My most useful commercial lens. The 70-200mm 2.8.

If you are a generalist, like me, you probably do a lots of different kinds of assignments. If you go back and look at the exif information embedded in your images you might find a surprising trend. You probably assume that you need a wide range of lenses and you might assume that you use your 24-70mm equivalent more than any other lens but the math might tell you that you were wrong. I presumed that I was a single focal length user. A 50mm or 85mm guy. I presumed the reason I liked my images (for commercial assignments) was that the focal lengths I used for work mimicked or corresponded with the different focal lengths I use for my personal work and fun.

But it's not true. The math tells me that the "money maker" lens for me is easily the 70-200mm 2.8. Maybe it's because I shoot a lot of speakers on stage for corporations that tips the scale in the direction of the heavy duty longer zoom. Maybe it's the work I do every month for Zach Scott Theatre which requires me to reach out and grab images from a prescribed distance. But it's more than that.

I seem to have a telephoto vision and it colors everything I shoot. From actors on pianos to cowboy boots. While the faster 70-200mm zooms are useful for low light shots a lot of what I shoot are objects or people that I am actively lighting and the fast aperture becomes less important than having this range of lenses at my disposal.

When I set up to photograph boots for Little's Boot Company in San Antonio, I started out by putting the Sigma 70mm f2.8 macro lens on my Sony a99. And why not? It's the sharpest lens I have in the drawer. It would seem perfect for a product shoot like this. But I liked the compression of the boots and the background more than I would have liked the ultimate expression of sharpness... And really, at f8 either of the lenses would probably give the camera sensor a good run for its money...  By shooting a little longer focal length I could get focus on the front and back boot but start rolling off the sharpness on the background and the part of the canvas background that extends in front of the boots. More magical. I could also keep the camera position the same but zoom in or out to equalize the size and composition of the boots in the frame. 

When we move on to food photography most people instantly make the assumption that macro lenses would be the logical tool but even here I like the ultimate framing flexibility of the 70-200mm. In the example just above we were flirting with as little depth of field as we felt we could get away with. I was working very near the long end of the lens, near 180mm and what I gained was not just a more limited depth of field but also the compression that I talked about in regards to the boots. It's an optical process of pulling shapes together and creating a more graphic shot.

The magic comes when you use some form of continuous lighting because it becomes easier to see what you'll get in the final image. With LEDs or Tungsten or Florescent you'll be able to nimbly switch from wide open to mid range to fully stopped down and immediately compensate exposure with changes in shutter speed. I find it a much more fluid way of working that using electronic flash which would require more chimping and more complex changes to the camera and the lights. (Take a shot and review. Turn the flash up or down. Take a shot and review. Turn the flash up or down, repeat...).

In every system I've owned, from the Canon to the Nikon to the Sony system the first purchase, along with two identical camera bodies, is the 70-200mm f2.8 lens. In the Canon system I used the 70-200 f4 because I liked the lighter weight and I felt that the lens was a bit sharper at f4 that its fatter sibling. Even for the time that I shot with the Olympus 4:3 system the 35-100 f2 was my go-to lens.

In all honesty a generalist photographer could make due with a very circumscribed system. Unless you choose to do a lot of architectural documentation you could do 99% of the work that pays the bills for most pros with just two lenses and one body. I'd yell at you to get a second body on the off chance that you experience a failure but I'm pretty sure about the two lenses. One would be the  lens everyone seems to have, the 24-70mm 2.8.  And, of course, the other one is the 70-200mm (your choice when it comes to f2.8 or f4).  If you are called on to sometimes take a few interior architectural shots you might want to add a 20mm lens to the list but it's not mandatory. 

All the wider lenses are artsy and dramatic but in the end very few paying clients really like to deal with the wild forced perspective of the amply wide lenses and most photographs I know who shoot commercial soon tire of the "spectacular focal lengths.

The idea that professional artists need to have every focal length covered is a mythology promulgated by the camera companies. And why not? It's there job to sell you as many different products as they can. Just as your CFO will tell you that it's your job to resist buying extra lenses that don't add to the bottom line.

In the course of two weeks almost every job I've shot, from portraits to food to stage craft to corporate events, revolved around my reliance on the 70-200mm (or equivalent) lens. There are always exceptions. Like the guy whose job consists of shooting the interiors of airplanes and recreational vehicles. He's probably got a collection of wide and superwide glass and rarely uses anything over 50mm.  Or the woman who shoots car racing, soccer and other field sports. Her lens sweet spot probably starts at 300mm and heads north from their. They are outliers. The rest of us fall nearer to the center of the Bell Curve. But that's just workaday photographers. If we change the discussion to art then all bets are off.

Why I like this image from Uchi.

This dish was photographed with a Kodak SLR/n full frame, no anti-aliasing filter camera using a Nikon 105mm macro lens. It was lit with several flashes and the light was modified in such a way as to make the scene appear to have been captured in soft daylight from a window.

I like the image because I think it is successful on two commercial levels. First, it was a very accurate representation of the dish presented to me by the chef for inclusion into a magazine article. Second, it was done quickly enough, without the hesitation usually delivered by teamwork, and because of the immediacy of the photography the food retained it's moisture and freshness.

I like that it forms a pyramid and that the greens are such a nice counterpoint to the red tones of the beef. The crumb to the far left of the frame gives the image a nice glance of imperfection and the fact that it is going out of focus gives the  image a sense of depth.

I am happy that I included the top rim of the plate so that the food doesn't exist in some sort of oblivion. The revelation of the edge of the dish against a darker background gives me a reference for size and gives me cues about the disposition of the food on the plate.

I mostly like the delicacy of the whole image. The precarious perching of all the parts gives a temporary and ephemeral nuance to the entire idea.

The uploading of the file to Blogger makes it a tiny bit darker than it really is. Think one third of a stop brighter, overall...

I also like the fact that I got paid to play with food and sample some of Tyson Cole's art.


Just revisiting a favorite image taken with a Sony a77.

Jill in Xanadu. Zach Scott Theatre.

Stage lighting only.

And a few more from the same show.

 all images photographed with the Sony a77 and the 70-200mm f2.8 G lens. 
All lighting from the stage lights.

Going Places. Planning the trip.

Everyone has an idea of what might constitute the "perfect trip" for them. That idea might change as we gain more experience and spend more time actually traveling. When I was in college the trip I wanted to take was the classic "backpack and Eurail through Europe trip. I spent a semester doing that with a girlfriend. Now, I don't think I'd have the same enthusiasm for carrying around a big back pack, camping out in freezing weather and making fried eggs on a Blue Gaz stove in an Alpine meadow as ice melts off the tent. I've traveled enough for corporations to be a bit spoiled.

While landscape photographers might want to go into unsullied nature to find the confluence of beautiful land and perfect light people interested in music would rather haunt the music clubs and concerts of big cities ready to document that once in a lifetime performance.

Right now, 2013, I have the idea that I really want to spend ten days discovering Tokyo. Not all of Japan---that's too big a bite to chew off---really, just Tokyo. I have several friends who lived and worked in Japan and they are quick to tell me how misguided I am. That I should consider Kyoto for the gardens and the temples, etc. But that's the trip for them, not for me.

I have a lust to be in a big city, filled with people and buzzing with energy 24 hours a day. My own Lost in Translation tour. So I've been building momentum. Gearing myself up to get geared up. Planning to start planning.

I know I want to go alone. So I'm planning to go in the middle of the Fall. Ben and Belinda will have settled into the routine of work and school. Neither would really have the option of taking that much time off for an adventure that really revolved solely around me wandering the streets taking images and video of things I find quirky, exciting, whimsical, funny and abstractly definitively Japanese. Nor do I want to take time for planned lunches and formal dinners. I'm not interested in building team consensus in the morning or making a visit to a must see site just because it's in someone's guidebook. I'll go alone and then, when it's everyone else's turn I'll stay home and hang with the dog while they do their thing.

I know I'll want to use some of the massive airline miles I've accrued over the last ten years and never used. I'll investigate the best way to leverage those points from affinity programs to pay for airfare and upgrades. I've pegged the first week and a half of October as a slow season so I'm looking around to see when the black out dates are and how I can get around them if I want to get specific with my arrangements.

I need to figure out where I'll make base camp  and find a hotel that works. My biggest concerns for lodging are quiet and a place to charge batteries.

Then I need to start writing proposals to companies who might think that co-sponsoring part of the trip in exchange for a series of articles written about my experiences in their factories or engineering facilities are worth some sort of traded value. I'll start with Sony and go from there.

When I get closer to the date I'll start packing. I'll want to take two identical cameras. One reason is to have an identical back up that works exactly the same and takes the same lenses, batteries and attachments as the primary camera. Second is to have two cameras that can be set the same and use interchangeably while walking and shooting so I can use two different lenses without having to stop and change them out on a single body.

If I were packing to go tomorrow I'd take two Sony Nex-7's, two of the 18-55mm kit lenses and the 50mm 1.8 OSS lens. All of the lenses have IS and I like both choices. For me, convenience and general competence outweigh performance at the zenith of possibility. The above cameras, two chargers with six batteries and ten 16 gigabyte SD cards is an awesome imaging system for traveling and it all fits in a small and inconspicuous bag. No flash and no tripod. I've been down both of those roads before and come to the conclusion that it's not possible to be prepared for every and any eventuality. It's better to plan for an optimum part of the curve and work there.

The real gear is a good pair of comfortable walking shoes and a good attitude. That and a jumbo helping of curiosity.

I've traveled with cameras for the better part of 25 years now and I've done it every which way. I took 25 pounds of medium format Hasselblad gear with me on assignment to St. Petersburg, Russia, along with nearly 100 pounds of lighting. That was a logistical (but at the time, necessary) nightmare.

One time I went to Rome with just the right kit and I wrote in my journal about it. I said I would only want to bring a fast, auto focus camera body and a medium range, fast zoom. At the time I was thinking 28-85mm f3.5 or f4. Now, with nice ISO at 800 or so I would revise that to be a medium range zoom that ends up at f5.6 on the long end. As long as it's reasonably sharp.

If the past is a guide to this trip then it will go something like this: Arrive and sleep.  Get up every day as early as possible and walk the streets in targeted areas just absorbing the sights and shooting the things that interest me. Ten to fifteen miles a day. A card of images a day.  Every night, after supper, I'll sit in my room and write about the day in my journal. What I saw. What I ate. What I heard. What I bought. And so on.

The secret to making it all work in my head is to have a goal in mind before I step on  the plane to go. I can already envision a show of images at several of my favorite galleries. Right now I'm thinking black and white but that may be because it's the way I worked on my most successful trips in the past. And I like the way black and white prints work on the walls.

The new wrinkle will be a conscious integration of video. Snippets tied together with the intention of digging down into some interesting aspect of the trip. I'm not sure what that will be yet but it will come to me before departure.

Why am I sharing this? Because writing out loud is a good way of making it real and gaining the momentum to follow through.  But I'm also keenly interested to hear from you in the comments or offline if you've traveled to Tokyo recently, or live there now. What would you see? Where would you go? What are the new social trends? Where would you base camp? And, if you shoot or have shot in the streets there, what cameras and lenses did you find to be workable or optimal?

My long term goal is to make several trips there and to really see the city before things change again. I want to share my interpretation of the experience with my friends and a wider audience.

Final (vital) question: Can you get good coffee without too much fuss in Tokyo?



"Mad Men" window dressing in Boston.

Since most of us who write and read the VSL blog are guys I won't expect us to know about the Betty Page shop in Boston, on Newberry Street. But it was right around the corner from my hotel and when I got in to town in the early evening I took a stroll just work out the flight kinks. There was this window and in it were mannequins that looked incredibly cool. Perfect models from the 1960's. They weren't going anywhere and they weren't charging SAG/AFTRA rates so I decided to spent a minute or so making their portraits. The "models" were very cooperative but they really didn't have much range when it came to gesture and expression....

I loved this profile of the red head. I shot it with the Sony Nex 7 and the 50mm 1.8 lens at near wide open and handheld. When I got back to Austin and started looking through my files I was happy to see just how controlled the noise was and how sharp the lens is, even when shot nearly wide open. I've included a shot that's around a 1:1 crop just so you can see what to expect from the system. I'm very happy with the overall performance; especially for the size and price.

The final shot, the group shot, was photographed on a different evening using the 
Sigma 19mm 2.8. I consider it a "must get" lens for any of the mirrorless systems.


Old Magazine Assignment. My Three Favorite Chefs of the Moment.

Emmett. Owner of Asti and Fino Restaurants. 

Marion. Owner and Executive Chef of La Traviatta

Peter. Chef to the world.

 I'm leaving for Boston on Monday. Tonight I'll write my last two blogs until next Friday. This is one of them. These images were done a long time ago. The magazine assignment was to figure out my five favorite chefs in Austin and to write a small profile of each one which would touch on their significance in the Austin foodie scene.

These are the three scanned files that I found today on a CD rom I burned over twelve years ago. I did the assignment with a Leica M6 camera, a 90mm Summicron lens, a 35mm Summicron lens for Emmett, and Tri-X film. I printed each one before I did a final scan for the magazine.

I thought about them today because I was querying my chef friends for restaurant suggestions in Boston. Looking at the images today reminded me of how much autonomy we had in our styles back then. It was fun.

I'll be ignoring the blog until Friday the 15th. If you get all vitriolic in the comments you'll still get moderated. I've given my dog the password and she's a ferocious editor. And fiercely loyal...

One more blog coming.

So Much Sturm und Drang about cameras, I thought we should take a break to contemplate cupcakes...

Sometimes you just have to stop and smell the cupcakes...

Sony Nex 7 with 50mm 1.8 OSS lens. Shooting through the glass case.

Mom. On a Visit to San Antonio.

I'm always dragging a camera around but I'm so investing in being in conversations that I don't put it up to my eye and use it nearly enough. Yesterday I was visiting my parents. The occasion was my father's 85th birthday (he is hale and healthy, thank you!). I was sitting on a couch across from my mom and I liked the way the light was coming through the window so I brought the camera up to my eye and shot. I took five or six shots and I got the shot of my mother that matches the way I think about her: Sharp, in charge and ready to discuss anything with a ready command of the facts of the moment.

I was carrying the a850 around with me and I used an 85mm lens.

The visit to San Antonio was good. We caught up on the family news and had a great dinner. It was nice to take a day away from the office and the phone. I should use my camera more and argue less. Seems to work out well.

A really great blog on change and competition by one of our readers:


Randall Armor is a veteran photographer and teacher and he's written a really good blog on competition and change in the world of photography. It's a great read. And, as soon as I finish what's in the queue in front of me I'm going to settle in and start reading his other blog posts. If they are as good as this one I'll be quite happy.

If you disagree, disagree with Randall. I'm just pointing you in the right direction...

Window Reflection.

Near Emerson College. Nex 6. 50mm 1.8 Sony OSS Lens.

New "Holy Grail" of Cameras Spanked by the Real Deal.

It's fun to watch the blogger/reviewers hyperventilate over the latest, new faux rangefinder, the Fuji X100s. But before you snap one up and become part of the (limited) single focal length club, etc. you might want to take a moment to head over to DPReview and check out their studio comparison of a few different cameras in relation to the new golden boy. Don't care about ISO 200? Plug in ISO 1600 and be surprised.

It's fun to watch when the hype doesn't match. Can the early reviews be that wrong? Or have they never taken the time to pick up a ___________ or a Sony Nex7 and really compare?

Becoming a fun spectator sport. Remember last year when it was all about medium format?  And people think I'm fickle....

edit:  Here's the raw comparison. How much noise smoothing is okay? Would you rather have detail or.....?

I'm going to be that, downsampled to the same size the Sony noise will pretty much match the Fuji noise....you'll just be left with more apparent detail...

Of course the Fuji may have unbelievable handling and style. That's important too.

Renee. Close Up.

Early Portrait of Artist.

goal: find interesting people and then photograph them...


Shooting Buildings In Boston. Sony Nex 7 and 50mm.

We've got a lot of open land here in Texas. Our buildings tend to be spread out. Most of our cities are pretty recent so we've got road that started as roads instead of horse paths. But wow! Boston has such a cool collection of buildings from various slices of history and narrow, twisty-turn-y streets. It's perfect for a bout of building stacking...

We were leaving Boston on Thurs. afternoon and we'd been all caught up in college visits for most of the week. The light wasn't great and the weather was freezing but I didn't want to leave before I got in a couple more hours of unfettered photography. I grabbed the Nex 7 and the 50mm Sony OSS lens, shoved an extra battery in my pocket and headed out of the revolving front door of the Taj Hotel, slipped across the street and walked through the park.  I knew what I was looking for and where I could find it. I was looking for something we don't really see in Texas. I call it time-travel-building-stacking.  The intersection of buildings from different eras in different architectural styles.  The buildings seem to cascade off into the difference almost as if someone grabbed a folder full of building images and went nuts layering them in PhotoShop.

The 50mm 1.8 OSS lens was perfect for this. A much tighter angle of view than most people would expect for shooting buildings made necessary by the desire to stack them. A wider angle lens would emphasize the first building and diminish the impact of the buildings behind it. A lens much longer than the 50mm on the Nex would be too limiting, giving me only small slices of the buildings and never really allowing more than two or three in a frame.

The EVF in the Nex worked to my advantage as I could see the relative tonalities while composing. I could make quicker adjustments (with instant feedback) to exposure and I knew when it might be smart to turn on the DRO for more shadow details.

Eventually my watch propelled me back to the hotel to pack and head to the airport. The city of Boston must be a relative heaven for people who are really into architectural photography. The little I saw of the city (how much can you see in a week?) made me want to turn around and head right back. A lot of wonderful stuff.

The Reckless Camera Purchase. The Sirens of Tech Just Past.

I like the new stuff just fine but there's some quirky part of my brain that's always looking out for cool cameras from the recent past. I always liked the idea of big, hunky, bullet proof Sony full frame cameras but the timing was all wrong. When they were launched I was deep into my Olympus and Canon journey. I noted them, thought the build quality and high resolution was neato and then filed the information away in some cobwebby part of my brain. Along with the formula for mixing up homemade Dektol and the directions to my favorite old restaurant (now a new high rise condominum).

As you probably know, somewhere in 2012 I took a left turn and bet it all on Sony. For the most part I'm happy with my decision. The cold, hard reality is that whether you shoot with a new Sony, Canon or Nikon the images are all very good. All the cameras are competitive and any one of the offerings from the big three are at least competitive with whatever else is in their class. But, as I've joined a "tribe" of camera-hood I feel duty bound to at least give my Sony's a nod of approval from time to time.

Logically, my love for the marque comes from the certain reality that, of all the current cameras in the world the absolute best from any company is, without any doubt, the Sony Nex 7. With the right lens in front of its sensor the camera is unbeatable by any other current camera; including any Leica or medium format digital camera. For handling and cuteness it makes the flagship offerings from Canon and Nikon look oafish and clumsy. Runs resolution and sharpness rings around all the other mirrorless swill and kicks dirt in the face of the new rabble of faux rangefinder cameras. Can you imagine preferring a Fuji X100s? Giggle. You can't even change the lens on that little toy.... So, rush out and buy Nex 7's while you can.  (humor alert: Kirk does not think the Nex7 is the only good camera on the market. Save your scathing rebukes for politicians or bankers....ed.)

With a bag full of Sony's premier platinum product at my side why would I want to go digging through the compost pile of cameras past? Hmmm. Interesting question.

Being a fossil in the photography world I actually am programmed to enjoy all kinds of stuff that really doesn't matter in real life. I'm programmed to want full frame cameras because that's mostly all we had in my formative years. Due to the effectiveness of marketing and it's slave, advertising, I've been demographically trained (male, over 40) to believe that anything made out of Magnesium Alloy or Titanium (aka: Boy Metal) is inherently more valuable than anything else. Even though I know better, logically, I've been battered into looking back at optical viewfinders to see if I was mistaken about the incredible value (to working photographers) of electronic viewfinders (I was not mistaken). And mostly I wanted to buy the Sony a850 because David Hobby, Zach Arias and Steve Huff all wrote about the beauty, charm and necessity of full frame cameras (or in the cases of Hobby and Arias, MF cameras) before they came under the spell of the newest Fuji fixed lens point and shoot tool, aka: the Fuji x100s.

There are many things to recommend the Sony a850 and the Sony a900's but developing raw files in Lightroom is not one of them. That bugaboo and the widely accepted view that their Jpeg engines aren't as good as the "big two" leads one on a epic journey to discover the ultimate raw converter solution for Sony's ex-flagship cameras. There are a few upsides. I like the built-in image stabilization. I like the idea of a simple menu, made simple because the cameras have so few "modern" features. I like the full-frame-i-ness, and looking through the uninformative optical viewfinder makes me feel just like a real, pro photographer.....from the 1970's.

Two things drove me to buy the a850. One is the fact that it's a black metal camera and no real man can resist black metal cameras. The second was the low, low used price which was barely above the price of a nice lunch for two at the Tour d'Argent (get the pressed duck). My rationalization was that it would be nice to have a back-up, full frame camera to pair with the Sony a99. That way two lenses could cover an assignment handily without having to make compensations and accommodations for cropped sensor camera backups.

Ah, the steps backward.  The howitzer-like shutter and mirror slap. The mute and uninformative viewfinder. The simple menu structure. The dedicated buttons sitting right outside for everything I normally use. The incredible dynamic range and color of the sensor when used at ISO 200-400. The wonderful color speckles and glittering white dots when used at higher sensitivity settings. Double the battery life of the DSLTs. And twice the weight.

Just a brief dalliance. But doomed for failure and regret as I'm currently using the camera all wrong. I have the Rokinon 85mm lens on the front of the camera even though there's no method of pre-judging actual sharp focus by zooming in on the image. I'm working in Jpeg even though DP Review was dismissive of the "jpeg engine." (Really? It's an engine? Seems more like just a software application to me...). And I even have the Jpeg thing all wrong. I'm using it in black and white mode and goosing the sharpness and contrast. Surely, I'll be plagued with halos around my highlights. I had no idea my highlights were so angelic...

Seriously though, aren't there digital cameras that you never tried but always had a hankering for? If you could pick one up now for pennies on the dollar don't you think it would be fun to try it out? I never owned a Nikon D1x but I was always curious. Same with the Panasonic L1. I always thought that was a sexy camera. I was very happy to have tried out a Canon 1DS mk2 for a while. It looked different, in its images, that later Canons. Not better or worse, just different.

So, today I'm tooling around with the a850. An absolutely reckless and unnecessary purchase. But maybe a lot safer than leaving my money is a European bank.  Have you ever succumbed to marketing from a previous age? Do you have a Leica M3? In your quest for new and powerful have you considered old and eccentric? Might be the ultimate hipster statement: vintage digital.

Just thinking about portraits today.

I loved the process of shoot portraits on 4x5 inch sheet film. It always seemed so...serious.

We'd start out shooting black and white Polaroid to get the look and feel of the lighting locked down.

Then we'd move on to shooting a few color frames to see if the addition of color changed the graphic design of the shots.

Once the subject and I were happy with the final color Polaroid I would grab a stack of film holders and we'd get down to business.

After the last frame was shot I always felt sad. I never wanted to stop taking photographs.

I found these images in a box with hundreds and hundreds of other Polaroid test shots.

It made me stop and re-think my current practice wherein I get everything set up and then we spend some time shooting and chimping until I get everything zero'd in and then I start to shoot in earnest. I think I'm not spending enough time up front to get everything right before I start. I'm depending to much on the digital ease with which iterative corrections can be made as we go.

Next time I shoot I'll test more at the start and then shoot fewer frames during the shoot. But with more concentration.

These were done with one of my old Linhof TechniKarden cameras and the 250mm Zeiss f5.6 lens that I loved. It's amazing what one finds upon opening mysterious little boxes.

Speaking of larger formats you might want to watch the interview with the CEO of Phase One that Michael Reichmann just posted over at www.luminous-landscape.com.  It's pretty interesting:


To Boston and Back. A Parenting Journey.

Our room at the Taj Hotel, just off the park. Boston is so nicely compact,
it seems you can get anywhere in just a few minutes.

I've been in Boston for the past week. Now I am back in Austin, Texas. My small crew was doing something traditional that, no doubt, many of you have been through, and some more than once. We were visiting colleges during our child's Spring Break. For now, at least, I know that Ben did not spend his week frolicking on the beach in Daytona with a beer bong and a group of young women whose judgement has been impaired by alcohol...

We visited the big name schools and the not so big name schools. Our parenting mission was to get the ball rolling so that the kid would start to narrow down his preferences. Big school? Intimate school? Urban or bucolic? Ivy league or desert quaint? We'd love to think that our little darling is so bright that every school will lavish money upon him but we're pessimistic enough to know we'll all be selling plasma at the blood bank before this is all over with. 

Ah well, many of you have already experienced the pain and far be if from me to push you into reliving it. I will say this: I love Boston. And I was thrilled with the tiny camera system I took along with me. I knew I wouldn't have a lot of time to go out shooting in the streets but then again, I am married to a benevolent goddess and she does make allowances for my street shooting addictions. I took a single, very small Tenba backpack. One that I wrote about this last summer.
I took two cameras because only a rank amateur travels without some sort of back up. I took three lenses because in my estimation that's all anyone really needs. 

I left all flashes, tripods, lights and light stands at home and traveled photo naked. If I couldn't shoot with the image stabilization and ISO 1600 I really didn't need the shot. 

Since I wanted to travel light I took the lightest system I have ever owned. Two Sony Nex 7 camera bodies, the 50mm 1.8 OSS Sony lens and the two new Sigmas; the 19mm and 30mm 2.8's. I shoved a 16 gig card into each camera, added one battery charger and four extra batteries and that's it. Did I pine for more? Naw, I have a weird brain. If the basics are covered I spend my time figuring out how to maximize what's in the bag rather than aimlessly wishing for something else.

The Nex 7 is an amazing camera. It's small and lightweight but it packs an imaging punch high above its weight class. For all but low light applications I'd put the Sony Nex 7 24 megapixel sensor up against full frame cameras where resolution and sharpness are the driving metrics. Sure, the bigger sensor cameras will out score it in high ISO noise but what do I care? I shoot in normal situations, mostly. 

The Nex 7 has three well known faults when it comes to intense, daylong use. And two of the faults are interrelated. Fault number one is the fact that the system launched with a bare handful of lenses and an even sparser collection of really good lenses.  The Zeiss 24mm, the new 35mm 1.8, the 50mm OSS 1.8 and one or two others are quite good but some of the early entries are mediocre at best. Most maligned, on the Nex 7, is the 16mm lens. Some of the others are just the run of the mill, slow kit lenses. And it's really sad because the sensor coupled with the right glass is capable of really good images. The saving grace in this regard is the increased introduction of third party lens makers like Sigma. Their cheap and plain 19mm and 30mm 2.8's are very sharp, even wide open. At f5.6 the 19mm is a stunner little performer and I can imagine that the m4:3's version brings a bunch of extra bite to the really good sensor in the OMD as well.

The second major fault of the Nex 7 is all about power management versus start up speed and awake from sleep times. If you want any battery life you need to implement the power management controls and set the sleep time to a few minutes, at most. The problem is that the camera takes five or six seconds from a dead stop to fully functional. And about three seconds from sleepy time to hello, I'm engaged, let's shoot. When I'm in a visual target rich area I give a minute massage of the shutter button on a regular interval so the camera doesn't go to sleep and it's ready when I am. Still, you have to expect that if you want a battery to last all day you must turn the camera off when you are not using it.

The only other real fault of the camera (number 3) is the short battery life. This is of course all tied up with power management and the implementation of two backlit screens as well as the smaller form factor of the camera. When I shoot diligently (as opposed to casually and sporadically) I tend to go into the menu and turn off the sleep time which means the camera is on all the time. This sucks power from the battery but ensures that the camera is ready to shoot the moment I am. My work around is to carry four or five batteries for a full day's shooting and change as needed. I've got three chargers so on a day of shooting out of town I generally put three on the charger before we head out for dinner and then put the other two on before bed. Works fine. I've been using Wasabi Power batteries as my second layer of batteries and so far they work as well as the originals.

I generally used two cameras on the trip, one with the 50mm and the other with the 19mm. It was a very efficient and straightforward way to work.

Over the next week I'll be blogging about my Boston experiences and about my wonderful, behind the scenes tour of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts photo department tour, where they do magic. We'll also talk about shooting while doing family trips.

Once I experienced how good the images could be and how little a great camera can weigh (not to mention how little space they take up) I can't imagine ever traveling with a bigger camera system again. The a99 will travel when it is contingent on me charging my regular fees to a brand picky client. Until then it's mirrorless Sony all the way.
Coming back from an early morning session of shooting and the acquisition of personal 
coffee. I took a break to shoot the mirror image.
We missed the snow by a day or two but we had our share of 
cold and rainy nights.
My collection of sweatshirts and set gloves certainly came in handy.

Is it my imagination or are there really a Starbucks and a Dunkin Donuts on every single street corner in Boston?

Ben's top choice at the moment (subject to quick change) is Brandeis...

I finally took Andy's advice and tried a file conversion in Aperture.

Shot with LED Light Panels for Zachary Scott Theatre.
Camera: Sony a99 with 70-200mm 2.8 G lens.

I don't want to start a war about which RAW converter is best. God knows, there are more than enough religions out there already, but I wanted to share that some files work better in RAW converters we might not have been using in our own workflows. Since I switched to Sony cameras I've felt that Lightroom 4.4 was just about as good as anything out there for conversions so I didn't look around much. I mean, Adobe Camera Raw is considered by most image workers as the standard of the industry.

But recently I picked up a Sony a850 camera (more about that whole deal on another day) and I shot a bunch of portraits with it. The images looked great on the LCD screen on the back of the camera and there wasn't anything really challenging about the lighting or the subjects, but once I pulled the raw files into Lightroom my stomach kind of tightened up. The images were contrasty and for some reason LR wanted to add 12 to 15 points of magenta to the faces in my portraits. Well actually the default seemed to be, "the more magenta everywhere, the better!"

I worked and worked on the files but I was not happy. So I opened Capture One and messed around with 7.0. Better but still not in the "happy camper" ballpark. A quick and disastrous detour through Sony's primitive program didn't help my mood at all. Frankly, I was ready to go back to film and throw the whole mess at a lab. Right....

Then I remembered that my friend, Andy, swears by Apple's Aperture. And his images always look great to me. Great contrast, believable sharpness and great color. And he swears he uses nothing but Aperture. For $79 bucks and a quick download I'll bite.

I re-learned (I'd tried the 1.0 demo a few years back) everything I needed to do the job at hand in about an hour. I tweaked the images and they fell into place without the slightest glitch, color cast or posterization in the shadows. The sharpening worked better and the color controls made the flesh tones....perfect. I batched them and they're spitting into a folder as I write this.

But then I started wondering about the image above. I posted a version earlier that started life in LR and I wasn't totally happy with the contrast and the overall look of the image. Since Aperture is a multi-thread application I tossed this image file into the program and started playing with it. To my eye it's a totally different image now. I could see a big difference in the way the program made the initial conversion and how well it works with Sony files.

I'm not saying that your Nikon or Canon or Olympus camera will necessarily see the same kinds of improvements that I saw in the files from two different full frame Sony cameras but if you are using an Apple machine it may be worth your while. Particularly if you feel less than thrilled with the stuff that's coming out of your current workflow.  Just a thought.

ed note: look what popped up this morning over at DP Review: review.com/articles/8219582047/raw-converter-showdown-capture-one-pro-7-dxo-optics-pro-8-and-lightroom-4

Mad Beat Hip & Gone.

Erin. Actor in Mad Beat Hip & Gone.

Live theater has been going through a technological evolution just like most other arts. At Zach Scott Theatre directors and stage designers are incorporating more and more video projection in their work and, as in other arenas, the projections are dependent on the quality of the content. 

I got a call from the video designer at Zach, Colin Lowry, a week ago and he asked if I'd be interesting in helping to create both still images and video that could be incorporated into the play Mad Beat Hip & Gone via a large, rear projection screen. And by large I mean something like 16 feet by 24 feet. I jumped at the chance to do the work and to collaborate with Colin. He's very talented and working with talented people always makes you look good.

Since we would be jumping back and forth from still photography to full motion capture we needed to use lights that worked in both directions. All of our shots would be close up or medium length shots and movement in stills wasn't really an issue so I chose to work with our basic selection of LED panels. The image above tells most of the story. I used two 1,000 bulb Fotodiox panels aimed through a one stop diffusion screen for the front light. I used a small (14x14 inch square of white material as a fill card to the shadow side of my actor's faces, one 500 bulb panel on the background and, for most set ups, on diffused 500 bulb panel as a back light. The background was a roll of standard, gray seamless paper.

I chose to use the LEDs because they emit little heat and are most comfortable to work with. I decided to dispense with the adding of magenta filters to the light sources to cope with the small, green spike and just rely on the custom white balance from my camera. A slight gamble since I was also shooting in Jpeg and would have more limited options for color correction in post processing. As you can see from the sample above the color balance worked out just fine. Very little nudging was required to make the color file I've included at the top of the blog.

When I first heard about the size which these images would be projected I had the kneejerk reaction of thinking that I should shoot at the highest resolution possible. But Colin reminded me that the best projectors out there for this kind of work were limited to a fraction of the capabilities of the cameras these days and, that the distance from screen to audience would be at least 100 feet. In the end I shot everything at the maximum res of the camera so we'd have big files in case we wanted to use any of the images on posters for the marquees or in the Duratrans blow ups that are feature on the street facing wall of the Theatre.

Someone recently asked me if LEDs were up to the task of providing complete light for a portrait. I hope this blog answers that.

Erin. Actor from Mad Beat Hip & Gone.

Most of the images we took of four different actors will be used in black and white and will be projected during active parts of the performances. We had discussions about the conversion from digital color to black and white and in the end Colin and I agreed that the black and white setting of the camera I was using was a pleasing rendition and it rivaled what we thought we could get out of a program like Silver FX pro so we decided to tweak the parameters of the camera's monochrome present and shoot all the black and white images and video that way. It would save production time later on.

Erin. Actor from Mad Beat Hip & Gone.

We used exactly the same preset parameters when shooting video. It's nice to be able to do that because now the tonality of the video and the stills will match without a lot of time spent grading the video to match the stills.  And that's important since we'll be using some of the content from both media in simultaneous projections.  We also used the same lighting design in video and still production for much the same reason.  I am enthralled with the way the video turned out. We were going for a specific effect. We wanted our actor to slow down her action so that the audience would have to look twice to get that it was full motion video and not a still moving across the screen.

During the shoot we both kept a careful eye on the rear LCD monitor of the camera but it was great to toss the footage and the images onto a new Apple MacBook Pro with a 15 inch Retina screen and really dig into the images to access our success. I downloaded my memory card directly onto Colin's production machine's hard drive minutes after we wrapped the shoot.

More than any other play this year Mad Beat Hip & Gone is the one I've wanted to see. I love the time period, loved the ethos of books like Jack Kerouac's On The Road and Dharma Bums, and I love the jazz of that era as well. I expect it will be one of the coolest plays around this year and I hope the work that Colin and I did in the service of the world premier will be valuable. I think Steven Dietz has another winner on his hands. And I think Zach Scott is just the play to debut it.

I used a Sony a99 camera and the Sony 70-200mm f2.8 zoom lens to shoot everything. The camera is a chameleon and able to go between media effortlessly. Couple that with fun lights and it makes generating creative content that much easier.

This is a good book. I'd be happy if you bought one. Or two. Or more.

See the details here:  Lighting Equipment in print.

Buy the book here:  Kirk's In Depth Book on Lighting Equipment

Why you might want a copy:  This is the fourth book that I wrote and I decided to write it because so many people kept asking me about what's available (lighting equipment and grip equipment) out in the photography market and what should they buy. Well, everyone's approach to photography is different and there wasn't a single answer that worked for everyone. In this book I created an overview of lighting tools from big studio flashes to little LED lights. From Florescent lights to tungsten. We also cover how to modify lights, what to put them on and some basic safety information.

I like to think that it's a fun read but you'll have to be the judge of that. If you've been thinking about a lighting gear and wondering what's out in the market besides battery operated cheap strobes from China then this book might be for you.

I'd say it's also great literature and that it will leave you exhausted from crying during the sad parts and laughing hysterically in the many funny parts, but it would not be true. It's just a book about lighting.

Take a few minutes to read the reviews: Amazon Reviews

Complete your collection of Kirk Tuck Writing.

End of random commercial for one of my books.  Back to our regularly scheduled program.


Whether or not a portrait is good is a matter of your intention going in...

It's the weekend and it's quickly racing to a close. I'm trying to make lists of things I need to do in the upcoming week but I keep getting stuck on the line on the list where I've written:

"Make an interesting portrait this week."

It's a little unsettling that I feel the need to write that down but at the same time we humans tend to get wrapped up in the minute by minute drama we sometimes construct for our lives and forget the bigger things that make it all worthwhile. One of the requirements, in order to make each week a good week, is to at least try and make a good portrait. Not technically good; I've long since been disinterested in that, but whimsically good. Or dramatically good. Or connection-rich good.

When I make a portrait I like there are several responses that I usually feel. One response is to find the image funny and that, in itself, is endearing in a photograph. If it's just the right kind of portrait I find myself feeling infatuated with the subject. Like having a crush.

Some images create a nostalgia for a time or place that was never really mine. And some portraits lie to me and make me think that I have some insight or awareness about the person I've made the portrait of when really, it's just me creating that response from the visual stimulation I've created.

I know a portrait works when I don't mind having it on the wall in front of me for years and years at a time. But, of course, I can never know that now. I can only know that in a future now.

A portrait is an emotional trophy when the subject says, "You capture exactly how I feel."

And you know it's a great portrait when you make extra prints because you could never bear to lose the image and you want to be certain that you have replacements, just in case.

I don't think "making an interesting portrait" ever starts with the thought: "I would like to explore this kind of lighting or that kind of lighting technique this week and I'll need a subject."

And I don't think "making an interesting portrait" ever starts with the desire to see how sharp my new lens is, or how superior my new camera might be in relation to all the many cameras that came before.

If you set out to solve a technical problem there's a small chance that the part of your brain that makes emotionally connected images will grab your bossy technical brain from behind and tie it up and make you do art before that smug and analytical tech brain busts free and gets everything back "on the right track."

I use the tools of my craft to show how beautiful the person in front of my camera is. I try not to use the beauty of the person in front of my camera to show how cool my expensive toys are...

"Make an interesting portrait this week." Is on my to-do list every week. I don't always get to it. I don't always have what it takes. But I leave it on my list to remind me that it's worth trying.


Unconventional approaches can produce a different result.

Portrait of a person who quit smoking. For Prevention Magazine.

I recently came across a thread in a forum that disturbed me. I think I know why. The originator of the thread was asking the community of photographers at large about using continuous light to make photographs, in the studio. All the "experts" quickly chimed in to "educate" this poor bastard and let him know that flash is the best, only approved, only correct and standard way of taking any photograph that requires any lighting. The implication was that the use of any other type of light was symptomatic of arch stupidity. The main premise of the commenters was that any movement shown as blur in the photograph is bad and also that photographers might require dozens and dozens of hot lights in order to "match" the light "power" one can easily get from a single, plastic, electronic flash.

I was disturbed to find that people are so incurious and so resistant to the application of any technique that is not unanimously embraced by the collective. I was disturbed to think that there is now only one (approved) way to skin an image. And I was disturbed by the hubris of the responders. It reminded me how dangerous it is to have only enough information to have an opinion.

Over the course of my career I've always owned lots of flash equipment and I've used it on thousands and thousands of jobs. But there is a time and place for experimentation, curiosity and expressing a different vision. One of those places is in the arts. And photography sometimes falls into the category of "art" (with a little "a").

The image above was made for Prevention Magazine. They called. They liked the black and white style I'd been doing for a number of years and they wanted me to do that style for an article they were writing about people who'd changed their lives.

I started with this style of lighting after studying some really cool images from the 1940's, taken by a photographer in a small Texas town. All of his images were done with "hot lights" and all of them had wonderful areas of shadow and light, as well as a sharper look to the lighting than what was in vogue in the 1990's.

I packed for the shoot by taking a bunch of Lowell Pro Lights (a 250 watt focusable flood light with barn doors) and several low wattage optical spotlights that use fresnel lenses to collimate the light. Out of a reflexive fear I also packed the usual steamer trunk full of Norman studio electronic flash gear. The Normans stayed in the car.

I used one light from above, diffused by a very thin diffusion material to create a very directional downlight for my subject's face. I use a small, Lowell from above and behind the subject as a kicker and hair light. And I used a small 250 watt flood to illuminate the back wall (lighting in layers...).

The light looked so different to me from the softbox driven, soft transition lighting we all used back then. The fact that it was lower powered than conventional strobe was something that I really liked because it gave me both a very shallow depth of field but also an excuse to keep telling my subject to freeze.  It's a quality of light that also looks sharper, overall, than more diffused light.

The magazine was very pleased with the image and ran it in a full page, uncropped, next to the article. I was pleased because the image didn't look like any of the other images in the magazine. I stayed with this style for quite a while. It's a little harder to set up and you have to keep your subjects in the sweet spots of the light but it's nice to have extra and different tools in the box.

I am currently evolving that style now. It's fun and challenging to use harder, hotter lights. It takes more time and effort. But the difference is worth it when you pull it off.

Contrary to the opinions of the "Photo Borg" we needn't all be assimilated into the Borg. There are plenty of really good lighters who use nothing but continuous lights. They are called directors of photography, or DP's. They work in the movie industry and they create stunning visual products that create billions and billions of dollars of value. There are also plenty of still photographers who also understand that there are advantages to using hot lights, florescent lights, HMI's, and even LEDs to create effects and to give heightened control to lighting. As well as helping visual creators find their own brand, their own style.

It's okay to be different. It's okay to shoot differently. In fact, for people at the higher end of the craft, it's mandatory. Being able to mimic the majority of work out there is nothing of which to be proud.


What's For Dessert?

Maybe a chocolate mousse with a couple chocolate truffles.

This is a small part of a bigger shot. The bigger shot was just fine but I liked this section more than I liked the whole thing so I cropped. I made this photograph for Garrido's Restaurant about a month ago. It was lit with LED lights and a Sony a99 camera equipped with a 70-200mm f2.8 Sony lens. I wish I had the time that day to make a comparison shot with the Sony Nex 7 and the same lens, equalizing the angle of view to compensate for the difference in sensor size.

Of course, whenever I order dessert I'm generally pretty happy with what I get but I always wonder if the other desserts that I passed up in making my choice might have been even better. 

I wonder what the analogy to chocolate is in still photography...