I Keep learning this lesson over and over again so here's a holiday re-post of why the last job counts most.


You're only as good as your last job...

The universe is a tricky place and plays by a different set of rules than transient beings like us would like.  I had coffee recently (when do I not have coffee??) with a very famous photographer who was bemoaning the fact that his work had gone from super-renumerative-award-winning-globe-spanning to zilch in an arc of about five years.  And he couldn't figure it out.  We talked about market changes, the death of magazines (we both cut our teeth in the heyday of editorial work), the move to a more and more granular set of markets and age-ism (the ebola virus in the room).

But as we picked our way through the seemingly chaotic vagaries of happenstance we both saw a pattern emerge.  We'd been resting on our laurels.  We thought that a great project, done for a "show" client would have infinite legs.  That, say, a cover of the New York Times magazine would be a client magnet for years to come.  Or that a bestselling book would cement business relationships, down stream.  I'm consistently guilty of presuming that local clients know my long history in the market and that it must provide for some future business traction.  

 It's rough when you hit the wall of reality and have to confront the fact that.......you are only as good as your last job.  And that everything technical you've learned over the years is losing value faster than your dollars.....

In swimming, competitors can brag and trash talk and walk through memory lane to their heart's desire but the real test, the only test, is that time on the clock and who touches the wall first.  Nothing else matters.  You can carry your old wins gracefully but they won't help you in this race.  They won't give you anything more than a psychological advantage.  Mythology doesn't trump "now."

When we have been in the business (or the craft) for a long time we have a tendency to believe that the things we were taught and the "best practices" techniques that we embraced are both objective and right. Above opinion and obvious.  But every new style is, de facto, a destructive technology whose sole intention is to kill off the status quo.  That's the nature of art, life and business.  We can admire what came before but we achieve by inventing the new. 

I am hardly above reproach and never infallible.  I had (have) a knee jerk reaction to everything new that comes slamming down onto the photographic pike.  I hate HDR.  I loathe all the silliness of iPhone-o-graphy and above all I wish I could freeze the market and the prevailing aesthetic right at 1995.  I was pretty good at that style and comfortably understood the business....

But had I stopped there I would long since have migrated into a less.....kinetic.....industry.  The fact is, I am only as relevant to clients as my last job and my last portfolio show and (here comes the coup de grace) and showing my greatest hits from yesteryear only reinforces, to potential clients that I am frozen in amber and not swimming at pace through the stream of current commerce and style.  Without constant course correction we might as well swim to the side and exit.  They may admire my old work but it may have no relevance to the projects in front of them today.

I am not saying anyone needs to abandon their core style or walk away from decades of experience but I am saying that it needs to be incorporated into an ongoing journey of discovery which includes shooting for  oneself, trying new technologies and showing new work.  Even if the work is in a style you've done forever there is a resonance that emerges which communicates the freshness.  We can never step in the water in exactly the same way we did the day before.  Life continually changes us and you can't help but reflect those changes in your current work.  It's not important to be trendy.  It's important to let the comtemporary "you" seep into your work and the only way you can do that is to work contemporaneously. 

My readers here don't need to be reminded that I pick up new cameras all the time.  Part of it is the barely subjugated hope that the new gear will deliver the power of a cult talisman and improve my work by its magic, but another part is my belief that technology and aesthetics are joined at the hip and move in a staggered lock step.  I've talked lately about "fluid or fluent" photography by which I mean that the technology and the interface of your chosen camera doesn't interfere with your seeing.  That it regresses and becomes automatic.  That's the promise of many of the new, smaller cameras.  You look at the screen on the back (or in the EVF finder) and see the image already brocaded and prepared.  Previsualized, if you will, for you, by the machine.  All that's required is selection and timing.

In a way, fluid practice is Zen practice, is mindful practice, is stream of consciousness practice.  It precludes setting things up.  It precludes the disruption to the creative process by affectation.  It is negated by spending time setting up strobes.  It's a direct reaction to the scene in front of you or the scene in which you also exist as a player.  The 2006-2010 small strobe fascination,  was a style.  It was a manifesto.  And now it's old fart.  The techniques of HDR will be incorporated into the tool kit of photographers but, as a recognizable style, it will join the ring flash and colored filter gels on the scrapheap of photo-art-history.  The current technique of using small cameras and fast lenses, and moving and responding rapidly will also cycle through.  But it will be the prevailing style for a while.  And then it will killed off by the next disruption.

This doesn't mean that older styles don't soldier on like Zombies on the Night of the Living Dead, fashion isn't instantaneous, globally.  But you can already see the sea changes.  Scott Bourne is all feverish about shooting portraits in the studio with, gasp! an Olympus Pen camera!!!!! Thom Hogan (the big Nikon guy) declares his love for the Pens. Every guy I know is rushing to buy a Fuji x10 or x100 or the Nikon or the Panasonic mirrorless camera of choice.  Images are starting to crop up all over the place shot in the new ethos.  Camera Minimalism is rampant...

And it's all part of the process.  But you need to swim your own race.  Training methods change.  The hard work doesn't.  And the hard work has always been the incorporation of change into your own art.
Finally, to all the people who will rush in and talk about the sanctity of style I can only offer up Picasso.  He mastered seven distinct and wonderfully different styles over the course of his career and was prolific.  More work.  Less resting on our laurels.  More output and more change.  Less talk about how we did it in the old days.  Not discounting the art but no one can live on laurel leaves....

Our existence always hinges on our ability to change....well.

note:  I like this blog: http://mftadventures.blogspot.com/  it's called "High Fidelity Compacts."  It's well written and thoughtful.  Most cogent for people who are interested in smaller cameras.  Nice.

another note:  I laughed so hard I almost spilled my coffee....  On some comment stream someone was taking me to task for saying nice things about the Nikon on my blog.  Someone else responded that my blog was there to sell mountains of my books and also for my commercial photography clients.  I'm still waiting for the mountain of book sales but I hope to God my clients don't read the VSL blog.  I'm not always kind here....

Post edited. 11/17.


A post from five years ago today. About the role of the muse in photography. A re-posting.

The role of the muse in making art.

Like a catalyst in chemistry the perfect muse starts and sustains a reaction in the artist that makes the process of art both possible and, to the artist, desirable.  When I started out in photography I was "home schooling" myself.  And I made a lot of trials with a lot of errors but I had one short cut that many others, whose goal was to become "an artist" or "a photographer"  didn't have.  I had a burning desire not to "be" an artist but to make the art.  I kept stumbling into beauty at every turn and I wanted to record it, share it and say, "See what I see.  Isn't life amazing?!"  And since I came to the art looking for tools to share what I saw I  bypassed the whole quagmire symbolized by the question:  "What should I shoot?"

There are two ways (probably millions of ways) to come to photography.  One is to become enchanted by the tools and set off on a life long journey to master the tools and wield them like a wizard in an RPG.  The second is to find a subject and to search for the right media with which to have a conversation with everyone around you.  The wizard seeks power while the person struck senseless by beauty tries to lend power to his subjects.  To translate their beauty into a universal language.

I've often said that I can take or leave landscape photography.  Same goes for still lives or big Crewdsonian tableaux.  Ditto the Didactic demonstrations of Gursky.  But every once in a while I'll be walking down the street and I'll look into someone's face and become transfixed with the perfectly imperfect symmetry of a face and the transient nuance of a serene grace I see there.  Other times I'm equally riveted by a playful half smile or a majestically projected innocence.  And I want to make a photograph because it's all so fleeting, and the universe and time keep gobbling up our chaotic intersectional interfaces with an insatiable and unstoppable vigor.  True beauty, to me is the wonderful contenance of another person, projected without affectation.

So I slowly taught myself how to make portraits.  And for the last thirty years I've worked to make my own encyclopedia of beautiful faces.  And it's much harder than it might seem.  First you have to recognize them; the people who resonate with you.  Then you have to gain their collaboration.  Then you have to guide them through the process of being photographed.  You have to be wary of dabbling in new styles so as to not obviate your clear vision.  You have to be able to take the raw materials provided by your session and work it like clay or marble and pull from it the vision you saw with your heart.  That's the hard part.  And I fail far more often than I succeed.

But sometimes it works.

So many things can derail you.  The biggest obstacle is fear.  Fear that you'll not be able to find the "right" subject.  Fear about approaching a stranger.  Fear of failure.  All kinds of fear.  Almost impenetrable fear.  But, of course, as Steven Pressfield aptly conveyed through his characters in his magnificent book, The Gates of Fire, the opposite of fear is love.  And the capacity to fall in love is the secret tool that makes a portrait artist successful.

To fall in love with a face.  To fall in love with the way light caresses soft skin.  To fall in love with the creation of an idealistic symbol of a person's outward projection.  To fall in love with the wonderful energy of eyes, vital and alive.  The opposite of fear is love.  Love doing your work and you banish fear.

So the muse is there to make sure that, even if only for a minute or two, you experience the warm, rich embrace of love and translate it into your art.  I laugh and I kid but I really do understand that a portrait will rise above the level of documentation or decoration when I feel myself falling, however tentatively, in love with my subject.  And my one desire is to share with my audience how special my subjects are.  How unique and vibrant.

Poor Belinda.  I thought she was so radiant and wonderful when she was 20.  How silly of me not to understand at the time that every year she would become ever more so.  That's the nature of your muse.


If I could start over and build a camera system from scratch which cameras would I consider. And why?

Jen. Triathlete. ©kirk tuck.

Every so often I'll be working with my cameras and I'll find an annoyance that makes me question if there may be some other system out in the wild that would handle my photo needs better than what I've got in my hand. While I was swimming this morning I passed the time on a long set by conjecturing which camera systems I would consider, right now, today, if I had no cameras at all. For the sake of the exercise I would imagine that the studio was hit by a tornado that swept away every camera body, lens, flash, battery grip, decal, camera strap and battery. The insurance company writes me a big check and now it's up to me to find the "perfect" system. Shouldn't be that hard given that I've already shot with most of the systems on the market, at one time or another. 

I think this time around I would try to limit myself to one great system instead of picking and choosing. No more rationalizations about "personal" shooting cameras or "special use" cameras. Just one solid system for work and for play. 

After taking a good, hard look at the things I photograph and video tape for money I'd narrow down the field into the systems that meet those parameters. There are a few considerations that I already have in mind that would disqualify various camera systems. For instance, after nearly six years of constant improvements in EVFs I know I would never want to go back to a camera system that relies on an optical viewfinder for shooting. That immediately filters out Canon, Nikon and Pentax from the running. My desire for the cameras to also have state of the art in video tech would have disqualified Olympus and Fuji in years past but both have introduced cameras this year that would allow me to consider them. Leica is out. No because I can't afford the prices for the cameras and lenses but because I don't want to waste the money for any imagined, marginal gains.

While the Sigma Foveon-based cameras appeal to my eccentric side the operational realities of even their latest tech make me run for the door. 

Let's see whose left. That would be Panasonic, Sony, Olympus and Fuji. Each has their strengths a weaknesses. I've used Olympus, Panasonic and Sony extensively but haven't really touched the Fuji products. I was initially turned off by the early performance issues with the Fuji X-pro-1 and actually miffed at Fuji for not including something as vital as an eyepiece diopter on their flagship model... Since remedied on the latest camera bodies. 

With the four companies represented here the choices get interesting. In order to make this fair I'll choose my system for the way I like to work. That would include two identical bodies, a 24-70mm equivalent and a 70-200mm equivalent lens set, augmented by a macro and a fast 50mm equivalent. 

I'll look at Sony first. The obvious way to outfit the system is with two A7rii bodies, a 24-70mm f4.0 Zeiss/Sony zoom, the 70-200mm f4.0 G lens, the 50mm f1.4 and the 90mm Macro. Add in a couple of controllable flashes and you are pretty much done. The wide angle guys would bitch but that's too bad as these are the choices that would best suit me. 

What are the advantages? State of the art sensor technology with class leading resolution and dynamic range. Arguably the best "super-35" video performance you can get in a still camera. Great lenses. Good handling from the camera.  But what are the cons? First would be cost since the bodies alone are $3200 per. The lenses are relatively pricey too. Finally, the flash performance is nothing to write home about... Oh, and whiners will bitch about the battery life but as long as I can buy two Wasabi brand batteries for $20 I'll stay away from that argument. 

Next up in my book would be the Panasonic system. I owned the GH4 camera and it was great so I'd get two of those to start with and, since my experiences with their lenses were also good I'd dive right into getting the 12-35mm f2.8 and the 35-100mm f2.8. Toss in a Leica branded macro lens along with a 42.5mm f1.2 and I'd say I'll be set. The "pros" of the system? Low price for the cameras. Currently about $1200 each. (you always need two. At least I do...). Absolutely great 1080p video and good 4K video albeit with a big crop. The cameras handle well and the files are great. Of all the systems represented here I have to say that the focusing capabilities of the GH4, with dfd, makes these bodies the best point-to-point focusers in the mirrorless kingdom. The "cons"? The fly in the ointment for me is the same one I'll pull out for the Olympus system. The sensor is small. It's not an absolute deal-killer but for some stuff the bigger, more amply endowed full frame sensor can be hard to beat - especially when it comes to depth of field control with a wide range of lenses. Still, from a strictly pragmatic point of view this may be the best of the choices for the most number of different tasks. The GH4 is a video legend and every other aspect of the system is spotless. Somewhat boring, but spotless. It's just that sensor size that nags at me...

The system I keep falling in love with is Olympus. If you just want shoot really wonderful images and you don't need to blow them up to amazing sizes, or drop everything in every background out of focus you could use this system and be set until someone reinvents photography gear again. The OMD EM-1 mk2 is pretty wonderful, at least on paper. If it's as good as the EM-1 (original) but with better video capability it is already good enough to make most photographers smile big. The wonderful thing about the newest rev is, without a doubt, the enhanced video performance. It's finally able to run with the big Sony cameras and easily better than what's stuffed into the latest Nikon and Canon offerings. 

My friend, James, and I used a passel of OMD EM5.2 cameras last year to shoot a video for our friends at Cantine Grill and even with a more primitive codec the video was wonderful to work with because of the camera's superior image stabilization capabilities. These have been improved in the latest camera. For the still shooter the extra resolution of the 20 megapixel sensor makes a difference. The camera is full competitive with the typical APS-C, 24 megapixel cameras in a good operator's hands. Add to this that fact that the better Olympus lenses are really good and not too pricey and you have a winner of a system. 

My play would be two of the OMD EM1 mk.2 bodies with battery grips. Pricey but, remember, we're playing off that husky insurance check fantasy, right? The 12-40mm Pro f2.8 and the 40-150mm Pro f2.8 lenses are the "no-brainer" accompaniments for the two cameras; along with newly announced 25mm f1.2 and the 60mm macro lens. I think the only time you would be disappointed is, um, never?
(Note to self: shoot some video with the new Olympus and reconsider the whole system choice thing I have going on right now....)

The "pros"? The Olympus system is elegant and well thought out as well as technically advanced for still photographers and right in the comfort zone for videographers (who use hybrid systems). The image quality is nice and people love the color palette. The "cons"? Again, the sensor size is the only thing I can really come up with. If Olympus keeps introducing faster and faster lenses the differences will largely be moot ---- as long as those fast lenses are pristine in image quality even when shot wide open... It's really a marvelous system and once you get over the psychological hump of "sensor size phobia" there are very few reasons to overlook it or to choose anything else. 

The final system I'd consider would be Fuji. I put it last not because the list is ordered by preference but because it's the system I have the least hands-on experience with. But that's never stopped online reviewers before so let's take the Fuji system for a spin.  Right up front I'll say that I love the look and feel of the Fuji X-pro-2. If I limited myself to shooting only still photography I'd own two of those beautiful Leica M replacement cameras in a heartbeat. They are gorgeous and everything I strongly disliked about the predecessor has been fixed or banished. Wonderfully implemented bout of camera design and something for other companies to aim for. But, sadly, the video is shit. Not necessarily the I.Q. entirely, but the run time, the codec and the way it's engineered into the camera. This puts my favorite model (from an aesthetic point of view) out of the running. But fear not! there is always the newer XT-2 which uses pretty much the same sensor but makes up for the X-pro-2's video shortcomings --- for the most part. 

From my brief exposures with the XT-2 and from what I've read from trusted sources, the imaging performance is outstanding for an APS-C sensor with 24 megapixels. Everyone seems to love the Fuji colors and if you love to make things go quickly out of focus in the backgrounds you'll find a nice range of very fast primes to assist you. The emotionally logical way to buy this system is to do with with primes but since we're replacing work tools with our big insurance check I'll stick to what I know works and grab two of the XT-2 bodies, 18-55mm f2.8-f4.0 along with the 50-140mm f2.8 lens. One drawback of the current system is the absence of a 16-55 or 16-50mm constant aperture f2.8 lens. While the reputation of the 18-55mm is pretty solid it gives up some important range on the wide end and gives up some depth of field control at the longer end. I'd probably want to supplement with the 10-24mm to get back that 24mm equivalent. 

(Edit: It's been brought to my attention that I have overlooked a sterling lens from Fuji that indeed covers the range I wanted. It is the 16-55mm f2.8 for around $1300. The one thing it lacks is image stabilization. So close.....  But in its defense it is reviewed as being pretty spectacular in the sharpness and general "look" categories). 

The video started out pretty well and could be made better with some firmware updates to get longer run times. The reality though is that the run time might be limited by heat dissipation issues, so  --- who knows. For our exercise we can only consider what's available in the camera that ships right now. Well have to accept that, in terms of usability the Fuji video trails the other three systems by a bit. 

The "pros" for Fuji are: A good, solid sensor, nice colors, good overall handing and class leading image quality. I'll applaud what they are doing with fast primes and with the longer system zoom and then, below, ding them for the lack of a "universal" 24-70mm f2.8 equivalent. (see above added edit about the lens). I mean, after all, thats' what we've been trained to expect and use in each system.

The "cons"? Right off the bat I ding them for the lack of the fast, standard zoom. Then I churlishly rant about how much better the whole deal would be if I could get the same video performance in the body style I like much better --- the X-pro-2. I hear from a wide number of trusted sources that low light AF performance and continuous tracking focus could be improved. But the lure, for a generation raised on real cameras, is the profusion of solid buttons and knobs and the Fuji focus on making great primes for the system. The zoom versus prime thing is shaping up to be more about nostalgia than real performance; at least for some working pros. The effect of the generous apertures is cool but in real life you've got to make sure at least some generous part of the product or person you are photographing is in sharp focus and, if you need f2.8 or f4.0 for that then you've effectively obviated the need to carry lots of heavy, individual focal length lenses in your bag. 

So, here at the end I'm working through my hypothetical exercise and distilling down to my favorite. But it's not so easy. I have to look at everything through two different filters. The first is sheer pragmatism. Which system provides the kind of performance and results that are best suited to a wide range of professional (and sometimes boring) results? On the other hand, the "fun" hand, which system is the most enjoyable to use? Which one makes it a pleasure to be out and around taking photographs or video? 

In the end I am torn in three ways. If I was a slave to pure logic I'd drudge on down to the store and buy the Sony parts and pieces (which surprisingly is what I seem to have done in real life). I'd be equipped to do the boring but demanding stuff that hobbyists never have to worry about --- like shooting lab gear for trade show panels that will be enlarged to life-size. Or shooting 4K video out to an Atomos video recorder and transcoding it on the fly to ProRes 1080p. The big Sonys work well and have remarkably good image quality. But they aren't nearly as much fun to shoot as the Olympus cameras or even the Fujis. 

If the unmitigated joy of taking pictures was the only metric but I grudgingly accepted that I would also want to shoot great video it would be pretty much of a straightforward choice for the Olympus system. Of all the cameras I've shot with in the last decade the EM5.2 was the most fun and the best bang for the size and price. While the EM-1 mk2 has moved the price point into a more rarified strata it still promises to have the hand feel, the solid Rolls Royce door shut of a shutter and the color that makes everyone so happy. 

Why not the Fuji and why not the Panasonic? Well, as great as the GH4 is the camera is just not particularly exciting or even all that friendly. It's that "soul" thing I wrote about years ago. It's the emotional way in which we interface with our gear. The Olympus is designed to woo us into the fold from the minute we pick up the camera. The Panasonic forgoes the idea of infatuations in favor of pure, engineering performance. While the Panasonic checks all the right boxes the Olympus is designed to make you like it. It's an emotional buy from Olympus, over-layed with all the performance most of us would ever need, and since I am as nostalgic and emotional as the next guy that's why the Olympus would get the nod over most everything else.

But that leads me to Fuji. I call "bad marketing" on Fuji where I am concerned. If you decide to have a "flagship" camera it should have the same basics as your second tier camera and it should cost more. I would have added the video capabilities of the XT-2 into the X-pro-2 body, raised the prices of the much more alluring X-pro-2 body over that of the XT-2 and happily sold it, at a premium, as a lux piece of gear. But in the current system I would be forced to choose between the form factor that makes me drool and the performance features that make the cameras work tools. It's a bad choice because which ever way you choose you'll always be looking at the other model and thinking you made an acquisition error. 

Some one is bound to suggest that I just get one of each but that totally misses the point of having identical back-up gear for business. If I were clipping trust fund coupons and spending the results of my ancestors' hard work it would be fine but if I had real money I would never worry about back up cameras or jobs anyway and I could mis-spend part of my fortune on useless stuff like the new Hasselblad mirrorless camera. 

No, in the end it comes down to a battle between the Sony and the Olympus systems and I'll end by putting it like this: As long as my income depends on photography and video I'll keep working with the full frame, mirrorless cameras, and supplementing with those zany one inch bridge cameras (they would come along regardless of which other system I might choose...). But the moment that The Lisbon Portfolio is optioned for movie rights by J.J. Abrams I'll be moving down in sensor size and up in imagined joy to the Olympus stuff. At least that's the conclusion I came to while swimming outside in the cold this morning. Your kilometerage may vary. (YKMV). 

A silly kind of exercise to do during swim practice but one that seems fun for photo gear nerds like me.


Strange things to think about when shooting video. Like wheels.

We have a video shoot next week that skews into the unusual category. At least as far as my typical assignments go. I need to shoot footage of a person walking and the shot needs to be composed mostly to frame our person from about mid-thigh down to the ground. The product is an prosthesis; a lower leg for someone who has had an amputation.

We'll be shooting indoors, on a smooth, concrete floor and I'll need to track along side the person as they walk while shooting in 4K video.

In the best of worlds, with the best of budgets, we'd figure out the exact pathway we'd be traversing and would have a crew lay down dolly track, mount the camera on a Levinson dolly, do a few rehearsals and move on to the next shot. But, as is usual, we won't be operating in that production paradise. I have a small budget and we are not just shooting one pathway but multiple locations all over a large building. It's very much "run and gun" video production.

I've been playing around with options today and remembered a project I did with a film maker named, Steve Mims, back in the 1980's on a music video for Billy Joe Shaver. The opening shot for the music video was a tracking shot of a woman (from the waist down) wearing cowboy boots, carrying a guitar case and walking down the sidewalk on Congress Ave., and then heading into the Continental Club. I modified a Multi-Cart gear cart by bolting a piece of one inch plywood to the bed of the cart, drilling a hole for a large bolt and attaching a fluid tripod head onto it. The fluid head held an Arriflex super 16 camera and a Zeiss 10-100mm lens.

I also used a magic arm to attach a homemade soft box with a 500 watt Lowell Tota-light inside.

Our camera operator laid down on the plywood and ran the camera as one of our grips and I pushed and pulled the cart, matching pace with our talent. It worked very well and an equally fun thing was that our soft light followed along perfectly.

With this in mind I went into the studio and grabbed my Multi-Cart R-10. It's a great cart and has probably saved my lower back a thousand times over. It has nice, fat, pneumatic tires in the back but it has hard, noisy, plastic wheels on casters in the front. It's a piece of cake to rig up a camera mount on one of the rails or the vertical handles on the front and back. But those front wheels.....vexing.

I checked online and found that there is an upgrade wheel available. It's a wide, soft, five or six inch wheel with upgraded casters. I've ordered two of the new wheels and I've started experimenting with camera mounting. I'm using several sets of Super Clamps and Magic Arms. I'll need a rail for the camera and space on the rail for an external video monitor so we can see our composition as we move.

The area we'll be shooting in is well lit but I'll also bring along an extra clamp and arm just in case we want to mount a light out in front to provide a bit more directional pop.

It's fun to play MacGyver on these projects but I've found it's pretty important to practice a few times before the day of the shoot. If for no other reason than to make sure you have all the right parts.

Since all the moving shots are M.O.S. I thought I'd use the little a6300 along with the 18-105mm G lens. It's capable of making really nice video files.  Maybe I'll get a little use out of that new cage after all.


Michael Johnston's blog made me stop and re-consider why I have spent most of my life as a working, commercial photographer. It's got to be more than just permission to play with cameras....

I may be doing the whole career thing incorrectly. At least according to the smart people on the web. The two opposite descriptions I hear (or distill from what I read) are that one is either rushing all the time, working 12 grueling hours a day, and still struggling to make as much money as a fast food worker or, that the very few people at the top are so talented and so sought after that their lives are a non-stop swirl of photographing super-models for the tiny handful of posh, fashion magazines, interspersed with jaunts to Nepal where they hang with the Dalai Lama and sport climb Everest with celebrities (with whom they are very, very close friends...). Please don't write and pedantically correct me; I know the Dalai Lama actually lives in exile in India. Richard Gere told me while we were on a "hang-gliding with the condors" getaway, up in the Andes.

To further break down the mythology as it seems to be understood by the non-working hobbyists, the top photographers rarely have to do much beyond point their cameras and click as they are served by an ever growing entourage of helpers, assistants, agents and personal chefs who deflect the rigors of the working life details so that our "hero savants" can channel up enough energy to "visualize" the reality we all want to see so badly.

On the flip side, the rest of us are holding up heavy cameras and long lenses (which we really can't afford; will never be able to afford...) for hours and hours a day, day after day, for weeks at a time and we're still so poor that we sleep in our cars. Or


Spent the day doing what I really like. Taking photographs and getting paid.

Ben. A test photograph from a shoot for the Texas State University System.
This past August, here in Austin, Texas. 

It's fun when your job and your hobby are pretty much the same thing. I got up this morning, walked the dog, read the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times and then headed out to the studio to get packed for the first half day of a two-half-day shoot. 

I'll explain. I was hired to go on location to one of the high rise buildings in downtown Austin, to make portraits of the 16 people who are the staff and partners of a development company. Since everyone has crazy schedules; especially this close to the holidays, I suggested that instead of one full day in one shot we might want to break up the day into two half days. If I came in around noon today to set up I could shoot from 1-5 pm and get all the "afternoon" people. I'd leave the gear set up overnight and then come back in at 9 am the next morning to finish up with all of the "morning" people. This would give everyone the opportunity to select a day that would be most convenient or a time that would be most convenient; depending on their nature. I like doing this because a full day gets boring and I think Studio Dog misses me when I am gone for that long.

We've pretty much given up shooting portraits against seamless for these kinds of shoot and are transitioning to a style that uses a mix of available light and supplemental light while shooting close to wide open on longer lenses. The optimum location is one where there is a lot of space behind the subject which I can progressively drop out of focus.

I packed up the car and headed downtown, arriving at the offices at noon and setting up by 1 pm. I found a long corridor with glass fronted offices along one side and windows to the outside on the other. I brought along three 100 watt LED open face fixtures to light with and two big 5-in-1 reflectors to modify the existing lights. 

I started out by putting up a 40 inch black flag between the spot where my subjects would stand and the bad fluorescent ceiling fixture. This effectively kills the color mismatch that would have occurred on the subject between the warm, green fluorescent and the more neutral LED. I keyed the LED from one side and then brought a fill reflector in on the opposite side. The fill reflector also serves to kill side spill coming from other light fixtures on the location. 

I used one 100 watt LED in a large soft box as my main light. I have my subjects standing and my technical goal with my main light is to place the bottom of the soft box at least an inch or two above the subject's chin level. This drops a flattering shadow under their chin which can help to obscure "turkey neck" and double chins. Fortunately, everyone in this office was in great shape and probably no more than five to ten pounds over their optimum BMI. Nice for me!

A second light, used in an 8 inch reflector, with barn doors, was used in the middle distance pointed away from the subject and towards the far wall. This would mix in the same temperature light as the key light and cut down on the rougher transition between the main light source and the prevailing office lighting. 

The final light was used as a back light from as far back as I could get it and with the barn doors almost completely closed in order to control spill. 

I used a 70-200mm f4.0 lens at f5.0 which gave me relatively good sharpness from nose to ears but dropped the middle and are distance objects out of focus quite quickly. 

The pace was mellow and we were able to get eight people photographed today  with no stress or strain. In fact, I even had time to walk down the street to Medici Caffe and grab a great cappuccino and a walnut scone somewhere in the middle of the afternoon. We wrapped up today's shoot around 4:00 and by 4:30 I was home wandering around the neighborhood with Studio Dog.

Everyone gets in tomorrow around 8 am but I'll be there at 9. I rationalized it like this: I don't want to rush people. They need a chance to get into the office, get their coffee and respond to important calls and e-mails. An hour gives them time to get well settled. Another reason for my late arrival is my realization that with the later start I could make it to swim practice from 7-8:15 am, take my suit and tie along with me and make it downtown in ample time. Besides, the lighting is already set....

Which reminds me, I need to take a Siggi's 4% vanilla yogurt along with me for a quick, after swim snack. 

One thing I've learned that I find to be really valuable for on location portraits (portraits in general?) is not to have your subjects sit in a chair but to have them stand behind a chair. A good chair back anchors them to the spot where your lighting is optimal and gives them something comfortable to do with their hands. Since we are shooting "head and shoulders" we don't see the chair or their hands. All we do see is a natural stance and a person more at ease than someone standing in the middle of open space wondering what to do with their hands. 

So, I'll head back and we'll shoot the rest of the folks from 9-12 and then I'll break down the lights and cameras and head back to the office to offload the images, make my edits and begin the process of color correcting the edited files in order to make web galleries for each person. 

And that is how I do location portraits at a more leisurely pace. It's fun. More like this...

Putting my little camera in a cage. Caged 4K? Cagey?

Most readers yawn when I start talking about stuff related to video but it's getting to be a bigger and bigger slice of my business so I'm forging onward. Today's blog is about a product I recently acquired that makes handling my a6300 more fun. The a6300 (Sony, APS-C) has great guts and a mediocre external camera/human interface. The body is too small, too short and lacks much space for adding the kinds of stuff that makes video easier. I wanted to make use of the fabulous 4K files from the camera but I favor a "snapshot" aesthetic for some work and that seems to be at odds with the small camera design. For instance, if you put a shotgun microphone in the hotshoe of the camera it pokes you in the middle of your forehead when you use the EVF. 

I also find a handle, centered over the lens axis, to be a big plus when holding the camera below waist level. Something I find myself doing more and more when making videos for a client who manufactures legs prosthetics and joints. I just wanted a small "cage" that would add surface areas of cheese plate onto which I could hand accessories, without interfering with the overall operation of the camera. 

Enter a company called, "SmallRig," which makes cages for various popular cameras. The base price of this (well made) rig is under $50. The handle adds about $25. My primary want was for a place to hang a microphone without interfering with the EVF. My second desire was for a nice handle. For about $75 I had both of those covered. I've also purchased an additional accessory shoe to I can attach a bigger, external monitor; if the spirit moves me. 

The whole rig still keeps the basic profile of the system nice and small. All the controls as well as the battery/memory card compartment are fully usable without having to remove the cage from the camera. A bonus is that even in regular still photography shooting the extra "bulk" makes the camera easier for me to hold.

If the a6300 only had a headphone jack I would be more or less euphoric to use it, and the 18-105mm G lens, as an all around, run-and-gun system. But even without the headphone jack the camera is endlessly useful for anything that doesn't require sound. I am currently building a little rig to use it on a moving dolly for some "walking" shots for the above mentioned client. Shooting in 4K and editing on a 1080p timeline makes for pretty much perfect video files for this kind of work. 

For interview work I am current considering one of two Sony dedicated video cameras: the PXW-x70 or the PXW-x150. If you have experiences with either of them I'd love to hear about it in the comments. If you already shoot video you are well aware of the convenience of on-board XLR connections, built-in ND filters and the (possibly) superior 10 bit, 4:2:2 codec. I'd love to hear your thoughts. 

You can buy a Smallrig cage for your a6300-6000-6500 here: http://amzn.to/2gU1iNi

clean access to the EVF.

Lots of surface area for additional mounts.
High coolness factor.

Access to all ports.
Access to battery and card.


Some notes on a Tuesday afternoon. Along with some frames that are mostly about color...

Everyone is hell bent on doing their lists of the "top ten cameras" and "amazing accessories to buy now for photographic success!!!" and every mention of every product has a fat link that connects it to Amazon or B&H. I thought I'd resist the temptation to go into hyper-sales mode just a bit longer and give you some alternative reading here instead. Maybe a few articles about "What NOT to Buy!!!!!" 

I'm all stream-of-consciousness today so bear with me. Or is it "bare" with me? I can never remember. 

First off I had a bout of intense camera handling this week. Not cameras I own but cameras newly for sale out at Precision Camera. I'll start with my most negative recommendation first. If you see a sales person coming toward you with the new Hasselblad X1D 50C mirrorless camera turn around and run or at least toss your credit cards into a nearby shredder. I'll be blunt. What a beautifully designed piece of poop. The camera is very simple and it's got that snotty and minimalist, northern European design ethos all over it but.... Turn it on, wait 25 to 35 seconds for it to "boot up" (shades of the old Samsung Galaxy NX camera) and then you'll be ready to shoot. Of course, whatever inspired you to turn the thing on in the first place will be long gone. Really? 2016 and it takes thirty long seconds for your camera wake up? Just silly. 

But once it's awake it's like, really, really good, right??? Oh hell no. It focuses like the original Canon M camera, if the M camera had a soft focus filter over the front of the lens. Slow, slow, slow. And not always very certain. It tentatively tippy-toes around focus for a while in anything but pure, hot sunlight. But it must feel great when the (ultra-well noise dampened) shutter goes off, right??? I'm not sure, I was so surprised by how much vibration the shutter on a mirrorless camera made. It's beyond noticeable. I have a sneaking suspicion that this will be the newly appointed KING OF SHUTTER SHOCK.  But at least they got the EVF right, huh? Naw. It's not as good as the new Leica SL and just about as well done as the Sony A7rii. With about the same magnification. But, to be fair, you do have your choice of two poorly chosen, slow, NON ZEISS lenses to chose from. Hope you like that old, cheap point and shoot look because the two lenses available for what should have been a natural portrait shooter are more like the semi-wide angle fixed lenses of most older point and shoots. Oh boy. $10,000+ for a mostly useless camera. Gift guides be damned. Save yourself while you still can. 

Let's take a break from photography for a second to talk about getting ready for the holidays in the age of global warming. So, it's the first week of December and my biggest concern, when stringing Christmas lights on the exterior of the VSL world headquarters is not the real possibility that I may fall from the roof and injure myself but that the swarms of mosquitos buzzing around me constantly might be transmitting the Zika virus. Seriously. Mosquitos in December? Nasty. 

Back to photography. I'm pissed at progress and annoyed with my good friend, Frank (not really, Frank, just using you as a foil..). I bought a bunch of cool, LED lights last year and have enjoyed using them. Then Frank shows up with a tiny Pelican-like case with three magic new lights in it. They are sold by a company called Came-TV. They are sleek and beautifully designed LED lights that come complete with front fresnels, focusability, A/C power blocks AND big, Sony camcorder batteries. They'll run off one big battery (each) for something like two full hours of run time and...the color is markedly better than the stuff I own. Grrrrrr. Here's a link to show you what Frank had the audacity to trawl in front of me in my own studio today: http://www.came-tv.com/3-pcs-cametv-boltzen-55w-fresnel-focusable-led-daylight-p-889.html  Did I mention that the color is wonderful? That the lights are super well designed? That they fit into a little case? That they all come with batteries? That I salivated like Pavlov's dog?

I am currently making one of those cardboard signs to hold up at traffic intersections. Mine says, "Will work for focusable LED lights! Bless." I am planning to forgive Frank if he brings them back over this weekend so we can do a video project with the new lights....

But I have not been a total sloth about buying new stuff that I probably don't need. I did buy three more cheap, variable neutral density filters from a company called Zomei. I bought an 82mm from them this last Spring and have used it often with no deleterious effects on color or contrast and I decided to buy one to dedicate to each of my most used "video" cameras. 67mm, 72mm, and 77mm. All ready for sunshine and bright skies just as our first (and probably only) blush with winter comes roaring in. Hold on to your hats and scarves. It may dive into the 30's on Thurs.!!!! Cold-ma-geddon. 

I also bought a "cage" for the a6300 which I really love. But I'll talk more about that in the next post. Back to other stuff that I wouldn't buy even if I were spending your money... I see advertisements all the time for light fixtures that hold one, three, five or seven spiral fluorescent tubes and come with a flimsy softbox. There are so many better products out on the market now that I would not touch one of these unless you never, ever intend to move it out of your studio or transport it anywhere. The lighting world has moved on. There are better options. Honest. 

Since we're on a lighting roll let's talk about another type of product that I currently have no interest in. That would be LED panels. They were pretty much the only accessible LED lights available when I was writing my book on LEDs back in 2010 but they have been effectively superseded by the one inch SMD type of "open face" LED light fixtures that are the modern variation of the tungsten flood light. They are more efficient, easier to travel with, easier to use with modifiers and easier to sculpt light with. 

At this point in the game I don't think I would go back to using the panels with 500, 600 or 1000 little LED bulbs on the front. There are just too many better options. Exceptions might be permanent installations in TV newsrooms or for photographers and videographers who will use them day-in-and-day-out with just a piece of diffusion material on the front. I love the light shaping tools you can use with the SMDs; like barn doors, shoots, grid spots and more. I also like being able to put the newer units into soft boxes or bounce them into umbrellas. Look at what's available from Fiilex, RPS, CameTV, Arri, Fotodiox, Smith Victor and many others. 

Finally, in this day and age, I am not sure I would ever buy an electronic flash in the form of an A/C power-only monolight. That train has sailed. I want to replace my hodgepodge of Profoto, Elinchrom and Photogenic monolights with a set of Godox 600 w/s monolights that work in TTL and have lithium ion batteries as a power source, along with the option to use A/C. We're no longer quite so attached to our studios and more likely to be in situations where the nearest wall plug is far, far away. The old stuff was just right in the film days because lithium ion batteries were not yet invented for powerful flashes. Now? Yes. Please. 

I'm pretty sure that electronic flashes that are solely "plug-in-the-wall" will fade the same way strobe "box and head" units have faded from the market. They represent a logic matrix from another age. 

I am waiting for a smaller, camera shoe flash from Godox to be delivered (tomorrow?). It's a dedicated TTL flash for Sony E cameras and it features a lithium ion battery instead of the typical four double A batteries. The battery lasts longer and gives more flashes with quicker recycling. I hope it works the way I imagine. It will be nice to have HSS flash again. 

In other news, while the weather was blustery and cool the water in the pool was constant. Right at 80 degrees. While the sky was glowering and the branches of the live oaks were thrashing around during our time in the pool, the lunch time masters workout was wonderful. Certainly a good temporary antidote for the holiday infused camera buying drama. 

If you are happy with what you have and it works just use it and keep the money in the bank. God knows we might need it if we ever want to change gears...

And now? Some colors....