3.31.2018

Saturday Morning Swim.March 31, 2018.

Studio portrait of Sarah, post swim. 

I couldn't sleep in this morning. Too much stuff whirling around in my brain. So I grabbed a towel and my swim bag and headed to the early morning swim practice. Not EARLY MORNING like we did in high school and college, when the first workout of the day was at 5:30 a.m. but a more civilized early workout (on the weekend) at 7:30 a.m. 

When you swim regularly and frequently you just feel better and better until you almost start to believe you might be bulletproof and immortal. But when life intrudes and other priorities push daily swimming off the calendar things fall apart. I went from a five to six day a week, 15,000+ yard schedule to, well, zero for the first two and half months of this year. Oh, there were times when I'd rush by the pool on my way out of town and try to get some yardage in for half an hour. I could count those days on the fingers on one hand...

For the first couple of weeks off from swimming the conditioning remains largely intact. The next couple of weeks you feel soft and physically ineffective, and by week six you start to feel like Jabba the Hut (Caution: Star Wars reference!) on Benadryl. Those pants with the 32 inch waist start feeling tight and you start thinking you might need to go up a size. You get progressively grouchier. 

By the first of March I started making plans in earnest to get back onto a consistent workout schedule.  At 62 the loss of fitness comes quick and regaining it takes time and discipline. And naps. Lots of recovery naps...

At the end of December I was swimming with a group of friends at the spring fed Deep Eddy Pool. The water was freezing but we managed to knock out 3K to 3.5K each day. On my first few days back to our regular pool, in March, I was struggling to even reach 2,500 yards and taking breaks; a 50 off here, a 50 off there, just to catch my breath. I came home tired and felt a bit depressed that I'd shed that much everyday fitness so quickly. 

Last week was the first week in which I felt like things were heading back to "normal." I started getting back my motivation and hitting the earlier workouts in order to better manage my schedule. I moved back up to a faster pace lane today and hung with the kids better than I have since December. It was a tipping point back into happiness for me. 

Today, under the watchful eyes of coach Kristen, we knocked out 3,200 yards in an hour. A lot of freestyle today and a lot of fast sets with descending intervals. Felt like old times!

Putting my schedule back together is vital for me and for my mental health. Swimming and fitness create a foundation and I've always added on to that. 

Now I need to figure out how to get my passion for work back. If anyone has any suggestions (which don't interfere with swimming) I'll be happy to have them. It would be great to be fired up and ready for some work challenges again. 

I'm motivated to swim. Now I need to sharpen my focus for doing my paid work; taking photographs. 

Circle Swimming at WHAC.org. 


It's not enough just to get wet.
You have to want to go fast.

3.30.2018

Yeah. I might have to return the 70-210mm Nikon AF-d zoom lens I bought last week. It's too sharp, focuses too quickly and it takes too much work to get it to flare. I feel like I wasted $70.

210mm on a D2XS at f6.3.

I've been on a nostalgia buying spree lately and every once in a while I'll head into downtown Austin and walk a circuit I've done so many times I could probably do it with a blindfold on. The funny thing is that every time I walk it (about 4 miles) there is so much that's changed. Just in the last week a ten story building I've walked by since I arrived in Austin in 1974 has vanished. Last week it was there and today it was gone. Imploded. New restaurants open and close quicker than live theater productions. And the weather makes everything look different nearly every day. 

I like to walk it for the exercise and to see what people right now. I also like walking it with a camera in hand because I can shoot tests that I can compare to similar shots I've made in weeks, months or days past with a collection of different cameras and lenses. Finally, I like the walk because you get to meet interesting characters. Out in the suburbs the best you can usually do is to meet interesting cars.

Today part of my walk was about casually testing an older, used lens I bought a week ago for my growing collection of ten year old Nikon digital cameras; it's a 70-210mm f4-5.6 AF-d that uses a push-pull mechanism to change the focal lengths. By current standards it is considered to have too small a maximum aperture, it's too heavy and the focusing motor makes actual noise. The biggest knock against it for most people is that there is no image stabilization. So, why did I shell out "big bucks" for this lens (which hit the market in 1992)?

I guess I should first point out that my primary camera system, the one I'm using for the lion's share of my paid work, is the Panasonic GH5, along with a cool collection of Panasonic and Olympus Pro lenses. The vintage Nikons are more a dalliance or a "days off" camera. Something familiar from the ancient days of early digital. 

Because the cameras exist in a secondary tier I'm not that anxious to toss around major cash building a system around them. I'd like to put together just enough of a lens family to be able to toss all the Nikon stuff in a bag and go shoot an art project or personal project with them. A way of taking a break from the day-to-day commercial shooting and re-connect with a different kind of shooting. 

In this vein I've tried to limit myself to an average lens acquisition price of around $100 per. Once I picked up the D700 I started thinking about getting a longer lens than my 105mm and a shorter lens than the 85mm. A 70-210 fills both requirements in one package. A week and a half ago I saw a lens I should have bought at Precision Camera's used department. It was the 70-300mm f4.0 G VR lens. I owned one back when Nikons were my serious cameras, and it was a great lens, but I hesitated because it would have busted my fictive budget of $100 (it was priced at $249). By the time I overcame my good sense and fiduciary responsibility and circled back to snag it fate had interceded and someone else had become the lucky owner. 

While I looked through the rest of the used lenses I came across two minty examples of the 70-210mm. It was a lens I bought and sold during my last foray (D810, D610, D750) into primary Nikon shooting. While I mostly used the 70-200mm f2.8 lens for my work I added the 70-210mm f4-5.6 as a "beater" lens to use in rain, snow, sleet and dust storms. Something I could use in environmentally stressful situations and then toss if it became in operable. Three or four years ago I was surprised  at just how nicely the lens performed. 

When I checked the prices I almost laughed. $79. I asked my sales person to pick the best of the two and bought it. 

There were two things I wanted to test today. One was the 70-210mm and the other was how the lens would perform on a DX (cropped frame) camera. I put the lens on the D2XS and headed out in the crisp Spring air. 

Hey! Guess what? This lens works really well. It will flare if you point it at the sun. It will be unsharp if you miss focus. But for the most part it's nicely sharp, snappy, well behaved and does a good job when used wide open; a great job when stopped down a stop or two. The performance is all the more impressive when you consider that everything here was shot on a cropped frame camera which means that the lens becomes the equivalent of a 105mm to 315mm lens and that all of these images are handheld by a man with a coffee addiction. For all but the most demanding work this lens is a good complement for either the D700 or the D2XS.

Another building block in the Minimalist Photographer's B-team lens collection. 

Go ahead. Find the longitudinal chromatic aberrations. Tell me why this will not end well....

210mm on a D2XS at f6.3.


210mm on a D2XS at f6.3.









A Portrait of my father.


 C.W. Tuck

I spend Sundays visiting my dad. I also visit him when I come down to San Antonio to meet with our attorneys or dad's tax guy. It's interesting to me that I've developed a closer relationship with him in the last three months than I had in the past, when my mother was alive. I think it's because, for the first time in my life, he needs my help. But at the same time he's teaching me patience and empathy.

I took this photograph after a family dinner last year at Cappy's Restaurant in San Antonio. We were celebrating my parent's anniversary and lingering in the parking lot afterwards saying goodbye. I looked over and liked the light falling on my dad so I asked him to stop for a moment. I shot a few frames. 

I like the expression. I like the background. I like the contrast of the color of his shirt and his skin tone. I wish I had taken more photographs of my parents over the years but my relationship with them was different from all the other people of whom I make portraits. 

I remember just before their 50th anniversary, well over a decade ago, I felt that we needed a definitive portrait of my mom and dad together. I didn't feel I was able to do the best job with them. I hired the firm of Parish Photography and asked that Mr. Parish himself do a session with my parents. Parish Photography had been an old guard studio in San Antonio for decades and had a wonderful reputation. Mr. Parish was also closer in age to my parents. I thought they would listen better to him; follow his directions, give expressions not nuanced by their need to be "my parents." 

Mr. Parish took them to a local park and made a series of beautiful portraits. I went through the proofs and selected my favorite shot and had 8x10 inch color prints, beautifully mounted, made for my mom and dad, my older brother and my younger sister. I also had a print made for myself. 

It's the last professional portrait I remember being taken of my parents and I'm happy to have it. 

It was an interesting exercise to actually select a photographer outside my circle of friends and acquaintances. I didn't ask about pricing, I just wanted the best fit, and to select a photographer who had a long track record of making the kind of portrait I was looking for. I have no idea what kind of camera he used. No idea about what lighting he used. All I cared about was the final result. I was looking for a mix of kind memory and aesthetic balance. It's always a learning experience to hire someone to do the thing that you do. I learned that portrait photographers can provide a very long term value to families for any number of reasons. The cost of the portrait is forgotten almost immediately, the photographs grow in value daily. Something to remember.



3.29.2018

A good portrait is almost always a collaboration. If you don't play well with others consider landscapes or products.


 The one thing I regret about the demise of the Samsung camera division was the discontinuation of a particular lens. They made an 85mm f1.4 that was one of the finest portrait lenses I ever used. We shot the image above in a tiny trade show booth at the 2013 Photo Expo in NYC. Even though we were surrounded by crowds and the noise in the exhibit hall was crazy loud we were able to achieve moments where my model and I felt as though we were the only ones in the room.

It's about a connection. The connection can be one of shared purpose, a physical or psychological attraction or a shared interest. Some how both sitter and photographer must bridge the gap between each other and enter into the moment with a sense of play....and give and take.

If you don't get some sort of spark or connection that goes in both directions you haven't made a portrait, at best you've made a document...

One of my last assignments with a 4x5 view camera. Elgin, Texas.


Texas Highways Magazine is the chamber of commerce publication of Texas. They have sent photographers to the corners of this huge state, and just about everywhere in between, to photograph the weird, the traditional and the ultra-normal. I did a couple of jobs for them in the early part of this century and had a great time. The first project they tapped me for was to photograph in Elgin, Texas. The digital photography age was just getting fired up, six megapixel cameras were the only affordable option and film was not yet dead. 

I've often sung the praises of our all terrain film format, the 6x6 cm square medium format, but I really haven't written much about the 4x5 view cameras that constituted "platinum level" imaging from the early 1950's all the way up until the creation of true 12 megapixel cameras and the final substitution of the web for printed magazines. 

My first view cameras was a Calumet model which was one of the budget cameras available in 1980. I bought one along with 24 film holders and three lenses; a 90mm f8.0, a 135mm f5.6 Schneider Symmar and a 210mm f5.6 Schneider Symmar. And then there was the associated hardware with which to make it usable: a dark cloth to provide a dark space in which to view the (usually dim) ground glass on the back of the camera, and a cable release to trigger the shutter. Oh, yes, and a Polaroid back for shooting Polaroid test materials. 

By the time of the Elgin assignment I'd being shooting at least weekly (and for some few years, daily) with the larger format camera. My first portrait for the founder of Texas Monthly Magazine (Mike Levy) was done on that old Calumet camera. All my architectural shots and many of the product shots right up until 2002 were done with it as well. 

By the time I hit the streets of Elgin I had upgraded cameras to a Linhof Technica and while I was still using the same two longer lenses I'd replaced the older 90mm with a much better 90mm f5.6 Super Angulon. Sweet glass, for sure. 

I think the art director would have been just fine with me shooting on medium format film, or even, with great care, the new digital DSLR cameras but for some crazy reason I insisted on using the older, bigger tech for the Elgin assignment. With 24 film holders I could pre-load 48 sheets of color transparency film (one on each side of the film holder) and be ready for a good day of shooting. Generally, when I hit the 48th frame that was a sign that it was time to go home for the day. I did carry along a changing bag that would allow me to offload shot film and reload my holders on location but we always worried about dust and debris from the inside of the changing back ending up on the film. 

I was working with the writer's submitted story draft so I knew which places would end up in the article. How I photographed them was left up to me since the art directors never traveled with us or gave us suggestions in the field. 

Elgin had two big industries back then (2002), one was sausage making/BBQ selling and the other was a giant brick manufacturing plant. We shot both industries. The brick making was interesting but the BBQ was delicious. 

Both these images were done on BBQ locations and I used an electronic flash to get them. Both were done with the 135mm lens which was more or less analogous to a 28mm to 35mm focal length on a 35mm "full frame???" camera. I'd get to a location, get a mini-tour from the owners or managers and then brainstorm a shot. In the top shot we had been discussing the fact that some customers had a daily BBQ habit. They'd come in and eat sausage or brisket or ribs every single day of the week. I thought it would be fun to set up a shot about "excess" and an Elgin citizen was game to play along with me. 

One figured out the basic angle and coverage of the image to be photographed long before one pulled the large format camera out of the case. You created the shot in your mind and then you constructed it. After years (decades) of working with the larger format I got to the point where I could get it set up and ready faster than most people can find something on an Olympus digital camera menu these days. 

I'd set up and rough the shot in and then toss the dark cloth over my head, and the back of the camera, and fine tune the composition. Then I'd grab the loupe hanging around my neck, stop down to the taking aperture on the lens and check the fine focus. It was always a challenge to hit focus and one of the primary reasons most pros bought electronic flashes with power modeling lights. You really needed the extra lumens to see the point of exact focus!

One of the nicest things about the larger format images, beyond the endless detail and endless dynamic range, was the ability to quickly get the overall perspective correct. Make the front and rear standards parallel to the walls of the location and then use the camera's rising and falling front standard to get the composition back. We've got tilt and shift lenses now but people seem to have relegated them only to "architectural" work. The camera movements were used so much more frequently in the days when knowledge ruled and "easy" was a pejorative. 

A few test flashes, a meter reading or two, and then confirmation via Polaroid and we'd be off and shooting. We went overboard on the top image and shot FIVE frames. Total indulgence. 

The frame below was done on the same day at an establishment across (the small) town. I'd been shown the sausage factory and found this guy hoisting a tub of sausage. He was perfect. So was the sausage. I had the Linhof out and the 135mm in action in minutes. The light was actually done on this location with a Vivitar 283 flash into an ancient and tattered, white umbrella. The whole set up and shoot took ten minutes and I was satisfied using three frames of film. You paid attention back then. It was a thing.

The sparse shooting made editing much easier. I'd look through the day's take after the lab processed it, curse myself if I forgot to make adjustments for bellows extension, or reciprocity failure, and then chose the single best shot for each set up. One frame of large sheet film per encounter, and that's what I would hand in to the art director. 

Knowing it was going to be my last, sentimental working journey with the larger format I blew through nearly 120 sheets of film over three full working days. We had about 95 keepers. I turned in 30 shots. From brick making, sausage making, antique shops, bed and breakfasts and a bunch of historic building shots, the 4x5 was fluid and effective at every step. My final shot was a veteran at the town's only donut and coffee shop. He was seated at a table with an American flag behind him. It was a nice shot. I wish I could still find it but I have a sneaking suspicion that it never came back from the magazine. 

That's one of the few blessings of using digital, you always have a copy of everything you've shot. Unless a hard drive goes suicidal and eats everything.  On the other hand we never had the drudgery or paranoia of having to do back-ups with film. You either had it or you didn't....

People who have only shot digital will never understand the lure of big, slow sheet film. Ah well. Itty bitty digital cameras? The Soylent Green of photography. 


3.28.2018

Just kicking back and enjoying the D700 and a little handful of cheap lenses.


As you may remember I picked up a Nikon D700 a couple weeks ago with the intention of seeing whether or not I was missing something distinct or magical from the old days. Was there something in the older cameras that was basically right but then got ameliorated by our mindless lust for resolution? I've had lots of other stuff on my mind but I've been systematically mixing the D700 and some vintage Nikon lenses into my work mix (golf pro last week, studio portrait of doctor this week) and today I had time to step away from work, and family administration, and just go for a walk with the camera and one lens. The lens I chose today was the 85mm f1.8 AF-D lens. It's a lens many of us have owned, either in the digital age or in the days of autofocus film Nikons, and it has a solid reputation as being fairly good at the wider apertures and very good at f5.6 and beyond. It's one of the noisy autofocusing lenses that uses a little screwdriver drive cam to move the lens elements. Being an older prime it has no image stabilization.

In contrast to the mirrorless cameras and lenses I normally use the D700 feels at least twice as heavy and the lens is heavier that the Sony counterpart as well. It always takes me a while to dial in my subconscious understanding that the image in the finder is NOT what the final image will look like once it's been through the exposure and digital processing chain so chimping is a more frequent practice in actual use, as is making iterative exposure and color adjustments. 

All in all the camera and lens are well balanced and fairly compact (especially compared to the D2XS) and they didn't constitute any real burden over the course of a two hour walk through an urban landscape. 

I'm always surprised when I get back home from a walk with a vintage camera. I think I am expecting a much more primitive or less complex file with which to work. But lately, with either the D700 or the D2XS, I am surprised at just how modern, detailed and rich the files I'm getting seem to look. I did a color check with a vector scope on the Atomos monitor and in the "neutral" profile setting the colors were remarkably accurate. Much more so than similar test shots done on a much newer Sony A7Rii. Kind of amazed that two cameras that are each over ten years old nailed the basic color science to a more accurate degree than a much more recent generation competitor. Almost makes me want to try the same test with a Canon 5D mk2.....

I shot mostly at f3.5 and was surprised to see again just how shallow depth of field is for that particular optic when combined with a full frame sensor. 

How well have I filled out my (totally) vintage Nikon system? Well, I always want two bodies so I have a useful back-up that takes the same lenses, so I have the D700 and the D2XS. I like the color and file depth (richness) out of both of them. They both need more sharpening than the current cameras I am used to but once post processed from RAW they look very competitive if I stay in the native file sizes. I'm guessing the need for more sharpening comes from the use of stronger anti-aliasing filters that were required because of the lower pixel resolution and the danger of moire.

Here are the lenses I have sourced to date (all locally, from Precision Camera): the 24mm f2.8 AF-d, the 28mm f2.8 ais (manual focus), the ancient 35-70mm f3.5 ai lens, the 55mm f2.8 ais micro lens, the 85mm f1.8 AF-d lens, the 105mm f2.5 ais lens and finally, the 70-210mm f4.0-5.6 AF zoom lens (which I have owned before and found to be quite good; it's a push pull design with auto-focusing). 

Were I just starting out I believe I could handle most photo oriented jobs with just this small assemblage of gear. While none of it is "stellar" (with perhaps the exception of the 105mm) it's all very workable and all the bodies and lenses deliver acceptable results. No one will write home to glorify the high ISO performance of the D2XS but isn't that why the photo gods invented flash?

Will this assemblage morph and grow to replace the Panasonic GH5s and assorted lenses? Not likely. The Panasonic collection is too insanely good at video to even think of jettisoning. And it does a better job in most respects for still imaging than either of the ancient Nikons. If I were to consider a switch I'd have to give the D850 a workout, only for its potentially good 4K video performance. But then I'd be back down the rabbit hole spending more on individual lenses than I've spent so far on my entire collection of old, used stuff. Total system expenditure so far for the vintage Nikon collection is less than $1800. The flip side of that reality is that either camera could give up the ghost at any moment and would cost more to revive than to replace.... The 55mm micro already is showing intermittent signs of sticky aperture blades; a known flaw.

Whether or not owning the aging Nikon gear is sensible is something I'll leave to each of you. I love the nostalgia of it and the surety of it when I use it within its performance envelope. They are not, in this day and age, anywhere near the ultimate performers but then again they are not nearly as far behind as I would have imagined before going back and re-testing. See the images for more subjective evaluation.

If I were starting out, young and broke, today I think a couple of D700s or Canon 5Dmk2s and a handful of older lenses would be the best use of limited funds for me. And a useful introduction into the basic work life of most photography. It's an interesting option versus newer and more consumer oriented base model cameras, and certainly more cost effective than some of the mirrorless options out on the market. Sure, there's no video and no EVF but $$$ for $$$ this old stuff is as basic as a good hammer. It's usable and gets the job done. You can always ask for more, the question is whether you really need it or just want it. 

Funny, Austin is an MSA (metropolitan survey area) with nearly 2 million people and yet there was almost no one on the streets of downtown today. I guess they were all hunkered down in coffee shops, fearful of the rain and the chilly 70 degree temperatures....












The last remnants of "old" Austin. A window A/C unit at the #1 Fire Station. 




A forgotten "packing for a job" video. Just for fun. It's pretty low key....

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MBVi0h2gNyg

What does Kirk sound like? How does he pack for Zach shoots?

To understand where commercial advertising photography is going you also have to understand what's happening to advertising agencies and their cousins, in-house marcom teams.

Amy and Renae. 

It's entirely disingenuous to talk about commercial photography without acknowledging that a part of our momentum and trajectory as artists derives from what's currently afoot at advertising agencies and other clearinghouse constructs for our commercial (non-retail) photography. From what I can see the agencies have been locked in what is more or less a losing battle with themselves. They used to be in the business of doing research about consumers and interpreting that research, translating it into visual and verbal concepts that used creativity and a unique visual DNA to motivate audiences to buy goods and services from the agency's clients.

About twenty years ago we started to see a new trend, motivated somewhat by the dropping price of computer and software tech. Clients had the perception that about 50% of the money they spent on creative advertising campaigns actually worked while 50% was just wasted effort and resources. The number jockeys convinced the clients (and a huge portion of executives in agencies+ in-house MarCom) that they could create programs that would measure the correlations of expenditures and results and divine a new and better formula that would make ad spending more effective and better targeted. In some sense this was done so clients could figure out some way to profit from "free" advertising like social media, YouTube, Instagram, blogs, and affiliate associations.

Chasing the numbers has become the "Holy Grail" or "Magic Bullet" of the advertising industry and every big agency that deals with clients who are converts to the cult of measurement spends more and more time and resources figuring out where their advertising dollars should be spent while spending less and less time considering the (powerful and vital) content that ultimately drives consumers. They believe it is more important just to show up than to show up with something exciting and compelling for potential customers.

Ad metrics can point to where and when advertising should appear but statistically have been largely blind and deaf to what sort of creative content ultimately drives consumer behavior. We know this to be true when we listen in on endless agency debates on how to make something go viral.... ( sorry guys, it's a Zen thing. The harder you try the more elusive the target becomes....). 

 Most agencies have largely given up trying to create brilliant content. They seem to find it easier to sell things like SEO Management, Social Media Ad Targeting, and tossing money at whomever is leading a large group of people on Instagram which matches their numerical client profile.

If creative content is consistently deemed to be secondary to measurements and audience profiling (hi Facebook! We see you!) then the value of new and exciting content drops in the eyes of the clients and the people making the measurements. To admit that, almost inevitably, the ad with the best content draws the most eyes and the most buys, would be to admit that the metrics of advertising are in no way infallible and so they agencies (and the clients' own chief marketing officers) have been selling clients a bill of goods. Or, at best, a half finished product. They're building cars without decent engines. They are delivering the equivalent of cold pizza.

I watch as more and more agencies depend on threadbare stock photos because they fear having to sell their clients a better solution, albeit at a higher price. I watch more art directors pick up (as source material) the homogenous ads of everyone else in a given field and ask their creative partners (copywriters, photographers, illustrators) do do work in the same vein and with the same currently popular colors, visual stylings and verbiage. Is it any wonder that the results are uniform in most industries and that success and failures for the companies involved are less driven by their marketing than the ability of smarter executives to be more efficient and less prone to hubris and waste?

The bright spots for us as photographers are the clients who want to build unique identities or visual branding. These can be smaller, regionally based companies and a fair number of start ups. Often they'll come to us because they've seen personal work that we've shown out in the market that seems to resonate with their brands and represents a good differentiation from the routine visual work being done in their industries. A strong style, when working with these kinds of clients, is a definite plus.

Everything in the marketing business (every business?) seems to be ins service of either parabola based or cyclically based industries. In the parabola model a completely new industry is created to meet a contemporary (not pre-existing) consumer need. Over time the need peaks and then, ultimately, the product is fully replaced by a newer technology or need. See the video rental industry. See the pre-commodity market for desktop computing. See CD-roms. The velocity and size of the ascendant curve in a parabola market is just about equal to the rate and size of the eventual decline. A smart company sees the impending collapse and rushes new products and new stuff to market. Sometimes it works and sometimes you are Blackberry.

A cyclical market is a long term and sustained industry that seems to be consistently needed or wanted by consumers. Think housing inventory, cars, medical insurance, clothing, television sets, food and, to a certain extent, entertainment. The cycles result from the overshooting of production capabilities which causes a flooding of markets with an oversupply of products or services which causes profits to fall or vanish, which causes a strong pull back in the markets, which is almost always overdone, and pushes some companies to fully exit falling markets, only to over-correct into scarcity which drives the next increase in the markets. It happens cyclically in housing. It's the same in the oil and gas industry. Even the entertainment industry has cyclic corrections. The cycle were the genesis of car rebates and after holiday sales...

Parabola business models ( no one ever goes into this sort of model on purpose ) represent good clients for visual artists while the industry is ascendant because the client and artists are working together to invent a look and a point of view for something that never existed before. Because of that all the work can be fresh and innovative. It's only when the vertex of the parabola for the industry is reached that fear grips the guys in suits and a call goes out to make "safe advertising." That's when the creative teams start getting replaced by the metric minions. That's when you know you are heading for the shuttering of your VHS rental facility.

The cyclical industries tend to have longer lifespans and over the course of their tenure advertising is made more and more bland and routine. One has only to look at the average ad for a pick up truck from Ford or GM to understand how reticent these dinosaurs are to embrace a more challenging market evolution. The creative people servicing these industries at the top are doing well financially but there's no longer much creative fire to their work. They are copying what's been done before, just with better technical tools.

In our individual photography businesses we need to focus on creating messages that sell our most compelling feature set; our ability to visual differentiate the work we provide from our clients' competitor's work. It's the ability to do work that separates our clients from the crowds in their industries that make our work valuable. We need to be less like the legions of order takers and more like the creative directors. We can push stronger for a certain vision. We can show our clients (and their clients) the value of "new and different."

It's not about gear or building giant teams or finding new software actions. It is about growing a mindset that gives priority to a creative spirit. We need to re-understand that a unique vision has the power to move the needle for our clients. Our work should never be a commodity or an afterthought to an SEO calculation. It should be the reason the metrics and SEO exists in the first place.

We help clients make their best first impression. Research and numerical algorithms have their benefits but they will always be limited or enhanced by the value of the content they deliver.

Bottom line? If you do this as a business you need to find the people with the courage to make good, original and thoughtful creative work. Everything else is secondary.

Shorter version? Stop looking at what everyone else is shooting and follow your own vision.

I do see a consistent and constant erosion in the business. More and more content is being replaced by video. More campaigns are created by committees. It's a change. But it's also a cycle. The problem with this cycle is that the parameters for financial success dissipate with each turn of the cyclic screw. The remedy is to figure out what is next and to be standing in the right place at the right time.

I see photographers becoming more like ad agencies. Not that we'll be buying ad placement or calculating the CPM of our client's ad buys but we'll function more like the creative agencies of the 1960s and 1970s; focused on creative solutions in collaboration with larger partners. Tight teams with designers, photographers and videographers who combine to create a uniform creative approach that leverages the strength of a team totally focused on creative solutions without compromise.

That's the promise the creative future in a time of relentless homogenization of public visual dialog. 


Romanticizing the Excess. An Occupational Hazard for the Sentimental.

I've taken a week off from blogging but I didn't get any smarter. I missed the daily routine of grappling with words and sentence constructions. I missed the pithy comments of my regular readers and the inanities of the more casual visitor contributions. But I did more thinking than usual and I keep coming back to the same ideas. I've come to disregard photography (for most practitioners) as an art and I'm coming around to the idea that it's more like playing poker or sports. It's fun to do while you are doing it, the stakes can be as high as you like, you're playing against yourself as well as against all the people who also practice the kind of work that you do. If you are really good at it you may beat the "house" from time to time. At other times it seems like you are betting the house...

I've also done some thinking exercises that, to me, prove my point that we've moved past the pure art of unique creation and into the realm of entertainment and sport. Here's how I think about it: When people first started making photographs in earnest, after the invention of flexible film, there were scant, and highly time-delayed, feedback loops which prevented, in a way (or for a span of time), the relentless copying and referencing of an individual style or way of working. In all likelihood a photographer like Paul Outerbridge ( you look it up and link it, I'm busy writing....) worked for years in his quiet darkroom to perfect his skills as a dye transfer printer. His subject matter was considered prurient/taboo at the time and so he didn't display his work publicly during most of his working life therefore his very unique vision, subject matter and processes weren't accessible for others to copy or imitate until years or decades after he made the works. 

In the same vein, most photographers who worked outside the news and advertising fields during the film years labored for months or years on styles and subject matter selection before finding an audience for the work, or a platform on which to show the work. In a sense there were very few data points to use for making references to other contemporary work. This low density of accessible examples, by extension, meant that the average art worker (photographer) could either craft their own style (or copy) based what they saw in the photography magazines of the day or use their own compass but because of the sparse access most people had to  the bulk of contemporaneous work the notion of exacting copying or close derivation was less practical. And less practiced.

Making cohesive re-constructions of prevailing styles becomes easier and easier when more and more data points became available recently; in the web age. This enormous data pile creates a faster and more direct feedback loop or accession loop for the less gifted. In turn it engenders more copying and process duplication. We've gone from an early age where trial and error was the currency of the day, and an age in which one could spend a lifetime using one camera and one kind of film, to a much different age; one where everything is presented in almost real time and then ruthlessly and relentlessly copied, referenced, homaged and replicated around the world. A piece that trends well on Instagram from a photographer in Kansas will be seen nearly globally, and, in the course of only hours will be assimilated into the millions of carbon copies and billions of data points about the practice of photography, and then regurgitated in countless micro-tangential facsimiles. Once we hit the access point to billions and billions of data points, along with the conjoined how-to-do-it videos explaining every nuance of technique we, as a cultural force, will have effectively destroyed the concept of the singular artist and replaced it with an interconnected global hive which replicates and publishes, in real time, just about everything imagined in the moment in visual culture. Our craft moves from the slow singular vision of the cave painter to the relentless assimilation and distribution of the Borg. (See Star Trek Next Generation to understand Borg reference).

What's left of individual vision? Not much. 

In the world of commercial photography now it's mostly a game of the clients approaching the photographers after having seen thousands and thousands of profoundly similar works in a popular style and directing the photographer to make yet more work in that same homogenous style, rationalizing that, since the style is popular with a large subset of audiences it's a good bet that it will be popular with that art director's target audiences and so by doing more or less a straight replication of styles (think out of focus backgrounds behind fill-flashed blond beauties in bikinis on white sand beaches, or cute kids with pigtails working on melty ice cream cones...) the art director surely feels that being in the middle of the herd is much, much safer (economically) than being an outlier, separate from the herd. In the design world it's analogous to everyone using Helvetica type for everything all the time and then, when some lone, anonymous "pilot fish" abruptly changes direction a massive "school" of graphic designers shifts on a dime and uses nothing but Palatino type for everything. And so on...

And I'd conjecture that at this point, like a star collapsing, or uranium rods melting down, that the process of relentlessly making the same photograph over and over again in a prevailing style is an ever-accelerating, continuously tightening and unstoppable spiral. 

How then do we re-enjoy our chosen art form? By making it into a game or a sport. That seems to be the way of western civilization. How fast can you shoot? How big is your file? How long is your lens? How low is your noise? How sharp is your image?  Etc. Etc. We walk around our towns hunting for things to shoot because we crave the meaningfulness of activity but are more or less un-selective about what we shoot as long as it feels like something we've seen before and to which we're adding our own (micro-)subtle appreciation and twist via some small variation of technical parameters. 

Think if paintings could be made in seconds rather than in days, weeks or months. What if our days were filled with countless contacts with paintings? What if everyone painted? The vast majority of paintings, like photographs, would be entirely derivative of each other because of the current synchronicity of human existence. We're all wired together. We're only hours away from seeing a style change build momentum like an overpowering wave. We ride the wave. We, along with myriad other photographers, master the wave and add minutely to the wave as it manifests everywhere with an effect that seems globally spontaneous. If everything is a copy of everything else how can anything be individual and unique? It's now like playing poker. There are 52 cards. There are a finite number of card combinations. The play is a matrix of probability. Only the mixed drinks, cigars and table chatter add an individual signature to the mix. Same. 


But that doesn't make the process or the game less fun. It only changes our philosophic perception of unique creation as we move from singular image predator to participant in a giant ant colony.

"Style and fashion are the tip of conformity's sharp spear."  -Charlie Martini.

Graffiti above from the Hope Outdoor Gallery in Austin, Texas.







3.27.2018

Time to re-boot the VSL blog. Ready to get back to work.

Dad.

Man, I needed that break. I've covered a lot of unfamiliar territory lately, and taken on a lot of responsibility, and it took some time to figure out how to incorporate all the change into my own personal life. It's something everyone has either been through or will go through. Taking care of parents. Taking care of an estate. Taking care of family.

My father has made a good transition from home to assisted living. I made two visits to him in the last three days; Sunday has been (and will continue to be) my usual day to visit and have lunch with him but my wife and I made the trip back down to San Antonio today to celebrate his 90th birthday with him. He seems as happy and sparky as I've seen him in years. I think he's enjoying letting go of being in charge and responsible for everything...

Before we left for SA today I got up early and hit the masters swim practice at 7 a.m. I am out of shape because swimming took the biggest hit with my schedule for the last three months. We knocked out 4,000 yards today, more or less, and I think that I'm getting my feel for the water back again. I'm working on endurance now...

I've spent the last week away from the blog so I could clear my mind and concentrate on re-inventing my approach to my photography once again. I know that's a recurrent theme here on the blog but the photo business is changing daily and you can swim with the current or else cling to the slippery rocks in the middle of the stream until the undertow of nostalgia pulls you under the surface. 

The recent purchase of some older Nikon cameras is an interesting, ongoing experiment in understanding what's been gained and lost in the camera world. I'm no longer certain that we've really made much progress in the last few years but I not through with the exercise yet. 

Welcome back. Let's get to work. Pour a cup of coffee and I'll start banging away on the keyboard. Is everyone ready? Put your comfortable shoes on and let's go for a long walk through the weird and wonderful landscape of photography. 

KT

3.20.2018

I've run out of things to say. Taking a break.


March 20, 2018.

I've jabbered on here with over 3580 posts about photography and video in the last nine years. Shared well over 10,000 images. But when I sat down and tried to think of something about photography that I have not yet shared I came up blank today. I never wanted to be a gear review blog and I never like to repeat myself. I've stopped putting up links to products, except fleetingly, so I've driven the income from the blog to zero. With nothing to say and nothing to gain it seemed like a good time to take a break. Maybe I just need to recover in a different way from the past few months of stress, strain, loss and grief. Maybe I really have used up all the knowledge I had about photography in the previous posts and need to recharge a bit. 

I'm not shutting down the VSL blog or taking my ball and going home. I'll keep everything up and readable. I'm keeping the comments open and I'll moderate them as we go. Feel free to use the comment section of this post to message me or anyone else whose been a regular commenter on the blog and who may drop by the comments. If you need to reach me just head to the website: www.kirktuck.com for contact info. 

I'll check back in soon when I actually have something to say that's different from what you can already get in a thousand places on the web. Thanks for reading and thanks for sharing.  


Thoughts about conventional wisdom, cheap Chinese mono-lights and actual use and reliability.










 I've had a fair number of assignments that call for me to light stuff up to a degree that's a bit difficult for smaller, shoe-mount flashes. And I've had a fair number of assignments calling for good light that are on locations where running meters and meters of extension cords is neither safe nor practical. What I needed in nearly every situation was a light that could fire hundreds of times at half or full power with its own battery power, and one which could kick out enough light to be used 7 to 10 feet from a subject, through a softbox or umbrella, and still give me a solid f8.5 or f11 at ISO 200.

If you scout around for user articles on the web most people talk about Profoto, Elincrhom and Phottix flash equipment. I get that these companies were producing good stuff in the days before competition from China (exception: Phottix, which is sourced from China) and that it's still very good equipment but to ignore the now maturing (budget) products from China is a bit sentimental. In the past I bought into the company line from Profoto; that they were building stuff to a higher quality level, that the light itself was better somehow. But I'm not convinced anymore. I've worked with files from these lights, from Alien Bees and from various generic speed lights and if you can handle making custom white balances in your work the quality of the light can be remarkably nice across brands. UV coated flash tubes are one thing but the physics of flash tubes just isn't the new technology marvel they were in the 1950's. The market is ever changing. Get a UV filter for your cheaper lights and stop worrying....

I took a chance last Fall and bought one of the lights you see above. I'm sure it's made with a different design skin for a number of different brand names but this one is called the Neewer Vision 4. It's a 300 watt second unit with a nice lithium battery, a simple wireless remote, a Bowens accessory mount on the front end for speed rings and the promise of "Designed in Germany."

When I bought the first one I did so with much trepidation for about $279. Over the course of the quarter the price eventually fell to $219 and I bought two more. I've used them extensively indoors and it's nice not to have cables strewn about. But their real strength is in outdoor work.

I was photographing on a golf course yesterday and I had one of these lights on top of a good light stand, secured by a 30 pound sandbag. I'd created a little exterior working area where I could photograph golf professional, Zach Taylor, doing a grip-n-grin with about 50 people. The flash had an inexpensive 47 inch Phottix umbrella softbox on it as a modifier. I triggered the flash with the included and very simple flash trigger connected to the hot shoe of the (currently on probation) Nikon D700.

The flash worked well and the shoot was relaxed. The only iffy part to the day was the constantly changing wind. Sometimes it was wicked and gusty while other times it was mellow and constant. When the wind picked up I reached over with my free hand to anchor the light stand.

The flash did exactly what it was supposed to do over and over again. The unit I was using is the first one I got and now has logged well over 10,000 pops. The idea of this kind of flash at this price was unthinkable just five or six years ago. We can talk about the extra finesse or precision of Swedish or Swiss brands but after having used most brands of electronic flash on the market I'm amazed at what a bargain these lights are and how consistently they've performed.

As I mentioned when I discussed these light previously the only thing I'm not thrilled about is the 30 second duration of the built-in LED modeling light. I wish there was a way to change the duration or to leave it on all the time. I know it would drain the batteries quicker but the convenience of an "always on" modeling light would outweigh the slightly shorter use cycle between charges. Plus, if I am only using one unit on a shoot I've got two others units from which to borrow batteries. With three batteries I should be able to shoot something like 1500 full power flashes a day. I can't think I'd need more than that....

Nice to be able to position my light right next to the golf course, far from a wall socket, and fire away with abandon.

Just checked, the current price is $179.99 on Amazon. About what I would pay for a generic hot shoe flash.....


OT: A quiet celebration last week...


When Ben was young he thought I spent too much time in my office and 
not enough time hanging out with him so I set up a second desk in the office, complete with 
a "blueberry" laptop so he could work on his projects in the same space.
He was a good office mate; his computer rarely crashed and he didn't
drink all the coffee without having the courtesy to brew fresh.

Saving up for college was a long process. We started it shortly after Ben was born. We were pretty optimistic about our ability to save until it became apparent, far into the process, that he had his mind set on going to school out of state. The next escalation was his discovery of a private college that felt just right to him. 

With the help of our 529 account, my ongoing (and variable) cash flow and my partner's great management skills we were able to underwrite all four years. We celebrated last week as we wrote the very last check to his school. 

When we were childless, oh so many years ago, a celebration would have included a pricey bottle of Champagne and an evening at one of our favorite (and extravagant) restaurants. After shipping off so much money over the last four years our actual celebration consisted of sharing a $10 bottle of Prosecco and two chocolate lava cakes from the freezer at the local Trader Joe's. It seems that paying for a good education is, by extension, a good education for at least one former spendthrift parent. 

It's probably the same continuing education that led me home for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for lunch today. As a bonus I had the opportunity to play with Studio Dog for a while before heading back to work.

We held back just enough cash to head up to New York for the commencement ceremony in May. It should be delightful.

My biggest current fear? The lure of graduate school.... 

My spouse still counsels me that the investment in Ben's education was money better spent than me investing in fast cars or medium format digital cameras. Who am I to argue?


3.19.2018

It's Monday Morning and Photography is Simmering Nicely. Here are a few thoughts about the biz/art.

Afradet.

I've been so side-tracked by non-photo stuff lately that when I finally had the opportunity to do some fun, personal  work I felt a bit paralyzed and this led me to meditate a bit about the nature of sustaining my motivation to do my own, personal work. Cash flow is obviously a powerful motivator for doing the commercial work but after 40 years or so of shooting personal work it's interesting to understand the ways to keep a current or pulse of inspiration going during times of sloth or times of stress, or just during normal life. Mostly it's about honoring the work you feel most compelled to do for yourself.

I've always had the good fortune to make my own schedule and to lard in plenty of free time in which to play with my photography. Lately though life changed a bit, tossed in a quite a few curve balls and caused me to need to pay rigorous attention to things outside my areas of expertise (if they exist). I've learned a bunch more about banking, investing, elder care issues, probate law, and finance in general. 
I've spent a lot of time arranging care and participating in care for family members. But when one part of life gets detailed and takes more time something has to give. For me, in the last three months it's been my own, selfish, personal photography work. Perhaps that explains my buying outburst of ancient Nikon products.... A projection of the desire to grab back my previous freeform engagement with the craft...

Now that I've engineered a quantum more free time I still feel hobbled because as the little gems of my free time get more precious the artificial and self-imposed demand to become more picky with the resources I have left sets up some sort of false paradigm that pushes me to take everything more seriously. Or too seriously. What is photography, as a passion, if it's not laced with fun? Schedule be damned!

After much thought it was clear that my interest in photography is almost solely related to making images of people. At one point, reviewing my older work, it seemed that I was really most interested in studio portrait; encounters in which I had the main share of control --- at least technically --- but on reflection it's always just been about having the intimate interchange with the person on the other side of the camera, however fleeting and coming away with prints and other constructions with which to share the emotion and theatre of the interchange with an audience.

Brooks Jensen at Lenswork Magazine conjectured in one of his essays that the work his magazine sees fit to publish comes from people who have a depth of work in the genre they have come to focus upon with a sense of purpose. In his research he finds that the most interesting work has either come from people who have put in the time to evolve and then perfect a vision, with years of work and development,  or from the people who dive deeply and with almost single-minded application to their work; especially if they are pursuing a contiguous project. The people who do not get published are the people who sample every kind of image making, making glancing approaches to different styles and subject matter but without the requisite endurance of a singular vision. Aimed at a single kind of subject.

Resistance to doing your important artistic work is strong, according to writer, Stephen Pressfield. When I am really stuck and have photographer's block then, ironically, I waste a bit of time (not really a waste) re-reading Pressfield's, The War of Art, and my renewed understanding of my own resistance to doing my work abates for a while and I actually get good things done. 

My work is really about making images of people I find interesting, captivating, beautiful, strange and wonderful. The reality of life is that these subjects aren't available on short notice, they aren't sitting in a small room somewhere just waiting for my phone call. Since my schedule is variable and, to a certain extent connected to the whims of my clients and other chance responsibilities, it's not always possible to have a delightful person in front of me when I have a fleeting amount of open time available. My dodge over the years has been to grab a camera and go walking. I'm always hoping, on some level, that I'll meet someone during the course of my walk who needs to be photographed by me and somehow understands the value of the chance meeting and who emphatically wants to pose for me if for no other reason than to have moments of spontaneous exercise of their own subtle performance art. It's a pipe dream that rarely has fulfillment. 

But I walk and I shoot for the sake of shooting and then return home like a net fisherman examining the contents of my erratically flung net to see if anything interesting wandered into the catch while my brain wasn't paying attention. And it's gone on this way for years. 

This morning, over pancakes and scrambled eggs and sausage and hot coffee I realized that the majority sum of my "street photography" was a ruse to assuage my own psychic complicity with resistance to getting more organized, identifying the people I want to photograph and to move those studio or environmental portrait encounters to fruition. In a sense, for me, I'm beginning to see modern, random street photography as a place holder or addictive substitute for the photography I consider "real." The photography I should be doing.

Street shooting days have become peppered with ennui. It's like watching a video of Kai reviewing a camera on YouTube and of him taking random shots in the streets of normal people in interesting cities in order to show off some feature or performance aspect of some camera; the work is numbingly the same but, surrounded by his spoken (and sometimes humorous) manifestos you can almost see something interesting in it. But in the end it's just entertainment for his audience and a placeholder of the real photography he would no doubt love to be doing instead. 

The more I dabble across genres the less I get done. 

Leaving the house without a plan and a project is like shooting off an unguided missile in an unknown direction. it will get messy. It probably won't be productive. 

One of the things I hate about thoughtful writers like Brooks Jensen is that if I read carefully I almost always see where it is that my resolve has fallen apart. His words sometimes lay bare the shortcomings of my discipline. I generally always resolve to do something but sadly it's not always the thing I wish I were doing or need to be doing. 

I guess that's the nature of this whole undertaking. 

Bottom line today? If you are moving between making images of cats, then flowers, then buildings, then street scenes and then baby pictures and then food and then back to cats you might not really be doing photography, you may just be systematically testing your camera and lenses along with the state of your skill set. You could do that until you die but you might be better off thinking about what it is you are really interested in and finding a way to pursue that. 

I've got some mental organizing to do. I'll get on it just as soon as I finish my paying job at the golf course this afternoon. I hope the wind dies down, I'd like to use a softbox for some of the outside portraits....

It's Monday. This is probably the extent of my "deep" thoughts for the week. 




3.17.2018

Old School Street Photography at SXSW and the Surrounding Area. No modern amenities exploited.


I thought I was going to go out and shoot today with my newest acquisition, the Nikon D700, but when the time came to exit the palatial Visual Science Lab headquarters I waffled a bit. I just didn't think I'd spent enough time yet getting to know my previous breathless acquisition, the Nikon D2XS. I figured I didn't really need or want to be discreet and low key in the middle of SXSW because there would be hundreds of people with cameras wandering around shooting with reckless abandon.

I checked the battery in the D2XS, put on an ancient Nikon 35-70mm f3.5, entered the information for this non-CPU lens and headed out. I spent the better part of the afternoon with the camera set to raw, aperture priority and ISO 100. With my new nano-coated, ultra acutance bifocal sunglasses focusing the hoary old manual focus lens was as easy as eating angel food cake. I did no intervention with the camera's exposure settings. If it wanted to use 1/650th I was just there for the ride. 

I am very happy with the results. No