Fun with portraits. Audience in tow.

I was showing portrait lighting as I like to do it.  This is a very quick (five minutes) set up with my assistant, Amy, some big LED panels and a nice diffusion scrim.

I'll admit to being a being a closet introvert.  I'd teach more workshops but I really don't like to spend a lot of time in crowds and I always feel like I'm responsible for people learning something.  Some days I just don't feel like much of a conduit between information and it's intended targets.  Yesterday and today are good examples.  I walked into the Austin Photo Expo, where I'd agreed to do four workshops, and I hit the wall from all the silly stuff I'd been doing all week.  You can only go so far, so fast before you run out of emotional gas and find yourself running on fumes.  I hadn't put together a slide show and it showed.  I tried to talk through it but....as I predicted....major fail.  I sat down over lunch and hammered together a rudimentary Apple Keynote presentation with 60 slides and I went back at 1pm and had a great time with the audience.  I had another show this morning at 10:15 and did equally well.  This afternoon the audience was thin so we all just had a good time.

I set up a demo in which I used panels and Amy to show how I would light a portrait for myself.  We fooled around with the silly lights (fill, hair, backlight) and then we stripped it all away and did it right.

Amy is sitting about ten feet in front of a grey canvas and just behind her is a 500 LED instrument, covered with some white, nylon ripstop, diffusion material.  It's set to full power. Over to Amy's left (the right side of the frame) I've set up a 6 by 6 foot diffusion scrim and I'm lighting it with one 1,000 LED panel and one 500 LED panel.  That's it.  I love the way the big, soft light transitions from the highlight side of her face to the shadow side.  I love the little triangle of light just to the right of her nose and I love the little kick of light under her chin.  It's actually bouncing off her chest.

I'm using an older Canon 1Dmk2N because it has a firewire connection that gives me a fast and stable connection to my laptop, which, in turn is connected to the projector so the people in the class can see the shots as we progress.  I also like that even when shooting RAW the files aren't very big and they download into the tethering program very quickly.  I shot at ISO 640 just because that's where the camera was set when I picked it up.  I was using the Zeiss ZE 85mm lens.  I meter directly through the camera.

Amy is an accomplished photographer in her own right and she intuited exactly the look I wanted in the photograph and locked right into it.  We shot two frames of this pose and moved on to show what the image would look like with more fill light, etc.  But for me the two frames were the synthesis of how I want to shoot people.  Direct, unaffected and focused.  No extra effects.  No theatrics.

We wrapped up each session except for the last in the same way.  People who were too shy during the session came up to the podium to ask me their personal questions.  That's okay.  I like to have a personal connection too.  The fun people were the dozens of attendees who went out of their way to thank me for continuing to blog.  It felt good.

Amy and I wrapped all the equipment back up and carted it out to the Element.  We hugged and then drove off into the growing twilight of the Fall night.  In a way I felt that I'd come full circle to the way I always wanted to photograph.  An older style that might not have as much relevance today but seems so nice to me.

Which brings up a bittersweet observation.  Most of the people at the Expo seemed to be the same older photographers I see everywhere.  Many of them sporting big cameras and big camera bags.  They came to look at this year's iteration of their generations'  cool tools.  They flocked to the Canon and Nikon tables in droves.  And yet the younger generation, though not as well represented, were flocking to the smaller cameras.  There was palpable disregard, in their ranks, for the "big iron."  And it signalled to me that we were at a generational disconnect that presages a new age in both the hobby of photography as well as the business of photography.

The dependance on the big tools is fading.  No one in the emerging new group seemed to care about the stuff that we craved when we first were dragged, kicking, screaming and denying, into digital.  They don't care about big cameras or enormous lenses.  They aren't captivated by more resolution.  They look for cameras that are fast and fluid and casual.  They want good high ISo performance and small overall profiles.  They are looking for good industrial design to be coequal with good technical specs.  Think iPhone as opposed to the original Motorola "brick."

For them, the camera is an extension of hand and eye, not a puzzle or equation to be mastered. They want their cameras to be as operationally transparent as an iPhone or an iPad.  And while I have an emotional and nostalgic attachment to the tools and trappings I grew up with I'm quickly coming to recognize that it's a style and a set of tools that's quickly losing its legitimacy these days.  Smaller and more natural is the main thrust of our art these days.  The cameras in ascendency are the Panasonic G series, the  Olympus Pens, the Nikon 1 series and, most recently, the little Fujis.

Five years ago, at events like the Austin Photo Expo, we would have seen lots and lots of manufacturers showing off their electronic strobe systems.  Their monolights and traditional pack and head systems.  We would also have seen lots of booths offering a wide array of softboxes and umbrellas.  Most of that was gone this year.  In their place were endless Speedlight modifiers and attachments. There were more compact florescent fixtures than monolights and everywhere I looked people were figuring out how to use small cameras with smaller lights.

Austin is trend forward.  The Walmarts and Costcos and Best Buys will probably still sell millions of Rebels with kit lenses and Nikons with kit lenses.  But the tsunami is building from here.  And in cool towns all over the world.  And the trend is smaller, faster, more fluid, more liquid, more automation, more stealthiness.  It's cameras you can carry without burden to match a direction that implies that your camera will go with you everywhere and create mini-masterpiece series instead of one masterpiece at a time.  It's a brain shift.  And I understand it.  The days of carrying your Canon 1DS mk3 to the coffee shop are as over as carrying in your CB radio.

If you are waiting for the cycle to return and big cameras and static images to be back in style you need to start thinking of evolution as three dimensional spirals instead of two dimensional circles.

Added this morning (Monday Nov. 14):  For another version of Amy, by atmtx try this link:



DaveP said...

You seem almost smug writing this Kirk! Rightly so IMHO. A lovely photograph with very good lighting.

I sort of accept your 'prediction' for the future, based on lots of articles which support your position (well expressed). Not sad, just 'progress', or change at least.


Jon said...

Interesting, thoughtful read as always.

Ok, this has nothing at all to do with the substance of your post, but my goodness, Amy is absolutely beautiful! :-) There, I said it.

While I too love my Nikon V1, I can't see myself ditching my D700 any time soon. I love it...but yes, it is indeed a burden to carry sometimes. The V1 and other good quality small cameras have a big advantage in some areas, like convenience.

Peter F. said...

It tells me a lot when I filtered images for my LX5 and E620 in Lightroom, going over the 660 images I kept from a recent trip. I found that I had reached for the LX5 85% of the time. From the trip, I've got a 24" print of a lighthouse/seascape in our family room from the LX5. These little cams are "good enough" for me... and getting better. (I will keep the E620... as I love the results with the 70-300 and 50mm macro.)

ILTim said...

I came to that conclusion myself, after hitting the peak of my amateur photo run in 2006. My bag was big, heavy, cumbersome, and I started drifting away from photography altogether.

Now I have a Panasonic GF1 with the 20mm pancake (I think I have a zoom too....? I'd have to check.) and its everything I ever needed or wanted from a camera. Operationally too, its much better than my beloved old DSLR, metering focusing and jpeg baking, well they just work a ton better and faster.

I see all 35mm format (full frame and aps) cameras as medium/large format and would expect to see them used the way people were using those big film formats 5-10 years ago.

As good as canon is at making a pocket camera, and an old school slr, they're on the brink of obsolescence and bankruptcy in my eyes. Shrug.

Timothy Gray said...

Interesting observations from the expo, Kirk.

It always surprised me when I hear of the older generation (older than me anyways - I'm 34) gravitating towards the big heavy bodies.

Wasn't this the same/similar generation that cut their teeth on small cameras like the Nikon FE, Pentax K1000, and Minolta SRT?

While I think a big studio camera still has its place (in the studio), it's nice to see manufacturers embracing smaller body designs coupled with lightweight lenses.

Peter said...

I 've seen you mention Amy many times, but that is the first picture I can remember. If she sets up her own blog and takes as many self portraits as you do, you will have some serious competition as I will then need to spend much time on hers first! And now I am looking forward to seeing the book on LED lighting even more.

BTW, I also like small, capable cameras, and I am much more than 30!

I didn't read the entry on the advice you got on writing less until this morning, but if that is as common as you say, then I am amazed. I join all the others – keep doing it your way (and that way I like). (You must have meant 25W not .25W – just the engineer in me)


kirk tuck said...

Peter, the (.)25 was an intentional attempt at humor. Weak but intentional. I do get advice a lot but I probably shouldn't have taken a bite out of the poor guy's leg right on the internet.

I'm a firm believer that the small cameras will rule most photography, that said, there's always ample room for differentiation of vision and technique. I should have qualified what I said by saying most of the post was aimed at commercial work with web oriented agencies and not at individuals doing "art" or just having fun.

Amy is an incredible assistant and a great photographer. She can also knock out a two mile swim with aplomb, and does so nearly every day. She's amazingly good to work with.

omphoto said...

Hi Kirk,
I really appreciate your blog and glad you didn't give it up as I find your personal style most enjoyable, including the length of your posts. I agree, it seems like most folks these days want their info to be as brief as possible.
A quick note on the lighting technique you used with Amy. You may already know this, but since I teach studio lighting in an art academy in New Orleans, I'm exposed to a lot more terminology and art history then many people.
The lighting you used that created the beautiful triangle of light on Amy's right cheek is referred to as "Rembrandt lighting". It is a standard of technique that is as various as personal style.
Keep up the excellent writing.

Frank Grygier said...

I agree with your assessment of small form factor camera systems. All that is missing for me is a synch port. Nikon is a step ahead of Canon and I think the V1 will mature into a viable PRO/Enthusiast product. Panasonic will rule the M43 roost with Fuji ready to introduce it's own EVIL camera system early next year. Olympus is moving in the the right direction but their camera division may not survive the buy out frenzy for the medical division. I can only guess which PRO will convert his workflow to EVIL first.

Wil said...

I enjoyed the 1 p.m. session on Saturday, Kirk. Thanks for coming & speaking.

A possible different reason for the younger crowd shying away from the bigger lenses and cameras, at least for me: Cost.

We've been told over and over to not cut corners, and 'you get what you pay for', but some of us still can't afford (or choose to afford) more expensive systems.

Unknown said...

Even some really old dogs have discovered small cameras. I've been shooting mostly with a Panasonic G1 since June 2009.

Particularly really old dogs like small cameras. Their bodies creak a bit and the heavy iron just is too heavy to lug along. A heavy backpack plus a heavy camera is more than I can handle on my hikes. (I'm 75)

I enjoy your posts very much.

Gordon said...

I do wonder if some of that generational schism is financial too.

Have been pleasantly surprised how great the pictures coming out of my iPhone 4s are.

Waiting on my RED Scarlet and Lytro to arrive.

Unknown said...

If it's generational then I must be just 'young at heart'! But since getting my E-P1 I've shot less and less with the DSLR.

Björn said...

It's interesting that this rings very true, yet at the same time I see people interested in film again.

Or, maybe that's already come and gone and I didn't even notice :)

I must say that there is a freedom to leaving my "big" Nikon at home and taking my S95... sometimes :)

Richard said...

You had to be there to appreciate how quickly Kirk was able to get the lighting he wanted with the (continuous lighting) LED setup.

Even though most people have a pretty good idea of what they want from experience using flashes, it was quite revealing just how precise the setup could be with the LEDs without a bunch of flashes going off in the eyes of the subject for trial shots.

As a side note. The Nikon display had just received a print from their new mirrorless camera that looked to be something or other by 19. I have no idea what it was printed on, and that can make a difference, but the shot (daylight football game shot through the end zone) was more than just "adequate". Probably the only telltale of what sort of camera shot it was the depth of field.

Kirk, thanks for an interesting and informative presentation. I am part of the "well past 30" crowd and I have some DSLR gear which I like very much, but I carry my E-PL2 with me everywhere. I even snapped one or two pix of your lighting setup with Amy because that kept a much better note/reminder of what you were doing than my scribbling a bunch of notes instead of watching.

As to the under 30 crowd, cost is certain to be a factor...it was when we were that age...but so is the convenience of carrying a camera and the ability to post shots quickly to Facebook, Flickr, or various websites. Thom Hogan has been saying that the main competition for Nikon and Canon are cell phones.

It is going to be interesting to see the continued evolution of the small cameras over the next 12 -18 months. It seems they just keep getting better!



Low Budget Dave said...

May have misplaced a comment...

Say what you want about small cameras. That portrait was great, and would have been hard to do with a V1.

Bold Photography said...

Kirk - you should have done that portrait with the V1 in addition to the 1D.

Different tools help you achieve your photographic vision. It's easy to deride a camera as 'not capable' of doing one thing or another without trying it first. There's also fine shades of grey when it comes to what works in a given scenario - or not. I love my 5DII for low light portraits with highly out of focus backgrounds. Does that mean I couldn't get that result with my 40D? Of course not. I got nearly the same results with that camera (and the XT before that), with slight differences in noise. The only real difference is that I can ramp up to ISO6400 and beyond with the 5DII where that was all but impossible with the other two cameras.

I've tried to take the 5DII with me on a birding expedition, and it's pretty clear that it's NOT the right camera for that task. A 1D class body is really required with big glass for that. I have also done some football with my 5DII - but if I had to do that for a living, I'd shoot it with a 1D class of body.

The reality is that smaller cameras are becoming more and more capable with fewer limitations. They are now encroaching into territories where big cameras were absolutely necessary. Would I take a V1 and go birding with it? No. Would I put my family's income on the line shooting sports with it? No. Would I take something like the V1 or maybe something from Fujitsu on a trip and ask it to do extra work where I would previously need multiple bodies/lenses..? Sure, why not?

Because we're no longer talking about hard definitions, stretching a V1 to do sports (ask Kirk has already done), portraits with OOF backgrounds, architecture, landscape, macros, etc., isn't as big of a deal as it would have been even last year...

I honestly think we need to get over ourselves, and try out these new cameras before we condemn them.

theaterculture said...

I love my EP2, but would love even more to see Olympus meld the "Pen" concept with the "Tuff" concept compact cams. Or a Nikon 1 with a shock-proof vulcanized body.

I hear you about the iGeneration, but what I'm really longing for as somebody who's just into his thirties is a camera manufacturer to get inspired by that first Nokia phone I ever had. The one that had zero moving parts and didn't do much beside send texts and make calls, but that had an easy-to-get interface and survived several thousand drops on hard surfaces and an extended dip in the water of the "Pirates of the Caribbean" ride at Disneyland without missing a beat.

Michael Ferron said...

Ancient flopping mirrors will pretty much be extinct within the next 5-10 years or so. (maybe anyway.) I love my V1 and was thinking if Nikon could do this with a small sensor then they could also build a larger scale camera with an APS or full frame sensor. Imagine a reasonable compact, near silent camera with D7000 or D3x (or even better) image quality.

Radu said...

As one previous poster commented, while you've mentioned Amy many times, it's the first time you show a picture of her. She is really beautiful!

I appreciate your ability to enlist such good looking assistants that are also helping you with your work (and packing/unpacking lighting gear and carrying it around is no easy job) - I also remember Renee from your earlier posts.

As for the smaller cameras, I am really looking for a small and light camera that gives me most of what my D700 does, within limits, of course. So far the Olympus E-P3 and the newly announced Panasonic GX1 seem to qualify best, as the sensor is not too small (you can get some small DOF with the prime lenses and at least the GX1 appears to have decent low light performance) and the Micro Four Thirds system appears the most complete now. The Sony NEX has too few lenses available and the Nikon V1 has even fewer (and using F mount lenses with an adapter defeats the purpose of small and light).

kirk tuck said...

Michael, I agree with you conceptually but think the mirrorless thing will hit with full force next year and by the following year cameras with moving mirrors will largely be specialty tools and bragging tools for dentists and doctors....

Mel said...

Won't the best tools for the intended outcome always rise to the top? Don't photographers use Leica equipment because it consistently delivers on their expectations? If expectations rise only to the level of Pen, et. al. then won't those tools be sufficient?

I'm not surprised at the trend toward smaller with fast focus, good high-ISO performance - people are becoming more spontaneous and want to capture images that reflect that impulse. Who has time to set up a DSLR as life zips by? Those 2-3 seconds might miss a crucial, personal moment needing to be archived for distant historians to puzzle over.

I'm a landscape photographer - I can waste the time needed to use large format film. Heck, to even put my DSLR on a tripod and compose for a long exposure. But I'm not young anymore either.....

Spiney said...

A few weeks back I was at Photo Pro East in NYC and saw the same changes. Gone were the booths showing off their studio flash units and the constant machine gun popping of studio strives. Some of the old school camera Manufacturers were gone or greatly downsized while Sony had a huge area and Panasonic was there as a Camera company. I went there to do research. I had saved my hard earned cash for a year and was ready to buy a new camera. As someone with multiple back and neck surgeries I wanted to go lightweight to replace my Fuji S2 and an upgrade for my Canon G11. But I don't like a camera being mostly menu driven. When you make something small like the NX-5 you have no room for dials. So my money went for a Nikon D7000 and I'm very happy with it. My only regret is I wish it had a swinging display ala the D5100 or Canon Ti3. For video that is almost a must. My G11 has it and I use it all the time. Hopefully I'll be able to make enough money with the D7000 to buy a V1 or similar as my walking around camera.

Matt Perko said...

Really lovely portrait Kirk. As for equipment, I'm still using an ancient, full frame, mirror swinging 5D MK1. Maybe the old adage 'the best camera is the one you have with you' is becoming more and more relevant.