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: