Brain fried after a week of retouching and compositing portrait files for two different clients. Be careful what you bid....

 Ab Astris Winery. Grape Harvest. Summer 2021.

Camera: Sigma fp

Lens: Sigma 24-70mm f2.8

Over the last several weeks I had a couple of clients who really wanted to get a bunch of environmental portraits done of their people. When I talked to the people requesting the photos they each suggested that they really liked environmental shots done either outdoors or in various locations that were indoors but showed the outdoors through windows. 

When we first started talking the temperatures in Austin were already stultifying. In fact, we just set a new record last week for the highest average temperatures in a seven day week. Our average temperature (coolest night time and hottest daytime - averaged) was 92.5° Fahrenheit. Over the last week, during working hours, the high temps ranged from 110° and 105°. And we are not living in a super dry desert; we bundle the heat with the humidity for heat indexes as high as 115°. 

After talking to both sets of clients I realized we needed to deal with two different issues. One client wanted all outdoor shots and the heat made that ... inadvisable. No matter where we shot in Austin anyone in work clothes would have to get to a good location and there were none we know of (or that the client liked) where someone could drive up in an un-air conditioned car, hop out, get photographed in a few minutes and then leap back into the comfort of their still running vehicle and drive away. So we needed a solution for shooting exterior Texas location portraits without dragging employees into the great, baking outdoors. Otherwise I'd need to take a crash course in retouching sweat covered faces and melting make-up. 

The solution I presented was to photograph each employee against a light, neutral background, in an air conditioned space, and then drop them into a previously shot image from one of the environmental backgrounds we all agreed we liked. So that's the way I photographed them. A bunch of people on soft white seamless and then a bunch of actual location backgrounds from a quasi corporate location. I brushed off the whole process of doing convincing composites as being "easy as pie"; especially when armed with the new selection tools in PhotoShop. 

With the second group we didn't have to discuss much to get them "on the bus" when it came to photographing everyone inside. In fact, it worked well for them because they had their annual board meeting at a local hotel and were happy to rent an extra conference room there and schedule all of their people into a four hour time chunk of time. The bigger challenge was getting a good selection of background images that represented corporate environments and which would also read well when made out-of-focus so we could keep the attention on the human subjects. 

The shoots came off without much of a hitch. I did learn one thing that was interesting to me. I've heard for years from other photographers that some lenses are just too sharp to use when taking portraits. I never really experienced that, or believed that, before. But with both of these portrait sessions, just days apart, I used the new (to me) Panasonic/Leica 42.5mm f1.2 short telephoto lens on the new GH6. Okay. The lens is too sharp for portraiture. When I opened the files in Photoshop they revealed every nook and cranny and every pore on every face. In the raw conversions the preset for sharpening is something like +40. I had to set the sharpening during raw conversion to "off" (or zero). Anything else was just cruel. 

I've been making portraits of people on locations for .... decades. I have that part of the process down. But the part that's relatively new to me is compositing something like 32 different people's images onto a collection of backgrounds of office interiors, industrial exteriors and general corporate environments. 

I bid a day to do the post production work on the second job. It took two full days of sitting in front of my computer fixing double chins, getting rid of layer matting, matching colors and general contrasts, and even just trying out a certain background with a certain person and quickly realizing that the two images just didn't resonate well with each other --- which sent me back to the "selected backgrounds" folder to try a few other options instead. 

I'd never really admit it to a client but a lot of the time was spent using the liquify tools to take the appearance of weight off various subjects. That, and fixing double chins were the two most time intensive parts of the process but I'm happy to let people believe that I'm just really good at lighting them well. I never really want to explain just how much retouching actually gets done on some photographs. It would be borderline cruel. 

I delivered the files to both clients this week. The bigger job just went out yesterday, at the end of the work day. I took a few notes:

I'll never bid a project with intensive post processing without first testing the procedures I'm going to use first, and keeping track of just how much time each image will take. Especially the worst case scenarios. I thought I could ballpark it but I guessed wrong. I'm also out of practice at sitting still for long periods of time and my attention would wander over to that newish pair of hiking boots in the corner....and the lovely camera and lens on the edge of my desk. And that hot dusty trail that might need human company...

So, why would I put myself through this work stuff? Why not just stop working and retire? Hmm. When you've built a client base and have been successful at raising prices to at least keep up with inflation there's always the lure of potentially living from your cash flow. You may have saved up a huge nest egg of cash and you may have done so well that you'll never run out, but if you've been running a business for decades, and living completely from the cash flow that the business generates, then actually accessing your own savings instead is a new and painful process that has (yet) to be mastered. And I'm not about to learn this new trick yet. Especially when the markets are down.

I know my brain well enough that I can almost hear the little hamster wheel spin when I think about which jobs to accept and which ones to pass on. Knowing our family's general burn rate and also my general tolerance, or intolerance, for being trapped by scheduled work I'm always looking for jobs that can be completed in three days or less which have the potential to return enough in fees to cover one month of our minimum burn rate. If I can consistently do three days (or a few more) in a month and hit the needed budget then that's one more month that retirement investments can remain in their accounts and create more future money. "Photographers become exhausted. Their money never gets tired of working...." (Robert Adams).

The balance is to find the types of jobs, and the clients who have the jobs, that provide a good working base. The other part of the balance is to get rid of the clients whose jobs you don't enjoy, who don't want to pay what you need to offset your burn rate with the least amount of long term work or commitment. 

Next time I'll know to bid more on the post processing part of a job. It's part of the ever-present segment of the learning curve. 

Oh, and next time I shoot a portrait for a client I'll find a less over-achieving lens with which to do it.

The Nocticron is great for shooting gritty, contrasty, ultra sharp art portraits and photos but there's no instance in which I would describe it as "flattering." 

Learning to live well with the heat. Or in spite of the heat. Pray for our fellow humans in the UK. They are about to experience the same kind of intense heat wave but, for the majority, without the gift of air conditioning.... Yikes.


Morning out with a Leica TL2 and the Sigma 24mm f3.5 lens; complete with an L mount...


automation comes to Barton Springs Pool. 
Pre-purchasing tickets speeds up the line to get in. 
Having a pool pass makes things even quicker.

It's a little after noon and the heat index is already at 109°. That's okay. I got out earlier this morning when it was still a brisk and cool 90°. Complete with a refreshing four mile per hour breeze --- but only if you were walking a 15 minute per mile pace...

As reflects my ever advancing chronological age I was able to park in front of Barton Springs Pool courtesy of my newly acquired "Senior Season Pool Pass." It's good for free admission to all of the Austin public pools and an added bonus is a hang-tag for the car that gives the holder free parking as well. Double bonus. 

I wanted to walk before noon because my TL2 came to me in a dream during the night (I blame the full moon) and indicated that I wasn't using it enough. It felt neglected. I can understand. There are only so many days in a week and there are so many cameras that need walking around. So after early swim practice and a meager first breakfast I put on some long pants, grabbed a big hat, slapped on some sunscreen and headed out the door. Oh yeah. I also took the TL2 outfitted with Sigma's dandy little 24mm f3.5 Contemporary lens. A far more amiable package than the Art series 24mm 1.4 and the big SL2. 

I really liked being able to park near the pool since it's on the hike and bike trail around Lady Bird Lake. It's a good spot to start a walk from and an even better end point for a long walk on a hot day. 

I've gotten better at dealing with cameras that have no eye level finders or EVFs. I even had luck today shooting in bright sunlight. I guess it's a matter of training oneself. It's not my preferred way of shooting but it's not as odious a routine as I once suggested. Either that or rear LCD panels have gotten a lot better. 

A quick shot before starting my walk. Pool attendance was brisk today. 
And remember, if you want to come and swim laps for free you can do so between 
five a.m. and eight a.m. It's not crowded then either. But there are no 
guards and there are no underwater lights. Keep clear of the sides 
in the dark so the snakes don't get you......

One silver lining to the tremendous heat is that as the day goes along
there is less and less traffic on the walking trails. 

funny. That building wasn't there last time I looked...

I am enjoying the colors I get out of the .DNG files from the TL2
They are also very easy to work with in post. Lots of D.R.

Just on the other side of the bridge is the spot where a garbage truck driver 
tried to take the curve too fast and lost control of his huge vehicle. It skidded over
the curb and right into the hike and bike trail just as then governor, George Bush, was jogging by the same spot with his security entourage. The truck missed him by "that much."
And now we'll never know what history would have been like if we hadn't been 
manipulated into attacking Iran's arch-enemy, Iraq. Only to find that,
just like voter fraud, there were no weapons of mass destruction....
Thanks George. It's a Wonderful Life.

The 24mm lens and the TL2 body work seamlessly together. 
The angle of view is much like that of a 35mm on a full frame camera.

At the end of a long walk I was hot, tired, covered with sweat and a bit drained from the heat. But since I parked across from the pool and I had a brand new pass I.D. card in the car, I tossed my camera, wallet and pocket junk into the car (don't ever try this in San Francisco...), grabbed my swim pass and headed into the pool. Minutes later I slid into the 68° water and could actually feel my core temperature dropping minute by minutes. Once I felt good and cold I got dressed and headed back to the neighborhood on the daily search for coffee. Oh, and a blueberry bran muffin. Second breakfast. Now heading for lunch...

My first attempts with the Leica TL2 were misguided. I tend to treat every camera as I would a professional camera. I expect to spend time intervening in the settings, carefully examining the frames, adding my input where I felt it was appropriate. But the TL2 isn't like a Nikon D850 or even a Leica CL. It's really designed, I think, to be about as welcoming of "outside" instruction as a cellphone or an artist. 

I've decided that the optimal way to use the TL2 is to consider it a smartphone without any telephony capability. You trade the ability to make phone calls and trade on the stock market for a bigger sensor and interchangeable lenses but your approach to this camera should be the same as your approach to your iPhone. Wake the camera up, point it at the subject you'd like to capture, half press the shutter button to focus and then....commit. 

I have my TL2 now set up to shoot Raw+Jpeg Fine. AWB. S-AF. Single Frame. Auto-ISO. I point, make sure the green square lights up and then shoot. That's it. I never check a histogram but that's because I permanently have the camera set for minus two thirds of a stop with the exposure compensation. I figure if the frame is too dark I can easily fix it in post. This is, for all intents and purposes, a point and shoot camera; the iPhone of mini-cameras, etc. If you want to be more serious in your pursuits you might want to consider something more festooned with controls.

At some point my obvious contrarian nature will rear up and present itself by taking this small camera (with no finder) and putting the biggest and most expensive lens on the front of it. Something that absolutely dwarfs this little box. Then I will attempt to shoot a big and complex project with the odd and totally counterintuitive pairing. Stay tuned. 

For now I'm getting comfortable learning to enjoy this little camera in the way I think it was designed to be operated --- and enjoyed.

Also learning to ignore (for the most part) the heat and get on with life. It's all a mindset. 


Just remembering the great bar at Manuel's Restaurant on Congress Ave.


We shot more than a few ad campaigns there. It's been closed since the beginning of the pandemic. The north location is open. I keep wondering if the (hugely popular) downtown location will ever come back. 

Cameras and martinis. A good photographic combination. Add in great Tex-Mex food and you're set.

Untitled. Shot as a three story tall background for a Stephen Dietz play. A play with a constant reference to Jack Kerouac and "On the Road."


Erin Barlow. "Honey."

The photo looked great when it was projected thirty or forty feet tall. At the rear of the stage. We also projected video in exactly the same image style. It was nicely slow motion.


Portrait from 1979. Scanned from a print.


B. 1979

Everyone was beautiful and mysterious back then. It was a time before the "great rush" of life. The cellphones, the overnight delivery expectation. The instant "proof" on the rear screen of a camera. People had time to work on stuff and to sit for a while in conversation. Wish we could just grab some giant handle somewhere and slow everything back down. 

rumor on the web today is that Nikon (and by extension, Canon) are fully exiting the DSLR camera market. Now more moving mirrored mainstream cameras. I guess the real question is: "Does anybody care?" 


Visualizing Cooler Weather. Thanks Jennifer.

Jennifer heading out to ski.

On film. Hassleblad Camera. 180mm Carl Zeiss lens.

The weather people were all over the map. Predictions of another 110° day and dire warnings about the fragility of the electrical grid. It did get up to 105° but then, around 3:30 pm, we got a cooler front in from the West and even enjoyed about 17 minutes of mild rain. And a bit of wind. Nothing dramatic but in the space of thirty minutes we had a temperature drop of about ten degrees. And that was most welcome. 

Snow skiing. Yep. That's what I'm visualizing in the late afternoon. Goggles ready. Now we just need snow.


How is that new (to me) Leica CL holding up? How well does it work with the Sigma Contemporary 18-50mm f2.8 lens? Images from today's walk at 108°. Kinda stupid to do that....

Update: It officially hit 110° Fahrenheit today in Austin. 
Forecasting the same or higher for tomorrow.  

In case you can't tell I really like the color and sharpness of the files that come from the CL. These are all Jpeg files so my assessment includes that. The quality of the Jpegs is really good. And it's fun to have a small, light camera as an amiable companion. I'd buy it again. Oh....I did. 

This is Jo's Coffee on S. Congress. 
It's basically a giant kiosk in which coffee is made and tacos, pastries and sandwiches are sold.
There is no internal dining and no air conditioning. 
That didn't slow down business on this hot afternoon. But...
why would it? I mean....Coffee. 

Bad mural on the side of Hopdoddy's burger restaurant.
They are not good with marketing. They stay in business because
the burgers and fries are very good.

Oh look! Colors.

Oh Look! A 1966 Buick Skylark.

What do crazy people with cameras do on a day that's so hot the weather service is "strongly" recommending we stay inside? I can only speak for myself....

Update: It officially hit 110° Fahrenheit today in Austin. 
Forecasting the same or higher for tomorrow.  

Joseph. A fellow photographer hanging out at Jo's Coffee, sporting a nice, new
Sony A7R4 and some cool lens with an ND filter on the front. The heat doesn't 
bother him. He's from Louisiana...

You know how northerners and Canadians sometimes say stuff like: "It was so hot I could have fried an egg on the pavement."? And then they go on to say they really knew someone who actually did crack open an egg on the asphalt, in the hot sun and, by God! it actually fried. Took a while but it cooked. 

In Austin today I saw families over at the park putting ten pound briskets on the black top in the parking lots and cooking them to a medium rare in about 20 minutes. A 20 pound roast took a little longer... No need to boil water for coffee today, just put the kettle out in the sun for a few minutes and then bring it in and do your pour over. But be sure to use your oven mitts. Oh Hell! What am I saying? You might as well take those oven mitts with you everywhere. You might need to touch a door handle or pick up dropped car keys off the street. 

How hot is it here? Well, we had to cut morning swim practice a bit short because the water was starting to bubble and it got hard to see through the rising steam... One real danger is that it might get so hot that one's tires melt and the car gets stuck on the road. I'll stop now....

 But right now, at 3:33 p.m. it's already 108°
Look at the detail below. If you factor in the humidity 
the heat index spikes up to 115°
That's just nasty in anybody's book. 

Apocalyptic screen captures
 from the weather app on my phone.

It's interesting. We've seen these kinds of temperatures for the last few days but it's worse today than I've felt it in years. It's weather that's our equivalent of a blizzard day up in the north. We mostly get stuck in the house, praying that the baby Jesus doesn't decide to deliver a death blow to the Texas electrical grid, patting ourselves on the back for replacing every window in the house this Spring with multi-pane, UV coated, Space Shuttle grade windows, and checking to make sure we paid that last utility bill. In short, we....or at least I...have been hanging close to the air conditioning for so long I was starting to get cabin fever.

And there was a fresh and mostly untouched Leica CL hanging around that needed some love. And I bought a new polarizer for the Sigma 18-50mm f2.8. And, of course, I constantly delude myself into thinking that I'm still 25 years old, still in good enough shape to run a marathon and practical enough that I'll know when I've had enough exposure to the sun and will head back indoors before permanent damage sets in... Ah the delusions under which we operate. Mortality cozies up closer than I give it credit for...

About 11:30 a.m. I made sure I had a fresh memory card inserted and formatted in the most recently arrived Leica CL. I cleaned the front of the attached polarizing filter and put an extra battery in my pants pocket. Right next to my ring of keys. Then I fired up the Formula 500 Edition Subaru Forester and pointed it toward Austin's most popular Sunday gathering area; once a hot bed of state legislators cruising for prostitutes but now the red hot shopping and dining area know as "South Congress." Or, as no doubt influenced by the truncated language skills of UK inhabitants: "SoCo." (From the people who also brought you: "Uni", "Journos", "togs" "bangers and mash", and --- the hellish game of snooker). 

I parked at the far south end of the mile long retail/dining strip, crossed over to the popular side of the wide street and started walking with the idea that, since it is so damn hot, I'd make it to Jo's Coffee and then throw in the sweat soaked towel and head back to the car with a handful of images to play with for later. You know, for when it really gets hot. Some time around 5-ish.

I think, for many of the people I saw while I was out walking, the brain damage from the heat already happened. I saw couples and foursomes huddled into whatever shade they could find, sitting at outdoor dining venues in 105° temperatures, ordering hot food and alcohol. Pitchers of alcohol. They'll most likely be dead by morning. Perhaps it's a Darwinian thing. They seemed to be trying so hard to have --- fun.

I saw families in which every member was obese trundling along the sidewalks in full sun with sweat flowing off their bodies like Champagne fountains at a wedding. Faces beet red and emanating heat I could feel five feet away. Sorority girls dressed in black tights and black t-shirts sweating with equal intensity. And the whole time I was thinking "what's wrong with these people?" They were not homeless or even poor. Not if they were shopping and dining on South Congress. Why didn't they postpone their stroll and huddle in the nurturing bossom of air conditioning like the rest of us. Oh wait. I was out there too. Also sweating and turning red... 

The 18-50mm lens is wonderful on the CL camera. It's small and light and provides a nice range of focal lengths for street shooting and general fooling around with gear pursuits. Today's adventure was all about playing with colors and the polarizing filter. I wanted to make the skies darker and more saturated and I wanted to take the haze or reflection off painted signs and windows. I set the lens to f4.0, and sometimes f5.6 because I know them to be the best settings to get the wall-to-wall sharpness that makes wider shots pop better. Had I been making portraits I would have gone for f2.8 and then let the corner sharpness fall where it was going to. 

Everything was shot as Jpeg/large. The white balance was set at the little "sun" symbol because --- today --- it's all about the sun. I depended on the AF of the camera and lens and let everything else skitter about where it wanted to go. Auto ISO, for sure. 

It was hotter than stolen Leonardo da Vinci originals out there. You first feel it as an all around pressure on your skin, your face and your neck. After a few minutes of exposure you start to feel a slight overall sweat forming. And the sun and heat work in sync to sap your energy and reduce your peripheral awareness just enough to start missing stuff you would have noticed as potential photo subjects in cooler times. 

As the heat and humidity start to wear down your resistance to it you start to ration your energy. You look twice and maybe three times before walking down a long side street to see if a particular mural or brightly painted fence is... photo worthy. Will it reward you enough to balance out the additional heat stress? As you get hotter and hotter you start looking for the lowest hanging fruit of imaging. And even then you decide that you can only expend the energy needed for one or two frames before your brain once again drives you to the task of finding shade in which to walk, or into an interesting retail shop that seems promising for cold air conditioning. I must have looked at Stetson hats I had no intention of buying for the better part of 20 minutes. A welcome break after an hour of walking in the bubbling stew of red hot Summer. 

Jospeh's hat. Adapted and adorned by Joseph. Who, by the way, was 
shooting black and white files in his camera today! 

The mannequins are "saucier" on S. Congress.

Jo's Coffee is the magnet for the area. It's adjacent to the well gentrified 
San Jose Motel which is the destination of writers, musicians and movie makers 
who are "in the know" but not yet requiring the higher security of the Four Seasons Hotel. 

On the side of Jo's is the famous graffiti that was painting years and years ago. 
It's a popular Austin icon and has probably been repainted a couple dozen times over the years. 

When people, families, dates, etc. come to South Congress it's almost socially mandated
that they will make selfies or pose for photographs with the wall in the close background. 

Even when it is 108° 

When I came by today a line was forming. Patiently waiting their turns to be 
immortalized in front of the wall. Charming. 

Camera operated in full sun as if it was a phone....sad. 

There is no "indoors" at Jo's. By its very nature you will be drinking your coffee, eating your pastries and tacos, etc. outside in the heat. There is shade but it didn't hide anyone from the heat today.

 After an hour and a half I was starting to get that early warning signal one learns over the years of running, hiking and working outside in Texas Summers. It's a little voice that says something to the effect of...."You have about 30 minutes, maybe less, in the reserve tank of your heat resistance. After that you will become dramatically more "mortal" than you think you are. You will require water and air conditioning between now and that deadline. Go!" 

I ducked into the hat shop for one more look around and one more bout of shedding heat and then headed back to the car, keeping to as much shade as the environment could deliver. I turned on the car, fired up the A/C and knocked back 14 ounces of now warm water I had sitting in the center console. (I know, I know, had my car been in San Francisco that water bottle would be long gone by now. Stolen in an ever escalating crime wave....). 

By the time I got back to HQ the car's thermometer was reading 110° and the "feels like" index was a vicious 115°. One silver lining. My laundry load of swim towels never sees the clothes dryer. I spreed the towels out on the driveway and they are bone dry in minutes. Right nice to the prime rib I'm cooking on the driveway for dinner. 

Dress to be cool. Always wear a wide brim hat. Don't carry too much. Don't wait until you feel bad to find shelter. Drink twice as much water as you feel like you need to. And, just for fun, take a cold shower when you get home. Although the cold water now coming from the city utility is somewhere above 85°. Not as refreshing as it might be in the dead of Winter. Which may never recur.  I think the Beach Boys did an album about the future of Texas weather and seasons. If I remember correctly it's called, "Endless Summer." 

Hope you found the photos wonderful. I don't think the files got too sweaty...