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).


Can you undertake "too much" pre-production? I'm inclined to say, "no."

Yeah. I did it again. I walked around downtown this afternoon, looking at stuff and spending time operating the controls on my camera. 

Yesterday I talked about practice. I wrote about going to a rehearsal at the theater and trying my hand (for the thousandth time) at shooting in the dark. Well, I was in the dark but the actors were in little pools of light... And they moved from pool to pool as they talked and gestured and, well, acted. And some of the pools of light were eddies of warm light while others were gelled cool. All the pools were different exposures. All the backgrounds black.  I processed the imagines this morning and assessed them while I ate a cinnamon roll I'd baked and drank so-so coffee that sprang from a Keurig machine. From start to finish the images got technically better and better. It was a lesson reinforced. Practice is not good, it's essential.

Yesterday's rehearsal was for the production of "Santaland Diaries." It will be performed on the smaller, stage, in the round, at Zach, but our big money-maker for the holiday season will be a very rock+contemporary culture inflected version of "A Christmas Carol." It's a big production on our large, Topfer stage and it's a complex musical with lots and lots of moving parts. 

This morning it occurred to me that I could better serve my client on Tuesday, at the official dress rehearsal, if I knew the progression of the show, the actions that lead up to big crescendos of action and poses, etc. With a bit of judicious scouting I'd know when to shift and when to shoot and how the lighting cues will affect my photography. Photography that will be used across a lot of media to drive traffic to the play over the course of a month. 

I sent an early Sunday afternoon e-mail to the stage manager asking if it would be okay for me to drop by and attend the tech rehearsal this evening. It's the last rehearsal without an audience and while it may stop and start it will give me ample opportunity to survey "the lay of the land." I pushed a bit and also got permission to photograph. A way of taking visual notes ahead of the official, assigned shoot on Tues. 

Now, this is hardly a burden since I love this particular production, enjoy the music, and am a big fan of many people in the cast. I'm heading over right after supper and should be ready to watch at 7:30 pm, when the curtain opens. 

I'm taking along the Sony A7ii and the 70-200mm f4.0 G lens and I'm intent on getting some shots from angles I won't have ready access to with a full house on Tues. Am I getting paid to spend my Sunday evening doing research/pre-production for a job? Not in money, no. But I'm guessing that my pre-knowledge of the blocking, lighting and timing in the show will make my images much better --- or at least more efficient, on Tues. 

I don't mind going the extra mile because I am less motivated by immediate financial gain and more motivated to push the quality of my meager interpretation of my chosen art to as high a level as possible in the belief that I'll get several wonderful photographs for my portfolio. This is a good strategy for me since I have, sprinkled through my website and my portfolio, images created for the theater five, ten and even fifteen years ago. They are some of my favorites. Short term investment in pre-production, and on site research, in order to create art that can represent me well down the road. 

Besides, I'll get paid for Tuesday's shoot and that's what the client originally budgeted for and signed up for. How I end up getting the stuff right is totally on me. 

Today's free equipment fascination (free because I already own it) is with the Sony A7ii, the cheap grip and a Contax/Zeiss lens. The image above shows the 45mm lens I shot with downtown today. Focused carefully and shot at f5.6 or f8.0 the lens creates sharp and sparkly images that I like. 
How's that for a short review? 

Sunday Image. From rehearsal. Also, Feedback.

A scene from the Zach Theatre Production of "Santaland Diaries."

I call this one, "looking at the work." 

I've been mulling a few things over in my mind the last few weeks. One is about our (collective) growing addiction to "social media" and our headlong dive into web programming (YouTube videos, video equipment reviews, camera reviews, printer reviews, online profiles, forums, specialty websites, etc.).  I read an opinion piece in the NYTimes called, "Quit Social Media. Your Career May Depend On It." by Cal Newport. In it he makes a number of good points, including the idea that social media is engineered from the ground up to be sticky and addictive. Also, that the more you consume the more you want to consume. He rightly asserts that, in any moment of boredom, it is too easy and alluring to just click into social media to get a quick fix of faux connectedness. The cost is all the surrendered opportunity to go out and have real experiences with real people. 

The article from NYT covers much more than my quick synopsis so if you have an impassioned response to what I wrote above I suggest you go and read the whole thing first...

At any rate, I am certain that blogs about everything are included in his general view that surface dives into endless content on the internet robs us of genuine experiences, the focus to be able to work on real work with discipline and diligence, and more; it also robs us of being really present. It's impossible (my opinion) to pay attention to anything in front of you if there is always a subroutine running in your brain that coaxes you to seek the solace of the screen. Or emotionally implores you to "check in."

I wrote rhetorically this past week about declining comments here and one reader chimed in with a litany of the blog's flaws. The foremost being that I write about the same few things over and over again. Those would include: Experiences shooting corporate work. Experiences shooting for the theater. Experiences walking in Downtown Austin with a camera. Experiences relating to swimming. Showing my favorite, old portraits.

The remedy, according to several other commenters, would be for me to: Get in my car and go on a long roadtrip to places I have never been before in order to get new experiences about which to write. Get on a plane and go to exotic, foreign locales to get new experiences about which to write. And, search out new and exciting equipment about which to write.

It was from this bubbling cauldron of introspection, New York Times guest writers and the insights of my readers that I have come to the conclusions that most social media is a waste of all our time. And that some of my readers misunderstand what this blog is all about. And, that everything must evolve or die. 

Remedies? I'm no longer actively posting to or reading anything on Twitter. If you left a pithy rejoinder there hoping I would stumble across it and have an epiphany you will be disappointed. More to the point, you won't likely get a response. I'll use Twitter now only to automatically post links back to the latest blog I've written. Ditto with Facebook, which seems to be the biggest demotivater ever invented by humans. Don't leave messages for me there because chances are I will read them .... never. 

My recent direct mail efforts have convinced me that few to none of my actual commercial clients follow me on Facebook (thank God! after this insane political season...) and even fewer on Twitter. They do react, almost every time, to a personal note, a post card, a direct mailing or an e-mail. I've never been hired or referenced from a contact on social media. Doesn't happen. 

Now, on to the more personal eye opener: Some seem to think that I write on this blog in an effort to establish a mercantile quid pro quo. Their idea is that I write content for them and in return I harvest profits, sell products, get money, accrue financial advantage, etc. They (perhaps subconsciously) view the VSL blog as a service which receives renumeration as a result of having attracted their eyeballs and delivered freely shared content. As if, somehow, their reading of my essays helps to vault my career and net worth skyward. I only wish that was so. 

I write because I love to write. I presumed that people read because they were interested in what I was writing. Now I see that a certain segment sees this blog as a form of general,  somewhat generic, photographic entertainment; the entry price of which is the chore of reading through things they don't like in order to find the one or two gems that inadvertently hit the screen. 

Sadly, as a I ante up the $65,000 per year to pay for someone's college expenses, I have very limited excess funds with which to fire up the Range Rover and set off to Patagonia to report on the state of various Four Season Hotels and Ritz Carlton Hotels along my route. At sixty one years of age I find my access to super models and skateboard celebrities a bit curtailed, so I won't be switching my focus (ha, ha) to all new subjects that are more popular. And since I haven't been emancipated from the need for income I don't really have the option of ditching all my blue chip corporate clients to pursue the (much sexier?) realm of poorly paying editorial jobs that might allow me to go somewhere different and make a photograph of someone doing something trendy which I can then overlay with an Instagram filter and peddle around as new art. 

I'm pretty sure I'll keep writing exactly what pops into my head and I extend to all of my readers the option to read it or not. If you'd like to show your support for my efforts be sure to click on all the ads below...

If you want me to write specific content, hire me.  

Have a great Sunday. I'm heading out to walk through downtown Austin, swim, ruminate about a video job I'm in pre-production on and then post some of my old, square, tired, black and white portraits. 


Saturday Practices. In the water, at the theater.

After months of warm weather it's a seriously refreshing experience to get from the locker rooms to the pool in 40+ degree weather with a gusty wind blowing. It was a long slog through a complicated set this morning. By my count a little over 4,500 yards. I've been practicing one part of my freestyle stroke lately and that's an acceleration of my hand/arm during the last half of each arm pull. It must be working because I've been sore and tired after every practice... Seriously though, changing a stroke takes time and uses one's muscles in a slightly different way. The proof is in either speed or increased endurance or both. My stroke technique is a constant work in progress which improves by plateaus as I practice.

After the swim, and coffee with fellow swimmers, I grabbed a small Husky tool bag filled with small cameras and lenses and headed to the theater to practice a different skill set. I have two lenses that I get great results from --- if I slow down and practice good technique. One is the Rokinon 85mm t-1.5 and the other is the Rokinon 135mm f2.2. Both are manual focus lenses with fairly long throws on the focusing rings. Manual focusing moving subjects in changing light is something that takes consistent practice; even with aids like focus peaking. So, I requested permission to come to a rehearsal of SantaLand Diaries in order to actually get some practice.

With long, manual focus lenses there are things to consider: The closer you are to a subject the harder it is to focus quickly. Stopping down a manual aperture lens on camera (a lens that works at its "taking" aperture) means that a lens shows more depth of field in the finder which makes finding the exact point of sharp focus much harder; and finally, the longer the focal length the shallower the depth of field which means that a close focus subject, moving in low light is a tough target. That's what I was working on today. Meredith McCall (above) and Martin Burke were in full rehearsal mode for a production that opens at the end of next week. They didn't mind having me around, after all, someone has to supply an appropriate laugh track.

I shot three or four hundred shots and used the two lenses in a much different way than I would if I'd been hired to do the shoot, or if the results were mission critical for the theater. I played more with shooting wide open which meant having a much bigger ratio of crap-to-good photography. But that's why it seems to me important to practice. Often. The brain and the eye have to work in concert until the hand movements driving the lens controls become second nature. I think the only way to get there is to do stuff over and over again until it becomes fluid. Until there is a certain flow.

I felt it today with my freestyle. Not all the time but just when I was in a certain groove and not over thinking the mechanics. I started to feel the same way at the end of the rehearsal at the theater. Not all the time but mostly when I trusted my intuition and committed without hesitation to pushing the shutter button. I can only imagine that if I still had the energy to swim four or five hours a day that I'd be able to drive toward textbook technique much more quickly. Never perfect but closer to perfect quicker.

By the same token, I'm sure if I worked on the small stage at Zach Theatre with the same camera and lenses every day, instead of once or twice a month, I might build a fine combination of muscle memory, intuition, and insight into the rhythms of each director and actor and thereby become a much better documentarian of live theater.

All I can do at this point is practice and learn. And there's so much to learn but it seems to be all about how my physical and neural collaborations happen. Nothing about facts and figures, or vital pages in an owner's manual. Practicing on Saturday to be a better swimmer on Sunday. Practicing in rehearsals on Saturday to be more alive and aware in the dress rehearsals next week.