Sometimes the world looks hyper real to me.

It's almost like someone boosted my sensory saturation levels and pushed the blacks a little higher.

Those are the days I really like to go out walking with my camera because the whole human/optical mechanical systems seems to be in sync and integrated.

Maybe it has to do with being profoundly left-handed.

But then, maybe it's just a fun thing to do.

Walking around checking out the way the 50mm Zeiss 1.4 works on the Canon 60D body.  Really, I think the day itself is the star. The clouds were just right and the light was like Hollywood.  Sometimes shoeleather = luck = art.

New stuff on Will's blog.  Check out the Norwegian Sumo Wrestler.........

A timely book review. If you shoot Canon it's a "no-brainer."

Usually, if I review a book it's a non-competing book like Steven Pressfield's incredible book about artists' motivation, The War of Art.  But I'm not about to sit on self interest when I find a book this good.  Here's the executive summary:  If you shoot with Canon cameras and often use their flash, and often find yourself cursing at the randomness of the results; you'll save yourself time, money, aggravation and, perhaps, even clients if you just buy (and read) this book.

This is not a fluffy picture book.  It's not an overview.  It's an encyclopedic and detailed study of what makes your Canon camera and flash work together for best results.  But beyond the rigorous exploration of things electronic flashy it's a pretty good primer about lighting with small lights in general.

The photos are not "high art," they are working tools that visually describe the process and the results.  For one lighting exercise there may be a dozen very well captioned photos that take you along for the ride and show you step by step what he's talking about in the text.

There are no Nikon, Pentax, Sony or Olympus flashes covered in the book.  But even for non-Canon users there's a plethora of good information about lighting up the world with small flashes.

The book is weighty at over 300 pages and Mr. Arena's writing style is terse and choppy. Lot's of sidebars and little boxes with "tips" and "nerd words".  That's good when you want to dig in and learn a section at a time.  If you want to curl up with a good book and get into a cohesive narrative you're barking up the wrong tree.

I just had a moment of Satori!  What Mr. Arena has done is to write the ultimate owner's manual.  The owner's manual we all wish we had gotten with our flash gear (and specifically our Canon flash gear) when we bought the stuff.  This book is maniacally detailed and well researched.  It's dense and packed with examples and information.

Disclosure and final word:  Don Giannatti (lighting genius)  told me about this book.  I asked for a review copy.  The publisher sent me one.  Free of charge.  After reading the book over two days I can honestly say that if I didn't get to keep the book (which I do) I would run right out and buy it.  I learned ten new things about the Canon flashes and the way they work with different Canon cameras.  And everything I learned is cogent to my work.  


A now a break in our regularly scheduled ranting to just show a portrait.

I like taking portraits better than just about anything else I do.  I was very happy to be asked to create portraits for a well respected public relations firm, late last year.  They had some fun, playful images that a photographer did for their website but they also needed something for presentations to more visually conservative clients.

I went on location to their offices to make images of their entire staff.  We scheduled two days to do about 25 people.  I used a 6x6 foot white diffusion scrim over to the subject's right side.  A 600 watt second Profoto monolight bounced into a 60 inch softlighter 2 umbrella was the light source.  It sat back about four feet from the diffusion scrim to help spread out the light.

I used a smaller Profoto monolight on the background with a small softbox mounted on the front and a layer of extra diffusion over the front of the box.  That light was set up about five feet from the background and about 20 feet behind my subject.

My fill to the opposite side was a small white card at least five feet away and sandwiched between two big black panels.  I wanted to control bounceback as much as possible.

I shot each person on both the Canon 5D2 and the Kodak SLR/n to see which one I liked better.  In most cases I liked the Kodak better.  In some cases the Canon.  But seriously, they both created files that were sharp and easy to work with.  At a certain level my preference was just a matter of taste.

I love doing portraits.  If I could choose any job in the world it would be taking portraits........

A nice quote I read on Michael's blog.....

'This quote from painter/photographer Charles Sheeler comes to mind: "Isn't it amazing how photography has advanced without improving?"'

(from an article by Charles Cramer, here.)


Superbowl Sunday and the retro camera adventure.

Most things start out sounding pretty fun and sensible when the ideas first rattle around in my brain.  And that's probably what happened on Saturday.  I was in a camera shop and one thing led to another and the next thing I knew I was walking out with a bag that had one Canon 1dmk2 and one Canon 1dmk2N, a couple extra batteries and a charger.  It was the charger that scrambled everything.  The used 2N body I really wanted didn't have a charger while the older model did.  Long story and much bazaar haggling later it all came together as one transaction.  

Why the hell did I do that?  Well.....since the sinister dark energy of advertising shoved me and dragged me to the Canon side for pro cameras I've done the nerdiest thing possible and read up about their digital cameras.  In detail.  Engineer/English major detail.  Left handed detail.  And I had the idea that I'd really like to play with the 1D series of cameras.  See if the bodies were as fun and bulletproof as my Canon shooting friends led me to believe.  If I like them I'll keep them and offset the $$$ by consigning my 60D and a few EFS lenses.  At least that's my rationale. But.....

Couple dancing at Jo's Coffee Shop, outdoors in the middle of the afternoon.  Warm weather in Austin can be so romantic.  Especially in the middle of February....

.....Before I could make any pronouncements, use the cameras on paying jobs or talk about them to other people I had to take one out for a spin and get my greasy fingers all over it and abuse it.  Then I had to drag the files back to my little computer and see what transpired.  That's what we're talking about right now.

I knew that the young singer and muscian, Ruby Jane, was giving a concert at Jo's so I headed over with the 2N and the compact 50mm macro 2.5 in hand  I stayed just long enough for a small coffee and an oatmeal cookie....and to take a few shots with the camera.

The screen on the back is primitive even in comparison with $400 cameras in 2011, and it was interesting to take a time travel trip back to 2005's reality.  The screen can't really be counted on for color  or exact tonality but the histogram reads out in all three colors so critical exposure information is still at one's fingertips.

The only way to be stealthy with a camera this big is to be un-stealthy and emanate the idea that what you're doing is routine, non-exceptional and part of the scene.  Within minutes everyone ignored me and went on with real life.

I liked shooting with the 1dmk2n.  It reminds me of one of my favorite Nikon cameras, the D2hs.  They are big and solid and have uranium-like mass.  Great as a platform for lenses but kinda sucky for walking around.  Camera with lens and battery is something like 3.5 pounds.

Regular Austin guys hanging out at Jo's on a sunny, mid-70's Sunday afternoon.

While I was shooting the only feedback I had was the screen.  I was right to trust the histogram.  The screen is too bright (I'll adjust that) and I keep having the compulsion to dial in some negative exposure compensation to.....compensate.  But in addition to the histogram I have a platinum level kirkogram that's the result of using manual, non-metered cameras for the last thirty years.  I also know the "sunny sixteen" rule and if there was ever a day when using that knowledge was a slam dunk it was today.  On screen, back in the hallowed halls of the VISUAL SCIENCE LAB headquarters the files look the way they are supposed to look.

But......I'd been slamming around with the Olympus EPL2 for the last month and the jpegs out of that camera were like delicious candy.  I was used to not having to lift a finger to get really pleasing color.  Now, that color wasn't always accurate but very pleasing.  The Canon 1dmk2N, shot in RAW takes a different tack.  It seems to be all about accuracy.  If you shoot in open shade the file WILL have a blue cast.  The color out of camera is less saturated.  The files not quite so finished. 

This is counterbalanced by the malleability of the raw files.  They take direction well.  Want more vibrance or saturation?  Dial it in during "post" and you'll get the look you want.  Dial in sophisticated sharpening and noise reduction and you're at least on par, at 1600 ISO, with the files you'll get out of a 7D at the same setting.  

Austinite at Jo's sitting ten feet from the live music texting with intense concentration.

When it comes to the stuff the camera is supposed to do well it really does. The two things I was expecting were great AF and fast frame rate.  After 30 seconds of playing with the 8.5 fps I set the camera in single frame and got on with my life.  As for AF, set in my default (center sensor, lock and hold) it snapped to attention with the first pressure on the shutter button and locked focus so fast I didn't even know what I wanted to focus on.

The camera is an odd mix of Sumo wrestler and ballerina.  It's thuggishly hardened but also fast and graceful.  I don't plan on slamming it around.  I'm not very brutal with my gear and never have been. But it does feel nicely sturdy.  

The real performance testing will be at a dress rehearsal for Zach Scott that I'm shooting on Tues. night.  I haven't quite decided on all my gear but I'll take these two new (used) cameras with me along with the 35mm f2 and the 85mm 1.8.  I'll probably add a 135mm just for grins.  Even with a 1.3X magnification of angle of view (in comparison with a full frame camera) I won't need anything shorter than the 35.  That's pretty much a sure thing.  I may bring along a 70-200 just to make sure.  I hope I can shoot everything with primes.  Will 8 megapixels be enough?  Well, we used to do it with 4 megapixels and we've got walls of 16 by 20 color prints and posters from those files hanging around the Theater.  I think with 8 megapixels of really big, fat, high quality pixel power we'll be just fine.

So, why the retro insanity?  If you're new to this blog you are probably bewildered.  If you've been here for a while you know that I love the cliche:  "Variety is the spice of life."  I also am of the belief that cameras from only five years ago are much better performers that our benevolent overlords at Canon and Nikon would have us believe.  They, and DPReview, have a vested interest in getting us to turn over gear as quickly as possible.  When I read the DPReview of the 1Dmk2 from late 2004 they bandied about the phrase: "Is this the best digital camera in the world?"  They thought it might be.  Could things have really changed so profoundly since then?

Yes.  It's true.  Files have gotten much bigger.  Now the 5Dmk2 I've been shooting with for the past year has 21 megapixels to choose from.  And yes, the screens on the backs are getting so, so much better and more accurate.  And if you must shoot at ISO XXXXX I'll have to admit progress has been made.

But not much has changed since 2005 to create demand for these new powers.  Most of us are still shooting ultimately for website and blog use.  Most print use is for smaller sizes or on crappy, uncoated or budget matte paper.  And I still own studio lights that allow me to pick and choose the best ISO for the job at hand.  At about $600 a body these two cameras together, with batteries set me back just a tad more than the 60D I bought a few months ago.  And I'm convinced that, for 90% of what you and I do they are still as "earth shattering" as the day DPReview got weak in the knees just talking about them.

But the bottom line is that it's really just about showing up.  Being where the pictures are.  Capturing them in your style and with your taste and insight.  These gear asides are fun because we can all talk somewhat objectively about stuff that can be measured.  But really, using them is what's important.

I sure hope no one out there mis-interprets this blog and starts a run on the used DSLR market.  At least not until after I've got my hands on a mint 1DS and a 1DSmk2.  I'm sure I'll find one of each for less than the price of a discount 5D2.  I've got my eyes open.  What do you expect from a guy who still shoots with a Kodak DCS 760 from time to time?

I shot this furniture at the W Hotel this afternoon.  I want to see how the noise was at ISO 1600.  With the white leather ottoman and the shadow under the close chair I've got a full range of tones to look at.  My take?  Very granular noise patterns and very homogenous in both highlights and shadows.  Better than my old Nikon D2X at 400 ISO and it was a contemporary.

The biggest revelation to me today is how much I like the performance of the Compact 50mm Macro 2.5.  It's sharp and tasty.  From f4-f16 the performance is flawless on these old, old bodies.  And wide open it beats the pants off the "nifty fifty" and the 50mm 1.4 at the same f2.5 to f4 apertures.  It's my true "L" series 50mm lens and I'm proud to have bought a used one for a paltry $125.  

If I were still a Nikon shooter I'd be putting my nose in the air and talking about how much better my D3 was than anything else in its range.....but at the same time I'd be scrounging around looking for a couple of older D2h's or D2hs's because those things rocked.  I still like em better than all the stuff that came in between.  And they are now officially (via the sanction of The Visual Science Lab) collectibles.

One blog delivered under a super tight deadline.  Super Bowl starts in 15 minutes.  I mute during the game and the boy and I joke about how odd football is but we're riveted to the commercials and to the chips and dips.........Go Jets.  GOAL!!!!!


A casual and even tempered rant.

I don't know what it is about some hobbyists that sends me into a frenzy.  I think the thing that really chaps my ass is when a person goes out and buys all the latest, greatest photo stuff and then comes to me and whines about "not having anything to shoot."  "You're lucky," they say,  "You're a professional and you get to photograph really cool stuff all the time."  I laugh to myself and think about the job I had shooting garbage trucks.  Or the fast deadline magazine job of shooting the 300 pound IT guy in the tiny beige office with the last century computer tower and trying to make him look.....positively interesting.

The befuddled whiner packs every piece of gear he can into his oversized bag and heads out on a quest to find something, anything, that might interest him.  Every once in a while I'll do my walk with someone like this.  I made the mistake of doing so recently.  It was an eye-opener about the power of indecision and uncertainty. They were so busy choosing which lens to put on the body or which body to put over their shoulder that they walked right past subject after subject that would delight me.

Like the image above.  It's a flower in a vase in a fast food Sushi restaurant.  It's behind a glass window. The person I was walking with glanced at the window and walked on.  He saw an empty restaurant.  I saw the flower.  I moved in closer, shot at a wide focal length and a fairly wide open aperture.  I love this flower just as it is.  No need to head to PhotoShop to "spruce it up."

I saw this sign in the window of a downtown club and loved the insouciant trashiness of the whole thing.  I snapped a quick photograph for fun.  My hobbyist friend took this as some sort of cue that this was high art and blessed by the professional photographer in tow.  So he grabbed another camera body out of his bag and covered this poster with two different L series zooms.  He also bracketed.  Some hobbyists think "hot girl" = real photo.  Even if it's just an illustration.

By now I was trying to ignore the constant chatter about technique and which lens is sharper and what body has the best dynamic range and all the usual stuff.  We walked by this building and I was intrigued by the light on the bricks and the reflections in the windows.  I snapped a few frames.  It's one of the last ancient, two story office buildings in all of downtown.  My friend was mystified by my choice and kept on walking,  a big camera over each shoulder.

Finally we walked past a green construction fence on the way to the cars.  He was busy putting his cameras away.  The sun was sliding down and downtown was behind us now.  He didn't see much else he wanted to point his cameras at. I snapped away at this series.

He shook his head and made some remark along the lines of, "You should really take more time to look at the stuff that's online.  You'll know what's popular.  You'll never be able to sell this!"  We were supposed to go get coffee after our walk but I decided that I just wasn't in the mood.  He shoved his Canon 1D4 with his 24-70mm L lens in one part of a bag so big it would give an inferiority complex to a Samsonite Steamer Trunk and plunked his Canon 1DS3 with a 70-200 series 2 L lens in the other side and fidgeted with his fanny pack of gadgets.  

Then he finally looked over at my camera.  "Oh," he said, "That's your problem.  That's not L glass!." 
I was carrying around a Canon 7D and the little, dirt cheap, refurbished, $119 18-55 IS zoom lens.  "I don't see how you can shoot anything with that piece of shit." Was the last thing he said before he got in his car and headed off to an evening of post processing and vigorous Photoshopping.

He's right, of course.  It's impossible to do any good photography without spending tens of thousands of dollars.

I have a new rule.  I'll only walk now with non-photographers.  Should suit both of us fine.......

All photos shot this afternoon.  Yes.  We survived the big freeze.

Kirk Tuck Photographs Food At Jeffrey's. Works For Me.

I've been eating great food at Jeffrey's Restaurant for over 30 years.  When Austin was a smaller town Jeffrey's was pretty much the only dining establishment within fifty miles that didn't had chicken fried steak or hamburgers on the menu.  Like every temple of food they've made a few tiny missteps (nouvelle cuisine compounded by raspberry vinaigrette salad dressing)  along the way but it's pretty easy to say that they've been the high end dining destination for two generations of food savvy Austinites.  With very good reason.

I still remember some of the dishes that Raymond Tatum prepared for Belinda and me on any of our many visits during the "two-income-no-child" years which were so good that they actually constitute the "happy place" in my mind that I go to in times of stress.....  I proposed to Belinda there 26 years ago and we've celebrated many anniversaries and birthdays there as well.

So when the arctic winds whipped across Austin this past week and I got a bit of "cabin fever" I called the manager, Kate, and asked if I could come by and shoot some of their food for a new book I'm working on about lighting.  She was very gracious and offered up Thurs. afternoon, without hesitation.

While I'd eaten his incredible food I had not yet met the new chef, Deegan McClung.  He is an alum of Commander's Palace in New Orleans and honed his chops at Wink, Herbsaint and Uchi before accepting the kitchen helm at Jeffrey's.  I told him what I was looking for and he headed to the kitchen while I wrestled with some bags full of lights and stands.

Above is my basic lighting set up.  I'm using a Canon 7D on my favorite wooden tripod.  The 7D sports a 60mm EFS macro lens (which is wonderul, by the way).  The lighting is vintage me.   A big diffuser positioned as close to the subject as possible without being in the shot.  Two big, 500 bulb LED fixtures blowing light thru that diffuser.  A handy white "pop-up" reflector to the opposite side. And a wee little battery powered 160 bulb LED light used with its diffuser way in the back.  I love using a diffuser panel because I can skim light on it in so many ways and subtly change the feel of the light.  I can also angle it around its vertical axis to provide more or less tip light.  Very flexible lighting tool.

The little building Jeffrey's occupies is probably 50 years old but I had no fear of tripping any breakers because, together, the two A/C powered fixtures draw only 80 watts of power from the wall outlets.  Quite different from the days of thousand watt movie lights or 2400 watt second strobe packs and 4x5 view cameras.

Here's what the scene looks like from almost directly behind the camera:

This image is a little tighter and gives you a good idea of how soft and distinct the light is:

I always start with a "stand in plate" so I can get a sense for the real estate I'll be dealing with when the "hero" dish hits the table.  I wanted to be really tight on all of the dishes because I really like to see the ingredients in a way that's different from real life.  Here's my stand in plate:

The passive reflector on the opposite side of the camera from the diffuser and the light source is what controls the quality of the shadows.  Need more fill?  Bring the diffuser closer.  Need more drama?  Move the diffuser away.  There is no "correct" ratio or distance.  We make this up to taste as we go along.  Just like good chefs.  After half and hour of fussing with lights and comp I'm ready for the first dish and Deegan brings it out right on time.

It's a fabulous, spicy, rich quail appetizer!  And it looks so good on the plate.  The chef tells me which side of the dish is the "presentation focal point" and then leaves me in the darkened dining room to explore the dish however I want to.  So I do.  I move it and the camera again and again.  I'm looking for interesting angles and combinations of colors......

When I've thoroughly explored the dish (20 variations? Maybe 23) I put it on an adjacent table and start playing with the next plate size.  Did I nibble on that quail?  Would you nibble on a great, freshly prepared quail appetizer from a world class chef as you're setting up your next shot?  If you said, "No." you've missed out on one of the prime perks of photography.

As an aside I would say that the 60mm macro on the smaller sensored Canon is wonderful.  When you are this close to the food you need more, not less depth of field at your fingertips.  And this lens is very well behaved.  When I apply the lens profile to a file in Lightroom there's very little discernable change in the on screen image....it's that well corrected.

Next up is an incredible salad sourced mainly from locally grown produce.

I start wide and then I move in.  I have this salad from so many angles but I keep coming back to the photograph below because in a small encapsulation it describes the entire salad so well.  The lush, sharp goat cheese, nuts and vegetables.  There's always a temptation to crank up the saturation on shots like this but it never really conveys into CMYK print so I tend to aim for a more faithful rendition.....

We follow the salad shot with a shot of a Pate de Foie Gras.  I found the presentation wonderful, in person, but challenging to photograph.  Finding just the right angle and just the right elevation took a lot of trial and error.  I'll confess that I'm a bit out of practice and the chef is used to cooking and plating food that satisfies in the eating.  But I did the best I could and then I ate the evidence.

The final shot, though untraditional, is my favorite.  It shows the ingredients well and it's monolithically intriguing.  I racked the tripod all the way up and stood on a chair to get the image.  On every shot I set the camera's two second self timer.  I tried to squeeze the shutter release with a minimum of movement.  Most of our shutter speeds were in the "danger zone" between 1/8th and 1/25th of a second at ISO 200.

The final dish was a duck confit that was absolutely wonderful.

Two almost identical angles but a slight difference in elevation.  I wish the photos could transmit the aroma of this wonderful, crispy duck.  It was superb.

As soon as I finished shooting the duck I started breaking down the lights and the cameras and packing up.  It was five o'clock and the dining room needed to be set and ready for service by six.  My friend, Keith dropped by and helped pack up the duck.......

Shooting food for a top flight restaurant is pretty exciting if you are really into food.  I was able to step into the kitchen and watch the chef's technique and his fluid handling of his chef's knife.  I'll share the images with the restaurant, giving them a full set of totally retouched images.  I get to use the images in my upcoming book.  And you get a front row seat of the way I shoot food.  I learned a lot over the years from a NY food photographer named Lou Manna.  You might want to look at his books.

All the "behind the scenes" images were shot, handheld, with a Canon 5dmk2 and a 24-105mm lens.  ISO 3200.  Wide open.