Working in an Operating Room. How many pixels do I need?

Canon 5Dmk2, 24-105mm.

I spent two days at a hospital in San Antonio and shot a bunch of stuff. This is a set up shot in an operating room. I used a Canon camera and lens and shot with the lights in the room.  The biggest issue is the wide range of light from the hot spot on the "patient's" chest to the shadow areas on the anesthesiologist. The 5Dmk2 was a nice camera.  A bit clunky, but nice.  All the cameras I've played with in the last year are up to this kind of work.  Most of it will go in brochures and on the web.  Nothing will go up bigger than 9 by 12 inches.  Makes you wonder what we're chasing and why when we get into that megapixel fixation and slap the credit cards down.

I made an observation back in 2009 that more and more of our work would be going to web advertising (ignore this if you never sell your work and are making large prints for your own pleasure....).  At the time the big screens were almost 2000 pixels by something. I made the suggestion that all the cameras we were using at the time were capable of satisfying those needs, handily.

Now we've got Apple introducing Retina screens into everything and all of a sudden we're about to grapple with 2500 pixels wide by something.  But last time I checked that's still within the technical scope of a 12 megapixel camera.  Maybe our current cameras (especially the 24 megapixel ones) are relatively protected from obsolescence for while longer.  I guess we'll see.
Funny to hear all the gnashing of teeth and pounding of chests about the D800 given that all the examples we've seen so far are only a couple thousand pixels wide....

My favorite camera today?  Strange choice.  It's the Olympus EP-3 with the Panasonic 14-45mm lens on the front. VF-2 is always implied.  It's bright and sunny here.  ISO 200 is fine.  I'd use 50 if the camera had it....

The perfect summer. The perfect day.

I don't know what the "perfect day" looks like to you but to me it's never the big banner days of giant projects, wild celebrations or "once in a lifetime" events.  I've come to enjoy days that don't revolve around breathlessness and adrenaline.  I like small pleasures that have the promise of being repeatably enjoyable. I prefer the quiet and personal photograph to the big production. I prefer simple to complicated and I like my aesthetics clean and uncluttered by the make-up of the moment.

I may be having the best Summer of my life.  And today is an example of one of the best days of my life. I would have shaken my head in disbelief if I'd found myself saying something like this a few years back. I was caught in the relentlessness of being relentless.  Always busy. Always scheduled. Always moving. This Summer is a slow one for my business. I don't have a publisher's deadline to goad me. I'm not booked on lots of small, busy jobs. I'm just coasting in commerce and savoring the downtime.

My June days have been spent in the relative luxury of laziness.  Not a "do nothing" laziness but a "do fun stuff" kind of laziness.

Yesterday was my idea of my ideal.  I got Ben (my teenage son..) up at 6:30 am, we both drank big glasses of water and had a spoonful of local honey.  I drove him to Barton Springs Pool where he met up with the other members of his cross country team for a nice two hour run.  I turned the car around and headed to the Rollingwood Pool, just a mile away, and was in the water with my swim friends--coach on deck--by 7:00 am.  We pounded out about 3000 yards and in between sets we watched the most beautiful clouds swirl in three directions, three layers deep across the blue sky.

After workout I put individual envelopes containing 147 portraits of the Rollingwood Waves Kid's swim team (and team pictures)  into their folders at the pool so their moms and dads could pick them up when the kids came to practice.

Then I headed back to Barton Springs Pool to pick up Ben.  It was a warm day and we had nothing pressing on the schedule so Ben's crew all jumped into the pool to cool down the road miles.  I sat in the shade of a giant cottonwood tree and read a chapter from a book I'm reading on Creativity.  After the swim we headed to P. Terry's, an Austin style, drive through organicky burger joint to get breakfast sandwiches of scrambled eggs, cheese and sausage, chased down with Ruta Maya coffee.  Ben and I sat at one of the robin's egg blue picnic tables enjoying the breakfast and watching the amazing swirl of cloud ballet against the blue of the sky.

I dropped Ben at Jack's house.  They're working on some sort of project.... and I headed in to the studio to check on e-mail and phone messages. Nothing life or death.  I made few phone calls, addressed a few post cards, sent out some gratuitous e-mail and called it a day.  In the early afternoon I picked up Ben and we met my photographer friend, Paul, at the Whole Foods flagship store for lunch.  We had an odd mix of sushi and barbeque.

In the afternoon Ben slogged through another novel and I went horizontal on the couch to finish reading about creativity.  The dog curled up on my feet and snored softly.  I did a load of laundry.

Later in the day Ben's friends came over to play video games and horse around.  I retreated into the studio to read all the crazy stuff on the web.  Then Belinda came home.  We opened a bottle of Stag's Leap Artemis wine and made dinner.  We sat down to Sopa de Lima and quesadillas just as the last magenta slash of sunset kissed the sky.

I could worry about business but I've come to realize that there will always be an ebb and a flow and I can always make myself busy with a book or a project if I want to. But I only have two years left before Ben goes off to college and spending the Summer with him makes me feel like a billionaire on my own private island.  I'll get back to the business of photography just a little later...

The photo above sums up the pleasure of photography for me. A small group of us were lazily taking images along the banks of the Pedernales River.  We were all wading in and out of the running water.  I asked my model to close her eyes and feel the laziness of a hot Summer day and then I photographed here with an film SLR and a 180mm lens. No schedule, only a hazy agenda and all the time in the world.  If you chase it too hard you might never catch it...


Have we hit the point where photographs don't have to be sharp?

This image started life as a kind of accident. That was part of the beauty of film, sometimes you made mistakes and discovered that you liked the look of the mistake more than the initial intention.

When photography started to be practiced in earnest it allowed painters to stop trying to accurately reproduce subjects.  The need for verisimilitude vanished, taken over by the new medium. Now that stock photography can provide for straightforward documentation of just about any subject under the sun does that free photographic artists to transmute their reality to correspond to a new aesthetic? A new mindset of creation?

There's so much I love about the photo above. The obscuring of the right side of her face, the bold, graphic, black shadows that run at diagonal through the frame. The look of surprise and disbelief on the subject's face.  The belt buckle echoing here lone visible eye.  The way one side of the subject's blouse is lighter than the tone of the background while the other side is much darker.  And finally, the undulation of tones across the otherwise flat background.

The photograph seems to pose a question with no answers.  It works not as an information conduit but as an freestanding object where the graphic patterns and contrasts are at least as important as an inventory of the content.

Harder to define.  More fun to look at.  All this image needs is a manifesto....


Hot lights. Fun lights.

Hot Lights.  Fun Lights.
by Kirk Tuck

Written and then lost before posting nearly two years ago.  Finally resurrected for your consideration.....

A few days ago Michael Johnston, the writer/owner of a website called www.theonlinephotographer.com,  proposed a “new” learning exercise to master photography.  He suggested that the best way to learn is to buy a Leica rangefinder camera (film version) with one lens.  He suggested a 28mm, 35mm or a 50mm lens.  My choice would always be the 50mm but then I see everything in that focal length.  He further suggested using only a 400 ISO speed black and white negative film like Kodak’s Tri-X or Fuji’s Neopan 400.  His theory is that the finder is unexciting so the photographer must previsualize what he wants to shoot.  The film is a standardization so that one doesn’t spend time spinning wheels with too many choices.  The limited focal length choice teaches exactly what one will get in the frame every time.

Michael estimates that one should do the exercise with only the one camera, lens and film type for one year and that a photographer will learn an incredible amount about photography.  Since that’s basically the way I learned (out of student budget necessity) I’m inclined to agree that it’s a wonderful way to learn the craft.  And I would go further and say that if you are unsure about your skills in using a flash or doing lighting in general you might consider my lighting exercise.

I’m suggesting that you bag the flash altogether and get your hands on a basic hot light.  Believe me, you won’t be breaking the bank.  I’ve used Lowell DP lights and a bunch of other 650 watt to 1,000 watt hot lights from a number of makers and find that as long as you satisfy a few parameters just about anything will work.

Get a light like the Lowell DP, the Lowell Omni, a Smith Victor or any other fixture that has a way of focusing the beam of light it throws out and also has the ability to easily use a four way barn door attachment.  Make sure it uses quartz halogen lights and NOT photofloods (which have a very short life and quick color temperature decay).  If you really feel broke just head down to the discount hardware store and get a cheap set of work lights.  They won’t focus and you’ll have to make your barndoors out of Black Wrap (heavy duty black aluminum foil) but you’ll likely be able to press them into service for what I have in mind.  If you have money to burn you might want to look at getting a Mole Richardson 650 watt fresnel spot or an Altman or Arriflex 650 watt fresnel spot.  The glass lens on the front helps to focus the beam of light without adding any sharp edges.

Once you’ve got the light start over from scratch and learn to light again with the continous hot light.  The overwhelming reason is that you will see what you are going to get.  The light is the light.  If you’ve worked with flash, even with units that have great modeling lights, you know there is always a big difference between what you see before you click the shutter and what you actually see after the blast of flash freezes time.  The balance between ambient light and flash is always a mystery no matter how many times you’ve set up flashes and lit things.  You’d be lost without an LCD screen or a Polaroid.  Admit it.

But the beauty of the hot lights is that you really do get what you see.  If it’s beautifully lit it’s beautifully lit.  If you’ve got a mix of ambient light and hot light you can instantly see the relationship.
I think it’s best to start over and go through the steps to see how light really bounces around and reflects off stuff.  How little changes in angles and placement can make a big difference and how the continuous light allows you to instantly see all these relationships without even having to fire up your camera.
First things first.  Put a person in a chair and bounce your hot light off a high white ceiling.  Then really look at how the light cascades down that person’s face.  Next, take that light and bounce is off a white side wall and see how the shadows change.  Use a king size white bed sheet as a giant diffuser and see exactly how that light affects your subject.  And keep going until you’ve experimented with this one hot light in every possible permutation.

What you’ll find is that every tool limits it’s user.  It’s hard to drive a nail with a screwdriver and it’s hard to screw in a Phillips head screw with a hammer.  The little flashes you might be used to using seem to call for a harder, more concentrated approach to lighting.  The lust for portability drives most of us to use very lightweight and easily transported equipment.  This drives us to use smaller umbrellas, use smaller stands and less accessories.  The limited power of battery operated flashes pushes us to make decisions about placement and much more.

Studio flashes bring another set of potential restrictions:  We use them near power outlets.  We still don’t get “What you see is what you get lighting”  and even at low power we don’t always get to use the exact apertures we might want to use.  And here’s something else to think about....with flash you set up the lights and camera then you make an exposure and then check the exposure on your screen.  If you don’t like what you see you have to change something and then go throught the whole process again.  Certainly, pros who’ve done this stuff for decades will be able to do it faster than newbies but the disconnect between what you are seeing and what you want to see remains.  Lighting with flash is this amazingly iterative process that proceeds by fits and starts.

Hot lights make the whole process more elegant.  You can watch the light on your subject AS you move the hot lights and you’ll see every change of shadow and reflection.  If you decide to bring in a reflector to fill in a face on the opposite side of your subject you’ll be able to actually SEE those light ratios change.  And while it’s a learning process to interpret what the camera will finally render you’ll be more integrated into the flow of the process with hot lights.

Understand that I’m not advocating dumping your flashes and going back to the 1950’s with big movie lights dotting your studio.  I’m advocating using a hot light as an exercise or workshop because, if you are like me, and you’ve been doing this for a number of years you’ve learned to make accommodations and short cuts with flash and you’ve stopped really looking at the light.  You know how to get an effect because you’ve done it over and over again.  But the hot lights let you see it fresh each time because it’s not filtered through the process of “shoot, look, change, shoot.….”   And we haven’t even touched on how easy it is to incorporate a sense of motion into your images with the long exposures that hot lights encourage.

If you are new to lighting this little exercise can be an amazingly revealing shortcut that’s as cogent to learning as the LCD screen on the back of your camera.  And you can add additional lights by pulling the high intensity lamp off your desk or adding a regular lamp into a background.

If most of your lighting is outdoors in the high sun this is not an exercise for you.
The attached photo(s) were done with two hot lights.  One is positioned to the left of the shooting camera.  It’s a 1,000 watt Profoto ProTungsten light aimed thru a 78 by 78 inch white scrim.  The second light is a little 300 watt spot light aimed on a background about 25 feet behind the subject.  There are several things we haven’t touched on that I love about doing these portraits with continuous light.  First,  with ISO 800 in a D700 I can have my cake and eat it too.  I get smooth, grain free files with shutter speeds in the range of 1/125th of a second to 1/180th of a second at f4 or f5.6.  This means that when a great expression comes along I can lean on the shutter button and grab some great frames at 6 or 7 frames per second.  Second, working with hot lights means I can go anywhere I want on the aperture scale with impunity.  All I need to do is change my shutter speed so that the overall exposure stays the same. This makes shooting wide open at f2 or even f1.4 a snap.  Getting to the same spot with studio flash is a whole can of worms (and in many cases woefully ugly mixed lighting.…)

The photographs are of actors at Zachary Scott Theater.  Over the course of four days in May we photographed nearly sixty people for a season brochure.  The images included theater patrons, board members, community supporters and even staff.  My lighting design changed with each category of sitters.  Some were done on white backgrounds.  Some on canvas.  My intention in using hot lights for this project was to make the images softer and to have very shallow depth of field within the frame.  The continuous source works so well with sitters as there are no blinks from anticipating the flash.
I have another project in mind where I’d like to use all florescent fixtures ( or LEDs)  but that’s something I’ll talk about in a future column.

If you have the opportunity be sure to give the hot light exercise a shot.  Everyone learns something new with the lights on.….

Window Light in the Early Evening. Some thoughts about scanners.

Scanned from a Kodachrome. Shot on a Canon film Camera with one of the 
First Tamron SP normal focal length zooms.  Something like a 35-80mm.
Scanned on a cheapo flatbed scanner.

I'm going through old slides and making scans for myself. I've owned Nikon dedicated film scanners (both medium format and 35mm) and I've had plenty of film drum scanned but for some reason I prefer to do my own stuff on a cheap, non-prestigious, Epson flat bed scanner.  We're talking here about a scanner that currently sells for around $180.

The machine is smaller than other scanners I've owned and sits on the right hand side of my desk in a constant state of readiness.  The machine's full name is Epson Perfection V500 Photo.  It won't scan 4x5 inch film but will do most conventional medium format formats and it will scan 35mm transparencies and negatives.  Film  holders are supplied for 120mm film and 35mm film in most of its permutations.

The slide above was taken in mixed light.  It's a Kodachrome 64 slide. How difficult and time consuming is it to make an image like the one above?  Let's see.  I put the slide holder on the glass surface of the scanner.  There's guide indention on the scanner body that matches up with the holder. Very straightforward.  The slide holder has four squares in which to drop your slide, still in slide mount. Close the top, open the Epson scan software, click in the film type (trans or neg; color or black and white) decide on the bit depth you need (24 or 48) determine the size you'd like the the image to end up at (dimensions and DPI) then hit preview.  You can zoom in on the image in the preview window.  Once you see the image large you can more accurately crop and adjust.

I go into the curves menu and set the white point and black points on the represented histogram.  If the color needs to be tweaked I go into the color adjustment menu and play around with the R, G, & B sliders till I get what I want.  There are also menus for saturation, contrast and exposure.  In the curves menu I can also set how I want the toe and shoulder of the film to look = soft, rounded curves or straight overly accurate curves.

When I have everything hunky dory in the different corrections menus I go back to the main menu and set the amount of unsharp masking I want and whether I want the canned "color restoration" to kick in.  Then I hit "scan."

I can't use the Digital Ice dust removal with traditional black and white film or with Kodachrome slides. Something to do with the physical topology of the film so I leave these controls unchecked.  It does mean that I'll inevitably be doing some retouching to the files to remove dust spots before I use the images.  So, a straight scan of a film from a slide done at 6000 by 4000 pixels (final size) takes about three minutes.

I hear all kinds of nonsense from people about what's needed  for good scans.  There is a camp that believes flat bed scanners are incapable of doing usable work.  There's another camp that's seen good scans from flat bed scanners but believes that you need to pull slides out of their cardboard mounts and coat them with oil before you can get a good scan and then there's the group that believes the scanners may be usable but only when paired with really good and really expensive software.  Almost as though you have to pass an initiation to join in the cult of scanning.

I don't fall into any of those camps.  I routinely scan all kinds of stuff on the Epson and I'm always able to use the output to deliver jobs or to make prints from it for shows and portfolios.  If you are unable to get a good scan on an Epson V500 or V700 I believe you might be over-thinking the process.  The most important thing is to explore the software thoroughly and trust your perceptions.

The native resolution of the scanner is 4800 dpi.  That means a full scan of a medium formatsquare negative or trans scan is 12,000 by 12,000.  And you can make that scan as a 48 bit file if you are willing to save it as a Tiff.  But I'll tell you right now that this will be one monstrously big file....

If my math is correct you should be able to generate a medium format scan that measures 40 by 40 inches at 300 dpi.  That's pretty darn good.  35mm scans clock in at about 7200 pixels and can make a print, at native resolution of the scanner, equal to 16 by 24 inches at 300 dpi.

My needs aren't that radical and my expectations are that the machine will deliver files for good display of 35mm stuff on the web or on an iPad while the files from medium format film will be good for prints up to 20 by 20 inches. Given that I've been sharing images with you for years which come from this scanner, without any complaints on my part or on your behalf I'd say I'm get pretty good performance from a $180 device that comes with its own software drivers.

I have used Silverfast and VueScan and I like the bundled Epson software best. The other two may be wonderful for people who are really, really interested in scanning and it might get you an extra one or two percentage increase in quality but I'm happy with the straightforward simplicity of Epson's solution.  I am running it on OS 10.7.4 on a MacBook Pro.  Takes a couple of minutes to launch and then it's fast and crash free.

The scanner will allow you to load four mounted slides for scanning and let you preview the four, crop them, color correct and size each on individually and then allow you to batch scan all four without mediation.

If you have a big inventory of  MF slides, can't afford to just dump them on the desk of a scanning supplier and write a check, and are mostly interested in printing and sharing the images you should look at a machine like this one.  If you need ultimate image quality for a big ad client you'll be better off having service drum scan your image.  At least then you've covered part of your ass when people start looking for who to blame in the production phase.

In all seriousness though,  I used to hear that clients would never use digital images from digital cameras for XXXX reasons.  Then I heard the same thing about cheap scanners.  But I've got to tell you it's just not true.

Here's the drill:  launch app > install correct film holder > choose film type > choose preview > Choose zoom > crop > color correct >  choose size (geometrical) and bit dept (24 or 48)  > engage restore color  (matter of taste) > push scan.  A window will pop up asking you where and how to save the file.  Once scanned take the image into PhotoShop and retouch out the dust and scratches in the method of your preference.  Scan one time as big as you ever think you'll need and resize and save copies for other uses.  Kinda fun to be able to engage your film files for the greater good of the universe and your artistic sharing.

When your early work becomes vintage...

San Antonio. El Camino.

"Had we but world enough and tyme..." (To His Coy Mistress, Andrew Marvell). We're all subject to the passage of time.  No matter what profession you've chosen there will come a time when you look back and see where you came from. If you are into computers and you are of a certain age you'll talk about the lure of that Kaypro computer whose 9 inch green screen boasted a whopping 80 characters per line.  Ah, 1982...  

If you are a photographer you'll look back, sometimes in wonder and sometimes wincing, as you look at the slides you made with different films.  Fuji survived the slide film cold war and Kodak didn't but the images I shot on the early versions of Fuji are faded and mottled while the images I shot on Kodachrome are still exactly as they were when the little yellow boxes came back from the lab.

What I never remember until I scan them is just how low saturation Kodachrome 64 film was.  Certain colors popped (red) and certain colors didn't (blues and greens).  When Fuji Velvia came out I think it was widely embraced by photographers just because they were finally able to see real, honest to God, over the top color saturation. Our films helped create our visions of what was right, colorwise.

In the late 1970's and the early 1980's I felt drawn to San Antonio's downtown.  I'd pack a small camera bag with a camera body, a couple lenses and ten or twelve rolls of film.  I always packed the same film, not a mix. One day might be Tri-X black and white and another day might be Kodachrome 64 but always only one film type per day. It was easier for me to get my head around one linear way of thinking that to shift gears all the time.  And it was expensive, when using 35mm, to decide halfway through a roll of film that you really needed to switch to a different type. 

I don't know what I was looking for as I walked around the streets with my camera. I was in the advertising business at the time so it was more like a hobby than something I could rationalize as a business.  I guess I was trying to preserve the city from change.  I might have been documenting something different than that.  I may have just been emulating the documentary photographers I admired from books and magazines. Now, when I walk the streets of every city I'm looking for little glimmers of human scale and human touch to juxtapose against the constant change and the secure walls of progress.

I like walking with a camera.  I suppose I am Calvinistic enough to require some sense of work or duty be attached to the pleasure of walking so I bring the jewelry of my professional along when I amble, the idea being that I'll see something spectacular that will make its way into my portfolio.  But mostly the images go to storage.  In the film days they went into archival plastic sheets and then into a filing cabinet.  Now they go into Lightroom and onto DVD's.  A copy remains on a hard disk or two but until I started sharing the work on this blog they contributed very little to justify the time and expense of their creation.

But now something interesting is at work.  My earliest photographs show my cities and my life as it no longer exists.  Now they are documents of my own history.  As I looked through a selection of several thousand images of San Antonio I am shocked at the buildings which are now gone, the blue capped skyline that was once open transparent now cluttered with buildings and the same sky dingy with the dust and traces of our car culture.  My work has become a history of a city in endless transition.  And all cities are in endless transition. Favorite restaurants gone.  The barbershop that was there last year now a Starbucks...

When I look at the red El Camino I see vintage.  Just like the "vintage" button in Snapseed or the digitally random decay of Instagram, only this is the real thing.  The film that the intentional de-evolution of digital files is based upon.

I used to think the same nostalgic vintage-ism couldn't happen to film since it would decay, it would only perish or exist, fully realized.  But I've also spent time looking at files from each generation of digital cameras and I've seen the progression from primitive to polished. From unsharp files filled with noise to the latest plastic wonder files.

But my real interest has nothing to do with the technical progression of the craft and everything to do with memory and the encapsulation of time as a trigger for future memories. For looking back to see the patterns of life.  A proof that things were as we say they were. A time when we thought we knew everything and would live forever.  

There's an arc of time for every artist.  A time of power and experimentation and a time when you become culturally invisible.  So much of that acceptance and then lack of acceptance is contextual and style driven. You exist within your current milieu.  When you are young you are hooked into current culture.  Everything you do is a reflection of the mass culture you are surrounded by.  Whatever you create references that mass culture so you are at once inside and of the culture.  That gives your work whatever relevance it has as it's foundation.  You add the interesting twist.  Or you don't.  A generation loves Instagram because, well, the generation loves Instagram.  Another generation loved the black and white output of Holga cameras, in part because that's what everyone in the generation was experimenting with and, well, you know, it's really all about peer pressure.  Like smoking cigarettes.

The rising ethos swirling around my early years as a photographer were all about street photography and so I swam in that pool.  No better or worse than most of my fellow photographers. 

But as you live through cycles (be they economic or artistic) you understand that each fashionable style is a short lived romp through the pet rocks and tattoos of mass culture and very little, outside of a few exceptional examples, withstands either the test of time or our own attention spans.  Eventually it all gets sent to the virtual landfill of dozens of neglected hard drives or optical disks and then, by sheer weight of its every increasing bulk, the whole collection becomes too hard to deal with. Too ponderous to browse and it is increasingly ignored in deference to whatever the new trend is.

How else to explain the mass hysteric migration from camera to camera or from web hero to web hero? From big sensors to small and back again.

I've tried to put my finger on what it is that makes digital different from all previous processes.  Across all platforms including writing, photography, music and video.  I think I finally understand.  There is nothing intrinsically different about capturing the images, thinking of the stories or creating the melodies.  But the efficiency of the process makes each field destructively productive.  We are hell bent of the process of creation but without any commitment to the back end of the process.  We're in a constant race to create more and more to the exclusion of savoring each additional step of the process. There is less planning and concepting but more button pushing and cataloging.  Gone, seemingly, are the days when we'd labor for hours to get the perfect print---in digital or analog.  Much easier to slap a 2000 pixel rendition onto the web, share it with several thousand people you'll never meet and move on to the next act of manic production.

It's an evolving experiential process.  I'll readily admit to being behind the curve but I think there's tremendous value in curating your own images, editing them down the way a chef simmers down a sauce to concentrate its taste and power.  I think it's a difficult and rewarding task to go beyond default button pushing and to interpret an image onto paper in a unique way and finally, it's tough and socially significant to pull together a show of images and manifest that show for a public and real audience.  It might be something you bring to fruition only once every ten years but the power of purpose of having a show in a gallery or other space can imbue the artist with a level of insight and inspiration that's gone AWOL as we participate in the process of exaggerated productivity for the sake of-----productivity.

For me this blog, from time to time, fills the void between shows and lethargy.  I put images here to share them as well as to illustrate articles.  But in effect I am robbing the power of a concentrated showing of actual images (paper) in exchange for the very short term buzz of knowing that at least people are seeing the images.  And in a sense it's a very destructive cycle.  The web can be art gallery crack.

So.  Today I realized that some of my images have become vintage.  The rest of them will do so over time. So will yours.  Even if you are only 24 or 30 years old the process has already begun and the only ways to escape the process are to constantly change with every trend that rears its peacock feather festooned head, stop shooting altogether or accept that you've found a style and subject matter that work for you and you alone and to keep doing exactly what that is until you drop over dead.  It's an interesting way of being honest to your own vision.

In the end it's about making your artist self happy.  Or at least honest. If you are in this because you like the cameras it's okay to just ignore this post.


Nikon D3200. An Amazing Value Proposition.

Let's cut right to the chase, Nikon has done something incredible. They've taken the highest resolution APS-C sensor available today and put it in a small, nicely designed, consumer body and they are offering it, with a lens, the almost negligible  sum of $699.  I own two of the 24 megapixel sensors; they're in my Sony a77 bodies. According to DXO the implementation of this sensor in the D3200 body, without a pellicle mirror in front to suck down some of the light, out performs almost every DSLR camera on the market @ISO 100.  And with more resolution.  

The DXO rating is 81.  At ISO 100 it's better than the Canon 5Dmk3 or the Nikon D700.  And it remains good all the way up to 3200.  So, rather than dropping big bucks on big cameras, you have the option of spending $699 and getting the ultimate APS-C landscape body.  Really.  That's dirt cheap.  That's shake-your-head cheap.  That's almost half of what  you'll pay for an Olympus OMD EM-5 with a 12-50mm lens of the front.  And as good as the OMD is its image quality (according to DXO) lags behind the D3200 at all the lower shutter speeds. If you don't own a camera and a selection of lenses this one is a great way to stick a foot into the market.  

I went to Precision Camera yesterday to pick up some presentation folders for a project that won't die. I kicked the tires on a huge, heavy and expensive Sony a900 and then I asked to play with the D3200.  I used it for half an hour so you'll have to factor that into my assessment.  But I liked the way it handled.  I liked the way it felt in my hands and I liked the sound of the shutter.  I'm considering going back and picking one up if for no other reason than this combination of sensor specs and image performance was unimaginable in even a $20,000 digital camera just ten years ago.

Are there negatives to this camera and lens?  Well, we could start with the kit lens but that would hardly be fair.  Everyone's kit lens sucks a little.  I'm sure this one is no different.  The finder is small compared to the EVF finders in the Sony SLT a77's.  The menus are pure consumer.  There's no autobracketing (small loss for me) and, and, and that's about it.

This camera and its lens (and its sensor) is $100 less than the flawed G1X point and shoot from Canon.  It's barely $100 more than the  Fuji X10.  But slapped down on a tripod, pointed in the right direction and used with the right lens it's pushing what we used to think of as medium format territory @100 ISO.  Add in fast PD focusing, entry into a world of great lenses, a standard hot shoe, 4fps even with the massive files, stunning raw performance and light weight and you have yourself a wonderful studio camera for about the price of a consumer zoom lens.

This is how Nikon is fighting back against the mirrorless cameras and it's pretty compelling.  In the end you'll have to weigh the benefits of brute force good IQ (Nikon) against things like great EVF's and wonderful, in-body image stabilization and possibly better high ISO performance (Olympus EM-5).



Two Years Ago in June. All water all the time. A re-post.

Best Book Buys for Photographers.

Someone asked me what books I recommend to other photographers.  I'm leaving my own books off the list.  But here is my favorite in each category for photographers who either want to work professionally or work with greater satisfaction in doing their personal art.

The first book is all about lighting.  In fact, I think it's pretty much the best, comprehensive lighting book on the market today.  It's not about specific brands or the latest techniques; it's much better than that. This book, now in it's 4th edition teaches you the theory of using light as a photographer.  Read this and you WILL understand light.  Also Fil Hunter and his crew do a great job making the subject readable.  It's called Light, Science and Magic.

John Harrington has written the definitive, in-depth, nearly official book about the business of photography called, Best Business Practices for Photographers, Second Edition. John goes through step by step and explains how the business works, how to make money at it and how to stay out of legal trouble.  The ASMP tried to write a book along the same lines.  They should have just gone straight to John.  I use this as a desk reference any time a business question comes up and I need to do it right.  I know that not all the VSL readers do photography as a business but if you know someone who is entering the profession do them (and the rest of us working photographers) a favor and get them to buy this book.  A lot of the advice crosses borders and might be just what you need to run your own business in a different way....

If you have lots of great ideas but you seem to have problems getting started, staying inspired and following through in your creative (or business) projects you probably need my favorite non-fiction book of all time, written by a writer who failed and failed until he finally understood the process of being successful and satisfied.  It cured me of a very bad bout of anxiety. Really.  A $9.95 book that worked better than therapy or drugs.  I keep a few copies on hand for emergencies with other artist friends.  You should too.  It's called The War of Art, by Steven Pressfield.  It's short, to the point and amazing.  Two days ago a reader of the blog e-mailed me and recommended I read it.  I agree, I'll go back and read it again...

I think I know a lot about portraits but I don't know as much as guy named Chris Grey.  He writes really good stuff!!!  His book, Master Lighting Guide for Portrait Photographers, is well written, well illustrated and provides a very good base for anyone who wants to do traditional portrait photography or is ready to do their own highly creative work but wants a good grounding in the nuts and bolts and the reasons behind the nuts and bolts. Chris has been making good books and good portraits for a long time.  Take advantage of his foundation.  I have three of his books.  I read them every once in a while, just for technical inspiration..

The fifth book on the list is for all the people who are trying to do good work with speedlights.  And by speedlights I mean portable, battery powered flashes that were originally designed to sit on top of cameras.  There's a guy named Syl Arena who has written the definitive, highly illustrated and very well written Bible of lighting books for people who want to go far beyond the untidy world of web-flash-quasi-knowledge.  It's all right there in Syl's book. Speedliter's Handbook: Learning to Craft Light with Canon Speedlites.  Paul has my copy and won't give it back.  The book is based around Canon flashes but don't let that dissuade you if you are a Nikon/Sony/Pentax/Olympus, etc. shooter.  All the techniques are the same, you'll just have to figure out what stuff means the same in your camera flashes language.  He will teach you how to make that stuff.....fun.   Yes.  I too hate the cover.  But the insides are sooo good.

Finally, after all this technical reading you'll most likely want a nice palate cleanser.  Something to refocus you on actual shooting.  On the enjoyment of shooting.  And what better way to do that than with an inexpensive, thick book by one of America's master street shooter, Elliott Erwitt?  This is a compendium of hundreds of witty, wonderful and odd dog shots.  It's called, Dog Dogs.  I keep a copy in the car. It's fun to look at when I'm trapped somewhere and held against my will by the lure of commerce.  I also have one in my studio.  It's a happy testament to the fact that a body of work builds over time.  Years and decades rather than weeks and months.  At least the good stuff works that way.  This is your intro to Erwitt, once you're hooked you'll move on to the more addictive stuff and someday you'll thank me...maybe.

That's enough for now, and a good start. Layer in some shooting between chapters and you'll have big fun. It's Summer! Time to read.

Thanks for reading.  Kirk

Fully Committed. Shooting a play with an old, manual focus lens.

Martin Burke in Fully Committed.
Camera: Olympus Pen EP3.  Lens: 45mm 1.8  ISO 1250.

One of my favorite actors of all time, Martin Burke, will be starring in the one man play, Fully Committed, at the Zachary Scott Theatre, opening this evening.  Last night was the dress rehearsal.  The play is about the person in the basement office of an ultra-trendy, Manhattan restaurant whose job comprises sitting at a desk taking telephone reservations from a group of the most entitled, eccentric and sometimes sociopathic group of patrons imaginable.  Martin plays both sides of every conversation, including conversations with the slimy head chef and the head waiter.  At the same time he also fields calls from "friends" who are anxious to let him know they've landed acting jobs in parts that he also auditioned for. 

Martin is amazing and the play is so much fun.  So fun, in fact, that I was able to convince my 16 year old son to come with me.  I was going to shoot images during the dress rehearsal that we'll be sending to the press today.  

First, let's talk about the photography part.  I would be covering one actor on a small stage. I wanted to try something a bit different and I'd been champing at bit to pit two of my favorite lenses against each other to see which would emerge triumphant.  It wouldn't exactly be a fair fight as one lens would be on my Panasonic GH2 and the other on my Olympus EP3.  What the Olympus has in design panache and build quality it gives back in resolution...Yes, that has been remedied in the OMD but I'm still holding out...

I wanted to shoot my Olympus 45mm 1.8 and my Olympus (old school Pen) 60mm 1.5.  How would the ancient legacy lens do against the young favorite of the m4:3 crowd?  How would I do pitting my skills in manually focusing against the fast sample rate and quick AF of the EP-3?  Who would emerge as the top contender in the America's Top Small Camera Contest (A trademark of the Shooting with the Stars Corporation, ltd.)?????

Martin Burke. Fully Committed.
Camera: Panasonic GH2. Lens: Olympus 60mm 1.5  ISO 1250

I brought along the two bodies I mentioned, the two lenses I mentioned and also the Pan/Leica 25mm 1.4 and the Panasonic 14-45mm zoom, as well as two extra batteries per camera.  Everything packed into one small Domke camera bag with room to spare.  Lots of room to spare. Ben and I left the house a bit early and headed to the theatre. Little did we know that the city of Austin was hosting one of those "everyone-with-nothing-better-to-do-come-to-the-park-sit-on-the-grass-and-listen-to-jazz" things where hordes of people looking for free entertainment drive in from the suburban hinterlands, and fill all the roads between me and the theatre with hapless, confused and generally incompetent drivers who are afraid to make left hand turns.

Through a combination of patience and profanity in equal doses we were finally able to arrive at the theatre with five minutes to spare.  Ben settled in to a comfy seat behind me and I got to work setting up my cameras.  They were both set identically.  ISO = 1250, manual shutter speeds, manual apertures.  White balance set to tungsten. Noise reduction on stun (low) and each camera set to large, fine or extra fine jpegs. (The Panasonic has only "fine" as a choice...).

My routine with the Panasonic was to push in the little wheel on the back, top right of the camera which magnifies the finder image.  I would fine focus the 60mm lens and then touch the shutter button which got me right back to the 100% finder image.  Then I'd be able to shoot for a while without worrying about focus until Martin moved.  The method was quick and pretty accurate.  When I hit sharp focus the lens worked well.  Most of the time I was shooting with the lens set to between f2 and f2.8. 

My routine for using the Olympus was to evaluate exposure on the VF2 screen and then rely on the camera's autofocus for the heavy lifting.  I even used the face detection AF for a number of the shots.  

I think both cameras did well.  The GH2 files seem a bit more solid and I find that I actually prefer to manually focus my lenses.  Probably a holdover from the past.  I was happy to see that neither camera seemed to struggle with noise at the 1250 ISO setting.  I found the controls on the Panasonic, especially the push wheel for toggling between, and setting, aperture and shutter speed to be more usable than the two different dials on the EP3.  I also found the files on the GH2 to be a bit cleaner and more robust.  There is a color difference between the cameras but nothing that can't be duplicated or remedied in Lightroom or some other piece of software.

The big difference to me was in the lenses. I much prefer the look of the longer, 60mm lens. I think it has a sharpness and contrast that the other lens doesn't quite share. They are very, very close and by f2.8 and beyond you'd have to have your nose stuck to the front screen of your monitor to see the difference, but, at f2 the winner for contrast and center sharpness (to my eye) is the ancient metal beast of a lens.  The 60mm f1.4.

The big caveat is the fact that it was used on a body with 24% more pixels.  

Why use the smaller cameras when I have bigger, faster stuff?  Because I wanted to and because the action in the play was constrained to a smaller space which meant fewer changes in  focal length ranges were needed.  The prime lenses are nicely sharp and gave me the opportunity to work at higher shutter speeds.  That's always nice.  Next time out I'm going to match up my old 70mm f2 against the 60mm 1.5 and see which one really is best.  Nice to see Olympus re-introducing so many high speed primes.  It's always a nice option in the age of relentless zooms.

The biggest issue I had, technically, last night was all the laughing.  Most of the play is so funny that I found myself laughing out loud with the rest of the small (family and friends) audience. Hard to keep your equipment steady during a full out belly laugh. Ben thought the play we great as well.  Score one for fighting against video games....

Both cameras made it through the show with their original batteries.  Paranoia proved once again to be unnecessary.

I've already made reservations to go back and see the play again.  All fun all the time.

Hope you've got your Summer in a good trajectory.  It's not nearly as hot in Austin as it was this time last year.  The lawns are green, the pools are cool and it's even possible to go (comfortably) for long walks.  With a camera.

Thanks for reading.


The first generation of Olympus "small sensor" cameras.

Painter in the marketplace.  San Antonio. Scanned at 4800 dpi for a final size of 10x15 @300DPI.Reduced to 2000 by 1300 for the blog.

Scanned at 2400 DPI and reduced for the blog.

I've written often about my admiration for the original line of Olympus Pen-F and Pen FT cameras but I rarely show many photos from that camera.  One reason is that I long since gave away my dedicated film scanner and I didn't think the cheap flat bed scanner I used for everything else was up to doing scans of really small transparencies. The actual film size is less than half a frame of 35mm film.  I think that makes this ancient line of cameras the first real "smaller sensor" professional cameras.

Once Eugene Richards, a bunch of Life Magazine photographers and a few Magnum photographers adopted to the half frame, with it's very small and discrete form factor, the photo community at large didn't even try to start arguing about "equivalence" or the impossibility of doing professional work with small cameras.  Back then all that mattered was results.  And generally the images were judged for things like: content, timing, composition and juxtaposition.  Not ultimate sharpness and certainly not a camera's performance at a zillion ISO.  Maybe that's why they called the 1960's and 1970's the "golden age" of photography... It was largely done by impassioned artists and not geeks with the hots for working out the SNR on a graph.

I was cleaning up the studio this week, in anticipation of painting the walls, when I came across a metal case full of 1/2 frame transparencies.  Most of it is portraits of Belinda from the 1980's and Ben from the 1990's but there were a bunch of slides I shot in San Antonio that I always liked.  So I decided to give the much maligned flatbed a test run.  I tossed on the slide holder (holds four) and revved up the Epson Scan Software (runs with no hitches on OS 10.7).  

The images above and below were all shot on some day in 1980.  That's what the slide mount says. That's 32 year old film technology in a small space.  I was pretty amazed at how well it holds up when scanned.  If I remember correctly I was using a standard FT camera with the 40mm 1.4 lens.  The meter had long since given up the ghost so I was dependent on guessing and conjecturing.  Which is kind of scary given the limited dynamic range of color slide film at the time.

These informal tests tell me lots of different, unconnected things. First they tell me that, for around $160 new right now, the Epson V500 is a pretty darn good, all around scanner.  Just about perfect for the person who is knee deep in digital but still wants to tool around with film.  It tells me that the half frame format was capable of doing good service up to 8x12 inches for most uses. The lens seems sharp and snappy for something created over 45 years ago.

I can see that I was able to focus manually much better thirty years ago but I'm convinced it's a practice thing rather than whole scale disintegration so I'll keep practicing.

Finally, looking at the images reminds me that there was so much less to decide on back then.  If you left the house with a pocket full of 100 ISO daylight film you made due with that.  If you left the house with one lens and a body you tried to squeeze the most out of that combination.  Largely, everything else is just a distraction.  

I'm not saying I hate digital or I'm only going to shoot film from now on but I would like to be on record as saying that someone could satisfy a big niche of the market by putting out a digital camera with only five controls on it:  Focus. Aperture.  Shutter Speed.  Color balance.  ISO.

All the rest of the stuff we keep getting is just bullshit to fill our minds with mush and make the process of taking photograph harder than it needs to be.  If we had fewer decisions to make we sure have a hell of a lot more concentration on what's in front of the camera.

And, to the smarty pants who will write and tell me how I can turn off all the unwanted items, I have to respond:  It's not the same thing as designing elegantly in the first place.

Raspas by the Alamo.

The black and white conversion in SnapSeed is not bad.

Late in the afternoon, fishing at the old Perdanales State Park.

A few years back there was a magazine in Austin called, Texas Life.  It was a bold upstart that intended to go toe to toe with the heavyweights like, Texas Monthly.  They ran out of money and in a matter of months were gone.  But while they were rolling we did a lot of photography for them. At one point we did a fashion-y piece about the outdoor life in central Texas.  Fishing, hiking, taking a long swims in cool streams...that kind of thing.

I photographed these two models using my favorite camera and lens of the moment.  A Leica R8 with a 180mm Elmarit Lens.  These are from e-6 slides scanned on the Epson Perfection V500 Photo scanner.  It's a different look...

The Leica R series cameas and lenses never got the press that the M series does.  Probably the more conservative and traditional body put it directly in competition with the much less expensive Canon and Nikon flagships.  Kinda tough to justify spending twice as much for the tool...unless they are better.