Work I did decades ago still drives my search for the right digital camera and lens. Odd how that happens. I'm finally narrowing it down.


This was photographed in my favorite, old studio at 500 San Marco St., over in east Austin. I was renting about 3000 square feet of space which came complete with 20 foot ceilings. I got the space when the company that owned the building was converting it from warehouse space to office and studio space. I think my rent was somewhere around $750 a month and included righteously good air conditioning and electric power + water service. Now $750 would barely cover utilities on a space that size....

I still have a recurring dream that I inadvertently left a bunch of gear and paperwork in the space and also that I forgot to tell them I was moving out. I wake up worried that I've lost precious negatives and that I owe tens of thousands of dollars in back rent, starting from 22 years ago... But the reality is that I renovated a new space at a property we bought and settled out with the previous studio landlord with all the paperwork done nicely and properly.

But it was such a fun and expansive space in which to shoot. I could set up a portrait subject ten or 
twenty feet from the front of my camera and still have a space of 25 feet behind the camera for the background. With those kinds of distances one could use longer lenses and the focus fall off to the background was nothing short of exhilarating. I make due in a much smaller space now and for the most part it works out because: A. We own the space. And, B. The vast majority of projects I do these days are on location. Would I still like a studio with 60 feet of linear space to work in? You bet. Would I like to pay thousands of dollars per month to occasionally shoot a portrait with absolutely no constraints? Hmmm. Maybe not so much....

The image above was shot in the studio just for the hell of it. We went through so much medium format film in a month that burning through ten or twelve rolls of color transparency film photographing a beautiful subject was a tiny drop in the bucket, financially. 

This one was done during a test session. We were breaking in two new lenses for our Hasselblad system; one was the new just then 180mm f4.0 Zeiss lens and the other was the 250mm f4.0 Zeiss lens  (I was replacing the 250mm f5.6 version with the faster version made for the 201F and other F cameras). The image is a look that I liked (and still like) very much. A long, fast lens on a big chunk of film. 

In fact, it's been the gold standard I still use to judge how successfully a current camera and lens system comes to matching or even getting close to what we could do with MF film, without breaking a sweat. So, my system from 24 years ago drives me to look at particular cameras and lenses, in a particular way, even now. 

When I used the 180mm f4.0 lens on a 6x6cm square Hasselblad format the corresponding 35mm equivalent angle of view was about 100mm. It always seemed just right to me. The 250mm was equal to about a 135mm on 35mm which was wonderful in my longer studio but would be unmanageable in the current space. 

I'm currently trying really hard to fit the Panasonic Lumix S1R, coupled with the Sigma 85mm f1.4 Art lens, into the mix and trying to set up the smaller system to best emulate what I used to get from the bigger film system. It's tougher work than I thought it would be but with every model encounter I get closer and closer. The first big step for me was to limit the S1R to shooting in the square, 1:1 format. That makes the 85mm effectively about 10mm longer by comparison. The next thing is trying to find the right imaging parameters with which I can get deep, dark shadows but wide open, airy highlights. Not exactly trying to leverage the ultimate in dynamic range at both ends of the curve but mostly just at the lighter (shoulder) edge of the tonal range. It's all a compromise but then again, so was film and film processing. 

I'm in the studio today trying to reverse engineer my own lighting from the 1990s. I'm afraid I really will need to re-buy one more five by six foot soft box. Somethings just can't be substituted...

I hope you are making good use of your vacation. I'm re-branding and re-strategizing for 2020 and I'm working hard and locking down what I want to make. It takes new work.


ODL Designs said...

Sounds like a productive break, and a lovely portrait. I often wonder if part of our feeling towards older pictures is heavily colored by nostalgia.

Two thoughts on the emulation of the larger format... Have you considered a speed booster plus MF lens? I believe there are some available.

I have noticed when working in ACR the curves are the best way of getting a better highlight rolloff by independently adjusting the darks, lights and highlights for the smoother rolloff.

That and there is a setting I adjust when at base ISO, my color noise reduction I bring down and I also reduce color smoothing. I feel it helps with the overall sense of detail and better local color.

Finally I simply under expose slightly, I live with the slightly noisier shadows for the better tonality in skin.

Just some thoughts. We are working on a new AdWords campaign for London to pic up a few more clients for our new studio there, as well as having a big push for 2020 in the Toronto area. We rebranded in 2019, relaunched our social platforms and after the first had settled recently hired a business development professional.

So let's see what happens, I am pretty excited ;)

mikepeters said...

Hi Kirk,

I find on full frame, 85 just isn't long enough for portraits closer than 3/4 or full length. I feel it's a meh focal length, neither here nor there. A better match for a 180 or 250 on medium format is a 105 or 135.

Kirk Tuck, Photographer/Writer said...

Mikepeters, are you taking into consideration the effects of the 1:1 crop factor? It may be much the same. But keep convincing me so I can rationalize the purchase of a Sigma 135mm f1.8 Art lens....

Michael Matthews said...

Put an Olympus 45mm f/1.8 on your new GX85, shoot a few portrait tests, and ponder once again the need for more than 16 megapixels.

Anonymous said...


The Sigma 135 horizontal angle of view on the S1 is very close to the 85 angle of view on the square format. A degree or two narrower. I think lens rentals has looked at it. Pocker is really big.


mikepeters said...

Kirk, the 135 is the perfect compliment to the 85, you shouldn't need any more justification than that. The 105 however can almost take the place of both the 85 and 135, but it's a compromise. And if you combine the 135 with a 50 and a 28, you then have the best three lens kit ever! I'll bet this starts a heated conversation.

Hugh said...

One way of getting round the lack of space for background separation might be to shoot against plain grey, and drop suitable out of focus shadows in later as a texture in Photoshop. Take a few minutes at most.

Would that be sacrilege?

You could even alter the background lighting with dodge and burn in photoshop as well.


Anonymous said...

An unsolicited thought re: another Large Chimera(ish) box: Consider an Elinchrom 74" Indirect Octa. Lordy what beautiful light and a couple large cutters will control background spill. Another level past light obtainable from 4X6ft direct softboxes. Easy peasy to adapt w/ whatever speedring you need to fit, including Bowens S. In any event, Cheers and a Happy, Healthy and Profitable 2020 to you and yours.

Tom Brayne