3.03.2010

A Youth Misspent at the Printer.


When I ran an advertising agency I spent a lot of time doing press checks at the printers around town.  Never done a press check?  Sounds more glamorous than it is.  Or to quote early Ian Fleming, "It reads better than it lives."  Most printed pieces aren't very chic.  They tend to be utilitarian and straightforward.  You go to the press check to monitor quality.  It's your job to make sure that the guy whose responsibility it is to make sure all four colors line up together, and that there isn't a color cast or banding or weak colors does his job correctly.  And, as most veteran art directors will tell you.....most press checks happen in the middle of the night.  After a nice dinner and a glass of wine you tend to sit around the house waiting with a certain amount of dread for the phone call that lets you know, "We'll probably have your job on press around 11:00 pm."  When you get there you'll find out that printers have a whole different way of telling time and it's usually an hour behind whatever watch you're wearing.
So, you're a photographer, why should you care about the four color printing process?  Well, isn't this where you'd ultimately like your images to end up?  Are you content seeing them at 1200 pixels, splashed across Joe IT Guy's uncalibrated Dell monitor from 2002?  If you're like most photographers you dream of seeing your work in wonderfully rich magazines, in books and in annual reports and brochures.  And on that ultimate of two dimensional reproductive porn, the poster.  Well this really won't help much because photographers are rarely asked to do press checks unless they are good friends of the art director or they are paying for the job themselves.  

I didn't intend this to be about the nuts and bolts of four color printing anyway.  It's just that I came across this DVD in the archives and I'd forgotten all about this job I did for Hixo back in 2005.  We were illustrating some technical software products that were meant to bring tight and repeatable color management to the wet and sloppy craft of super high quality printing.  I never did find out what happened to the job but I did get paid and I did file these images under, "completed".  Which meant that I did my part.  (But here's a wretched secret I need to share with all those people dreaming of joining into the remarkable fun of freelance photography-------half the jobs you shoot get killed.  The best of the best rarely see the light of day.  Some concern or shift in the marketing strategy kills them as quickly as cyanide.....thought it only fair to warn you).   

I spent a day at the old Lithoprint printing plant just off IH-35 near downtown Austin.  We shot all the steps of having something printed in four or five or six colors.  I love the industrial ethos of the forty or fifty foot long Heidelberg presses.  I love the smell of the custom mixed inks sitting next to the giant grey machines in gallon sized paint cans.  And I love the guys who master the craft and, after years of training and apprenticeship, fire up these big monsters and get every step perfect so that spinning blankets and wet colored goo end up making discreet spots on paper with no shift from color to color.  Fast, wet color.
 While we always hated and feared the press check because of the big monkey wrenches it could throw at us we always walked out satisfied and proud of the work.  Going back as an observer.  A paid observer felt in some ways, privileged.  As though I'd skirted some recurring rite of passage and been invited into the lion's den without being hazed.
The thing I always forget is how loud it is in the busy print shops.  Big presses make big noise and the sound of large, thick press sheets being sucked off their tray and into the gaping maw of the German presses had it's own unique quality.  It's cliche but most of the time presses run like....well oiled machines.  None of the nozzle clogs that used to vex us ink jet printers.

So, I needed to use cameras that I could depend on for good available light performance and high sharpness.  I also wanted thick, rich colors.  For me, back a few years that meant two cameras that I loved using.  One is the Olympus e300 with it's 14-54 lens used at 400 ISO and the other camera, the one I used predominantly, was the venerable Kodak DCS-760 with a whopping six megapixels.  AND ABSOLUTELY NOISELESS AT ISO 80!!!!!  While everything moved we learned with slower camera to pay attention to the peaks of action where momentum would stop and people would freeze.  We also learned how to put these miracle cameras on tripods, making them as sharp (indeed, in many instances, sharper) today's 24 megapixel cameras.  
I will confess to loving a mix-matched lens/camera combination back then.  Nikon had just come out with the 10.5 mm fisheye lens for use on their DX cameras.  I disregarded protocol and jammed one on the DCS 760.  Look!  It vignettes on the edges.  And especially in the corners.  Of course I could crop that out but I really like the look.  

Most of the shots done here were shot at shutter speeds ranging from 1/2 a second to around 1/30th of a second.  No crazy 10 frames per second needed or wanted.  And white balance was all over the map.  But amazingly both cameras could be custom white balanced on the spot and this made post processing a snap.  That being said, I wanted the cyan and yellow mix that I got in the unbalanced photo below because it was more emotionally exact while being a bit dramatic.

Shooting on site, at someone else's office, by their grace and patience means that you can't be demanding and you can't be insistent.  You learn to be like water in a Zen koan and learn to divert around the rocks in the stream and find the paths of least resistance that move you forward on your path.  If you don't know how to make friends quickly, and show an honest interest in someone's daily work process, then this kind of work isn't for you.  Me?  I love industrial documentation almost as much as I love portraits and I love to do portraits more than most people love chocolate or money.  We got what we wanted. Made few friends.  Burned no bridges and didn't spill any ink.  It was a day well spent.

 We always talk about cameras and lenses but I must give an ample share of credit for the quality of these images to my noble tripod.  it's a ten year old Gitzo with a lot of miles on it but it's never gotten loose or shaky and it handles everything I throw at it.  It's nice to have a piece of gear that can actually freeze motion.....and freeze time.  All the best, Kirk





The Olympus SEMA-1 Arrives.

If you've read this blog for a while you know I've been an Olympus camera fan for a while but I've been critical of Olympus for shipping a really nice crossover video camera (the EP2) without shipping the one attachment that every video user needs/wants/craves.  That would be an attachment that would allow us to use external microphones while recording video.  Today I came home to find a Fed Ex package by my door and I was so happy to find that it contained the SEMA-1.

It's not a big thing but every video maker worth their salt wants to be able to use the right microphone for the job.  On my last video we made good use of a Sennheiser shotgun microphone to get decent sound without showing the microphone. The SEMA-1 consists of two parts.  The important one is the EMA-1 adapter which has the same plug interface as the EVF finder.  It replaces the EVF finder and provides you with a mini plug that accepts stereo microphones.

Some will wail about the tragic loss of the beautiful EVF finder and while I will mourn the loss while making videos I knew that was the deal when I purchased the camera.  With one of the Hoodman 3.0 Loupe wedged up against the back LCD it's not really that big of an imposition.

The other part of the package is a nifty little stereo microphone with an extension cable and a tie clip for attaching the microphone to people's clothing.  Nice touch.  I used the microphone to record some audio in the the studio with the mic clipped to my shirt.  And while there is some hiss this comes totally from the ALC (auto level control) on the camera side.  Canon's 5D was also ALC when first launched but yesterday they announced a firmware upgrade that brings up the camera to professional standards by adding manual level controls.  I don't expect that Olympus will do that on a consumer level product but we can always ask.......

In my mind it will be enough for countless crossover video/photographers to consider using the EP2 as a professional video tool.  In my mind I'll be able to use the  EMA-1 and my choice of microphones for most of my interview jobs.  If something is really "sound critical" I'll record it on a separate digital audio recorder, just to be safe.


The cable supplied is only six feet long but it's a standard termination on both ends and you can always pick up a longer and better shielded cable at you closest Radio Shack or from Amazon.com's endless resource of vendors.

Below is how the SEMA-1 looks all packaged together.  My take?  I think it is a simple and elegant solution that let's me get back to work.  If you are at all interested in recording good sound with your EP2 or EPL you'll want the EMA-1.  I'm almost certain that it will only come packaged with the microphone but that seems to be the way marketing committees work.  I may come to like their little microphone.  Time will tell.
When you've got everything on a fluid head tripod it works pretty well even without the best EVF finder around.  Tools are just tools, after all.  Here's my brief review of the microphone sound after my brief test, described above:  It's not bad.  It picks up a lot of room resonance and echo and is a little weak in the bottom registers but the overall effect is clean and crisp.

Now I'll get to work and put the camera and a shotgun mic through the torture test and report back.  For now we have achieved a state of happiness.  Of sorts.

3.02.2010

A video about the Magnum Print Collection.


The Magnum Photo Collection from kirk tuck and will van overbeek on Vimeo.
An interview with Harry Ransom Center curator of photography , David Coleman, about the Magnum Photo Collection which the Harry Ransom Center will be working with for the next five years. David talks about the contents and significance of this collection which includes some of the most important journalistic photographs of the twentieth century.


Imagine standing next to curator, David Coleman, on the quiet fifth floor of the Humanities Research Center, as he carefully opens an old Ilford photo paper box and starts to leaf thru a whole sheaf of vintage Henri Cartier Bresson work prints.  We turn one over and see the penciled signature and the appended, typewritten caption on the back.........

Let's rewind for a second.  A little history.  In the 1940's thru the 1970's most photojournalists  shot their assignments on black and white film and the medium of delivery to clients (mostly magazines and newspapers) was a black and white print.  The prints were intended to be returned to the photographer or the agency after their use.  Over the years the world's preeminent photo agency, Magnum, stockpiled nearly 200,000 work prints by the greatest names in documentary photography.  Now, in an age where most intellectual properties are digitized for delivery, they no longer required these prints to do their business.  What to do with two 18 wheeled tracker trailer trucks full of the 20th century's most important prints?

The answer came from Michael Dell.  He purchased the collection and is loaning the entire inventory to the Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin for the next five years.  Students and academics will be able to study all aspects of the prints.  I'm anticipating some really great shows of the work at the Center.

That's the background.  How do I fit in?  I got a call from brilliant advertising photographer and sometime video shooting partner, Will van Overbeek, who asked if I would help him shoot a video about the new collection for online magazine, Glasstire.  When I heard the details of the project I was in. (I would have been in anyway for another chance to work with Will..).

We hauled our usual assortment of gear over to the Humanities Research Center and found a fun location amidst stacks of portfolio boxes with labels like, "Henri Cartier Bresson: China",  "Joseph Koudelka", "Yugoslavia", "Gill Peress".  We interviewed David Coleman, the curator, in the middle of this rich treasure trove of images.

I was amazed to see dozens of new prints from masters whose work I thought I knew well.  Many had never been presented to the public before.  It was a rare privilege.

Will and I shared directing and editing duties.  We used his Canon 5D mk2 for capture.  

Will is no stranger to the Humanities Research Center's photo department.  His 2008 show of Barton Springs is in their permanent collection.  

If you are in Austin the HRC is a must visit.  The first two exhibits when you walk in the front door are the Gutenberg Bible and the first photograph.  Amazing.

2.28.2010

What would I really like to see in the next pro camera from Olympus?

     Paris Fashion Shows, 1995.  Louvre Carrousel.  Atsuro Tamaya Show.  Contax Camera.     135mm lens.  Manual focus.  Manual exposure.  Manual frame advance. ©Kirk Tuck

My friend and fellow photographer, Bill Beebe, recently sent me a short article outlining what he'd like to see in the next generation of Olympus digital cameras.  It's a solid bit of thinking and you can read it here:   http://blogbeebe.blogspot.com/2010/02/olympus-e-series-dslr-wishlist.html  That started me thinking about what I'd like to see from Olympus if and when they revise the e3 and come out with a new camera aimed at professional and advanced non-professional photographers.

My knee jerk reaction was the thought that I already had everything I wanted in a camera but I didn't think that would make a very compelling blog so I went out for nice, Sunday walk with my wife and pondered the question.  And I came to the conclusion that I'd be happy with two totally different pathways from Olympus.

The first path would be what I describe in the caption above.  A camera that has a minimum of controls and complexity.  A huge finder that is optimized for manually focusing lenses. A mode dial with two settings:  Manual and Aperture Priority.  A basic, but huge center AF sensor that could AF in the dead of a moonless night.  And the only file type would the .DNG.   No major choices would be made in camera.  No jpegs.  No art filters.  No screen overlays.  The camera would be as straightforward as an older Porsche 911.  Pre-turbo, pre-air conditioning, and certainly pre-automatic transmission.

Can you imagine how fun a camera like that would be?  No fiddling and twiddling when you should be shooting and schmoozing.  It would work out well.  Only tightly wound sports photographers need 10 frames per second and only neophytes need programmed exposure.  Only bored people really need art filters.   And your client can always wait a few moments for the files to be rendered into jpegs via a good and simple converter.  But in many, many ways a design like that would reduce the interface between the artist and the camera.  That's essentially the appeal of the Leica M cameras.  That was definitely the appeal of the Nikon F and the Nikon F2 and the Olympus OM-1.  Everything else you put on a camera is just sales bait.  Real photographers don't need that stuff.

The lack of both firmware and physical complexity yields a tool that is elegant and reliable.  No searching thru sub-menus to find out why the shutter won't release.  No time lost trying to change focusing spots.  Just an amazing and instant classic.

My one nod to contemporary features? The inclusion of Image Stabilization.  That's something that, once we have it, we can never live without.

Think this is nuts?  Have a pet "setting" that you just can't live without?  You might just need to practice and learn the nuts and bolts a bit better.  The above image was done "primitive" but it works as well as any AF super camera image would have worked.  I was shooting ISO 400 Agfapan at ISO 320.  The settings were probably f2.8 (wide open) and 1/125th of a second.  IS didn't exist back then.  And the model never stopped moving.  Back then we practiced focusing as a craft and an art and didn't run to our forums whining about front focus or back focus.  Front focus meant you tried to anticipate the movement but you were a little early.  Back focus meant you were a little late.  No IS meant you learned how to hold your camera still when you squeezed the shutter.  No auto exposure function meant you judged the light and locked in the exposures.  I know, I know,  I'm living in the past.  But if I was a pilot I'd still want to actually know how to fly that 747 just in case the computer decided to go south while the plane heads north.

So the first path is how I feel I want to go when I'm being all  rugged and self-reliant.  Kind of a  conservative "we don't need no government/camera company intrusion into our photo taking lives" take on photography.

When I get rational and accept that once automatic transmission is introduced people are going to be loathe to forgo the coffee and actually shift with that right hand, I have another vision of what camera manufacturers (and Olympus in particular) should do when designing cameras.  It's similar to what BMW found out in the 1990's.  Performance is great but what Americans really want is lots and lots of cup holders.  And a really good stereo.  And a smooth ride.  So much for designing performance tools.

In that vein I also have a vision for the perfect professional DSLR.

It starts with a super high quality EVF (electronic viewfinder) with zillions of pixels and no time lag.  Why? Because you'll be able to previsualize every effect and setting you make to the image before you even click the shutter.  Change the color balance?  You'll see it in the finder.  What to know how hot the exposure is?  You can see the histogram in the view finder without taking your eye away.  It's like magic.  It works well on the EP-2.  Make it two generations and more premium processing better and I guarantee you that no one who looks through the finder will ever go back to the compromise that is the Optical viewfinder.  Really.

All those people who swear they'll never buy a camera with an EVF will be throwing credit cards at the company that does this first and best.  No doubts.  I'd stake my (post 2009) 401k on it.

Next up?  A sensor that does 3200 ISO with little to no noise and also yields a big ass dynamic range.  Me?  I'll take dynamic range over ISO every day of the week.  I don't really care about the noise in any of the cameras currently on the market but......I've used several medium format cameras and a Fuji S5 and I've seen how good the dynamic range can be.  That's what I want in my camera.  Screw HDR.  If you have 12 stop range in your base exposure you've already got HDR without the seat time that pushes your evolution into nerdism and makes your thighs and belly all jiggly.  With a small sensor you're going to have to make compromises somewhere but D-range isn't the place to do it.

On my next flagship Olympus I want something that they already have figured out.  I want the ability to fine tune focus on my lenses.  They've implemented this perfectly on the e30.  No reason they can't do it on the eX.

Faster frame rates?  Nope.  I don't need em and most likely neither do you.  A slower frame rate means a shutter that last longer and is more reliable.  I'll take that.  I do want variable aspect ratios.  I have that in my EP-2 and it's changed my life for the better by giving me back the right to do square images.  And I can see them in the EVF.  No compromises necessary.

I would like to see all the camera manufacturers adopt the .dng files as the standard raw format.  Every new camera could be used in raw the day it's delivered in the elite programs.  Capture One.  ACR.  Lightroom.  Not some software afterthought.  Hey camera companies!  Be brave.  Open up that standard.  Help you customers get the most out of your cameras and they may love you better.  The only thing you have to lose is a few incremental sales of some really crappy software that you wouldn't wish on your mother.  And if the standard was truly opened the elite software programs would rush to optimize the hell out of it which would make your cameras look better and better.  All the raws are based on tiffs anyway.  Who do you think you are kidding?

Silent shutters.  Without a moving mirror (remember, we're going EVF) the only component that makes noise is the shutter and you could cut half the shutter noise by implementing a feature that Nikon first rolled out on the F4====silent.  Slow down the shutter charge and you'll eliminate a ton of noise.  Give us that option.  And with the 4:3rds cameras you have a natural advantage over FF cameras in the geometry and travel distance of the shutter curtains.  You made them quiet in the e1, you can do it again in the eX !!!!!!!!!!!  Nothing ruins the moment like a bingy-bangy shutter slap.  That's why I'm not shooting a D3 or a D700 right now.

Finally, if you are going to give me an EVF and no mirror you might as well really give some thought to the whole subject of video.  It's going to happen, big time, whether you like it or not.  We need full manual controls.  That includes shutter speeds, aperture, ISO and focus.  The EP2 is a great start but eventually those millions of people who want to start making fun videos will realize one very important thing.........It's the sound that really matters.  You have to give us manual control over microphone levels and you need to get real and give us a professional way to import the signal from a professional, external microphone or mixer.  You just have to.  No arguments.  You'll sell zillions more than Canon and Nikon if you just put two XLR connectors on the bottom of the optional (and highly profitable) accessory battery grip.  Make it easy for us to do great work and your cameras will look better and better.

No one really cares about price point if the product is superior.  If you build it right you can spend years dribbling down features to lower price point products.  Sub the XLR's for 3.5mm mini plugs in the next model down.  Give us back a legitimate reason for buying the flagship model.  Give us the right features.  Give us reliability and give us professional interfaces.  If we screw up the pan or the transition or miss the focusing point that's our problem.

There are a number of reasons why the 4:3rds sensor size is the optimum size for lens development and for video capture.  So far Olympus and Panasonic have stumbled and missed on making these arguments.  I don't care if a camera or lens is smaller or lighter than anyone else's.  I want to know that the sensor geometry makes it easier for the lens designer to design sharper, faster and better lenses and why.  I want to know why a FF sensor is a distant second to FT sensors because the 4:3rd sensors yield the optimum DOF for video and focus depth.

That's about it.  I still don't care about art filters or fast frame rates or "super lock on continuous sports focus."  That's not relevant to most shooters.  I want a camera that's good to hold and good to shoot.  Something like an Olympus e1 with the guts of an EP-2.  And a better, faster EVF.  Hit that and we're all done.  But really?  I'm happy as a clam with my e30 and e3 and so are my clients.  Want a wake up call?  Most of the documentation shots in my fourth book were done with a point and shoot camera.  No big, fast, angry camera needed.

With the world going to HD TV screens as their primary media everything over a certain file size is just  tail fins on a Cadillac.  Bicycles for fishes.

Stay tuned. It's getting fun out there as the economy recovers......



2.25.2010

I'm a sucker for eyes. Go figure. And an honesty is the best policy disclosure.


The late, great David Ogilvy was widely considered the ultimate godfather of modern advertising.  His agency was also among the first to scientifically test advertising.  According to Ogilvy, if you want to stop a reader of magazines dead in their tracks with an ad the sure fire method is to use an image of a person looking straight out at the reader.  It's human nature not to look away.  And it moves more readers to read headlines in print ads that any other technique.  That's why I love portraits.  And that's why my portrait subjects generally look directly into my camera.  In fact, I find it disturbing when the subjects of portraits look off to one side or the other.  I like an occasional profile but that's a rare pleasure like eating ribs.

I shot the image of Sarah above as a possible cover shot for my third book for Amherst Media.  There was another set that I liked even better that had Sarah on the pedestrian bridge spanning Lady Bird Lake here in Austin, Texas.  Let me see if I can find that.......Oh.  Here it is:


I shot this with a nice, soft diffuser right behind me blocking the direct, weak sun.  It was a 3/4 stop diffusion scrim from Westcott.  I never really heard why but the Publisher, Amherst Media, thought that the collage of images below was more suited to the subject matter.  And to a degree it is a more honest representation of what's in the book.  After all, the book has nothing to do with photographing beautiful women on bridges in central Texas.  It's a guidebook to actually make money doing things like taking photographs of beautiful women on bridges in central Texas.  I like the shot above pretty well but the people at Amherst know what they're doing and the book is selling well.  It's funny though.  Everyone I meet wants to become a professional photographer yet few of them have any interest at all in what I have to say about living through 25 years in the industry and making a good living year over year.  When I talk about marketing and advertising or billing (all things covered in this book) their eyes glaze over and they head over to the counter at our favorite coffee shop to order another strong drink.  

But when the conversation turns to gear everyone is all ears.  They want to know what kind of flash triggers I use and are routinely disappointed when I tell them that, most of the time, in the studio, I end up using a sync cord.  They want to know which camera art directors like best but they become disenchanted when I tell them that art directors are much more interested in the presentation of your portfolio images than by the gear you shoot with.  And when it comes to lights.....well you'd think Profoto was one of the original disciples.  

What is it about the whole subject of business that turns so many photographers off?  Is it the similarity to all the other businesses out there?  I guess people come to photography to escape what they see as a deadening routine.  They don't want to be told that, in order to be successful, they will have to do the same sort of week in and week out marketing that the dry cleaners and the coffee shops have to do.  People have to know where to find you, what you do and how you charge.

If you want to stay in this charming business you also have to know how to charge and how to license the rights to your photos without giving away the store.  But really,  most people flock to the business because they find the gear to be so much fun and the anticipation of shopping for and then buying even more gear even more fun.  This seems truly to be a business where nearly everyone seems to think the grass is always greener in the next photo system and once they buy brand X they immediately notice the emerald shade of green across the way at the other manufacturer's field.

So, I understand why my publisher chose to lead with the collage below.  It represents that subjects that are covered in the book.  They won't be blamed for bait and switch.  

I've done a  bunch of lighting workshops and a well received portrait workshop but now I'm thinking of doing a marketing and business workshop based on the subjects I cover in the third book.  I guess my question to all my readers is whether or not you think there would be any interest in this sort of workshop.  I suspect that the people who are already in the business will shy away for the same reason that owners of particular cameras feel duty bound to defend whichever choice they've already made.  If you just spent your yearly marketing budget on a page in Black Book (if it still exists) you probably don't want to be told that you could have stretched your dollars further in another area.  That leaves people who are in other fields who are thinking of switching.  And I don't think they'll be interested either since they are sure to be invested in the idea that it's a great and profitable business with more than enough profitable room for all comers.  The last thing they want to hear as they contemplate some sort of move is how hard the business has become and how much work they may have to do to become mildly successful.

At any rate, I'd love some feedback from the usual characters (whom I've come to count on for some really good and sometimes face-slappingly jarring advice).  Should I share my last few secrets?  Will anyone come to a workshop about writing contracts, personalizing model releases, dealing with billing and getting clients to pay you on time?  Will people be as excited figuring out a good marketing campaign as they are about opening the box surrounding a new D3s or 5Dmk2?

Or should I take the easy way out and keep doing the lighting workshops?  I guess everyone could just buy the book and be done with it but my wife, Belinda, constantly reminds me that everyone learns differently and for everyone who learns best from reading three or four learn best by watching and doing.



With that in mind I wanted to let everyone know two more things that are important to me.  First, the fourth book, Lighting Equipment, is at the printers and should be at Amazon and wherever else fine photographic books are sold, by the end of April or the beginning of May.  This book is a look at all the different tools you can use to customize your lighting so that, in the end, your photographs really look like your photographs. It's already available for presale at the big A.  I ordered one for my mom.  I hope she likes it. My favorite part of the book is the look at all the stuff they use in the movie industry.  Nice to know now that everyone is rushing to get their chops up to speed in the world of video.......



My other important thing is more in the way of a disclosure.  I want to always be honest with all you guys and I feel like any time a photographer develops a relationship with a camera manufacturer that goes beyond a hearty hello, the offer of a cup of Sprite at their booth and the surreptitious passing of a free lens cleaning cloth or two during a store visit by a rep, it's time to fess up and let people know. 

About a week ago the folks at Olympus approached me about being a speaker at the upcoming Photo Expo sponsored by Precision Camera and Video, here in Austin, Texas.  Happens in May.  Details to follow.  I'm going to put together a few slide shows and show my work and talk about the way in which I use Olympus cameras and lenses.  In exchange I'll get one or two pieces of gear that I always wanted to own but didn't want to dip into Ben's college account in order to afford. I can promise you that I won't be swayed by Olympus's largess but where you want to peg that on the credibility scale is now totally up to you.

And before you think this gives me any clout with Olympus remember two things:  I still don't have an EMA-1 microphone adapter for my EP2 cameras and second, I bought nearly all of my very cool Olympus gear long before anyone made me an offer I'd feel silly to refuse!!

Would it be over the top to point out that the image for the book cover just above was shot with an Olympus e3 and one of their really nice zoom lenses?  I didn't think so.

Want to know what I know about the business of photography?  Try this yummy book:




2.21.2010

Things I learned photographing a TEDx Conference......


There's the TED Conference and then there are TEDx Conferences and I think I should explain the difference first.  The original TED conferences are all about a once per year, concentrated assemblage of international talents from interesting segments of our culture, over the course of three days attendees hear 18 minute presentations from 50 people.  For more information, please go here:  http://www.ted.com

Ruby Jane Smith.  A gifted 15 year old musician, singer and songwriter peforms at TEDx.

These conferences are limited to about 450 attendees and you must become a member of TED for thousands of dollars and then apply to attend.  Obviously, it becomes a very exclusive event very quickly and that is part of its appeal.  But the power of the information presented is available to every one since the conference modules are made available on the web.
Rip Esselstyn, Author of the bestselling book, The Engine 2 Diet.  Leads of the speakers for the day.

In addition to the TED Conference groups can apply to become a franchisee and create and produce a TEDx event in their own city.  The organizers follow certain proscribed rules and seek out sponsors to help produce a very professional event.  Since Austin is quickly becoming recognized as one of the most influential cities in the United States it seems obvious that Austinites were ready for their own TED event.
That happened yesterday on the world famous sound stage of the long running music show, Austin City Limits.  The event was incredible.  Tightly and very professionally organized by a group of people who actually produce events for a living.  The facility is world class and located on the University of Texas at Austin campus.  The whole event was taped for future sharing on pedestal mounted broadcast cameras and the stage was lit by a crew who've done international TV for years.  Our TED event covered on very full day and featured 18 speakers and performers.  With one morning break, lunch and one afternoon break it was a full day for the crew and organizers.

Austin DJ, Dr. No keeps things lively at lunch and during the breaks.

I was asked to be the event photographer.  The rules for the audience were strict:  No texting, no tweeting, no cellphones, no laptops, no video recording, no photography.  All the images would be taken by me and will be shared on the TEDx website.  I had unlimited access to every part of the show.

Now, this is not my first event "rodeo".   I am the veteran of two decades of corporate shows that span the globe.  I've photographed events for 10,000 people and I've done them in places like Monte Carlo, Paris, Madrid and even Nashville.  I've shot them with film and I've shot them with digital.  I've photographed entertainers like the Bare Naked Ladies, Cheryl Crow and Lyle Lovett.  I've photographed speakers like former presidents George Herbert Walker Bush and Bill Clinton,  Sir David Frost, Daniel Pink and many others.  But this is my first volunteer event.  Every person involved in the event, from Manuel's Restaurant who hosted the Speaker's dinner the night before and the breakfast for 400 on the day of to the people who made the programs was a "sponsor".  I was also a "sponsor".


This was my first big event in which I used only Olympus digital cameras.  I took along a small amount of equipment for this show since all of it would be on one stage.  I needed fast lenses that would suck up all available photons and I needed those lenses to be hyperbolically sharp, wide open (because that's where I like to play...).  I choose two lenses and three camera bodies.  I packed the e3, e30 and the e520 in the bag along with the 14-35mm f2 lens and the 35-100mm f2 lens.  That's right.  Both of them go all the way to f2 at every focal length in their range.  And here's the amazing thing:  Both of them are sharper wide open (according to the DXO test performed on the SLRgear website) than any of their bigger format competitors are at just about any f-stop at any range.  Here's the weblink for the 14-35mm. First lens to acheive a perfect "10" in every parameter.  The review of the 35-100 is nearly identical.
Politico, Mark McKinnon shares his epiphany about life.


So.  three cameras, two lenses, a handful of batteries, a Metz 48 flash (dedicated to the Olympus cameras) and a monopod which I quickly decided was unnecessary.  All three bodies feature very effective in body image stabilization.  I put the long lens (the 35mm equivalent of a 70-200mm) on the e3 camera and the 14-35mm on the e30 to start.  The lighting on the stage gave me this basic reading as ISO 1000= aperture f2.5, shutter speed 1/160th of a second.  Both cameras were set to RAW, single frame autofocus, single shot mode, center sensor and spot metering.  Since the majority of the background was black any other metering pattern would be useless.  I made sure to turn off the autofocus assist lights and anything that might make noise.  I tend to shoot on 4 gb cards as they fit on one DVD and I hate to have too many eggs in one basket.

The 35-100 was perfect for tight stage shots of the speakers and for quick, turnaround and shoot, reaction shots from the crowd.  The shorter lens was perfect for shots from backstage and at angles to the stage that showed the performer and the crowd.  The shorter lens got plenty of use during the break.  One thing that's important to note is that all the cameras are always set to manual exposure.  I know from experience that, unless the light techs change the light design during the presentation that my first metered value will hold true no matter what angle I'm shooting at and having consistent images to work with make post processing a breeze.

Both the e3 and the e30 worked well and consistently.  The finder on the e3 is great and the one on the e30 is nearly as good.  The BLM-1 batteries last me about 600 images with an embarrassing amount of chimping.  I took about 2000 images and only replaced the battery in the e3 once.  No other camera needed a new battery.  So why did a I bring along an e520?  Two reasons.  First, you should always have a backup and my shooting style for this show called for not changing lenses and having two cameras with two different lenses at my disposal for immediate use.  I just don't have time to change lenses and it would require something to hold the second lens in.  I might as well have that second lens on a body over one shoulder of the other.  Secondly, I'd read on the DXO site that the e520 was second only to the e3 in low noise ISO performance and I wanted to make some images with all three and compare them.  I had thought about consigning the  e520's after getting newer gear but this article gave me pause.

Surprise, the e520 runs well.  Right next to the e3 but the secret to all three of these small sensor cameras is that you can't keep the noise down in the competitve region unless you nail the exposure.  I want a few frames to be overexposed just so I can remind myself not to slack off and head for the supposed safety of underexposure.

I learned one thing the hard way.  The lights were gelled and when I shot RAW the color corrections were one or two clicks in Capture One 5.0.  When I shot Jpeg (which I did from time to time for comparison) the shifted color was much more difficult in post to bring back to neutral.  It was also easier to get good noise filtration using the controls available in Capture One than to rely on the noise settings in the camera.  I'm rethinking my whole Jpeg versus RAW manifesto and may need to embarrass myself by doing a "180" and go back to shooting all raw.  My close photographer friends will never let me live it down and yet, with Capture One software as the raw converter the raw files look profoundly good.  Yes......better than the Jpegs.........

I got a lot of stuff right.  I wore black pants and a black long sleeve shirt.  And since I've been dying my hair grayer I wore a black baseball cap as well.  This meant that I had a very small visual footprint when I needed to work close to the stage and I was much less distracting the the audience.  I learned that the way a camera feels in your hand is at least as important as its "on file" characteristics.  Especially when you have it in your hands for 12 hours straight.  Yes, twelve hours straight.  Yes the 35-100 does get heavy!  I learned that in a really dark room it's hard to get good focus with just about any camera and lens combo.  But when I needed to use flash I was either photographic couples or small groups.  On the first glimmer of a AF slow down I set the aperture of the 14-35mm to f8 and put two small, white pieces of gaffer's tape on the focusing ring.  One at the one meter mark and one at the two meter mark.  Then I spent my "dark" time zone focusing and using the hyperfocal distance to cover focus area.  With the smaller format it was a snap and all the images taken this way are sharp and the shutter actuation is instantaneous.  I'd forgotten what a useful technique zone focusing is.

I took off any filters and always used a lens hood and that meant that I could shoot into stage lights; actually include them on the edges of the frames, without any flare or halation.  I wore my comfortable Costco all terrain cross training shoes and experienced no discomfort or foot fatigue.

There are two ways for photographers to evaluate events like these:  Did you have fun and meet interesting people?  And,  Did you get great shots?  I'm finishing up the post processing today and I can said with conviction that the Olympus cameras and lenses were incredible.  The sharpness of the images at a nearly wide open f stop of 2.5 or 2.8 is on par with my older Nikon 70-200 at 5.6.  And that's not really fair to the Olympus glass since it has no flare, very little fall off and is actually a bit sharper even at these vastly different f-stops.  The IS in the Olympus cameras works and I never think about dust.  The cameras fit my hands well (I've taken the battery grips off and like both cameras better this way) and feel right.  High ISO noise?  I shot up to 1600 and I didn't see anything that couldn't be easily handled by the noise reduction in Capture One.  (Need to do a comprehensive review on this software.  It is so good).  While my friends swear by the newest Canons and Nikons I love the idea and the execution of the Olympus 4:3rds cameras.  I like the aspect ratio of the format.  I like that they have amazing, pro lenses.  I like that the cameras are relatively small and quiet.

As to the fun quotient I'm happy to report that 90% of the presentations were either very moving or intriguing and thought provoking.  A great average by any measure!  The catering was great, the coffee was wonderful and the crew went out of their way to produce a world class show.  I met some incredible people, like Richard Garriott and John Pointer.  Met a 15 year old musician that will doubtless be making Platinum albums in a couple of years.  Shared glasses of wine with prime movers and shakers in Austin's marketing and advertising industries.  I even got home in time to watch a movie with my wife.

I got smarter, got to shoot all day,  got well fed and met cool people.  All in all a good day.



Behind the scenes at Austin TEDx.  20 Feb. 2010





2.19.2010

New video for Glasstire Magazine online.


Okay Mountain Collective. The Big Strange Mystery Show. from kirk tuck and will van overbeek on Vimeo.
A video about the Okay Mountain Collective and their San Marcos show, Big Strange Mystery. Produced, directed, edited and engineered by Will van Overbeek and Kirk Tuck. For Glasstire.

For more information about Will: willvano.com

For more information about Kirk:
kirktuck.com

Will van Overbeek and I have struck again. We've completed another assignment for online art magazine, Glasstire. Above is our video exploration of Okay Mountain, an art cooperative with ten members, here in Austin, Texas. We like it and we especially like the bubbling and gurgling noise in the sound track. The artist were wonderful and the show is well worth a trip to San Marcos. For me, the high point of the project was the Vietnamese soup we had in Kyle, Texas on our way to the venue.
 
We used two cameras in our production. The majority of the footage recorded with sound was shot using a Canon 5Dmk2 with a 28 to 135mm zoom lens. We also used the EP-2 with the kit lens for the intro shot and one "snap pan" of the hanging skeleton of the mythic river monster.
 
We tag team directed and, in this project, Will ran the camera and figured out the framing while I handled the sound. I used a painter pole connected to a nice Sennheiser shotgun mic for sound. The issue is always being able to get close enough to the speaker to exclude background noise. The optimum distance would be to have the working end of the mic within 18 inches of the speaker's mouth while keeping it out of the shot. We're still running the mic output directly into the Canon. We'll use the Tascam Digital recorder for the next project which should give us a lot more control over levels......
These projects are an absolutely fun divertimento from regular photography and we're learning how to be less "He was a loner. Kinda kept to himself...." and more "Yay! Teamwork". I think we both consider these projects as collaboration exercises.
 
Editing: We know that Final Cut Pro is the gold standard but to tell the truth we're really into the simplicity and straightforward capabilities of iMovie from Apple.
Stay tuned. We've got a big one coming up soon. And be sure to check out Glasstire, they have their fingers on the pulse of fine art in Texas. It's a great resource.
 
If you want to learn more about marketing and monetizing a commercial photo business you might want to snag a copy of my Commercial Photography Handbook. I notice it's gaining momentum this week. Several colleges have adopted it as a textbook for their business courses in the photo programs! Thanks. Kirk

2.18.2010

How would I design a perfect camera for me?


When I was a kid fast cars were king in the U.S. and we spent a lot of time with notebook paper and Bic pens drawing fantasy cars.  What would our ultimate car be like?  Of course there would be hood scoops and spoilers but also big fat tires and engines that virtually bulged thru the hoods like steroidial biceps.

Then we got all grown up and discovered "trade offs".  We'd trade acceleration for fuel efficiency.  We'd trade hauling capacity for aerodynamics. And we'd trade cool for value or reliability.  Now we drive Hondas and Toyotas and the errant Ford or BMW.  No Super Hemi Charger SS stud cars.

In early days of digital we dreamed about our ultimate cameras. They would have "at least" 6 megapixels!!!!  Would shoot at least 2 frames per second!!!!  They would have very clean files right up to ISO 400!!!!!  And they would write at least 8 big raw files to the memory card before you "hit" the buffer and hit the wall of waiting.

I was putting together my current stuff for an event shoot this weekend and I started thinking about what I want out of a camera today.  Here's the basics:  I want 12 megapixels and I want them at 5 shots per second in raw.  We've already got that.  I'm set there.  I want more that 18 raw files in a row without a slow down or hiccup.  We've already got that.  If you need more you're shooting something so frenetic and weird that the rest of us don't even know about it.  I want a great finder and a great rear LCD that I can swivel around and look at from many angles.  Okay.  My Olympus e3 and e30 both do pretty much all of this without breaking a sweat.  For nearly all of my work I need a good, solid ISO 200-800 and I've got that from just about any DSLR I pick up.

So what do I want that isn't out there?  This will sound strange but I'm ready for electronic viewfinders.  I was an early adopter with the Sony R1 but the performance was nowhere near convincing.  It was the Olympus EP2 that changed my mind.  The overwhelming feature?  Being able to set a specific aspect ratio and see exactly that ratio in the finder, edged by black.  I'm partial to the square but occasionally I'll set a 16:9 ratio for images destined for hi-def monitors.  Wonderful. And it's also wonderful that the finder matches the output to such an exacting degree.  It's also great to see a histogram or a quick, hi-mag view live on the screen.  I'll go out on a limb and say that this is the future.  In five years all camera manufacturers will have abandoned prism finders and implemented very good EVF's.  It will go hand in hand with the inexorable drop in DSLR prices.  And we'll love em.

I want a bigger EVF in a body like the current Olympus e3.  Maybe we could make that body a little smaller and lighter as well.

If we take out the pentaprism couldn't we also do away with the moving mirror?  That would reduce the number of moving parts in a DSLR by a huge amount.  All that would be left is the aperture stop down mechanism and the shutter.  So cameras would be lighter and more reliable.  Not bad.  And not having to charge a mirror would also save on battery power to offset the increased use by the EVF.

The next step (and it already exists) is purely electronic shutters.  No moving curtains.  The advantages are twofold:  Fewer moving parts and faster flash syncs.  At this point the only moving part of the camera body would be the in body image stabilization.  Just about nothing to go wrong mechanically.

So now the cameras would be smaller, lighter, less expensive and more reliable.  Not bad.  Not macho but not bad.

Starting to sound like a tool that's becoming transparent.  Almost invisible.
At that point we can turn the prowess of engineering to creating lenses that are smaller and lighter but have as good or better performance.  Really,  if you could have all the performance of a Nikon D3 in body that weighed three quarters less but had all the peformance parameters you needed and was 20% of the price wouldn't that be good.  Let's face it, the barriers are gone anyway.  Why continue to carry around the heavy and bulky legacy of the mustache wax days?

On another note:  I think I figured out how the medium format camera manufacturers screwed up.  We saw these cameras as a replacement for our studio (read:  moveable standard 4x5 and 8x10 cameras) but we only looked at the resolution.  In the ten years before MF digital came into existence we were well past the need to use big cameras just for resolution.  The real advantage of the view cameras that the MF's replaced (and which is rarely duplicated) is the ability to use movements.  To shift, tilt, raise and lower, and swing each standard, independently.  By doing so we had total control over product/subject geometry and also distribution of focus.  Everything else about large format film cameras was a red herring.

While Nikon and Canon are on the right track with their tilt and shift lens I'm hoping that someone comes out with a modular camera which is small and affordable (anything over 8 megs.....) and can do actual tilts and swings and shifts.  The size of the sensor is immaterial.  In fact it should be easier to make longer TS lenses for smaller formats.  Once they have that licked they can start working on tilting and shifting zoom lenses.  With 12 to 20 megs and full movements we will have achieved what we already had twenty years ago.  It's all about control.

From multi-tasking to tunnel vision. Choices, choices, choices.


You know how it is when you check into your hotel room and start flicking thru the channels on the TV?  There's usually about 120 options, not counting the in room pornography channels and the movies that cost money.  The ones that you can't really expense.  And in the end you end up turning off the television and trying to find something to read in the gift shop because no matter what you choose on TV you'll regret the time you wasted and you'll be certain that, while you were watching a Seinfeld re-run or a Steven Segal movie for the 5th time, you will have missed something even better on another channel.

There have been a few good books written in the last few years about the "tyranny of choice".  Seems the more choices people have the less happy they are in life.  If you get to a shelf with sixty different kinds of peanut butter the need to choose wisely becomes overwhelming.  And no matter which jar of organic extra crunchy you pick you end up with the queasy feeling that you've overlooked something that might be a better value or even a better product.  In the end shopping becomes a form of torture.

And that's just for those of us who are usually decisive and have a good, built-in "decision tree" mechanism.  Pity those who are already wishy-washy.

Okay, Tuck.  What the hell does this have to do with photography?  Well, everything.  As photographers I think there's a tremendous force of market that makes us feel as though we should have a style.  Any style----as long as we have a style.  But it takes years of shooting and shooting to develop one on your own so the conventional wisdom is to "adopt" a style by emulating someone else's style that catches your eye.  And in the course of "appropriating" the style there is almost assuredly the wish or hope that whatever deficiencies are perceivable in your rendition will be chalked up to your "unique" interpretation of your "appropriated" "homage" to this "adopted" "emulation". 

But you know the whole idea of copying a style to learn is absolute bullshit and only serves to prolong your omnidirectional apprenticeship.  It's like trying to learn how to swim with a giant intertube around your waste.  So why do we copy other people's styles in a vain attempt to create our own?

I think it's because there is the perception that there are too many styles to choose from and the tyranny of choice is paralyzing.  In ancient history photographers were inspired (could copy from) only the styles they saw in magazines, books and newspapers.  The craftier ones (better schools?) could also draft behind pieces of fine art....paintings, sculpture and the like.  But the range was finite and soon exhausted.  At that point an artist had to make some declarations and plant his flag in the creative firmament.  You could only copy Henri Cartier Bresson for so long before the rubes got wise to your plagiarism.

Now you could go your whole life just aping stuff you see on Flickr, and the other share sites.  But what does that buy you?  Perhaps it's better to labor in ignorance, unsullied by anyone else's influence.  But that may be impossible in our highly visual culture.

Why am I thinking about all this?  There is a personal angle.  And that's my realization that choices can negatively impact your own art.  Here's my brief story:  I love shooting portraits.  I love shooting stuff like the image above and I should have spent the last few years diligently doing this work.  But I started writing stuff.  And it was fun.  And the more I did it the easier it became.  Then I was approached by a publisher and have since done four books on photography.  Each book consists of between 50,000 and 60,000 words.  Each book consisting of between 75 to 100 images.  And writing and producing all the images was only part of the deal.  You soon discover, no matter how good your publisher is, that you will best be able to do the social marketing and personal marketing required to drive significant sales.  

When the bottom dropped out of the commercial photographic market I also started doing various workshops to supplement my income.  These are a real blast.  Add to that some speech writing for a big client, some advertising writing for another and a few video projects and you've got a formula for disaster. Write a book?  Take a picture?  Help with someone else's speech or book?  Take a picture?  Make a video?  Take a picture?  Teach a workshop? Take a picture?  You get the point.  Death by a thousand dilutions.  How thinly can you spread your energy and attention?

Having multiple skills is a blessing and a curse.  Do you focus like a laser on the one thing that brought you into the fold in the first place or does short term expediency drive you to accept diverse kinds of work that prevent you from concentrating on what you love best?  2009 is over.  The relentless economic panic is diminishing.  Decisions have to be made.  Everything or one thing.  Mastery or coverage.  The tyranny of choice hovers over me like a buzzard.  But once Pandora's box was opened......to be continued.

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.