In everyone's rush to own their camera company's 70-200mm f2.8 many people might be overlooking a better (and cheaper) alternative.

"Greater Tuna" star, Jaston Williams, as Scrooge in "A Christmas Carol."

Ask most photographers which zoom lenses are best and most of them will reflexively answer, "The Holy Trinity of f2.8 zoom lenses!" and, for my money, they could not be more wrong. If we're looking at 70-200mm lenses from the major camera makers you'll find that the 2.8 lenses are brutally heavy and ruinously expensive. You might also find, if you actually take the time to shoot them in a direct comparison, that the same company's 70-200mm f4.0 is much sharper over a wider range of focal lengths. 

I've owned both variants in the Canon and Nikon lines as well as the Sony Alpha 70-200mm f2.8 and now the Sony 70-200mm f4.0 and I'm here to tell you that the f4.0 versions are much more fun to use, better optically corrected than their faster counterparts and a heck of a lot easier to use during a long day of shooting. 

I know a lot of you don't put much stock in DXO's lens rankings but in the Sony family the f4.0 G version of the venerable zoom is their top choice for sharpness, resolution and all around goodness in the Sony FE zoom lens catalog. I've been shooting one since the first quarter of 2016 and I find it boring because it's so reliable and flawless. No flare, no unsharp edges, no complaints.

I've pointed out before that every increase of one stop in lens manufacturing requires something like 5X the precision and machining in order to output the same quality results. And what are you really gaining?

I you are shooting a modern camera with a Sony sensors you'll find that choosing the slower lens and then increasing the ISO to cover the one stop difference will probably get you better image quality than trying to shoot a faster lens wide open. Not to mention that the sheer weight might have a stabilizing effect (inertia, mass, etc.) for the first five minutes of handholding the faster lens, the next hour or more will show up the hubris of trying to handhold a four pound dead weight. 

When I shoot stage shows at Zach Theatre with the Sony A7Rii my lens of choice is always the 70/200mm f4.0 G lens and I'm always shooting it handheld. The combination of good image stabilization and great optical performance means I can shoot all evening long at f4.0 and not compromise image quality. An added benefit is that my left arm (the one supporting the weight of camera and lens) isn't sore the next day. 

I suspect that the much denigrated Sony 24-70mm f4.0 Zeiss lens is actually better than the newer, and much lauded f2.8 G master lens of the same focal lengths. I haven't tried them but I've got this sneaky feeling that f2.8 is just a Pavlovian dodge, dangled at photographers who are old enough to remember needing faster apertures to help with manual focusing. And it's faulty knowledge that's been transmitted to following generations. 

If you are following the "teachings" of a more experienced generation you probably need to be careful,;sometimes the old rules don't apply to new technology.  


Here's the video Ben and I produced last Summer for a utility provider. We'd like to do a lot more in 2017.

Pedernales Electric Co-op Video. Summer 2016 from Kirk Tuck on Vimeo.

If you head over to Vimeo you can see it at a higher res.....

I was cleaning out my desk when I stumbled across a CD with scans from some black and white, 35mm film...

Young Ben completing the swim portion of a mid-winter biathlon in the outdoor pool.

About fifteen years ago I was still straddling the film and digital divide. All the commercial stuff got shot on electro-cameras while a lot of personal stuff still got lovingly shot on film with my little Leica rangefinders. We were way too busy back then to deal with the output of my endless stream of consciousness, personal shooting style so when I accrued a backlog of film I'd take it to Holland Photo and have them soup it and write it to CDs. These would come back with a little print of thumbnails and, after a quick inspection, would go straight into a drawer where they would languish for over a decade. 

This week I've been in the mood to throw stuff away and have been going through the filing cabinet drawers with the ferocity of a rabid tornado, tossing journals, reams of paper, corporate film archives and old telephones into the trash. Yesterday I was literally tossing handfuls of CDs and DVDs, that had accumulated over the years like old newspapers in a hoarder's living room, into a second trash can. But I can't let go of anything until I've given it a good "once over" and if it's a piece of storage with a family member or friend's photograph on it I just can't let it go. 

There was a surprise job cancellation for today. I swam early, breakfasted heartily and sat down to plow through e-mail when I remembered that I'd found a disk I wanted to check. There were only twenty or so images on it but when I brought them up in Preview I was delighted to find a tiny sliver of personal history that made me smile. 

The top image was made of Ben's first biathlon. He'd just finished his run and his half mile swim when I snapped this from the sidelines. It feels so ..... 1960's. I love the stark shadows created by the head-on flash. I love the swirl in the water behind Ben, illuminated by the underwater light fixture. I hadn't actually seen this image before this morning...

An even younger Ben unwinding after school with a favorite snack of bleu cheese and grapefruit.

The second image of Ben is one that seems so familiar to me. That was Ben's place at our little butcher block, dining room table. Every day after school he would pull up a chair, play something on his laptop and have a snack. His favorite snack food was "anything with bleu cheese." Often, he would make his own lunch for school and a standard was his crunchy peanut butter (Laura Scudders), bleu cheese and sweet pickle sandwich (on Sweetish Hill Bakery whole wheat bread) with Kalamata olives and mustard. None of the other kids ever offered to trade sandwiches in the school cafeteria. 

I love the photograph for so many reasons but one technical reason is the way the long, long "shoulder" of the highlight curve of film holds detail. An endless sea of tonality with no burnout to white.

Dear friend and gifted photographer, Will, smiling.

The final image is one of my friend, Will. We're "real" photographers. We always bring a camera with us when we meet for coffee or lunch. It's just the way it's done. But my observation here is mostly about the effortless way the Noritsu scan interpreted skin tone from the black and white negative. It's enough to make me thoroughly nostalgic for film. At least it's a prompt for me to turn down the sharpening and contrast on my current camera's standard shooting profile.....

Funny, the stuff you find when throwing things out. Now, what am I going to do with the two Leica Pradovit, professional slide projectors I stumbled across in the closet???

A blog post from one year ago today... Just a brief walk through the tangled garden of memory.



The Weekend Walk. A Chance to Look at Stuff and a Chance to Get Re-Acquainted with an "Old Friend."

As the pursuit of photography changes more and more I find myself drawn, intellectually and emotionally, to a different class of cameras than I would have in the past. Gone is the idea that every image I take needs to be absolutely technically perfect, or that it needs to come squirting out of the highest resolution, most advanced camera on the market. I've written many times in the past that our collective obsession with the "idea" that all images we take are somehow destined to be printing on huge inkjet printers, at sizes that dwarf life size, and that our viewers will be gallery goers who are hellbent on looking close enough at the work to see the individual ink drops, is nothing but nonsense. 

While we might, from time to time, bring together some favorite images and print them for a show, photographic sharing has moved from the walls to screens and, a new gold standard, to personal books. With that firmly in mind the almost perverse pursuit of near infinite resolution in our cameras is veering toward compulsive behavior. At my daily work as a commercial photographer my Sony A7Rii is the most capable camera I own --- but it almost always takes a backseat to the redoubtable Sony A7ii because the 24 megapixel files are big enough for nearly every client request and the economy of shooting, and the relative affordability of purchase, makes the less exacting A7ii my "all-terrain vehicle" of choice for almost everything. 

When I head out the door to shoot for myself and share photographs as graphical representations of ideas and as social documentation, my needs are different. Like everyone else I am tired of bringing the preciousness of the "view camera work aesthetic" into situations where it is counter-productive, counter-intuitive and burdensome. I want a camera that is fast, fluid, functional, fun and easy to carry with me everywhere. Few things look more dated to me now that seeing a middle aged photographer, out walking with his family, carrying a big, professional caliber DSLR over his shoulder on a Black Rapid Strap, complete with the almost obligatory "professional zoom", along with a fat and tacky camera bag weighing down the other shoulder. 

For sensible walking around, shooting during the daylight hours, having a wide range of focal lengths at one's fingertips, and enjoying the actual experiences of seeing and interpreting life, very few cameras will give one more pleasure than a manageable bridge camera with a fast, wide ranging lens. With all that in mind I stuffed all the other cameras I own into a drawer and grabbed my Sony RX10ii. Not the iii but the ii. 

It's relatively small, much lighter than the newer model. and the level of imaging capability per ounce and per dollar is off the charts. 

When I go to make images at the Graffiti Wall these days I'm trying to be less like a sports photographer who is isolating some peak of action with super narrow depth of field and more like what I see in Josef Koudelka's work: Scenes of deep focus with lots of data rich detail. Images with multiple object relationships.

When I look at images I am either drawn toward the peculiar and previously unseen and unknown subject or I am drawn into deciphering layers and layers of action and symbols swirling through a frame. Either the tightly rendered face of a person who is interesting because of their uniqueness or a broad, Hieronymus Bosch landscape of social interplay. Of course it is never so binary. It's human nature to want to cover every contingency. Photographers are no different. But with the current, smaller cameras and their increased potential, it's easier to leave the house unencumbered but ready. 

I find the Graffiti Wall in Austin interesting for many reasons. One is that artists (and there are good artists who show up occasionally) must be willing to do art that is totally transient. It may live on in their cellphone camera documentation but it will, now, almost invariably be covered with mindless word messages in a matter of hours. At best, in a few days. I find the wide variety of people the "Wall" attracts to be interesting. People from almost every social and economic milieu show up. The only exceptions are the desperately poor who have neither the time or transportation to drop by, and the desperately wealthy who seem to lack an interest in this particular urban phenomenon. All other groups are well represented. For some it's a curiosity and for others it's a cost effective weekend "stay-cation" with no cost for admission and few rules.

People in wife beater t-shirts, covered with tattoos, are walking through the crowd along with the families of West Austin doctors, lawyers and business owners. One group is intent on joining in the spray-fun while the other group seems to have extended to this venue the passive tourism of being on a photo safari or a continental river boat cruise with this being one of the "interesting" stops on the way in route to a nice dinner, with linen napkins and fine china. 

When I go I see myself as a photo-anthropologist but I know I am just another gawker. I'm there to see people doing foolish things or playing out their fantasy of being outlaw artists, even though they are breaking no laws here by participating. The young people in the crowd want to climb up the steep sides of the abandoned project while the older people are content to stay on flat land, close to their cars. 

I went yesterday hoping to find large swaths of new and interesting art bookended by exotic and beautiful people. That's always my anticipation. And always, when I get there I see a mix of people that's wide ranging and of the moment but not particularly social outliers

I find it interesting that people will give cans of quite toxic spray paint to small children and allow them to spray with abandon. I find it interesting that some people can look at the few really creative pieces on the walls and then spray a splatter of obscene words onto the same walls as their own contribution. I find it interesting that women will wear stylish high heels knowing they'll be climbing a steep dirt and mud pathway to the top level. I am always surprised that everyone considers themselves attractive or interesting enough to take dozens of selfies to commemorate their visit. I am amazed at some of the raunchy poses young women will assume in front of camera; not for their boyfriends but for their moms and dads. 

With all of this in play the ability to shoot wide, shoot tight, shoot silent and to do it all with a camera that has an un-intimidating profile is priceless. 

I still haven't gotten my head around the need to instantly propel the images onto Instagram or Facebook. I always like to curate images in a more thoughtful and focused way. I'm sure I'll come around to the new world order of mandatory instant sharing, given time. After all, my first experiences shooting at the wall were done with husky and bulky Nikons  with their lenses as fat as my arm... See how much we've changed.

Visitation of the Patricians.

A visual comment about coffee in mainstream America.

This is a large, illuminated sign on the edge of the parking lot for a 7-11 store on 
North Lamar. Blvd. The "sell" is for the cup, the "closer" is the 
description of the coffee.

There was a time in Austin when the best cup of coffee in town was at an all night diner called, Holiday House. The large and dowdy restaurant was just on the edge of the UT campus and served as a respite from days and days of bland, dormitory/cafeteria food. At least at the Holiday House you could get reliable eggs and pancakes. The coffee was more or less the American standard at the time: almost "see through" and with all the punch of a loofa. The nice thing about American coffee in the 1970's is that one needed to drink lots and lots of it to get any sort of adrenal buzz and that prodigious intake kept most college students well hydrated... But the real reason it was "the best cup of coffee in town" is that it was the only cup of coffee in town. At least at the odd hours of the day.

Since that woeful decade we've mourned the demolition of the Holiday House and most diners in our town but we've seen a blossoming of coffee shops, coffee houses and coffee kiosks everywhere. In my neighborhood there are two Starbucks facilities in one shopping center. And both are always busy serving increasingly strange coffee drinks that are moving further and further away from the pure idea of coffee as I know it. They offer a wide assortment of sugar-rush caloric time bombs, laced with espresso coffee shots. Where Starbucks fails mightily is in their interpretation of drip coffee. Traditional coffee. They've developed a new science of consumer coffee addiction. They roast their beans for their primary drip coffee offerings for too long. The "burnt" beans increase the flavor load to the tongue (and not in a good way) while actually decreasing the caffeine content of dark roast coffees. The lower dosage of caffeine builds traffic and sales as the serious coffee drinker must ingest more and more coffee to get the same attentive buzz we got from more artistically roasted beans.

Most of the coffee shops provide a good service; a place to park and relax while compulsively checking e-mail and one's favorite websites. I see them as rest stops for the trendy and consumers who believe they are buying a more sophisticated and higher quality cup of coffee. 

In my same state of anthropological delusion I always thought of Starbucks as being the coffee of pretension and relative affluence and, in constrast, always thought of coffee served at 7-11's, convenience stores in general, gas stations and McDonalds to be the coffee of the working class. People who, by necessity or choice, wanted decent coffee but at a more affordable price. I presume that this segment of the buying population were habituated to the taste of a more traditional, American style coffee. But now my universe of imagined, coffee drinking gerrymandering has been turned upside down by this sign I stumbled across yesterday. 

The cup is nice, I am sure. It's good to keep coffee hot. Most addicted coffee drinkers prefer it that way. But I fail to understand where styrofoam has failed in that endeavor. The real story is contained in that round ornament just to the left of the cup. "Nicaragua Single Origin Coffee." And its additional message conveyed in the green logo at the bottom of the ornament: "Rain Forest Alliance Certified."  

Since when did "budget/convenience" coffee drinkers become discriminating about the source of their coffee? Since when did mainstreamers develop a realization about single origin coffees? What is next, Kona coffee at McDonalds? Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee at Exxon? Have we hit a tipping point at which we, as a nation, are hellbent on upping everyone's game when it comes to coffee?

I'm curious to know if this is trending in other regions. I understand that most places have a wild surplus of coffee shops and most cities of any size have somewhere within their borders that just nails good coffee, but is an elevated coffee awareness becoming as universal as the cellphone? 

Please report sightings of coffee appreciation mutation in your region. Document it, if possible. 

What will Starbucks do when they lose their "hipster/trendy/first arrival" status? Their latest remodels have made the stores louder, meaner, less well lit and less comfortable (the LED pinlighting is egregious...) and I wonder if this will push customers toward more welcoming competitors. 

I think Michael Johnston has the right idea. Become your own master brewer. At home. But it's kind of nice to see that, when on the road, there are more and more chances that a good cup of coffee is on the route.


R.L. Color Portrait. Sony+Rokinon

©2016 Kirk Tuck.

You never stop interpreting your files. What you see the next day is colored by whatever you did and thought in the intervening time. I come back to files again and again, not to build to the "ultimate" image but to see how life changes my perceptions of what makes a strong image and what doesn't. Every image is a moving target.

Rebecca on location.

©2016 Kirk Tuck.

Sony A7Rii + Rokinon 135mm t-2.2


Thanks for reading! Have a great Thanksgiving and use your weekend off to make some great art with your camera.

©2016 Kirk Tuck. From Zach Theatre's Production of, "A Christmas Carol." 

click on the photograph to see it bigger and nicer.

Workflow from last night's shoot.

I shot on three different cameras last night. I was testing the limits of the RX10iii and keeping the A7Rii + 70-200mm f4.0G close at hand to shoot vital group shots that are so popular for theater marketing. Then I filled in around the edges with the Sony a6300 and its companion, the 18-105mm G lens. The photographing was a straightforward as I could make it. I shot raw not so much for post shooting color correction but in order to lift the shadows and have fine control over the noise reduction settings. As usual, I shot too much but I have been working on "speed-editing" so the final count for post processed files was a little over 500, which meant I had achieved a 3-to-1 reduction in files shot versus files finished out. 

I've been getting more mercenary as the size of the raw files continues to grown. I flagged all the images I think are best, select the flagged images in Lightroom and then inverse the selection and throw away all the non-flagged photographs. And when I say "throw away" I mean that when the little box comes up and asks me if I just want to "remove" the images from the catalog or if I really mean I want to delete them from the hard drive I summon up my courage and dump them. It's actually a nice feeling to see the file folders shrink in size. 

After I ingest everything into Lightroom and do my edit (which means "keep or throw") I then go to the files that survived and start to post process ( which means to color correct, enhance, crop, sharpen, etc.).
I work from the top down in the menu system. I start with color, move on to exposure then onto shadow and highlight protection and so on. I shoot a bit on the dark side so I'm generally adding +35 to +50 to each file. In situations where my main subject is in spotlight and the rest of the cast or background is darker I routinely pull the shadow slider up to 50-70% to get some detail in there. There is a certain balance between the exposure setting and the shadow and highlight settings. If I have time I work the relationships a bit to find an optimized combination. 

I shoot in single frame burst of 10-12 shots without changing camera settings so if I like a series of images I need only work the first one diligently and then the rest are sync'd to the first file. 

Moving further down the menu we get to sharpening and noise reduction. Depending on the lens in use I might need no sharpening and usually just a small amount if I do need to add some. I like big percentages as small radii. I'm equally conservative with noise reduction because I want to see detail everywhere. +20 is generally the sweet spot for images shot just above the ISO comfort level (for instance, ISO 4,000 for the A7Rii or ISO 1250 for the RX10iii...). 

Once I get everything applied the way I want it I select all the files and output them into a folder as low compression (92%) Jpegs and I fix the image size at 6000 pixels wide for the theater. Too much bigger and it slows everything down, too much smaller and I get nervous about posters and print magazines. I do have a close working relationship with the in-house art director so if she is making huge lobby posters I'll go back to the files and output her selections at the full file size. 

Once I have all the images output they get uploaded to Smugmug.com. Today's upload of Jpegs was just under 6GB. Once they are on Smugmug I set the gallery controls accordingly. With the Theater I want to make sure everyone on the marketing team has access to what they need so I make the files individually downloadable if the person has the password. In this way they can share the gallery with the actors and crew but have control over what ultimately gets downloaded. Smugmug makes it easy for me to select an entire gallery and send downloadable (and expiring) links to clients who need access to all the high res files. Doing this saves me the cost of a memory stick and a trip in the car. 

With a non-profit client like Zach Theatre social media can really make or break goals for ticket sales so we allow the principal actors access to the images for Facebook and Twitter, etc. We might lose some individual sales but actors generally don't have much budget to buy production stills and if we didn't allow social media use we might win the battle (short term, small income) but lose the war (sustaining productions with marketing allowing us all to continue to work together and get paid). 

Uploading to Smugmug also gives me one more place to archive files. At $150 a year for unlimited storage, and convenient retrieval as well as display, the service is a bargain. I have the files on at least one hard drive and generally write them also to a DVD (I know, old school). Then I send along a bill and I'm done. Just thought I'd share my process. Everyone has a different way of doing this work.

RX10iii at near full lens extension.


A Black and White Photograph of Jack.

©2016 Kirk Tuck. All Rights Reserved.

My Favorite Portrait of Boston Actor, Jack Donahue.

©2016 Kirk Tuck. All Rights Reserved.

Jack came to Austin to join the production of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and I found his performances to be really wonderful. When the play finished its run I asked Jack if he would be willing to sit for a portrait. He was. We shot on a nice, sunny afternoon. He's got great stories to tell and I had a blast.

Lit with two LED lights lighting up a 50 inch, circular diffuser. Camera: Sony A7Rii. Lens: Rokinon 135mm t 2.2 Cine lens. Tripod: The good one. 

I am currently post processing and retouching a bunch of selections for Jack. I'm very happy with the results of our session.

Testing. Always testing. 

The Ghost of Jacob Marley and Scrooge. On Stage at Zach.

©2016 Kirk Tuck. All Rights Reserved.

Photograph taken at rehearsal on Sunday. Camera: Sony A7ii. Lens: 70-200mm f4.0 G. Raspberry flavored SD memory card. Human tripod. 

A few months ago I wanted to buy a battery grip for my old, used, Sony A7ii. I went to Amazon and looked at the official Sony accessory. I am sure it's made from very rare plastic only grown in the plastic orchards of Fiji but I found the purchase price --- breathtaking. 

A little more research uncovered a generic product from Vello. The price was well short on $100 and, with Prime, the delivery was free. I ordered one that did not arrive on time. I called Amazon. They sent out a replacement. In the meantime the first one arrived.  DOA.  My hopes of finding a low cost alternative were temporarily shattered. I sent it back and the second one arrived. I pulled it out of the box and installed batteries then screwed it onto the the base of the camera. The device has worked flawlessly for over 10,000 exposures. 

I am thankful that the USPS mis-delivered and then re-delivered the first drive. Had it arrived disfunctional but right on schedule I would have sent it back and decided that all such cheap substitutes were without value. 

The combination of the A7ii and the Vello battery grip makes for a perfect ergnomic pair for me. I find the camera to be pretty much perfect with one tiny exception (certainly NOT a deal killer...) and that is my wish for the silent shutter options shared by the a6300 and the A7Rii. Every other aspect of the camera (with grip) is exactly what I want in a daily shooter. So much photographic happiness for < $1,000. 

Tonight I go back to photograph the full dress rehearsal and I'm very excited to see Zach's version of "A Christmas Carol" again. They have re-invented a hoary classic and made it accessible and fun, all without diluting the wonderful message of hope and re-birth that runs through the play. Tonight I get to see it with different cameras and with Belinda by my side. Nice working conditions. Thankful for good clients. 


Funniest thing I have seen online all this quarter. In keeping with the "Holiday" season...


A couple of images from "A Christmas Carol" -- Zach Theatre Style.

As I watched the play to determine how to photograph it tomorrow night I played around with the camera and lenses I brought with me. For the first half of the show I used Sony's top DXO-rated zoom lens, the 70-200mm f4.0 G. I shot it mostly wide open. After the intermission I decided to take a chance and shoot the rest of the time with my Contax/Yashica Zeiss 50mm f1.7 lens. I guess I should not have been surprised but I have to say that the single focal length lens, shot mostly around f2.8 was much sharper. So much so that I noticed in the thumbnails. To really pop the images from the zoom I added about 35 point of sharpening  (1.0 pixel radius) in Lightroom to get the effect I wanted. But when I hit the prime lens files I had to turn the sharpening to zero. 

On another note, in my blog about practice (yesterday?) a commenter mentioned that better (more expensive and newer) gear might cut down on the need to practice as much. Interesting thought. I pondered what the difference in final output might be if I was shooting the play with a Nikon D5 and the latest, ultra expensive 2.8 zooms, at a total cost of about $10,000 instead of the used Sony A7ii ($950) and the very used Contax 50mm lens ($125+Fotodiox Adapter @$28).  

Then I remembered shooting last year with Nikon's very good D810 and their good lenses and getting results that were really no different than those generated by my current, largely second hand, collection. Maybe I just read the owner's manual more carefully with the Sonys....

At some point the contrast of the stage lighting becomes the dominate issue in limiting overall quality. What looks great and exciting to the human eye leaves a bit to be desired from a digital capture point of view. 

Be sure to click on all the ads below!!! (if you are reading this in a feed that last sentence is sarcasm. There are no ads below. We just f-ing forgot to monetize...oh well).