practice might not make perfect but it sure makes for a joyous and fluid rendition.

This is pianist, Anton Nell, on the new stage at Zach Scott.

This post is the 1,200th blog post written by me on The Visual Science Lab. I've been sharing my thoughts about life and photography here since 2009. I plan to continue to do so for the foreseeable future. Some of you are new to the site and some of you have been visiting regularly since nearly the beginning. I thought I'd catch up and let you know, at this milestone, what I've learned, what I want to learn and where I think photography, in general, is going.

First of all here is a recent image of your host and writer, Kirk Tuck:

It was taken in robot mode with one of my Sony a77 cameras set to smile detection.  Honest.  You can set these cameras to recognize when your subject smiles and then shot a frame. Or a ton of frames.  Just keep smiling and then frowning and the camera will keep blasting away. All silly business all the time...

While the photo business has been challenging over the last three years 2012 is finally feeling stable and, in my market, seems to be returning to a more natural rhythm of more and more assignments with less down time in between.  In the last month or so we've had good, substantial assignments from healthcare, technology, publishing and hospitality clients. I have my fingers crossed that we'll return to the smoother and more profitable times we enjoyed before the big bust hit in late 2008.

The business has changed. More and more stuff may be going to the web and in that arena the competition is fairly brisk but contrary to the predictions of the experts there is a growing resurgence in print production and direct mail and what this means it that images that will be sloshed large on nice paper, with good ink, have to meet certain quality standards and color reference standards that have all but left the curriculum studied by many newcomers to the market. We're seeing an  uptick in requests for images that will go on trade show displays as well as in nice brochures and, for the first time in three or four years we're seeing lots of demand for images that have to be lit well. Really well.

I'm happy everyone has run off and done the off camera, battery flash thing to the exclusion of all traditional lighting because it means clients will pay for stuff that needs to be lit up with large, +1000 watt second studio flashes firing into big softboxes and then massaged by light sucking modifiers and what not.  I did a job yesterday and in the old times it would have been considered a very straightforward thing: Make a photo of a group of 25 business people in an interior location. 

Last year the photographer the group hired showed up with a shoe mount flash and a belief that ISO 3200 solves all problems. One bounced flash off grey acoustic tiles on a 24 foot ceiling isn't quite the same look as 3,000 watt seconds of state of the art flash gear banging through three Chimera Lanterns, each hanging up over carefully designed groupings to make a dynamic shot. Cutters to keep reflections off back walls and nets to tone down foregrounds in pre-post-production (actual) shooting.  The results? Ecstatic clients with big time budgets.

I'm feeling a pendular swing back to more production and away from "good enough." I think that means companies have money again and they are starting to lose the fear of investing it on their brands.

But the change also means that more and more clients are really asking for video content.  Interviews, product demos, stuff to stick on the web, stuff to play in meetings and presentations, and all the rest. I enjoy delivering the content but I enjoy even more working in collaboration with good editors who can and want to take care of the back end.  This probably explains my current attraction to the Sony cameras I've been using, the a77's. They may not be as good as a $10,000 production video camera but for a hybrid tool they are pretty darn good.  And if, going forward, half of my billings are coming from leading clients through simple but very well lit and well crafted interviews then when choosing my shooting cameras I'll be weighting more and more of the buying decisions around not only their ultimate image quality but also their ability to help me make profitable motion content for already happy clients. If I were a hobbyist I would not give a crap about the video potential of a camera but as a working stiff I can't see how it helps me to be a purist and turn down synergistic and good paying work, just because the images move and people talk.

From a hobby point of view (and yes, I still consider photography my hobby as well as my vocation...) I see the gear getting more and more interesting now that companies have figured out how to make most stuff work well.  But I am unsettled by one trend that I think plays against our enjoyment of the work as art and that's the scarcity of opportunities to come together and share work face to face.  I'll admit it, I like shows of prints.  The bigger the better. And I want a chance to meet the artist.

Sure, we can put stuff up on Flickr and Google+ and just about anywhere else but that's hardly a serious venue for serious efforts. And so many in your hoped for audience are looking at the images you sweated bullets to get on little cell phone screens and iPads and older laptops. It doesn't do justice to most people's vision. And this kind of virtual sharing is so disconnected. So ephemeral.

What I'd love to see in every city and in as many neighborhoods as possible would be venues where interested artists could stage actual, real, physical shows and invite friends, family, colleagues and competitors to experience your work just as you intended it to be seen.  A while ago I did a show of prints from my favorite black and white negatives from Rome. As you probably know if you've been reading the blog for while I shot most of the images on medium format films.  One of the benefits of doing that is you can scale up prints to really large sizes without losing the integrity of your photographs. My show was in a small venue. A restaurant owned by a dear friend. We covered the walls with thirty by thirty inch images, surrounded by ample white mats in 48 by 48 inch black frames.

The images were big and crisp. I hand painted on some of them. I made patterns around the edges of others with oil paints and other media. You could get up close. We served good wine at the opening and made appetizers like bacon wrapped scallops and prosciutto wrapped melon. We did rustic pizzas. The party/opening attracted 250+ people over the course of a four hour evening and everyone paid at least glancing homage to the large prints around them.

More of that should happen. Not just for me but for everyone with a passion to make photographic work. The commitment of doing the show pushes you as an artists and the chance to come see someone else's work, made large, helps you bust out of some self imposed boundaries and opens your perspectives about what is possible and what is fun.

I highly recommend shows and a good way to stick your toes into the water is to put together a group show where everyone has the opportunity to put in up to three cohesive pieces and to share the cost of invitations, food and other gallery goodies.

When I'm not shooting and writing I am swimming and eating.  The eating is boring to read about but fun to do. Ditto with the swimming.  I have a set of swimming goals.  I have someone in my age group that I want to beat in a 50 meter butterfly race in October.  I want to keep improving my times and my skills but in the end I really just want to stay as fit as I can so I can beat my 25 year old assistants up the stairs with a case of photographic gear in both hands.

As we live through an interesting Photokina month it's important to remember that when I write about equipment that's coming out of Cologne and onto the web I'm doing it out of fascination not out of some misguided belief that we should own all of this stuff or use it all.  No one who is shooting with a currently good Nikon or Sony camera really needs to run out and replace it with the newest toy (unless they want to).  So when you read stuff about new products here don't get all bent out of shape and think you have to defend your personal choices.  There's so much good stuff on the market already just about any choice you make will be a good one. It's okay to marvel at innovation and progress.

But the most important thing for an artist it to practice and play all the time, just like pianist, Anton Nell.  Doesn't matter what piano he practices on what matters is that he practices. And the practice makes music.  And the music makes joy.  And it's no different for photographers.

I may want a Sony a99 but there's not much I can't already to with an a77.  Either way I go I'll still need to practice.

The bottom line is that I want to be a better photographer. Not a better technician but someone who can see clearly what it is they want to say.


Kirk Tuck said...

remember the guy who told me my posts are too long? In retrospect he may have been right. But there's no turning back now. I don't have time to go back and edit 1200 posts....

John Krumm said...

Nah, not too long. Sometimes they come in a big flurry and it's difficult to sift through them in one impatient sitting, but no biggie. I've finally been reading Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. Imagine if he wrote blog posts...likely just keep scrolling for days.

theaterculture said...

Long post, but a lot of great insight.

One thing I've noticed, that might relate to the swing back from "good enough" you're seeing in your business: I'm in my early 30s, and most of my friends are 25-40. A lot of us are starting to get to the point in our lives where we occupy positions of decision-making authority in our companies, school, and other workplaces, and for the most part we're a pretty visual-culture savvy generation.

My friend who is Communications Director for a small, slightly scruffy not-for-profit knows when she can call and offer me a couple hundred bucks to show up and take bounce-flash photos of an event full of teenagers, and when she needs to hit up a big donor for the cash to hire a real production company to do a promotional video. I know how to advise an acting student when the "friend with a dslr and small strobist kit" headshot will do the trick, and what calls they need to seek a genuine studio professional for. The generation just in front of us, a lot of whom (in my experience anyway, and present company almost certainly excepted) get stars in their eyes about anything "digital," often seem to think that ANYBODY young you hire will be a "digital native" able to endlessly pump out visual media that the rest of their peers will love on a shoestring budget....I get calls all the time from colleagues maybe 10 or 20 years older than me who know that I'm a photo enthusiast asking for photographic services that I can't really provide to the professional level they assume I'll be able to.

So I guess I'm just wondering, in overly-verbose fashion, if part of the swing away from "good enough" is also due at least in part to a new generation of image clients who are generationally more likely to understand the technological landscape and know when "good enough" is good enough and when they need to call Kirk Tuck?

atmtx said...

I just love your insights on the industry and its trends. Congratulations on your prolific 3 year old blog.

Paul Glover said...

There's no such thing as a too long post. Just too-short attention spans! ;-)

Frank Grygier said...

Happy Blog Anniversary! You make your living as a photographer and pursue the craft as artist but it is your writing that touches us all. Thanks for writing this blog.

Paul Glover said...

"And this virtual sharing is so disconnected. So ephemeral. ... What I'd love to see in every city and in as many neighborhoods as possible would be venues where interested artists could stage actually, real, physical shows and invite friends, family, colleagues and competitors to experience your work just as you intended it to be seen."

I've been feeling very disillusioned with the whole online sharing/networking thing of late. Sometimes it feels like the only way to gain any sort of traction in it is to spend an ever increasing amount of time flipping as fast as possible through an ever increasing volume of photos from an ever increasing number of contacts, making sure that everyone feels like they're getting their fair share of my time so that they will reciprocate and pay attention to my work. Then there's the niggling feeling that if I stop posting regularly, the internet following I *have* managed to build up will wander off, never to return.

I'm quite certain that's not how I want to do things. I'm thinking that local is the way forward.

Yes, it costs money to do that. Yes, it takes time and effort and actual engagement. And preparedness. I need to work on that last one especially, for opportunities which come my way. I've had a few such opportunities appear in the last year and had to pass up most of them because I've been stuck in this mindset of "the internet demands a constant stream of pixels, I must produce or die" and haven't been at all focused on making actual prints. That *really* needs to change.

Stephen said...

A Refreshingly honest and spot-on reflection of both the professional and art/hobby side of shooting. Practicing is absolutely the key ingredient (in all art forms....showing up and paying your dues is a precursor to magic.)

Thanks for your consistent advocacy of common sense. Now, if you would just run for office...

Steve J said...

People tried to get stuff on the cheap and realised that they got what they paid for. It takes a lot of knowledge and training to use serious lighting rigs, and almost no born-again wannabe has a clue. For a while it seemed like clients were happy to accept it, but when you consider the relative cost and the impression it makes of your company it's a false economy.

ChazL said...


Outstanding portrait of Anton Nell. The framing of the subject by the raised top and support, the subject's reflection hovering overhead at 90 degrees-- it all adds up to a wonderfully unique and dynamic composition. Well done.


Claire said...

Thanks for your consistent advocacy of common sense. Now, if you would just run for office...

How cool would that be ;) !?

Steve J said...

What, another Texan in the White House? Noooooo ;)

Michael Matthews said...

It's good to read about one positive climate change -- a business climate in which craft suddenly begins to matter once more.

Congratulations on hanging tough throughout the past four or five years. You're now the right guy in the right place at the right time.

One question has been lurking in the back of my mind for quite a while now. Perhaps you can explain. Sony and Canon have been making extraordinarily capable hi-def camcorders at relatively low price points for years. Seems like forever.

Why is it desirable, from a professional's standpoint, to have that same capability shoe-horned into a DSLR?

If it's reasonable to lug around lighting equipment, why not a dedicated video device? The tool specifically designed for that purpose?

Kirk Tuck said...

Agreed, NO..............!!!!

Kirk Tuck said...

I think a smart business person tries to minimize unnecessary capital expenditures. Before the DSLR cameras were totally hi-def video capable we looked at what it would take in terms of investing in digital video and said, "No way I"m going to spend another $10 on something I might only need occasionally." When they started building it into our cameras we owned the tools of production and could experiment all the time. Using the same body for both means one investment only in lenses. When you upgrade you are upgrading in both media simultaneously but paying only once. If you use a still camera all the time you get used to the controls, the finder and the feel. When you switch over to video you retain that comfort. Until recently using something like the Canon 5Dmk2 was one of the only ways to get a FF sensor in order to give greater control in video over DOF.

And, in the same way that I use LED panels more and more in my video and still lighting if I can distill the technique down to one set of tools I tremendously decreased my actual cost and my physical cost of carrying duplicated gear.

In the case of the new Sony camera at $2800 you're getting performance that equals anything you could buy in stand alone video at the same costs and the EVF and headphone jack, ability to use XLR connections means it might as well be a video camera.

Or you can buy the VG900 and use that as an all purpose video an still camera. The lines are blurring.

Some of the decision making is based on how you want to shoot. If I shot events that required long run times I'd probably go ahead and go with a video camera but that's not the market I want to be in. More important to me to be able to light once and shoot twice... Higher end project the better.

If I was shooting for a major broadcast project I'd make myself the producer/director, hire a camera person and rent the right gear for that job. Maybe a RED camera, maybe even an Alexa. But I'd take myself out of the operator or owner mix and hire a specialist. For everything else I'm more than happy even with the performance of my existing Sony cameras and before that even with a Canon 60D (although I now am addicted to the EVFs). Good question.

Kirk Tuck said...

for the above it should say, "No way I'm going to spend another $10,000 on something......"

Brad C said...

I appreciate your thoughtful, long posts. They are a stark contrast to the 140 character sound bites at the opposite end of the scale...

Kirk Tuck said...

Thanks for saying so Brad. I appreciate it.

Zac said...

I love your opening photograph, I think it is fantastic. I also love your comment that you consider photography your hobby as well as your vocation. So many things don't transition between the two very successfully for many people and it shows when they lose passion for either. Reading your blog for only the last couple of months I feel that you bridge the gap successfully and continue to produce phenomenal images whether for work or just walking the streets of your home town.

Being just a hobbyist this post has touched me a lot. Being that photography is a visual art I would be lying if I said I don't care if people see my photographs and its OK if they live on my hard drive forever. I feel compelled to share my images with friends to see what feelings they respond with...even if disliked. But I can't remember the last time I printed something.

I've been posting them to facebook and 500px but it feels demoralizing when the images I worked on get lost in a sea where images are as ubiquitous as molecules of water. Then, I end up with some number of views and a very small proportion of likes and comments. All I was really seeking after all was for someone to acknowledge that one of my photos elicits as much feeling (positive or negative) from them as it did from me when I made it and spent time to process it to meet my vision.

Prior to this post, I was already thinking more and more of making some fairly large prints of a select few and finding a local venue where I can show them to a smaller subset of MY community and MY friends. Somewhere that if they really hate my photos they will tell me to my face why, and if they love my photos we can discuss the process and the thoughts.

I do have to admit though, this seems like a daunting task to someone who has never done.

I love the niche you have carved out here on the web and most of your reviewers seem to love the long posts and respond with equally verbose comments. Keep up everything you do!

Michael Matthews said...

Far better answer than question.

As I've never used a contemporary DSLR video camera, my grasp of their sophistication is sorely lacking. I didn't know that they could provide smooth zooming with follow focus, for example. Shows how fully I've aged out of reality.

And you're certainly right about renting gear and hiring crew. That Swedish video you linked to earlier, PressPausePlay, quietly made that point. Although it was about the extended reach digital technology gives the individual artist the credits at the end showed the video itself was the collaborative effort of an enormous number of specialists.

Jessica Sweeney said...

Ok, you've convinced me. Having a show would be really fun. Now how to make it all happen and put it together . . . .

Anonymous said...

Freaking brilliant.