Don't optimize your purchase, optimize your technique

The hot wide angle lens on the market right now is the Nikon 14-24 mm 2.8 zoom. And it's a technological tour de force. Exotic lens elements. Nano coating. Hyper Drive focusing (I made that up). And the consensus is that, wide open, it trounces all the lenses in the focal range. By a long shot. It's currently around $1,800 US. If you shoot fast and wide you'll want one whether or not you are a Nikon shooter. Very cool.

But....what if you're a different kind of shooter? What if your wide angle work is outside in the middle of the day? What if you had the good sense to use some of your money to buy a great tripod? What if you'd rather spend your money on food and shelter?

Here's the secret that drives lens junkies crazy: All good lenses are great two stops down from wide open. Almost without exception. Take a 14-24 Nikon and compare it to an Sigma 10-20mm lens and at f5.6 or f8 you'll probably be amazed to find that they are pretty darn close.

This is something I learned a long time ago in two different ways from two different people. Charlie Guerrero (Master Photographer par excellence) showed me on an old Leica that the 35 mm f2.8 Elmarit was actually much sharper than the Summicron 35mm f2 inspite of the fact that, at the time the Sumi was four times the price of the Elmarit. Stopped down to f4 they were pretty even but at 5.6 and 8 the Elmarit walked away with it. Same thing with 50 mm lenses. If you test them at f4, f5.6 and f8 the 50mm f2 lenses absolutely school the 50 1.4 lenses. In fact Charlie used to take cheap lenses and expensive lenses and do a test for our students. He'd have them shoot the pricey lens handheld in regular daylight while shooting the cheaper lenses on a tripod. Same aperture, same shutter speed (well about the "one over the focal length" rule...) and whatever lens was on the tripod was clearly better.

Erwin Puts, an expert about Leica lens design explains in detail why it takes a factor of 16 more precision to grind a lens one stop faster than another lens. His postulate is that all things equal the slower lens is the better lens by dint of manufacturing tolerances.

All I know is that I put my cameras on tripods when I'm looking for high quality and I try to shoot my lenses two stops down from wide open whenever quality is more important than mobility.

The shot above was done with an old, used Olympus 11-22mm zoom lens. One of the lenses that originally came out at the launch of the now "antiquated" Olympus e1 in 2003. Even though I'm using consumer grade Olympus cameras with my 11-22 I find it wonderfully sharp, contrasty and well corrected when I shoot it correctly.

I guess the point of this blog is that the lens isn't nearly as important as we make it out to be. I used to buy all kinds of super fast lenses until I came to realize that I like to see an adequate amount of things in focus. When I made this earth shattering discovery it just naturally followed that I came to believe technique to be worth more than expenditure.

Maybe it's just human nature to resent buying one's way into a craft. I think we love the idea of succeeding with egalitarian tools. As the year progresses and I spend more time shooting and less time shopping I seem to be finding that the enjoyment is not so much in attaining perfection as in having fun. And having some cash left over to buy a round at happy hour.

Loving the 11-22mm and all my recent down market purchases. I love relying on my vision more than on my wallet.

Up In Smoke. Burn the past.

I've thought a lot this year about where photography is headed and why. At first I thought the changes were scary and bad. Now I understand the inevitable push to change that comes with a vibrant culture. I understand it but of course that doesn't mean I have to like it.

It's good to get a grip on what's happening so you can plan for the future but it's best to figure out what has already changed so you can live in today.

We are witnessing the demise of print in commercial communication. Magazines are giving way to websites. Newspapers are yielding to blogs and news sites on the web. Even core advertising is moving relentlessly to video, television and webvertising. In some areas the moves are gradual but in most areas the moves sit around building momentum until they reach a tipping point and then change seems sudden and wrenching---even though the atmosphere was filling with gas fumes day by day we are still surprised by the explosion.

But here's the thing that causes photographers to be rooted in the past. Most of us grew up when print was in ascendency and we learned to use tools that stretched out to fill the most demanding parameters: tight, four color printing on gloss stock at high lpi's. We needed all the detail we could get out of cameras in order to satisfy the demanding nature of high quality printing. Especially so for double truck ads.

And in the 1980's and 1990's the paper manufacturers pulled out all the stops and provided offset printing papers that could suck up ink and return luxurious detail and depth. We needed our Hasselblads. And it is no wonder that the number of megapixels became the holy grail.

But we've lost 35% of the total number of magazines in the market in the past 36 months and the ones with the best printing quality and finest papers seem destined to be the first to savor extinction. Titles like Gourmet, which help define the high end of the printer's art.

As one medium subsides another rises. And now we have the web. A big file isn't measured in inches and lpi but in pixels and, because of bandwidth considerations, small is the imperative goal. If logic prevalis we'll see a downsizing of pixel densities and an increase in parameters that will make the files better web content. Maybe richer color or files pre-optimized for web representation. But one thing is for sure, the need for higher and higher res is slipping away. Magazine by magazine, glossy brochure by glossy brochure.

I've talked to trade show experts recently in doing research of future photography trends. Here's what you need to know: Trade show booths used to be prime display space for large prints. The kind of large prints you could walk up to and put your nose against. But a 30 by 40 color print, printed on a durable stock and mounted on heavy duty Gatorfoam, shipped across the country was a costly investment that usually had a shelf life of one or two show. And a ticket price of between $400 and $500.

Industry experts let me know that clients are quickly moving to plasma displays to take the place of last century, single image, printed graphics.

And why wouldn't they? The screens can be endlessly repurposed and can show graphics, still photographs, commercials and video programming interchangeably. Imagine you are a semiconductor manufacturer at an embedded systems trade show. Your booth faces the doors to an auditorium where breakout sessions are being conducted.

If you consult the schedule you'll know exactly what each breakout covers. You could fine tune the images on the video displays to match the interests of each audience over the course of the show. And there are study metrics that talk to the efficiency of this model. Average trade show attendees spent 17 seconds looking at a typical still photo display print but would linger for up to three minutes in front of a display with video and still programming mixed. And, purchased in any quantity the price of these almost infinitely re-usable screens is lower than the price of one static image.

You certainly don't need the resolution of a 5dmk2 or a Nikon D3x to fill any 1080p screen. You need between two and four megapixels, tops.

If our markets are moving to this paradigm, and if jobs are less plentiful and fees less juicy, then why in world are we dropping kilo-dollars into the ever escalating arms races of camera acquisition?

Pretty much the stuff we had last year would work just fine this year. It might even represent overkill.

Someone will mention fashion photography or product photography and the need for higher quality repro and you'll have me dead to rights there. But how many of us really do that versus how many of us do corporate headshots, products for the web, and lifestyle for web and lower quality print publications?

The gear anchors us emotionally to a past that is NEVER coming back. Even when the economy recovers we'll still face the reality that our media have shifted. That production has changed. Everything has progressed into a direction that is bearing less and less resemblance to the past.

WHAT TO DO??????

Well, Buddha would tell you to burn the past. Make a clean break with habit and precedence and move on to the next thing. I agree. When we hang on to outmoded routines we sabotage our ability to see and react to what's happening in the present.

I sold off all my Nikon cameras and lenses this Summer. I assume, in retrospect, that this was my attempt to make a break from the way I practiced photograph last year, last decade and last century.

You'll have to find your own way through the maze but I will tell you that the tools you'll need are curiosity and an ability to be underwhelmed by technology and focused on the content rather than the production aspects that once gave our craft succinct barriers to entry.

Here's the plan for Kirk Tuck Photography:

1. Focus like a laser on my core strength: Portraits. Understand that the camera is much less important than the rapport or the lighting.

2. Minimize my investment in stuff to maximize the creative process. Understand that gear will continue to be less important but connections and creative thinking will become primary.

3. Understand that multi-media is the new IP and clients will want a unified provider. Learn sound and video.

4. Become a true minimalist. Evolve my gear to be lighter, smaller, faster, cheaper. Put the profit in the bank, not back into the camera bag.

5. Burn the past so I never have to say, "This is how we did it in the old days." That's the kiss of death as AD's get younger and younger.

Ian Summers famously says, "Grow or Die".

I say don't let the past anchor you to the same old thing. Throw yourself your own revolution. Have a coup de grace with your last century equipment fixation. Show me how sharp your mind is, not your camera.


The relentless rhythm of the freelance life.

It's nine thirty in the evening. We've had dinner and we're all settled into working on unfinished projects. For me it's getting the lighting set up for a morning video interview in the studio. I could put off dealing with the lighting until the morning but I would have to put off going to my early morning swim practice and I don't want to do that. I wish I had put aside enough time to light this project earlier in the day but I was already deep into other projects. And so we repeat a pattern that's been going on for about 16 years. That's how long it's been since I moved my business from the huge and costly downtown studio to the smaller building just in front of my house.

The trade off for less space is less cash out paid out each month, and a much easier commute. The downside is that, unless you are more disciplined than me, the work is always right at hand and there's always something more that could be done to move everything forward.

Part of the pattern is heading into the house to cajole or beg my spouse or child into following me back out to the studio to "sit in" and let me test the light. I want to know before everyone gets here in the morning if this is going to work the way I think it will (and after so many years you would think I would know) or whether I need to tear everything down and start over again.

Tonight Belinda is more accessible. I ask her for five minutes of time even though we both know it will be ten. I look through the camera and I'm happy but I know my client will ask for a hair light so I put one on a stand and test it as well. Belinda escapes back into the house as I make a few notes on exposure settings and color balance. 

Tomorrow's job is not a very complex one nor is it very lucrative. But it's a job and it's ultimately for a client who runs a small advertising agency and who has pushed work my way for years. In the worst of the recession he always seemed to find a law firm or medical practice that he could convince/cajole to hire me...and pay me. So I do the job happily. It's all part of an interlinked puzzle of connections and friends in this business.

This job is all set up now but I'm not ready to leave the studio yet. I know that this job will go from ten a.m. to noon tomorrow but I have another project that will take most of the afternoon. I'm going through my check list. The second project will be a combination of still photography and digital video. I'm the art director on this one as there is no ad agency. The project is direct to the client which means I have to wear the hats that an ad agency partner usually sports. Some of the gear will be used on both jobs so that means putting extra batteries on the charger tonight. And packing the pieces that don't cross over.

The week is like this. We meet for dinner as a family and then retreat to unfinished work, manic studying and the relentless flow of busy-ness that makes up an artist's existence.

At some level there's always the fear that if I stop or slow down everything will come shuddering to a halt and we'll exist in some sort of impoverished limbo. Irrational since it's never happened and work doesn't seem to be trending down the slope of some PowerPoint curve, just yet.

I'm setting a limit tonight. I'll be gone by 10 p.m.  My treat of the day: A re-run of the Big Bang Theory on the local Fox affiliate along with a glass of red wine. It's 9:58....goodbye.

Trimming down the blog and starting over from scratch. Goodbye old writing...

In the next few days I'll be stripping off all the old blog posts and starting over from scratch. From my point of view the practice of photography has changed so profoundly and in such interesting (and frightening) ways that most of the content has become antiquated. If you are looking for a favorite post from earlier than this Spring chances are it's already gone. Content lives forever on the web so you might be able to find what you are looking for but I'm done with looking back. The future is much more interesting.


Ultimate Lighting Minimalism.

Come to my "One Light" workshop.
We'll start at Lowe's Hardware Store
Where we'll buy four under the cabinet
fluorescent light fixtures for $12 each.
Then we'll buy some packing tape to tape 
them all together with.
We'll add a bungy cord to 
anchor them on the fence post
"light stand."

Then we'll take a picture,
pat each other on the back 
and go home.

And the whole time we'll wander why 
the hell we just did that when we 
have a ton of lights on the shelf just
to the left.

A very busy week means a quiet blog...But I still wanted to thank you for the 13 millionth pageview.

Sculpture. San Antonio Museum of Art.

I'm sitting in the studio making clipping paths for thirty or forty still life images I made for one of my clients on Thursday and Friday of last week. In the same week I also shot some video interviews and also a video shot with scores of people all yelling out one sentence in unison. I wrapped up another job for a joint venture capital company (mostly portraits) and had pre-planning meetings for a handful of video and photo projects for next week. Once you factor in swim practice and walking the dog there just wasn't a lot of time to water the blog. Too many hats?

I have a few observations for anyone who wants them: If you know you're going to have to do clipping paths it sure is a good idea to get as deep a focus as you possibly can so you don't have to mess with diffused (airy, feathery?) edges. When getting into the Zen of clipping paths you should  have a really good, calm music mix you can listen to so your brain doesn't fry. You should get up every hour and look out the window so you don't get vision cramps.

In the pool, if you are swimming with young people in your lane (say 26 year old triathletes and the like) it's important to let them go first so they can wear themselves out while you draft off their wake. In this way you'll be able to keep up for the first half of the workout while they tire themselves out. If you are good at pacing you'll have the stronger second half of the work out.

Another pool suggestion: If you've been pounding away at work you probably should take it a little easier than usual in the pool. Anything more than 4500 yards in a workout is just garbage yardage if you are already worn out.

A few observations about video: Even if the clients say they know exactly what they want make sure to do a pre-production meeting to go over the details. You might find you need an extreme range zoom to get the kind of shot they describe as "not a big deal."  Bring your own microphones! You might find that the ones they swear they have on hand and ready to go never materialize and you don't really want to be that guy who had to use the in camera mics, right?
Video tripods with fluid heads are nice and all but few of them go really tall. Need to shoot someone who's six foot five from above eye level? You'll be happy you had your conventional Gitzo 8 footer in the trunk of the car.... And a hard Pelican case to stand on.

One more point about microphones: If you are running the signal from the microphone directly into your camera be sure to pack extra cables and adapters. Borrowed or supplied microphones are probably XLR plugs and might need phantom power. At the least you might need an XLR or quarter inch to 3.5mm adapter or two.... Don't be that guy.... (Been there..).

Wanna make photo-life easier in general? Custom White Balance All The Time! Custom White Balance All The Time! Custom White Balance All The Time! Custom White Balance All The Time! Custom White Balance All The Time! Custom White Balance All The Time!

My location shoot on Saturday reminded me of the importance of checking the local events calendar when you discuss a location with your clients. We wanted a fun shot of the downtown skyline with the lake in front and my client in front of that. We've shot that shot before and there's a perfect spot down at Auditorium Shores in Austin. As we headed there it became clear to us that this was also the spot of the weekend long Reggae Festival and the attendant 100,000 people. Thank goodness we had a "plan B." 

It's also a good idea to bill as you go. The end of every job should mean having you sit down and bill right then. Nothing worse than looking up after three weeks of work without having time for bookkeeping and realizing you're about to suffer "check lag." A nasty reality of the one man band business model....

Good stuff this week? The a58 is a great little camera and the files are good enough to interchange with the a99 for a lot of critical work in the studio and around town. The new kit lens is good but unless I'm wanting to travel as light as humanly possible I'd rather use the 16-50mm 2.8 DT just for the faster f-stop.

The new fluorescent lights are good. Again, CWB!!! But actually a pretty good balance in with diffuse sunlight. More when I slow down.

We logged our 13,000,000th pageview last night. Thank you for reading and taking time to comment. I routinely just edit out the people who are difficult but I appreciate everyone else's input. Hope you're out shooting while I'm sitting here listening to vintage Rolling Stones and working the Wacom Pad.

Don't forget to bill for usage.  And have a great week. At the end of next week.......Eeyore's Birthday Party at Pease Park. Wear a costume if you are coming. A khaki vest and a heavy bag of old school voyeur cameras doesn't count......


Celebrating your successes. A record of happiness and fun.

Many years ago I was the director of an advertising agency. It was an interesting time in the business. This image comes from a shoot we did in 1983 or 1985. Our crew had just finished shooting images for an ad campaign for a retailer who had upscale flower shops that also sold good Champagne and chocolate, as well as fresh blooms.

We we're photographing models doing explosive openings of Champagne and trying to capture the moment bubbly wine came rushing out and spraying all over the place. I can remember that we were shooting on a couple of Pentax 6x7 cameras and our lighting consisted of a bunch of Novatron power packs with their cheesy plastic heads.

Back then we capped every shoot by celebrating. We'd all have some Champagne at a shoot like this one, then we'd assume the "Jet Pose" and, if we were still reasonably coherent we might all go out to dinner at one of our favorite Mexican food dives.

Somewhere along the line photo sessions seemed to become more and more routine and we started only celebrating the big budget shoots. But when I looked at this image I was instantly reminded of the words of the CEO of a 1990's telecom company. His mantra to his "troops" was always: "Celebrate Your Victories!!!!" His company succeeded in "celebrating" through over a billion dollars of stock holder's cash in a little less than 18 months, so you know he took the idea of the morale building party seriously. And I was thrilled to be along for every mile of that sybaritic journey. :-)

I've decided to re-institute the idea of celebrating our victories and the victories represented by good shoots for my clients. Obviously, it's now a different time and the celebrations will be a bit more low key. But now, while I'm visualizing success, I'm going to remember to stock my refrigerator with a case or two of good Champagne. I'm just starting to remember that this is supposed to be a really fun career. Screw the recession. Raise a glass.

Celebrate your own victories and successes. There will be more than enough time to ruminate over the bad stuff...

Friday. Thinking about intersections between gear, new synergies and portraits.

Derma by Kirk Tuck (kirktuck)) on 500px.com
Derma by Kirk Tuck

When you take the burden of flash out of the mix portraiture seems to be easier for everyone involved. I've recently added more continuous light sources to my inventory. In one case are five large LED panels. Just under that case are two, new V-Lights from Lowell (compact tungsten halogen instruments) as well as a couple of Lowell Tota-Lights. But the newest and, so far, the funnest new additions are the three Fotodiox Day Flo Max fluorescent fixtures. They all use Osram Dulux tubes and seem to have master most of the spectrum issues that plagued earlier fluorescent lights.

I'm using them with the Sony a99 and that's where the idea of synergy comes in. You probably know that the a99 has an electronic viewfinder. You probably also know that to work with studio flash in a productive way you need to turn to a setting where the image in the finder is amped up all the time. It makes sense. If you set f8 at 1/125th of a second ISO 100 for the flash and you leave the camera in the "Setting Effect On" setting (meaning that what you see in the finder is exactly what you are going to get) you'd get a dark, dark finder while working in the studio under 100 watt modeling bulbs. Change the settings to let in more light and then the flash exposure is wrong. But when set to "Setting effect Off" you are basically working with the camera the same way people with OVFs always do...with your eye compensating for the various brightness levels in the studio.

Switch over to continuous lighting and you never need to turn off the "Setting Effect On" setting in the menu. You are always operating in a mode of the camera showing you exactly what you will get. It's showing the effects of your settings.

So, in the portraits I did with the new flo's on Wednesday I set up a six tube fixture and pushed the light through a layer of diffusion. Nice and soft.  I added a second light to illuminate the background. You could see the effect immediately in the finder. Then I added a little bit of backlight from the smallest fixture with only one tube live and my set up was complete.

The second synergy comes with the way the a99 handles lower light. I have no hesitation at using ISO 400-3200 in making portraits. I'm old school so I really like to work at ISO 200 when I can. But it also means that I'm using slower exposures and that can introduce lack of sharpness due to camera shake. The elimination of the moving mirror goes a long way toward stabilizing the camera at 1/30th of a second, or really anything under 1/125th of a second. If I want to be hand held the combination of the fixed mirror and the image stabilization means decent handheld work with impunity at 1/30th of a second. Very nice.

The final synergy in working with continuous light and the Sony a99 is the electronic first shutter. Not only does it also reduce overall mechanically induced unsharpness but it also takes away the somewhat startling (for people not usually in front of the camera) noise of a typical DSLR camera's operation.

For me it's a much more pleasant way to work than with a moving mirror and flash.

Today I'm doing still life work and the idea of the synergetic interplay is the same. The continuous light allowing the use of any combination of shutter speed and aperture while the camera dutifully shows me exactly what I'll get before I even push the shutter.

In fact, if I were a conceptual artist I could forego the push of the shutter button and just describe, within the context of my manifesto, exactly what would have been in the frame and how it made me feel. Further, what it meant in the time line of the history of conceptual art. Maybe I just did...