6.24.2021

Playing with light in the studio. Big soft sources.


I once read that Leonardo da Vinci had an interesting technique for lighting subjects for his paintings and portrait studies. He had studio with a big center courtyard and he would place his model in the courtyard and then cover the open space above with white cloth. A huge diffusion modifier placed up and over his subject, covering them completely in soft light from above.

After reading this I started to see variations of this technique used in expansive street scenes in movies. One afternoon I had a friend (above) come by and help me with a few lighting experiments. I was constrained by weather, etc. to shoot indoors and that also played into my need for finding repeatable methods. 

I placed a six foot by six foot diffusion panel on an aluminum frame directly above the model. the rear of the panels ended just behind her head. This allowed for almost all of the six feet of soft light to fall in front of her. Habit moves us to center things and centering the diffusion above her would have wasted half the value of the light. 

I got my tallest light stand and extended it as far up as I could with the light pointing down toward the diffusion surface. My goal was, more or less, complete and even coverage of the scrim but without much spill into the background. My mistake with this particular example was my chickening out about contrast and putting a fill card to bounce light back under her chin, just out of frame. Had I forgone the fill card I think a stronger shadow under the model's nose and chin would have made the portrait much more interesting. This is how I learn though. If everything turned out just right on every try this would be a pretty boring avocation. 

I included a favorite portrait below which was done in my favorite, "go-to" lighting. It shows me the importance of shadow and highlight differentiation. Somehow, this is the way I think portraits look best. But my interest in "Da Vinci" lighting has resurfaced and I'm looking for another model to test out some fine-tuning upon. It's easier to experiment with digital. I don't have to wait for the film to come back to see what I should have done better....
 


6.23.2021

Progress report on all fronts. What's going on with the camera systems in-house. How I am adjusting to the re-opening of my part of the world. Just another Wednesday morning...


the swan boat is the touch I like...

I have to say that my endodontist must have a dry sense of humor. And a light touch with appointment reminders... Several months ago I had to have a root canal procedure and while my rampant "white coat" syndrome (fear of medical procedures) was nearly paralyzing the experience was actually just fine. I liked my doctor and she was really good at putting at ease. I do remember her telling me that they'd want to do a follow-up scan in a couple of months and I'm sure I thought about putting it into my calendar but it must have slipped my mind between the payment window and my car. I didn't worry; all of my other healthcare providers are very good about calling, texting and e-mailing me about a week out from any appointment to confirm and update me. But the folks at the endodontist's office seem to follow a more minimalist protocol when it comes to reminders... I was caught off guard at my desk yesterday when I got a terse e-mail letting me know I needed to present myself for my follow-up testing at 9:45 a.m. the very next day. Which was today.

Fortunately that was well after the end of swim practice. I went this morning and had a quick and pleasant check-up, and was left with an extra 45 minutes of "scheduled grace" so I high-tailed it to Second St. in the downtown zone to have a really incredible, and amply overstuffed, breakfast taco (@Torchy's Tacos). Scrambled eggs, shredded cheddar cheese and crispy bacon presented on a freshly made, flour tortilla. Toss a bit of hot sauce onto it and yowza! Good breakfast! But I did not get coffee there because there seems to be some sort of inverse relationship at good taco restaurants when it comes to coffee. The better the tacos the worse the coffee. Odd, but the draw really is the tacos.

There's coffee to be had downtown but when I walked back by my current favorite shop there was a line out the door, and it's the kind of place that has a lot of people ordering complex drinks that require a lot of time and handiwork to get just right. I might have waited half an hour to get a cup. Instead, I decided to get something closer to home. And now I'll admit something that will get me kicked out of the society of "Pretentious Coffee Drinkers and Elitist Coffee Snobs International."  I actually, sometimes, like to get  coffee from our local McDonalds. I saw that the drive through was empty and did a quick racing turn onto the property and up to the ordering kiosk. I ordered a large coffee with two creams and paid a whopping $1.89. Seconds later I was back on the road, redlining with a super hot, large cup of coffee. And the implicit shame of buying coffee from a fast food chain. But in spite of my snobbish pretensions I have to say that, after decades of everyone throwing dark roasts at us consumers, a very smooth, lighter roast was a breath of fresh air. And I also like the shade of deep yellow they use on their cups!

The only thing left on my schedule today is to attend a cocktail reception/happy hour at one of the downtown hotels for the artists who provided the various Gov. Ann Richards photographs for the months long exhibition of work along Congress Ave. Lining both sides of the street between the Colorado River and the state capitol. A calm day for sure. 

So where are we with the far flung L mount systems that seem to be taking over every corner of the studio? 

I am still very happy with the camera bodies from both Leica and Panasonic and find little leverage points for each system that so far have precluded me from reaching some inflection point at which I go all in on one system or the other. I currently have all three of the S1 variants from Panasonic and each has its own strengths. The S1 is that all-arounder camera one hopes for, and it's the bargain of the system. The sensor is great. The latest firmware updates put it into much closer competition with the video-centric, S1H and mine is a bit scuffed up from wear which endears it to me even more. If I could have only one S1-variant it would be the original S1. 

To be honest, after the long and brutal season of making videos for Zach Theatre (stretching from August thru to late December last year) I've gotten less use from the S1H because my brain has tagged it as a video camera and I seem to making a subconscious but active attempt to discourage more video projects at the moment. As the pandemic dragged on I started to absorb the calming introversion that B and B practice and I've become less and less enchanted by the idea of being "a team player." Considering the $$$ I have tied up in the S1H and the lack of use it gets I ought to sell it. But I don't currently need the money and I just know that the minute I pack it up and ship it off the phone will ring and Netflix will want to produce the feature length movie of "The Lisbon Portfolio." They'll ask me to play the lead part, which I will gracefully decline, but I will insist on being one of the camera crews for the additional screen credit. They'll accept knowing how easy it will be to sideline me via editing. And scheduling. I'll suggest Daniel Craig for the lead. That should work. And the S1H is a Netflix "approved" video camera.

So, if I'm going to shoot part of that movie for Netflix I'm going to need that S1H. And besides, I think it's destined to become a classic.

That leaves the S1R, and the presumption on the part of nearly everyone who bought one is that we'd all be printing large and making dramatic crops to all of our photographs. Those things would necessitate the 47+ megapixel sensor and that would quell our concerns about the frame-to-frame speeds. But it never really works out that way and I find myself using the camera interchangeably with the S1 and resizing the files in post or just working it in Jpeg at the 23+ megapixel setting. And while shooting in 23+ I convince myself that the downsampling the camera is doing to get there is reducing noise and artifacts while increasing sharpness. It's a good rationale but I have no idea if it's true in actual practice. 

Doesn't matter as the S1 and S1R are nicely matched. Both have exquisite EVFs that are still pack-leading at resolution and optical quality. All the cameras take the same beefy batteries and I might as well keep the lot as the trade-in value has dropped past the point at which emotional pain would start to kick in. 

I think the S1 series is one of two professional mirrorless systems on the market. The cameras are big and very robust. There's rarely, or never, an issue with overheating or shutdowns and the cameras are a joy to hold. Even the menus aren't off-putting. They don't rival the Leica SL series menus for logic and clarity but there are not exercises in obscure cryptography either. 

And then there are the Leicas. Here I can point to two flaws in my original buyer's strategy. I bought the SL2 first because I assumed that I'd still need a high res camera to work professionally (I have now come to understand, emphatically, that 24 megapixels is the professional sensor size and is just right for almost any job but the most niche). I should have saved a thousand dollars and opted for the newly announced (at the time) SL2-S, which is a beast in its own right. And uses the same structural elements as the SL2. 

But if I had really been on my game I would have started out by buying a mint, used SL (type 601) body and testing the waters. After a good test run I would have found that I actually prefer the personality, and design, and menu/button structure of the SL and could have purchase three really well cared for SLs for the price of one new SL2. 

I've been keeping track of my use habits since having bought two SLs and the new SL2. Since the second SL arrived I've yet to pick up its much pricier and newer sibling (SL2) for anything but a random studio portrait. The SL creates files that really resonate with the way I like to see my digital images. The bodies seem indestructible and they are just eccentric enough to be cult items for me. I can't put them down. And I am worried that by writing this I'll be shooting myself in the foot by popularizing a camera that's so well aligned with my idea of what an "ultimate camera" should be that I feel like I should actively be trying to corner the market instead of enflaming it. 

But I'm trying to go all Buddhist here and resist the desire for always getting more. If the collection of SLs falls down and the cameras eventually fail, or become irreparable, I know I can always replace them with whatever new product is out there from Leica without too much remorse. There's a cherry SL right now at one of the dealers I like and it's taking some effort to resist grabbing "just one more." Which always reminds me of Monte Burns on the TV show, The Simpsons. He is explaining to young Lisa that while he is wildly wealthy: a billionaire, he always wants more. To quote: "....I'd gladly trade it all...for just a little more!"

The Leica SL2 is, in many ways, a perfect camera and therein lies its biggest issue for me. It makes taking  technically really, good images just too easy. Its proficiency takes away the friction which makes the process of doing art work for me. It's like having a cheat sheet for a test. It doesn't feel as though you've succeeded like you would if you really studied. 

I'll just leave it there. 

I'm deep into the lenses now and I'm sure it will drive Leica fans everywhere a bit crazy when I say that  most of the lenses I've come to depend on are either Sigma Art lenses or Panasonic Lumix lenses. There is a core set that's corralled for jobs and serious projects that require pushing for highest quality. The Lumix S-Pro 70-200mm f4.0 is perfect for everything I need at the long end of the range. I was sad not to be able to shoot real theater work all year long because that's why I bought this lens. It's perfect for wide open shooting and the combination of lens and in-body stabilization is perfect for stage lit performances. 

There is a battle going on in the mid-range. For the work lenses it's between the Panasonic 24-105mm, which is under appreciated by nearly everyone, and the newly acquired Sigma 24-70mm f2.8 Art lens. Both are amazing. I seem to have convinced myself that the f2.8 is necessary sometimes but I can't now remember how I talked myself into that when most of my current cameras can shoot at ISO 6400 with aplomb... But I did and now I have both. 

On Friday, for the wine project, I'll be shooting a mix of stills and video. While all the cameras can do both it's easier to set one body up for each different kind of task. For video I need to shoot in a Log format, need to use just the right ISO, need as much image stabilization as I can get; and will be working with a variable neutral density filter on the lens. It's the perfect use case for the S1H + the Panasonic 24-105. Together they provide between five and six stops of image stabilization while covering the complete range of focal lengths I need. I'll set that up and have it ready for quick video captures as we go. And if I never leave f4.0 all day...I'll be happy.

For stills I'll put the 24-70mm Sigma Art on the SL2 and use it for all the wide, and most of the longer, range. I'll set up a second camera; an SL (601) with an 85mm f1.4 Sigma Art lens for those times when I want to get just a bit closer to the subject or when I want more control over "single subject" depth of field. No need for ND on these cameras as they all feature electronic shutters that will go to 1/16,000th of second. I can shoot them wide open in bright light. Another reason to like the SL, especially, is that its native ISO goes all the way to 50 !!!

That's the routine for a very specific work project for a larger ad agency. I'll bring some other stuff but what I've outlined here is the main inventory. Were I shooting only still images on this job I might opt for an even more pared down kit package. I think it would be fun to do a job like this with just two bodies and two lenses. 

A fast 35mm on the SL2 body would give me the ability to be as wide as I usually want to get but with the capability (provided by the sensor resolution) to crop out to 50mm or even 70mm of focal lengths. More or less giving me a 35-70mm prime lens. The second body would be an SL with the 85mm f1.4 on it. While that body has "only" 24 megapixels of resolution I think it's still enough to allow me to crop the field of view down to match a 100mm lens. Boom. All done. Nothing else to drag along. 

I am packing up to do some photography just for me and in that sphere I am drawn to using the two SL bodies and older, manual focus lenses. I have a set of Zeiss lenses in 28mm, 35mm, 50mm and 135mm which I am very happy with. I use them all mostly at one stop down and they are uniformly good. I'd cheat and add the Sigma 65mm f2.0 to this selection just to round out the all important near portrait range. It's a gear change but if the cameras match and the lenses sing it can be so much fun. 

I don't have much left on my "wish list." I'm pretty well equipped for the stuff I like to do. Now I just need to go out the door and do more stuff. There are a lot of people out in the world I haven't met yet. I'd like to meet more of them and make their photographs. 

So, how am I adjusting to the re-opening of Austin and beyond? 

I'm not sure. I seem to have lost a bit of my ability to meet strangers and convince them to collaborate with me in the making of portraits. Maybe I've lost a bit of my enthusiasm or maybe I've lost a bit of my hunger to do stuff. Early in my career the need to make enough money to eat and pay rent was intertwined with the desire to always improve the craft I practiced. Now, with money a less pressing issue it's hard to decouple the art from the imperative of making art. And that can be difficult. It's like removing a carrot. No stick either. But I really think it's like swimming. I've been (metaphorically) out of the pool (of photography) for over a year and it's not as easy as just diving back in and expecting to be in as good a shape as you were when you left off. There is a process of building back up. Getting back in shape. Getting back into a groove. 

There is also hesitancy born from ambiguity. Where do I need to stay masked? Where is it okay not to mask?What are the new protocols of re-engagement? And mostly, I need to constantly be aware that the people I might want to photograph are also emerging from isolation, trauma, loss and other issues that skew us from exactly how we interfaced in the past. Lots to navigate. Lots of empathy required. 

But then again, I don't want to continue forever down this boring path of being a cityscape photographer. It's getting tired for everyone. Especially me. 




6.21.2021

The Clash of Titanic Lens Design Philosophies. Modern versus the quest for perfection.

this is a Lastolite 4 x 6 foot diffusion panel. I use it a lot in the studio.
Right now, during the heat wave, I'm using it to block the strong afternoon
 sun from a direct assault on my living room. It seems like the right tool for the job today.

All lenses are baskets of compromise. It seems that every generation of lens designer is concerned with a different set of variables and outcomes than proceeding designers and understanding this is key to becoming immune to what are almost certainly transient styles in the look given by lenses rather than a sign of radical improvement in the overall quality of them as products. 

I noticed, for example, that with the current big, heavy, fast primes, that the primary objectives seem to be the delivery of lenses with sharpness that extends further across the frames and into the corners, at full aperture, when compared with previous offerings.

By making lenses which feature bigger and bigger maximum apertures, with flat fields, buyers are accepting the trade-offs of having lenses that are much bigger and much heavier than the smaller, slower lenses which were more normal in the past. It's ironic since camera buyers of today are demanding smaller and lighter  cameras than ever before; almost as if a rush to zero weight is somehow a benefit, but one profoundly offset by their lens purchases.

If I compare sizes between f1.4 lenses for mirrorless cameras and equivalent lenses made for SLRs from the 1980's and 1990's it's easy to see that sizes have increased by a lot. I own a handful of manually focusing 50mm f1.4 lenses, acquired over decades, and it's only in the past ten years that they've ballooned up huge, and also graduated to a much higher weight class. Of course, some of this is the result of adding robust auto focusing mechanisms to the newer lenses but it doesn't tell the whole story. 

Older lenses, according to literature I've read, were knowingly designed to be very sharp in the central region, adequately sharp in the middle regions of the frame and allowed, by design parameter, to become less sharp in the corners; at least when used at maximum apertures or close to maximum aperture. 

Knowledgeable photographers who actually needed "flat field" lenses knowingly bought macro lenses which were corrected for flat fields if they needed to shoot flat subjects such as paintings or the sides of houses. But by allowing for less sharp corners didn't mean a lens was less capable. If a well designed lens from the end days of the last century needs to be used to photograph a flat subject much of the time stopping down to f5.6 or f8.0 will render the entire frame with high sharpness. Even the corners. The positive trade off for older designs versus the latest designs is that the previous generation of lenses was constructed to be used in the field; they are small and light enough to be easily transported and more discreet in operation. Having to stop down for so incidences was part of an acknowledged bargain. 

The new generation of large, prime lenses with high speed apertures has ushered in lenses that use 67-82 mm filters and are, as in the case of the Panasonic S-Pro 50mm f1.4, about overall the volume of my Canon, Nikon and Contax Zeiss 50mm f1.4 lenses combined. And the newer lens is actually heavier than all three of them taken together. Yes, it is razor sharp at f1.4, all the way into the corners. Do I shoot it in that mode? Hardly ever. 

As I look at current lens measurements and compare them with older lenses of the same overall parameters (focal length+speed) I note that while the older lenses have sharpness fall off (mostly as a result of lens curvature) from center to corner they compensate by having less geometric distortion and much less vignetting. Since it was impossible to fix lens design compromises, after the fact, with film cameras (no software on film!) the older lenses were designed with the fewest image-oriented compromises. Today, a $5,000, 50mm f1.4 lens might have as much as three stops of vignetting at maximum aperture while a classic lens might only have 1.25%. Yes, on modern cameras, it's possible to correct for each compromise via in camera software but if you want to use older cameras or adapt the new lenses to different platforms you lose some of the advantages you are paying through the nose for. 

Many 50mm lenses of previous generations had simple barrel or pincushion distortion which is easily correctable in post processing while their modern successors have more complex distortion profiles (some called "mustache" distortion) which are much harder to correct in post processing software; outside the current cameras. 

As all of our lenses grow in size and weight, and escalate in price, the real question is whether or not they are visually as pleasant in the final rendering of an images as are the lenses we grew up with, pre-digital. I contend that as they technically became more and more "proficient" they've lost their individual character. Their optical fingerprints which made some lenses long time favorites. Keepers. Gems.

The real question is whether the trade-offs are working to your advantage. I am a portrait photographer. I'm happy to have a bit of sharpness fall offs in the corners of my images because my subjects are in the sweet spots of the imaging circle and the lowered sharpness of the corners is a pleasant way of further separating the sharper subjects from the less sharp backgrounds. 

You must also realize that along with the increases in pricing, etc. you are getting lenses that you are less and less likely to feel comfortable hauling around with you and practicing styles of photography that rely on your mobility and your ability to respond to scenes without too much pre-planning. And to do so inconspicuously. I question whether any but the most driven camera technicians are comfortable hauling around gargantuan lenses while mostly using only a fraction of their potential performance. 

I don't think that lens designers pursued the designs they've recently opted for in a vacuum. I don't think some head designer came in and told his team, "from now on we're emphasizing lens speed over package size." And then foisted the results on unsuspecting consumers. Rather, I think the constraints for the first three or four generations of widely accepted, interchangeable lens camera systems drove consumers to demand more speed. Why? Because, in case you forgot, the first ten years of popular digital camera featured sensors that were very, very noisy at any but their base ISOs. To compensate for lots of icky color noise at ISO 400 or 800 camera makers pressed their teams to make faster and faster lenses. Since camera users wanted cleaner files they went along for the ride. 

It's all pretty ironic since photographers seemed to be able to handle photographing with slower film emulsions and less over-designed lenses in the last years of the last century. Most of the faster lenses in those days were designed to overcome the viewing and focusing limitations of earlier optical viewfinder cameras. As light dropped it became harder and harder to focus on the focusing screens of the time so users bought the faster lenses in order to put more light onto the screens and to focus at those brighter, maximum apertures and then stop down, or let the cameras automatically stop down, to a smaller shooting aperture that made for better overall picture quality. The limited depth of field as a result of focusing wide open helped accentuate what was in focus and what was not.

An interesting question would be whether or not the faster current lenses, with wide open apertures, drove the pictorial style of using very shallow depth of field or if that style was always there, in potential, but only realized as a result of lens "progress." 

Now that the race for less noisy digital camera sensors seems to have been won by new sensor tech from Sony and others it will be interesting to see if there is a reverse trend back to more compact and size appropriate lens development. The Sigma i Series of f2.0 prime, Contemporary lenses sure points to this direction --- and is being quickly copied by Sony...and others. 

Another point of interest for me is whether the ability to put lens profiles into camera software is driving lens design or not. I think of the choices Leica seems to be making with their SL lens line. They seem to be designing for flat field and high resolution. The files I see from their systems are both contrasty and highly detailed but I wonder how much of the mix is driven by the in camera or lens-delivered processing software which optimizes the final, visual performance of the lenses. 

It's hard to design for both high contrast and high resolution simultaneously but while resolution is mostly determined by the physical properties of the lens design and construction while contrast, and even micro contrast, can be augmented with really good software or firmware design. Contrast can be ramped according to taste and branded, engineered looks. The higher the basic resolution the more micro-contrast can be tweaked in camera. But in the absence of an in-camera or post "look" or "lens profile" do the lenses still deliver the goods? I haven't tried it with a contemporary Leica lens but it would be interesting to use one on a camera, in a raw format, with no profile applied. I would conjecture that the lenses would still deliver high resolution and corner sharpness but the color and contrast would be different and perhaps less distinct from very similar, competitors' products. 

I would also presume that while the sharpness and detail would be maintained that in the absence of the embedded profiles the images straight out of camera would show higher degrees of both distortion and vignetting. In wider lenses to an even greater degree. 

Which brings me back to why I tumbled down this rabbit hole in the first place. Last week I'd taken the Sigma 35mm Art lens for L-mount out on a photo walk and worked at what I consider to be its most favorable aperture (if you are looking for the least vignetting, the highest sharpness, the least computational correction, etc.) which most published tests indicate is around f4.0. The photographs were uniformly great. Sharp, contrasty and with very nice, saturated colors. 

I did the same basic routine yesterday with the much more traditional, older, much smaller and lighter, and one stop slower, Zeiss ZF 35mm f2.0. While each lens delivered a different "look" the technical performance results were amazingly similar. They presented files that are equally sharp, and equally detailed. Even at 200% there are scant differences in the amounts of detail rendered. One defining difference was the more airy and open feel of the Zeiss lens. Not a significant difference but enough to make me realize that even in this age of being able to measure everything there are different "characters" associated with different lenses.

I'm sure if I had tried each lens at f2.0 the Zeiss would not resolve corners as well. And, as I got closer and closer to a flat surface subject I'm sure the gradation from sharp to soft; center-to-corner would grow demonstrably worse. The Sigma would outperform in that test. But does that make it the uncontested winner if your use case is to carry a 35mm lens with you everywhere and to shoot mostly at f4.0 and f5.6? Would the nearly twice as heavy, and 50% bigger, Sigma still hold your affections to the same degree?

And that, my friends, is lens design compromise in a nutshell. 

The most glaring examples of over-design versus pleasant handling and look trade-offs come via a comparison of two products of close to the same focal length from one Company. Sigma has a 40mm f1.4 Art lens that's enormous and brutally heavy. I venture to say that a person working, handheld, with one of these would toss in the towel after half an hour of carrying it around. Overwrought is the word that comes to mind...

In contrast Sigma also makes a 45mm f2.8 lens that's small, light weight and a joy to carry around. The use cases are phenomenally different but is one lens "better" than the other? And how does the potential of the camera and the lens profiles factor in? I voted, rationally, with my credit card, I have two of the 45mm f2.8 lenses and zero of the giant 40mm f1.4 Art lenses. While there might be ten or fifteen times in a year that I could even make use of a 40mm, shot wide open, there are daily cases when I can and do happily use a 45mm f2.8 lens stopped down to f5.6. I've never given any consideration to spending a thousand dollars more, or getting a gym membership so I can train to power lift a lens. 

The compromises in lens design are partly (mostly?) a result of consumers clamoring for what they think they want in order to solve a technical problem in the moment. The longer term issue comes with the amount of time it takes to design and deliver a new style of product to market. In the case of lenses many of the high speed lenses hit the market only after the sensor noise issues were largely solved. 

I personally like lenses with high center sharpness and I'm always pretty happy to trade extravagant resolution and flat field for more image contrast and less native distortion. And I'm even happier to have lenses that need to be physically focused because they don't contribute to battery drain or laziness. But an even higher priority is a lens that's easy and fun to carry.

Let's tackle image stabilization next time. Thanks for reading,  Kirk
Blanton Museum. Sculpture in the upstairs gallery. 
S1R in monochrome. 

Ellsworth Kelly Chapel at UT Austin.







 

Moving on to "Father's Day Lens Gifts." Anybody get some?


For some reason Father's Day was a blast this year. I slept in. I made perfect coffee. Belinda made my favorite chocolate cake with walnuts. The Father's Day cards were perfect and hilarious. Ben was in charge of dinner and made ridiculously good New York Strip Steaks exactly medium rare, diet-busting macaroni and cheese, and a salad with a hint of BBQ taste to it. He paired the extravagant dinner with a bottle of Leviathan red wine (an insanely good blend...) and lured me off my "no alcohol" stance for just one day. And it was worth it...

All that was great but I also gave myself permission to pick out (and pay for) my own Father's Day present, you know, to reward myself for all the hard work I do for the family (highest degree of sarcasm intended, the whole place seems to have settled into running well on auto-pilot). So, after a spartan lunch (anticipating supper) I headed over to my favorite optical candy shop to pick up a lens I'd seen languishing on the shelves for the last couple of months. 

Backtracking: Carl Zeiss, the lens making company that routinely gives Leica a run for the money, made some fun and interesting lenses back closer to the turn of the century. They came out with a series of lenses with mounts for Nikon F, Canon EOS and Pentax K in a range of focal lengths and maximum apertures. Many are still available new! All were made initially as "dumb" lenses, later updated to interface with metering in the Canons and Nikons but all were realized as manual focusing only lenses. In the days of DSLRs they were harder to focus via the optical viewfinders in the various cameras (focusing screens optimized for bright viewing and AF, NOT for careful manual focusing). Mirrorless cameras have changed all that by offering easy ways to magnify the frame while focusing which makes for quicker and more accurate focus. Most mirrorless cameras even feature focus peaking for quicker street photography focusing action. 

I tried their 85mm f1.4 lens years ago but it was on a Nikon D800 and focusing was always hit and miss. I gave up and bought a Nikon AF 85 instead but still remember how nice the images from the massive Zeiss lens were when all the photo gods allowed random moments of precise focusing...

I'd seen this poor, orphaned Zeiss 35mm f2.0 ZF (Nikon) lens moping dejectedly at Precision Camera weeks or months ago. It seems as though most photographers had given up on DSLRs and were overlooking a lens that couldn't be used with AF or, without an adapter, on a Z body. I walked in on Sunday afternoon and snapped it up. I already had several Nikon to L-mount adapters on standby so I rigged it up, slapped it on a Panasonic S1R and ventured out into the smothering heat and humidity and tested it out to see if it was as good as I remembered the good photographers saying it was, back in the day. 

It's a great lens. I like the character of it even better than the Sigma 35mm f1.4 Art lens I have been shooting with. And I almost always prefer manual focusing; it's so engaging. I feel like I'm actually participating in the process of making photographs!

This lens joins a little family of Zeiss lenses that I've collected over the years. The others were all made for the Contax/Yashica system but the look of the images has family resemblances. Snappy contrast, lower native distortion and vignetting than more "modern" lenses and a range of optical trade-offs that are different than current lens design philosophies. I like them. All of them. 

The lens was inexpensive and worked perfectly in "A" mode with the Panasonic S1R camera. All the images were shot as medium resolution Jpegs (about 23 megapixels) and very lightly processed. Generally just a mild lifting of the shadows. 

I've moved the lens over to one of the Leica SLs now and I'm waiting for the heat to break before doing a daylong dive into the combo. I'm thinking a shooting trip to San Antonio is called for. Might as well get out of town for a day of street photography. Now I just need to carve out time...











My new friend, Ajax. Just chilling with one of his pals on 2nd St. 




 Please consider clicking on these images to see them bigger instead of clicking on some links to buy stuff.

If you happened to reward yourself, or better yet were rewarded for good Father behavior by someone else, with any sort of lens, I'd be interested in reading about it. Let me know. 

till then I'm zoning out with my cameras.

Critical Summer (and winter) Photo Gear: Hats.

 


Tax policy, the best tasting beer, the right way to do a flip turn, the best show on Netflix, the proper temperature at which to serve Chardonnay, favorite color, favorite sport. You can reasonably argue about these things and not seem deranged but start a conversation among photographers about which hats to wear while working outdoors and, my friends, you have opened a can of worms that will turn ugly quick. 

I won't say I got death threats after denouncing the "Tilley-Ugly-Hat" phenomenon but I did get some heated e-mail. Imagine having time to rush to the defense of a hat which, sartorially, doesn't fit in anywhere and currently costs about $90. It just doesn't make sense. And while the "Tilley" is silly because of the cost-to-performance ratio, and the general look, it just gets called out because it's a lightning rod for a plethora of poorly chosen hats. 

Case in point (and modeled here by VSLs most attractive employee) are the ubiquitous bucket hats. It's hard to make a case for these. But I'll pause here and say, unequivocally, that if you are working in the sun I'd rather you wear any of these hats and have the protection on the tops of your ears, your scalps and most of your face than not to wear a hat at all. It's just that you can to better. 

I'll agree with many that have written in that, if you are retired and happily married, you can wear whatever hat you want to and, even if it is a public eyesore, it's nobody's business but yours. But if you are currently trying to attract a mate or a job you may find that an ugly hat is a good way to stay single and underemployed. It's my sad duty to tell you that, in most situations, the way things look matters almost as much as the way things work. And it's important to understand that there are much more attractive hats on the market which also function just as well. Take a friend with a good sense of fashion along with you when you shop. Let them have veto power over your worst instincts. Find the guy from your past who talked you out of buying that Yugo you thought was a "nifty" bargain. Or take the old girlfriend who talked you out of buying the polyester leisure suit back in the 1970's. And the platform Dingo boots. 

If you want to buy a hat that is functional and also decent to look at take along a "lifeguard" to deter your worst instincts, like the room mate who cautioned you against giving up and buying only pants with elastic waistbands. 

I keep this bucket hat (see pix above and below) around as a reminder that things can always get worse. It's also fun to put on in order to tease my millennial son. But even someone as clueless as me would never presume to wear this around a client... it's a sheer business repellant.

To summarize: It's good and smart to wear a hat in the Summer. It's better to wear a hat that provides shade for the back of your neck and the tops of your ears so a wide brim is preferred. Skin cancer is serious; if you have no other option then the Tilley hat or bucket hat is so much better than no hat at all. Wear one until you have time to shop for something better. And then buy it. 

The only option where a poorly chosen hat is welcome is if all your time is spent fishing, hiking (in the wild), mountain climbing or any activity that joins you with other people in your niche demographic. Then, it's probably just fine to wear Dad Meme Hats. The rest of the time, and especially around people of all different ages, let's try to have a little pride in appearance. Won't you help the world look just a little better?

By the way, the Tilley hat people have a sales pitch which includes the fact that their hats float if they get dropped onto the water. I'm sure that many who receive them as unwanted gifts wish that they did not float...it would spare so many hurt feelings. 
Of course, I am mostly kidding here. I think that the protection a hat provides is 95% of its relevance. I really don't care which hat people wear. There will always be differences in taste. And different use cases. I was being silly when I wrote this but I always do wear some kind of protective hat whenever I'm out in the Texas sun; Summer or Winter. As global warming marches on and gets stronger and stronger we may as well start stocking in a variety of hats. Then we can choose the right hat for the right situation. 

The fact that I even own a bucket hat should prove I'm (mostly) just teasing about hats photographers of a certain age seem to gravitate towards. But, as a friend said recently, 'the Tilley Hat is the Black Rapid Strap of photo hats'. Goes perfectly with the photo vest and the fanny pack. One step from "crazy uncle" status.




6.20.2021

Another profile article. Just in time for Father's Day. But you already know what's in the article...

 https://www.precision-camera.com/blog/local-austin-photographer-spotlight-kirk-tuck/

My "Dad Credentials." 
Early version of Ben.

The nice people at Precision Camera asked if they could interview me. Who turns down free press? It's a re-hash of stuff you've probably read from me before but I thought it was nice of them to give me yet another soapbox for opinions. It's nice.

Added: Michael Matthews wrote a comment below to let me know that Malaysian photographer, Robin Wong, posted a video podcast about various subject but led off with a presentation of two photographers who inspire him. Guess who he picked as his first up? Yep. Moi. Must be my day to shine!!!


The intro starts around 1:30 and the portion about me starts at 2:36. I've always admired Robin's street photography and I'm blushing because of the really nice things he shares here. 

Thanks Robin!!! 

Happy Father's Day!


 Reflecting back on the whole process of being a father I have to say with emphatic enthusiasm: I'm so glad I didn't miss out on this. Being a father is probably the only really meaningful thing I've pursued in my otherwise self-indulgent, adult life. 

I never made a vast fortune---but I never missed one of the boy's swim meets, track meets, karate lessons, teacher conferences, or opportunities to be the volunteer photographer for his classes. I never solved the riddle of being famous or adored --- but I was there for emergencies like the two broken arms (both happened at school and in both situations I cancelled photoshoots shoot in mid-session, rushed to the school, provided first aid and then got the kid to a hospital; I waited to faint until he was in recovery). I never got that Nobel Prize in Physics/Poetry but I did help my kid master all his math classes and encouraged him to read the classics. I never got around to buying that Porsche, Bentley, Aston Martin, sailboat, etc. but I did save money every month from the time the kid was still in diapers so I could pay for his four (highly successful) years at a great, private college. My kid never went hungry, never missed a dentist appointment, never got left out of any program because it was too expensive. Never went without running shoes. 

I was feeling pretty good about Father's Day today. I wondered how I got to be a halfway decent father. And then I remembered just how good a mentor I had for most of my life. My own dad never missed a step, never complained about getting up at 5 am every weekday morning to get me to swim practice, was never too busy to listen, never bought anything fancy till all three of his kids graduated from top universities, which he paid for in full. And he loved my mom for his entire grown up life.  I learned from the best. I'm so appreciative.

6.19.2021

Acclimatizing Walk. Yesterday. Random Photographs. A requested paragraph or two about what I carry and how I carry it. Happy Saturday. Happy Juneteenth.

Red Door. 

A reader asked, in an e-mail, how I carry my stuff when I go out for a "photo-walk." I thought a response would be fun. Here goes:

Packing to go out and work for a client and packing to go for a self-directed walk, for my own amusement are two completely different things. For the client-centric work I want to have everything I could possibly need to to a job well. Even for a simple event job; like a reception in the lobby bar of the Four Seasons Hotel I would pack a camera bag. It would be a larger Domke bag and it would contain the primary camera, a back-up camera for just in case, a wide angle to short telephoto zoom lens, a long zoom, a secondary wide-to-not-so-wide zoom as a redundant, failsafe back-up lens, two identical flashes. One flash to use and one to allay fears of failure. Twice the number of memory cards I should need. And, finally, gobs of charged batteries for the cameras and the flashes. 

Most of the gear, except the shooting camera, one lens and one flash, would spend the event sitting in the bag, on a chair someplace where I could both keep an eye on it and also access it in the event that I needed to change out any piece of gear at the first sign of failure.

I use a standard neck strap on the cameras and carry a single camera over my left shoulder when I'm not actively using it. When I am engaged with the camera I use the strap as a neck strap with the weight of the rig spread across the back of my neck. In the past I might have used two cameras with a wide prime lens on one and an 85mm lens on the other but now it no longer makes much sense. The zooms are quicker, and for social photography the quality of the zooms is far beyond that required by the job.

Conversely, when I go out just for myself, I routinely ditch most of the gear. I select one camera and one lens and put one extra camera battery in my left pocket. The camera has a conventional shoulder or neck strap. I wear the strap over my left shoulder while I'm walking and not shooting. I leave everything I don't need at home or in my car. I almost never walk with a phone, extra lenses, camera bags, water bottles, juice boxes, fanny packs, backpacks or anything that adds weight or makes me question my initial choice of gear. If I've chosen incorrectly then there is always tomorrow.

The exception to this are days when rain is strongly forecasted. Then I bring a bag just big enough to encase the camera and lens. But not always. Sometimes I just toss a small, plastic bag in my back pocket. If it rains hard I can put the camera in lens in the bag and wait for the storm to pass.

I have some personal prejudices about gear and how to carry it. For example, I find the single point connected straps, meant be worn over one shoulder and across one's torso, such as "Black Rapids" to be offensive and unsightly. Anything worn diagonally across one's chest just sends signal flares up all over the place that scream: PHOTO NERD. Wearing a strap that way means you don't care about how your shirt looks scrunched up underneath and you don't care about suspending an expensive camera upside down with only one, single anchor point. Anything that can screw into the bottom plate of your camera is equally capable of becoming unscrewed and subjecting your gear to the vicious action of gravity. As I've heard so often... If you accidentally bought one perhaps you can still return it.

Wear your unused camera over one shoulder, with a standard camera strap anchored at two points (as designed and engineered by the camera maker!). When using your camera just wrap the strap loosely around your right wrist and hold the camera in your right hand. When you actually take photographs bring your left hand into play and use it to stabilize everything. The camera and portage accessories should be discreet, not banners or loud visual manifestos of your intention to "hunt down" unsuspecting photo opportunities with no regard to your personal aesthetic or appearance. You should be part of the flow in the street and not a visual roadblock for those around you.

By the same token, unless I knew I would spend the entire day absolutely alone and away from civilization I would never wear a white, Tilley branded hat. They are as bad a cliché as a photo vest with lots of pockets and at least as anti-fashionable. I'm sure a small number of you will write in and take me to task for caring about "how things look" and will tell me they don't care at all how they appear in public. You can believe that with every fiber of your being but to me that's just like saying, "I don't bathe. And I fart at will in crowded spaces." I think we all have an ethical obligation not to make the world uglier if we can do something to help. To "not care about anybody else's comfort" borders on sociopathy. 

Someone asked about water bottles. "Yes" on a remote trail walk but "no" on an urban walk. There's always a shop or store or bodega that can furnish you with water at a low cost, or no cost. Why drag around another couple pounds of stuff? Hydrate before you leave home or your car. Things like Camelbacks, etc. are for trail hiking in national parks, not for a jaunt through a friendly urban area.

I've experimented with wrist straps and like the concept but for my lifestyle the need to pull out a wallet and pay for coffee or...water....means that the wrist strap is an encumbrance while a shoulder or neck strap allows you to "park" the camera while you do other things which are important in the moment. Also, should you need to use a restroom (WC, toilet, etc) you can park your camera over your shoulder on a strap, but would have to put a wrist-strapped camera down on some surface. Often the available surfaces in public facilities are questionable. Wouldn't it be better to have the camera suspended from your shoulder?

I'm sure everyone will have a different take but these are my basics. I don't look at an adventure in downtown as a "once in a lifetime" experience and will have no regrets if I don't have all the focal lengths from 8mm to 800mm available to me just in case. Make a walk a repeatable habit and you can hone in better on favorite focal lengths and cameras. You don't have to handle everything in one go.

And, for me, a large part of walking around is just looking, without a camera in my face, at stuff that educates me about culture but may not be particularly photo-worthy. If my intention is tightly bound to always being photographing I miss out on the "just looking" part. And I miss stuff. If we try too hard we fail. If we try just enough we take the stress out of the project and allow for more chance. And that's good stuff.



Intelligentsia in the afternoon.


Camping out at the city council building is coming to an end...



Pop up make-up showcase comes to downtown.





Jo's has re-opened. A good, secondary source of coffee and 
free ice water. In a cup. With a straw.

mirrored ball in a shop window on Second Street.