.
So, you're a photographer, why should you care about the four color printing process?  Well, isn't this where you'd ultimately like your images to end up?  Are you content seeing them at 1200 pixels, splashed across Joe IT Guy's uncalibrated Dell monitor from 2002?  If you're like most photographers you dream of seeing your work in wonderfully rich magazines, in books and in annual reports and brochures.  And on that ultimate of two dimensional reproductive porn, the poster.  Well this really won't help much because photographers are rarely asked to do press checks unless they are good friends of the art director or they are paying for the job themselves.  

I didn't intend this to be about the nuts and bolts of four color printing anyway.  It's just that I came across this DVD in the archives and I'd forgotten all about this job I did for Hixo back in 2005.  We were illustrating some technical software products that were meant to bring tight and repeatable color management to the wet and sloppy craft of super high quality printing.  I never did find out what happened to the job but I did get paid and I did file these images under, "completed".  Which meant that I did my part.  (But here's a wretched secret I need to share with all those people dreaming of joining into the remarkable fun of freelance photography-------half the jobs you shoot get killed.  The best of the best rarely see the light of day.  Some concern or shift in the marketing strategy kills them as quickly as cyanide.....thought it only fair to warn you).   

I spent a day at the old Lithoprint printing plant just off IH-35 near downtown Austin.  We shot all the steps of having something printed in four or five or six colors.  I love the industrial ethos of the forty or fifty foot long Heidelberg presses.  I love the smell of the custom mixed inks sitting next to the giant grey machines in gallon sized paint cans.  And I love the guys who master the craft and, after years of training and apprenticeship, fire up these big monsters and get every step perfect so that spinning blankets and wet colored goo end up making discreet spots on paper with no shift from color to color.  Fast, wet color.
 While we always hated and feared the press check because of the big monkey wrenches it could throw at us we always walked out satisfied and proud of the work.  Going back as an observer.  A paid observer felt in some ways, privileged.  As though I'd skirted some recurring rite of passage and been invited into the lion's den without being hazed.
The thing I always forget is how loud it is in the busy print shops.  Big presses make big noise and the sound of large, thick press sheets being sucked off their tray and into the gaping maw of the German presses had it's own unique quality.  It's cliche but most of the time presses run like....well oiled machines.  None of the nozzle clogs that used to vex us ink jet printers.

So, I needed to use cameras that I could depend on for good available light performance and high sharpness.  I also wanted thick, rich colors.  For me, back a few years that meant two cameras that I loved using.  One is the Olympus e300 with it's 14-54 lens used at 400 ISO and the other camera, the one I used predominantly, was the venerable Kodak DCS-760 with a whopping six megapixels.  AND ABSOLUTELY NOISELESS AT ISO 80!!!!!  While everything moved we learned with slower camera to pay attention to the peaks of action where momentum would stop and people would freeze.  We also learned how to put these miracle cameras on tripods, making them as sharp (indeed, in many instances, sharper) today's 24 megapixel cameras.  
I will confess to loving a mix-matched lens/camera combination back then.  Nikon had just come out with the 10.5 mm fisheye lens for use on their DX cameras.  I disregarded protocol and jammed one on the DCS 760.  Look!  It vignettes on the edges.  And especially in the corners.  Of course I could crop that out but I really like the look.  

Most of the shots done here were shot at shutter speeds ranging from 1/2 a second to around 1/30th of a second.  No crazy 10 frames per second needed or wanted.  And white balance was all over the map.  But amazingly both cameras could be custom white balanced on the spot and this made post processing a snap.  That being said, I wanted the cyan and yellow mix that I got in the unbalanced photo below because it was more emotionally exact while being a bit dramatic.

Shooting on site, at someone else's office, by their grace and patience means that you can't be demanding and you can't be insistent.  You learn to be like water in a Zen koan and learn to divert around the rocks in the stream and find the paths of least resistance that move you forward on your path.  If you don't know how to make friends quickly, and show an honest interest in someone's daily work process, then this kind of work isn't for you.  Me?  I love industrial documentation almost as much as I love portraits and I love to do portraits more than most people love chocolate or money.  We got what we wanted. Made few friends.  Burned no bridges and didn't spill any ink.  It was a day well spent.

 We always talk about cameras and lenses but I must give an ample share of credit for the quality of these images to my noble tripod.  it's a ten year old Gitzo with a lot of miles on it but it's never gotten loose or shaky and it handles everything I throw at it.  It's nice to have a piece of gear that can actually freeze motion.....and freeze time.  All the best, Kirk

The Olympus SEMA-1 Arrives.

If you've read this blog for a while you know I've been an Olympus camera fan for a while but I've been critical of Olympus for shipping a really nice crossover video camera (the EP2) without shipping the one attachment that every video user needs/wants/craves.  That would be an attachment that would allow us to use external microphones while recording video.  Today I came home to find a Fed Ex package by my door and I was so happy to find that it contained the SEMA-1.

It's not a big thing but every video maker worth their salt wants to be able to use the right microphone for the job.  On my last video we made good use of a Sennheiser shotgun microphone to get decent sound without showing the microphone. The SEMA-1 consists of two parts.  The important one is the EMA-1 adapter which has the same plug interface as the EVF finder.  It replaces the EVF finder and provides you with a mini plug that accepts stereo microphones.

Some will wail about the tragic loss of the beautiful EVF finder and while I will mourn the loss while making videos I knew that was the deal when I purchased the camera.  With one of the Hoodman 3.0 Loupe wedged up against the back LCD it's not really that big of an imposition.

The other part of the package is a nifty little stereo microphone with an extension cable and a tie clip for attaching the microphone to people's clothing.  Nice touch.  I used the microphone to record some audio in the the studio with the mic clipped to my shirt.  And while there is some hiss this comes totally from the ALC (auto level control) on the camera side.  Canon's 5D was also ALC when first launched but yesterday they announced a firmware upgrade that brings up the camera to professional standards by adding manual level controls.  I don't expect that Olympus will do that on a consumer level product but we can always ask.......

In my mind it will be enough for countless crossover video/photographers to consider using the EP2 as a professional video tool.  In my mind I'll be able to use the  EMA-1 and my choice of microphones for most of my interview jobs.  If something is really "sound critical" I'll record it on a separate digital audio recorder, just to be safe.

The cable supplied is only six feet long but it's a standard termination on both ends and you can always pick up a longer and better shielded cable at you closest Radio Shack or from Amazon.com's endless resource of vendors.

Below is how the SEMA-1 looks all packaged together.  My take?  I think it is a simple and elegant solution that let's me get back to work.  If you are at all interested in recording good sound with your EP2 or EPL you'll want the EMA-1.  I'm almost certain that it will only come packaged with the microphone but that seems to be the way marketing committees work.  I may come to like their little microphone.  Time will tell.
When you've got everything on a fluid head tripod it works pretty well even without the best EVF finder around.  Tools are just tools, after all.  Here's my brief review of the microphone sound after my brief test, described above:  It's not bad.  It picks up a lot of room resonance and echo and is a little weak in the bottom registers but the overall effect is clean and crisp.

Now I'll get to work and put the camera and a shotgun mic through the torture test and report back.  For now we have achieved a state of happiness.  Of sorts.


A video about the Magnum Print Collection.

The Magnum Photo Collection from kirk tuck and will van overbeek on Vimeo.
An interview with Harry Ransom Center curator of photography , David Coleman, about the Magnum Photo Collection which the Harry Ransom Center will be working with for the next five years. David talks about the contents and significance of this collection which includes some of the most important journalistic photographs of the twentieth century.

Imagine standing next to curator, David Coleman, on the quiet fifth floor of the Humanities Research Center, as he carefully opens an old Ilford photo paper box and starts to leaf thru a whole sheaf of vintage Henri Cartier Bresson work prints.  We turn one over and see the penciled signature and the appended, typewritten caption on the back.........

Let's rewind for a second.  A little history.  In the 1940's thru the 1970's most photojournalists  shot their assignments on black and white film and the medium of delivery to clients (mostly magazines and newspapers) was a black and white print.  The prints were intended to be returned to the photographer or the agency after their use.  Over the years the world's preeminent photo agency, Magnum, stockpiled nearly 200,000 work prints by the greatest names in documentary photography.  Now, in an age where most intellectual properties are digitized for delivery, they no longer required these prints to do their business.  What to do with two 18 wheeled tracker trailer trucks full of the 20th century's most important prints?

The answer came from Michael Dell.  He purchased the collection and is loaning the entire inventory to the Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin for the next five years.  Students and academics will be able to study all aspects of the prints.  I'm anticipating some really great shows of the work at the Center.

That's the background.  How do I fit in?  I got a call from brilliant advertising photographer and sometime video shooting partner, Will van Overbeek, who asked if I would help him shoot a video about the new collection for online magazine, Glasstire.  When I heard the details of the project I was in. (I would have been in anyway for another chance to work with Will..).

We hauled our usual assortment of gear over to the Humanities Research Center and found a fun location amidst stacks of portfolio boxes with labels like, "Henri Cartier Bresson: China",  "Joseph Koudelka", "Yugoslavia", "Gill Peress".  We interviewed David Coleman, the curator, in the middle of this rich treasure trove of images.

I was amazed to see dozens of new prints from masters whose work I thought I knew well.  Many had never been presented to the public before.  It was a rare privilege.

Will and I shared directing and editing duties.  We used his Canon 5D mk2 for capture.  

Will is no stranger to the Humanities Research Center's photo department.  His 2008 show of Barton Springs is in their permanent collection.  

If you are in Austin the HRC is a must visit.  The first two exhibits when you walk in the front door are the Gutenberg Bible and the first photograph.  Amazing.


What would I really like to see in the next pro camera from Olympus?

     Paris Fashion Shows, 1995.  Louvre Carrousel.  Atsuro Tamaya Show.  Contax Camera.     135mm lens.  Manual focus.  Manual exposure.  Manual frame advance. ©Kirk Tuck

My friend and fellow photographer, Bill Beebe, recently sent me a short article outlining what he'd like to see in the next generation of Olympus digital cameras.  It's a solid bit of thinking and you can read it here:   http://blogbeebe.blogspot.com/2010/02/olympus-e-series-dslr-wishlist.html  That started me thinking about what I'd like to see from Olympus if and when they revise the e3 and come out with a new camera aimed at professional and advanced non-professional photographers.

My knee jerk reaction was the thought that I already had everything I wanted in a camera but I didn't think that would make a very compelling blog so I went out for nice, Sunday walk with my wife and pondered the question.  And I came to the conclusion that I'd be happy with two totally different pathways from Olympus.

The first path would be what I describe in the caption above.  A camera that has a minimum of controls and complexity.  A huge finder that is optimized for manually focusing lenses. A mode dial with two settings:  Manual and Aperture Priority.  A basic, but huge center AF sensor that could AF in the dead of a moonless night.  And the only file type would the .DNG.   No major choices would be made in camera.  No jpegs.  No art filters.  No screen overlays.  The camera would be as straightforward as an older Porsche 911.  Pre-turbo, pre-air conditioning, and certainly pre-automatic transmission.

Can you imagine how fun a camera like that would be?  No fiddling and twiddling when you should be shooting and schmoozing.  It would work out well.  Only tightly wound sports photographers need 10 frames per second and only neophytes need programmed exposure.  Only bored people really need art filters.   And your client can always wait a few moments for the files to be rendered into jpegs via a good and simple converter.  But in many, many ways a design like that would reduce the interface between the artist and the camera.  That's essentially the appeal of the Leica M cameras.  That was definitely the appeal of the Nikon F and the Nikon F2 and the Olympus OM-1.  Everything else you put on a camera is just sales bait.  Real photographers don't need that stuff.

The lack of both firmware and physical complexity yields a tool that is elegant and reliable.  No searching thru sub-menus to find out why the shutter won't release.  No time lost trying to change focusing spots.  Just an amazing and instant classic.

My one nod to contemporary features? The inclusion of Image Stabilization.  That's something that, once we have it, we can never live without.

Think this is nuts?  Have a pet "setting" that you just can't live without?  You might just need to practice and learn the nuts and bolts a bit better.  The above image was done "primitive" but it works as well as any AF super camera image would have worked.  I was shooting ISO 400 Agfapan at ISO 320.  The settings were probably f2.8 (wide open) and 1/125th of a second.  IS didn't exist back then.  And the model never stopped moving.  Back then we practiced focusing as a craft and an art and didn't run to our forums whining about front focus or back focus.  Front focus meant you tried to anticipate the movement but you were a little early.  Back focus meant you were a little late.  No IS meant you learned how to hold your camera still when you squeezed the shutter.  No auto exposure function meant you judged the light and locked in the exposures.  I know, I know,  I'm living in the past.  But if I was a pilot I'd still want to actually know how to fly that 747 just in case the computer decided to go south while the plane heads north.

So the first path is how I feel I want to go when I'm being all  rugged and self-reliant.  Kind of a  conservative "we don't need no government/camera company intrusion into our photo taking lives" take on photography.

When I get rational and accept that once automatic transmission is introduced people are going to be loathe to forgo the coffee and actually shift with that right hand, I have another vision of what camera manufacturers (and Olympus in particular) should do when designing cameras.  It's similar to what BMW found out in the 1990's.  Performance is great but what Americans really want is lots and lots of cup holders.  And a really good stereo.  And a smooth ride.  So much for designing performance tools.

In that vein I also have a vision for the perfect professional DSLR.

It starts with a super high quality EVF (electronic viewfinder) with zillions of pixels and no time lag.  Why? Because you'll be able to previsualize every effect and setting you make to the image before you even click the shutter.  Change the color balance?  You'll see it in the finder.  What to know how hot the exposure is?  You can see the histogram in the view finder without taking your eye away.  It's like magic.  It works well on the EP-2.  Make it two generations and more premium processing better and I guarantee you that no one who looks through the finder will ever go back to the compromise that is the Optical viewfinder.  Really.

All those people who swear they'll never buy a camera with an EVF will be throwing credit cards at the company that does this first and best.  No doubts.  I'd stake my (post 2009) 401k on it.

Next up?  A sensor that does 3200 ISO with little to no noise and also yields a big ass dynamic range.  Me?  I'll take dynamic range over ISO every day of the week.  I don't really care about the noise in any of the cameras currently on the market but......I've used several medium format cameras and a Fuji S5 and I've seen how good the dynamic range can be.  That's what I want in my camera.  Screw HDR.  If you have 12 stop range in your base exposure you've already got HDR without the seat time that pushes your evolution into nerdism and makes your thighs and belly all jiggly.  With a small sensor you're going to have to make compromises somewhere but D-range isn't the place to do it.

On my next flagship Olympus I want something that they already have figured out.  I want the ability to fine tune focus on my lenses.  They've implemented this perfectly on the e30.  No reason they can't do it on the eX.

Faster frame rates?  Nope.  I don't need em and most likely neither do you.  A slower frame rate means a shutter that last longer and is more reliable.  I'll take that.  I do want variable aspect ratios.  I have that in my EP-2 and it's changed my life for the better by giving me back the right to do square images.  And I can see them in the EVF.  No compromises necessary.

I would like to see all the camera manufacturers adopt the .dng files as the standard raw format.  Every new camera could be used in raw the day it's delivered in the elite programs.  Capture One.  ACR.  Lightroom.  Not some software afterthought.  Hey camera companies!  Be brave.  Open up that standard.  Help you customers get the most out of your cameras and they may love you better.  The only thing you have to lose is a few incremental sales of some really crappy software that you wouldn't wish on your mother.  And if the standard was truly opened the elite software programs would rush to optimize the hell out of it which would make your cameras look better and better.  All the raws are based on tiffs anyway.  Who do you think you are kidding?

Silent shutters.  Without a moving mirror (remember, we're going EVF) the only component that makes noise is the shutter and you could cut half the shutter noise by implementing a feature that Nikon first rolled out on the F4====silent.  Slow down the shutter charge and you'll eliminate a ton of noise.  Give us that option.  And with the 4:3rds cameras you have a natural advantage over FF cameras in the geometry and travel distance of the shutter curtains.  You made them quiet in the e1, you can do it again in the eX !!!!!!!!!!!  Nothing ruins the moment like a bingy-bangy shutter slap.  That's why I'm not shooting a D3 or a D700 right now.

Finally, if you are going to give me an EVF and no mirror you might as well really give some thought to the whole subject of video.  It's going to happen, big time, whether you like it or not.  We need full manual controls.  That includes shutter speeds, aperture, ISO and focus.  The EP2 is a great start but eventually those millions of people who want to start making fun videos will realize one very important thing.........It's the sound that really matters.  You have to give us manual control over microphone levels and you need to get real and give us a professional way to import the signal from a professional, external microphone or mixer.  You just have to.  No arguments.  You'll sell zillions more than Canon and Nikon if you just put two XLR connectors on the bottom of the optional (and highly profitable) accessory battery grip.  Make it easy for us to do great work and your cameras will look better and better.

No one really cares about price point if the product is superior.  If you build it right you can spend years dribbling down features to lower price point products.  Sub the XLR's for 3.5mm mini plugs in the next model down.  Give us back a legitimate reason for buying the flagship model.  Give us the right features.  Give us reliability and give us professional interfaces.  If we screw up the pan or the transition or miss the focusing point that's our problem.

There are a number of reasons why the 4:3rds sensor size is the optimum size for lens development and for video capture.  So far Olympus and Panasonic have stumbled and missed on making these arguments.  I don't care if a camera or lens is smaller or lighter than anyone else's.  I want to know that the sensor geometry makes it easier for the lens designer to design sharper, faster and better lenses and why.  I want to know why a FF sensor is a distant second to FT sensors because the 4:3rd sensors yield the optimum DOF for video and focus depth.

That's about it.  I still don't care about art filters or fast frame rates or "super lock on continuous sports focus."  That's not relevant to most shooters.  I want a camera that's good to hold and good to shoot.  Something like an Olympus e1 with the guts of an EP-2.  And a better, faster EVF.  Hit that and we're all done.  But really?  I'm happy as a clam with my e30 and e3 and so are my clients.  Want a wake up call?  Most of the documentation shots in my fourth book were done with a point and shoot camera.  No big, fast, angry camera needed.

With the world going to HD TV screens as their primary media everything over a certain file size is just  tail fins on a Cadillac.  Bicycles for fishes.

Stay tuned. It's getting fun out there as the economy recovers......