1.31.2018

The Curious Incident of the Zoom Lens that acts like a bag full of primes.


It seems like I never stop learning about how to push back on the perceived limitations of the photographic process. I've been locked in a battle that resembles a sine wave. I want to do things in a different way than before but I come to doubt my motivations or my resolve or even the premise of my undertaking and then rush back in the old direction to re-embrace a comfortable but unexciting methodology. I swing from risk to comfort like most people. I guess our hope is that each swing into newer territory has us walking forward by five feet and retreating by "only" fifty-eight inches once we lose our nerve...

I'm back in the m4:3 sensor camp for now. It will take a bit to nudge me away this time because the format caught up with where I always wanted it to be. 

I have a confidence in the format now that I never used to and a belief in the best lenses for the system that dwarfs what I felt I got from large format system lenses.  In a sense so much of why systems excel or fail has to do with the synergy between body and lens. 

I was at ZACH Theatre last night photographing a new production called, "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time." The play is from a popular novel the protagonist of which is an autistic teenaged boy in England grappling with a shifting and ultimately unsettling family landscape. The play depends on projections and dramatic light changes to push the audience into the mindset of the main character. 

It is harder to photograph plays that are about ideas or about concepts than to photograph more "narrative" plays and plays with multiple scene changes and costume changes. Those productions have visual texture on which to hang technique. This play is more cerebral and spare. But, of course, I gave it my best shot. Or multiple hundreds...

Given my selection of the first five images in this blog you can see the scene I liked best; in visual terms. It's meant to be a small group of people standing next to a subway track, waiting for the next train. Our hero, in the red jacket, is observing so he can learn how to use the "tube." 

Last night was my first attempt to use just one camera and just one lens to photograph the complete dress rehearsal of a play at ZACH Theatre. We had a live audience and I was constrained, once again, to be mid-house; half way up from the stage and pretty much dead center. It should come as no surprise that I was using the GH5 camera body nor that my choice of lens was the Olympus Pro 40-150mm f2.8. With this system if I could see something clearly on the stage the camera was able to lock focus instantly and capture the image without much fuss. 

This series (the first five) of photographs documents a scene set near the rear of the stage. I needed the full reach of the lens for the tighter crop and still a tight focal length to get everyone at the "stop" from head to toe. 

Since the lens is as sharp as the sting of a wasp, even when used wide open, I had no reason to stop it down. At f2.8 I was able to stay in the 1/250th to 1/400th shutter speed range, and I kept  the ISO at 1600 for the entire evening. If one part of the exposure triangle needed to be changed to compensate for changing light levels it was always the shutter speed I chose. 

I watched part of the tech rehearsal on Sunday evening and I quickly surmised that the color temperature of the light on our people changed frequently and, massively. With a warm light cue the dominant light on stage was around 3200K, + or - 200K. In the cooler cues the lights sat at around 5700K with a healthy dose of magenta in the mix. On this play I set up three different white balances in the custom WB settings. As I was shooting I'd watch for different light cues and assess their white balance. With the camera to my eye I could hit the WB button on the top panel of the camera without having to look. The submenu opened to the current balance and the flick of a control wheel took me to the next white balance. One hits the "set" button to make the change. 

Setting up the camera in this way, and having an easy "touch to identify" physical button meant that I could soon make the changes almost subconsciously. This turned out to be a time saver in post; I was in the ball park in nearly every situation and could concentrate on just tweaking exposures and shadows for my conversions to Jpeg and subsequent delivery. 

Following along on my "one lens, one camera" experiment last night I can also report that the entire evening's shoot was accomplished with just one battery.


It's odd to try to watch a play and to photograph it at the same time. There two completely different brain uses involved. One is passive observation while the other is active editing with continuous, mini, calls to action. Look, frame, commit and then push button. Repeat. If I knew a "non-photogenic" few minutes came along in which I could put the camera down and just watch and listen but there was an inertia that slowed me down from switching back over the active mode. It seemed like a case of always wanting to be doing the opposite thing. 

So, I was working at ISO 1600 and, in post, boosting shadows in Lightroom by plus 25 or plus 50. I was also tweaking exposure, adding anywhere from plus a quarter stop all the way up to adding a stop and a half of exposure. These are all things that should lead to noisy files. Especially in shadow areas. But when I look at the images I've included here I find them to be no more noisy than the images I used to get from my Sony A7ii or A7rii. In any event files from either system were easy to "sweeten" with a judicious lean on the noise reduction functions in Lightroom or PhotoShop. 


Where does this leave me? I'm currently thinking that all cameras are good but that all cameras take time to understand and time to practice with. There needs to be a shoot-look-shoot-look break-in period. A time in which you learn where the breaking point is for files from each system and each model. You learn where these negative inflection points are and then you learn to compensate for them. And if you are doing your job right you come to find that, with a few tweaks, the camera you enjoy shooting can pretty much match its competitors for image quality. Now you can safely choose the cameras you want to use by how they feel in your grip and what kinds of features you think are most beneficial to the way you work. 




I must say that my regard for the GH5 cameras grows with every use. The bodies are extremely solid and convey a sense of indestructibility. The files seem to say to me that if I do everything in "best practices" mode I'll be rewarded by beautiful technical file attributes. 

Nail exposure = get no noise. Hold the camera still = get sharp photos. Nail the color balance = get malleable and pleasing color right out of the camera. 

These practices are not limited to a brand or a format but are things we should be consciously practicing every time we do work with our cameras. 







After reviewing the 600+ files I presented to the client today I have to say that my purchase of the Olympus Pro series 40-140mm f2.8 lens is one of the smartest purchases I've made for photography in the last year or two. It makes my work look better than it should. Actually better than a bag of primes...

"The GH5 and the GH5S are so big! Why are they so big? I thought the whole reason for making m4:3 cameras was to make tiny, tiny, tiny cameras. And lenses! Right?"

No. Wrong.


If you look at cameras as wearable jewelry you could be forgive for imagining that the new generation of smaller sensor cameras should be tiny enough to wear around your neck on a chain. Or fastened, all bling-style, to a heavy, gold-plated wrist chain that also features the dangly parts emblazoned with signs of the zodiac and your various allergies to medications. 

If you really want a camera that fits in all your pockets it really does make sense for you to pick up a nice phone and learn to use its feature set to its highest potential. If you are looking for a camera that's small enough to do your own D.I.Y. endoscopy/colonoscopy then I suggest that you may misunderstand many of the reasons that we own the cameras that we do.

I can't think that anyone with a functioning brain looks at a GH5 and thinks, "Yep. That's the camera for me. It's so teeny-tiny. I'm sure it will fit in the watch pocket of my Levi's 501 classic jeans...." The reason for the GH5's existence and popularity have little or nothing to do with its size relative to other cameras and everything to do with its deep list of features and capabilities. 

Let's start with 4K video. Yes, Sony offers 4K video in some of their A7 cameras but there are some caveats. First of all, the entire Sony line conforms to the EU standard of limiting recording time to slightly less than 30 minutes. With a GH5 you can record until you run out of space on two UHS-11 cards or until you run out of battery juice. Put two V-90 SD cards in the two slots on the camera, add a battery grip to the bottom of a GH5, and you'll be able to shoot for hours and hours. Your only limitation will be the size of the files you choose. And, unlike the Sonys, you can shoot All-I files at up to 400 megabits per second directly in the camera. OMG! That's insane. But good insane. This capability alone creates a demarcation between professional and advanced amateur when it comes to video equipment that can really be used in the field. Nikon, Canon, Sony, etc. None of them can match this kind of performance, even at two or three times the price. 

But there's more. The Panasonic is seemingly impervious to the heat generated when making enormous, detail rich files. But not so with the Sonys we've owned in the past. All but the RX10 series have been plagued with thermal shutdown issues. There is a workaround that was introduced to quell consumer revolt with the A7Rii model and that was to allow the temperature to rise and allow the cameras to deliver noisier and noisier files. Panasonic purposely designed the GH series of cameras to handle heat by making them big enough and thick enough to house highly effective and highly efficient heat sinks. I've run my GH5s for several hours in Texas Summer heat and never had an issue. I've run various Sonys in the studio and suffered heat warnings. An amazing achievement by Panasonic when you consider that the camera is pushing through about 4X the data stream that the Sonys are managing....

Apparently Panasonic is using the total volume of the GH5 body in a way that maximizes performance and equipment longevity while ensuring the highest quality of their files in actual daily use. Now that's novel. 

The Panasonic pro bodies are also subject to being paired with professional quality lenses. The lenses, not compromised by size constraints, are being designed for sheer optical quality. In this instance I am thinking not only of the professional caliber lenses from Panasonic but also from Olympus. Some pros demand a "no holds barred" optical performance from their lenses and the get it from the high end products offered by Olympus and Panasonic. Some of the fast (and glorious) lenses such as the Olympus 40-150mm f2.8 Pro from their Pro series are built like tanks. They are hefty. And if you are going to hang them off the front of a camera you need to design that camera's mount, and the surrounding infrastructure, to handle the load. This means that the mount and camera in general have to be generously sized to ensure longterm plano-parallelism and reliability. Logic dictates a certain minimum camera size for that as well. 

Now we have two things that mandate a certain camera size: mechanical tolerances with high reliability and effective heat dissipation/management. 

We can easily toss in a third parameter that strongly suggests a certain minimum camera body size and that is overall handling characteristics. Is there enough space on the exterior of the body on which to place good, tactile buttons and controls without crowding them and making them tactilely confusing? Is there enough space for professional connection points for things like a full sized HDMI cable, headphone jack, microphone jack? Is the camera comfortable to hold while using a heavier lens? Is the camera body big enough to accommodate a battery that doesn't need changing every 45 to 60 minutes of on time? Can there be a rear screen that's big enough to evaluate stills or video without overwhelming the overall space on the camera back? Is there adequate space for two SD cards slots (both of which are UHS-II)? Can your pinky finger find purchase on the grip of the camera or is it dangling painfully under the body of the camera?

I learned during my time owning various Sony Nex cameras that there actually is a minimum camera size commensurate with sure and happy handling and the Sony Nex cameras that I owned missed that metric by a good 25%. Not so with the professional cameras from Panasonic. 

Finally, uninformed pundits often opine that since the camera is X size it should have a bigger sensor. Generally these people are "pie-in-the-sky" techno-Luddites. They just don't get the idea of compromise. Panasonic might have been able to put in a bigger sensor but they would have had to compromise on: rolling shutter, heat dissipation, file size, writing latency, inferior in body image stabilization, worse performance on most file edges due to optical issues, and they would have had to make lenses even bigger and heavier to get close to matching the performance currently being delivered to the right sized format  of the current Panasonic cameras. 

The GH5 is not a heavy or burdensome camera. Even a feeble and out of shape person like me has little problem schlepping a couple of these around. The people who are calling for ever smaller cameras instead of calling for ever evolving and improving performance are pissing up the wrong rope. They are busy transitioning from the rational pursuit of serious photography into a world of bad fashion and worse user experiences. 








1.30.2018

Big umbrellas for soft transitions. Weird rigging for just the right modifier illumination...

Inverting. 

Hyper-verting.

A little eccentric? Probably. But I wanted to use this big, 72 inch umbrella to light a nice actor and, after messing around with flash for a while, I decided that I really wanted to use a couple of bright, highly corrected LED lights. The problem (opportunity?) is that the Aputure Lightstorm LS-1/2 lights aren't made with umbrella holders or anything else that would allow one to sensibly attach an umbrella. A double conundrum because I actually wanted to use two of the lights to get that extra stop of light punch. What's a photo-practitioner to do? Improvise. 

I looked into the black, canvas bag that holds most of the grip gear and clamps and I came out with an "arm" that has 5/8 inch studs on each end and is pretty flexible in terms of moving stuff around. That would be a good device on which to mount the lights but I then needed to mounted the articulated arm onto something that would fit on the top of a light stand. An all-purpose grip head was just what the Light Doctor ordered. I was able to mount the two lights on a positionable articulated arm and then put the arm on top of a C-Stand. The lights could be positioned in any number of configurations in order to most evenly illuminate the enormous number of square inches of soft whiteness that the umbrella offered. 

It all worked in a straightforward way and I was able to get a couple hundred solid shots this way. I'll do it again. In fact, I have this lighting set up in mind for an upcoming video interview as well...

Just thought you'd like to see today's zany approach to "real universe" lighting. 

Hyper Acuity Archivable Collector's Prints available... (not really).

A first attempt with a regular C-stand arm, a couple of grip heads and a super clamp. Ho Hum. No articulation = no excitement. 

The Real Deal. ARTiculation galore. The flash head was already there holding up the umbrella. If I forego the flash head I'll use the umbrella mounting technique shown in the image just above this one. 
72 inches seems to be a glorious sweet spot for umbrellas. 
And cheap as dirt compared to a nice softbox.



Swing em. Turn em. Rotate em. ARTiculate them. Done.

1.29.2018

So....Just how nice is that cheap Sigma 60mm DC DN lens I bought (again) for my Panasonic cameras?



I've been getting a lot of use out of the little, cheap-ass Sigma, metal barreled miracle lens over the last few days. Yesterday I shot portraits of Sidney in the studio. She's an amazing actor/singer from Zach, and as soon as I can narrow down my favorite of her from the hundreds we took I'll show you want the 60mm lens looks like in a studio setting...

Today I put the lens on the front of a G85 and went out for a big walk. All of these images were done on the Sigma 60mm at either f2.8 or f4.0. I've got a full frame above and the 100% magnification just below. Sharp. Very sharp. I wish the 30mm and 19mm from the same family were as good. I'd snap them up in a heartbeat. But I've had em and shot em and I've got to say that

1.27.2018

I like the idea that imperfections help make an artwork more accessible. I translate this to mean that portraits which are over-styled will never be as satisfying as portraits that are a reflection of the moment.


Usually I crop a bit tighter to the top of the frame. My first thought is that I've left too much head room in this portrait of my friend, M. But when I try to crop it I lose the square and too much of the wonderful and energetic background. I see the wisp of hair that's come away from the well tended majority and created its own extra diagonal just over M's left eye. Common practice would be to have a stylist rush in an cement that errant wisp back into the fold. But the "imperfection" makes the portrait more real for me. And to stop the process of interaction we had embarked upon in order to maintain order seemed like a bad gamble as well as a nod toward too much compulsive neatness.

The common practice now seems to be a push to strike a "sexy" pose when young women are photographed. I like seeing M. look into the camera in a strong and confident way. Style dictates a slight turn of the body so one doesn't photograph squared shoulders but, again, I think the shoulders balance the image in a way that adds a graphic element often missing in portraits.

Finally, I understand that I've (unintentionally?) centered the image around M's eyes. I have no explanation or excuse other than the idea that this was a reflex on my part because I found her eyes to be so compelling.

It's a portrait replete with "errors." It is a portrait of a beautiful person. The errors make the whole of the work more accessible to me.


Just how much lighting does an image need to make it work?


This is a portrait of Mark Agro. Mark is the president of Ottobock Canada, a health care device company. Several years ago he was in Austin, Texas for a week long meeting and we were called on to make a portrait of him for use in advertising and on the web. We had at our disposal the new U.S. headquarters of the same international company. It's a beautiful office on the sixth floor of a new building at the Domain Center in north Austin.

One of the features of the building that every portrait photographer would enjoy is the floor to ceiling windows along one entire side of the building, facing north. The light coming through the windows is soft and gorgeous. The interior of the building provides a lot of architectural stuff that looks good thrown out of focus.

I set up one, big soft light directly above and behind my camera position to provide an almost invisible fill light. I used a 60 inch, white umbrella and a small, Yongnuo strobe to provide the illumination.

For this image I used a Sony A7Rii and the Sony 70-200mm f4.0 G zoom lens at f4.0 to f5.6.

The flash was set at  something like 1/16th power and was about 15 feet from Mark. While the web is filled with forced examples of people using very expensive strobe kits to do the same kind of lighting an expense of $58 for the strobe is really all that was needed. If I remember correctly the umbrella cost a few dollars more than the light source.

It's easy to read too much stuff from people who are directly or tangentially linked to strobe or camera manufacturers and come away with the idea that certain pieces of expensive gear or complex techniques are mandatory for professional work but the truth is that knowing where to put a light is much more mission critical than which particular light you might select. The same applies to cameras and lenses.

The portrait was successful. It is one of my modern favorites and it led to dozens more executives being photographed in pretty much the same spot with similar variations of the same lighting. It was additionally successful in that I got to meet Mark and share a pleasant conversation which ultimately led to a very nice friendship.

In an earlier segment of my career I would have shown up with a bunch of Profoto lighting gear, run cords all over the place, and probably butchered the wonderful natural light that was freely available. I would have been so fixed on technically based solutions that my honest rapport and easy conversation with Mark might never have happened. So, how much lighting should you use to make portraits? The absolute minimum you need is just about right....

Just how out of focus does every background need to be?


We photographed this image of Selena at Willy Nelson's small Texas town (he's moved a bunch of cool, old, Texas buildings to a ranch somewhere outside of Austin (NDA signed....). It's a popular location for period movies about Texas. Selena had a band called, "Rosie and the Ramblers" and she needed some publicity shots. And there we were.

At the time I was playing around with some Canon 1D mk3 cameras and a complement of Canon glass and I could have easily used a wide open aperture to make all the details in the background nothing more than a blurry wash of colors. It would have been in keeping with the prevailing compulsion among photographers to make everything into a bokeh experiment. But, practical person that I am I assumed that we get permission and travel out to a cool, private ranch just to blur the background into anonymity so I stopped the lens down a bit until I got a balance between emphasis on Selena's face and some descriptive texture in the background.

There's also a bit of flash being used to make the photo but I tried to make that as invisible as possible.

Could I have done the same shot with a m4:3 sensor camera? You bet. Could I have done it with a full frame camera? Yes, of course. The idea though is that neither format would have been demonstrably "better." Each would have resolved the detail we needed for every application we intended for the files. Each could be color corrected into the right box. We just had to decide what was important in the overall look and select the controls that would make the image happen the way we wanted it to.

It was a windy day and that was something we could not control. Saved us from having to rent a wind machine to blow Selena's hair around...

1.26.2018

Thinking a lot about backgrounds. And diagonals. And catch lights. And texture.


Woody came into my studio to do a shoot for a live theater production of a play called, "The Illusionist." (Or something along those lines). The marketing director was also looking for some dramatic portrait shots to put into the marketing mix. As strange as it may sound to photographers who came of age in the time of digital we did a lot of our work at the time in black and white; with black and white film, and black and white prints, because some of the newspapers, weeklies, and magazines had large sections that were only black and white. It was a cost saving measure. Their printers needed 8x10 inch black and white prints which were then half-toned with process cameras for printed reproduction on web presses. Images needed their own graphic contrast if they were to survive the process with any semblance of quality.

We learned how to print individual prints for nearly every paper, neighborhood rag and magazine that used our publicity photographs.

I loved tossing light into half the background and plunging the other half into darkness. I loved filtering the lens with a light yellow-green filter so Try-X would add tone and texture to skin. And I loved tweaking each print for its intended destination.

Today, once you hand off a digital file to an online magazine or website you may come back to see what they've done with your work a few days later to find that they've added teddy and inappropriate filters, cropped the hell out of it or cut out the head and dropped it into a totally different background. Butchering your art has just become so easy that it seems touching it and messing with it has become irresistible.

At some point in time printers and art directors appreciated certain aesthetic points enough to keep their damn hands off the buttons and let a well seen print exist as it was meant to be.

At least if one writes and produces one's own blog one can be reasonably assured that one will not come back the next day to find one's work colorized and mezzotinted; much less tortured by Instagram filters.

For me the two things that make this portrait work are the background and the catch light in Woody's right eye. Not the right eye of the print but Woody's right eye. Right?



Here is a quick selection of my photography and food books (English titles....). In case you missed one or two. All still available on Amazon.com. All still readable.










Benro All-Terrain Monopod. And by "All-Terrain" I mean it's equally at home supporting photography and video...

Adjustable arm. Ambidextrous. 

This is a Benro A48FD monopod. It's a heavy duty monopod that features the three little support legs at the bottom of the structure to help stabilize the whole unit. It also features a full size Benro S4 video head at the other end. I used to think monopods like this were kinda dumb but now I'm finding them to be very cool. 

Many years ago I got a Leica monopod as a gift. It's a lightweight affair made by Tiltall and it came unadorned; without a head and without the little feet at the bottom. It provided more stability than just handholding a camera, but not by much. The most useful technique with it was to brace one's body against a wall (a corner, if it worked compositionally...) and so get an extra measure of movement curtailment. But until cameras and lenses came with image stabilization a naked monopod was mostly only useful to me to support the weight of heavy lenses that came with their own tripod sockets. Not a common occurrence around here. 

More recently I got a Berlebach wooden monopod and it's nice enough but subject to the sam limitations as the ancient Leica version. When it comes to handling cameras and lenses not equipped with image stabilization nothing beats a good tripod. My big issue with

1.25.2018

Talking about the business of photography reminded me of an interview Michael Johnston did with me on the publication of my third book. Back in 2009. I just re-read it. I like the comments best!!!

http://theonlinephotographer.typepad.com/the_online_photographer/2009/08/an-interview-with-kirk-tuck.html

Here's the book we were talking about:

It still works.....

You can get a copy here:

Ming Thein and a few others are talking about the decline and retirement of photography as a profession. My information is entirely anecdotal but I'm just going to have to say they are wrong.

It is always someone's Golden Age of Photography. It's always someone else's Fall of Photography. Depends on context.

From time to time I get frustrated because the photography industry won't stand still and let me fully benefit from my past experience and time equity. There are moments when clients seem as though they will never call, text or e-mail the offer of even one more project. I, like many professionals who've been at this for a while, am not immune to the fear, ambiguity and uncertainty of the market place. But the idea that the markets for photography have vanished is, according to my anecdotal information, not true. And, in the last 50 years, with the exception of extreme or localized economic disasters, this pessimism has never been true.

It's 9:45 in the morning. I'm in my smallish studio/office space. It's got about 450 square feet of usable space. The center part of the large room has a ceiling that about 14 feet high and unobstructed by cross beams. The space is painted white and has concrete floors, covered with foam tiles from Costco.

I've been in the office now for a while, getting ready for a 10 am portrait shoot and also catching up on new e-mail from, mostly, clients. Ongoing, paying, relatively happy clients. I've cleaned up the clutter from my space. The bathroom is cleaned and polished. The batteries charged. I'm not jumping into any task that requires too much focus because clients sometimes come early and I don't want to waste their time.

It's January which is traditionally a slow period for our imaging industry. I'm 62 years old which pundits and photo bloggers will tell you is far too old to be relevant in the photo industry. I'm old school so social media tells me my skill sets are no longer relevant, in fact, have never been relevant to millenials or Get-X-ers. I'm choosing to work with micro four thirds cameras instead of "full frame" cameras; which camera reviewers suggest should be the kiss of death for my professional career. In fact, to judge by conventional wisdom I am doing (and have been doing for a while) everything exactly wrong. I should be destitute at this point. Ready to shuffle off to that island where there is no one besides other ancient photographers with ancient cameras clamped onto the rails of their walkers, carefully gliding around complaining about how digital ruined everything.

While it's true that few of my assignments have anything to do with the kinds of jobs we always see from "working" photographers who post every moment of their lives on YouTube. I'm not able to show you behind the scenes videos in which a horde of scruffy assistants mill around giant monitors tethered to tomorrow's cameras, watching various "fashion" models gyre and gambol on vast sheets of seamless paper, Profoto flashes blinking in time to retro-disco music. (Wait! Wasn't Donna Summers an artist from our generation?).  It's not that I wouldn't like to do stuff like that it's just that those shoots don't seem to actually exist as PAYING jobs but are fabricated in order to make content for websites that try to sell workshops and push affiliate links and other new age advertising.

You may suggest that I'm just out of the loop and that those warehouse shoots filled with C+ grade models and lighting from the 1990's really do exist but that I'm just not invited to know about them. Ah. I get it. Classic denial. But the flaw here is that most of us actual working photographers have long relationships with advertising agencies in many cities. Some of us even have family, spouses who work in the art departments at big ad agencies. They laugh when I show them some of what passes for a "shoot" on the web environment. Big laughs. Hysterical laughs.

That's not to say that there are not "premium" jobs being done every day in nearly every market place. It's just that they are being done by sober, experienced hands in the business who are not surrounded by endless entourages because.....it's not profitable. There's no financial benefit to having extra people in your studio, drinking your coffee, eating your craft service and chatting up your models and clients. That's why real photographers are only surrounded by clients, stylists, and one or two good, and hardworking, assistants. If at all. And while there is a bunch of great new talent coming into photography I've come to understand that most corporations, agencies and larger businesses value proven results over new potential bling for the kinds of jobs that have substantive budgets attached. There are lots of small, micro-web-Instagramic-mini-campaigns on which new teeth get cut. The big money doesn't usually get wasted on trial balloons.

So, why do I say that the sky is not falling? Well, when we advertise our services business increases. I've worked several big projects in January, mostly for clients represented by marcom staff half my age, who are returning clients. We're in the planning stages for a multi-day image catalog project for a large radiology practice, we're finishing up a portrait project for a large oral surgery practice, we've just finished a multi-day assignment for a national accounting company. We successfully navigated a three day shoot for a high tech medical device company and the folks at ZACH Theatre just reached out yesterday to see if we could do a stunning and thoroughly of the moment television commercial for a new production.

Seems like we continue to provide a value proposition (which includes: experience, proven results, nice work ethic, teamwork oriented, the right gear for the right stuff, nice-ness, etc.) that corporate clients, smaller businesses and ad agencies still value. I think the thing that makes our business profitable is that we continue to market, go to lunch with clients, volunteer for high profile charity projects and deliver finished photos people like --- on time and within the parameters requested. Is there any other way to do this?

Some conjecture that because everyone in the world has flooded the photo viewing universe with every conceivable image that civilization will ever require that people no longer care about looking at photographs. This may be true if we're discussing day-to-day "look at me" photographs but those quick snaps of coffee cups or duck-faced selfies with crooked monuments in the background aren't what clients (mostly) are looking for. They need good images of their products, their plants, their environments, their people and their processes. None of which (typically) can be sourced from stock sources on the web.

The one true thing is that video is now part of the mix. It's not a separate thing anymore. It's part of the commercial experience of photography for business. Photography is now a bigger tent. Just as we never did our own retouching in the film days  and we are now routinely called on to "fix" images, move heads around, add absent executives to group shots, and so much more, we never had the making of marketing movies on our radar back when video was tough to do, technically. Now it's growing to be just another facet of the big jewel of photography. It's another income source. It's something new to learn and offer to imaging clients. For others it's a continuation.

The bottom line is that this is the Golden Age of Photography for a whole new generation. They'll grow into it as they learn how to market and how to meet the expectations of the people with checkbooks and account balances. 

The web has made a sitcom of the photographic process but people with persistence will learn to see beyond the "90210" or "Beverly Hillbillies" or "The Big Bang Theory" popular culture fictions of the photo marketplace and see the truth on the other side. Then they will learn to make the market pay them what they are worth. It's not magic. It's just not the end of the world as we know it either.

I'm happy to have a roster of mid-tier projects from good, solid clients. There's less sparkle and fewer people are impressed by our day to day work but at the same time we've worked with many of our clients for longer than a decade and there is a comfort and profit in the stability of their patronage. The bigger jobs come with bigger drama. Bigger risks. Fun for game shows, less fun for sustainable business. Go figure.




1.24.2018

Back in the happy zone. The second swim of 2018. The thrill of setting up the studio for a portrait. The excitement of a proposed TV commercial that's got a tough deadline and will require teamwork. So much so quick.


I spent the morning cleaning up the studio. I know. It's a recurrent theme in the blog. But if you work on location a fair amount there will come a time when you need to sort out the gear you used that was specific to each shoot, get the batteries charged, put the pieces back in their cases all so you'll know where to grab them the next time you need them. 

At 11:45am I leaped up from my desk and headed to the door. The swim gear was already in the car. I smiled as I left our street and headed that one mile east to the Rollingwood Pool. I pulled into the parking lot and almost cried, I was so happy. The pool sparkled on the other side of the hedge and the fence. My fellow masters swimmers were pulling their gear bags out of their cars and meandering toward the pool for the noon masters swim. This would my first noon swim in the newly renovated pool. A swimming refuge I've been drawn to for over 20 years now. This would be only my second swim since the fateful night of Christmas Eve when my mother was rushed to the hospital. The time in between seemed to blur. All the nights spent in San Antonio with my father. The meetings with attorneys. Evenings at my dining room table with stacks of paperwork and bills...

With the pool in front of me all the drudgery and sadness seemed so much more manageable than I could have only imagined two weeks ago; or even a week ago. We chatted on the deck. We adjusted our goggles. We teased each other about the weight we gained over the holidays. And then, one by one, on no particular schedule, we jumped into our various lanes and began to warm up. 

The water was perfect. Neither cool nor warm. It enveloped me and caressed me. I swam with Wilson in my lane today. We trudged (happily) through the warm ups and then through the sets. I actually enjoyed swimming backstroke with the sun in my eyes. I could feel the weeks of relative inactivity expressed as soreness and quick fatigue in my muscles. But all the technical stuff was right on the money. Every flip turn neat and economical. I even luxuriated in a bit of cheating; I pulled on the lane lines when we swam backstroke. For an hour the only thing on my mind was the swim. The trajectory of my pull. The cadence of my kick. The modulation of breath. And it was superb. 

Not a pretty swim by any means, but just the right thing at just the right time. And then my favorite sandwich shop for a late lunch. It was two hours that felt more luxurious to me than a vacation at a five star resort. I'll be back tomorrow. I remember now how addictive good activity can be. 

Setting up the studio for a portrait to match some previous portraits done on location. 

We (Ben and I) recently did a series of portraits for an accounting firm called RSM US. They have offices in various cities around the country and we've got one here in Austin, Texas. We started the first round of portraits in December. We did another round two weeks before Ben headed back for his last semester of college. But there are always people whose schedules don't fit neatly into business calendars. 

I got an e-mail from one such person and we set up an appointment to do her solo portrait session here at the studio. But we wanted it to match what we'd done on location at their offices. No problem. When I do portraits on location or portraits that are intended to match up, person-to-person, for businesses I like to make little drawings that are maps showing how to get back to a core style we're using over time. I'll do drawings that show the kind of modifier I was using, how far it was from the flash to the subject, notes about light ratios and power settings as well as the exact name of the background (storm grey, steel gray, studio gray, etc.). I will even make notes about what worked and what did not! 

This way I can go back to the gallery on Smugmug to see what everything looked like as a final piece and then refer to the notes to see exactly how we got there.

For tomorrow it's a Phottix 48 inch octabox as the main light, a 60 inch umbrella as the fill light, a gridded 7 inch reflector on the background and a small speed light as a hair light. All the big light modifiers are powered by the battery powered Neewer Vision 4 mono-lights. I'll be using a GH5 but in a break from the previous set ups I'll be using the Rokinon 50mm f1.2 lens instead of the 12-100mm Olympus Pro lens. My goal is to make the final gallery look consistent but to make each portrait different enough to show the individual personality of the sitters come through. 

A blast from the distant past. A photo of my wife as a young university student at UT. 


Digging through boxes of stuff at my parent's house put me in a nostalgic mood so when I came back to Austin a few days ago I started looking at the work I'd done over the years. Especially the "family" portraits. I remember shooting the image above in the very early days of my interest in photography. It was shot with a Yashica 124G, medium format camera that had a fixed, 80mm lens. The film was something slow and relatively grainless and it was done with my first real studio flash unit; a Novatron 220 pack with a standard head. All my stuff from that time was done with flash blasting through a white, translucent umbrella. I used it close in and the same way most of the time. 

The T-shirt was an old one of mine from my days at Summer camp as a kid. 

I include the above photo because I spent today marveling at what a wonderful partner I have. She's been helping organize my parent's paperwork, visiting my dad in memory care, getting Ben's travel squared away and still has the bandwidth to work on creating a logo for one of her graphic design clients. I need to stop every once in a while and realize just how lucky I have been; at least where my spouse, wife, partner is concerned.

I've just been back in the office for a week and some change but am already having to turn down work. One thing I will not turn down is the chance to do a 30 second TV commercial for network broadcast. The folks at ZACH Theatre have a new production and wanted something really kinetic and visual to launch it with. I'm going over to scout the rehearsals tomorrow but this will be a big deal, a big time investment and the chance to make the cameras and Final Cut Pro X really sing. I'll pull in several of my friends to help. At least I hope I will..... Lot's of Panasonic gear gonna be floating around that Main Stage next week. At least that's the plan.

Today...it's all about the pool.

 Because I have such fond memories of the time spent there. 

One more thing. How sharp is that Rokinon shot wide open?
Sharper than this Exacto knife blade......


1.23.2018

A quick review of the best high speed, 50mm lens designed specifically for smaller format systems. Hello Rokinon.



I was looking and looking and I think I found what I wanted. I wanted a very fast portrait length lens which was also very, very sharp when used at its maximum aperture. I have a number of lenses in house that are close but not quite there. Either they are too slow or they aren't sharp enough when used wide open. I've been eyeing the premium lenses in the same general focal length range but each had something that kept me from buying. Or maybe I've become too frugal to just splash out big, hard cash if I can convince myself that there might be other, better options. 

I recently stood at the counter in one of my favorite camera stores and played with the Olympus Pro 45mm and the Panasonic/Leica 42.5mm lenses for the better part of an hour. I shot stuff. I focused on stuff. I tried to make them flare. I was rude to them. I was sycophantic to them. I tried out the full range of photographic emotions on them just to see. But I came away not entirely convinced that paying a thousand bucks for either one, for those times when I wanted to blur portrait backgrounds, was really worth it. The Panasonic/Leica is too short a focal length for the way I like to shoot portraits. The Olympus was closer but it lacked something in its visual personality that gave me pause. Too perfect? Too vanilla? I can't quite put my finger on the vibe it gave me. I just wasn't seeing  personality.

Several weeks ago I met with one of my favorite, ongoing clients to discuss a series of day long photo shoots we'd be doing in medical clinics around  central Texas. The samples the client showed me were all images wherein the backgrounds were out of focus. In anticipation of creating lots of images in this style I started assessing the abilities of the lenses I currently have in inventory. I was missing the right combination of speed and high sharpness in three areas; one of which is going to be a stretch...

The first was in convincing portrait focal length. When I took delivery of the 50mm Rokinon the first thing I did was to put it on a GH5 and walk around the house shooting stuff at various camera to subject distances. Wide open the lens is capable of doing good work: high sharpness already at f1.2. Considering that nearly every shot I'm planning will involve a person the sharpness well exceeds my threshold for high quality. 

After playing with the lens all day yesterday and a good amount of time today I'm comfortable with it. In conjunction with the Panasonic 42.5mm f1.7 I'm confident I've got the longer end of the assignment well covered. 

The lens is sweet. It's small and light for a 50mm. Much better balanced that adapting a legacy, 50mm designed for full frame would be. The idea that the lens is designed for the smaller formats is appealing as I'm presuming they would calculate the optical formula to provide more resolution to counteract the effects of the smaller frame size. While the lens is made of "plastic" I can't feel the difference between that an a metal lens through the rubberized focusing ring. 

The lens is completely manual. You will not get exif information in your files. You won't be able to look in the rear view mirror of photography to see what shutter speed or f-stop you used. You probably already know that stuff anyway, right? The lens has no communication with the camera. When you turn on a Panasonic GH5 or G85 a menu comes up and asks if you want to dial in the right focal length with which to optimize the camera's built-in image stabilization. If you've set the right focal length previously a quick touch of the shutter button cancels that window and you are ready to shoot. Being manual, the user sets the aperture on a classic aperture ring on the lens. There's no auto focus. 

With the Panasonic cameras it's pretty easy to set a button that brings up focusing magnification which allows very precise focusing. You can also enable the focus peaking feature which also works well with the Panasonic cameras. My proclivity is to use the magnification if I'm working at wide open apertures as, even with the smaller sensor, the depth of field can be small and focusing should be as precise as you can make it. 

The lens is a modern design with 9 elements. Two of them are aspherical and the icing on the cake is Samyang's version of nano coating or zero coating or whatever your current company's buzzword for really good anti-reflection coating might be....

The bottom line is this: for around $380 you get a lens that is extremely sharp even at its widest aperture. I saw little or no difference in test files with this lens and many test files I've looked at from its two closest performance competitors. You do give up autofocus and, in the case of the Panasonic badged lenses, you also give up dual I.S. But you gain anywhere from $800 to $1100 (depending on what's on sale this week...) and you get to do your photography as a fully hands-on adventure.

If you also dip into the pursuit of video you'll find that the focus ring has a nice, long through which makes exacting (and repeatable) focusing easy. There are hard stops for minimum and maximum focusing distances and there is much lens of the high ramping that exists in the faux manual focusing of AF lenses. Basically, you'll be able to use this as a cine lens but without the benefit of gearing for focus follow attachments. You can get a cine version for a hundred dollars more but I'm happy pulling focus with this one. It's nice and smooth.



While I continue to be very impressed with the auto focus and handling performance of the two Olympus Pro zoom lenses I have I am really enjoying coloring outside the lines with third party lenses from Sigma, and now Rokinon. They have been uniformly delightful and good performers. 

The two camera illustrations in this blog were done with my natty, little Sigma 60mm 2.8 DN DC art lens. As you can see it is sharp and has reasonable good out of focus characteristics. It's a wonderful still life lens and it also does well when you don't care as much about blurry backgrounds. 

Another lens that is tweaking my sensibilities right now is the Rokinon 12mm f2.0 lens; also designed for small sensor cameras from the major makers. If it's as sharp wide open as the 50mm Rokinon it would make for a good wide angle solution for the upcoming shoots. I have no illusions though, even wide open at anything further than about four feet the depth of focus will still render much of any scene in sharp focus. I guess I'll master the PhotoShop selection and masking tools if I need to take more control of the backgrounds in wide angle shots. Maybe the control will become addictive...

That leaves one more gap for me to fill in for fast, focus control lenses with high sharpness and that's the area of semi-wide. The old full frame equivalent of 28-35mm or thereabouts. I am currently looking at the Panasonic/Leica 15mm f1.7 lens as well as the Olympus 17mm f1.2 Pro lens. At this juncture I'm leaning towards the 17mm but would love feedback from the braintrust that is my readers and commenters here on VSL. I'm not really interested in how well these lenses perform in a stopped down mode as I have good zooms that are capable of handling the f4.0+ ranges just fine. 

What's out there that's 17mm or less and fast as can be? It also has to be good to great when used wide open because its whole raison d'ĂȘtre is to create sharp images with limited depth of field. Otherwise I'd just use the Olympus 12-100mm f4.0 Pro for everything....

1.22.2018

Partially Off Topic. But a nod to two new pieces of equipment now being zero'd in...


I don't know the first thing about probate law but my attorney does. I got up this morning at 5:30am and stumbled into the ole Honda CRV and made my way to San Antonio, Texas to meet my elder law attorney at the Bexar, county courthouse, just across from the very photogenic and historic St. Fernando Cathedral. I answered a few questions in front of a judge, made a few statements under oath and am now the designated guy to wind down my mom's financial affairs and to be the guardian for my father. Interesting times and something I wasn't quite anticipating as the big starter for 2018.

I raced back to Austin and in seven minutes I have to stop typing and go meet 14 oral surgeons who need to be photographed; individually and as a group.

In gear news I bought a Benro monopod with an S4 video head. It's one of those monopods with the little feet on the bottom. I have high hopes for increased portability but with stable results. We'll see. More to come after I use it on a project Thurs.

The other piece of gear that arrived yesterday is really, really cool. It's the Rokinon 50mm f1.2 lens for cropped frame cameras. It's not a full frame lens but it is a lens that's sharp wide open and so far looks very promising. I'll shoot with it this evening and then next weekend at a theater rehearsal and then we'll chat about it.

Hope everyone is having a crisp, happy and productive Monday. Time's up. Out the door to shoot some......

1.21.2018

Portraits versus "Headshots." Images made expressly for commercial and social media consumption versus portraits made for more thoughtful consumption.



I had an interesting week last week. Over the course of three days, in a temporary studio "constructed" on location, I made headshots of 85+ people. Some of the engagements were hurried. At times people were waiting in a line to get in front of the gray, seamless background where they would flash their best smiles and try for a good image to put up on LinkedIn or Facebook. Some encounters were more leisurely with people coming at random times while their business comrades were huddled together in break-out sessions and seminars. 

When time permitted we could make finer adjustments to the lighting and spend more time in conversations meant to put the subject at ease and reveal some side of them that would make for a more pleasing headshot. But, in my mind, a factory approach to portraiture never renders more than a headshot. Only with great luck will one pull from quick, almost fixed light, sessions like these anything that approaches what I think of as a portrait. It's the not necessarily just the lack of time that limits the final quality or depth of the image but the intention to make so many consistent headshots in a set way; and in a set time.

During the busy periods the routine went something like this: I would be at the camera position holding my tethered GH5 with a 12-100mm lens on it. (This was a departure for me as previously I tended to always shoot from a tripod. But with a line of people, some tall, some short, some with glasses, shooting handheld meant I could more quickly line up a composition and position the subject in the frame with a measure of consistency and adaptability).  I was using a Phottix 48 inch Octobox as my main light and a 48 inch, white umbrella as my active fill light. It was a simple lighting set up mandated by our lack of space and need for a lighting scheme that was instantly adaptable, at least enough to suit all kinds of people. I could vary the lighting ratio by increasing or decreasing my fill light. I could move a light a bit to the left or right to get rid of reflections or enhance a shadow...

We were shooting against a steel gray, seamless, paper background and were unable to put it nearly far enough away from the camera so I changed gears and worked closer to the background, illuminating it with the spill from the main light. 

Ben manned the laptop computer and kept an eye on two pieces of software: The Panasonic Lumix Tether app and Adobe Lightroom. I'd shoot and Ben would make sure the files were brought in by tether to a watched folder and then into an open Lightroom window. From there the images were displayed on a 32 inch 1080 HD TV screen so people could see multiple images at a time and make a final selection from there. Ben guided each person through a selection process that was relatively quick and painless. We'd note their choice on a paper form and go back to the studio at the end of the day to retouch their file and deliver it via e-mail. That all worked pretty well and we ended up delivering about 115 images (some people couldn't decide between two final poses so we just did both). 

While I like to think of myself as a portraitist in my capacity last week I was resolutely a "headshot" photographer. And all week long I thought about the difference between the two. My idea and practice of portraiture involves trying to make each portrait image unique. I rarely set up my lights, camera or backgrounds in quite the same way. I try to find a background that matches the intended "feel" of the portrait and which is a complement to the lighting. 

When I light a portrait I move back to my preferred style (as opposed to an expedient method of lighting for consistency and faster throughput) and I play with the lighting throughout the session, making adjustments in response to what I see in the frames as I shoot. I might move the main light closer to get a softer look but one with a quicker falloff from light to dark. I might increase the intensity of a background light on a darker gray background to get better separation.

But the important difference to me between the headshot and a portrait is one of intention. In the first instance I'm basically creating product. What's called for, generally, is a good representation of the person in front of my camera, inserted into a uniform background and a uniform presentation with the premise that each of these images will live on the same web page as other people from the company and that consistency of presentation is a good thing in web design. A consistent headshot style can be part of a company's overall visual branding....if the people commissioning the portraits take time to think about what it is they want to convey...

A portrait, in my way of thinking, is much less about a corporate branding strategy than it is about making an interesting representation of the person. The singular person, separate from the social/corporate construct. 

Making a portrait that really works takes time. It's not a particularly efficient or time effective undertaking. There is a give and take that evolves over time and each frame taken builds toward a final image. A good session has to be open to failure during the process. Sometimes what worked for one person is anathema for the next. One has to experiment to the point of failure and then admit defeat on that track, drop it and start over again in a different way. 

Emotionally, too, I think a good portrait session is a building process. In a technical sense one creates a foundation for the session (lighting, lenses, etc.) and builds in the details, but it's also a building process in the way that movies build to some sort of conclusion or climax at which point you understand the actor's journey and the story's resolution. Not as dramatic with portraits but one does find a moment at which there is something more revealed and one must be ready to react at that moment and make the shot. And sometimes it's the taking of that particular shot the breaks the spell both sitter and photographer have been working to create. You have to get the pivotal moment the first time because, in my experience, it's impossible to build back to that moment in anything approaching the same way. Or with exactly the same feeling.

Pre-social media our industry had curators and gate keepers who made assignments for editorial portrait photographers. Corporations filled the same functions with in-house creative teams that understood the art of presentation and the value of a unique and powerful image of a person. Except for the highest reaches of corporate communication that understanding and embrace of  visual value is being forgotten or left untaught and unappreciated. 

In a sense the need for cost efficiency and the impatience with the unmeasurable process of connecting, "human-to-human" is rendering most conventional (outside of the art world) portraiture into a diminished and diluted replica of its former self. It's become a rapid distillation process that boils down so many possibilities into the blandest and most homogenous approach to cataloging humans' faces for quick, online documentation. 

I cringe now when new, potential, clients call and ask me to bid on multiple "headshots" in a day. The clients, driven by profit goals and bosses who view everything as a commodity, are largely more interested in finding out the cost per head than in finding a value proposition in which the actual aesthetics of the work provide enduring value. Their dream bid is an "all you can eat" approach in which they want to know just how many people they can cram into a day at a fixed day rate. Can you do ten? How about 50? How about 300? Do they understand, at all, how long it would take to retouch all those images?

Fortunately, my experience tells me that there will always be a market for people who have the discrimination to demand work that falls out of the narrow commercial boundaries. They understand the value that differentiation brings. They understand the benefits of customized approaches to lighting, engaging and post production. It's our responsibility to supply these clients with wonderful, amazing, compelling and engaging work. Perhaps these clients will lead others by example...


I have two quick stories about both customization and commoditization as it applies to portraiture and photography. The first is about a photographer named Aaron Jones who created a very stylized and technically innovative style of lighting back in the 1990's. He used time exposures along with selective lighting and selective image diffusion to create images that wowed people. He commercialized his approached by making a machine called, "The HoseMaster" (a light pipe or "light hose" that had a shutter attached to open and close the device, and the stream of light, at will) which he sold to all the thousands of photographers whose clients demanded that they copy (sometimes slavishly) Aaron Jone's style. Within months the style became ubiquitous and, since many copy cats had little understanding of aesthetics, most of the work was crap. The style died completely soon afterwards. A cautionary story for the legions of "shooters" who believe that lighting faces with ring lights is revolutionary? (Actually artists like fashion photographer, Anthony Barboza, were using ring lights in fashion and portraiture decades ago; it's a style that keeps revisiting us--- like the flu). My point is that copying a prevailing style isn't the same as forging your own path and, in the long run, will instantly date the work done for clients who demand it. 

My second story is about a close friend who is a great portraitist and an even better on-the-spot adapter. He was commissioned to do a photograph of a doctor for a magazine. It would be a cover shot and he was chosen because his work and his lighting was impeccable. He and I had many conversations about photography and his main point was that every situation is different and you must remain mentally flexible and try new things if what you are doing doesn't work.

In preparation for the doctor's portrait he set up his studio with state of the art electronic flash lighting in various modifiers which he had designed and perfected himself. The doctor showed up and they got to work. The photographer soon realized, and the doctor confirmed, that the doctor could not tolerate flash and had fast enough reflexes to blink on every single exposure. The best they had gotten after 15 or 20 minutes of trying was a photo with droopy, half-opened eyes. It just wasn't working. 

My friend didn't miss a beat. He opened the black out curtains on the North facing windows of his studio, rearranged the background and set his camera to shoot at five frames per second. Minutes later they had a card full of perfect images. The continuous light worked. The magazine was thrilled. The doctor was thrilled and to my friend it was just another day of problem solving and style shifting. 

There is more to this business than making commodity headshots. There are still clients willing to pay for good work. We have to be able to see the difference and up-sell our clients from "headshots" to portraits. But first we have to remind ourselves that there's a difference