A fun and simple shot for the Molly Ivins tribute play, Red Hot Patriot.

Barbara Chisholm as Molly Ivins in "Red Hot Patriot."  A play at Zachary Scott Theatre.  ©2011 Kirk Tuck.

We shot images for the opening of Red Hot Patriot earlier this year when it debuted on the Wisenhut stage at Zach Scott.  Because Molly Ivins is such a larger than life character in the history of Austin the play is being brought back for a longer run in the Zach Scott Arena stage.  We wanted new images to re-launch the Fall run.

I headed over this afternoon with a simple kit in the car:  Two small Interfit monolights with supplied reflectors, two shoot thru, white umbrellas, two light stands and a bag with a camera and three Zeiss lenses.  I set up a classic portrait light for the above frame.  One light from camera right positioned above and 45 degrees to the side, the other light from camera left, a little closer to the camera axis and set at one quarter the power of the first light.

I shot around 1/60th f 8 @ ISO 200 with the Canon 1Dmk2n and the 85mm Zeiss 1.4 ZE lens.  When I got back to the studio I looked at all the frames in Lightroom, selected this one to output as a jpeg with no changes in post.

We took an hour to set up and shoot about 300 different frames.  Barbara, the consummate pro, gave us a range of looks and expressions.  We got in at three, I was packed and heading home by four.  Some work is really straightforward.  It works best that way for everyone.

Why the 1Dmk2?  I have a split screen in there that works really well with manual focus lenses.  And I like the noise the shutter makes when it fires.....

Another hot week coming up.  Hope everyone around central Texas stays hydrated and cool.  Not a good week for a mid-afternoon run.

Watering dead grass.

Don't waste time reading this if you aren't interested in the commercial side of photography. 

We're in a stage two water rationing situation here in Austin, Texas.  That means we can only legally water our lawns once a week and only during proscribed hours.  And that makes a certain amount of sense given the extreme drought conditions we're living with.  My lawn couldn't make it on once a week waterings and, when we had a week of sustained high temperatures over 105 degrees with wind and no humidity large swaths of green gave up the ghost, lost the very last almost invisible remnants of green hue and....expired to light brown.  But today is my ordained watering day and I set up the sprinkler and doused the yard one more time.  A vague, irrational yet optimistic hope that the grass would be resurrected.  A Sunday miracle.

And while I was driving back from getting some coffee I started thinking about the logic and emotion of watering dead grass.  And I realized that's what commercial photographers have done for the last three years.  We've been watering dead grass.  Some of us having been hanging on to the original, profitable paradigm of photography by dint of sheer momentum and will power. Just when we're ready to hang it all up and get a real job (as opposed to owning a photo business) a project comes in and we move the can forward a few more feet.  But it would take a blind and deaf photographer not to realize that someone came in, stomped on our cheese and then scooped it up with a shovel and tossed it away.  And, unwilling to believe that markets can change so profoundly, we've been watering the dead grass.

Why do I say this?  Because I'm tired of giving pep talks to my peers (of all ages) about the idea that our markets will recover.  That a day will come when we'll saddle up and ride off to an exotic location with a juicy assignment and we'll send in our images while resting on our patios adjacent to our suites at a Four Seasons Hotel.   Better to face facts and move forward with a new plan than to play a waiting game with market inertia.  I talk to many, many photographers and what I hear back is this:  We're seeing more jobs coming our way in 2011 than we did in 2010 and 2009 but they are for much lower budgets.  And almost every job that comes my way comes with a demand for "all rights."  Clients have a million, no, make that billions of options, if their perceive that our prices are too high.  And most of those options live on the web and come with an ever declining price tag as the stock agencies rush to the bottom of the pricing barrel.  With real unemployment at around 16% more and more people have the leisure time to ooze into the business based on hours, days and weeks of trial and error to get a decent shot.  And with many on unemployment they rationalize that they have zero overhead and that any sale for any amount is a win.  And clients have no moral imperative to use us instead of stock or amateur work.  They answer only to their own CFO's and, ultimately, their clients.

So how have photographers continued to make a living?  Let's be frank.  There are still pockets of need for assignment photos.  CEO's still need to be photographed as do new products that come to market.  Pundits always point to niches like this to imply that, if only we worked harder at marketing we could all be filling these niches, but what's really gone is the vast foundational structure of entry level jobs and cash flow sustaining jobs that were part of a heathy industry.  Now, to make real money, you must be in one of two or three photo healthy cities, have a track record and a phenomenal portfolio and be mining a very narrow set of niches.  Or you diversify into related fields.  You teach workshops, write books, run digital printing labs, find a community college teaching job, learn to make coffee....

I personally know a number of photographers who worked for prestigious magazines like National Geographic and did six figure ad photography campaigns for national clients who know struggle to line up enough $300 headshots to pay for groceries.  These aren't people who needed to "up their game."  Their "game" is already higher than their closest competitors and still way over the heads of the rest of the market.  It's the clients who pulled the plugs.  It's the markets that surged in a different direction.  "Good enough and cheap enough" is the current credo.  Yes.  There are exceptions.

And for the last three years the consultants have been encouraging us to advertise.  To hire them for insightful consultations.  To send out the postcards.  To heave endless e-mail campaigns (assaults) over the transom.  And mostly to go out and do what we did when money was NOT a scarce commodity and clients were professional and appreciated good work at a fair price.  In short, they've been begging us to water the dead grass because they live on the run off.

I got an e-mail from the ASMP last week.  Instead of telling me about some new way to leverage my copyright they were informing me about a new workshop sponsored by the ASMP and presented by Blake Discher.  The basic message of the e-mail is that the workshop is about how to stop whining about your situation and go out and make the most of it. You could save the money and get a Nike t-shirt that says, "Just do it."  But that would be too easy.  The ASMP board seems to have a method for dealing with the recession and the stumble of our photo markets and that's to sponsor past and present board members in an endless series of workshops.  Basically they are joining the chorus nudging people to water the dead grass.  Blake has so far been the ASMP's expert on SEO, web marketing and now whining cessation.  He stays busy travelling from ASMP city to ASMP city with the message that all can be healed if we can just market smart enough and aggressively.  Good advice in healthy market.  But for huge swaths of the country?  Just watering the dead grass.  And what purpose does the workshop serve?  It's a Potemkin Village for the ASMP.   Like a doctor with a terminal patient trying to look as if they're doing something constructive.

If we remain in this holding pattern the most we can expect is a further dilution and fragmentation of the imaging industry.  The real secret is that our country has to get back to work.  We have to start inventing, making, marketing and selling products again.  We have to put people back to work.  We have to give retailers a reason to advertise in print and other media.  We have to stop believing idiots who would have us all working for free. We have to pull together and educate the kids coming up behind us in basic business so they understand the tremendous value a customer can derive from an artful image, well used.  We have to understand the value we add to advertising budgets.  We need to start positioning ourselves as creative partners, not photo day laborers for hire.  We have to help everyone understand the real costs of being in business and of doing business.

Only then will our marketing efforts be anything more than watering the dead grass.

So, what to do while the ground lies fallow and waits for a break in the drought?  And we have no way of knowing whether or not the rain will come again.  Or if our landscape will return to desert.

There are no guarantees in life.  No one promised that our jobs would maintain their form and value through a lifetime.  We'll scramble to find the niches.  We'll broaden our offerings.  (although I still remember the disastrous attempts of hordes of photojournalists to jump into the, at the time burgeoning, wedding market and survive a radical course change) and broaden the demographics of our offers. And we'll start building up other skills.  I'm lucky.  I can write books.  I have a book on LED lights coming out soon from a traditional publisher (Amherst Media) and I'm putting the finishing touches on my first e-book.  I write presentations.  I write scripts.  I've been modestly successful in investing.  But I know I'm not betting my future on a stupendous recovery of the traditional photo industry.

A note directly to working photographers:  Watering the dead grass is a waste of time.  If you're going to spend the time and money watering you'd better make sure you've planted some new grass seeds.  And that means thinking of new markets and new customers.  Anything else creates mud.

What I learned in my DSLR video workshop yesterday.

When you teach you always learn or re-learn new stuff.  Yesterday I taught a workshop about using DSLR cameras to do production video.  The class was a basics class so I had to make sure I got everyone up to speed on things like FPS, different file sizes, how ISO, f-stop and shutter speed work in concert and some straightforward stuff like that.  After we were all conversant on the day to day knowledge we moved into why you might want to use manual focus lenses on your shooting camera.

I showed them how camera operators sometimes use white tape on their lens barrels and mark various focus settings with china markers in order to do quick changes of focus between subjects at known distances.  But when we started this demo I wanted to show how the Canon AF lenses with USM have no hard stop at infinity and it makes them harder to do this method even though you can use them in manual focus mode.  We went back and forth between a Canon 24-105L zoom at f4 and a Carl Zeiss 85mm 1.4 ZE manual focus lens.  The camera (a D60) was tethered to a 50 inch HD TV screen with an HDMI cable.  While the class was interested to see the differences in operation between the two lenses I was just amazed at how much cleaner, sharper and more transparent the Zeiss lens was than the Canon.  It was night and day.  I understand that one is a zoom and one is a fixed focal length but once you've seen the difference I doubt you would ever want to go backwards.

We did a lot of work that involved moving the camera.  Looking at a handheld image on a big TV is a great way to show just how much shake even the steadiest person in the room has while trying to handhold.  And, or course, this translates to your still photo technique as well.  If you think not using a tripod isn't hurting your images you might want to put a middle focal length lens (50mm or 85mm) on your camera, line up a subject and trying handholding for even ten seconds.  When you review the footage you will become a tripod adherent almost immediately.  Even adjusting for my two cups of coffee that morning and the anxiety of getting ready for nine hours of teaching I was still the worst in the class.

In the segment about camera moving we dived into fluid head tripods and took turns trying to do a simple, jitter-free pan.  Even with a good quality head like a Manfrotto 501 or 504 HDV it takes practice to master even the basic moves.  And that was the point of the demo:  Gear won't help you become the master of good technique.  Every move takes practice.  We get spoiled shooting stills because nothing is supposed to move at the decisive moment, except maybe the subject.

We used the Cinevate 48 inch slider to do some parallel-to-subject camera moves and then mixed it up by putting the slider perpendicular to the subject.  Lots of interesting effects could be had by doing a "push" in toward the subject while simultaneously zooming in or zooming out.  We also used an Ikan shoulder mount and played with a Zacuto rig with focus follow rings and shiny counterweights.

After lunch we dived into sound.  If you think good clean photography is tough sound is exponentially harder to pull off.  We recorded with five different microphones so students could hear for themselves the different personalities of microphones and then we spent much good time experimenting with placement, and booming mics on poles.  After we mastered miking techniques we talked about treating rooms to compensate for areas that are too live or too "bright."  The bottom line?  Bring lots of blankets to absorb bright reflections off hardwood floors, saltillo tile floors and hard furniture.  Be ready to change the room to make the sound work.  Surprise of the day?  How well the little Olympus lav microphone for the Pen cameras does when compared to mics that are 6 times pricier.

The winners of the microphone contests?  The Rode Stereo VideoMic for all around sound and cost to price performance.  The ultimate in sound quality?  The Sennheiser  wireless ommi-directional lavalier mic.   We had discusssions about auto level controls versus manual level control for one and two person crews, how to monitor your mikes with today's cameras and how to use external digital audio recorders to do double sound.

Near the end of the day we went over basic lighting techniques.  On one hand we showed how to use the existing light and use small fixtures to improve and shape it.  On the other hand we turned out the room lights and lit from scratch to show how we go, step by step, in creating a lighting design that makes cameras look their best.  And subjects too.

I checked in with each student and they all were very happy and heading home to process what we'd spent the day teaching and learning.

What did I personally learn?

I like smaller classes where people can huddle around a big, very high def screen and watch and produce demos in real time.

I hate using video projectors for anything other than presenting to large crowds in big, dark rooms.

There will always be someone in the room who is compelled to bring up in discussion the biggest, priciest and most complicated piece of gear.  It's like:  How to drive a formula one car for someone who's still going with his learning permit.  We always have to acknowledge the commenter and then bring the discussion back around to our agenda.

That fixed focal length Zeiss lenses blow Canon zooms right out of the water, no matter what DXO might tell you......

That the D60 is a great video camera with a clean ISO 6400, an easy to use menu, a straightforward manual audio level control and a menu full of customization options.  Easily better that the 7D by dint of having manual audio level controls.  Don't get me started on the Canon 5Dmk2.  The video menu in that camera is a nightmare.

The D60 is my current recommended camera for either film makers or still shooters.  It's pretty darn good.  And, even though we used the camera as our demo machine (meaning it was on almost all day long) when I checked the battery this morning it still had a 30% charge left.  Amazing to anyone who remembers the early days of digital cameras with their notoriously weak batteries......

I learned that I love a class with a mix of students.  I had one ad executive, aged 61, that was out to master video to offer clients better work on YouTube and Vimeo.  He knew he needed to change and was being smart and proactive.  Our youngest attendee was a woman who's taking a year off from college to work with a bunch of friends on a documentary.  She took lots of notes and was happy to find some fixes for both audio and focusing problems that arise in the field.  Others were sales people from the camera store who wanted to better understand the products they sell and how they would be used in the field.  One was a photo assistant who has come to know that more and more of her clients also require an assistant who is conversant with video as well as still.  And one attendee is a dedicated photographer who is starting to get more and more requests for video as an adjunct to his traditional business.

I learned that I like doing workshops were someone else arranges for the space, brings most of the gear and does the "behind the scenes" production work.  Thank you Precision Camera.

Video is an interesting field and one in which most photographers have barely stuck a toe into.  We know have the tools of production.  We could make our own movies if we had the time and enough friends who want to help.  Now we just need to get the fundamentals down pat and find stories we really want to tell.  That's where the magic happens......

Having a plan and a script keeps you out of the #1 tank.