2.08.2010

Penny's Pastries. Getting the feeling right.


We were doing an article for Inc. Magazine when I met Penny. She'd opened a baking business and had been pushed into bankruptcy because a big customer pushed her to grow too quickly and then moved on to a different product from a different supplier.  She learned a lot from the experience and set out to start over. That was the story.  It was a cold and gray day outside and we were still working with film.  Medium format transparency film.  Probably 100 speed Fujichrome by the look of this frame.

I knew I wanted  to light Penny with a big soft light and I knew I needed to light the ovens in the background to give the image a sense of dimensionality and place.  But the biggest thing that was needed was to make some sort of connection with Penny that would make the image genuine.  We talked about baking and food.  We talked about the challenges of business.  Once the lighting was set I didn't monkey with it for the rest of the shoot.  I figured that if there wasn't some sort of rapport all the lighting in world wouldn't make a difference.

We all hit it off.  Penny got a nice profile in the magazine.  We got a bag of great cookies.

It's nice when everyone is on the same page.  Makes me happy to think about it even now.  I guess that's why photography is so cool.

The Goat Man of South Austin

I wrote an earlier blog about the goat man of south Austin but I think the post got lost when I shifted everything to blogger.  So I thought I'd do a quick one.  Back in 2005 the artistic director of Zachary Scott Theater, David Steakley, wrote a play called, Keeping Austin Weird.  The play showcased many of the characters around Austin that make it such a blue spot in such a red state.  Steakley interviewed several hundred people, both famous and not,  over the course of his investigation into the eccentric side of the city.  There was the family that used latex paint to create a giant Twister game in their front yard.  The entire front yard.  There was Gov. Ann Richards and also the lady with the pink pig car.

I shoot the season brochure for the theater each years and we decided, since this would be our "anchor" play, to include the wild personalities as the art in the brochure.  I was given a list of people that the marketing department thought would be most visible.  I was also given a board member who would act as a producer, getting in touch and scheduling our shoots.  We needed to go on location because in most cases the practical location was in some way part of the thing that made these people less ordinary.

I traveled around with a car filled up with lighting gear that ran the gamut from big electronic strobes, powered by inverters and car batteries, to tiny strobes and little florescent lamp tubes.  Some times we used a few lights.  Some times we used them all.

But when I got to the Goat Man's house in South Austin the light was perfect.  No light necessary.  Not even reflector.  Gotta watch yourself.  There is some truth to the idea that "when you have a hammer everything looks like a nail".  Sometimes you have to step back and really assess why you're dragging the gear out of the trunk.  And then you have to have the good sense (or heightened laziness) to leave it all in the car and use the light nature gives you.

The Goat was crazy aggressive but his best friend couldn't have been nicer.  Offered me a cold beer after we finished but there were other interesting people who needed documented so I pushed off.  A hot day and a job well done.

One more thing.  For some reason I decided to shoot this with my old Kodak DCS 760.  I'd bought a Nikon D2x but still preferred the colors and the tonalities of the Kodak.  I still have it in the studio and use it when I want a different look for people.  It's wicked sharp though.  You have to make sure you need sharpness if you go to pick up this camera.  With the AA filter removed it's almost illegally sharp.

If you have the chance to photograph a man and his pet goat you should do it.  It's an interested way to spend an hour on a hot, dusty friday afternoon.  Be sure to follow up with a man who has his own doll garden (fun fact:  All the dolls' eyes light up at night.  When new neighbors move in next door he turns the hundreds of doll heads in the garden to face the new arrival's house!).

Never a dull moment as a photographer.

2.07.2010

A few more from my NYC packaging job.+Go Chaps.

I woke up this morning feeling greedy for photography.  I was up before dawn.  It was a cold, steely gray outside.  I made a quick cup of coffee, grabbed my EP-2 and headed out to shoot anything.  It all looked so fresh and sharp and alive.  When I came home around 8am I started downloading cards into my computer and I sat there wondering, as the little ball went round, what was it that compels us to spend time photographing.  Or doing art.  Or writing.  I think it's our desire to be connected and to share.
As I was cleaning up the files I sorted out my desktop and came back to this folder and decided to share a few more images from this shoot in NYC. 
So after I wrote the paragraph above I changed my whole Sunday.  Usually I walk through downtown in the afternoon and shoot for fun but today I did a studio shoot at Zach Scott Theater with an amazing actor named, Jaston Williams, one of the two famous guys from Greater Tuna!  What an incredible actor.  I can hardly wait to post process the images and show them.  Just amazing.
Then the day became downright strange.  Totally off the subject of photography.  I never watch football.  Ever.  But my kid goes to the same jr. high school that Drew Brees attended.  Drew Brees was the quarterback at Westlake High School which is where Ben will go next year for high school.  Since we felt like hometown folk we bought a few bags of chips and some different dips (bean dip, French onion, piquante sauce, etc),  I bought some beer and a bunch of root beer for Ben and we spent the evening like typical Americans.  We watched the Super Bowl.  I couldn't believe how excited we were when the Saints won.  All I can say is, "Go Chaps!"

2.05.2010

Valentine's Day Fashion Special.

One of my favorite holidays.  An excuse to eat chocolate like a glutton and send silly cards to loved ones and wannabe loved ones.  But most of all, a day to think about gingerbread cookies from Sweetish Hill Bakery.  Like the fine examples in the photograph above.

At studio Kirk, we sometimes do things just for fun.  And one year it seemed like a lot of fun to photograph cookies.  Notice the fine "penmanship" of the message on the right cookie.  The line of frosting stays consistent and none of the letters crowd or collide with the other letters.  The design around the edges of the cookies takes them to a much higher level than store bought cookies.

I used my favorite cookie shooting lens on a 35mm film camera.  That would be the 90 Summicron on a Leica R8.  Shot on color negative film and scanned on one of the many scanners we went through in our quest for the great scan.  The image would be much better if we shot it now because we'd be able to shoot it with some sort of ultra-high resolution camera which would allow us to zoom in on the cookies and even count the separate crumbs!  But alas, it was shot early in the century before the widespread adaptation of cutting edge technology.  Much to my chagrin.  Another frame into the trash heap of history.

2.04.2010

Thinking about thought in a media rich environment.

Revolving doors on West Sixth street, Austin, Texas.  
Camera:  Olympus EP2

There are a lot of thoughts that I think I've generated in the vacuum of my own mind which I'm pretty sure are just the manifestation of years and years of immersion in a media rich culture.  I think my subconscious spends a lot of time stealing and borrowing fun snippets of concepts and visions that I catch and snatch across time and experience.  And that makes me sad because I wonder if our culture mediates against the chance of having an original thought.  Just as people say they were "standing on the shoulders of giants"  when they accomplish something profound; I wonder if we as a creative class are just the culmination and revolving door synthesis of all the "Leave it to Beaver" and "24" and "Gilligan's Island" shows we've watched, mixed with a dose of Dr. Suess, a little Susan Sontag and stirred around by some "Blade Runner" and "The Sound of Music".  I know the accompanying sound track is a raucous mix of Beethoven, The Beatles, Mozart, The Rolling Stones and Joni Mitchell and disco.

With six billion people in the world are there still original thoughts?  Or are we destined to sample and mix?

I came up with an idea for a new book recently.  I thought it was pretty cool and pretty sexy.  When I pitched it to a publisher they said, in effect:  "You seem to be on to a very important trend.  But we've already signed a writer for that project."  When I go out to photograph I struggle with a saturated awareness of the history of photography and the work that's happening everywhere around me.  Am I referencing previous work by artists?  Am I using a "melody line" in reference or is it a visual cliche that we're all destined to rework until the next swirl hits?

Photographers tend to be of two minds.  In the first category are compulsive researchers like me who look and look and look.  And the research is promiscuous;  I can probably tell you what camera and lens were used as well as who took the picture and where it first appeared.   So I am paralyzed by over consuming information.  I curse the web for that.  But the other extreme is the photographers who curmudgeonly refuse to know what's going on in their field  and who resist the computer at all costs.  They consider their vision unsullied until someone points out to them that the opus they've struggled with for decades has already been done, many times, and usually much better. Because few are truly resistant to the persistence "the messages". Paralysis or re-invention of the wheel?  There has to be a better choice.

At this point I'm sure the cliche minded have already jumped to the story about the patent clerk who, well over a hundred years ago, suggested closing the patent office because he was certain that all the good and original ideas had already been considered.  But that's not quite where I'm headed here.

I think we make so much work to please our audiences.  We shoot what we shoot because we want to be perceived as creative and cool.  Our map for coolness is the compilation of greatest hits that serially litter our attention.  We reference and tweak and bend them like Stephen Fairey with his poster of Obama, which started life as someone else's photograph.  And the problem is that we sometimes, unintentionally, step over the line into pure plagiarism.

Most of us started careers as artists or commercial photographers because we had a sense of our own visual sensibility but over time we've subjugated that clear vision for one we think will serve us better among our peers and our clients.  Little by little, we've hidden away the things that makes the art uniquely our own and that renders it  as just a souvenir of our culture.

To understand what I really mean it's enlightening to study the best known work of the writer, Vladimir Nabokov;  the novel, Lolita.  There's very little in this book that is really prurient or shocking by most standards and yet, when the book was first published in 1955   it was banned in the United States for a time.  It was regarded as so unpublishable that Nabokov was only able to sell it to a European publisher with a shaky, porny reputation.  It may be the best novel of the 20th century.  And not because of the subject matter but because of the writing.  And the unique point of view.  And the wonderful storytelling.

Now the book is celebrated by scholars.  Kubrick did the movie and it is astoundingly good. (It should be, Nabokov wrote the screenplay).  The book gets better and better, and over 54 years later still has relevance and power.  It was a set of "giant shoulders" to stand on for the next generation of authors who could now write in a more revealing and intimate manner.  But the "take away" is that Nabokov had the courage to create art that was in sync with his own nature while being profoundly out of sync with the prevailing culture. 

Of the books written in 1955 the vast majority have been consigned to the dusty card catalog of history. Lolita grows in power and influence.  If we are to create work that is meaningful to ourselves (and we can have no idea of the work's intrinsic value to anyone else) then we have to be as fearless as Nabokov and shoot from the heart.  Show uncomfortable work that has real meaning to us, and use a visual language that isn't a mirrored reflection of our social construct's greatest hits.

A clear vision may be influenced by the immersive media culture that swirls around us but the courage to shoot differently is the power that could make work that matters.  Even if it only matters to an audience of one.  That's the true nature of art.

commercial message:  If you are in Austin, Texas on the 13th of February I will be teaching a unique portrait workshop at Zachary Scott Theater, sponsored by Precision Camera. We'll discuss lighting and aesthetics, have a guest appearance and demo by the amazing photographer,  Will Van Overbeek (see:  www.willvano.com), a make-up demo by famed MUA, Patricia de la Garza and hands on sessions in the afternoon.  Yes, there will be donuts...


Without a doubt, the perfect Valentine's Day present.

Thanks, Kirk

1.30.2010

Pervasive video and the Apple iPad change everything.


Untitled from kirk tuck on Vimeo.

I don't think still photography is going away. There's a lot to be said for the print and unique moments in time. But you'd have to be ostrich-like not to get that video is becoming pervasive. This month I've partnered with a friend to shoot a couple videos for an online magazine. Being photographers we were seduced by the rampant hype on the web to shoot with the Canon 5Dmk2 camera as a video camera. It works well but there are some limitations. The biggest stumbling block is sound. You have one amateur microphone input that feeds into an auto level control preamp. You essentially have no control over sound. One is the inability to really see fine focus on the back panel screen. Another is the short "timing out" of the lifted mirror. If you don't get ready to shoot quickly the camera times out and you have to go back and reset all over again. Finally, in opposition to all those people who are enamored with the incredibly shallow focus you can achieve, too little depth of field can be a pain in the butt.

If you've read my past blogs you'll know I'm loathe to jump onto the "high priced" bandwagon. I know we might be able to fix the 5Dmk2 sound with the Magic Lantern aftermarket firmware. I could learn to meditate and become patient with the kludginess of the still camera interface, etc. but I thought I'd take a stab at iconolasm and just pull a cheap camera out of the bag and see what I could do with it. I call this the "Ultimate HD video on a budget" rig.

The footage above is not meant to be a polished piece of film making. My goal was to test the visual quality and usability of a $349 point and shoot camera. Let's face it, whether you use a $2500 Canon 5dmk2 or a $10,000 professional video camera you're still just getting 1400 by 1000 pixels per channel for a file of around 2 megapixels. I figured that, with good lighting, the Canon SX20is might be up to the challenge.

If you go cheap here's what you get: A 12 megapixel still camera that also "moonlights" as a 720p HD camera. Two decent, directional microphones (and, what's this? settable manual audio levels----if you want them). How about a zoom that works (sllently) during taping as well as several autofocus and manual focus options. I'll let you judge the cleanliness of the files.

So, is this the painstaking work of weeks? No. It's an hour of walking around in downtown Austin on a sunday afternoon and about 1/2 hour of editing on an old copy of iMovie 08 a couple of weeks later, after finding the footage on a card I was about to reformat. That's about it. Coupled with canned RF sounds from Apple and a free upload to Vimeo. Need to see what the HD version looks like on Vimeo? You can go here: http://www.vimeo.com/9094309

So, what did I find out? That it takes practice to do smooth pans with a fluid head. That cheap cameras don't always zoom nicely. That the image quality with good light is very usable. That I'll be buying a separate audio recorder and a shotgun microphone sooner rather than later. And that Apple and Canon have made it easier to capture video but no less easy to come up with a great idea and great direction. My take away? The real magic in video is the planning, the script and the sound. Getting pretty pictures is less complex.

So how does the Apple iPad fit in to all of this? Well, I think it's going to become the default device for all future magazines and newspapers. The iPad and other similar devices will reconstruct media as "apps" and people will buy them the same way the do games and songs on the iTunes store. Think about it. Great content that mixes still photos, video, type and audio interviews in one device that's large enough to comfortably take and read everywhere. Books, magazines, movies, TV shows, presentations and portfolios all in a device you can carry and use just about everywhere. And you can argue about whether or not it should have come with a camera or the ability to read flash but you just expose yourself as a previous generation thinker. Rev up those credit cards. This is one of those tectonic shifts that will revitalize the economy and our relationship with art and media. When everything is available you'll always want the good stuff. Prepare for the ascendency of the creative class. Get those IT guys out of the way before they get trampled.....

Let me know what you think of the Vimeo interface because I'm thinking that will become my default for sharing video. Now let's get back to work on some interesting photography. Thanks, Kirk

1.24.2010

Sunday Rants and Opinions


Cleaning your studio is like peeling an onion and finding gold inside.  Sundays are more routine for me than weekdays.  I get up, drink coffee and read the New York Times.  They I read Michael Johnston's blog, The Online Photographer.  Then I go to masters swim practice and we swim hard for an hour and a half.  I meet the family at our favorite bakery and hash over the week with the same friends we've shared our Sunday mornings with for going on fifteen years.

In the afternoon I either write or prepare the studio for the upcoming work week.  Today it was all about the studio prep.  I'm photographing an ad campaign for a regional utility this coming week and I wanted to make sure everything was ready.  That means testing cameras, charging batteries and making sure I have model releases, snacks and enough horizontal space for props and client stuff.  It also means I finally have to deal with stacks of prints and boxes of negatives that overflow onto the main floor.

I can't stand to just tidy up a stack of prints and toss them in a century box.  For some reason I have to go through and look at all of them. And when I do one or another catch my eye.  Today this one of my friend, Lou, stood out.  So I plucked it from the stack and put it next to the monitor so I could look at it for a while.  Why do some prints make you sit up and take notice on some days while other prints nudge you for attention on other days?

It's Spring-like today in Austin.  The highs were near 70(f).  There was a stiff breeze for most of the day.  People were out in shorts.  People were all over downtown.  I associate this image with Spring.  But I think the aspect that caught me was the print itself.  This was printed on the last of my graded Ilfobrom paper made by Ilford a long time a go.  It's a thick, double weight fiber stock and it's a classic glossy surface that's been air dried.  The print was selenium toned and archivally processed.  It's probably the tenth or eleventh sheet in the process.  We used to test a lot in the darkroom.  The print took a while to make because I used a semi transparent aperture device under the enlarging lens to blur the edges and corners.  And the device was very imprecise.  You had to wiggle it around a lot to get the look you thought you wanted.  You couldn't stop down the enlarger lens too much or the clear plastic edges of the aperture blades would start to come vaguely into focus.

I was also captivated by the edges of the print.  You can buy plug-ins for Photoshop that will approximate corners like this and I wonder if anyone who never printed in a darkroom really understands what the edges are all about.  At the risk of boring darkroom veterans I'd like to explain.  When we bought negative carriers for our enlargers we had to buy a negative carrier for each format of film we used.  Nearly all of them were cut out to be just fractionally smaller than the actual frame in the same way that camera viewfinders, for the most part, show slightly less than the full frame.  If you wanted to include all the image you had to get a file and fileout the edges of the negative carrier to show the edges of the film.  Everyone filed in a different way.  It was a craft project with not need for absolute accuracy.

Over time it became the style to cut your carriers wide enough so that you could read the edge print of the film when you made your prints.  Your negative carrier was uniquely yours.  No one else's was filed in exactly the same way.  Just as no one else agitated film during development in exactly the same way. Now the addition of frame lines in post production is largely a meaningless application, separated from it's need and it's meaning.

After the print was washed for an hour or so,  and more or less supervised through the wash process so that the paper didn't stick to the side of the washer and retain some future staining potential,  it was  scrapped dry with something that resembled a windshield washer and then place face down on a mesh screen to air dry.  The air drying left the prints with gentle bends and curves and and slight curls.  So, when the print was totally dry you'd place it under a stack of same sized prints and let time and gravity flatten it out.

No matter how careful a darkroom worker you were there were always dust spots that had to be attended to.  We'd mix up different colors of Spot Tone dye until we could match the selenium toned color of the black and white image and then we'd carefully pick up just the slightest touch of dye with a triple zero spotting brush and carefully work from the center of the tiny spot to the outside edges, working with tiny dots to make a whole tone that was an indistinguishable part of the whole fabric of the print.

Only at this point, when you'd made an investment of time somewhere in the range of four to five hours, would you have perhaps one or two prints that really made your heart sing and your eyes come alive.

It's a bit frustrating now to show work.  The venue seems always to be the computer screen.  The file, a scan from a negative or a digital camera capture.  But there's so much more to see on the prints.  My friend, Keith is working with an Epson 3880 these days and he brings along amazingly good prints when we meet for coffee.  His work is among the first I've seen (and believe me, I've seen plenty of inkjet work over the years) that captures the feeling of the darkroom.  His tonalities are great and his profile and printing are impeccable.  But there is something missing.  It's the imperfections that made hand printing in the darkroom what it was.  Just as we are subtly put off by a perfectly symmetrical face we are put off by perfect grain.  No matter that a stochastic screening method was used.  We cognitively see the regularity of the process and it annoys us that it's so reproducibly, relentlessly perfect.

That's what dawned on me today.  The imperfections are the surprise, the subtle humanizing of art.  The imperfections are loved for the same reason a child's primitive drawing is so special:  because no two will ever be entirely the same.  The one print you have is the only print just like it.

Not all prints fall into this category.  It's not that prints are magic just because they were printed in a darkroom.  But prints that required work;  required burning and dodging and blurring and diffusing (just in parts and just for short segments of the total time) were done with human hands and the inconsiderately inacccurate metronome of our minds and the swish of our hands.  And no matter how hard we might try those prints are unique.  And unique is what appeals to minds that are inundated with perfectly manufactured everything.

I propose that the next time you really want to show off your skills and your vision you do so with some righteous skin in the game.  Take this challenge:  Pick your favorite dozen digital images or film images and make the best print of each one you can possibly make.  Burn it where it begs to be burned and dodge it with the subtlety of of a surgeon.  Print it on the surface you know will bring the image into its best light.  Print it with some border around  the edges.  Give people something to hold onto while they hold it in front of their eyes.  Make it as large or small as the image demands.  Not everything has to compete in size with Gursky or the hyper-realists.  Some images are graceful at 4x5 inches and painfully dissected at 4x5 feet.

Then take these majestic prints and show them to people in areas where the light is neat and clinical.  Does it work? Was the idea and intention well thought out?  Does the subject beg you to linger and stare.  This is what good printing does.  But it all starts with an image that pushes you to do the process.

Let's be honest, if you know you're going to throw something up on Flickr, and Flickr is going to compress the image and smush around with the sharpness.  And the size means that the image won't show off anything subtle or detailed.  And you know people are going to look at them the same way they eat candy, but on a screen that's probably not nearly as well calibrated as yours,  then you really don't have much incentive to do the whole deal and commit to making the process work the same way you would if you were presenting 16 by 20 inch prints.  You WILL see cracks in your technique at that print size.  You will confront what artists have confronted for years when they had to commit to a process that invited detailed and lingering inspection.  You will care what you put on the paper in a totally different way.

This is not a rant about the difference between film and digital.  It's a rant about the difference between craft and convenience.  Between a home video and a movie.  Between toaster strudel and a real breakfast.  I know that the web lets you share your work all over the world. But it only lets you share at a level that may not show your skill and vision.  This is merely a test.  Make the big print and then show it to yourself.  At some point you will begin to have a whole new appreciation for quality.  And you may grow a new and more sophisticated audience rather than the routine, "Nice capture!  I'd have used a fill light on the other side to even out that girl's face!"

So I found the print and put it up on the wall next to my monitor and then I looked at the scan that I included above.  Do you remember when television sets had physical depth and most were about 20 inches diagonally?  And then you went out to see a movie?  And the sheer size and profoundly better production values hit you right between the eyes?  It's a lot like that.

The return of photographers.  I spend most Sunday afternoons walking around downtown Austin and enjoying the rhythm of the city.  When Austin was younger and photography was profoundly different more people carried around their Nikons and Canons and Olympuses and made art as part of their daily routine.  Everywhere you turned someone had their camera.  For months now the streets have been solitary.  Not a photographer anywhere.  But today I crossed paths and intersected with tons of photographers.  It was near sunset and couples were toting tripods,  shooting peeling walls and each other.  Reveling in photography.  And it was affirming to see.  It meant people had turned off their distractions and made a decision to be visually enchanted.  And to peel the onion.  And to look for a little bit of gold.

1.22.2010

Shooting White on White. How I do it........


I've written before about shooting stuff for Zachary Scott Theater, here in Austin, Texas.  I've been doing it for 17 years and I'm still having fun.  We shoot three major categories of photographs.  The first is set up shots to be used in marketing pieces to promote current and upcoming productions.  The second category are the "running shoots".  These are reportage style shoots that take place during the final dress rehearsal.  The third category are the shoots I do for the season brochures.  These are marathon sessions where we shoot to a concept that will be used throughout the year as both the theater's branding image and thematic leitmotif.  The images here are from the first category.  General promotion for a show.

Shown in these images is the cast of "Altar Boys", a really fun musical comedy.  But I'm presenting them here in rough form to show how I light white background images.

Yep.  That's me up on that bench pointing a Nikon D700 with an old 24-85mm zoom lens at the actors.  That's my ancient Gitzo carbon fiber tripod and you can see why I love it.  Even without the center column extended it reaches up seven feet tall.  I like shooting down.  It's a fun angle.  The shorts and sandals are mandatory summer wear here in Austin.


The front light is very simple.  It's a huge 84 inch Lastolight umbrella with its own, built in white diffusion panel.  It's beautifully soft.  Even when used twelve to fifteen feet from the subject.  Why the heck would I use it so far away?  Well, if you remember the inverse square law, the further away the light source the less fall off there is from side to side in the image.  And you can see how evenly the actors are lit.  The only other frontal modifier is a silver 48 inch reflector panel to the opposite side.

The nuts and bolts of getting a good, white background are simple:  You want very even lighting across the entire background.  That's why I'm using four umbrellas.  You want to make sure the light from the umbrellas doesn't spill forward and strike the subjects directly.  That's why we carefully focus the light sources into black backed umbrellas.  Finally, you want to forget all the nitwits who say you don't need a meter if you have a digital camera and you want to pull out your incident light meter and make sure that the white background (according to your incident light meter) is one third to one half of one stop brighter than the light on your subject.  Anything brighter and you risk the light bouncing off the background, wrapping around the edges of the subjects and degrading the whole image.  Once your histogram hits 255 how do you measure 1/3rd of a stop more?  You can do it easily and quickly with an incident light meter!


That's pretty much the long and short of it.  Each of the background lights was a self contained, 300 ws monolight while the main light was powered by a Profoto 1200 ws Acute and one head.  We shot maybe 250 shots with different groupings, expressions and gestures.  The finals were used in brochures, newspaper ads, post cards and on the web.  When we finished with the project my assistant, my friend Will and I went to Chuy's for some Tex Mex food.

A more in depth explanation of this set up is in my book: Minimalist Lighting: Professional Techniques for Studio Photography, from Amherst Media.

If you want to dive into how I shoot portraits we're doing a day long workshop in Austin, Texas on February 13th.  Hit this for the sign up page.....

1.19.2010

beautiful people are everywhere. get them into your studio.



Hardly a day goes by that I don't see absolutely beautiful people out walking on the streets, in the coffee shops and at the grocery store.  This is Mousumi.  I met her when I did a press check on a print project.  I did what I usually do:  I told her I would like to make a portrait of her, asked her to check out my website and to call me if she felt inclined.  That's really all you can do.  But I try to do it when I am confronted with beautiful people because I know that if I do nothing I may never have that opportunity again and I'll regret it.

There is a scene in the movie, Citizen Kane, where on old man in a monumental office is being interviewed and he is reminiscing about his past.  He remembers a day in his youth.  He was about to take the Staten Island ferry out and was watching a ferry coming in.  At the front rail was a woman about his age that he described as the most beautiful vision he'd ever seen.  He wanted to go and meet her.  Somehow strike up a conversation.  But he didn't.  And his boat was leaving.  And he got on and left.
And eight decades later, with moist eyes and a hesitant voice, filled with emotion, he says, "And there isn't a day that's gone by since then that I don't think about her...."  The regret of entropy, of procrastination.

I think every portrait photographer has in mind certain kinds of faces, and people with certain kinds of energy, that resonate with their styles.  If you depend only on paid commissions to do your art you may never be blessed with the kinds of subjects that add a vital spark to your process.  Without that spark of energy all you have is a job.

I think one of our goals as artists is to discover beauty and share it.  To make our interpretation of beauty a part of the fabric of our collective culture.  It's a wonderful responsibility.

1.18.2010

A fun, interesting, happy advertising job.

I didn't want too much time to go by this year without celebrating the jobs that make advertising photography fun, interesting and addictive.  And this job for client, LifeSize, definitely fits the bill.  I always love getting a phone call from my friends at the advertising agency, Clutch Creative.  Jason and Steve, the two owners and creative directors do really nice creative work, they have fun on their projects and they value their collaborators.

When they sent me the brief they were clear and concise.  Just for good measure they sent along comprehensive layouts (called "comps" in the industry....) so I'd know what they needed and how we should bid.  Our bid included pricing for the actual shoot as well as usage fees for their intended uses.  In putting together an advertising shoot there is so much more to consider than just how to shoot the photo.
Who would be making the props (including the screens that each actor is holding up in their photo)?  Who would do the casting?  Who handles wardrobe and what wardrobe do we need to bring?  How would we handle shooting the scenes that were dropped into the background?  Where would we shoot some of the big sets we needed to construct for the shots against white background?  How would the individual parts be composited together?  How would we feed and provide snacks for  a revolving door of models, make up people, assistants, agency creatives and clients?
We ended up using the living room of my house as the shooting studio.  It measures twenty four feet wide by nearly 50 feet deep and has very high ceilings.  With the help of my assistant, and the patience of my wife, we moved all the furniture onto our screened back porch.  And the night before the shoot we set about putting up white seamless paper and designing the lighting for the first series of shots.  My regular studio, which is just outside the front door of my house, would serve as a facility to store props and wardrobe and would provide a nice space for our make up artist to work in.

When you shoot against a white background it is critical to be able to place the model far enough forward from the background that there is no spill or "wrap around" light coming from the background which might lower the contrast or provide unwanted fill.  In set ups like these an incident light meter is critical to me.  The background must be metered to be one third to one half of a stop brighter than the main subject exposure.  Too bright and you'll have light bouncing forward that is unwanted.  To dim and you'll need to cut out each object, point by point in Photoshop instead of being able to use speedier drop out  tools.  While many will say that they can use the histogram in their camera I've never been able to camera meter something that's whiter than white, reliably!

We scheduled our talent to arrive in waves because, in addition to doing ads with individuals in them, we were also grouping three and four people together and using them in conference room shots and office shots.  The background photographs were shot on separate days.  Our first talent was in make up by 8am on the first day.  We shot these ads several years ago so the camera we used at the time was the Nikon D2x.  We always used the D2x at its base ISO of 100 and tried to use the lenses at their tested optimum apertures.  Generally f5.6 or f8.  We shot the talent and the screen in one shot because we needed the direction and the quality of light to match.

We used a ton of lights.  Four Profoto 300 ws monolights on the background, each firing into white umbrellas with black "spill kill" backings.  Each bank (left and right) of the lights on the background were flagged with black panels to control spill.  We used a Profoto 600 box with two heads throttled all the way down to provide  gridded backlits to help separate our key subjects from the background.  The main light was a 60 inch Octabox with a Profoto light head attached to a 1200 watt second box.

Timing from shot to shot was critical as was the ability to work quickly in setting up and tearing down group settings.  We shot tethered to a laptop so the creative guys could evaluate every change of light, expression and gesture.  The shoot took place over four days.  After the shoot was wrapped we still had a mountain of work to do.  We had to reset the living room to ensure domestic tranquility, reset the studio to ensure some kind of work flow and then return all the stuff we'd borrowed.  Finally, we settled into the giant edit and sent over 1200 likely candidates for the campaign.
No light failures.  No camera failures.  Totally professional talent, sourced from a real agency (Agence Talent), meant no cancellations or "no shows".  No human failures to speak of.

In part I am writing this because we're about to ramp up for another big, multi-day shoot and this blog serves to remind me of all the things I need to get done before we can start.  I hope my luck holds and the universe isn't carrying a grudge with me for anything.    I'll share another campaign with you soon.
Thank you very much for reading and participating.  Really makes this all worthwhile.  Kirk


That's a wrap.