Putting cameras and lenses into context. What's really important in getting interesting photographs? Not just technically good photos but interesting ones...

Nearly every camera choice, in the moment, seems like the optimum one. Many of us slide in and out of cameras and camera systems looking for something that, over time, we don't seem capable of finding. I think we're looking for that one great camera or camera system that just integrates so perfectly with the way we want to hold objects,  how we want to operate the tools, and which delivers images that have exactly the colors, hues and tones we always imagined would be most satisfying for our finished work.

There are a lucky few who actually find a camera that constitutes a vital and enduring part of those photographer's methodologies such that they are able to keep and use those cameras exclusively for years; decades even. The rest of us seem bound to a cycle of discovering a new camera, hoping that it will be "the one", using it for a concentrated period of time only to find niggling operational or haptic glitches which eventually sour us on the camera and help us rationalize our move on to the next big thing; the next camera mirage out in the desert. How else to explain, for example, the significant downgrading of image quality Nikon users are willing to accept in order to "upgrade" from the exquisite D850 to the Z7?

But as I look back over decades of picture making with dozens and dozens of cameras I find lots of images that I now consider very interesting and very satisfying. Each successful image lends a bit of its success (at least in our malleable minds) back to the camera and lens we took it with. As an example, I really love the image of this model standing in the stream at Pedernales State Park, about 40 miles from Austin. For years I gave some credit for the image to my prestige brand of camera and lens. It was taken with a Leica 180mm f4.0 Elmar R series lens on a Leica R8 camera. When I look at the image, and many others from the same shoot, I have nostalgic feelings about that equipment and wonder why I ever sold it; why I moved on to other cameras and lenses. Surely, if the camera pleased me so much when making this shot I should have kept it around. At least that's what my emotional self tells me...

The reality (and this will infuriate Leicaphiles) is that the 180mm Elmar lens was no great wonder-lens. 
It's slower aperture (compared to an f2.8) made getting an exact plane of focus sharp more difficult than it should have been. And whether I used the lens on a tripod or not it was never the sharpest of my Leica lenses; which is a bit counterintuitive since a slower, mildly long telephoto lens should have been easier to design and make. Add to this the fact that the focal length of the lens got shorter and shorter the closer to an object one tried to focus. 

And that R8? Hardly the best camera I've owned even though the press at the time salivated about it endlessly. What was wrong? Well there was a manufacturing defect on the first new one I pulled from the box; it scratched film. Not intermittently but all the time. It was not a glorious example of electronic implementation either and was one of the first cameras I ever owned that locked up and would not function from time to time, unless you removed the battery and re-inserted it. 

Leica talked a good game about their tight tolerances in the film gate but if there was a difference in imaging performance between that camera and, say,  a Nikon F5, you sure couldn't see it with conventional films. Maybe in a lab........ but probably not. 

No, what I really imagine is that many good things just came together on the day we took the photo at the river. We were in the great outdoors and the weather was fine and perfect. The model was young and lean and beautiful. It was a hot day and the model closed her eyes and took a moment to savor the cool water tumbling over her bare feet. The light fell where I wanted it. The negative turned out to be sharp enough to print well. The art director from the magazine we were working for did a good job scouting and casting. And yet, as photographers we're so quick to give ample credit to the gear. Crazy, yeah?

When I sold off the Leica R series gear in order to go digital in the 35mm format realm I did so with very little regret. I'd spent three or four years trying to see a technical difference between that and the Canon and Nikon equipment I'd used before and I was never able to see much beyond the fact that the Leica 90mm Summicron did a really nice job translating the tonality of skin into black and white negatives, and from there to prints. But even that was short lived; after I used the Nikon 105mm f2.0 DC lens for a while...and realized that there were plenty of lenses that were just as good. Some maybe better...

I love this abandoned rest stop I found by chance a few dozen miles down a two lane road from Marathon, Texas. There's something about the image that really speaks to me. It feels so lonely but it is convincingly evocative of a red hot day in windblown and nearly deserted West Texas. I also have a bunch of similar work showing fences in the foregrounds, mountains in the background, and clouds that pepper the sky almost like a painted movie background. But that's all down to the actual location and time of year.

I'd love to think there was something magic in that Olympus EP-2 camera I was toting around at the time. And something equally magic about its $100 kit zoom. But it's the scene and the subject that power the image and not some ephemeral quality provided by the camera and lens. Maybe, for me, the picture's power comes from the scene being so different from my everyday, urban life. The sky being different. The weeds growing up around the edges of the concrete. Maybe it was just the happiness of discovering something so few other people have noticed. But for the longest time I was nostalgic for that camera because of this image and a handful of others. 

The real magic had nothing to do with the camera but everything to do with the fact that I'd just turned down a book contract. The negotiations were not pretty. I was feeling frustrated and Belinda suggested that I take a road trip just for myself. I had no schedule to keep and no place I had to be. Essentially I'd bought myself permission to make an unhurried trip for myself that turned out to be a delight and I'm fairly certain that any camera I had taken would have had its reputation elevated by taking a bit of credit for the nice situation I had created for myself as a picture taker. 

Many of us who have reached a certain age and who have plied photography either as a career or passion for decades, have waxed on and on about the "magic" of Hasselblad cameras and the "power" of the square format. As an example, I am guilty of constantly showing black and white work; mostly portraits, that I made twenty or thirty years ago. People universally love the images and, reflexively, photographers always want to know what equipment I used to make the images. But when I think back each successful portrait is much more in debt to any number of other parts of the picture taking process and much less so about the camera or format. 

For example, one of my favorite models for many years was (and still is) Lou. She was the kind of person who, when she walked into a coffee shop, everyone in the place (mom's, guys, employees, couples, etc.) would stop in mid conversation and just admire her. Her carriage and bearing. Her perfect skin. Her beautiful eyes. Her constantly kind and energized smile. So, if you put someone like that in front of your camera then how much credit can you possibly give to the camera instead of to the person herself? I could have used a Brownie camera, a Nikon with a 43-86mm lens on it; even a Lomo camera and people would love the image because I made the right selection of subject.

And how much of the image is about posing, the lighting (which I worked on constantly) and even the custom dyed background I hand made and put out of focus in the background. How much of the success of the image also depended on the way I processed the film and the way I printed the prints? How much of the look of the image is down to the Pictrol filter I used in the darkroom to blur the edges of this image (in counterpoint to the reputed sharpness of the Zeiss lenses)?  And yet, as photographers we're so quick to give all credit to that "wonderful" 150mm Sonnar lens. 

The real magic was being in the right place and in the right mindset to introduce myself to Lou and to ask her to sit for portraits. The camera is totally incidental to that. It was a time in my life when I felt confident to meet beautiful people and, without much hesitation, invite them to the studio to be photographed. At a certain point one ages out of that assuredness and access. The camera could soldier on forever but as one gets older finding and engaging perfect, young subjects is more and more difficult. And without access to the perfect face I guess the one thing we can possess is "the magic camera." 

The other day I came across the image just above and was happy with the skin tones, the general composition and the beautiful model we used for a hip furniture store ad campaign. I was working with a young, energetic art director and he seemed pretty competent at finding great models and then figuring out scenarios in which they shone. When I saw the image again my first thought was how simple this shot was and how easy it is to do, technically, now. But my second thought turned, reflexively to giving the camera credit for some of the success. Surely it must have been one of my Kodak DCS760s with a special Noct Nikkor lens or maybe even my old Contax RTS III with a Zeiss something or other on the front. 

I searched through 300,000 images in my Lightroom catalogs to find the original. I was already regretting that I might have sold, or traded in, what surely was an outstanding camera. Well, the image was taken in the earliest days of digital with an Olympus E-10 camera. For those of you who don't remember that was what we'd call a "bridge" camera. It had a small 2/3rds inch, 4 megapixel sensor engineered into a robust-y, all metal camera body, coupled with a relatively fast zoom lens. The camera itself looked great but it lacked files with much dynamic range, and the noise in the photos got progressively worse from ISO 200 onward. We made this camera work because I lit the hell out of the scene. This was still the days of big strobe packs and lots of power and we made the camera look good by using it at the absolute lowest ISO setting and placing Profoto flashes with big soft boxes in just the right places. We worked hard with technical fixes to make the files good enough to publish. But now, when I look at the images, why am I so quick to give the camera so much credit?

We selected the framing, the model, the costume, the lighting, and the model added just the right look. In retrospect I refuse to give the camera much credit at all. Given all the good stuff we humans added I'm pretty sure we could have shot this with just about any camera and made it work. 

In the image just above the camera handling was at fault. This was not at all what I was going for but I went through three flash sync cords, all of which failed, and ended up trying to open the shutter of my Pentax 6x7 camera on bulb and then quickly hitting the test button on my Profoto flash pack before releasing the shutter. There are two exposures here; a flash exposure and a long exposure and they gave me an unusual blend of visual content. But I love the photograph. I like seeing half my subject's face in black shadow and her wide open eye staring into the camera. It's sharp and not sharp and vague everywhere. I can't credit the camera at all for this wonderful accident. I handled fucking up camera and flash function all on my own. 
Here's an example (man on bike) of a photograph taken with a camera I had so many struggles with that it was like swimming with a cinder block tied to one ankle. I was in Berlin testing out a camera that had yet to be launched and it was a handling nightmare. The quality of the EVF had been brutally sacrificed in order to put a five inch screen on the back of the camera. The maker wanted to be the first to offer a camera with wi-fi, blue tooth and cellular connectivity but the result was a very, very complex set of interfaces and technologies that were mostly in opposition to the way photographers actually use cameras. While the sensor was fine it was certainly no better than anything already on the market from Nikon or Sony. But it was 2013 and camera makers seemed convinced that camera sales would continue to break records. So there I was in Berlin looking for interesting things to shoot with the beast. 

I saw this and shot it but I also shot lots of images I liked; in between the camera spontaneously shutting down and then spending 30 long seconds rebooting all of its systems. I later used the same camera and lenses to make this image below and even though we were surrounded by the company's technicians we still had to take breaks to re-launch the operating system...
We were shooting at the Photo Expo in NYC. I designed the light I wanted and worked with our professional model to get the looks I wanted. I felt triumphant at the end of the day because I'd worked through numerous camera shutdowns, some focusing fails and other issues and still came home with images I liked. Don't tell me I should credit the camera for those! Had I been using a different system I could have done the same work but with a lot less stress and frustration. The bottom line in my inquiry would still be: Why are we giving the camera and lens any credit at all! In most situations having to do with creating visual content the contributions of the light, the subject, the photographer's point of view, and even the propping are, in fact, much more important to the success of a shoot than some "magic sauce" from a specific camera maker. 

It's sad and funny that we give up our power as creators to the myth of "superior glass" as well. I've owned so many different brands of lenses and while some do have distinct "looks" most are flexible enough to provide the basis for just about any style and parameter of shooting (within their focal length class). I was so excited to get the Zeiss 85mm f1.4 lens for my Canon system; until I realized that it was soft as a marshmallow when used wide open ( you know, that thing we were paying for...) but the big surprise was focusing. It was a manual focus lens and it had tremendous focus shift as it stopped down. So, if you focused while the lens was wide open and then shot at f4.0 your chances of having a face, much less an eye, in focus were about as good as that of winning the lottery. What a great and enduring value for only $1800. I finally started getting good results when I stopped down the lens and then focused but soon realized I'd get even better results with the $400 Canon 85mm f1.8. 

I don't know if you personally have ever shot with a Zeiss Sonnar 150mm f4.0 on a Hasselblad but that lens must hold the world's record for flare. One hint of backlighting and you'd think you smeared Vasoline over the front element. And the list goes on and on. Worst wide angle distortion I've experienced was with the Leica 19mm Elmarit R. I've read recent reviews from people who are using this lens on any number of mirrorless cameras, like the Sony A7 cameras, and they gush over the sharpness and "look" of the lens but no one mentions the almost comical "mustache" distortion that is immediately evident in any image that has (used to have?) straight lines in it...
And if we are discussing the camera's contributions to our personal art we have to put into context how much of the photograph is constructed or reconstructed in post production. This image (just above) owes it's desaturated look to the low contrast, low saturation, color negative film I was using in a medium format camera and has nothing to do with camera menu controls but the story is analogous to the way we operate today via PhotoShop. Reviewers prattle on about "color science" and how they like X color science much more that Y color science --- right before they hop into Photoshop and apply a new profile and then start dragging the control sliders all over the place. Is it really the camera and system that's providing the color construct or is it just supplying the basic, raw materials that we use to manufacture the final image from an average set of digital data?

 It's like the saying in Buckeroo Bonzai Across the 8th Dimension (movie reference) which Buckeroo tells to Pretty Penny, "Wherever you go, there you are."

We drag around all the stuff we know about how to shoot and what to shoot and, unless you have one that's broken, the camera is much less important to the final birth of the image than we can possibly imagine.

I had such high hopes when I changed from the Nikon D810s to a Sony A7Rii cameras and lenses. But my subjects didn't change, my approach to them stayed the same, and my processing was almost already hard wired. If anything it was harder to get the color I wanted and it was less comfortable to hold the Sony cameras; even though they were smaller and lighter.

I thought I was being an incredible risk taker when I changed to the Panasonic system and, most importantly, to the G9 cameras. After all, I was moving from full frame, high resolution cameras to a sensor two sizes smaller and a camera with one half the resolution. But you know what? Given the way I use the cameras and the way my clients use the files the differences were minimal. What came squirting out through the USB cables was so close in quality, color and sharpness that no one cared about the provenance of the actual gear.

After I'd been shooting on remote locations for a while with the G9s I kept hearing all the advertising that lives in my head tell me that I'd be able to make better images with a bigger sensor sized camera and a camera with a great lens system. I bought the Fuji cameras. I like them just fine but when reviewing images over the past several years there's not a lot of difference between the G9 files and the X-H1 files. The difference seems only equal to the amount of credit we're willing to cede to the idea that there are perfect  cameras and I think we both know that they don't exist, except on the pages of Digital Photography Review and in the collective minds of millions of men with disposable income and the need to be right.

At least that's what I've learned from using a wide range of cameras and lenses to make over a million images over the last 40 years. And you know what? There's no rhyme or reason as to which cameras are best. The images we love are the result, mostly, of being in the right place at the right time with the right subject and the right light. Nothing more, nothing less. My favorite photographs have come from a little 35mm Minox compact, a Leica CL with a 40mm, a Canon TX with an ancient 50mm 1.8, a Panasonic g9 and even a falling apart, old Tamron Adapt-all zoom lens on a nondescript film camera.

More important, always, was what is in front of my camera, how the light looked and how well I put the pieces together. At most, the difference between cameras adds about 10-20% ---- max to an outcome. If you could only have one camera; even the crappiest, and you had no ability to change or "upgrade", if you loved your subject enough you'd not only make it work but you'd eventually figure out the secrets of that camera and make it sing. We need to take more credit for the work we do and to stop sharing it with the cameras and lenses we just happen to use.


A new piece of stainless steel. A question to anyone out there who owns (or owned) a Fuji X30 camera...

There it is! The 4 foot by 7 foot piece of 24 gauge, stainless steel. 
Just waiting for the ad agency's client to settle on a shooting date. 
Watch out for the sharp corners!!!

While it hasn't been my busiest week there's been enough activity to remind me that I'm still making a living as a full time, non-trustfunded, photographer. We've shot portraits this week, done photography for a big event for the Texas State Bar, made photos for a large, regional medical specialty practice (150+ doctor/members and counting...) and taken time out to track down a large hunk of metal for use as a background for a upcoming advertising agency shoot. 

The stainless is "just what the doctor ordered." And that's an inside joke because the shoot is for medical surgical devices.... 

I had a funny exchange with the driver who delivered the steel yesterday. He looked around my office and saw all the cameras and lights and framed photographs and then he asked what I do for a living. I told him that I was a commercial photographer, to which he replied, "You sure don't see many of them anymore." Followed by, "And you do this as a full time job?" He was pretty much convinced that with the introduction of the iPhone that "real" photography had gone the way of telephone operators, rest room attendants, and full service gas stations.

I explained to him that people still seemed to be willing to pay money for photographs that required lighting and some degree of know how to create. In fact, the first thing most new clients ask these days is whether or not we know "how to light stuff...with lights." Maybe these are the clients who have been burned by too many new shooters who profess to be..."experts in available light." 

It was an interesting exchange for me because it leads me to believe that most people presume all photography comes either from a stock photography source, or from a phone. I assume that we're actually becoming a rarity as a profession and perhaps someone will start inviting me to dinner parties as a curiosity.

I also reminded myself that some of the remaining professional photographers are just plain crazy. Otherwise I can't explain why I got in the car and headed toward Mopac Expressway with the intention of going to Precision Camera to pick up a used Fuji X30 this morning. Logic and guilt kicked in a few blocks from my neighborhood and I steered the car into the parking lot of the local Starbucks, turned off the motor and reflected on this sudden state of affairs. Had a I reached the point where the unmitigated lust for new cameras was now balanced by rational thinking and the realization that I have absolutely no use for yet another compact camera? 

Or do I just need more data points these days before committing to yet another transaction? I'll go with the second choice. And having chosen I am reaching out to my brilliant and kind readers and asking them if they've ever had the experience of using an X30? If they have an X30? And how they like the X30 as a general use camera? 

I am seduced by the camera because it looks so pristine in black and seems so well engineered for a camera with a modest sensor size. 

This one comes with a beautiful fitted case and doesn't have a scratch on it. I'd mention the price but I know dozens or hundreds of you would rush up to buy it! 

Anyway, let me know if I should add an X30 to my drawer of other poorly considered purchases...


A think exercise. If I were to buy a full frame mirrorless camera today which one would it be?

From the Zach Theatre production of "James and the Giant Peach."

I have to say upfront that I'm very happy with the files I'm getting with the Fuji cameras and lenses and have no plans in the immediate future to consider switching to anything else; or even augmenting what I have. Which puts me, as a writer, in the delicate position of having to just write about how I do stuff or why I do stuff but rarely about what's new in the kingdom of cameras. An acquaintance called me, interrupted a nice nap, and wanted to know which full frame, mirrorless system he should buy and that gave me a chance to look around and develop an opinion. 

There are basically four mirrorless systems which would interest professional or advanced users in the full frame space: Sony, Canon, Nikon and Panasonic. I think including Panasonic is a stretch because they are such an unproven player in this space. It's all new for them. But I do include them because after using the GH5s and G9s I have a profound soft spot for the brand. I can't in good conscience include Leica's SL because the sheer cost of the system is too much of a deterrent  for 90-95% of photographers looking at products in this niche. And I can't include Pentax, well, just because. 

Having used a bunch of different Sony products I have to dismiss Sony at the outset. I don't care how good their sensors are or how fast their line of lenses is growing, I just know that I hate the ergonomics of the A7xxx bodies. Hate the hard edges. Hate the small grips. Hate the less than robust feel. I say this having shot with an A7ii and an A7Rii for well over a year. Tens of thousands of frames. The cameras work fine, the images look great, but holding onto the cameras is about as comfortable as hugging cactus. 

Since I would use the chosen camera system to make a living creating photographs for a diverse client base I think I'd have to skip the Panasonic twins because the availability of 2.5 lenses just isn't enough to cover all the stuff I need to do with a camera. I'm sure their image stabilization is incredible and I'm willing to bet that the feeling you get when the camera is nestled in your hand is superb but I'm done being a beta tester for camera companies. That, and occasionally I need access to wildly different lenses than they currently offer. I hope they continue to grow the line-up (both cameras, lenses and flashes) as I'm sure at some point in the future I'll feel compelled to try out the Panasonic full framers. 

That moves me on to Canon. And here, please, don't get me wrong, I think the 5Dmk4 is a great camera but it's not mirrorless. I really think Canon hates the concept of mirrorless and wishes they didn't have to defensively offer products in the space just to maintain parity with their competitors. Scratch a Canon exec and I'm sure they'd grouse about just how much better traditional DSLRs are than the Johnny Come Lately mirrorless stuff. Maybe that's why the models they have on offer seem an odd fit in the market. Decent bodies with cheap lenses or crappy bodies coupled with pricey lenses. I can't figure out their strategy. Maybe they don't have a strategy.... But so far the cameras being marketed by them seem like afterthoughts or basic amateur cameras. You can only woo me so far with the dual pixel AF. Remember? I like to focus my video manually....(snob? you bet). 

In short order that brings me round to Nikon. If I were starting from scratch today and was required by law, peer pressure and divine intervention to pick a mirrorless, full frame camera system to shoot with for the next duration it would be a Nikon Z6 and a bunch of the new lenses along with an adapter that lets me use the old 70-200mm f4.0 (while waiting for the Z version). The camera has its issues;  "only" one card slot, slow C-AF, and a few other misses but it seems like they put a lot of thought into video, the handling is very nice and the 24 megapixel, full frame sensor should be adequate for all but the most extreme needs. Add in a nice EVF and good battery life and you're almost there. But frankly, after having cameras in my hands for  more than 2/3rds of my life I've got to say that the handling, and hand feel, is more important than whether a camera or a brand is X% faster or has X% more resolution, etc. If it doesn't feel right you won't want to carry it around and use it. That's what matters most. 

Yep. I think the Z6 is the right mix. Everyone else can shut down production and go home. Except for Fuji. While I haven't tested them all side by side I'm going to bet that the differences between good full frame and really good APS-C aren't all we've been led to expect. 

But really, it's all just my opinion. Colored by past experiences and nostalgia. YMMV.

Now, what's your take?

This afternoon Studio Dog and I wait. We're waiting for a prop delivery.

I had a great lunch today at an Austin favorite. It's called Maudie's Cafe and it's old style beans and rice Tex-Mex. Basket full of corn chips with a big bowl of bright red hot sauce to get you going, and then you might try their really good caldo, a Mexican chicken soup with lots of vegetables and some white cheese. Me? I went straight for the Tex-Mex plate on the lunch special menu.

I was having a fun get together with my long time friend, Greg. Up until yesterday Greg was a freelance creative director but he finally capitulated and took a job he'd been offered many times before. He's now the executive creative director at a very successful public relations firm. Not old school P.R. but pretty much a public relations agency that also plays well in the purely creative advertising space.

We had a quicker meal than usual because we both had places to be by 2 pm. He needed to be in a meeting with clients but I had much less structured plans. I needed to come back to the studio and wait for a prop to be delivered.

Some people ask me what photographers spend most of their time doing and I'm beginning to think it's all about waiting around for stuff to be delivered, stuff to be returned, and then waiting around for clients to arrive and then, equally good, waiting for clients to depart.

I call what I was waiting for a "prop" but really it's more of a mission critical background...

It all sounded so good when I was on the phone with the art director. He had this idea that we'd shoot a still life and we'd use a sheet of brushed stainless steel as a background for some medical devices and some brochures. I had (and still have) a few concerns about lighting the background to show off the texture of the stainless steel without introducing hard-to-tame highlights but all-in-all it sounded better than yet another still life constructed on white seamless background paper.

The art director sent over a comprehensive layout and I got to work with a proportion wheel to figure out just what we'd need into terms of overall size. To fit everything in at 100% we needed a solid (no seams) sheet of steel that measures 48 inches by 84 inches. I started researching and soon found a supplier in far north Austin. We talked on the phone, I got a price, ran it by the client, and then headed up north to look at the sheet in person. Looked good to me. The sheets come in four foot by ten foot sizes so the metal company would need to cut it down for me. I paid for the steel and the cut and made arrangements to come back today and pick it up.

In the meantime I got out a tape measure and did the math on the interior of my new Subaru Forester. With the seats down.  And what I got from my meticulous calculations was the reality that my new sheet of steel was NOT going to fit into my new car. And, since the sheet of steel has four sharp corners I'm pretty glad it just wouldn't fit. I'd hate to tear up a brand new interior just for one photo assignment...

A swim buddy offered me his truck but I realized that not only was I uninterested in driving all the way back out to the metal shop but I also didn't want to toss this pricey piece of smooth flatness in the bed of a pickup truck and risk getting a kink, a scratch or a bend in it.

I called around and found a delivery service that would pick up and deliver the steel in the same day. I held my breath while I asked the price of the delivery. I exhaled with a smile on my face when I heard: "twenty-nine dollars." But with Austin traffic and the mysteries of commerce the company could only guarantee a window of time for the delivery. Some time after 2pm but before the end of the day.

Studio Dog and I sat on the couch in the house. I tried to interest her in a game of Scrabble but her heart just wasn't in it. We did play "go fish" with a few Pepperidge Farm Goldfish but she's not supposed to have too many carbs so we cut that game short as well.

At 4:45 pm the delivery guy, Brian, backed a large, long cargo van down the driveway and we worked together to bring the suprisingly hefty piece of steel sheet into the studio. Studio Dog barked a few suggestions from the front door.

Now the sheet is in the studio. Ready and waiting for the photoshoot tomorrow. Except. The shoot has been moved back. Delayed. Rescheduled. And I'm left to wonder where the hell to store this thing. It's a

And it just dawned on me that I have to figure out what to do with the sheet of steel after the photo shoot does occur and the ads are finished and approved. It's not really the kind of thing you can drop off at the Goodwill Store, right? Right?

Studio Dog just sniffed the corner of the prop, sighed and went back into the house where she promptly took a nap.

See just how much fun it is to be a professional photographer? In NYC or LA we'd have a prop guy specializing in steel sheets (but not aluminum) and he'd deliver the sheet, set up the sheet and then come by and remove the sheet. And it would only add three thousand dollars to the budget...

Anybody need some sheet metal? 

Oh crap! I forgot to ask! What kind of camera and lens are you supposed to use to shoot sheet metal. Can you use mirrorless? Does it have to be a DSLR? And what format? This is getting more complicated by the minute...


A few thoughts about using the Fuji 16-55mm f2.8 to photograph at a social event.

I have to say from the outset that I got very, very spoiled using the Olympus 12-100mm lens for the documentation of social events that happened in good light. One could use that lens wide open at f4.0 all day long and never see a diminution of image quality, plus one has the option of going as wide as an equivalent 24mm and then turn around and "snipe" from a discrete distance with the long end of the lens at the equivalent of a 200mm lens (in full frame speak). Added to the wide range is probably the best image stabilization ever put into a zoom lens. If you could time your shots so that your subjects were relatively still you do amazing shots with shutter speeds that border on ridiculous. 

Put that lens on a G9 and there are few things you can''t shoot well. For some reason the combination never clicked (ha-ha) for me in studio portraiture but for everything else it's just so good. 

But now I'm working with the 16-55mm on the Fuji cameras and, after adjusting for the shorter range of focal lengths, I'm beginning to understand the appeal of this lens as well. It too is fairly sharp wide open but it goes from "nice" to "class leading" once you stop down to f4.0. I think I'll just spot weld it right there. There's no in-lens stabilization but vibration reduction (human inflicted) is handled well by the in-body image stabilization of the Fuji X-H1 cameras. 

The real trick I had to (re-)learn is how to work with that shorter maximum focal length which is an equivalent of 75mm (approximately). You have to accept a shorter working distance between you and your subjects. That means giving up the comfort of shooting from afar in exchange for the more immersive method of being right in the middle of the social mix. I can no longer stand on the edges and look for chance encounters between attendees at galas and corporate showcases. 

A better technique for the shorter max focal length is to walk right up to groups of two, three or more people, engage them and ask if you can group them together for a quick shot. Almost everyone is happy to comply. It's extremely rare for sober people to turn down a sincere request like that. But I have a secondary motive in this because I want a mix of unposed shots and candid captures; the problem is that people need to incorporate you into the general landscape of the event and "place" you in terms of your function before they are at ease with your presence and your activities. 

By doing group shots all over the place you establish that you aren't trying to sneak unflattering shots but that you are part of the event and your function is a benefit to the cause. Once people see you playing nicely with people that you've made a point to approach and engage, their natural fear of the unknown, or of people outside their herd, diminishes and at that point, once you've blended in to the event, you are given almost a group consent to shoot whatever the heck you want. 

I also find that it is beneficial if you are familiar with one or more of the alpha members of the group. I was fortunate at the event I photographed on Tuesday because the chairman of the event, and his wife, are people who are also leaders in another group and I've been photographing their social functions for over a decade. When this couple arrived at the reception it was natural for me to walk over and greet them; shake hands and then casually make a few photographs of them together. Once other members of the group saw the attitude of acceptance from the chair person they relaxed and let their general guard down; at least where being photographed was concerned. 

And that's a good thing since a maximum reach of 75mm doesn't provide a lot of space between you and two people posed in a tight shot. The lens was fast to focus and once locked on was stable and well behaved.  Once I started taking candid images in earnest I was set. In a lot of situations I wanted to catch the visual dynamics of small groups chatting, and some members meeting for the first time. When I got back to the studio to edit I was impressed by the general tonality of the lens and the way the files looked. Part of that is the interplay between the camera, its sensor, and the lens. It's good to remember that, with photography, it's all part of an interconnected system. 

While I almost never gravitate toward wide lenses, except by necessity, having the same wide angle of view as that of the Olympus lens was comfortable; as long as I remembered not to put large people too close to the edge of the frame. As a 50mm aficionado I love the way the lens made images at that equivalent focal length. The photographs seemed nicely sharp and highly detailed to me, even though I was comping and shooting pretty quickly. 

A lens with a short maximum focal length sure does teach a photographer to get closer, and to get more connected with his subjects. I feel less aloof/removed if I can't escape behind some random potted ficus and pick an image out of the crowd from the relative emotional comfort that more distance provides. It's one more little push that takes a photographer out of a comfort zone, creates more of a challenge and, by extension, makes the images seem a bit more convincing. 

You could do this with any standard zoom, in any system. And I could do the same thing with the cheaper Fuji "kit" lens but it feels nicer to do with with the premium version. Part mental in that we want to think a more expensive or better specified lens will give us and our work a boost. There is a tiny bit of truth in that the performance at wider apertures is a bit better. (There it is; that was the  rationalization yakking it up a bit). 

Anyway. Hope to see you at the next party. Let me get shot of you and your date well before you hit the bar for a third time. Nothing really worthwhile happens after 10 pm....or after the third round of drinks...

217 Spam comments yesterday and no "actual" comments, have forced me to reinstate the hated "word verification" filter. I can't make you comment but I don't want to spend my life wading through spam.

It's either word verification or no blog. I chose word verification.

added a couple hours later: Here's a screen shot to show you guys what came crawling into the comment zone while I was cooking dinner.....

I don't know how this does anything for the spammers but it sure drives the spamees crazy.

Sometimes the most basic jobs are the most fun... Portraits and a Gala.

Phil Klay, author of "Redeployment", was the keynote speaker at last night's 
Champions of Justice gala and fund-raiser. I was the event photographer.
©2019 Kirk Tuck
I photographed Sara for long time client, Texas Appleseed; a 
non-profit organization dedicated to providing legal remedies and justice
for all Texans.
©2019 Kirk Tuck

Professional photographers seem to always tell stories about their hardest or absolute worst jobs. The ones where the egomaniac CEO gives them only five minutes in which to make perfectly lit portraits in five different locations. Or the time they had to carry in 200 pounds of equipment and food on their backs in order to get to the spot in Siberia to photograph only to find that the sensor on their digital camera froze solid and was unworkable (but they learned how to use burning potato chips and vodka to warm the sensor and save the shoot!!!). The shoot on which the first three back-up cameras failed but the photographer was paranoid enough to add both a fourth and fifth camera and so saved the job.... And there's always a favorite story about doing battle with a publicist as their hapless client looked on, mortified (the publicist always wins which gives the photographer the moral high ground to refuse ever to work with said talent again!!!). Or just the job where everything went hopelessly wrong...

By way of counterpoint I'd like to discuss the two jobs that I did yesterday; how leisurely they were and how much I enjoyed them. Just a spoiler here: no cameras broke, nothing we needed was accidentally left behind, no one cried, no crazy deadlines were proffered and.....everyone seemed to have fun. I know. Weird that a job/profession/project could be fun. Right?

Here's how the day went yesterday. 

My first assignment was to photograph two new associates for the marketing people at Texas Appleseed. They have an office in the central part of town, across from a nice, big park. We've been photographing portraits for the organization for several years now in the same spot, adjacent to their building. It's a small raised platform with a bench and a rail that's right next to a tree on one side and a long, stone wall in the other. We just like the nice, green foliage in the background, and the foliage is far enough away from our portrait subjects that we can drop it out of focus with anything longer than a fisheye lens.

The day started out a bit rainy and breezy and I wasn't certain we'd get to photograph but I packed up the car and drove over to the location anyway. I didn't pack much. Just a camera, a couple lenses, two wirelessly controllable speed lights, a big light stand, a small Octabank and my perennial Gitzo tripod. 
My one nod to being responsible was bringing along a sandbag so my lighting apparatus didn't fall over in a wind gust and injure one of my clients. 

I got to the location right on time. Took one more sip of coffee and then started to set up. It took me ten minutes to put the two flashes on a shared bar and aim them into the 32 inch Octa, put the flashes and Octa on a light stand, and then walk everything over from the car. Yes, yesterday I was lazy; I parked about 20 feet from the location. It was sweet, I was able to work out of the back of my little SUV. 

I set up my camera and comped in the shot in a very cursory way. Then I called the client and asked if we were still on for the session. Since the rain stopped and the wind was manageable we were on. I positioned Sara on the rail of the bench that we always use and took a few test shots. The temperature outside was perfectly 68 degrees. The cloud cover made for soft diffusion of the sunlight and my light just added a bit of direction and color consistency. 

In two minutes, or so, Sara and I got into the process and developed a nice and happy rapport. Sixty quick frames in and we were finished. She looked at a few images on the LCD panel of my X-T3 and loved them. I waited for my next client and they too came right on time, smiled perfectly, and endured the five minute session with no hint of drama. I gave a quick "thumbs up" to the marketing director, declined a genuine offer to help me load gear, and started packing up. Twenty minutes later I was back at the studio looking at the files and making galleries. 

By the end of the business day both subjects had already viewed their web galleries,  made their selections, and sent me kind e-mails. Retouching their selections is one of the things on my "to-do" list for today....

My second project of the day was to photograph a Gala for another non-profit client; Champions of Justice, which provides legal assistance of all kinds to U.S. veterans in need. The event was held at the (very nice) AT&T Conference Center and Hotel, just on the Southern edge of the University of Texas campus. 

Like all nice fundraising galas, this one featured a one hour cocktail reception, a relevant and somewhat famous keynote speaker, a very nice dinner, and lots and lots of powerful and wealthy Texans. 

I had a couple of cameras in an old, tan Domke bag, packed for the event, but for the reception in the courtyard I just put together a Fuji X-H1 with the grip and extra batteries, the 16-55mm f2.8, and one of those dinky little Fuji flashes that seems to come with every camera they sell. I had a list of people to photograph but I knew most of them already from other, intersecting galas and events so my real plan was just to try and photograph everyone. It seems to have worked out well. It was unhurried and fun. I was able to say "hello" to lots of old acquaintances and, it really seemed to help with the photography that I was in the same age cohort as most of the people in attendance. 

It was kind of fun trying to get just the right balance between the ambient light and the little flash. I liked the way the flash looked when set at about 1 stop down from the existing light exposure. It was overcast outside but a little cooling filter on the flash, coupled with a WB setting for "cloudy", seemed to balance out the flesh tones pretty well. 

Then the conference center staff came through the crowd with the little xylophone things and made the nice tones that announce "dinner." We trouped off to the main ballroom to take our places, listen to speeches and award presentations, and to enjoy a wonderful meal together. 

My seat assignment was at table #35 with the event planners and various staff from the Texas Bar Association. They are all used to photographers hopping up to get shots and then rejoining the table. I interspersed making tight and loosely comped speaker shots and eating a wonderfully cooked salmon and steak entree,  accompanied by a small, thin layer of mashed potatoes, sautéed spinach, and braised carrots. Wines were served and enjoyed. I had a nice Sauvignon Blanc. I'm trying to cut down on tannins and such so no red wine for me...

I made sure to get after dinner shots of important chairpeople interacting with each other as well as images of Mr. Klay signing copies of his book. Here's what they say about his book on his Amazon page:

Winner of the 2014 National Book Award for Fiction · Winner of the John Leonard First Book Prize · Selected as one of the best books of the year by The New York Times Book ReviewTimeNewsweekThe Washington Post Book World, Amazon, and more 

He seemed to also be having a fun and stress free evening. 

Finally, I made some fun group shots of the team that put the whole event together. They were pretty happy because  they set a new record this year for their fundraising. That's got to be a wonderful way to end an evening. 

There were some touches that were very nice and appreciated all through the event for me, as the working photographer. I'll start with the fact that no one trailed me around breathlessly pointing out people "that just had to be photographed!!!" I loved that the client trusted me enough to get stuff done and relied on my 10,000 hours of experience to not fuck up. I was glad to see they'd made a name tag for me. Even happier to see that the name tag had a table number on it. And here's where the client went for extra credit --- they got in touch with me a few days before the show to get my menu selection. They handed me a parking pass for the parking garage when I first walked in the door. And, finally, they wrote me back today, after I sent the gallery, to tell me that photographs were great and that my check is in the mail. 

I got back home about 9:30 pm last night and took off the suit and tie. I put the cameras on chargers and downloaded the memory cards before hitting the sack. It was the kind of day that helps keep one's blood pressure below the 120/80 mark.... The kind of day in the life of photography that makes it all seem fun and worthwhile.

Not exciting to read about but happy to live in.


This post was supposed to be about Eeyore's Birthday Party but now it's really about my friend, John Langmore, and his new book published by Twin Palms.

Loading a Leica M series rangefinder with fresh film. 

I had the intention of going to Eeyore's to watch all the zaniness of pot smoking, half naked students, old hippies in drum circles, and every possibility in between. Every year for at least the last 50 years Austinites have been celebrating the first of May (and we can be right iffy on exact dates....) with an outdoor party called, Eeyore's Birthday Party; named after the Dour Donkey in the "Winnie the Pooh" stories. Every year the event gets bigger and bigger and every year I go out and drag at least one camera down with me to try making visual sense of it all. 

This year I fumbled and continually false-started because I was trying to use a small sensor camera that I'd had in my possession for barely a day. I finally gave up and just became a roving spectator. You can't win every time....

But I'm happy I went because I realized that I no longer want to photograph Eeyore's Birthday Party; what I really want to do is make a video documentary about it now. I'm also happy because, in the midst of the swirl of humanity at Pease Park last Saturday I ran into two of my favorite Austin photographers and both of them have just published, or had published, books of photography!!! What are the odds?

I wrote last week about my friend, Andy's, self-published book, "On the Street: India", and I highly recommend it for anyone interested in street photography or in photographing on the streets of India (I know that was a convoluted sentence but it makes sense to me that one can be interested in something or interesting in the "doing" of something, and that there are differences between the two). Andy's book is outrageously good: in a gritty and visceral way. It's just an amazing first book. 

Andy came up to me in the middle of the throng and tapped me on the shoulder. I have no idea how he found me among the thousands and thousands of people there; many much taller than me. He was working with his Olympus Pen F when I saw him but he also has a very small bag with some smaller, older, compactier cameras tossed in. We chatted for a few minutes and then wandered off to see what we could....

My other friend at the park was John Langmore who is the son of Bank Langmore, who was a legendary photographer in Texas when I was growing up. John's new (first) book, "Open Range" is a black and white, printed monument to the cowboy profession. But unlike so many who've tried to make smart and immersive essays about cowboys from the perspective of the outsider John is unique in that he spent 12 Summers, in his youth, as a working cowboy here in Texas. The real deal. And so, after he spent years in his "real" career in the legal industry, he came back and spent six years at some of the biggest ranches in the Southwest, shooting photos for this book. 

It's published by Twin Palms so it's not a vanity project. It's printed in a tritone process and there are nearly 90 images spread across the 11x14 inch dimensions of the book. I haven't seen it in person yet but John was very happy with the printing and, having seen John's beautiful black and white prints in gallery shows, I can pretty much guarantee that if he likes it it's amazing.

John is an interesting and talented photographer who, as you might be able to tell from the photo above and the one below, has never been lured by the digital sirens. He still works the way most of us used to work back in the day = black and white film, a Leica rangefinder camera, and getting close-in with a wide angle lens. No hiding in the shadows and sniping with a long zoom lens for John. He makes a practice of getting close enough to smell the sweat (and patchouli and pot) of the moment. 

If you love beautifully done black and white work go HERE and see his book's page on the Twin Palms website. Take some time to look around Twin Palms site as well; they are one of the few publishers of photographic books who continue offering the finest quality in printing, design and presentation. 

Note the wear-to-brass on John's camera. This guy has shot a lot of frames through that camera. And it's a look that few digital cameras will see since we churn them so often......

And John gets into the moment. He came in full Austin Hippie regalia; right down to the tie-dye shirt and sandals. Yes, that's a wig under his bright red top hat.....

After hearing about John's book and running into Andy the rest of the event seemed less exciting. There were the usual contingents of people stripped down to the barest wardrobe to show off their bodies, folks sitting in a dense circle of people rhythmically pounding away for hours on all kinds of drums, there were acrobats and jugglers, a May Pole, lots of food stands and beverage purveyors; and, of course, the enormous swell of folks sitting under the trees on the hill side smoking all manner of cannabis. I realized that I'd seen it all before, through so many different finders, I'd just lost my inspiration to look for more this year. Good to know when you've lost the thread. Maybe I'll find it again next year with a smaller video team. We'll see. 

Here are a few shots I took before retreating to the craft beer bar at Whole Foods, about half a mile away (and awash with air conditioning). All done with the Canon G15.