Please read this one again because I've decided it's really important. And read the comments....


It's about reading fiction and my point of view about reading fiction.

in other news: Belinda and I finished working on, The Lisbon Portfolio. The photo/action novel I started back in 2002. I humbly think it is the perfect Summer vacation read. And the perfect, "oh crap, I have to fly across the country" read. It's in a Kindle version right now at Amazon. The Lisbon Portfolio. Action. Adventure. Photography.  See how our hero, Henry White, blows up a Range Rover with a Leica rangefinder.....

Remember, you can download the free Kindle Reader app for just about any table or OS out there....

Two accessories I could not do my photography business without. What are yours?

Kirk Tuck's Multi-Cart. Indispensable. 

We photographers tend to be a myopic bunch when it comes to gear. We are focused like little laser beams on the miracle of cameras. After that we are riveted by whatever the latest lens lore is. When we exhaust that topic we move on to sexy lights and then we're pretty much done. Oh, there are the printer/paper people but I think of them like the mole men from the Incredibles movie. Kind of trapped in the darkness and always trying to take over the world...one pigment print at a time.

But after some video shoots and some back-to-back photography shoots I've pretty much come to the conclusion that if one understands the physics and ballet of making portraits and doing interviews that pretty much you can make do with any modern camera on the market (always excluding those hard core sports jobs people love to toss in to screw up rational discussions) to do most work and no one will ever know the difference. Especially if you are showing off on the web. But after loading and unloading the car a number of times in short order, and after pulling hundreds of pounds of equipment across hot, dark, heat radiating, asphalt parking lots in a desperate attempt to reach the front door various client offices and so partake of the life affirming air conditioning, I would say, without equivocation, that the most useful and welcome piece of gear I own is also the most pedestrian: my Multi-Cart. Give me a Multi-Cart and enough bungee cords and I'll bring the most complete lighting-photo-prop inventory on to your location that you can imagine. If it fits in a Honda CR-V we can (and will) bring it, toss it onto the cart and drag it into your headquarters or your remote location. 

I can't remember how long ago I bought this cart. It was purchased at least 14 years ago to replace an identical cart that died when we worked at a Dell facility and someone decided to move a 1,000 pound, fully configured server enclosure (heavy metal, six foot tall cabinet) all the way from one side of a large building to the other----on our cart. The front wheels gave up the ghost just as we wheeled it into the carpeted shooting area. They just collapsed. Not the fault of the cart or the maker as the specs say the carts are good for loads of up to 500 pounds. The first cart was a noble machine that gave me good service for a very long time. Probably since the dawn of my current photo business, or nearly so...

We haven't attempted moving automobiles or server configurations or bags of cement with this one. We move gear in and out of client spaces and practical locations all over Texas. It's too cumbersome to fly with, sadly.  But I know that the cart has real, important value in my photography.

I was reminded of how important it is to arrive with enough energy left to actually be human and to be able to shoot without a pounding chest and a dizzy brain when one of my previous assistants regaled me, over a glass of wine, with a story about her time assisting a very famous (very famous!) London and New York based portrait photographer-celebrity who was, at the time, doing a tremendous amount of work for the New York Times Magazine. My friend had been hired as second or third assistant for a series of location shoots. On the first day she hopped into the van that would take the photographer, his gear and two other assistants to meet with the client and a famous subject on some urban location. 

When they arrived and had scouted the location in a big office building the photographer instructed his "people" to go and get the gear. My friend went with the other assistants to the van which was parked in a garage across the square from the first location. Having worked with me extensively she immediately searched the van for a cart. There wasn't one. She asked the other assistants and they shrugged, grunted and started to pick up cases with heavy power packs and head. They gestured at some 50 pound stand bags and started shuffling the 100 yards to the building and up to the 18th floor. They made about five round trips to get everything to the location. 

While the photographer was fresh as a daisy his "staff" was sweating bullets and gulping down water. Of course my friend realized that there would be a second part to all of this. They would have to retrace their steps back to the parking garage once the job was completed. And this would go on at location after location for the better part of a week. 

My friend finally plucked up her courage to ask the photographer why he didn't have a cart. His reply?  "That's what I have assistants for..."  She finished out the week and went off to find a photographer with at least the barest grasp of primitive physics and workplace efficiency.

The cart is a daily fixture in my world and has been for the last twenty years. If it were to die or disappear tomorrow I'd have another one here as quickly as I could source it. We have back up cameras and lenses but if the cart goes "Kaplooie" then all bets are off.  We'll be "on vacation" until it is replaced.

The other vital component of my photographic life...

I bought a set of background stands way, way back in 1981. They've been used in just about every studio portrait shoot I've ever done, and they've travelled to locations all over the world with me. I take them for granted. They just work every time. I put a canvas or paper background on them, we raise them up and they work away for me without even the slightest protest. I can't imagine doing 80% of my work without them. I have no idea where they were made. They were marketed by a company called RPS. The go up to about 10 feet. They have a cross pole that breaks apart into two pieces and also telescopes. This makes it easy to break down and pack for travel. 

In addition to backgrounds I've also used Super Clamps to hang cameras from the cross bar and stands over the top of sets. It comes in handy when I need to shoot from directly over head. In the old days we'd rig up the camera with a long cable release. Then we switched to a longer, electronic cable release. Now we just stick Panasonic GH4's up there and trigger them with our iPhones. We even get to preview the shots on the phones and change settings. But what doesn't change is the background stands. 

Lately I've noticed that they are slipping a bit and it's harder to tighten them down even when I use a wrench and a screwdriver to tighten all the joints. I've also discovered (in a few embarrassing failure events) that one of the stands in the set no longer stops at the maximum extension when going "up" with the stands. It will come right out of the bottom tube and leave me standing there with a wiggly pole in my hands, balancing a half a nine foot roll of seamless paper, and with a shocked and silly look on my face. I guess it's time to retire the first set and replace them but for some reason I keep mending them and keeping them in service. 

These are the devices that supply the real continuity in the business of making photographs. The cameras come and go and the lenses and even the lights are more or less transitory but the background stands are like family. Family with a long history.  I can't imagine an other investment in gear that has returned so much, so often for so little.

The background stands and the cart are the two accessories that I use every day and can't imagine surviving without in this game. They feel even more vital to me than tripods! I am curious. I know not everyone shares the same viewpoints as me. What are the accessories that you can't work without in your photography? Please share. 

Kirk Tuck's Background Stands are Twice as Old as His College Age Kid...Wow.

Gear Happiness. Two shoots two camera systems.

Unrelated image from the Bowie Project. Serving only as a visual anchor for the blog....

I've fallen a bit behind on the blog this week. We've gotten busy with the usual rush that happens once school lets out. Everyone takes a little family vacation and then the kids are inserted into Summer programs. The phones and e-mail are dead for a week. Traffic abates. Once this ritual plays out the clients climb back into the driver's seat, rev up the engines and off we go again.

Part of the crack VSL crew is working around the clock to format and beautifully design the novel we've been talking about so it looks as gorgeous as it can on any e-reader. But the main crew have been doing more or less traditional photography work. This week we had two days of corporate shooting which felt mostly like the "good old days."

Our first project was photographing executives in a  make shift studio we set up in the client's executive conference room. We were shooting against white with the understanding that the client's in house creative team would be dropping in a uniform, color background based on images we'd shot back before the great recession.

My client was a bit surprised by my retro gear when I showed up. Not my camera equipment but the lighting gear. The last few times I worked with the same marketing person we were using some variation of LED lighting. This week I showed up with some very traditional electronic flash moonlights. I added to the nostalgia with a soft box as the main light modifier and umbrellas for the background lights.

I guess I remembered the big wash of daylight in the last location we'd shot there and how much I struggled to overcome that and light with neutral color and LED lights. They are at their best for portrait lighting when you can control the ambient light in your shooting area. I chose the flash because it was a quick, easy way to get neutral color and to freeze action. But now I have to be careful because I find myself considering flash lit portraits to be a bit too sharp. In fact, I turned down the sharpness in my camera parameters to minus two. And I could have toned it all down to minus three. The cameras are much sharper than they have even been before, especially with the better lenses, but I'm almost certain that particular "feature" isn't usually a benefit for portraiture and I find it makes files that look a bit fake. Too much detail?

You'd think I was grappling with a Nikon D800e but I was sporting a Panasonic GH4 that day. That camera makes very sharp and detailed files, almost as if Panasonic was trying to prove something to the industry...

Things I like about shooting portraits with a Panasonic GH4 and the 35-100mm X lens? Well, wickedly sharp at my typical corporate shooting aperture of f5.6. Very straightforward custom white balance setting. Face detection AF. Touch screen for those times when I want to move the AF point around with my finger. 16 megapixel files that are sharp and detailed without being so big that they bring my computer and my storage system to a crawl.

Things I dislike about shooting with this stuff? It's not my big, square Hasselblad and it's too easy to get good images. Takes all the challenge out of the process. Okay, I'm just kidding. The real challenge is never really the camera or the lighting as much as it is getting a good expression and a nice, happy collaboration with the portrait subject.

I dragged all my stuff in on a cart, navigated the security desk, got badged and escorted and set up. My biggest secret for easy post production these days is to always do a custom white balance right before I start shooting in earnest. Back in the studio not a single file needed an exposure correction (go light meters!!!) or even a look at any color correction. I just edited for expression and composition and sent them along straight.

It was fun and relaxing to catch up with a long term client and shoot in a fashion that we used to do so often. By the time I got back to the studio that client had already given me a recommendation to one of his peers from the Northeast U.S. who contacted me the next day to bid on a project. Ahhhh.

Can the Panasonic GH4 handle executive portrait shooting for a world wide, high technology firm? Duh.

The next day I headed out to work on location with another really nice corporate client and we did the whole load-up-the-cart-and-drag-stuff-through-the-parking-lot again. This time I set up a temporary studio in their conference room and shot glamor shots of four of their server products. Hardware. Just old school product work against white. Making the product shine.

As you probably know I hate doing stuff the same way twice but since I already had the flashes loaded into the car I went ahead and used them again. This created a mental pressure which pretty much made my subconscious demand that I use some alternative camera in an attempt to add some challenge and fun into the mix. I went all counter productive and pressed the least likely camera into the mix: The Sony RX10.

Here's the rationale I came up with: When shooting computer cabinets you need to keep the front very sharp and even the back reasonably sharp. In this day and age this is more about getting the depth of field you require to hold focus that it is about getting enough information on your sensor. I looked at some depth of field tables that showed me that I'd be getting pretty darn good depth of field at f8. More that I would if I used a full frame camera at f16 or even f22. At the same time the RX10 is pretty resistant to problems with diffraction at f8 (although diffraction is also dependent on focal length....). To go one step further Sony has programmed in some software fixes in the RX10 to combat or compensate for diffraction.

The other factor is the quality of the sensor. If we needed to shoot the product (for some insane reason) at ISO 1600 I would have been over to Precision Camera to rent a Sony A7 or Nikon D800 from the get go. But with 400 watt second moonlights, used in close quarters I had all the ISO 100 I could ever have asked for. In fact, I could have bumped the flash power up even a little higher and shot at ISO 80 if I'd wanted to.  But the deal is that comparing the image quality of a still life, well lit and shot at a very comfortable sensitivity setting I would imagine that there's very little real difference between most modern cameras.

I took the leap of faith and shot all the various product shots and detail shots with the RX10 and when I got back to the studio and started working through the raw files and getting them ready for post production I saw what I thought I would, on screen performance that was at least as good (at ISO 100) as the first generation of full frame cameras I used to use and better looking image files (because of the extended depth of field) than I had gotten with any of the DX cameras and lenses I'd pressed into service over the years. The pixels held together well. There were no artifacts caused by noise reduction that I could see, even with pixel peeping, at 100%. Overall, the RX10 delivered files that were perfectly suited for this project. Sharp, noise free and in focus everywhere that I needed them to be.

At the end of the day we had one more shot to take. It was of the company's marketing director. She needed a new set of portrait images for a series of magazine interviews she was doing. Much as I love the Sony RX 10 it just wasn't the right camera for this particular part of the job. I looked around the conference room and realized that I couldn't light it any better than the wash of totally indirect light coming through the room wide wall of windows. I positioned the marketing director so I could put some warm shapes in the background and started designing a shot that called for dropping the background well out of focus while maintaining crispy sharpness in her eyes.

Out came the Panasonic GH4 and the dependable 35-100mm. Before we got started in earnest I slowed down long enough to make an incident light meter reading at the subject's position and I did a custom white balance for the light we had bouncing gloriously around us.  I shot a whole series of expressions and compositions with slight changes between them.  I used the wide open, f2.8 aperture of the lens at the longer end of the focal length range and the results were beautiful. Every once in a while I got some blur from subject movement but the shots without movement were stunning and in terms of focus we had sharp eyes, an acceptably sharp tip of the nose and by the time we got to the dangly earrings we were already going as soft as Kleenex. By the time your eye gets to the back wall all you see are soft, indistinct shapes with calm transition. What some would call quiet bokeh.

As of now all the jobs have been processed, masked where needed, retouched, delivered, and billed. Each job was done for a person who is at least a twenty year veteran of corporate advertising and public relations work. My first client also spent years on the agency side. There was no discussion of "this camera versus that camera." There was no hesitation in the process based on things photographers like to talk about and worry about. Just straight forward work which filled the bill for the job at hand. And that's the way it's supposed to be. That's the way it nearly always is....

Next week we're booked to shoot more portraits and I'm thinking I'll do them mostly with the Samsung NX30 and the 85mm 1.4. On Weds. I leave for a math conference in Denver. It's the same basic conference I shot for here last year but this time I get to transport myself from the early Summer heat and humidity into the Rockies. So much fun. I'm shooting it totally differently that I did last year and I'll write about it as I go along...

Hope the Summer is treating you well, that your clients pay in a timely fashion and that you find great coffee on a daily basis... thanks.