Brief gear side track....

I know, I know. I said I wouldn't talk about gear. And I'm not really going to. And I know that none of you like Sony cameras because.....I really don't know why. But I've been saying to anyone who will listen that the Sony Nex-7 is a tremendous picture taker to anyone who will listen to me. An additive camera. But now I don't have to say it anymore because I found someone that everyone will trust to make the case for me.

Here, with no particular introduction is Trey Ratliff and his tale on why his Sony Nex-7 is taking the place of his Nikon D800....


I thought it was a fun read. Maybe because it helps confirm my seat-of-the-pants camera analysis.

If you don't ever want to read about gear ever again then just ignore this one and don't click that link.

Please use our Amazon links to buy your camera gear (and anything else you like at Amazon). We'll get a small commission which helps defray my time and cost while costing you zero extra.
Thank you very much.

Adventures in shooting. Melding photography and video in one job. And a packing nightmare.

My assignment yesterday was to create content for web use and print collateral for a high tech manufacturer. The job was just about evenly split between providing good video and providing good still photographs. The video we needed included interviews with eight people, including senior staff and a also a client testimonial. We also needed to capture lots of moving images of people (wide, medium and close) to use as b-roll or cutaway shots for a series of videos. The still images needed to include headshots of the senior staff and then shots on the factory floor that would show the wide range of capabilities the company has, as well as showing a bright, happy workforce in action. That's a lot to shoot in one day!

I started packing the afternoon before. I decided to work with continuous light for every part of the project. That required packing the heavy duty, new fluorescent fixtures, the Fiilex P360 LED light and a case of Fotodiox 312AS battery powered LED lights. Since I'm using continuous lighting I've changed from using umbrellas and softboxes to using diffusion panels to modify my light sources. The positive take on that is that the panels can offer more creative options and more flexibility. The downside is that each modifier must have its own light stand so now I'm packing nearly double the number of light stands I used to when we just did photographs.

I packed two stand bags full of stands and a complete, three frame Chimera ENG diffusion system with various diffusers and nets. It takes a bit longer to set up lights this way but we saved time in the long run by not having to set up one station for stills and one station for video.

Of course, when we were shooting only stills we never had to think about sound. Both what to pack and how to engineer our environment at the client's location to minimize background noise. Now that I've had fifteen or sixteen recent experiences in sound recording, as well as reading everything I could get my hands on....I've pretty much zero'd in on using nice lavalier microphones to record people talking. The one I wanted to use is a professional Audio Technica microphone that terminates in an XLR plug. I wanted to maintain the ability to run longer, shielded cables which balanced terminations allow but I also needed, at some point to convert the interfaces so I could plug the microphone into the 3.5mm plug on my Sony a99. I also understood that there was an impedance mismatch between the camera and the microphone. My solution was to use a BeachTek adapter. The adapter fits under the camera and is passive, meaning it doesn't require batteries but it doesn't amplify signals. It does allow you to "trim" each channel separately. The box also uses very good transformers to take care of the impedance mismatch. The box outputs an unbalanced signal to the camera via a very short 3.5mm to 3.5mm cord. This mini-mixer can attach to the bottom of the camera and the top of the tripod which makes it a convenient package.

But I never really know what clients will ask for while we're out on location so I packed a variety of microphones that would handle just about anything that might come up. I packed extra cables, batteries, wind mufflers, headphones and adapters. Another full case just for audio...

Finally I packed cameras, lenses and memory cards. I came equipped to cover anything from 15mm to 300mm but I wound up most using the 85mm 1.5 Rokinon (for all portraits and interviews) and the 35mm 1.5 Rokinon Cine lens for nearly everything else. My primary shooting camera was the Sony a99 but I also packed the a58 as a back-up camera. One of the most important tools for the job was my fluid head tripod. What about verticals??? My client called me at 6:22 am to tell me that he couldn't remember if he mentioned that EVERYTHING would be shot in landscape, 16:9. I figured that if I needed a vertical shot I could do what millions before me have done and.....hand hold the camera, stabilizing it on the top of the tripod while I shot. Primitive but workable. And, as it turns out, unnecessary for the project at hand.

I was out of the house by seven and minutes later throwing away good cash on a cup of decaf at Starbucks (any hour before 8 am is too early to operate heavy machinery or to make your own coffee...). By 7:30 I was at the client location loading all the glorious inventory onto my cart and dragging it into the building. By the time the ad agency guy arrived I had the initial lighting set up and ready.

This was my routine from 9 am until 1 pm: Meet various executive. Have stylist look them over for wrinkles and shine. Make a still portrait (actually many----the agency likes choice. Think 40 or 50 per sitter). Switch to video on the camera. Put lavalier microphone on the subject. Have them speak while I set audio levels. (Trying to stay below -12 db on the meter.) Call out to my director/agency guy that we're ready and then operate the camera while agency guy conducts the interview. Make sure the subject doesn't go out of focus when leaning in and out. Monitor sound with closed headphones to make sure levels are good and audio is clean. Stop reset and prepare for the next person. Some people are comfortable in an interview situation and some are not.

One person nailed his interview in one long take. Another took us 45 minutes for what will edit down to about 30 seconds of content. Patience and extra batteries are a vital part of the kit.

Once we wrapped the studio style shooting I dragged the tripod out onto the factory floor to shoot the CNC machining shop, the assemblers, the fabricators and the shipping departments. I most used the a99 on the tripod but I supplemented with the a58 and a 16-50mm lens for quick, handheld stuff.  If we needed to juice up the existing light we used the little LED panels. They were just right for a bit of color matched fill light. I'm happy I had them along.

We finished shooting our last set up, a conference room shot, right five and then I broke down the set and packed all of the gear. I hate packing most and it took me nearly an hour to get everything packed up correctly and loaded back into the car. Of course Austin traffic was as dreadful as ever and it took me nearly an hour to go the 17 miles back to my studio.

Today I am writing this while ingesting video and still files into respective folders and then burning delivery and back up DVDs. As usual the original memory cards are tossed into an envelope and pinned on the wall. When the project is over and the images and movies are backed up in several places we'll put the cards back into service. The deliverables will take up 6 DVDs. Yikes. That's 24 gigabytes of material.

I'm not editing this project. The agency has an editor they like to work with. Thank goodness. There's so much to wade through.

Please use our Amazon links to buy your camera gear (and anything else you like at Amazon). We'll get a small commission which helps defray my time and cost while costing you zero extra.
Thank you very much.


Keller Williams Book Shoot.

It was a cold and rainy day last month when Caitlin came to my studio with a box full of books. She'd designed a new book for Keller Williams Ink, a large publisher of real estate specialty books and she wanted a whole basket full of documentation. We did the regular stuff, the single book cover, the stack of books, the interesting angle on the book and everything else you can think of. Then we embarked on massively non-parallel book arranging. Seems the book is just crying out for an arrangement similar to the domino set ups where you spend days setting up millions of dominos, knock over one and watch the rest fall over at a rapidly accelerating clip.

Our biggest challenge was stacking them without accidentally starting a book avalanche. We did them a number of different ways and even incorporated a hand into the mix. I was using a Sony a99 with the Sigma 70mm macro lens. We lit our set with a combination of the new fluorescent lights because it's so much easier to arrange still life shots when you operate in the "what you see is what you get" mode.

The real bear was doing all the clipping paths. Beware of having too many image design ideas because your client may not want to choose and you may get stuck creating complex clipping paths for every single variation. I didn't mind because I really did find myself appreciating my client's design sensibilities. 

When we were thru shooting and Caitlin headed back to the office I sat down and actually read the book. Pretty darn good guide to doing business but an even better guide to figuring out how to be successful in life.

Above, grappling with the sad reality that books really do fall down from time to time and, if they are ill placed they take the whole stack down with them.

The End.

Please use our Amazon links to buy your camera gear (and anything else you like at Amazon). We'll get a small commission which helps defray my time and cost while costing you zero extra.
Thank you very much.

We just finished shooting this TV commercial for Zach Theatre. It's "Harvey."

It's tuesday and editor, David Munns, already has our Harvey spot ready to go. We shot the footage on Sunday morning with Martin Burke. Click on the  YouTube logo on the bottom right corner of the video frame to go directly to YouTube if you want to watch the HD version.

Nearly a dozen loyal VSL members chimed in to me personally after I wrote about shooting this video last Sunday. They were interested in trying their hands at DSLR video and the common question was: "What do I need to get started?"

I'm just at the beginning of this whole video journey myself but I'll tell you what's come in handy so far.

1. While it's wonderful to have a camera that includes a headphone jack we've done a bunch of projects with the Sony a77 and some with a Canon 5D mk2 and neither of them were so equipped.  The most important feature (as far as sound goes) for me is the microphone input and a set of manually settable level controls. The headphones are critical to hearing problems with sound as you go but there are workarounds. You can record your audio to a digital audio recorder, listen to the sound via the headphone jack and output the same sound with a "line out" or "aux" to the microphone input of your camera with a 3.5mm to 3.5mm male, stereo plug. Kind of cool because you're making a back up as you go. Honestly, all the APS-C and FF DSLR cameras can record great HD video. Even a lowly Rebel. (The Sony's are the only ones with good, fast focusing during recording...if you don't mind losing manual exposure controls..).

2. I think you'll need two different external microphones. You probably won't use them at the same time but you'll end up needing each kind sooner or later. For interviews or direct to camera content where you have a subject or actor talking to the audience a lavalier microphone is great. There are all kinds. It's sexy to get wireless radio mics but it's not necessary. People have been using cabled microphones for decades and decades, and they work. Seems like every microphone sounds different so you'll probably want to go to a store and try them out with your camera. Bring someone else along to talk so you don't end up thinking you don't like a microphone when you really just don't like the sound of your own voice.

I bought a wired Audio Technica Lavalier microphone and it sounds great. I spent about $125 and I bought it used. I also have a Sennheiser wireless system and it sounds insanely good but it was a whopping $600. Start with the wired one and move up when you find a pressing need to. The audio is not that much different.

The second kind of microphone you'll want to get is a good shotgun microphone. We use these when it's impossible to hide a lavalier mic on someone and you need to hear them well.  Contrary to popular belief they're not made to function like a telephoto lens and bring far away sound close to you.  They just tend to be good at isolating the sound of a voice right in front of you and dumping away the sound that's off access. These work great if your subject is stationary and you can carefully aim the microphone and put it on a stand. They are also great if you have someone who can hold a pole and aim the microphone for you as the person is moving and talking. Also, if you only have one microphone and you need to record a back and forth conversation you can have a person swivel the microphone back and forth between them. Plus, when equipped with the fuzzy wind sock they look so cool and all Hollywood.

Play around with your microphones and cameras until you find a need you can't fill and then start looking at things like mixers and stuff that lets you hook up several microphones simultaneously and control their levels separately.

3. Depending on what sort of video you want to shoot you'll probably need a fluid head tripod. It's just a tripod with a dampened head that allows you to pan or tilt without too many jitters or false movements. Mine cost $500 but there are many priced down in the $150 range that might work. Alternately, if you are a big spender and your wallet comes well equipped there are numerous models up to the $5000 range and over. Go play with some and see how they work before you drop big dough. A lot of successful camera movement is from practice, not the gear. Sound familiar? But the fluid head are helpful. You probably find a decent head that will fit on a tripod you already own.

4. Unless you plan to be an available light videographer you'll need some continuous lights. And if you do this commercially you'll need some big, bright ones. You can go old school and buy a bunch of tungsten hot lights pretty cheaply. You can play around with LEDs which, for big commercial video are either expensive or need a few nudges of filtration for good color, or, you can go with some of the recent fluorescent panels from Alzo, Fotodiox, KinoFlo and other.
I'm not going to tell you how to light anymore than I would tell you how to dress but I find I usually need one big main light and two or three additional fixtures for lighting up backgrounds, creating fill light or making accents. I'll assume that, if you've been shooting photography professionally, you'll already have light stands, diffusers and the like.

5. You'll need a totally different mindset from that of a photographer. Stuff really needs to move and it needs to tell a story so rather than just shooting from the hip you have to slow down and create some sort of narrative framework to use as a guide to your shooting. I found it very revealing to sit down for the first time with a non-linear video editing program and try to cobble something together. It humbled me. Still does. That's my weak spot and the area I need the most help on.

Good luck with your efforts in video. It's a nice commercial adjunct to still photography.

Tomorrow I'm doing a total immersion kind of assignment. We're shooting portraits, interviews, and some stuff they call "b-roll" which means all kinds of footage of a manufacturing process, the smiling faces of the workers and staff and the sexy detail shots that will make nice cutaways for the main body of a comprehensive video. Crazy, but it means I get to try my hand at a bit of everything that I've either studied up on or practiced in the studio. Wish me luck.

Creating a portrait of an actor. The time on the back end was always a bitch.

Actor, Woody Scaggs, was in my studio for a photo shoot we were doing for Zachary Scott Theater. The play was The Illusionist. We did all sorts of shots with a transluminated crystal ball and also with second actor. What I really wanted was a dramatic image of Woody so when we had the rest of the images in the bag I asked him if we could do a solo shot directly into the camera. 

The fun thing about photographing actors is that they seem to get what I want in my images. I can give them a thin story line or even a feeling and they translate it so well. This expression was exactly what I was looking for. I think we spent all of five minutes making this one and probably half of that was spent timing Polaroids. The image endures as one of my favorites.

What I love about it, in addition to Woody's great energy, is the interplay between the light and dark areas. I also consider the border treatment to be part of the overall image's design. The light side of his hair is contrasted by the black line running down the right edge of the frame while the dark shadow on the other side of Woody's face is offset by the bright background, and all of it is contain between undulating borders. The flaring borders were caused, in printing, by my use of a Pictrol mechanism just below the enlarger lens which flared the highlights into the shadows while non-linearly distorting and diffusing them.

The image above is a quick shot of the 16x20 inch work print in one of our flat files. When I got a good first print I would write useful information on the front and the back. On the back of the print are the exposure times under the enlarger, the toning, washing and other information, all in pencil.

There was always an investment in process when we worked with film and prints. I was never able to hit everything perfectly on the first print and, many times, when trying to mix vision and technical clumsiness I would print ten or fifteen 16 x 20's in an attempt to get everything on the paper just right. I thought about the discipline forced by process this morning. When I shot this image I worked carefully to get just the right expression but always mindful that we had some sort of budget to hew to, whether external or self-imposed. Once I was mostly sure that I'd hit the right mark I developed three or four tanks of fim. That took an afternoon. Then the film dried overnight. The next day I made two sets of contact sheets, 24 sheets in all. One set for me and one set for the client. I selected a final image and set up the dark room with oversized trays.

I went through the process of making test prints and then a final test at full size. We'd take that final test and put it out to dry. We needed to see how the paper image would look once it dried down. Prints always looked darker dry than they did in the fixer tray... If we needed quicker feedback we'd stick a chunks of the final test print in the microwave to dry it quickly.

Once we had the windage I'd go back and print iterations. Different burning and dodging methods. Different implementations of the Pictrol. Experiments with different paper grades and all the rest. Once a print came out and was as perfect as I could make it I could have 20 or more hours invested in that one artifact, not counting the shooting and prep time. Is it any wonder that we had a different regard for the final product? 

And, of course, if I put the ten prints I have of this negative side by side none of them are strictly identical. There were changes in the way my hands moved across the paper when burning and dodging. The chemicals drifted in temperature and potency over time. Even the selenium toner changed subtly from print to print. In fact, just about any hand made print from the film age could/should be considered a one off.

The contrast to that work was my documentation of the work this morning. I put the print on the floor, stood over it and shot it in the available light of my studio with a handheld Sony a58 camera. Once I knew I'd worked cooperatively with the camera's built in image stabilization I stopped shooting, walked over to my desk and stuck the card in the side of the computer, grabbed a frame and then spiffed it up a bit in PhotoShop. Two minutes later it was in this document, ready to anchor my thoughts and my words.

There is still a resonance from the older work that guides me today. We may have ditched the physical craft but the idea of the work still informs the way I shoot today. We're near the balance point though. The point in time when my tenure with film based systems just slightly exceeds the amount of time I've worked with digital. Close to a 50/50 split as a working professional.

Everything you've done informs this one moment. The moment right now when you make today's art. 

Please use our Amazon links to buy your camera gear (and anything else you like at Amazon). We'll get a small commission which helps defray my time and cost while costing you zero extra.
Thank you very much.


Checking in with the remaining VSL readers.

Seems like barely a week ago I announced that I was changing the way I would be handling the blog. I dumped most of the gear specific posts and I've spent the last week adding back the articles that I feel are more or less timeless. Or at least not wedded to the obsolescence of the toys depicted therein. From a metric perspective the experiment has been an abject failure with the number of pageviews quickly dropping by half. And trending downward. 

I have added back in nearly 500 articles that fit my new parameters from the warehoused article inventory.

In some instances, like this afternoon, I republished older articles at the top of the blog because they were articles I really liked. I won't do that for much longer but sometimes I read something I wrote in 2010 (when I had less of a culture filter in place) and I find that I still like the message.

If you came here to read a review of a hot, cheap, little camera from two or three years ago then I'm sorry you wasted your time. I'm going to keep moving in the direction I decided upon because it's turning out to be much more fun.

In a few days I'm going to take a stab at writing stuff that I hope has a sense of humor, bundled with a photographic context.

If you really, really need to know which camera is currently the best in the world I can tell you that. Get in touch with me offline, send me $50 and I'll tell you exactly what you want to know.

I do want feedback. Just because we no longer argue about which cameras and lenses are the coolest doesn't mean I don't cherish the dialog. That's all for now.

marketing note: 
Oh.  I decided to have a bunch of Amazon links below the articles that have nothing to do with the articles, other than that they will reflect stuff I like and buy on a regular basis. If you're hot to spend money at Amazon please consider clicking through with one of those links to support the site. I find that I miss the income. It's the difference between a grande and a tall at Starbucks.

Please use our Amazon links to buy your camera gear (and anything else you like at Amazon). We'll get a small commission which helps defray my time and cost while costing you zero extra.
Thank you very much.

The thing no one wants to talk about.......video.

Meredith under the cool LED lights, on set, in my west Austin studio.

I read an interesting article by Jack Reznicki, here,  and to paraphrase, he's making the point that after years of deflecting his growing realization that video is quickly becoming the preferred imaging medium for a new generation he's ready to admit that video is part of the basic wiring of that new generation and will only get more popular as bandwidth speeds up and flat screens get cheaper and more ubiquitous.  He's thrown down the gauntlet, (to himself) saddled up and a few other confused metaphors, and he's out working on building a style and a name for himself in the video world.  Fish where the fish are.

When I talk about video to most of my peers in the business they get a "far away" look in their eyes and, when I press the subject, they rally their best undergraduate art school arguments about why still photography is different and unique.  I would argue that pretty soon all photography will be just still frames from video.  Of course, that's a bit hyperbolic but the reality is that photography is being subsumed by its very simplicity and popularity while video is in a new period of ascendancy.

But after trying my hand at the "new" video I know why my peers are so resistant to this medium.  It's harder to do well than still photography.  Let me say that again with the appropriate emphasis in place:  It's harder to do WELL than still photography.  And, maybe more importantly, to do it well requires collaborating (and sharing credit with) other professionals.  And that's something that many photographers are uncomfortable with or hostile to.  I know I am......

But it's to be expected.  We've spent our lives as loners.  We intersect with the pack to hunt down assignments and get a check.  The rest of the time we're experimenting in our caves....I mean studios....and diddling the dials of PhotoShop.  Now that our basic industry is saturated and devalued we're supposed to become part of a "team"?  (Remember that there is no "I" in team so be prepared to become assimilated by the Borg.....).  That, in a nutshell is why professional photographers aren't rushing to do video in droves.

I don't want to spend my life putting together crews of sound people, assistants, gaffers and grips.  I don't relish spending more time with more people.  What are we to do?  Hmmmmm.  Long pensive thoughts...

We could do what Robert Frank did in the 1950's.  While the majority of photographers were anchored in their studios with 8x10 and 4x5 view cameras and a jungle of hot lights he went out into the street (without assistants or a "team") and made a new art.  An art predicated on moving and seeing and capturing quickly.

We don't need to emulate the evolution of the video industry.  We don't need to follow the path of Phillip Bloom and Vince LaForet and embrace the way video has always been done, overlayed on a new set of tools (and let's admit that the only new thing Vince brought to the table was a new camera with better high ISO and more DOF control.....).  I can choose to implement a newer "snapshot" style that steals from all the good disciplines while maintaining the autonomy that I think many photographers have always subconsciously or consciously chosen for ourselves.  A new style of moving pictures.

I think about this because I just handed my son, Ben, another still digital camera to use.  He's been using a Canon SX10 and I don't think he's ever taken a still image with it.  I handed it to him a few years ago and the first question out of his mouth was,  "Will it do video?"  He and his friends have produced dozens and dozens of finished, edited videos with that camera.

I handed him a Canon SX20 yesterday and the first question he asked me was, "Does it do better video?"  Yes.  It does HD.  Will he take a still frame with the camera?  Doubtful.  Will he use the hell out of it?  You bet.  The batteries are already on the charger.

Ben and his friends are part of the generation in which all media moves.  All media, all moving, all the time.  He's in ninth grade and one of the courses he's taking is film making.  The school is teaching the students in his film making class how to use Final Cut Pro.  As a veteran user of iMovie, Ben is incredibly comfortable with the process.  And  the visual communicators of his generation will be as well.

I want to continue to wring out every good still picture I can out of photography.  But, to paraphrase the English poet, Andrew Marvell,  "O'er my shoulder I do hear video's winged chariot drawing near...."

Time to become multi-disciplinary in a new way.

Please use our Amazon links to buy your camera gear (and anything else you like at Amazon). We'll get a small commission which helps defray my time and cost while costing you zero extra.
Thank you very much.

A Brief Tutorial About Shooting Underground.

I was thinking about dirt and remembered this image (on the right) that I made in the early 1990's.  Now I'm sure photographers would just piece the whole thing together in PhotoShop (tm) but that wasn't really a luxury we could count on in the first Clinton term.  So I thought I would recount the process we went through back in the neanderthal days of pre-digital photography to remind myself that image making used to be a time consuming and sometimes dirty craft.

I was working with an art director named Pam.  The client was 3M.  The product in question was a heat shrinkable sleeve that was placed over electric and data cable junctions to seal the connection and make the cable impervious to the encroachment of moisture and dirt.  Pretty cool stuff.  Apply.  Blast with heat, and you have a leak free connection you can bury under the mud.  So how do you show this to potential clients at tradeshows and in product brochures?  Good old fashion photography.

In the early 1990's clients with high quality budgets usually liked for us to produce photographs using 4 x 5 inch color transparency sheet film.  And it went without saying that everything was "Polaroided" at every step of the process so that the crew (art director, photographer and client) could see how the shoot was evolving and collaborate on the direction.

Step one:  Bring in trash cans full of different kinds of dirt.  Step two:  Create a shooting table by putting a 4x8 foot sheet of white plexiglas on top of a custom made set of saw horses.  The saw horses had attachable side rails to help support the plexi so it wouldn't sag in the middle.
Step three:  Rig our Linhof monorail camera over the top of the set by securing it to a large pipe suspend between two heavily sandbagged, tall, Century stands.  Aim the camera straight down over the white Plexiglas, stand on a tall ladder and rough in  the outlines of the shot by framing slightly tighter than the width of the Plexi.  We mark off our "live" area on the Plexi with black tape and get to work on building our set.  

Step four:  We know that we want to have little pools of blue to simulate standing water so we design the set so that side lighting from a medium sized softbox provides a deep shadow to the opposite side of each wire.  We use the outline of the shadow as a guide to remove the dirt in these areas.  

Step five:  The layout is fine tuned.  It is a process of going up the ladder, closing the shutter on the view camera lens,  setting the appropriate aperture, putting in a Polaroid holder, pulling out the envelope that functions as a Polaroid dark slide and then using a cable release to trigger the shutter.  My assistant times the color Polaroid and then peels it.  Once the art director, client and I review the image my assistant numbers the print on its back so we now where in the sequence each change occurs.  He also notes the fstop and shutter speed of the camera as well as the power settings for the studio electronic flash.  We repeat this process over and over again over the course of the set up.

Step six:  Once we've got the composition fine tuned on the top of the table we're ready to add the blue pools to the mix.  We do this by putting two small softboxes, covered with deep blue theatrical gels onto the floor under the Plexi, facing up.  Anywhere in our composition that the dirt is removed from the top surface of the Plexi there is a blue glow.  We can adjust the saturation by making sure that no light from the main light hits the shadowed pools.  The main light comes from one Norman PD 2000 watt second pack while the two small softboxes share the power from a second Norman PD 2000 pack set up to distribute power the two heads equally.  The main light is about four feet from the left edge of the set and small mirrors are added just to the right of the set to direct beams of light into areas that need to be filled or accentuated.

Step Seven:  At this point we are fine tuning the set.  We use small brushes, toothpicks and straws to brush, coax or blow dirt into place.  We build up little walls of dirt in areas where we feel a stronger shadow is necessary.  After each round of modification I go up the ladder and go through the routine needed to load fresh Polaroid and trip the shutter.

Finally, when we all agree that the composition is just what we wanted and the light is  metered to the nth degree I make another trip up the ladder.  Standing on the second step from the top of the ladder and using one hand for support on a steel rafter,  I put my head under a dark cloth and carefully check focus with an 8x loupe over the entire frame.  This is done with a wide open aperture.  Then I stop the camera down to f32.5, which is the fstop we calculated that would give us ample depth of field without introducing diffraction.  I spend five minutes under the dark clothe letting my eyes adjust so we can make sure there has been no focusing shift.  Then I shoot five sheets of film, bracketing each exposure.  We bracket our overs by double popping the flashes with the room lights extinguished and we bracket our unders by placing half stop and then one stop fabric screens over the lights.

If you've only shot small film cameras or digital cameras you've never had to consider that 4x5 inch film can bow a bit when shooting with the camera faced down.  To combat this we used to put a small piece of doubled Scotch tape (it is 3M afterall.....) in the center of the film holder and then slide the film over it and then give it a gentle press.  Not hard enough to weld the film tight to the back wall but enough to offset the bowing.

After all the film was shot we'd always do one last Polaroid to make sure nothing had moved and that nothing shifted with the camera.  Once that Polaroid was approved we'd get the client and the art director to sign and date the back of the print as an indication that they'd approved the shot.  A nice coda to the contract.

We'd congratulate each other just as the agency's account executive showed up to share in the good feelings and take the AD and the client out for dinner and drinks.  For the assistant and I the end of the day meant unloading the film into light safe boxes and labeling it for the E-6 film run at the lab.  We'd keep the set up and untouched until we saw final film, and only when the final film was delivered and approved by the AD did we start the process of cleaning up.  One day of pre-production and one full day of lighting, scene building and shooting in order to end up with five sheets of color film.  And only one perfect sheet.  

Post production?  Clean the studio and bill the client.  When the transparencies returned from the color separator we'd file them by date, job and subject and we were done.

Thanks for indulging this walk down memory lane.  Sometimes it's helpful to me to remember how we did things in the old days before we absentmindedly try to re-invent the wheel.  Now, where did I put my typewriter?

To see more of my still life work:  Kirk Tuck's Website

Please use our Amazon links to buy your camera gear (and anything else you like at Amazon). We'll get a small commission which helps defray my time and cost while costing you zero extra.
Thank you very much.

Melancholy Walk. The Downfall. And other mini blogs as captions.

This is a re-publication of this article. It's still true.

I may be just a little insane but I think I'm witnessing the collapse of civilization every day.  Just a little bit at a time.  Crumb by crumb.  Not in the monolithic, "TSA Groped me and all is lost" sort of way, but in a different and more pernicious way.  Let me explain.  I'm convinced that the cellphone is greatest tool for isolation and evil in recent history.  Most car wrecks are now caused by people talking and texting on cellphones.  But that's too dramatic.  What I'm talking about is is the slow erosion.  I was at the flagship store of Whole Foods today.  Everywhere I looked people were detached from everything around them.  From the beautiful produce, the delightful pastries, the never-before-in-the-history-of-man selections of great wines and cheeses.  The guys were not "checking out" the plethora of beautiful girls flowing like spring water thru the aisles.  The women weren't even noticing the displays of chocolate.  Instead, they did the "thorazine shuffle" with their carts aimlessly navigated with one hand and the rest of their being concentrated either on staring like zombies at the screens of their iPhones or Blackberries, or wandering without a compass while listening to something at the other end of their cell connection, eyes staring off into the middle distance.  It was so sad.  Like a prince of old surrounded by a library full of priceless books and a museum full of art, looking for a comic book to read.  I was so depressed I had to leave the store.  These people wouldn't ever get better.  They are doomed to walk around in this particular circle of hell until their calling plan comes to an end.  Oblivious to the ever changing kaleidoscope of beauty swirling around them.  Don't write and defend cellphones,  I will only excoriate you.
For all of you who are convinced that photography is dead and that bricks and mortar photography stores died out in the 1990's I direct your attention to Precision Camera and Video on North Lamar Blvd. in Austin, Texas.  I shoved wax into my ears like Odysseus and resisted the siren song of the Carl Zeiss 85mm 1.4 for Canon long enough to grab a box of printing paper and bid a hasty retreat.  They had their best "black Friday" ever.  EVER.  This past week.  Selling mostly.........cameras.
 I live in the third smartest city in America, according to Fortune Magazine.  But I still see cars like this one.  The smaller sticker reads, "Obama Lied.  The Economy Died."  Apparently they didn't get the memo that the economy hit the crapper in late 2008 while GWB was still holding on to the reins.  The ballout?  2008.  The Tarp?  2008.  Collapse of the stock market?  2008.  Etc.  In some circles history and facts don't count.  God must have a different agenda.
When I feel overwhelmed I take photographs of clouds.  They comfort me and when they move really fast through the late afternoon skies they remind me of Bergman movies.  Or Highlander movies.  Depending on your age....
I know we are near the end of civilization when battered, graffiti'd fences are adjacent to 30 story luxury condominium towers just a quick walk from the center of town.  
Already commented.  When I walked by much later he was stil there, transfixed. He could have driven to another city and met face to face in the amount of time he spent glued to $2 worth of microwave emitting plastic.

I encountered the Which Wich shop near 6 pm on today's walk thru downtown.  It looked so medieval.  The glow of the interior lights made the barest impact just a foot or two outside the front doors.  Everything looked so gray.  Inside the lone worker leaned against the counter and talked on his cellphone.
But I did have lunch with Belinda.  She and I do have cellphones.  But we both leave them in the car.  Who could possibly call that would be more important than the person right in front of me?  Especially if it's Belinda.  Please.  Put down your phone.    Turn it off and speak without reservation and hesitation and condition to the person who sacrificed their time to sit right in front of you and share their humanity.

All photographs shot with a Sony R1 camera.  Jpegs.  iPhoto processing.  Start the new week with a commitment to really live.

the holidays are upon us.  I humbly submit that a good book about photography will be most welcome by the photographers on your list.  Here are a few suggestions: