5.10.2009

Lighting instruments from another world.

I've been working on a book about lighting equipment and, after talking to many photographers, I am convinced that many are unaware there is a rich selection of alternatives out there to the usual battery-powered camera flashes, the monoblock electronic flashes and the various "pack and head" electronic flash systems.  The photograph on the right is of a Mole Richardson 10K fixture.  This thing puts out 10,000 watts of tungsten balanced light!  It's really amazing. Even more amazing are the 20K HMI lights.  That's 20,000 watts of daylight balanced light from one fixture.  

I bring this up because I think some photographers would really like to pursue a vision that's not based on using the same lights everyone else uses.  I was inspired to seek out these alternative light sources in part because of the work of Gregory Crewdson.  He does interesting fine art photos and relies almost exclusively on big movie lights for his work.  It seems to impart an entirely different feel to the work.

The same photographers who've sent me hate mail about my articles praising "radical" things like film and medium format cameras will no doubt rush to tell us that they can duplicate any lighting look with their White Lightning electronic flash gear or their $10,000 Broncolor gear but they will, as usual, miss the point.  And that point is this:  The tools and their attributes have profound influence in the creative process.  The feel of the camera, the heat and throw of a light.  The size of the fresnel in front of a light source.  It all influences our creative choices.  It influences the way a shoot flows.  And it definitely affects the outcome.

So, I found myself at an Austin shop called, GEAR.  They serve the movie industry, the television industry and a number of still photographers by renting everything from the stands and scrims to the enormous lights and the  trucks to haul them around in.  They have HMI lights (continuous daylight balanced instruments) ranging from 400 watts to 20,000 watts. They have all the most popular sizes of fresnel and open faced tungsten lights and they have stacks and stack of KinoFlo professional florescent lights.  

They have electrical generators you can put in the trunk of a Prius and also generators that come on the back of a really big truck.  And they have rolls of just about every filter gel you can possibly imagine.

I asked them for some pointers to pass along to still photographers who haven't worked on movie or television sets.  Any pitfall that might be avoided with a little forewarning.  Here is their short list:

1.  Lights over 1,000 will need their own electrical circuits.  Run a 2K tungsten on the same household circuit as the computer and you are asking for problems.

2.  Lights over 2,000 will require the services of an electrician to do something magical called a "tie-in" at the breaker box.  Alternately, you can rent a generator rated to handle the power requirements of these lights.

3.  Hot lights are hot.  You'll either need padded gloves to handle the fixtures or lots and lots of time to let them cool down before trying to move them.

4.  As above, the bigger lights put out an enormous amount of heat so don't plan on using your regular softboxes or umbrellas with them.  You'll need specially constructed softboxes or umbrellas that handle high temperatures.  Melting softboxes don't inspire confidence.....

5.  When you use a 12 foot by 12 foot silk scrim outside you need to understand that's about the same square footage as the sails that move boats across water at 20 knots or so.  You'll need more than a couple of 20 pound sandbags to anchor them!  Ask for guidance when you rent.

6.  HMI's have safety filters so that your don't tan or burn when using them.  Don't defeat the safety features!  You don't want a model suing you for the impromptu tanning booth episode.

7.  HMI's are expensive.  The bulbs start around $400.  Make sure your assistants know the score and make sure every light is secure.

Those are the big points that the rental guys deal with on an almost daily basis.  Even so you can get some really unique looks with some of these lights and the rentals on traditional tungsten lights are  reasonable.  Well worth trying out the next time you want to do something different.

I really enjoyed what I saw from the KinoFlo's.  There's something cool (literally and figuratively) about florescent lighting.  I'm pretty interested in how those differences might manifest themselves when shooting a portrait so when I saw an interesting fixture at Precision Camera I just had to get one.

Interfit makes cheap flashes and decent flashes and a bunch of other lighting stuff.  Just recently they came out with a light called the Cool Lite 9.  It's a fixture that takes nine compact florescent bulbs, comes with a large metal reflector and a heat resistant softbox attachment. All for $279. So far it's a lot of fun.  I need to be reminded from time to time how much fun it is to shoot with WYSIWYG continous lighting.

As you know if you've read much of my stuff I'm a real sucker for wide open apertures and short telephoto lenses.  They seem to converge to make magical portraits.  The Cool Lite 9 gives me enough light to keep the camera steady (1/125th or 1/250th of a second) at reasonable ISO's (200-400).  I'm working on a new series of portraits with this light.

I'm also shooting lots of examples for the book.  Should be interesting.  I keep learning about neat new stuff and relearning techniques that are mostly lost these days.  Hope the week ahead is profitable and fun.  Try some movie lighting if you get a chance.  But be sure to get the gloves........

Kirk



5.07.2009

Getting what you want with digital.

I've made no bones about my appreciation of film and film cameras but there is a certain reality that has to be interjected when we talk about the world of photography in 2009. For better or worse clients expect things to be done faster than a haircut and for little or no money.

There was even a goofy idea on the web that somehow we'd all get rich if we just gave everything away for free. But the guy who came up with that stupid idea starved to death a few 

weeks ago and his intellectual supporters have moved on to the thorny problem of how to "monetize" Twitter. (that means "make money" for all the gentle readers who haven't kept up with the frighteningly fast destruction of common language...).

The rest of us are left with the task of bringing some sort of sanity back to the financial models of our industries. Here's a novel idea:  Let's charge money for what we do.  A cheerful amendment:  Let's charge additional money for using the images more than once!  A third idea:  Let's charge more than it actually costs us to make the image.  (That would include materials, cameras and our time!!!)

That was all non-sequitar.  What I really want to talk about is how to arm wrestle with the digital media to get the images you really like.

All three of the attached images were done for an advertising campaign for the Austin Lyric Opera.  In each shot I wanted to get the kind of soft, non detailed background we used to get when we shot portraits with a long lens on a view camera. In this case our non-profit client had a very "non-profity" budget so our choice was digital or.....digital.  And here's where it gets interesting.  As soulless as I make digital photography out to be I am sometimes (wife and friends snicker...) given to hyperbole.  I must grudgingly admit that a number of the digital cameras produced in the recent past are possessed with an intangible but very visible character that makes them wonderfully different from the run of the mill.

Top of my list is the Kodak family.  My regard for the DCS 760, six megapixel camera from 2002 is unabated.  I battle for dominance with my DCS SLR/n and on the times when I win and the camera grudgingly accepts my direction I am truly delighted with the files.   I sometimes sit on the back porch with a warm cup of coffee and a lone tear comes to my eye when I ponder the irony of Kodak inventing all the good stuff but no longer able to compete in the market......

In the Nikon family, the D700 is a great camera but it lacks personality.  The D2h is a so-s0 image producer but has the personality of a border collie.  The D300 and the D100 both exude soul like a box of Motown 45's.  The Sony R1 is an axe bumbling idiot with flashes of savant genius.  And so on.  But I digress.

When I started planning this campaign for the ALO I know I wanted shallow depth and a color palette that was different than the latest eagerly precise and clinically sterile cameras.  I choose the DCS 760  and decided to shoot at ISO 80.  To get the tiny depth of field I craved I looked through the lens drawer and, after long consideration, I pulled out my unreliable sleeper, the Nikon 105 f2 DC (defocus coupling) lens.  I say unreliable because no matter how often I use it I'm never able to really predict the outcome.  Perfect for a job like this.

And, of course you know that I had to choose a continuous light source to make the wide open aperture work the way I wanted it to.  I used a light that is no longer made.  A Profoto Protungsten.  A fan cooled fixture that mimics the ergonomics of the Profoto flash heads and takes all the same light modifiers.  I used a Magnum reflector with a wide spread and coaxed the light through two layers of white scrim material clinging to a six foot by six foot frame. This was suspended above and to the right of the subject just as close as I could place it without making it a co-star in the frame.

Here's the secret of making tungsten work with an old Kodak that was famous for it's noisy blue channel:  Gel the light with a 1/2 CTB.  That's a filter that gets you half way from tungsten color balance to daylight balance.  Essentially you are trying to keep the camera from compensating from the lack of blue in 3200K light by ramping up the amplification on the blue channel and flooding the image with noise.

I used a small Desisti 300 watt spotlight in its wide flood position for the background.  The only other trick is to try to position the bright spots and the shadows that appear in the background in the proper relationship to the subject.

I love shooting this way.  One part of me always longs for stuff like Leaf medium format digital cameras and Nikon D3x's but as soon as I've got them in hand I feel like a slave.  I'm always trying to show off their capabilities instead of mine.  Mine are all about design and rapport and posing and thinking.  They want me to show off sharpness and accuracy and other things that computers do so well.  It's a hell of a fight when you have to go mano a mano with the very tools that should be serving your vision instead of trying to create it.

Random Note:  Please check out my second book.  I think it's quite good and though you may be too advanced for it at this stage in your career I'm sure that your wives and mothers would love a copy for mother's day.......Minimalist Lighting:  etc. Studio

5.06.2009

Right Place. Right Time. Right Intention.

So.  I've written about my proclivity for shooting with medium format film and I've made a case (I think) for using the tools that inspire you most, but there's an image up next to my desk that kicks me in the shins every time I get the gear lust and start to covet yet another camera that's destined to make me the "hot" photographer of 200x.  It's the one on the right.  The image is of Rene Zellweger, circa 1992 and it's a constant reminder to me just how secondary all the equipment really is. I was trying to replicate a shot I'd done of my wife Belinda, years earlier. That shot was done on an old Canon TX film camera.  A real beater of an SLR, with shutter that capped out at 1/500th of a second and a little "stick and lollypop" metering system.  I was living in an old house at the time and I'd set up a quickie studio in the living room with a rickety old tripod and a 500 watt photoflood in a utility reflector.  The light was aimed into a 40 inch white umbrella in the "shoot thru" position and placed fairly close to Belinda.  It had to be pretty close because for some silly reason I was using ISO 50 Ilford Pan F black and white film.  The lens was wide open.  The result was wonderful.

Flash forward ten years and I'm in the studio with (at the time) unknown future movie star, Rene Zellweger, and we're trying to get that same look.  I'm using the same old Canon TX and I was using the Canon 135mm Soft Focus lens.  Same old, tattered umbrella and some variant of a 500 watt continuous flood light.  It's one of my favorite photographs.  Partly because it reminds me of the silly projects that Rene and I did together (like an art video entitled, "Coffee. Is it a gift from God or a tool or Satan....."  lots of long shots and coffee cups, and girls with leopard print scarves and little black dresses......) but mostly I like the image because it reminds me that all the gear is so secondary to the power of my intention.  If I intend to do an image I generally carry through and do what's needed to realize my ideas.  The momentum of my intention is what makes a project successful or just another piece of crap.  The equipment is so much less important.

A second, and most important point.

After my last blog post I got a wonderful personal e-mail from a photographer in Alabama who basically said,  "The lights don't matter.  The camera doesn't matter.  The lens doesn't matter. The only thing that matters (to a portrait photographer) is, how do you get that look in their eyes?  That rapport?"  She went on to say that she'd searched the web for a while and felt that some of the images I shot had the emotional quality that she was interested in.  She wanted to know how to get to that.

I've thought about it all week and I have an answer that will, no doubt, infuriate people who love to be surrounded by an entourage.  The answer is:  you must make a portrait sitting a very intimate relationship.  You must eliminate any distraction for you or the sitter.  No people in the room.  No tight ended schedule.  No fluttering make up artist.  No eager and relentless assistant.  If you want to truly connect with a sitter you must throw out all the crew and friends and the people who get you coffee and look at crap on the monitor.  It is like making love and very few people are comfortable doing that with a crowd looking on.

People will open up in front of the camera if they trust you and they don't have to entertain or make allowances for other people.  This whole mania of carting around assistants for every project, no matter how small, is one of the things that's killing good portrait work.  Send them outside to clean your car or to paint the fence.  A good portrait is a one on one sharing.  A collaboration and very little else matters.  Shooting a portrait, whether for fashion or your own art, with other people in the room means that you've abdicated your intention to do an intimate portrait and you are tacitly content just to do self serving theater about photography. At that point you've become a hack.  A workshopper.  The kind of photographer who cares more about how he looks on the video his assistants are shooting of him than how the image in his camera looks.  At this point one has abandoned the true practice of portraiture and become a hollow caricature of a photographer.  

One sitter.  One shooter.  An empty silence filled with potential.

4.29.2009

Everything old is new again.....Photography 180.


Originally written for www.prophotoresource.com
in 2007.  
I’ve been talking to a bunch of my friends in the creative world and it seems like we’re on the verge of a tectonic shift back in time.  And the realization of this impending shift is striking people in diverse fields almost simultaneously.  Writers are going back to yellow legal pads or little leather journals to outline their next movie, novel, ad copy or grand opus.  Fountain pens are once again accounted sexier than the latest laptops.  My graphic designer amigos are sitting around with Bienfang sketch pads and fat #1 lead pencils as they sketch out logo roughs and doodle small icons---on real paper!
I just had an art director from a prestigious agency explain to me why they’re going backwards and doing marker comps for their multi-national advertising clients.  Seems it’s easy to sell the less literal marker comps than the meticulously comped digital collages we’ve grown used to over the past ten years.  And the agency doesn’t get locked into using the exact photo they might have presented in the comps.………..
I asked my favorite graphic designer for some insight and I was startled by what I heard.  She said, “It’s faster and easier to get my ideas down on paper.  It’s also less sterile.  When I try to concept on the computer it seems to me that the machine gets in the way.  The presets push you to conform.  The screen makes you filter in assumptions about how things will ultimately look on paper.  Designing on paper just feels right”.
All this “regression” in the arts mirrors what I hear from more and more photographers.  We were so enthusiastic about the promise of “no cost” digital that we swallowed the program “hook, line and sinker.”  In retrospect we’ve done one of the stupidest business moves imaginable.  We moved from a mature, repeatable and robust system of making images that yielded exquisite quality (and which most practitioners had already paid for the infrastructure and amortized ) into a system that gives us only one advantage:  We can do all this stuff quicker than ever before!
I’m as guilty of buying into the system as the next guy.  I’ve dropped tens of thousands of dollars on digital cameras that became “obsolete” inside of eighteen months.  I spent years feeding ink into an ever escalating collection of Epson “professional” printers and now, in 2007, I’ve come to two conclusions about printing with inkjet printers:  1.  Traditional photographic paper prints from a custom printer blow away anything I’ve gotten from any of the printers.  2.  The bulk of my money has been spent clearing ink clogs and not making prints.  I would add to those two points that my butt has spent too much quality time in the task chair in front of my computer and not nearly enough time out having fun.  
I’m even guiltier than most because I just finished writing a book extolling people to give up their “heavy and antiquated” lighting equipment and pursue the Holy Grail of using small, portable lights for all of their work.  No matter that my clients still look at my portfolio, select the stuff I shot on medium format film and lit with big Profoto strobes, and ask me to do “that style”.  At a certain point it dawns on a person that we’ve really been doing this exercise for ourselves and not for our clients.
Case in point:  Once a month a I get together with three friends for lunch.  Usually Mexican food. I’m the sole photographer in the group.  Mike is a creative director with thirty years of experience, Greg is an art director with 20 odd years of experience and Roy is a designer who’s been winning awards since the days of Kodak Double X film (1970’s for those raised post analog). 
 I mentioned  that I was getting ready to buy the new Nikon D3 and they all turned on me like rabid dogs.  No, more like concerned parents.  No, more like exasperated friends.….  “The files are already way bigger than I need!”  Said Mike.  I mentioned the cleaner, better color.  “Once the files hit paper in CMYK you’ll never see the difference!”  Chimed in Roy.  “Oh hell!” remarked Greg before taking a big bite of his enchiladas verdes.  “You’re just wasting money on all that stuff.  Nobody’s ever hired you because they know what’s in your camera bag.  They hired you based on what they see in your portfolio.  You’re just buying this stuff because you’re afraid of just going out and showing your work!”
I trotted out all the arguments we see on the websites.  The low noise at high ISO’s, the incredible color accuracy, the high frame rate and more.  They laughed. “You light stuff.  You compose stuff.  You have a rapport with people.  That’s your real job.  The camera doesn’t really matter.”  While I was mulling that over Mike (who was honored as an AIGA fellow this year) added, “Besides,  I haven’t seen anything in the past seven years that I liked as much as the simple black and white portraits you used to do with your Hassleblad.  I love the square.  I love the way the focus slides away and puts all the emphasis on the sitter’s eyes.  And I’ve never seen a good digital conversion to black and white.”
Now my whole carefully constructed rationale for plugging away with digital was on the ropes.  I was shaken and confused.  So I called the photographer who’s work I’ve admired for years.  You probably have a guy like this in your market.  The photographer who is so good and who’s work is so nuanced and informed that you’d hire him in a heartbeat if you were an art director or an art buyer.  For me it’s Austin photographer, Wyatt McSpadden.  I wanted to know how Wyatt handled the transition to digital.
“Digital?  You’re talking to a man who shot 180 rolls of medium format film in the last two weeks!”  He shouted.  (He didn’t really shout but it seemed like it).  He’s got a digital SLR but only uses it for clients who (and I’m paraphrasing here) “Don’t give a ________ about your style, they just want a usable file, quick.  I want clients to hire me for my style. And I spent twenty years working on this stuff and I’m not going to go and reinvent the wheel just because someone needs to sell cameras!”   He went on to say, in his west Texas way, “I shoot film so I can use the lights and the lenses I love.  That’s what makes the photograph work.  It’s not the sensor it’s the way the lenses write to the sensor.  If the sensor doesn’t matter then I’ll choose film.  That way I’ll skip who storage issue and get better looking work into the bargain.”
I wasn’t totally convinced but I had just read Selina Maitreya’s book entitled, How to Succeed in Commerical Photography,and I was putting together a new portfolio to show around.  As I scrounged around for images I was shocked to find that the stuff I loved and wanted to show was all generated pre-Y2K.  Every last shred of it was shot on a Hassleblad or a Rollei.  The contact sheets were easy to read and the negatives were easy to scan.  And the prints that I ordered from my local Costco  (using their profiles and specifying “no mods”)  were worlds better than my best tries with Epson’s 4000 series printers at 1/3 the actual materials cost.
I’ve always felt uneasy composing in the awkward rectangle that comes standard in most digital SLR’s and I’ve never felt that I could justify the $20,000 or so that would be required to get into the medium format digital club.  That’s when my “oh so wise” wife, Belinda suggested that I get rid of the “binary thought process” that seems built into most working photographers.  We try to shoe horn what ever the latest and greatest camera solution that comes along into all of our jobs. It’s all or nothing.  The D3 or the 1DSmk111 and nothing else.
The reality, as my wife pointed out, is I can shoot on whatever I want to.  I can match the solution to the job.  I can match the camera to my vision.  I don’t have to have one “ubercamera” that does everything.  She gently nudged me out the door with orders to buy some medium format Tri-x and give the old ways a little try.  Ohmigod!  I’d forgotten just how good these cameras were.  Just how bright and detailed the finders could be.  The magic of a Zeiss telephoto at f4 or f5.6.
So where does that leave me?  Well when I shot a lake property development from a helicopter I sure as heck thought the Nikon D2xs was the right tool for the job.  I knew that the Fuji S5 camera and the Nikon 18-200 VR was a great solution for shooting 800 iso in the corporate offices of a client who wanted “available light/slice of life” images of people working in their offices.  But I knew with equal certainty that my Rollei 6008 with a 150 mm lens and a pro pack of Tri-x was just what the doctor ordered for the experimental studio portrait I wanted to shoot.  And nothing beats my little “beater” Mamiya 645e for walking around the streets of the city shooting stuff with Fuji Provia 100f.
What have we gained by going digital?
1.  We can do stuff more quickly. 
2.  We can see what we got, right away.
3.  Clients don’t have to pay for film and processing so (supposedly) more money goes to our fees.
4.  We can shoot things without lighting them due to the good high ISO performance of the camera.
5.  It (seems) easier to take great photographs than ever before.
What have we lost by depending entirely on digital?
1.  We can do stuff more quickly.  At least it seems that way.  The shooting goes faster but the burden on the back end grows exponentially and the clients rarely see the hours that go into color correction, retouching and archiving of these images.  If they don’t see it they don’t value it.  That makes our fees harder to swallow.  What might have taken a day to light and shoot now might take a half a day to shoot and half a day to process.  That still adds up to a full day except now all the plumbing part of the job is invisible to the bill payer.  Personally, I liked handing stuff to my lab and letting them do the back end but we’ve trained our clients to think of us as “one man bands” and have let us push ourselves into becoming lab operators and color separators.  We’ve lost our free time.  We’ve lost our ability to depend on highly qualified experts to take our work to its highest level.  But we’ve delivered a delivery schedule that’s burdensome.
2.  Oh boy!  I can look at the little screen on the back of my camera and I’ll know when I got the great shot.  Or, shooting tethered, the art director and I can see when we got “something that will work” and we can stop right there and go on to the next shot on the list.  That really sucks.  In the film days, before immediate gratification, we would shoot and shoot.  Not to waste film but to explore the possibilities.  Often the “portfolio keepers” would arrive after the perceived high point of a shoot.  The fun shots seemed to manifest themselves when everyone was sure we were covered and they started to relax.  Makes me think we should turn the little digital camera screens on to “Polaroid” our lighting and composition and then turn the little devils off so that their “magnetic” pull doesn’t lure our avaricious eyes.…  There’s a lot to be said for not knowing exactly what’s there until you see it.
3.  Clients think digital photography is free.  That’s not, per se, a problem with digital but it changed the economic model of professional photography and we’ve been battling the unintended consequences for the last seven to ten years.  If clients think that all materials are free then how do we pay for the yearly advances in digital cameras?  
4.  We’ve lost the good stuff about shooting film.  When we used to shoot with  medium format cameras and  medium telephoto lenses we got a wonderful falling away of focus and sharpness that created a fabulous contrast of sharp versus soft.  The smaller format digital cameras just don’t do it.  We’ve invented all sorts of work-arounds like selecting, feathering and adding guassian blur to the background of a digital image but it never looks quite the same.  We’ve lost those big, juicy viewfinders with acres of visual real estate.  We’ve lost that fabulous black and white tonality with scads and scads of tonal differentiation (and you know you’re either lying or blind if you insist you can get great black and white conversions from digital) that we routinely got from Tri-X and Plus-X films.  And even simple things that translated into a higher quality workflow through to four color printing, like you, your client and your color separator all looking together at a medium or large format chrome (transparency film for the post analogers) on a color balanced light box.  That paradigm created a universal color standard rather than the turf wars of “who’s monitor is calibrated better than who’s”  that we’ve lived through for the past decade.
And finally, who among us hasn’t felt their rear end grow larger and their lumbar region ache as we’ve spent far more time hunched in front of our computers than we every imagined.
I know we can’t really put Pandora back in the box but we can at least admit that digital isn’t the end all and be all of imaging. I suggest that you finish reading this article and seek out a store that still has a few dusty rolls of medium format film left.  Brush the cobwebs off your Hasselblad, Bronica or Mamiya camera and try shooting the way you shot ten years ago.  Then scan your favorite frame and compare it with your best digital work.
Chances are you’ll look for opportunities to re-introduce film to some part of your business.  I suggest you position your ability to shoot on film as the “high price spread” of your enterprise.  You’ll likely find several unintended consequences of this decidedly Quixotic experiment:  You may find that clients  treat you more like and artist and less like a technician.  You’ll find that you will have created a differentiating niche that effectively separates you from every “Tom, Dick and Sally” sporting a digital Rebel.  You’ll find that labs have evolved in a way that make shooting film more streamlined and efficient.  As well as more cost effective.  And you may find that the specific tool does affect your  seeing.
Here’s our workflow:  We shoot on our favorite film stock (for me it’s ISO 400 black and white negative film) in a Rollei 6008 in the studio.  To check exposure I can either use Polaroid or my trusty Nikon D2x as a sub for Polaroid.  We drop the film by our favorite, full service lab (yes, they still exist!)  and ask that the film be developed and scanned.  Holland Photo in Austin will give you darn good proof scans for five or six bucks a roll (Yes, a roll, not just a frame) and they’ll give em to you on a CD.  We upload the scans to Smugmug.com to share with our clients.  They pick one frame and we call the lab and have a real, burned and dodged, fiber based print made to order.  The film itself is our archival back up!  Try it.  It’s amazing and it requires just the amount of time it takes to upload to your gallery.  You can be back out shooting within 1/2 an hour.  No more butt time.  Someone else has already color corrected your files during the scans.
So what does this have to do with battery operated strobes?  Well, you actually can use strobes with your film camera.  In fact they work better than they do with digital SLR’s.  But that’s a subject for another blog.  
Sorry for the rant but it was amazing when I finally tallied up what we walked away from when we abandoned film.   And it’s nice to realize that we don’t have to get locked into one way of doing things to the exclusion of everything else.  Sometimes film rules and sometimes digital rules.  But it’s absolutely great to have both.
Next month (if this rant doesn’t end my career) I’ll be talking about the advantages of using guide number flash instead of TTL flash.  Honestly.  And I’ll have images to prove my point.  I hope you’ll be back for a read.
Kirk

The Books:
The website:  Kirk Tuck dot com

4.28.2009

Eeyore's Birthday Party, Austin, Texas 2009

Years and years ago a wise and playful English professor and some of his friends decided to put together a little bacchanale to celebrate the dour character in Winnie the Poo. Austinites will take any excuse to party and push it to the logical extreme.  I tagged along with a little Canon SX 10 and took some photos.  

Why the little camera?  The big ones all seemed so voyeuristic and gauche. And all the people with big cameras reminded me so much of the losers who go to the nude beaches with huge telephoto lenses.  

The most popular event at Eeyore's is the drum circle where everyone brings a drum and joins in the rhythmic cacophony while many  high and happy people dance in the middle.

Another popular past time is body and face painting.  But the most popular pastime is invoking the spirit of Austin in the 60's and 70's in various ways.  The smell of pot was everywhere and everyone else had a cup of beer in hand.


The cops took it all in with good natured indulgence while some of the suburban newcomers to Austin didn't quite realize what they were getting into as they unloaded their strollers from their minivans.

I guess my favorite find of the day was the drummer in the wrestling mask. Such a mixed message......

Really, a pleasant way to spend an afternoon and a nice reminder of why it's better to live in Austin than in some other places.  We know how to channel our "inner hippie".












4.26.2009

A life divided by the two warring sides of my brain....

If you've followed my writing here for a while you've no doubt figured out that I really like shooting portraits and I really like doing it with medium format cameras.  Some people have (rightly) conjectured that I like doing it that way because of habit.  And to a point I agree.

But I'm not the least bit torn by the direction or the production of my portraits.  I am torn by my desire to write and to photograph and I constantly worry that I won't be able to do either as well as I could if I cast one of the two passions away and concentrated on doing one thing well.

But that's really tough.  Which way to go?  I think the question is particularly poignant for me today because I've been slamming away at my laptop finishing the writing on my fourth book.  I called it "quits" at 44,000 words because I couldn't think of anything else genuine to say about my subject. I still have to harvest one hundred photos (give or take a dozen) and caption them, but the hard part of the writing is over.

And here's my issue/problem/conundrum:  How to balance the visual side with the word side? Do I need to abandon the book writing to concentrate on the photographs or vice versa?  It's an interesting predicament.  

I think it took writing a book about lighting equipment to make me realize that much of what Steven Pressfield says in his book,  The War of Art, is correct.  That we accept assignments that seem like opportunities but are really our subconscious minds throwing obstacles in our true paths.  I really want to write a book about the "why" of photography but I keep writing about the "how".  That's supposedly the stuff the market wants.  But have people tried another way? Are there books out there that I've just missed that talk about a person's journey as a photographer?  

I would love to read a book that documents the life of a great fashion or advertising photographer from the photographer's point of view, not a biographer's.  A book filled with the trepidation, the hesitation and the fear of moving one's art forward.  I'd love to know if all artists are filled with the same lack of self confidence and jittering anxiety about their own work.  Instead we get what the artists want to project: confidence, the illusion of mastery and a public persona that's all about being comfortably, confidently at the top.  

I'd love to hear about the tight spots, the model meltdowns, the financial set backs, the family friction and the un-winnable battle to balance the domestic pull with the frantic tug of art.  A de-glamorizing look at the business and the craft of photography.  An assignment shooting waste water treatment plants in Biloxi instead of Madonna in Paris.

That's a book I'd buy.


4.23.2009

Why do I keep talking about shooting medium format black and white film????

I had lunch today with a very well known advertising shooter who does work with the big boys. That would include:  McDonald's, Quaker, Compu-Add and many other big names.  We were sitting around eating burgers and talking about our favorite subject: Photography.  I mentioned that I'd added yet another medium format camera to my collection and he scoffed.  I'd never seen a really good scoff before but he did it expertly.  The kind of scoff that makes you feel like you totally missed the boat.

"Just get a Canon 5Dmk2 and be done with it." he told me.  And I think it's probably good advice but I'm rather bull headed and I really like what I like.  

And what I like are classic black and white portraits that are shot on long medium format lenses with the aperture set to nearly wide open.  The opener the better.  As long as I'm not sacrificing core sharpness.  My favorite looks come from 150mm lenses on 645 or 6x6 bodies. And, without doubt, the film of choice is Kodak's amateur version of Tri-X.  Let's shoot that at ISO 200 and pull the development just a tad for some really wonderful skin tones with lots and lots of detail in the highlights.  You remember that kind of highlight detail, it's what you used to get before you started living in fear of your digital camera burning out all the good stuff.

Right about now is where a person who's never shot film comes in and says,  "All the stuff from the old days is bullshit.  I can replicate any of it in Photoshop".  Oh the hubris of youth. Would it change their opinion if they knew that I started shooting digital in 1997?  That I've owned Kodak 660's and 770's while they were dancing to the New Kids on the Block ?  That I owned copies of Photoshop, pre-layers?  What if I told them that Photoshop once existed without "undo"?

So, the reality is that there are things the medium format cameras can do when it comes to imaging that small sensor cameras cannot do.  The number one attribute is the ability to make focus fall off fast.  While keeping the areas that are in focus incredibly sharp.  Is that subtle?  Yes, but so are fine wines, good tailoring and proper grammar.  Does everyone desire it?  No.  Some people like everything to be in focus.

But here's the deal.  I'm not willing to settle for "good enough" or the hoary phrase, "good enough for government work"  or "this isn't rocket surgery".  You only get one life and you might as well do your art exactly as you envision it.  And for me that means controlling the focus fall off.

On to the film.  Guarantee you that if you scan a piece of well shot and custom developed Tri-X you can't mimic it convincingly in PhotoShop without hours of hard work.  And even then you probably won't be able to get the non linear nature of the edge acutance and the non geometric changes of tonality to work the same way.  It's too perfect perfection will give it away.

Here's the thing I think you need to know about art:  We are attracted to the imperfection that exists in nature.  The imperfection in a face is the frame for aesthetic perfection.  When everything is symmetrical we are bored by it.  When everything can be endlessly duplicated and every experience exactly replicated it looses its attraction.  Film works precisely because it doesn't work perfectly every time.  To attempt to be an artist means being afraid to fail miserably but to go forward anyway.

That, in a nutshell, is the appeal of film to me and a legion of other people who can have it both ways but choose to try and master the infinite nature of craft over the ease of digital production.

Before you write me off as a Luddite, please understand that I own all the same cameras that my possible detractors probably own.  A Nikon D700 and a D300, a drawer full of cool lenses.  A big Apple computer.  The works.  And I use them every day for client work.  But for my own stuff I can't bear the compromise, and, after hearing the workflow lecture of Vincent Laforet, I decided that  life is too short to become a slave to my digital archive.  Tending it and replanting it on every changing generation of storage devices until my whole life's energy is consumed with  "migrating" my library of ephemeral images every two years.  I'll keep the real art in a notebook.  In a filing cabinet, where, properly stored it should last a lifetime.  And the negatives should be printable long afterward.

Here's to beautiful black and white portraiture.  If I remember correctly, the photo of Michelle was done with a Pentax 645 using the 150mm 3.5 lens wide open with a large tungsten light source.  According to modern pundits I've done everything wrong.

To see more work like this please go to my website and look for the black and white portfolios.

Thanks, Kirk

for more lighting tips see my Studio Lighting book!

4.22.2009

The Art of the Headshot.

I absolutely love to do portraits.  My dream, when I started taking photographs many years ago was to have a little ivy covered studio in the hills west of Austin.  Nothing fancy, just a little office, a dressing room and a shooting room of about 20 by 40 feet with a nice, tall ceiling.  I'd have a highly organized and vaguely beautiful assistant who would book sittings and take care of getting prints and various orders from the lab and make sure they got to the client.

It never worked out that way.  I've spent the last 20 years doing some head shots in my small office studio but most of the work is done on location at advertising agencies and corporate headquarters.  I'm pretty much a location portrait shooter.  And by location I don't mean that I spend time putting babies in patches of blue bonnets or photographing families at the beach.  I spend my time taking conference rooms that started life as broom closets and making them into temporary studios so I can photograph the movers and shakers of corporate culture.  And I love that.  Everyone has a story so everyone is interesting.  Anybody who doesn't have a story is interesting because they don't have a story.

I made the portrait above as part of a series for a very chic agency here in Austin, Texas.  I came in and moved the conference room furniture around to make room for three lights.  While I was setting up Patricia Garcia was doing make up on the seven people we needed to photograph.  I usually light with one big soft source to the left of camera and a large white reflector on the other side for fill.  I usually pick a gray background when I'm left to my own devices.

This time we all wanted something just a little bit different.  I used two umbrellas instead of just one main light.  I keyed the portrait from the left (creature of habit) using a 48 inch white umbrella with black backing.  I used a 60 inch white umbrella five feet further back and slightly to the right of camera as my fill.  The background was lit by a standard profoto zoom reflector with a sloppy, wide grid on it.  The background is a soft blue paper.

The sitter in the above example was made up so well, and had such great skin that I don't think we had to do any retouching to speak of.  Maybe a stray hair or two.  That's about it.

I love shooting portraits.  No nervous energy.  No hesitation.  Just a great afternoon yakking it up with people.

Camera:  D700.  Lights: Profoto

To learn more about my approach to studio lighting check out my new book

4.21.2009

Low Light Workout at the Photon Gym.....

One thing you have to say about the D700 is that it works very well in light so low you can't read the dials on the camera body.

I like shooting dress rehearsals for Zachary Scott Theater.  If a play is not exactly my taste (a rare occurrence at Zach...) I at least have the technical challenge of rendering it with good technique.  

When a play is  good I feel the challenge with more weight.  When a play is really good I want to share all the things that made it special to me.

I recently shot the advertising images for the "Grapes of Wrath" during the dress rehearsal.  I was just amazed at the use of light in this production.  You can see in the photographs that the lighting designer used a limited palette of warm tones for most of the scenes.  I don't know if you can tell from the images but it evokes the hot dusty feeling that must have pervaded the "dust bowl" in the middle of America in the 1930's.  The light was so well done it transported me into the scene and the milieu.  In many theaters lighting directors, because of their limited inventory of lights, make use of a few hard spots and a handful of gels.  This set was literally as intricately lit as a blockbuster movie set.

I shot most of the action with a Nikon D700 and a handful of prime lenses.  My primary optic was Nikon's inexpensive 85mm f/1.8.  A wonderful lens that's often overlooked in the mad rush to have the fastest glass.

Checking the IPTC data shows that I set the camera at ISO 3200 and used the lens at f/3.2 with a shutter speed of around 1/25oth of a second.  

I also shot with a Fuji S5 but none of 
those images made the cut for one reason or another.  I have one complaint about the D700.  I don't think it focuses as well as the D300. It may be the spacing of the sensors or my own ineptitude but I hunts every now and then when I least expect it.

Someone will ask about my workflow in these situations and I want to talk about that because I'm of two minds when it comes to shooting theater.  If we had a big budget for post production I would probably want to
shoot every frame as a 14 bit uncompressed raw file. But the budget is all but non-existent.  Then there is the advantage that, with the D700, the camera corrects for the weaknesses of any attached lens by tweaking out any chromatic fringing, but it's only automatic in the Jpeg setting.  This feature makes the 85mm f/1.8 lens sharper and better than it used to be.

I usually set the WB at 3000-3200 as all the lights in the theater start life as tungstens, though most of them are gelled.

The other reality is a time constraint.  The marketing director needs the images as quickly as we can produce them.  The goal is always to shoot on Weds. and get the images to our daily paper on Thurs. afternoon.  In a typical rehearsal shoot I'll take 1200 to 1500 images.  If we processed raw files individually it would take an enormous amount of time.  That's why it's important to me to get things right in the camera.  While I'm shooting.  All the files I've placed here are untouched jpegs shot at the highest quality settings.

While I may screw up ten or fifteen percent of the shots I generally end up with at least a thousand usable images for the the marketing team.

As tough as it is to capture the action under low light, with constantly moving actors, my client is very happy with my work. The digital cameras do make things easier but in writing this I'm thinking through the process and reminding myself that the "feel" for the flow of a show and being able to anticipate action is more important than the camera gear.  

In fact,  in days past we've shot the shows with Leica M cameras and color transparency film and consistently had images published in the national theater magazines.  Our favorite way to roll back then was to use Kodak 320T slide film, pushed one stop in the processing to ISO 640 and shot as though it was ISO 500.  Spot meter around the neck along with two rangefinder bodies.  One sported a 35mm Summicron and the other a 75 mm 1.4 Summilux.  

You had to be able to feel your camera in the dark and know what your settings were.  And you had to know when there were  subtle light changes so you could meter again and hope the settings stayed the same for a few minutes.

In some regards shooting theater remains the same.  The spot meter is king and we keep the camera in full manual exposure mode.  There are just too many dark spots on stage to depend on automatic settings.  And when the light is all but gone manual focusing becomes mandatory.  I'll say one thing,  shooting live theater certainly keeps your photo reflexes in shape.

By the way, double clicking on the images will show them at 1200 pixels. Thanks for reading.  

P.S.  Fashion note:  If you shoot live events you might think to wear as much black as possible so that you blend into the darkness and not distract the actors or speakers.  I even wear a black baseball cap now that I'm dying my hair a bright silver.....  :-)

4.19.2009

Why you shouldn't shoot like everybody else.

By Kirk Tuck


Let's face it,  I don't think any of us woke up one morning and said, “The thing I love best is taking pictures of strident brides putting on yet another cookie cutter,  antique ivory white dress with the annoying little buttons down the back.....”.  We didn't.  We don't.  We do many of the annoying little jobs we do because they pay the bills.  The wedding profits pay for the mortgage and the car payments.  The bridal portraits help pay for new gear.  And the PR photos of “guys in ties”, done with the same old soft box and grid light on the background,  pays for dinners and electric bills.  But you are way off base if you think we buy for a moment that you shoot these things because you are driven by your “inner muse” to do your “Art”.  (That's capital “A” art.....).


We're not all wired the same way so if you really get a thrill running a business and making a profit and that's all you want out of your photography then I get it and we'll give you a pass on the art thing.  But the rest of you aren't getting off so easily.  Most of us got into this field because we loved taking photographs of people, or landscapes, or life on the streets.  I certainly didn't pick up a camera because I saw a cool product photograph in a catalog.


I picked up a camera because I loved taking photographs of my friends.  I wasn't drawn to images that were lit in a particular way, I really loved the stuff that was black and white, available light and relatively unposed.  When I had done this kind of work for years as a pleasurable hobby I found my self at loose ends after my partners and I sold our advertising  agency.  I had some money in my pocket and a bunch of people kept hiring me to photograph them or their loved ones in the style I'd done.


But.....as soon as the art moved from hobby to business there started a subtle erosion of the essential point of view that made my work different from everybody else's.  I learned that there was an established style to shooting business head shots and so I learned that style and began to offer it.  I had to buy lights and drag them into the mix.  I learned the “right way” to do an executive portrait and I started to incorporate what I learned into the mix.  


And if you think about it, the convergence of digital imaging and the photo sharing sites on the web has quickened a process of homogenization that now seems relentless.  How many of you think that a reportage style of wedding photography is wonderfully unique?  Really?  Even though every wedding book I've seen in the past three months has exactly the same stuff in it?  The close up of the fingers trying to button five hundred annoying buttons on the back of an antique ivory wedding dress?  The edgey images with the razor thin slice of sharp focus that just screams out, “Hey, look at me.  I got a Canon 5D and a fast 85mm lens...”  You know the drill.  We all know the drill because we presume that these are the images and styles that brides want and we want to deliver them so we can make the car payments and buy dinner.  And in the corporate world we know that the standard head shot is generally a boring piece of crap that doesn't move the game forward any more than music on your website.


I think we homogenize for a variety of valid anthropological reasons.  We have a subconscious  desire to please our tribe.  We fear striving for originality and excellence because we have a suspicion that these things aren't valued by our clients and showing different work might cause them to reject our services.  Which we then interpret to be a rejection of our selves.  We might fear the hostility that will inevitably come from those who are practicing the status quo.


But here's the nasty reality statement that I'm sure you've known was coming from the minute you started reading this:  The people who populate the top 1% of the art world don't really give a minute of thought to what might “play well in Peoria”.  They pursue their vision.  Their own vision.  And they do it in a way that basically welds them into the longer view of art history or photo history because it introduces aesthetic game changers that the rest of us will buy into decades down the road and work to homogenize into our collective offerings while some where a new generation comes knocking with the real goods.  But we won't understand the value of those goods until it's just too damn late.  Think Richard Avedon and Irving Penn.  Both of whom were incredible pioneers as opposed to the Chase Jarvis and Michael Grecco types who understand a trendy, contemporary use of the tools, and the power of good, pervasive marketing.


It's like Avedon invented Haute Cuisine while Jarvis added an extra strip of bacon to the cheeseburger.....while Grecco introduced pink mayonnaise and convinced Ludacris to put it on his bacon cheeseburger.....really, it is apt.


Consider this for a moment...two companies sell 90% of the cameras used by professionals today.  Both have the identical format!  Your choice is really sensor A or sensor B.  Processing algorithm A or   Processing algorithm B.  Can you imagine the photographers we truly admire from the film age being constrained to choose between just two different films?  Where is the differentiation?  Where is the rugged individualism?  How did this all happen?


Some postulate that every move toward convenience decreases overall quality.  That every wave of mass acceptance creates an inertia to consider whatever the masses have embraced to be the “standard”.  By that measure, clothes from Walmart are the new standard, and if you are truthful you'll acknowledge that you'd never get your wardrobe from Walmart...


So, what do you do? If you are a business person, first analyze your business carefully, and if you find that selling your current product, no matter how commodified it is, is going well and your market share is growing, then continue on your path.  But if you feel like you got into this field to do something unique and different but you have the queasy feeling that you let the weight of life and money drag you into some compromised stasis then start pushing back and re-connect with why you wanted to be here in the first place.


When I taught at The University of Texas at Austin I had a student who came to me and complained that she couldn't possibly fulfill her promise as a great fashion photographer unless she had a Hasselblad and a stable of good, Zeiss lenses.  But she whined that she could never afford them, so she was doomed to failure.  A week earlier I had overheard her telling a classmate that her parents had just bought her brand new, turbo-charged  Volvo station wagon. ( in the early 1980's this would have been viewed as radically indulgent within the student class---now, who knows?).  


I suggested that she sell the car and buy the dream.  She thought I was insane.  The money trumped the art.  The comfort quotient kicked the crap out of art.  I caught up with her two decades of “life lessons” later.  She has become a gifted artist.  She pursues her vision with a Holga camera.  She lives on the edge.  She doesn't own a car.  But here's the news flash, she's happier than she ever was because she's very clear about what she wants.  And what she wants is to pursue the vision she had in the very first gestalt moment of loving photography.


So, how do you change?  How about throwing away all the trappings and offering what you really feel compelled to offer as art, and the hell with the rest of the market.  After all, would you rather be the next Avedon or a watered down/ tarted up version of Olan Mills.  You have the “Art” with a capital “A” in you or you would have never chosen this business.  Owning a McDonald's franchise is a much more secure way to earn lots more money.  So trade down on lifestyle, if necessary, and trade up on artistic integrity.  I can almost guarantee that you'll spend less on therapy and Xanax.  And people may grow up wanting to be just like you----instead of wanting to have your lifestyle.


I know you might think this sounds preachy and high handed but it's really a synopsis of the journey of self discovery I've been on lately.  I've opened the files in my office and dragged in a big ass trash can.  Anything that doesn't feel good, special and all about my work goes into the can.  All the event negatives from the 1990's.  All the executive portraits older than three years.  And I've started showing only the styles I want to shoot.  Not everything I could do in a pinch.  It makes me feel lighter.  Like I'm freeing up mindshare.  But that's something for another month.


In the meantime my prescription for change is to go back to using your very first camera for a month.  If you learned on a Canon AE-1 or a Minolta Maxxum 7000 or a Holga, go back and get one and load it up.  Shoot the way you once loved for a month.  Live with your style for a month and see if it doesn't feel better. 


I could give you more advice about shooting with little strobes but it would all be bullshit until you figure out why you shoot, and what you want to have coming out of your camera.  Customers?  If the work is satisfying to you then you'll find the market you want.  It may not be the market that supports your BMW payments but remember, you trade you life for money and you'll never get either back, so you might as well start doing it on your terms right now!


Thanks, Kirk


Author:  Minimalist Lighting: Professional Techniques for Location Photography

      Minimalist Lighting: Professional Techniques for Studio Photography


(really, two totally separate books with annoyingly similar titles.....)


See more work:   Kirk Tuck's Commercial Website/An adventure in iWeb