The One Thing Missing from Modern Camera Bags!

Yep. The vital feature I want is missing from this small and otherwise very well designed 
Tenba photo backpack.....

More Tragedy. My Sand Colored Domke canvas bag (best camera bag you can buy....) also lacks this amazingly essential feature. 

Even my old, beat up but fabulous, black canvas Domke bag (which is head and shoulders better (and a better value) than anything made by Billingham ----) doesn't have this must have option. 

All the good bags and packs are well designed, have lots of smart space inside and are great for carrying around most of the stuff we need in order to be successful but not a single rolling case, shoulder bag, sling bag, belt system or waterproof case has a simple attachment that I think is invaluable. None of them have a cup holder. Not a single camera bag is made with real photographers in mind. Because, when your right hand is on the handle of your rolling case full of lights and lenses and your left shoulder is balancing your Domke camera bag and your left hand needs to be ready to open doors and push elevator buttons ----WHERE THE HELL ARE YOU SUPPOSED TO PUT YOUR extra--LARGE CUP OF FRESH, HOT COFFEE???  And if it's a long and drawn out shoot with lots of boring down time then WHERE ARE YOU SUPPOSED TO CARRY IN THAT SECOND LARGE CUP OF COFFEE????

Hey you great designers at Domke! Hey you dandy and effete designers at Billingham! Hey you zany Aussie Kata designers! Get working on the camera bag cup holder. I can (almost) guarantee that it will turn around the DSLR market over night. Finally, we will be able to walk through the client's doorways fully equipped and no longer at the questionable mercy of that Keurig machine in the break room. You know, the one with the Hazelnut flavored coffees and some other vague travesties.....

It's time to boycott all new bags that don't come with cup holders. And I'm counting on the enterprising manufacturers in China to create retrofittable cup holders for older bags. It's an idea and a feature whose time has come. Sign the petition below!

Perfectly sized and packaged for portability. 

From the movie, "The making of coffee for camera bag cupholders." 

Some other notes for a Saturday afternoon:

I thought this camera was long gone but today Ben cleaned out his closet at home to make way for some swanky new shirts. Down at the bottom of the closet was a cool bag (sadly, with no cup holders) that I'd given him along with a Sony a58, the kit lens and a Rode microphone. He handed it to me and asked me if I wanted it. "I haven't used it in a year or so." He said, "I probably won't keep it around." Of course I took it straight out to the studio. I remember this camera well. It's not at all bad, especially for the price. I'm charging the battery right now. 

As to the microphone, I've been looking for that missing microphone for a long time. Glad to have it back in the gear stack. I liked it and will use it. Especially for run and gun stuff where there's no time or opportunity to slap a lavaliere on somebody...

The last time I saw the a58 in my studio. Welcome back little buddy.

Nature has decided that we need more rain so it is currently raining again. 
Ten more days or so and we will have reached that Biblical, "Forty days and forty nights" thing and I'll really start worrying....

Quick visual paean to the 100mm focal length. 

Gotta finish up and get over to the sporting good store. 
Wanna buy some rubber boats before it's too late.

Brand Agnosticism. More fun or more work? One Afternoon of Kirk's Street Photography in Austin, Texas. Shot with a Sony Nex 6. Black and Whites.

Click on any image to start the slide show....

Someone in an interview on Fstoppers.com called me, "Truly gear agnostic." I think they meant it as a compliment. At least I took it that way. The context of the statement was a discussion about how people get locked into brands and are loathe to change even when the change may benefit them. I was cited as an example of a person who largely rejected brand loyalty and would generally seek to match the camera to my project, my point of view----my mood. I like to play with different systems because it keeps my mind and fingers from getting bored. The flip side of the equation is that you have to learn a lot of different menus in order to play camera roulette. I suck at memorizing menus...

At one point a few years ago I decided that I really liked the Sony Nex-6. The price to play wasn't very steep so I bought one and the little kit lens, and a 50mm, and went zooming around taking photographs. Over time I found out what I didn't like about the camera and moved on but it was refreshing to go back through a Lightroom catalog and see what that little camera could do. These images were all taken one afternoon in downtown Austin. At the time I was obsessed with peoples' obsessions with their cellphones. But I did veer from that theme when I came across other images that begged to be taken. Camera set to black and white. Phasers set to stun. Go. 

Modern dating.

"...and it can teleport things..."

Modern meeting.


The winning lens at yesterday's shoot? A dinosaur optic that continues to be just right.

The ultimate portrait lens? 

Shooting portraits has been the mainstay of my business for many, many years. I'm not picky though; if you want me to shoot some landscapes or buildings for an annual report I'm happy to oblige. If you've got some sort of process that needs documenting you can count me in for that as well, but the bulk of what I get hired for is portraits. 

And like most photographers who have come to this business from other professions I suffer with issues of self-confidence. After all, there's no formal licensing, no tests to pass and no real rules that regulate how we go about doing our work. It's highly subjective. You eat by making images that get approved by clients. You get the clients by doing your marketing right. 

But most of us consciously or sub-consciously think that having the "best" gear gives us an advantage over our competition (even though we all have access to, and end up buying pretty much the same basic inventory). I know from talking to lots and lots of guys who either do photography for a living or love photography as a hobby that most of us are looking for magic camera bodies and lenses that will give us a leg up on everyone else. Super-charge our vision. Leave the less well inventoried in the dust. How else do we explain the ability to rationalize the $4000+ Zeiss Otus lenses which offer a bit better quality, wide open than lenses that cost half or even a tenth the purchase price? Especially when experience shows us (time after time) that we're stopping down out of the need to get enough depth of focus, most of the time. And we're pretty sure that the wide open advantage of the most precious optical systems generally evaporates compared to more pedestrian lenses as we hit the well used range of f4.0 to f8.0.

Being an anxious person who is largely self-taught in photography I have all of the problems with self-confidence that most other people struggle with. Maybe more so than beginners because I am only now coming to grips with just how much I don't know...

So I rush to buy the cool optics. And the cool cameras. Sometimes it actually pays off. The Nikon D610s and D810s actually make beautiful files that have everything a working pro could want: lots of good detail, low noise and crazy good dynamic range. But most of the time it's a crap shoot. 

I've recently bought a Sigma 50mm Art lens and I must tell you that the images generated at it's widest apertures just smoke everything else I own. I keep trying to use it on jobs but I keep finding out that the wide open performance is, for the most part, a chimera that goes unused in day-to-day work. I tried to use it at the theater on Tues. but it was just not a long enough focal length. When I did use it I could easily see that the limited depth of field at the money apertures was nowhere near enough to keep two actors, separated by just a few feet, in sharp focus. We need f5.6 to do that.....

I tried to use the lens in a shoot yesterday that consisted of environmental portraits but again, it was too short. Even my very well regarded Nikon 85mm was a bit short to corral the background in just the right way. All the fast f-stops in the world are more or less meaningless if the focal length isn't right for the shot. I guess you could crop your frame but....

The lens I keep reaching for is probably the cheapest lens I've paid for in years. It's the Nikon manual focus, 105mm f2.5 ais. Yesterday I fought and fought to use the 50mm and the 85mm but the 105mm kept floating back and solving my need to create shallow depth of field while keeping cluttered backgrounds at bay. The perspective is just right for portraits. I mean just right. 

I've always been a bit nervous about using manual focus lenses on DSLRs because the cameras aren't really set up to manually focus well. I worry that the green confirmation spot is too generous, too willing to say "yes" when the real sharpness is saying "no." I got burned by the focus shift of the "vaunted" Zeiss 85mm f1.4 (MF) on the Canons when I shot with them. The image would always look good in the finder but when I looked on the computer screen it was obvious that a small bit of stopping down shifted the focus back too far. It was a nightmare.

Since I read too much on the web and I hear so often how much better current lens design must be I am always inclined to believe I am leaving some quality on the table when using older lenses. Especially older, manual focus lenses. Without the latest miracle glass and massive computational design assistance how can they stand a chance???

Well..... I shot so many images with the 105mm yesterday just because it was the right angle of view for the vision I was following. I got home and started zooming in to 100% to make sure I had nailed focus and I marveled at how sharp the lens was at f2.8, f4.0 and f5.6. It gives away nothing to the Nikon 85mm f1.8G lens at any aperture and if there is a sharpness difference between the 105 and the Sigma art lens at f4.0 I sure can't see it. Get the focus right and this $125 used investment really brings home the visual bacon. 

I seem to be having a recurring epiphany. It goes something like this:  Older lenses were perhaps more carefully made and more painstakingly hand calibrated, and even with older designs they can perform as well as the newest optics, especially when both are used two stops down from wide open. 

The real reason I like the 105mm is that this is the angle of view at which I feel that I have control (total control) of what is in my frame and how it's all arranged. Some lenses just speak to you. This one says "hello" while for my money something like a 28mm never says much more than "Doh!"

Final observation? The 105mm plays well with the green focus confirmation dot in both of my D610s. Nice.

Scary to be on the other side of the camera. I was a model for an interesting assignment.

Kirk Tuck by ©2015 Frank Grygier.

My friend, Frank, is taking an online course from photographer/teacher, Don Giannatti. As part of the workshop the students are trying to figure out how to light and shoot in the styles of a number of great photographers. The most recent assignment for Frank was to work in the style of portrait legend, Albert Watson. Watson is most popularly known for his iconic portrait of Steve Jobs but I have admired his portrait lighting; especially in his black and white work, for many years. When Frank mentioned his assignment I shamelessly volunteered to sit for the portrait. 

I have become comfortable meeting strangers and asking them to pose for me but when the shoe is on the other foot it's a bit scary. I know that photographs will point out all the things about me I want to avoid; that I am getting older. That a little hair sticks up from my left eyebrow and makes me look unbalanced. That my skin has become rugged and flawed by time and the elements. That the backs of my hand are hairy. That my barber missed a little bit of hair on the back of my neck that becomes a white flag against a black background. That my nose has gotten bigger. All these things make up a collage of my own frailties. But what the hell ---- it's interesting to see myself through the eyes of another. 

We decided to shoot the portrait in my little studio. I had the space to work in and extra gear if Frank needed something beyond the kit he was bringing. I set up a dark background for Frank and then settled into some post processing while the clock ticked closer to my engagement with portrait destiny. 

Frank did his lighting homework well. He used a small softbox from high up and left of frame. He used it in close to take advantage of fall off. While not apparent in this image he also used a second light on the backdrop which is more evident in other versions of the portraits.

While we waste a lot of virtual ink talking up the advantages and disadvantages of various formats for portraits most of it is silly and meaningless as the pluses and minuses of the formats can be trumped by the skill of the photographer. Frank managed to get a (technically) wonderful portrait with a smaller format --- he was shooting with the (exquisite) 35-100mm f2.8 Panasonic lens on a GH4. But the camera is almost meaningless compared with his clear intention and his well-crafted and well thought out lighting. 

Frank and I work in different ways. He is much more assured in his methodology and shoots sparingly. When he has what he wants he wraps up and moves on. I am less confident or less able to commit so I shoot and shoot in an almost promiscuous fashion. He is a "ten perfect frame" portrait shooter while I am a "one hundred frame--I'll know it when (if) I see it shooter. Sometimes fate conspires to make me lucky. Sometimes not. 

Frank shot with battery powered, electronic flashes and didn't have the advantage of modeling lights. It didn't matter, he knew how his lighting should be designed and followed his plans and instincts. I knew the image would be well done otherwise I would have never volunteered. I just didn't realize that I might like a portrait of me as much as I do like this one, warts and all.

I don't know about Don G. but I'll give Frank a solid "A." It's a real learning experience to be on the other side of the camera. I'm glad I wore the navy blue, linen shirt. And I'm glad I grabbed an old pair of glasses ---- I forgot how much I liked those frames. 

My advice to everyone who wants to shoot better portraits? Go out and start shooting them. The practice on both sides of the camera is invaluable.


Returning to my roots as a minimalist lighting expert. I did write the book about it, after all.

Stuff to put into the Think Tank Airport Security case tonight for tomorrow's shoot. 
Two Yongnuo flashes, one Cactus RF60 flash, one Metz flash, 
three Cactus V6 Transceivers, lots of rechargeable batteries and (top left)
my trusty Sekonic light meter. 

Out of the blue, about a month ago, I got a nice note from someone at the company that makes Cactus products and he offered to send me some of their products to test. I thought about it for a couple of days because I've found extended loans of cameras for the purpose of reviewing has the effect of making me subconsciously feel that I should alter my approach to photography by learning a new, different, weird interface or menu or handling characteristic. Also, when testing cameras you tend to become locked into whatever lens the camera company might send you. Would I enjoy testing an Olympus camera if the company was hellbent on sending me only a 14-42mm kit lens? No! I would not. Did I enjoy working with the Samsung NX-1 and the lesser kit lens? Not really. So the camera you use is an essential driver. Do I feel the same way about lighting? No really. I think of flashes as more or less interchangeable as far as the light they put out and the way they handle. For most work I am a manual setting user and not a TTL geek user. I don't spend a lot of time figuring out every little way a flash could work and I don't like to leave the metering of multiple light set ups to the camera or flash's discretion. A flash is a flash is a flash. If they put out the same power and they recycle quickly then I'm pretty happy.

I decided that I could compartmentalize the way I work with lights and I decided not to try and press the test gear into every shoot. And I further promised myself that I wouldn't change the way I work just to investigate features that I might never want to use in real life. With that all in mind I sent back an e-mail and agreed to accept and test the gear.

A couple weeks later I got a box from Fed Ex that came all the way from Hong Kong. Inside the box, and beautifully packaged, were three Cactus V6 Wireless Flash Transceivers and one Cactus RF60 Wireless flash. I pulled out the user manuals and started reading. The transceivers are radio triggers; they can be used on camera as a master to trigger other transceivers or they can be used as slaves to trigger attached flashes. The transceivers are set up with 16 channels and four groups. A master can control certain flashes by changing their power levels. The transceivers are programmed with some of the most popular Nikon and Canon flash profiles and they control the flash power levels through hotshoe contact communication. You can change power levels separately for each group of flashes and transceivers. So far so good.

For my uses I can stop right there. I can put one of the V6's on the camera and use the other two V6's to trigger attached flashes. I can also trigger the RF60 flash with a V6 on the camera. And that's mostly the way I end up using my flashes for most work. I am so old school with this stuff. I want to set the levels on the flashes and make a test frame---then adjust. But the V6s can do more. You can assign each V6 a channel and you can enable or disable each channel or any combination of channels from the master in the hot shoe. Wanna see what one set of lights looks like? Turn off the other channels and blaze away.

With approved flashes (Nikon users will find SB-800, SB-900 and SB-910s on the list) you can increase or decrease the manual power level for each group. That means if I use the RF60 flash as a master and hook up three compatible flashes on three V6s, and then assign  different channel for every V6 I can, from camera, control the power levels of all three slaved flashes from the camera location, individually. Nice.

If you are using a compatible TTL flash (say an SB-900) you can put the SB-900 in the V6's flash shoe and take advantage of their TTL "passthrough." Your flash will communicate directly with the camera in the normal TTL mode with all the usual stuff and you will still be able to trigger and control flashes connected to other V6s remotely.

There's one more thing about the V6s that's pretty cool but I haven't played with yet and that's the ability of the transceivers to "learn" new flashes. Someday soon I'll get around to writing about it but for right now I'll just extol the virtues of the V6s. They work. They are easy to set up. The flash shoe on the unit is a great flash interface. I like that the V6s take two double A batteries. I used the V6s as triggers pretty extensively while I was shooting the annual report project for a public utility back in April. I used them indoors in industrial spaces, and outdoors in electrical substations and they never failed to trigger.

Using the battery powered flashes and the transceivers on several recent jobs that required moving quickly and setting up and tearing down just enough stuff to get the job done reminded me that I've been so intrigued by new technologies like LEDs that I'd skirted using the tried and true tech like flash for too long. Practically speaking, this is the stuff we learned on and it's like riding a bicycle--you really don't forget how to set up and execute with flash.

I'm packing up to do a shoot tomorrow and I was looking through the light inventory trying to decide what to use. My first thoughts were about LED panels because there is a certain charm in continuous lighting but then I thought about how easy the job would be with a Think Tank rolling case full of shoe mount flashes and I decided to go all in on that methodology.

I'm only taking four flash units. Two are inexpensive Yongnuo flashes, one is the Cactus RF60 and the third is a Metz flash. The Yongnuo flashes have built in optical slaves while the Cactus and the Metz require external triggers. I'll take along a bunch of Eneloop batteries, a small softbox and a few collapsible Westcott umbrellas and I should be set. We're going to attempt to make portraits on location with very, very shallow depth of field. I can't use the ambient light. I scouted it yesterday and it's not photography friendly. It's all ceiling fixtures with florescent tubes. Not pretty tubes either.

I want to bring lights to leverage the ability to create light direction and light quality as well as color purity. I chose the flashes over LEDs in case I want to shoot with windows in the background. A couple of stout flashes and some sunscreens over the windows gives me more than a fighting chance at overpowering or matching existing exterior light. Especially with the cloudy weather we're having lately. The beauty of this plan is that everything; cameras and flashes, will fit in one case with wheels. A bag of small, light stands is the only other luggage I'll need to get through an entire day or portrait shooting.

But it's not like this is all new to me. I did actually write a bestselling book about lighting with small lights. It's a bit dated now but I think it's still a good read and the foundational concepts are still right on the money even if the gear has changed a bit. Here's a link to my very first technical book on photography:  Minimalist Lighting.

And yes, it's still in print!


Crazy Weather in Austin. Five inches of rain in four hours at my studio. (and some in my studio....)

It's another shop vac day in the neighborhood. We live up in the hills so nothing is ever going to be underwater (unless it's the end days) but with lots of elevations and grades along with super saturated soil the floors were not immune. We've had 23 days of good rain in a row, effectively curtailing the worst of the severe drought (for now).

I've spent hours today vacuuming up water and dumping it outside the studio. Nothing was damaged or destroyed inside. We have everything up on shelves and the foam mats on the floor are very helpful. All the cameras are snug in their cabinets and far from the floor.

In the downtown Austin area entire businesses are flooded and the recovery from the wide spread water damage will take time.

We're safe and sound here. My prayers go out to all the Austinites who live around Shoal Creek and other flood prone areas. I hope the worst we get is property damage and that no lives are lost.

Staying dry. Hope you are too.

A Reader Asked to See How I Was Rigging My Video Gear Around the Camera. Here's My Set-up.

This is the way I have my camera set up for shooting video on a tripod. If someone else was handling the sound it would less cluttered. If I was shooting solo I probably wouldn't use the monitor either...

This is the set up I used to shoot the video I talked about in the previous blog post. The box on the top left is the Beachtek DXA-2T which is a passive microphone mixer. I can combine both channels into one or keep the signals in separate channels. The important thing is that the Beachtek box allows me to control audio levels as needed. Always going down, never up; because there are no active preamplifiers in the box. But it also does a great job of impedance matching between the professional XLR connected microphones and the consumer level, mini-plug inputs.

Next to the blue Beachtek box is a Sennheiser receiver which is one half of the wireless microphone support set. Note that its output is connected into the mixer. 

I can add more utility shoes to the top bar of this "cage" in order to add more stuff but at a certain point more stuff makes the whole rig top heavy, plus it's already starting to look messy.... Don't try this with a little weanie tripod and head!

The Marshall monitor is a cheap one but it does a nice job. People can watch what I'm shooting without breathing down my neck and I can click on the focus peaking and see if what I'm shooting is really in focus or not. The headphones serve the same purpose only for ears. I will need to add a little hook to one of the tripod legs to hand the headphones on when we're between takes.

If I'm going to use a tripod it's really nice to have all the stuff I need right there, clustered around the camera. These are all simple and effective tools but they make a difference in the shooting. You can imagine that on bigger sets with multiple monitors and digital recorders sucking information out of the camera's HDMI socket and with the camera rigged with a follow focus mechanism and a matte box things get complex, crowded and more and more unwieldy. 

When I shoot with the Olympus stuff I don't want to wire it up like so. I want to shoot with them handheld and use the EVF finder. The D810 doesn't seem to mind the add-ons. 

Cost of stuff: The Beachtek box is about $170, the Sennheiser system, with lavaliere microphone is $700, The monitor is $349 and the grippy/cagey thing was a little less than $100. Not bad at all for stuff you can really use to make video projects work.