VSL Executive Team performs embarrassing victory dance! Winner: Top Class of the Year at Craftsy.com

Hi All, 

I just got this in my e-mail folder from Craftsy.com! My class, Family Photography, is the Top Class of this year. I am amazed as we just launched this class in November. Nearly 1,000 people have signed up in the last six weeks. The graphic below was saved as a Jpeg for the links aren't live but here's a live link if you want to go and see what all the fuss is about: Kirk's Class!

There are two other classes. One is Studio Portraits and the other is the Free Class on Family Photos.
Check them out. (They're cheaper than a workshop and you can repeat them over an over again if you need to at no additional cost!).

This award is a fun way for me to end up the year. I hope you'll sample one or more of the classes and I hope you come back to the blog for more fun give and take in 2014.  Thanks!  Kirk

Enroll today in the top class of the year! | View Online
Top class this year
With over 500 students, we're declaring the winner of this popularity contest:
Now is your chance to enroll for just $24.99
(that's 58% off!)
Sign Up Now »
Top class this year
Praise for Family Photography: Candid Moments & Storytelling
"What a great class! Kirk is an excellent instructor, and I learned so much. Thanks Kirk!"
– Craftsy Member Miss Regtien
Your access never expires.Watch classes on your own schedule: wherever, whenever you want.100% money back guarantee.


Another look at the Panasonic G6. Walking on a cloudy day with an old, Olympus Pen 38mm f1.8 on the camera...

It's been a long week. We got prepared for Christmas and I wrapped up a couple of last minute jobs. We spent some time traveling and seeing relatives. Today was the first day of swim practice since monday and I was ready to work out some kinks, dissipate some routine aggression and get out of breath for an hour or so. But by mid-afternoon I was itching to get out of the house and go for a walk through the Austin downtown.

I wanted a camera that wouldn't hang on my arm or slow me down and I wanted something that was a straightforward, good street camera so I cobbled one together. Something light and quick but competent and highly usable with older, manual focusing lenses. I grabbed for the Panasonic G6 and headed out the door.

Why do I like this little camera so much? Well, it may be because the focus peaking is really good and convenient. It may be because it has a really nice EVF and, combined with focus peaking, it creates a focusing/viewing system that rivals any other manual focusers I have. It could be because the chunky little battery seems to last forever. I keep putting a spare in my pocket but now I have to remember to rotate batteries because I never seem to get around to using the pocket back up.

It may be because the files are nice and neutral and able to take a good bit of post processing before falling apart. It may be because the function buttons are well labeled and everything I want to push or rotate falls right where my hands think the switches and buttons should be. It may be because the +/_ compensation control is perfectly placed and designed. 

But to be honest I like this little camera so much because it feels like a real camera and it looks so cool. It seems to track my philosophy that the camera should recede instead of being the center of your attention or the center of the subject's attention. Since the entry price was so cheap I don't worry about the  camera being damaged or lost. It just works. And when the camera becomes more and more transparent making photographs seems to get easier and easier. And, on the off chance that you don't see anything you want to shoot on your walks the camera is so carry-able that it makes affable company even with the lens cap on.  That's my take today. 

Accuracy is only important if you are aiming at the right target.

Production Still from "A Christmas Story" at Zach Theatre.

It's interesting to read comments which make sweeping statements about what professionals need, want, use, demand, etc. Recently a commenter on our site made the sweeping statement that for professionals it's "all about the ultimate image quality."  Now, if all of us who are engaged in making a living from imaging were in the employ of packaged good marketers, creating lifelike still life photos to represent products most clearly I might agree. But if I were engaged in making portraits of high school kids with bad skin then ultimate image quality is something I might avoid like the plague. 

When I thought about the comment I thought about how I make a living. I mostly make images and video of people. Most of the people who end up in front of my cameras are not professional models. They are not always corporate officers of multi-nationals who've been through media training and are practiced at presenting themselves to the unrelenting stare of the lens. No. They are every day people who might represent some profession or company and need a portrait. Sometimes our attention (and our cameras) are focused on them because of a story. They have achieved something of note. They have been awarded or recognized by their peers. Or we have cast them as "real people" models who match our (Kirk and attendant ad agency) idea of what an engineer should look like or what an upscale mom might look like.

They are generally unaware of how much their faces and expressions change from minute to minute. Many are nervous or self-conscious and are fearful of what imperfections the cameras (and the unusual scrutiny) will reveal. And they may be part of a concept we're working on which requires me to gain their willing collaboration in our plan. Getting a subject relaxed and settled into the moment is so much harder (and always has been!) that getting a sharp image or a low noise file or some other technical detail. 

In fact, here's my list of how professionals prioritize the goals and aspirations for a shoot, and they are listing in descending order of importance:

1. An idea. (What will make this photo or this ad unique and interesting to a viewer!)

2. The concept. (how do I turn my idea into a visual construction = what is the concept)

3. The production. (does the scene and lighting I'm creating support the idea and concept?)

4. The casting. (Is this person the right representation of the concept? Can they give me the emotional message I need?)

5. The rapport with the subject. ( Can I lead and direct the person in front of the camera into the right pose and expression I need to fulfill my concept and make it look natural and believable?)

6. Are we all on the same rhythm? ( have we found a flow in the shooting of the images which allows all of us to work as a unified team, without conscious effort?)

7. Have I selected the right focal length for the visual effect I wanted?

8. Is the camera making files correctly such that I'll be able to use them in the media the client has chosen. 

And finally:

9.  Is the quality of the optical system and camera sensor and the attendant image processing sufficient to the task at hand? Does it appear sharp and well toned? Are the colors what we need them to be?

We can compromise a bit on  point 9 if we have not compromised on the first eight requirements but falling short on any of the other parameters means failure.

Most cameras in use by professionals now, be they 12 megapixel micro four thirds cameras or 36 megapixel full frame cameras, are capable of getting the important stuff like color and tone and focus just right. In fact, the mirror less cameras may do a better job hitting focus with precision. There is no uniformity of color quality by price point. Many users prefer the color from lower resolution Olympus cameras than from high res Nikon or Canon cameras when it comes to proper (or preferred) rendering of skin tones and color. All of the cameras are quite capable of delivering files that will print well on a single magazine page. All of the cameras will deliver files that exceed the abilities of all but a few pricy monitors to recreate. In effect, unless you are laboring in the lofty realm of routinely making images for double page, high quality printed magazine spreads the argument of quality between cameras is more or less moot. 

We stand on the threshold of an age wherein all cameras can deliver the goods but now we get to work on the stuff that makes a camera a pleasure to use. From the viewfinders to the grips to the total weight. Even the clarity of menus. To say that "professionals" use X specifications to choose their tools now is incorrect. They are choosing the tools they want to work with based on how much fun they are to work with. They are comfortable with the (proven) concept that all the cameras in the running for their attention will deliver the goods.

Here's an incomplete list of cameras I am interested in that will delivery results I want:

Pentax K-3, Olympus EP-5, Olympus OMD, Panasonic GX7, Sony RX10, Samsung NX 50, Pentax 645D, Fuji X series, Nikon D610 and Canon 6D. None of these are "traditional" pro cameras. All of them will get the job done.  If you need a better camera to do real work with then you already know what you need for your specialty; your niche. 

The market has changed. The targets have changed. The budgets have changed. The styles of imaging have changed. And, by extension, the cameras have changed. The barriers to enter got lowered again. But the skills with which to make a living remain the same, and they are encapsulated in the first eight requirements above. 

Skill drives the machine. The machine does not drive skill.


This is an image of a roasted chicken.

 God save us from those people who need to read, hear and do everything by the numbers. They have no idea about art. They are giant sponges sucking the spilled fun off the linoleum floor of life...


Oh No!!! Only three days till Christmas and Kirk's still using that cheap Olympus lens! That won't do....

I know that many of you think it's just wrong for me to be using this lens instead of the new 12-40mm f2.8 lens. I acknowledge your beliefs. But in reality I love the lens because I don't have to care about it. It has its own aura of insouciance and I find it delightful. I also think it's a darn good lens. No ad. Just opinion. 

The VSL Five Star Award of the Year goes to a camera I don't (currently) own. The Olympus OMD EM-1

The new Millennium Falcon of cameras. The EM-1.

I'm being silly this year and doing silly awards for cameras I think brought cool stuff to the table. I've already made a plug for my favorite economy priced camera, the Panasonic G6 but it's only going to appeal to the kind of practical people who make their own coffee at home and drive no nonsense cars for ten years at a time. It's a sensible choice. There are lots of other cameras this year that deserve some kind of mention for moving the game forward for their loyal band. In the Canon camp I think the full frame 6D camera is a great way to get into a professional system at a much lower cost than ever before. As a high ISO machine it's pretty much right there in the top ranks. And I'd say the same thing about the Nikon D610. It no longer seems to squirt industrial waste onto the sensor like the camera it replaces and that, coupled with great sensor performance, is a good thing. Even the Pentax K3 deserves some kudos for being a rock solid and very advanced last decade sort of camera. 

But the reality is that there are two cameras that have captured the fascination of the camera cognoscenti and the battle between them for dominance is as unexpected as can be. After handling and researching both cameras I am even more fascinated by the logical results of an in-depth comparison. There is a clear winner if your objective is to find a camera that feels like a perfect artist's brush or a well broken in pair of running shoes. There is a different winner if you are in a race for bragging rights for maximum horsepower and maximum straight-line acceleration. But the Devil is in the hairpin turns...... (enough car analogies, it brings out the real car nuts and then things heat up quick....).

The two cameras I'm talking about are the two cameras that come from antithetical extremes of camera philosophies and yet the same company makes the sensors inside of both cameras. One is the highest res tool one can buy today in the FF format while the other is perceived as the lowest pixel count class of what might be considered as professional quality instruments. I mean cameras. I'm am, of course, writing about the Olympus OMD EM-1 and the Sony A7r. 

On paper the Sony has everything but in reality it's all a compromise in terms of usability. The Olympus camera seems like a staid upgrade of a decent predecessor but one cobbled with a low pixel count, and much smaller, sensor. One is priced like a pro-tool while the other is priced just in the middle of the hobbyist-indulgence category. But in real world use the Olympus is a svelte, alluring seductive temptress that combines a tactile rightness with a wonderfully muted and understated shutter noise and action. It's EVF finder is probably the best in world and all in all the files are just what most photographers are looking for.  Right and thick and ready to be used with little heroic effort. It's the charming kind of package that emulates what the introduction of the Leica M3 must have been like to image makers working in the 1950's. Quiet, quick and disciplined. 

I first used one at a dinner with the president of Olympus USA while I was in New York and, like some insidious addictive drug once I got some on my skin I've been orbiting closer and closer to the camera with each passing cycle. In point of fact I had no interest in the camera before I used it in the flesh. None. And now I'm making lens buying decisions with the near certainty of that camera's acquisition in my overall plans. 

My experience with the Sony A7r is quite the opposite. I learned about it ahead of the initial announcement and my excitement built by the day as my introduction to the camera at the Photo Expo show drew nearer. My first thoughts were that this camera would be a wonderful partner to the Sony a99 I already own while adding more resolution, sharpness and more lens flexibility at a much lower initial price. In fact, I had liquidated my cropped frame Sony cameras and lenses in anticipation. And then the day came. I was supposed to be in the Samsung booth but before the show started I walked over to the Sony pavilion and played with the product. It was then that my whole plan began to fall apart like wet cardboard box.

Predictions for 2014. Number Three. Video emerges as the new profession of photography.

Lou. Still Photograph. Old School. H-blad. Film.

Stop! Move your fingers away from the keyboard and calm down! Read the headline one more time!!! I'm not saying that hobbyists, amateurs, lovers of the print, keepers of the absolutely still flame of the still frame must have anything at all to do with moving pictures. I am ONLY making the prediction that working (paid, vocational, commercial) photographers in most modern, major  metropolitan markets will need to embrace various forms of video in order to survive financially. 

I'm not predicting that the still headshot will go away but I could make a pretty good argument that it will happen as the adjunct to a video interview, or vice versa. I'm not making an argument that we'll stop documenting commercial processes but I can make an even better argument that we'll be doing that still documentation in parallel with video documentation and right now you have a choice as to whether someone else in your market makes you their photo "bitch" or whether you control the entire piece of the action in the near future. Video and stills aren't really different things altogether. For procurement they both are filed under, "marketing." Not like toilet paper or toner cartridges. Clients don't see a big separation just two variations of one thing called "content."

There's only one major driver pushing this. It's the relentless increase in web bandwidth. That's where the advertising is going and if companies are paying for web placement then for the most part they are aiming for the most bang for their buck. For generations increasingly raised on video games and television the most obvious bang is coming from motion/video. It's not an emotional argument it's a math meets data points argument. And it holds water.  Wherever the bang is that's where the bucks are....

At this juncture clients know us (speaking collectively about commercial photographers....) as people who are good at lighting, working with talent and composition. No one has actively sold them against using photographers to also do video. Our blind spots are the need to keep the images actually moving and the ability to edit in time. Another hazy (but learnable) spot for still camera jockeys is sound design but that's secondary and, when you start getting jobs with decent budgets it's a hire-able position. So, until someone actively points out our blind spots it's time to jump in with both feet and learn to be good video producers. And editors. And sound guys. In addition to being great still photographers.

Why? You might have lots of loyal clients but here's what's going to happen going forward: Bob Smith is your friend and client. Bob shoots a project with you every year. You go out for five days and shoot beautiful portraits of Bob's company's people in wonderful locations. Bob's company pays you nicely! But this year Bob's boss, realizing that YouTube channels are essentially free and also that video files can be sent to clients, placed on the company website and even provided (to the culturally slower potential clients) on DVD for barest fractions of the cost of a printed annual report or other four color printed brochure. And the difference in mailing costs is even more dramatic (especially since, in most cases, the digital distribution is essentially free....). 

Bob's boss insists that in addition to the still photos his real interest this year is in a video "version" in which each person will be interviewed and their work processes shot as "B-Roll".  Bob comes to you and asks you for a bid to cover both halves of the project. He is a savvy enough client to realize that your new DSLR will also do nice, clean video and he wants to work with you because you represent the known commodity instead of the scary and much less desirable "great unknown."

You are a purist and have NO intention of getting caught up in "This Video Fad." So you calmly explain your position of purity and career focus to Bob and suggest that he hire a video crew to do "that video part."  Bob sighs and works his network, gets suggestions and hires a really nice little company that is thrilled to do the video part of the project. Bob accepts their bid and off you go. But to save money and cut down on the amount of time valuable employees will be in front of cameras Bob and the video company decide that everyone must work together so they'll be setting up the lighting they need and shooting the interviews and you'll need to "hop in there after they finished but before they break everything down" and get what you need for the stills." 

Once on location you find that the light the video crew needs and the light you want to use for your branded version of still portraits is profoundly different. A meeting ensues in which you argue for your case in lighting. And you argue from the point of view that your images are the platinum target of this exercise while the video is just the whipped creme on the top. Bob's boss, who is spending five to ten times as much money on video compared to what he is spending on your photography disagrees. Bob suggests that you be a team player and learn how to modify and leverage the light the video guys are using.

While you are clearly disgruntled you finish the job professionally. So does the video team. Your face to face time with the client is over until the next project comes up but the video teams is just getting started. They will work with Bob for the next few weeks getting the project edited and treating Bob like royalty. They'll develop a good working relationship because they are good marketers. And Bob's boss loves the final product. Yours, of course, but theirs even more.

Next project rolls around and you don't hear from Bob..... You hear from one of the guys at the video production company. The initial project went very well for them and Bob and his boss have been finding more and more ways to make additional video work in their business. Now they have a relationship and have settled in comfortably with the video guys. Bob's asked them to handle production of the project you used to work on directly with Bob. Only now you'll be working as a sub contractor for the video team. 

First thing to go wrong? Well.... you and Bob both understood the copyright laws and the SOP of the still business and you always owned the rights to your images and protected them so you could make more money from additional uses. But the world of video has operated in quite a different way with the clients getting  ownership of the finished product at the end of each project. The video company wants to use you to make the stills but they want you to sign a "work for hire" agreement. You balk. You go back to Bob for recourse only to find that, "Bob's hands are tied on this one. The boss decided to use the video company as the sole point of contact in these projects."

You need the work so you hold your nose and sign the WFH contract, at a reduced rate from previous years, because they told you that was all they had budgeted for the still work this year.  You are unhappy and you grouse but you do the project. While on the project you find yourself assisted and art directed by a nice young woman who is constantly wearing an unprofessional looking dinky mirror less camera around her neck. She pays keen attention to the way you work with the talent. She's there to help. Right now she's helping you. She'll even run and get you coffee or pull your batteries off the charger and bring them to you. In the future she'll put her on the job education to work helping the video production company do more projects like this. Ones that you were not "grandfathered" into.

The next year there is no call from Bob and there is no call from the video production company. You finally pick up the phone and call the producer to find out what happened to the project. He tells you that after the "paperwork" issues that came up last year everyone involved thought it might be easier/more cost effective/more fun/more streamlined if they just took the whole project in  house. You are incensed and call Bob. Bob hems and haws and finally says that the CEO really liked the still images he's getting from the in-house photographer at the video house. Raves about how much he likes her "eye".  You make an impassioned technical plea based on your envious inventory of Nikon D800s and massive investment in the world's greatest glass but Bob counters by letting you know that the millions of hits they get every year on the video work has overshadowed the effectiveness of the 5,000 copies of the $30 a piece brochure they used to send out every year. Sales are up so much as a result of the metrics generated by the video placement everywhere that, well, the print portion of the project is gone. The still images all just go to the web.

"From what we can see the photographer from the video company is using cameras that are more than good enough and she uses the video lights well."  So well, in fact, that she was able to use her little mirror less camera to do some side interviews and behind the scenes video as well as portraits on the last project. "Keep in touch. I'll call you when something right for your talents comes up."

Of course it could have been played in a different way from the start. The minute clients started thinking about video you could have been on Lynda.com learning from a sea of great tutorials about how to shoot video with your DLSRs. How to move the camera. How to do basic editing. How to work with sound. And, since video is free now in terms of your own production you have ample opportunity to practice your stuff and work on editing. You don't even need to master incredibly complex video editing programs all at once. All the really matters is a nice, clean edit with a good story line. You could pull that off  with your free copy of Apple's iMovie.

When Bob approached you about video you could have said, "Yes! Of course! Glad to help!"  And the minute Bob got off the phone you could have hired a producer to help you bid the project, hire the crew, rent needed gear and help complete the project. If you weren't up to editing just yet you could hire an editor help you. You could have had both sides of the bid. And kept the client. And kept  your business and rights models intact. And, as you spend quality time with Bob and his boss  you can make them happy with your growing range of skills while at the same time reinforcing the value of your still work to them. 

2014 will see the real introduction of the newest Power Mac computers which will come ready for the new 4K video (both in terms of editing and display). It will see the introduction of the Black Magic 4K video camera at a price point of under $4,.000. And it will see an ever increasing demand for video content from everyone from mom and pop businesses to the biggest corporations in the world. The growth numbers for video on the web are gigantic and accelerating. It continues to be a viable market in part because it requires both time and skills. 

In forward markets (smart, highly educated markets driven by young client companies) we see a new power base growing around smaller content companies. They market scripts, motion, stills and web integration both to larger ad agencies and directly to clients. They are currently eating every part of the advertising market they can find. Could I suggest that joining this club by creating your own content company, based around stills+video, is a lot less bloody and frustrating for you than trying to grow a business playing sub-contractor to another group of photographer/videographers who were a bit faster on the draw?

2014 will be the year of capitulation. You'll learn to offer video. Or you'll learn to say, "Can I have a name for that order?."  You may shake your head, confident that your little niche of still photography is immune. Believe me, it's not. It may just be a bit more insulated. This is the year the friction of the market eats through the insulators.

To the hobbyists, collectors, and enthusiasts. Yours is a totally different calling. You needn't change a thing. See how smart you are not to be in a business like this?

Disclaimer: It is very hard to accurately predict the future and so all predictions are opinions. The above is the opinion of the VSL senior research staff. It does not have to be your opinion. Your reality may vary. Your perceptions my be different. That doesn't make this content wrong. Don't like the prediction? Neither do I. But I'd rather have the diagnosis and the tools to manage the condition than sticking my head into a sand pile and pretending that nothing will ever change. Just do the research...


Second prediction for 2014's camera world...Canonization.

Unknown Canon Shooter. Austin, Texas

It's always fun to make predictions about the future but it's always harder than predicting the past....

So, Canon has had a pretty crappy year when it comes to the ritual measurement of sensors. The folks at DXO seem hellbent on making Canon cry by showing again and again, with their unfathomable black magic numbers, that every new camera with a Sony chip inside has ten times the dynamic range of the best Canon cameras and shiveringly good high ISO noise performance. When you add to the thrashing the Visual Science Lab gave them earlier this year when they introduced their tragic attempt at a mirror less camera (the EOS M) you'd be forgiven for thinking that all their engineers gave up and headed out the door to try their luck at Pentax or Holga. The Canon faithful are torn and many of them (especially those who adore the Canon specialty lenses....17mm Tilt/Shift???) have rushed to try out the new Sony hot flash of the moment, the A7r. The rationale being that they can finally get the resolution they've wanted since the arrival of the Nikon D800e, along with the useful application of their more or less meritorious Canon lenses.

I know average consumers don't care about any of the magic DXO incantations or the Devil's work of the forum chatter but I'll admit that if I were still a professional Canon shooter I'd wonder if the wonder years were gone and it was time to wander....

But wait!!!! I've heard through the ozone that Canon has been waiting on something big. They've been building a chip (sensor) fab (fabrication plant) that will be able to make chips with a much smaller geometry than ever before. Something like .(point)18 microns. Extrapolate that tidbit and you get the impression, the sense--- that Canon is just about to leapfrog their competitors and turn it into few more years of white lens mania again. Smaller chip geometries mean faster and more powerful processors and, if they use bigger wafers, it may mean better yields which would translate into lower prices.

Here's my prediction: Announced in Spring 2014 and delivered in the late Fall of 2014 Canon roll out a 48 megapixel, full frame camera that becomes the first production camera to take DXO over the 100 mark. While the improvement at 100 over 95 would be tiny....maybe a sixth of a stop difference, the vastly under educated public will lunge to embrace the numbers with their usual binary focus and it will drive satisfying camera sales among the Canon-escenti. 

Why wait? Why not just embrace the Sony A7r Kool-Aid and be done with it? Well, I think the wide angle folks are going to find out that the weakness of the short register cameras might be magenta fringing and weird edge artifacts with the very lenses that most people would like to press into service. If their own mark (Canon) makes a better solution it may stem the tide of the Sony invasion---at least among Canon pro users.

Maybe Sony has engineered out the magenta issues (but I saw it regularly with legacy lenses on the Nex7) but I'm not sure. I'll be watching from the side lines.

It's a sweeping prediction based on fabrication rumors. Let's see if it comes true. At least it will make the Canon shooters happy.

(Factoid: The Canon 5D3 actually has more dynamic range at higher ISOs that some of the vaunted Sony chipped heroes. Just look at the actual graphs.)

Micro Rant. Bokeh is not = to shallow depth of field. Really. It's not.

I don't speak Japanese and I'm not an etymologist but I'm getting really annoyed at the legion of people who've decided (through lack of reading, research, etc. whatever) that the word "Bokeh" is exactly synonymous with the the phrase "out of focus background"; a condition caused by using a lens at an very large f-stop and from a relatively close point of view. It is not. The word Bokeh describes the character of an out of focus area in a photograph.

This is not my opinion. I have a photographer friend who is a native Japanese speaker and an accomplished photographer and he's taken pains to explain the meaning to me several times. In detail.

Here is what the Wiki says: In photographybokeh (Originally /ˈbkɛ/,[1] /ˈbk/ boh-kay — also sometimes heard as /ˈbkə/ boh-kə,[2] Japanese: [boke]) is the blur,[3][4] or the aesthetic quality of the blur,[5][6][7] in out-of-focus areas of an image. Bokeh has been defined as "the way the lens renders out-of-focus points of light".[8]However, differences in lens aberrations and aperture shape cause some lens designs to blur the image in a way that is pleasing to the eye, while others produce blurring that is unpleasant or distracting—"good" and "bad" bokeh, respectively.[3] Bokeh occurs for parts of the scene that lie outside the depth of field. Photographers sometimes deliberately use a shallow focus technique to create images with prominent out-of-focus regions.

Here is the link to the entire article: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bokeh

If we are to have rational discussions about aspects of photography I think it is vital that we use the same terms, respect the definitions of existing terms, and understand the words and concepts that we share and discuss.  Otherwise we erode our ability to have meaningful discussions and we end up with the blogging equivalent of the Tower of Babel (For Tower of Babel please see the Wiki link here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tower_of_bable ). (yes, I see that Babel is misspelled in the link but that's the link.)

Just to be clear, Bokeh, is not a shorthand way of saying, "I put the background out of focus with my long fast lens." It actually means "When I use two different lenses of the same focal lengths but of different construction, and I shoot them both wide open, I find that one has a different quality or set of characteristics in the out of focus areas than the other. They have different Bokeh." The two lenses can be equally out of out of focus due to a small area of sharp focus (depth of field) but the way the backgrounds look can be quite different and that is due to the way each lens is made. Some highlights in the backgrounds might look much harsher on the images made by one lens compared to a lens of the same basic specifications but with different designs.

People who are invested in studying the arcane science of Bokeh will point to lens formulations and even the number of diaphragm blades in the aperture control of a lens as design decisions that influence the quality of the blur.

If one misuses the word bokeh as a substitute for "out of focus" we lose our collective ability to have a meaningful dialogue about more subtle characteristics of a lens's ability to render images. I have four different 85mm lenses and all four, when shot at f2.8 have identical depth of field but all four provide different styles of blur or bokeh. The concept of bokeh can be a powerful descriptor, especially for portrait artists who want images that are easy on the eye. Better bokeh is generally associated with softer and less detailed blurs in the out of focus areas, with smoother transitions. A lens which has distracting Bokeh is often described as having "nervous" blur in the out of focus areas.

Let's please respect the definition of our craft's words. It makes for more accurate exchanges.


A PSA for Zach Theatre's Show, "This Wonderful Life."

This Wonderful Life 2 hi res SQ from Kirk Tuck on Vimeo.

The folks at Zach Theatre needed a PSA for their one man play starring Martin Burke. Martin plays all 37 main Bedford Falls characters in this somewhat wacky play based on the Jimmy Stewart movie, It's a Wonderful Life. I had some free time on a Saturday afternoon just before one of Martin's first performances so I was happy to help out.

I used four of the Fotodiox 312AS LED light panels to light Martin on the stage. I stuck a Panasonic GH3 camera on a tripod, used a Rode NTG2 boom microphone and ran the audio straight into camera. Since Martin was moving off his mark I was able to set the microphone on a stand and aim it pretty precisely. I monitored his levels through a set of headphones plugged into the camera. The taking lens was an older Olympus 40mm 1.4 Pen manual focus lens used at around f2.8.

This was a classic "one man crew" project with me doing the grip work, the audio, the direction and at the end, the editing.

The folks at Zach had local radio talent, Dave Jarrett, do the voice over and we dropped that into the mix. The 30 second spot was edited in Final Cut Pro X running on an ancient Mac Pro laptop.

Every time we do one of these I realize that I need to move the camera more and I need to edit tighter. I'm sure friend Frank will have some good critiques for me. I listen to him because he knows what he's talking about. An even better idea would be to start with a script instead of just starting with a loose idea.

I promise. Next time I'll write a script. And the time after that I'll do a story board.....

edit: If you want to see the high res version click on one of the links under the video window and go see the HD version at Vimeo. 

A Curmudgeon's Delight!!! Making predictions for the New Year. One prediction at a time.

This is the year (2014) most people give up on print. Not everyone. There will be magazines for a while longer and printing on product packages but I'm pretty sure that the days of spending money to print a nice, four color brochure to hand out to clients (who will look at it once and then toss it in the recycling bin) are largely behind us. Yeah, I know that you love print and I love print but the smart companies are already in the habit of sparse printing. Just try getting a nice, multi-page 9 by 12 inch five or six color product brochure from Apple. Probably not going to happen. Come to think of it, the last time I went out to buy a car no one at the Honda dealer was rushing to put slick car brochures in my hands either. My graphic designer wife says they still print brochures for medical product companies but really, that's just because professional medical practices don't subject themselves to endless e-mail and the purchases they make can require time in committees to approve.

When my plumber came by to show me some new faucets for the kitchen, he wiped his hands off, grabbed an iPad and scrolled through the choices from Kohler and the other makers.  It seemed natural enough to me. Consider the last time you bought a pricey camera. I'm going to bet that the real manual came on a disk. The manual for my Galaxy NX came....from the web. None in the box. No more print. Print isn't vanishing everywhere. It will leave the middle of the market first. The rich will still be courted with nice print pieces because it's codified as part of the dance. And the poor will still get printed information because a web infrastructure is still cost prohibitive for more people than we think, along with the barriers to the sort of mainstream acculturation that seems to let us (the educated middle class) know almost by telepathy where the good information lives.

When I say "Print" I mean brochures, magazines, direct mail and point of purchase materials. You'll of course understand that I am a commercial photographer. I am not necessarily saying that from this point on no photographer will print their own work, have a show of prints or print a portfolio. But think about it. We've been trained all of our lives to accept and understand the printed piece. How will the mass psychology of the marketplace shift when we make the collective decision to let so many pieces of print go away?

The advertising won't vanish. It will go where it's been  heading for the last fifteen or twenty years. It's all heading relentlessly toward screens. We've done a masterful job weaning the newer generations off print entirely. We react with screens in a different way. There is an implicit understand that the images contained on screens are ephemeral, fleeting. The images will ultimately become short fuse consumables instead of physical artifacts. And maybe for industrial prosperity and efficiency that is a good thing. Disappointing to the generations whose primary interaction was with prints and the printed page but probably inevitable.

Fortunately, even for the curmudgeons, the screens get better with every generation and that gives them less to bitch about. Funny to think about the future of gallery shows... Instead of walking around in a room full of prints perhaps we'll be ushered to chairs and we'll watch images float by our eyes on giant screens---with all the resolution and color we've wanted---one image after the other. Cycling around again and again.  Perhaps there will be multiple viewing stations where little groups of gallery goers can congregate and they'll be able to set the speed at which they are able to consume the proxy of the art.  Probably cheaper than framing and mounting.

At any rate I hope they don't do away with the wine and a nice buffet at the art openings. That would be too much!


I just had to laugh....

Shot on film. With a Leica R8...

A few years ago I wrote a piece for another person's blog wherein I made an impassioned case for electronic viewfinders. To say I was skewered again and again would be an understatement. At the time the mantric response was, "I'll never give up the glory and majesty of a true optical viewfinder!" 
And yet, I was just visiting said blog when I noticed that commenter after commenter mentioned their desire to have a Sony A7 camera. And many of them gave as one reason.....the electronic viewfinder.

Funny how much time sits in between early adopters and the big hump of the Bell Curve. Are people that resistant to change?

How easy are we willing to make the process of making photographs before we admit how much we've lost?

I was watching a video program from PBS about Richard Avedon a few nights ago and it made me  sad. Not sad for the person (Avedon--who passed away a few years ago) or the people in our industry but sad for just how much good stuff we've (as an industry) been willing to let go of in the thoughtless pursuit of the "free" practice of digital photography. And how complicit we've all been in our own artistic decline. I am as guilty as the rest of you. If you still shoot larger formats than 35mm you are excused from this discussion and from automatic inclusion amongst the collective guilty.

Let me explain what I mean before the fire breathing forum experts go into spiteful overdrive.

Regardless of whether we work in digital or film photography there are certain aesthetic manifestations resulting from the use of different sized imaging sensors, or different film sizes, just as there are obviously different effects that come from using different focal lengths of lenses to achieve the same angles of view across formats. Newer technologies in sensors might yield less noise or higher perceived resolution but all the new advancement(?) comes at the expense of a truly diverse range of tools. And the ones that have mostly gone away are the larger formats. The same formats that made most of the amazing images from the last century. Six by six. Six by seven. Six by nine. True, in camera large format panos. 4x5 inch and bigger.

When discussing different styles of cameras most people aren't well educated enough to get very far beyond counting the number of pixels on a chip. Most don't understand that there are many visual differences between the constitution of different kinds of sensors and most don't understand the very idea of movable (non-parallel camera movements) lens and film planes. But the biggest issue is that we all chose to ignore the obvious visual differences that come from the inter-relationship of sensor size and focal length/angle of view.

We're like happy ants toiling in the tiny garden of m4:3, APS-C and good ole fashion small format 35mm frame sizes. We've completely tossed away medium format, wouldn't know what to do with 4x5 inch sheet film and are probably depressingly unaware that once film could be readily had in 8 by 10 inch sheets---and larger. And we're equally unaware that many, many practitioners of the recently past era didn't use the larger sizes to get more "megapixels" they worked in the larger formats because the larger formats gave the artists different looks. They delivered images that looked unique by format----not just stylistically but fundamentally. Down at the level of physics.  If you could make a snap shot with an 11x14 inch view camera it wouldn't look like a 35mm camera used in the same spot with a lens having the same angle of view. It would look totally different. The much, much longer focal length of the lens (for the same angle of view) used at the same subject to camera distance would have yielded a totally different depth of field in which sharp focus would fall off at a much steeper rate. These were the days of giants in the field of photography. The gear and the people.

The disconnection between micro adjust AF settings and the nature of lens design...

This is a Sigma 50mm f1:1.4 lens with a Sony A mount. It's a great lens but my camera can't reliably focus it and neither can yours. Even if you use a focus align jig and take great pains to calibrate the hell out of it. Is there something wrong with the lens? Nope, I get the same behavior from the Zeiss 50mm f1.4 for the Canon and also the manual focus Carl Zeiss 85mm 1.4 in any of the major brand mounts. So what's the deal?

It's pretty simple really. All these fast lenses have a common attribute called focus shift and the simplest explanation is that the point of correct focus shifts as you stop the lens down. The micro-adjust AF controls in all of cameras are amazingly simple and stupid. They are all made to do one calculation per lens. But if you calibrate for the wide open setting (f1.4) which is the stop you paid all that hard earned money for the lens system's focus point will shift as you stop down. The setting at f2.8 when used on my Sony a99 is three or four points different than the f1.4 stop. In theory you could test and divine a calibration setting for each f-stop but there's no way to load more than one setting into the camera for each lens.

If you were amazingly compulsive you could calibrate all the critical stops and third stops and make a chart. Then when you grab your camera to shoot you can check your f-stop, consult your data and set the correct number of every f-stop. You'd probably only need to do the stops from wide open to about f4 because at that setting depth of field masks the errors. Mirrorless cameras set focus at the shooting aperture for their contrast detection AF so they tend to be much, much more accurate. I wonder if there is a downside to the inclusion of phase detection AF points on a sensor as relates to focusing point accuracy.


The project that was the most fun for me this year.

 My Craftsy Family at work on a horse ranch outside Boulder, Co.

I've done many fun projects this year including a wonderful trip to Berlin for Samsung but the project that I had the absolute most fun with was without a doubt the Family Photojournalism class I taught for Craftsy.com. On one level I was the instructor but on another level I was most certainly a student and, in my time off, a very enchanted Colorado tourist.

It was right at the end of September when it all happened. It was steamy hot in Austin and when the Craftsy producers and I decided on our production dates I was happy to get out of town and head to Denver. We were to produce a 2.5 hour program which at its core is a training program for the person in a typical family to whom the responsibility for taking family photos falls. It's not a class about how to leverage the latest techniques or get the most out of frightfully expensive gear. My counterpart, Josh, was a real world dad who really did want to find out how to take better images of his kids at home, school and on vacation. He showed up with a hand-me-down Nikon D200, a 70-300mm kit lens and an 18-200mm lens that looked like it had been through a war, then a mud fight and finally a trip in the tumble dry setting on a clothes dryer. Instantly vintage.

My instruction of Josh would take place at Red Rocks Park, at his suburban Denver home and at a wonderful horse ranch with a crown of mountain peaks framing the background. We covered exposure, hand holding, tripod use, fill flash and even a bit of Lightroom post processing. And we had a blast following around Josh's wife and two adorable kids.

I was "on camera" for most of the adventure so I really didn't get to shoot much. We were depending on Josh's images to use for almost all of the "B-roll" and he came through like a pro. I stayed busy trying to remember which of three cameras to look at and trying to extemporaneously put together what I needed to say for each segment. (No teleprompter, no formal script and no cue cards!!!).

We worked with a great video crew on the project. Their job was to make me sound good, look good and keep me on track so we had what they needed to do the transitions and be able to piece together a two and a half hour program that made sense, taught the lessons and looked good.  

The lessons for me were all about being on the other side of the camera. I'm used to shooting and directing but being directed and having to remember simple blocking (where to move and when) and deliver spoken content was a totally different experience. Things I took for granted as a photographer seemed really tough when I got put into the role of being "talent."

The biggest lesson is that doing multi-camera work on location requires more crew. In addition to producer/director: Pattie, we had a sound engineer, an editor/digital technician, camera operators, assistants and a make up person. We worked with a lot more gear than I usually do on my "heroic" one person shoots. And with the gear and the complexity of having to simultaneously shoot in multiple angles there is a certain inertia to getting set up and rolling for each shot. The crew used a jib for most of the scenes and that required several people to move it from one location to another. I needed a bit of rehearsal so I understood what we needed to cover, what would show and where I would end up when I stopped talking. 

In most scenes we created some good back and forth with Josh so we had to make sure that we moved as a team and didn't trip over each other.

When you work in the outdoors, especially in public areas, the recording of sound becomes a very complex game requiring much patience and many "do-overs." I might really nail a good line only to have the audio declared "unusable" because of a throaty Harley Davidson motorcycle coming into aural range just near the end of my lines. On another afternoon we seemed to be "sound dodging" a number of private and commercial airplane flights and the attendant roar of engines. 

At one point in the park I waited in the bright sun until car after car went by only to be interrupted by the arrival of trail hikers. But when the silence was on we hit it quickly and got our stuff done. In the down time I got to review the sound to hear just what the sound engineer was going for. With my eyes closed and headphones on I could hear every little chipmunk squeak or candy wrapper rustle you could imagine. It's only by dint of skillful microphone placement and careful timing that we were able to get what we needed. That, and a bucket of patience.

I learned by watching the camera operators the lesson that at least one camera always needs to keep moving. When you are cutting all the footage together being able to cut to moving shots, compressed shots and wide angle "establishing" shots goes a long way toward keeping a program visually interesting.

Another "miracle" of being the "talent" is that you don't have to worry about any of the details that are commonly fretted over when you are also the producer. I never worried about when lunch would arrive...or from where. Never needed to know which cooler had the sparkling water, that just seemed to appear at need. And I never needed to sweat the details of how things looked, a team of professionals was taking care of that for me. When we broke for the day each day I didn't have to load gear into cases, load cases into cars, re-pack for the next day, charge batteries, etc. I could hop into my rental car and head off to my hotel, to a nice restaurant or to one of the good museums in Denver for a bit of site seeing. Where my hands on shooting days generally turn into marathon sessions of both shooting and logistics my talent days ended at a reasonable time and required only a tiny modicum of homework: review the outline for the next day.

I loved being on the other side of the camera but you probably already guessed that I'm a bit of a ham. It's fun to think that I have something of value to share after nearly 30 years in this business/art/craft.

When I flew back home after spending eight days in Denver (we did a shorter production the week before) I was tired and drained but a bit sad. I'd come to enjoy this new, fun work and I was  melancholy to be leaving it behind. When I got back to Austin I noticed that I immediately started incorporating what I'd learned in Colorado into my own projects. I write scripts now with simpler lines and I write scripts so that my talent has lots of natural break points in which to regroup or for me to cut with in edit. We're trying to write shorter scenes so we don't run out of camera movement before we run out of words.... And I'm trying to break my reliance on artificial lighting and learned to manage existing light better. And by that I mean always being mindful of color balance and exposure so that lit footage can be cut together with natural light footage without huge visual discrepancies. 

The two valuable lessons I learned from Pattie, my producer/director on the project were these: An outline that's been thoroughly discussed, picked apart and improved beats a script because it gets the content across in a way that is more genuine and natural. And, that details are important. Where I was standing when we cut and went back to shoot close ups for B-roll, my inflection, my expressions and even my posture were all important cues to continuity and continuity really counts for believable documentary style work. But finally, the thing I learned that is most valuable is that it's important to stay flexible because sometimes, when you are working with really talented people, a different approach or a happy accident can work better than all the careful plans. 

It's amazing and fun to go from "know it all expert" to newbie beginner student all in the same project and all at the same time. What an incredibly fun and immersive way to learn new stuff. 
Our sound engineer tries  to master all of the outdoors to make me sound good.

Studio Portrait Lighting

Family Photography: Candid Moments & Storytelling

If you go to the on of the links above and click through Craftsy also has a free course I did on family portrait stuff. I'll post a direct link a bit later. I'm running out the door to have fun....

Added note: Nearly 20,000 people have signed up for the free course since it went live in November. Happy!