I'm not a fan of flat lighting. I nearly always feel as though photographic light should have direction. Especially for photographs of people.

Two things I like in portraits seem contradictory. I like big, big light sources and I like to see them bright. I never want to go to "paper white" with my highlights but I want to them to be bright enough to offset deep shadows.

The second thing I like in a good portrait is a deep, inky shadow somewhere in the photograph. When I photographed Michelle with her hat in my studio I used a four foot by six foot softbox on one side of her and put up a black velvet curtain, just out of frame, on the opposite side. I love the contrast. I love the fall off into darkness. For me it's all about balance.

But nothing technical matters at all if you don't connect with your subject. "Clicking with people is more important than clicking the shutter." - Alfred Eisenstadt. Photographer for Life Magazine.

Michelle and I worked on making cool portraits for several hours on the day that we got this image. We'd share gossip and chat and forget the camera for a while and then I'd see something in her gesture or expression that would make me think, "That's a great look. I need to get that!" and we'd get back into the photographic groove. I'd shoot two or three 12 shot rolls of film and then the conversation would veer off in another direction and we'd abandon the camera again until we were ready.

People don't seem to take enough time these days. They go into a shoot with all this stuff pre-planned and they doggedly persevere with their game plan no matter how off the rails it ends up being. I like to think of real portrait photography as the stuff we do in the interludes between grown up conversation about more important things; life, love, food. The images flow from the connection two people make. Not from superficial storyboards....

I've been trying to figure out just where my comfort level is with portrait focal lengths and APS-C cameras. I think I'm narrowing in on the right mix...

Fadya. Photographed with a Nikon D7100 and the older 85mm f1.8 AF lens.

I bought the 60mm f2.4 macro for the Fuji X system a few weeks ago and used it to very good effect on several shoots. I used it for a marketing assignment at Zach Theatre in support of their production of "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" where it was both a great portrait lens and also vital for all the close ups I did on the principal actor's face. It's a great lens for casual portraits where you might want some "air" (space) around the subject. I like the way it renders portraits but found myself wanting a lens that's a little longer. A longer lens compresses space a bit more. I also decided I'd like a faster lens; preferably one that's very sharp wide open (ruling out some MF alt-brand offerings in the near range; sorry Samyang). I settled on the Fuji 90mm f2.0 and started reading reviews in earnest. 

How I wish I could get paid for just sitting in my comfortable office chair reading lens and camera reviews...

The folks at www.Lenstip.com and https://www.opticallimits.com both had glowing things to say about the lens. I was starting to get hooked but thought I'd look through my Lightroom library with hundreds and hundreds of thousands of photographs and see if the 135mm equivalent focal length was something I'd actually use in day-to-day work. Turns out I like that focal length a lot and have used it extensively over the years. 

But it was the $250 rebate that clinched the deal. I saw the price drop on Amazon.com and was about to push the "one-click" button until I remembered that we're blessed here in Austin with one of the finest bricks and mortar camera stores in all of north America. I went to their site and found that, of course, they have exactly the same rebate offer, the same price, and that I could drive up there on my way to lunch and walk out the door with my latest heart throb lens. So I did. 

Of course, the benefits of buying local are legion so I won't go into that here; you already know this. Especially so if your access to a local dealer has vanished.

I checked out the lens and kept the boxes and packing material in the bag the store supplied. If something had been wrong, off, jinky, or otherwise with the lens I knew I could call the store and they'd send a replacement over ASAP and pick up the faulty product on their way out my door. But, of course, the lens has tested out to be exactly as it should be. I'm keeping the 90mm and an XH1 with me for the rest of the day, just looking for opportunities to, A: Discover Austin's Next Supermodel and, B: Test out the qualities of my latest lens acquisition. 

I included the image of Fadya, above, because it's an example of one of my consistent uses for a lens in this focal length and, well, because I think Fadya is cool. 

It's now safe and easy to comment. Try it out. No more muss or fuss. Just pure opinion launching at its best. 

And since I like the Fuji 90mm I'm actually going to include a link to the product: 


Don't you just hate it when........

You buy a new lens and you don't have time to put it on your camera and test it right away? I headed over to Precision Camera this morning to pick up the Fujifilm 90mm f2.0 lens I asked them to put on hold for me yesterday. My sales guy and I we're catching up; post sale, when I realized that I was supposed to be at lunch with a fun, happy, creative director at Maudie's Restaurant in mid-town. I said a hasty goodbye, grabbed my new lens and headed South. Driving on the freeway is not the time to open a box and marvel at the fit and finish of the latest acquisition and I didn't feel right about bringing the box into the restaurant and ignoring my lunch date. Immediate gratification partially denied... ("partially"? Well, yes. The Caldo, chips, hot sauce and tacos momentarily distracted me from all things optical....). 

When I got back to the office I was about to de-box the lens when Studio Dog gave me a wry look and telepathically suggested that she needed to be brushed, walked and given a treat of some sort. That of course takes precedence over lens openings. We're back now and I'm heading into the studio to see exactly what it is I've talked myself into this time. Studio Dog is uninterested in the unveiling so I guess I'm on my own. 

Normally I'd put the lens on a handy camera body and go for a walk through downtown but I've got a happy hour with a CFO at 5pm and I'd hate to try my luck at getting back over to this side of town through rush hour traffic (which, in Austin, is from 4 am until 11:30 pm most days...). I guess I'll just put the lens on an XH1 and point it around the studio for a bit. 

Anyway, the eagle has landed; the lens is in my possession. Now we'll see if my family's food money for the month was well spent or not. *

* For the staunchly literal I have to make this disclaimer: I did not use money earmarked for my family's food budget and I am not plunging myself into poverty with this lens purchase. In fact, I bought it only because I know I'll use it for at least three jobs in February that call for people photographs in which the backgrounds are rendered mostly out of focus. We budget a certain amount each year for equipment to be used in the business and we are pretty frugal about hitting budgets and staying in the black. We are not in debt and I no longer have a tuition/room/board bill to pay for the kid. He's launched. The lens will be expensed, over time. Please rest easy knowing that I'll still be able to pay my swim team dues going forward. 

More about the lens as the information (and experience) become available. Thank, Kirk

(Photos included just to spark up an otherwise drab post...).

A.B.T. = Always Be Testing.

A quick post about posting comments!!!! Hello John and Bill...

Noellia. MF Camera. Lens also MF.

Dear readers of all ages. I love comments. Love them very much. Such good feedback. Lately we've been getting spammed by hundreds of mindless anonymous comments a day (yes, "a day"). I turned on the 'verification' that made people select boxes of out-of -focus crap in order to send comments. It worked on the spam but pissed off large numbers of people who used to comment regularly. 

I have turned off the verification in comments. No one should see the nasty grid of boxes filled with out-of-focus visual garbage. I've turned off my own Google+ account and no one should have to use any social media affiliation in order to comment. 

I still have "moderation" enabled so I will go through and "approve" each comment, that's why your posted comment doesn't show up right away... You can put your name in the box when you comment or you can just put your name in the body of your comment if you like. You can even comment anonymously and as long as you are not referencing a site where I can buy edible sponges or dual use toilet paper and I'll probably push your comment right through and share it with the VSL hive. 

Please comment. Your feedback, in part, informs what I will write about and also how often I write. 

If you are a world famous novelist or photojournalist your comments also make me feel special. But all smart and topical comments give me warm and fuzzy feelings.

Repeating for emphasis: the obnoxious boxes are gone. The need to be affiliated with social media in order to comment is gone. It's just me and the comments. 

Buy something on the affiliate links here. Oh, wait! No affiliate link in this post. No ads either. You mean all I get out of this is comments? Well then you better deliver!!!

Portrait of Dyan. Unretouched.

Everybody seems to retouch the crap out of everyone who doesn't need retouching and to skip retouching on the unfortunate souls who could benefit from it. I prefer to light people in a flattering way rather than spend a lot of time converting their skin into smooth plastic. A young woman like Dyan really doesn't need you to flatten out and smooth over every pore... Just thinking about all the portrait images I've seen lately with laser sharp lips and eyes and then skin like a glass of milk. Forget body image issues for a second; I'm now worried about complexion image issues. Since when did ultra smooth skin become a mandatory "feature" of portrait photography?


Looking for light. Brushing past the preconceptions and leveraging what the location gives you.

 When Selena and I photographed on a friend's ranch we purposely traveled light; just a shoulder bag with some cameras and lenses and no lights or stands. It meant that we couldn't really shape the existing light, we'd have to find light we liked and then lean into it and depend on our shooting angles to get the most out of it. I find that I always want some kind of light streaming across the background of my photographs to break the main subject from the background. In black and white we'd see this as "local contrast" but in color I see it as "color tones". Working in color can be more forgiving because you can use contrasting colors to differentiate between tones even if they are the same luminance value.

In the image above we found a series of exterior windows behind and to the right of camera position and moved Selena into a position where the window light came across her face in such a way as to create a shadow to the right side of her face. We kept nudging over her position until I had the soft green back wall showing on either side of her head, effectively separating her from the background.

Then the real game is to pick an exposure that yields a shutter speed you have some promise of being able to handhold well. Using the faster frame rate of a camera helps in giving you more chances of coming away with a sharp frame...

In this particular photo I used an APS-H format camera, the Canon 1D mk2, an a 50mm lens. It certainly was one of those days when you needed to keep your eyes open to the direction and quality of light. There were no auxiliary lights or ready tripods with which to bail myself out.

But it's a fun exercise for someone who sometimes gets too depend on being able to control all the aspects of most shoots...

The right lens makes a difference. Doesn't matter which format you shoot as long as you get the angle of view right.

Selena and I were out shooting at the ranch of a famous Texas musician. It was a breezy, cool day with lots of clouds. I was shooting with a Canon 1D mk2 and a couple different lenses. The lens that seemed most appropriate most of the time was an older 85mm f1.8. A close second was the 100mm f2.0. Both were fine lenses and both were useful right near their wide open apertures. 

The camera and lenses were definitely "old school." There wasn't any image stabilization available other than my good hand holding techniques but I'm not sure it would have affected the final results one way or the other. The camera was an APS-H format which is almost forgotten these days. It's about half way between APS-C and full frame. It's also the same format we enjoyed shooting in the old Kodak DCS 760 camera too. Something about that format just made sense to me. Big enough to share the same kinds of shallow depth of field we associate with full frame but at the same time the camera gave me a nice look with certain lenses; it made the 100mm f2.0 look a bit more like a fast 135mm. 

Selena and I spent most of the middle of the day making photos and then we headed back into Austin as the first rain started falling. I'm just revisiting these files after having set them aside for three or four years. It's fun to come back to old work, many times you bring along a new perspective. 

VSL Brain Picking Time. Who Has an Opinion About the Fujifilm 90mm f2.0 ? I'm itching to buy one now that they are on sale for $699......but......any hidden gotchas?

shot on assignment in Jamaica.

I've always liked the 135mm (full frame) equivalent focal length for portraits. That focal length, especially when paired with a fast and sharp f-stop, does a great job compressing images and focusing viewer attention on the primary subject in the frame. I've owned the Nikon 135mm f2.0, the Canon 135mm f2.0 and lenses in other formats that are in the same angle of view category. I've liked almost all of them. 

I noticed that the 90mm f2.0 lens, which is usually priced at around $950, is currently (and apparently through March) available at retailers for the reduced price of $699. Or $698, depending on the dealer....

I have a project for which this lens would be most welcome but before I pull the trigger on yet another lens in the Fuji system (I just bought the 14mm f2.8 a little over a week ago) I thought I'd check in with all of you Fuji shooters and see what your take on this lens might be. 

I understand that it does not have image stabilization but I figure I can work with that given my (again---recent) purchase of two XH1 cameras which feature in body image stabilization. Anything else it may be advantageous to know?

Thanks, Kirk

A few more favorites from my days with 135mm lenses....




Kirov. Russia.



Legit street photographer.

Ice cream. Park bench.

Dancer feet.

coffee shop customer. 

Scouting well before days of photography is a great way to be more efficient and to ward off trouble pro-actively. I recommend it.

We've been in the "hurry up and wait" mode with a project since last Summer. The photographer (me) is ready and waiting and the ad agency is chomping at the bit in anticipation but, you know....clients.

We're finally spinning up and I'm proud of the ad agency for their first action, which was to organize a one day scouting mission to all four of the locations at which we'll be making photographs. I was even happier that we had the supervising client in tow. I was happy because scouting can be more than just laying eyes on a physical space and ascertaining whether or not you'll have enough space or need extra lights to make the location work. Scouting also gives you the opportunity to begin envisioning how you'll photograph and what parts of the location could be made better by a bit of directed, pre-shoot cleaning, straightening and re-organization.

Scouting with a client in tow gives you the chance to dissuade them from preconceived shooting angles that may not work well and it gives the client the opportunity to see the shoot from your point of view and to understand why you might be making compositional decisions that are different from the more obvious solutions.

A case in point is the classic "We want to show human interaction and we're going to want a photograph of Bob interviewing Susan. We thought we could do it in Bob's office..." 

While scouting you discover that Bob's office is very small and the interview would put Bob a couple feet from the back wall and that there was no natural way to position Susan to show her face and Bob's at the same time. Sure, in video we can cut back and forth, but with stills we'll need one workable master shot.

When the whole creative brief emphasizes a shallow depth of field look and the client and agency want the situation to look natural it helps to think a bit differently. Maybe a small round table in a much bigger workspace is really the right place for the interview to take place. Finding a workable area with space around it allows you, as the photographer, to talk the client through how well the extra space allows you to back up and use longer lenses. The long distance between Bob and Susan and the back wall gives you an easy path to dropping out the background. If you can show this to the client then you can change their presumptions and they also begin to look for locations with more depth.

I take a camera along on all scouting adventures. I set the WB to manual and shoot the existing light at each location. This allows me to remember just how far off the WB is from daylight and what lights, filters or modifiers I might need to bring to drag the color of a space back into neutral territory.

A scouting trip also is an opportunity for your client to see how well you'll work with their staff; their workforce. This is important for a job like the one we have coming up wherein all of the talent will be employees of a very large non-profit. I introduce myself to each person we meet during the day who will be involved in some way in the project, making a point to make eye contact and to treat them with the same deference I give to the advertising agency person who will write my check... which means I treat them as valued clients. I ask about their jobs and how they perform their tasks. I ask them for advice about making what they do seem authentic in the photographs and videos. I thank them for their time.

On one hand this helps to creative a collaborative relationship that will make the shoot day run better and on the other hand this is also my audition with a client I've never met before. If I show honest respect for each person I meet I'll lower the client's stress levels about "the big day." It's also a way of taking the mystery out of the process which reduces human friction even more.

On our scouting adventure in San Antonio yesterday we discovered that two of the critical pieces of hardware we want to show off for the client will be off location the week of the 11th-15th and we will need to schedule around that. We have one location that is meant to show off the organization's landscaping services. The client was thinking of wide shots with mowers in big fields. We'll get that but the ad agency art director and I also came up with the idea of bringing a flat of plants and having the workers plant them by hand in good locations. This gives us some good action that leverages the creative concept by getting us in tight and allowing for de-focused backgrounds that will make many of our interior shots. We added a flat of plants to the prop inventory.

In each space I assessed how we would need to modify the existing lighting or add to it. In each space the art director and I looked for and discussed good angles that would showcase a process while minimizing cluttered backgrounds. By the end of our scouting we'd nixed one or two shots that would not work and we all understood much better how to work with what we have.

I have a couple dozen scouting shots to share with the client in order to keep our collaborative suggestions fresh in their minds as they work on the schedule for two consecutive shooting days. I'll also share the images with the videographer who will be a critical part of my team. I'll shoot stills while he follows along and grabs b-roll for the client's ongoing social media campaigns.

Finally, I started my trip with a drive down to San Antonio to visit family but I was also using the trip and the overnight stay before the scouting day to figure out which hotel I'll use as a two day base during this upcoming leg of the yearlong project. I found a La Quinta Hotel that's close to the agency and the client. I stayed there and it was well run and quiet. Breakfast was reasonably good. Not Four Seasons Hotel good but more than adequate. The hotel is also a few blocks from the main freeway which means we can get to all the job sites and to the ad agency with dispatch.

So, to sum up: Scouting familiarizes me with locations I've never seen before. It sets expectations for what's possible and what's not. It helps all of us see stuff that needs to be fixed before the days of actual photography; that gives the "team" a fighting chance to get the location dress right. It gives the client an opportunity to see me problem solve for them and also gives them the chance to see how I'll interact with their team. That goes a long way toward building confidence in each other's judgement. Finally, it gives the advertising agency a good framework for scheduling and propping.

We charge for scouting but it saves the client lots of resources and time. It can be demoralizing to arrive at an un-scouted location only to find that it's a wreck, the talent you were going to shoot is dressed in an old Spurs Basketball T-Shirt, and the only lighting is one flickering florescent fixture up in a corner of an otherwise dark room. Fortunately we didn't see anything like that with this client but now we are certain the job can be done well and everyone is on the same page.

Even if you are just doing a personal project scouting is a good thing and can open your eyes to both trouble spots and great opportunities. I recommend it.

Back from scouting and ready to swim.


Portrait. Renee in the old studio on San Marcos Street.

The image just above is my template or aesthetic target for new portrait images I'm working on these days. I'm referencing things like the skin tone and the range of all tones; from white to black. So much depends on the lighting. So I'm working on that as well. 

My current portrait system is a FujiFilm XT3 and the 60mm f2.4 macro lens. But it's the lighting and the post processing that will make or break the image creation. 

I guess I'd better get used to working with the cameras and lenses I already have in house as I just read on DPReview that Canon's CEO is currently predicting an upcoming Photography Apocalypse that will result in no future non-phone cameras to ever be made again after the first day of 2020. 

Your thoughts?


Sitting in a La Quinta Hotel in San Antonio thinking about life and cameras.

Leica R series (film) with 180 Elmar f4

I'm 77 miles from home and light years away from when I started in photography. I came down to San Antonio from Austin today to visit my father. He's not doing well and I'm thinking I'll be sticking close to home and close to my phone for the next few weeks. We had a good visit - between naps and him picking at lunch. 

But I'm booked in at a local hotel because I have a full day of scouting to do with an ad agency here tomorrow and it just didn't make sense to drive back and forth between Austin and San Antonio on two consecutive days. Last year I would have stayed in my parent's empty house but I sold it last Summer for my father. It feels strange to be back in the city I lived in during high school, and in which my parents lived for nearly 48 years, and to be in a hotel. I could stay with my brother or my in-laws but it's just easier to be an anonymous traveler sometimes....

Tomorrow we have a scouting adventure that should take a good part of the day. It's for an eight to ten day shooting project on which I'll be photographing while my friend, James, shoots video for b-roll.  Most of the locations are interior workplaces but there's also data centers and even a bit of retail involved. I think scouting is good; we get to identify problems before they become...problems. Is there a quiet place to shoot interviews? Is the interior lighting so wretched that we'll need to bring lots of our own? Do the locations need to be "improved"? Should the ad agency think about additional propping? Do we have enough time scheduled between locations to actually get from point "A" to point "B" in time to set up and do the work?

Sometimes the scouting provides clear insight into how the actual job will proceed. If everyone on every location we scout seem surprised and annoyed to see us that's probably not going to change profoundly on the actual shoot days. If the agency and client are happy and organized then I'll go home and pour a glass of post-scouting Champagne because it presages a smooth assignment in the near future. 

It's late afternoon here and like most Texans I've turned off the heater in my hotel room and set the air conditioner to 68 degrees. Why own a sweatshirt if it's never cold enough to wear one...?

While sitting here  chilling out and preparing for a long day of smiling and nodding tomorrow I've been looking around the web to gauge the response of forum-tographers to the Olympus product launch for the OMD-EM-1X. The mantra among everyone for whom the camera was never intended is pretty much uniformly contained in two questions: One goes like this: This camera doesn't make any sense at all because small sensor cameras only exist to be tiny and pixy-like. Why is it so big? And the other often asked question is: "Who the heck would ever buy this camera? Aren't all good photographers required to shoot with full frame cameras?"

The response is par for the course. Everyone seems to think in terms of absolutes. Either/or. 

At some point I started imagining the maybe I'm just crazy. Maybe we should all agree to do everything in unison. Make everything uniform. Make everything match the mean. Hew to the median. We could agree on one car and we could all buy it. We could all wear the same tacky Adidas warm-up pants with the twin, glow in the dark stripes down the side. We could all wear disgusting athletic jerseys instead of real shirts. And we could all shoot with a Canon 5D. We'd all own three lenses. They'd all be a wide zoom, the 24-105L and the 70-200mm f2.8 L. And we'd all be required to shoot in raw format. Our portfolios would be filled with cute cats and chubby girlfriends/boyfriends.

As if our goal as photographers is total homogeneous assimilation. Right?

This led me, before I left Austin, to the gear box in the studio where I selected the camera most counter to mainstream choice: the Panasonic GH5S. A camera rejected by most for several reasons: "The sensor is too small!" "The megapixel count (10 megapixels) is too low." And, "The camera doesn't have image stabilization." I pulled three lenses out of a different drawer and two of them are also not image stabilized. The trio consists of the 15mm, the 25mm f1.7, and the 42.5mm f1.7. The GH5S and this group of lenses are my choice for this evening's photo walk through downtown and also for my scouting adventure tomorrow. 

So, what is it about the GH5S (not the "stock" GH5) that motivates me to use it so frequently? It's pretty easy to explain. First of all the camera is the perfect size for my hands. It just fits so nicely that I never have to think twice about how to handle it. Then there's the fact that this camera is (as far as I know) the only micro four thirds camera that outputs (not just shoots but also outputs) a 14 bit raw file which makes color grading and photo processing more rewarding. It's also the m4:3 camera of all the two families of m4:3 cameras I've played with that has the best looking color and tonality. The physical control interfaces are really perfect (especially so when it comes to the top right three buttons for ISO, WB and exposure compensation). The only knock against the GH5S I can agree with is that some people might want, or even need, more resolution for certain kinds of work.

The finder is superb, the response of the system is lightning fast and the battery life is DSLR-like.

And all of this is before one even actuates the 4K video and gets to work in motion. 

I'm heading out the door to do some walking in San Antonio. I'm going with the GH5S and the 15mm to start. I'll keep the other two lenses in a small jacket pocket. The whole package is able and unobtrusive. 

I get that people love image stabilization. If I need it I select lenses like the Olympus 12-100mm or the Leica/Panasonic 12-60mm. But really, if you watch your exposure and practice your camera hold image stabilization becomes more of a luxury than a necessity. And I'll go so far as to say that image stabilization may harm some images. I know for sure it has a tendency to make some photographers lazy enough to scrimp on practicing good techniques....and bad habits tend to multiply. 

I'm not saying that everyone needs to rush out and buy a non-stabilized, 10 megapixel, small sensor camera but if you think it's the camera holding you back from achieving your true stature and prominence as a photographer you may want to reconsider. Some of my best work has come from the oddest and least capable cameras. Maybe the cameras' perceived weaknesses were a foil that forced me to pay more attention and to up my game. The real game: imagining images and capturing them.

The images below are from a wide range of cameras; from full frame to one inch sensor cams. I like the all. Cameras need to fit in your hands and follow your (sentient) commands. That's all. 

One Inch.

6cm by 6cm film.

Canon 5D.

Panasonic GH5S

Sony something.

Samsung APS-C


4K video still from GH5S.

Minox 35mm.

Leica M4, 50mm Summicron

Fuji something.

Sony 1 inch.



Fuji XE3

Sony 1 inch.

Fuji XE2

Pentax 645. Film

6cm X 6cm Film.