Yesterday was Thanksgiving.  We had a houseful of people.  My parents were here and Belinda's parents, too.  Nieces and nephews and new additions to the family.  Belinda and I teamed up in the kitchen and put out some nice food.  My mom brought some fun wine, even three bottles of my favorite white wine, Conundrum, from Caymus Vineyards.  Everyone was happy and the day went smoothly.  I was so proud of my kid, Ben (you've seen his photo many times....).  We have a three step drop from the kitchen to the dining room and we were serving buffet style.  My dad is in his 80's and walks with a cane.  Ben waited until my dad filled his plate and then walked over and quietly offered to carry his plate to the table.

Most of our family lives in San Antonio and everyone headed back home in the late afternoon and early evening.  Ben got invited to go surfing, down in Port Aransas, with family friends and he was gone by 6:30 pm.  Once Belinda and I finished washing pots and pans and dishes we decided to watch a movie from Netflix and we settled on a mindless romantic comedy called, "When in Rome."

Near the end of the movie the female protagonist is trying to decide if she should take the risk and marry her new boyfriend.  Her father threw out a line and I grabbed for a Post-It (tm) pad and a pen.  It's a line that resonated with me like a bell.  He said,  "The Passion is in the risk."


That's pretty much the culmination or distillation of what I've been trying to say here for the past two years.  The magic dust that makes art work is the passion you bring to it.  And the passion is proportional to the risk required.  I've included two photographs to illustrate my point.  In the top photo I'm photographing life in the Termini train station in Rome.  I'm determined to get a shot of the baggage handlers.  I go in head first because I know they may (and did) object and I'd only get one chance.  Before I started I thought that there might be a heightened chance of confrontation.  There's a certain risk in a direct, "looking into the eyes" presentation.  I had to be quick with my technique.  I could be embarrassed if they got pissed off and made a scene.  All that stuff that goes thru your mind when you're out of your own neighborhood, out of your demographic and out of your own culture.  But you move forward because you embrace that level of risk and deem it acceptable for the potential reward.  That being said, this isn't my favorite photo.  But each time you risk you get more comfortable with the risk and you understand that something moves you to do this thing that's beyond a staid calculus of accrual.

In the arts the passion is never truly about money.  It may be about fame and with fame may come money but in reality the arts are about the passion.  When I step out the door I'm looking for a photograph that makes me feel something out of the ordinary.  Art is never a reaffirmation of the value of the ordinary.

The second photograph is passionless.  We make these all the time.  It's a quick, furtive shot that shows nothing but the back of one person and the profile of another.  There's no engagement.  There's little passion.  And when you look at this image you tend to pass it by because it's something you've seen a hundred or a thousand times before from every photographer who shoots in the street.  There's little reward because there's little risk.  And without the risk there's no passion.  And the passion is what gets transmitted to the viewer.

But the idea that The Passion is in the risk goes way beyond street shooting or even just the practice of the arts.  In fact, I think the slow building of passion comes with taking multiple levels of risk that correspond with access to the passion.   An example.  If you want to create great work in any art it takes constant practice.  I've used the analogy of competitive swimming as an example.  If you want to be a great surgeon you have to use those brain and hand skills all the time or you get rusty.  I have many friends who are doctors and when they need to have a surgical procedure done they never settle for the guy who's done a couple hundred successful procedures they search out the guy who's done thousands of successful procedures because they know that with practice comes expertise.  The guy who's done 2,000 procedures has dealt with every permutation.  In art parlance, he's become a "master".  By the same token I don't think photographers can be at the top of their art unless they live it with the same "hands on" intensity.  If they pick up the camera every once in a while they just aren't fluid enough to make great art.  And it's not just knowing where the buttons are and when to push them....for a people photographer it's also about knowing how to work with people in a fluid way.

So, that means that it's almost impossible to do photography at a passionate level and still have the time and energy for a real job.  And there's the risk.  Freelance photography gives you the time but it also delivers risk.  And if you can accept that risk and move forward even with the knowledge that you may end up hungry and poor, but you still feel compelled to move that way then you may be driven by your passion and that passion may reward you with art you can love.

Beyond that, risk also means removing yourself from a comfortable situation to an uncomfortable situation that elicits responses in a photo which in turn make it interesting to you and your wider audience.

The ultimate risk is working when you are the only audience.  When you stop caring what other people think about your work and you make work that is uninflected by the subtle pressure of others.  In this arena the risk of total isolation is so strong that only the most courageous passion will drive sane people forward.  It's a level I've not achieved and I'm not sure I can.  I have too many responsibilities.  I have too much to lose to risk everything.  And yet it's something I am jealous of in other photographers.

The person who finds a $100 bill on the street is just a bit richer.  The person who pulls a diamond from the jaws of a pissed off, deadly dragon has a story to tell for the rest of his life.  And he creates a legend.

That's what the few real artists in our lives do.  They battle metaphorical dragons that come complete with real risks.  They've already signed a blanket waiver with life and they're ready to strap in and take the ride.  They're the test pilots and we're waiting for someone to come along and pressurize the cabin.

So.  Why have I decided to work with LED lights in the last few months?  Do I think the results will be technically better than what I can get with state of the art flash equipment?  No.  But I know the results will be different.  I know that some stuff will be riskier (like subject motion and color correction) but I know that intangible and tangible differences in the way portrait subjects respond and react makes the photographs different and it's a risk with a return.

If I know how to do a technique forward and backward why do I constantly abandoned the safe techniques and try new stuff?  Because the risk of maybe failing makes the process more exciting.  If the risk pays off I have something that's new and maybe closer to my vision of what an image should be.  If I fail I learn and I come back and try again.

If I never try then I master one technique and use it, safely, over and over again until it's so stale and old that no one ever wants to see it again and I've squandered years and years when I could have been investigating and playing and failing and succeeding and doing new stuff.

The turn over of gear is open to many interpretations but unlike most amateur practitioners I seem to go from the highest iteration of equipment to the lowest instead of the other way around.  I'll start with a Canon 5Dmk2 and slide down the product scale where the risk is greater because it's more fun to work without a safety net.   Buying better and better gear is a way of trying to manage risk.  And managing risks is the perfect way to suck the absolute passion out of your art.  Perfect risk management means sitting in a bunker with the air filters on high.  But nothing moves forward that way.

Here's an odd thought.  One posited by a character in Stephen Pressfield's magnificent book, The Gates of Fire,  "What is the opposite of fear?"  The eventual answer?   "Love."

We work through the fear that everyone feels.  Fear is a very uncomfortable emotion.  Most people feel fear and move away from the thing that made them feel fearful.  Or they work to contain the process or action that caused the fear.  Some work through the fear to feel the love.  The work is the love.  The process is the fear,  The fear is the risk.  And the risk is the thing that artists embrace.  And that's what makes the best work work.  Knowing that you might fail.

Someone asked me the other day if being 55 and in a field that seems to be falling apart and crashing and burning scared me.  Yes.  I'm as scared as I can be.  But not because I won't make money.  I'm scared that I won't have the time and the courage to keep going out every day and doing something that rational people don't do.  Every time I go out and shoot it scares me.  And every time I go out and ignore the fear I get into zone and the photos get better and better.  When I stop getting scared the work falls apart.

The scariest moments for me are the days when I wake up and I've lost the determination to go out and try it all over again.....as if for the first time.  When I'm working from a "playbook" of greatest hits I know that it's over.  The passion is gone.  It's time to stop.  But the scariest thing of all is that all the inspiration and vision and passion comes from a well within.  There's no way to inspiration other than to wake up and want.  And  to be willing to accept the risk that creates the passion.  And that's why it's worth it not to copy anyone else but to create your own art and take your own risks.  Because:


The passion and the risk are different for everyone.  And so are the rewards.  And that's why people talk about gear instead.  Because it's so hard to say why you do what you do.  And it will be different for you.

added at 5:22 pm.
I never did get around to explaining why I took the image of the guys in the train station.  Let me go thru that process and see if I can put it into words.  We really don't have a train station here in Austin.  The closest we have is an airport and it was built in the last ten years and doesn't look much different than a nice strip mall with a bunch more chairs.  I have a romantic nostalgia for train travel.  But even more to the point, I  have a bittersweet memory of a time when travel was civilized and special and much, much less stressful.  The guys in the top photo are remnants of that earlier time.  It was a time in which you and and your family could travel for weeks  with multiple suit cases.  You would have suits and ties and nice shoes to wear to fancy restaurants.  Hiking boots and heavy jackets for romps through the Alpine plains outside of Chamonix and you would have also packed some casual clothes for evenings wandering through the old neighborhoods of Rome.  You'd find a nice cafe and have hot chocolate while your parents enjoyed a few glasses of wine and some savory treats.

And it was all made possible by men like these in the train stations and airports who would take care of the logistics of moving your heavy cases from the train to the to taxi's and back again.  And you were pretty sure they worked for tips and they worked hard every time a train came in.  They were freelancers like you are now.  Somedays no one would want to pay for their help.  Other days the work would be non-stop.  There were no guarantees.  No safety net.  But it was what they knew how to do.

And slowly all these men have have faded into oblivion as wheeled totes and "carry on" only became the vogue.  And now we  travel with only what we can carry and we're more like overnight visitors than real travelers.  But at the same time these guys were brusk and sometimes unlikeable, with a street smart cynicism that put you on your guard.  And there are now no more young porters.  It's a dying art.  Like dye transfer or black and white darkroom printing.  And it's sad when an era passes.

And they know it's only a matter of time before their knees give out and their lungs protest the decades of smoking and they won't be able to lift the heavy boxes that often replace the luxe leather suitcases and trunks.  And they're pissed.  And resigned.  And how can I get all those emotions and all those thoughts into something as insubstantial as a photograph?

I look over and see the scene come together.  They are resting on the cart, looking for customers.  They are smoking.  I walk closer.  I've already set my Mamiya 6 camera to the exposure I think the scene offers.  I bring the camera to my eye to fine tune the focus with my rangefinder.  The man raises his hand and as he starts to wag his finger I click.  Then I drop the camera down and gesture that I get it.  I understand.  I won't shoot another frame.  I'll hope I have what I want and spare them the indignity of overt and obvious study.  Young life swirls around them.  One man smiles in a resigned way.  Two others continue their conversation, oblivious of my transgression.  And the man with the wagging finger follows me with his eyes, just to make sure I got the message.  Yes.  I did.  I got the whole message.

When I develop the negative I wish I'd gotten closer.  Much closer.  But cropping is not the same.  I wish I'd gotten closer and wider.  The 55 instead of the 75.  But I got what I got and I learned that my reticence to walk in closer with the wider lens is like a slap to the face and I know next time I'll take the risk or not take the photograph at all.

the holidays are upon us.  I humbly submit that a good book about photography will be most welcome by the photographers on your list.  Here are a few suggestions:






The 35mm lens and why no one should care if it's the best in the world or not.

I wrote a little piece the other day about using a couple of new lenses on the Canon 7D.  And in the past few weeks I've also talked about buying and using two different macro lenses, that, at first glance, seem to be so close as to not make too much of a difference.  People seem adamant about two things in response to my idle chatter about cameras and lenses.  First, they want me to proclaim definitively which one is best.  And then, secondly, they want me to stick with whatever proclamation I've made thru thick and think, no matter what else comes on to the market.

Some readers want me to write more about the Olympus Pen cameras.  Others are still chagrined about my divestiture of most Nikon stuff.  Others want me to choose between one of those "damn" ever propagating 50mm lenses and be done with it.

And it's made me think that there must be two different schools when it comes to buying and using gear. The first school (which I am not part of......) holds that there's one ultimate camera and in each focal length, one ultimate lens.  The people in this school take no prisoners.  No holds are barred.  If you buy a  Canon G12 and you like it you're stuck until you find it's superior replacement at which time you are obligated to acquire the new camera and banish the older one to the tender mercies of the used market.

The other school of thought is dominated by indecision and the fear of potential regret.  We buy what we think will be a good and workable camera or system and learn why we like it and why we don't.  And then, instead of replacing it when it's myriad faults are revealed to us we tend to hold onto the things we liked about the camera or lens or system and then go out and supplement it with something that complements it.  In the days of film cameras this was an enticing strategy on a number of levels.  We'd buy a Nikon F5 system to shoot events and sports.  But we'd decide that we needed more resolution and smoother tones for portraiture so we'd buy a Hasselblad system and use it in the studio.  If we found ourselves doing more and more product work we'd buy a decent 4x5 system and the holy trinity of view camera lenses and use that as well.  Finally, because we all wanted to be cool we'd buy the ultimate "carry it with you everywhere" camera, the Leica M(X) and.......carry it with us everywhere.

But buying a complementary system didn't give us an apparent license to get rid of the first system or, in turn, the second system.  And often, because the cameras did not go out of fashion and were rarely superseded over the course of a decade, they held their value very, very well.  I shot with a Leica M3 that I bought with a 50mm Summicron lens for over ten years.  When I bought the M3 it was considered pretty pedestrian and cost me about $400 with the lens.  Ten years later I sold it to buy some newer Leica cameras and it fetched $1200 without the lens.  Prices had gone up.  The supply had gone down.

When I made the somewhat ill-fated decision to sell off my Hasselblad gear and answer the siren call of the Rollei medium format SLR system I was able to break even on my original H-blad purchases as well.

Digital changed a lot of things.  It changed a lot of buying patterns.  As more and more amateurs entered the higher end of digital it seemed that budgets would only stretch to one camera at a time.  And dealing with the used market was like playing musical chairs.  When new models were rumored people began to undertake a complicated calculus to figure out when to divest themselves of their current body in time to be ready to buy the newest body with the least amount of fiscal damage.

This "all and nothing" approach, I think, is mostly responsible for the search for perfection that goes on.  If a person is going to limit themselves to one camera at a time they logically want to find the body that will do the most for the them for the longest period of time.  The importance of not making a buying "mistake" becomes paramount.  But it's counter-logical.  No camera currently on the market is superior on all counts and all of them will, by most standards, became obsolete within a year or so.

I have a lot of friends who are professional photographers and they tend to be more "big tent" about cameras.  They find one they like and keep it around until it's resale value has fallen so far that it makes more sense to keep using it than to get rid of it.  And what I'm constantly reminded of when I survey the commercial market is the fact that, inexorably, the images we created are headed to the web the majority of the time.  The technical requirements of the final users really don't change nearly as quickly as the model introductions of the manufacturers!

I guess the assumption of my readers, who wring their hands at my purchase of Canon gear over new Olympus gear, is that I've abandoned the Olympus brand altogether.  Of course it's not true.  They're still in the tool box.  I've just decided that the Pens are the Olympus cameras I like shooting with the best.  I've thinned out my collection of E cameras and lenses but I still have several bodies in that niche as well as a handful of lenses.  But the point is that I keep cherry picking the cameras that I've enjoyed shooting with over the years and they rarely get put out to pasture.  The Kodak bodies are a good example.  I still find reasons to dust off the DCS 760 and the SLR/n, not because either of them are great at high ISO's or shoot at ten frames per second but because they have their own color palette and have a long toe and a long shoulder that makes them superb for shooting portraits.  It's all about the curves not necessarily about the DR.  It was the same in film.  People liked Tri-X best because it had a long and graceful curve from the first indication of detail in the shadows to the last vaporous dew drops of highlight detail.  The curve made the tonality, not the dynamic range.  Same with digital cameras.

I have a Sony R1 which is pretty remarkable.  Every job I ever shot with it was lucky.  No one should get rid of their lucky camera!  And ditto with my Olympus e1.  Nice curves, both physically and electronically.....

But the bottom line is that the pursuit of the best is pointless.  DXOLabs just did a paper on an interesting topic.  They discovered in their testing that most of the benefits of fast lenses are lost to digital cameras when you open up the lenses past f4.  Imagine that!  It doesn't get any brighter in the pixel wells.  Why does the camera exposure go up?  They surmise that camera companies, knowing that you aren't getting the f-stops you're paying for ramp up the file gain to compensate.  That of course gives you more noise and may explain why their tests show that the Canon 85mm 1.8, for example, is more highly rated for ultimate image quality than the much more expensive 85mm 1.1.2 L lens.  Interesting.

In the end it's all a compromise.  I have a friend who shoots with a Nikon D3x and all the best Nikon glass.  But he hates his tripod and shoots everything handheld.  He's over 50 and drinks coffee.  Do you think that sensor is delivering $8,000 worth of magic?  Maybe.  I have another friend who does the same thing in the Canon system.  He knows his technique but like all of us it goes down the drain as the day and enthusiasm fades.

I've been looking over the 136,000+ images I have in my Lightroom Catalogs lately.  I found some I shot in Madrid back in 2000 with a Nikon 990 point and shoot camera.  It had a whopping 3.4 megapixels of resolution.  The files, on the screen, look great.  I looked at some exterior architectural stuff and some corporate portraits we shot with the Olympus e-10 (4 megapixels) and they looked great.  In fact, if you mix it all up and look at the work over the decade of digital the only time you see differences is when we tried to go beyond the safe ISO of our times or when we tried to enlarge past a certain point.  I don't see "leaps and bounds" improvements in the "bread and butter" space of flash lit headshots, daylight lit architecture and landscapes.  If anything there are some color nuances that I think have been abandoned in the pursuit of greater accuracy which were more emotionally satisfying in their flawed iteration.

So, back to the new lenses.  Let's try this on for size....according to Leica lens expert, Erwin Puts, when you double the diameter of a lens element (critical to the making of faster lenses) you increase by a factor of 8X the complexity of manufacture.  Tolerances become much more critical.  In fact, it is so much easier to make a perfect f4 prime lens than it is to make a decent f1.4 lens for ten times the price that many of the f4 primes from earlier days from Nikon, Canon and Leica still rival the latest "L" glass and "gold ring" glass from Canon and Nikon.  If we take as a given that the race for smaller and smaller pixel sites (needed to increase pixel count) has marginalized the light gathering capabilities of the sensor at anything wider than f4 and that f4 lenses can be made to incredible standards less expensively, then I've got to wonder at why so many people are buy fast glass.  If the cameras ramp up the exposure gain, pre-raw conversion, then the noise equals out.  Doesn't matter if you shoot at 1.4 or 4 the noise characteristics might be the same.  Again, according to DXO the $1300 Canon 50mm 1.2 is about as good at f2.8 as the $90 "nifty fifty".  So what's the point?

Here's the point.  All of the lenses have some signature that makes them output photographs that look a certain way.  The 35mm Summilux Aspheric from Leica, when used on a camera with big pixels, can drop out a background and keep a foreground very sharp.  The Nikon D700 is almost as sharp as the Canon 5dmk2 in actual use because the bigger pixels make more efficient use of the output of the lenses.  The 35mm Canon lens I referenced yesterday has pretty much the same performance at f4 and smaller as it's $1500 brother.  The Canon 85mm 1.8 (which I own) is rated higher than the 85mm 1.1.2 (which I used to own back in the film days.....).  So ultimately there is no right or wrong.  We get to pick which lens we want to use for what.  I picked the 35mm f2.0 because I know I'll use it mostly handheld and mostly around f4.  In that capacity it will be about as good as the more expensive but faster lens.  For the difference in price I can also own a couple of zoom lenses that also cover the 35mm focal length.

I have a bunch of different 50mm lenses because they all do different stuff well.  I want a beater to put on the front of an 60D for those days when I think the camera and lens might not make it back alive.  I want the 50mm Carl Zeiss lens for those times when I want a wider portrait lens on a 7D and I have a Nikon 50mm 1.1.2 with an adapter ring for the 5Dmk2 for those times when I think I want fast and sharp all at once.  And none of them is the ultimate lens.

Finally,  why do I have the 60mm Macro EFS and the 50mm Macro EF lenses, simultaneously.  Well.....because sometimes there is no logic.  You just want what you want and you buy it because life is short and it's fun to have toys.  And the 60 EFS is ostensibly optimized for the density of pixels in the cropped frame camera.  And it acts like a 90mm portrait lens on a cropped frame camera.  And the 50 Macro is a cheap legacy lens with really good performance that works really well with the full frame cameras.

If I took all the emotion out of my lens and camera preferences I'd have three boring L zooms that cover all the focal lengths I might shoot and I'd shoot them the same way all the time.  And if I did this business logically I'd find the job or type of job that pays the maximum amount with the minimum effort and I would do it over and over and over again.  But I hate working that way.  I love things to be different all the time.  I love to take chances.  I love to find new ways to do things and new ways to light things.

And it think it is this passionate curiosity that keeps my love of photography alive and by extension keeps my clients interested.  It's a tough business to be in.  Let's not make it tougher by adhering to pointless dogma and demanding an objective measure of perfection.  Art should be subjective and the choice of tools motivated more by intuition and impetuosity than some sort of rigorous spreadsheet of facts that tends to homogenize and rank our gear.  And then apply a value.

The value comes from the photographs well seen.  Not from the choice of tools.

Most people who read here say that they like me to explain why I do what I do.  But amazingly, when I talk about seeing or emotion or context I get no feedback.  Put up a tiny paean to a $300 lens and we get 20 comments in six hours.  And readership for weeks.  Not sure how I should handle it.  Not sure it really matters.  I am nothing if not capricious.  If I feel like buying a new lens (even if it's exactly like one I already own) I'll buy it.  And if I feel like writing about it you can pretty much count on me doing that too.

I guess you noticed.....I don't really do short blogs.  Another rule shot to hell.

Happy Thanksgiving!

the holidays are upon us.  I humbly submit that a good book about photography will be most welcome by the photographers on your list.  Here are a few suggestions:






My continuing love affair.......with the Canon 7D. Enhanced by the 60mm efs and a few LED lights

I'm taking a risk today.  I'm posting from my laptop and the screen isn't nearly as well calibrated as the monitor in my office.  I'll assume this looks like my model, Selena, and that the flesh tones are somewhere in the ballpark.  Apologies if it's bright purple.....

I don't have a scientific method of measuring the different ways in which various cameras handle color, I just know what colors I like to see and always how I like the contrast of the files rendered.  Now I'll head into heretical territory.  I recently did a big job for an ad agency.  24 portraits in two days.  On site.  I used two cameras.  My main camera was a Canon 5Dmk2 with a 100mm f2 lens tacked onto the front.  The other camera was my old Kodak DSLR/n with an even older Nikon 135mm f2.8 on the business end.  The exercise went like this:  Shoot the bulk of the frames with the Canon camera and, when I felt like I had what I wanted, pull up the Kodak and shoot an additional ten frames.  All the frames were shot under the same lights,  Profoto monolights in the 600 w/s and 300 w/s varieties.  I used a gray Lastolite target and did a custom white balance for each of the cameras.  I shot both of them in RAW.  I processed both sets of files in Lightroom 3.0

And what to my wondering eyes did appear?  Softer, smoother, more accurate tonalities and colors out of the Kodak camera.  Much easier to post process into pleasing files.  And whether it was a different "shoulder/toe" curve parameter or just more dynamic range, the Kodak beat the snot out of the Canon 5d2 in terms of holding juicy detail in slight overexposures.  Now, if I really dig in and spend the time I can get the two cameras to look a lot a like but when I show the files as 12 by 18 inch prints my art director friends choose the Kodak prints every time.  Every time.  The Kodak came onto the market in 2004.  In camera years that's like a decade ago.  The Canon is barely 18 months old.  Amazing.

In it's defense the Canon 5d2 has great detail and for most things, very decent color.  But it was enough to shake my nascent confidence in Canon's supposed supremacy as a portrait camera.  So I was expecting the 7D from Canon to be no great shakes.  But I was wrong.  When I go thru the same process and do the same white balances with the 7D it creates files that, while not quite as detailed as the 5d2, are much more pleasing in the eyes of this portrait photographer.  And I'm still trying to figure out why that is.  It's a newer sensor but not by much.  They have the same Digic 4 processors.  And the lenses are the same.  But I guess it's one of those things I'll never have a solid metric for because I'm pretty sure the guys at Canon don't want to get into a dissing war between their various cameras.

Suffice it to say that I started shooting with the 7D more and more.  That moved me to buy an interesting lens, against my better judgement.  It's the 60mm macro, EFS.  EFS means that it only covers the optical circle of the Canon cropped frame cameras.  Won't even fit on the front of a 5D2.  But it just seemed like the perfect portrait focal length for the 7D and other cropped sensor cameras.  It's nice and small and fits on the body well.  Not too front heavy.  And it opens up to 2.8.  Here's a photo sample from last week:
It's shot at 3.2 and some slow shutter speed but it looks good and handles well.  The combination works for a lot of the faster, candid portraits I sometimes do and it doubles as a macro rig when I need to get close.  The other two shots in this blog were done with the 70-200mm f2 (non-IS) which I mentioned recently.  It's an incredibly good lens and, if someone handed me $2400 and asked me to buy myself another long zoom I'd pass right by the new 2.8 type two, snap up another $600 f4 and stick the rest into something else.

In a previous review I wrote at length about the handling of the 7D and the responsiveness of the auto focus but my recent romance with LED panels has caused me to think more about the color handling characteristics of various camera models instead of the more common threads of discussion which tend to center around resolution and dynamic range.  I've found that both the 7D and the new 60D are much better in AWB than any other Canon camera I've had the chance to handle.  Much better.  And when I'm in the studio shooting under the non-continuous spectrum of my wacky LED lights I find that the cameras, when left to their own devices, hit the proper white balance right off the mark, unlike the 5d2.  If you throw the Kodak I mentioned into the ring you'd have the opposite of the AWB Bell Curve.  In the absence of a custom white balance shooting with the Kodak is like shooting thru a kaleidoscope.

So I did a little reading to see what I could find out.  Here's the factoid that I'm hanging on to:  Both the 7D and the 60D make use of Canon's Intelligent Focus Color Luminosity metering system.  It's part of the autofocus system but it uses color sensors to more effectively understand what's in the  frame.  It's only a suspicion on my part but I believe that this new measurement tool is also somehow tied into the overall camera white balance tools and this gives the newer cameras an edge over the other cameras in the system that don't share this technology.

Let's talk about flash for a moment.  I know a lot of wedding photographers swear by their 5dmk2's and I can understand why.  It's a good camera with a sensor that's capable of capturing a lot of detail.  But when it comes to flash and autofocus in dimly lit venues I can't see why these photographers don't rush to pull the 7D out of their bags.  The flash performance is a full generation ahead of the 5d2.  The autofocus lock on is two generations better and probably on par with the system in the 1Dmk4.  The flash makes use of the same IFCL metering system that I talked about above and in combination with the flash exposure lock button flash becomes as easy as shooting Nikon.

I put the camera and 580 ex2 flash thru their paces in the dimly lit ballroom at the Four Seasons Hotel last thurs. night.  Legendary attorney, Joe Jamail, took the podium in a crowded ballroom to give a speech about UT's president, Dr. Bill Powers.  Before he launched into his speech he squinted at the spotllights illuminating the small stage and asked, "Can you turn those darned things down?"  They did.  And it dropped the overall illumination a lot.  Even though Mr. Jamail was in a dark suit and the stage was backed with black curtains the camera/flash combination did a great job nailing the exposure using the FEL spot pre-metering and locking in the settings.  I try to take only a few flash shots because, no matter how discreet you try to be, it still gets annoying.  I switch over to a preset custom banks which changes my settings to 2800 K color temperature, ISO 3200, spot metering and "Camera Neutral" color setting.  And I will say that, with a little noise reduction edged in, the camera performs quite well at what would have been extreme nose bleed territory for a cropped frame camera only a year ago.......

So where does this new found appreciation put me in terms of grabbing cameras for assignment?  Well, if resolution, sharpness and final reproduction size are all critical my choice will be the 5D2, hands down.  If I have to get the tiniest slice of focus and put everything else out of focus I'll also grab for the same camera.  But if I can shoot under 1600 ISO, need fast AF, need good out of camera color balance and good white balance, and if handling is critical it's the 7D all the way.  With my 20,  my new 35 f2 and the 60mm macro EFS I've got a nice, small and light "classic" photojournalist's set up that doesn't break the bank.  Throw in a couple of wide ranging zooms like the 15-85 and the 70-200 f4 and a 60D as a back up body and I have system I'd feel comfortable with on a very large portion of my jobs.

Thank the photo dieties,  they all take the same batteries.  Just a few random observations from a week of daily shooting....

Lit with a single LED panel blasted (ha, ha) through a Chimera diffusion scrim.

the holidays are upon us.  I humbly submit that a good book about photography will be most welcome by the photographers on your list.  Here are a few suggestions:






Photographers tend to talk a lot about lighting and gadgets. We should also talk about just looking at the light that's already there.

©2010 Kirk Tuck
Photographers, as a demographic, love to play with the tools and the toys and I am no exception to that generalization.  We hit a new location and the first thing that comes to mind is generally, "Where should I put the lights?"  And, if you have watched many of the DVD's by photographer/instructors or you've taken workshops from lighting pros you can be forgiven for coming to believe that "it's not really professional photography unless there are lights involved."  

Another idea that you'll come away with once you've watched the workshop dynasty give the rosiest case scenario of the business of taking pictures is that no job can ever be done without an assistant.  And I guess if you buy into the first concept:  All lights all the time.... It seems logical that a big support network would make all work more efficient.  But I'm here to tell you that this is all somewhat counterintuitive.

Very few paying jobs are comprised of complicated sets at beaches involving giant scrims, big lights with generators and lots of thin young girls in swimwear.  In fact, if you live outside of South Beach Miami or Venice Beach you will probably starve to death in the search for this kind of work.  But it plays well at workshops because it's wildly the "best case scenario" most aspiring photographers can imagine.  

The reality is that maybe 90% of commercial (non-retail or direct to comsumer; like weddings) photography is done for small and large companies that have products and services to sell.  They also have marketing budgets that are predicated not upon your innate genius but by what value the photographs will ultimately bring to their table.

There are two ways to look at commercial work:  You can be a "whaler" and only go after the big jobs.  Jobs with lots of production and enough potential usage to generate big fees.  Or, you can fly fish.  Cast and land enough fish, week in and week out and you'll do okay.  Whaling sounds great.  A beefy advertising job might net an upper level photography $25,000 or more for a week's worth of shooting while the fly fishers are lucky these days to get $1,800 for a day.  But whaling is predicated on you being able to wait and wait and wait.

I've always taken the fly fishing approach.  Cast and reel in jobs.  And mostly they are one and two day experiences.  Sometimes a job with a bit of travel will take a week.  And many times I'm documenting placing and people in their environments.  Instead of creating a whole lighting design we're coming in like ninjas and leveraging existing light with a few little lights.  That was really the whole premise of my book, Minimalist Lighting.  It was less about how to travel light than it was about how to mix just enough of your light with the light already in a scene to make it work.

And much as I hate to admit it, right now clients are looking for photographers who can come into a facility and create the least disruption and still come away with the goods.  That's a strong incentive to travel light.  But traveling light is no substitute to actually taking time to look at the light and see if you really need to add anything at all. (A statement that makes lighting equipment manufacturers cringe....)

When I went to this printing facility in Ft. Worth I took a case of lights along with me in a Think Tank, Airport Securtity roller case.  I had five or six flashes, a bucket of radio triggers and lots of little diffusers and grid spots.  I had enough filter material to match just about every source.  But when I set up my camera and took a look at most of the things that we wanted to photograph I found that the available light worked really, really well.  

During the course of two days I took the flashes out only when I set up and shot formal portraits of the executive staff against a seamless background.  The rest of the time I kept my eyes open for the right angles and the right existing light.  I knew I'd be working in a 100 or 200 thousand square foot plant and there was no way (and no budget) for lighting up the whole place, or even a large corner of it.

We got the shots we needed with a camera and my most important accessory, my tripod.  I chose not to use an assistant because the budget for the project was tight (aren't they all these days?) but mostly because there wasn't much for an assistant to do.  The "seeing" part is what I'm supposed to do.  And the day I can't carry a wooden tripod and a camera bag by myself is probably the day I should hang it all up and go back to teaching.

I guess this long ramble is really just a reminder that so much of what we do can be done with the simplest gear and can be done unaided.  Rather than ever cutting your fee it's smarter to cut other line items in your budgets.  And if the scene is already perfectly lit you don't need to waste time re-inventing the wheel.  Just get out your gray target card, do a custom white balance and start shooting.  Perhaps the pendulum is swinging away from everything being (over)lit to an appreciation for natural light.  Even when it comes from a florescent fixture in the ceiling.....
©2010 Kirk Tuck

the holidays are upon us.  I humbly submit that a good book about photography will be most welcome by the photographers on your list.  Here are a few suggestions:






The tools are inevitably entwined around the art. Here are some observations about a few tools.

With the most primitive means the artist creates something which the most ingenious and efficient technology will never be able to create.

Kasimir Malevich, Cubo-Futurist, Suprematist

Somewhere in this collection of 400+ blog posts is an article testifying to my love of the 50mm focal length.  Even though I divested myself of most of my Nikon gear over a year ago there were several pieces that I just couldn't bear to part with.  Two immediately come to mind:  The 50mm 1.1.2 ais  lens and the 55mm f 2.8 Micro lens.  I have adapters that let me use either lens on my Canon bodies and on my Olympus Pen cameras, and I do so often.  I can't really tell you why I like them so much but I'm sure it has something to do with the nostalgia of manual focus and the fact that both of these lenses have proven themselves to be sharp and well corrected; no matter what body I put them on.  I have a 25mm 2.8 Olympus lens that I use on the regular 4:3rds bodies and, with an adapter, on the Pen cameras (which I still own, still shoot and still love).  And I have three Canon dedicated 50's in the drawer, as well.

But I've been working through the Canon system and I've discovered two things:  1.  I like the cropped frame cameras like the 60D and the 7D more than the 5D2 even though it has the bigger (and supposedly better) full frame sensor.  2.  I wanted a lens that was in the equivalent range of 50 to 60mm for that format.  I don't always use primes but when I do I want them to conform to the way I see and not the other way around.  I've come to understand that no matter how hard you try to make something work it's not going to work unless your brain is willing to accept it.  And my brain is really bossy.  When it wants to see things in a certain way it gets bitchy about substitutions.
I looked at everything on the market and finally settled on a Canon 35mm f2.  It corresponds to a 56mm lens on a full frame camera which puts it right into the middle of my sweet spot.  The price is good and it's usable on my full frame camera.  I hadn't had a chance to really break the lens in until today so, after doing some mandatory yard work,  I grabbed the 7D and the 35mm and went out for a Sunday walk around downtown Austin.

The lens is probably the lightest lens I own.  It has no special features.  No special glass.  No IS.  No big hood.  No bragging rights for the aperture.  And I fell in love with it the moment I looked through it.  It's sooooo neutral.  No wide angle affectations.  No "portrait-y" feel.  Just a solid, middle of the road focal length and no big anomalies to speak of.  It focuses quickly with the 60d and the 7D.  And, at 3.5 and 5.6 most test reports show it matching the performance of the 35mm 1.4 pretty handily.  Did I try the 30mm Sigma?  Yes.  I owned one back in the Nikon days and found it to be no great shakes.  I sure wasn't interested in doing it again.  It's sharp in the middle and by the time you hit 5.6 it's probably as sharp all over as this lens, but at twice the price.
So, what does this lens get me that's so special?  Absolutely nothing.  And that's it's charm.  By nature of it's middle of the road focal length and neutral imaging performance it becomes transparent on many levels.  I don't lean on an absurd focal length in order to "pull off" an image.  It's fast enough for just about anything I shoot and when I stop it down to the middle aperture range it's as sharp as I could want it to be.  Best of all, it was less than $300.
As a representative of the Visual Science Lab I'm officially declaring this lens to be the prime lens of choice for people who want a middle focal length for street shooting, general artistic stuff and for wise shoppers.  I'm thinking of hot gluing it to the front of my Canon 7D and shooting it until the next cropped frame successor hits the shelves......

I can guess why everyone loves exotic zoom lenses and exciting, extreme focal lengths but I'm finding a lot of good, cheap lenses in the Canon line up that I think are overlooked.  For example, when most people consider actual 50mm lenses the "wish" lens is the 50mm 1.1.2 L.  But why?  It's rare that you'll find subject matter that works well at the maximum aperture of that lens and it weighs a ton.  And costs even more.  The 50mm 1.4 is widely acknowledged to be soft at 1.4 and f2 but sharpens up nicely at f4. And that's a good thing?  So, people buy them only to stop them down?  I think a sloppy 1.4 made sense back in the manual focus days because the limited depth of field made it easier to see when a lens popped in and out of focus.  But with the dominant use of autofocus?  Doesn't make a heck of a lot of sense. Then there's the "nifty fifty", Canon's 50mm 1.8.  I have one.  I use it and I find that it too needs to be stopped down to at least 2.8 and really to f4 before it behaves and delivers good performance over most of the frame.

Hell, my $700 Carl Zeiss 50mm 1.4 falls into the same pit of performance as the above two lenses.  So why is it that, when we're out shopping for opinions on all the forae, no one ever gets around to mentioning the 50mm 2.5 macro lens?  I played with one, found it to be sharp at f2.8 (sharper than all the lenses mentioned above) even better at f4 and remarkably crisp at 5.6.  And it's cheaper than all but the nifty fifty.  What gives?  Is it really so declasse to use a non-USM lens?  And it too is well under $300.  I was so impressed I picked on up.  And guess what?  It's light enough to keep in the bag and take anywhere.
Here's my new, small kit for walking around the streets shooting:  The Canon 7D (the small professional, cropped frame version of the 1Dmk4, really) the 20mm f2.8, the 35mm f2.0, the 50mm 2.5 macro.  When I want something a little longer I pack my 100 f2.0 as well.  With these three or four focal lengths I feel like I can do just about anything photographic in my style.  And all four lenses run less than the new 70-200 2.8 or even a single 85mm 1.1.2 lens.  Guarantee you'll have more fun with these than any group of zooms that cover the same lengths and you'll be doing it with lenses that let you shoot at wider apertures than even the L zooms will with very, very good results.

I shot a function, an event, with the 7D last week.  It does a better job with flash than the 5D2.  The focus locks on quicker in subdued light and the finder is just as beautiful.  I've learned how to lock in a flash pre-flash spot reading and get the same kind of results with flash that I used to get with the Nikon gear.  I understand the general fascination with full frame equipment but I'll readily admit that you could do endless amounts of very professional work with the cropped frame cameras.  At least that's my recent experience.  I'm glad I have both.  I'll save the 5 for picky clients.  For myself?  The 60D and 7D are mostly interchangeable and great.  I'm happy to have them as tools.  The lack of inference makes them invisible to me when I shoot.  I like that.

The next thing up falls into the category of Best Lighting Thing I've Bought for Next to No Money.
It didn't seem like much of a risk when I ponied up $64 for the 160 LED panel I bought from Amazon recently.  I think one plant in China makes all of the 160 bulb panels and then five or ten distributors buy them up and brand them.  At least they all look identical.....  I call this.....my 160 LED panel.

And I've used it on a full day of corporate location photography with especially good results.  The light is pretty powerful, runs for an hour and a half on a rechargeable camcorder battery and has a dimmer control.  I'm working on a video right now and find that two of these panels take care of about 50% of my lighting needs on location.  When more light is called for I can lean on all the "plug in the wall" big panels I've accumulated.  I even stuck one in the camera bag when I went to shoot event stills the other night at the Four Seasons but I didn't have the experience with fast moving events to use continuous light on an important shoot for a client.  But I've been reading a blog from Neil van Niekirk and he's doing just that.  He's using the small panels for quick fill and accent lights on wedding shoots and so far the results look really great.

Once I've shot a few projects that way I'll post some more details.  Until then you might want to check out Neil's blog here.