This is not so much a walk through remembrance gardens as it is a quick salute to one old war horse of a camera. My Kodak DCS 760's last battery bit the dust. It holds enough charge to get off maybe ten or fifteen images before shutting down altogether. I've made no secret through the years that this is my favorite digital camera for all the same reason I've always talked about here. I doesn't have an extensive menu of choices. It was built to be a RAW only camera and Jpeg capability was added later via a firmware upgrade. There are very few user settings to work with. There's no "dynamic range enhancement" feature because the camera already kicked butt when it came to dynamic range.
There's only two focus modes and while you can set single and continuous for frame rates you'll only get 1.5 fps as your fastest throughput. There are no "sports modes". There's no "vivid" or "landscape" setting. The body is based on Nikon's venerable F5 and the whole thing is a nearly five pound block of metal. The screen on the back is miserable. It pushes you to double check what you're doing with a good light meter. And, even in their prime of life, the batteries sucked and the camera sucked down batteries.
So why do I love this camera? Well, it's the same reason any photographer should love any camera: The files look so nice. So very, very nice. Even today I love the look I get from this camera. It's enough to make me plug in the A/C adapter and get busy. When I look back over the last ten years at all the digital cameras I've owned this one consistently gave me images and campaigns that looked different and better. Almost magical. In fact, one of the things that attracted me to the first generation of Olympus professional cameras (as exemplified by the E1's that I still own.....) was the look of the files from the Kodak sensors. So different from the other solutions on the market.
Yes, I've been using PhotoShop for decades. I can probably emulate the look with enough post processing but the point is that the art just squirted out of this camera with reckless abandon.
The shot above was part of a series for the Austin Lyric Opera. We shot it with a Nikon 105 DC lens nearly wide open. It was lit with a six by six foot screen to the left of frame, very close in and slightly over the top of Meredith. The main light source was a 1,000 watt Profoto ProTungsten, continuous halogen light. The background (nearly 60 feet away) was lit with a single 300 watt DeSisti spotlight. I used an 80B filter on the camera to bring up the blue spectrum and avoid blue channel noise in the file.
The image was processed in Kodak's Photo Desk software and then tweaked in PhotoShop.
I had other cameras available to me at the time but I chose this one because it matched my vision of the palette I wanted for this job. Too often we buy one camera or one system then shoehorn everything into that one set of tools. And it's not always an optimum choice. The painfully high res camera may not always be the ultimate choice. One system may have lens strengths in one area but not another. Your mood may change. Even now, with all the feedback I've gotten over buying some Canon gear it's good to remember that I shoot with more than that one system.
Granted, it's easier to shoot with the cleanest, highest res LCD's as guides. It's nice to have great high ISO performance. But I still keep two different Kodak cameras around for their unique color and file contrast. I keep a Sony R1 around because it love that lens for outdoor stuff. I love the Pen series from Olympus for its feel and its gorgeous jpegs (and good movie mode) and I still keep a drawer full of Rollei SLR MF film cameras when I want real black and white and not just the canned SilverFX looks. (I'm sure I'll hear from SilverFX fans so I'll just say that they're really good. They're not Tri-X on Seagull warmtone or Ilfobrom Gallerie).
I'm not writing this to suggest that you rush out and buy old cameras. Or even new cameras. I wouldn't have brought it up at all if I hadn't just put together a portfolio full of portraits and lifestyle shots and spent the better part of a month selecting and printing images. I assumed that the old Kodak images would fall apart compared to some of the newer stuff I'd been shooting on the Canon 5D2 but it just wasn't the case. When it comes to portraits it's a whole different ballgame than technical subjects with lots of detail and sharp edges. At 13 by 19 it all looked technically good. And that included images from the 6 megapixel Kodak, a ten megapixel Olympus, some Nikon D2x files, some Canon files and even an entry from the Leaf AFi7 system (39 megapixels). They all coexisted just fine in one book.
I showed the book yesterday at a design firm called Pentagram. The designer I showed the book to stopped and savored the four images from the Austin Lyric Opera series. I included a variation of the one above. To her, the look outweighed any sort of technical differences. It might have been a different ballgame if I'd been showing landscapes or big production ad shots. But for portraits. I think I was right a year ago. The Kodak's were a milestone.
Emily. Taken with an Olympus e-30 and a 35-100mm f2 zoom lens.
Gosh, I really like photography. And I think it's a lot like playing the piano. You need to practice all the time if you're going to be any good at it. It may seem like one of those crafts where you can learn all the stuff you need to know and then shelve it until you have time. But I think that only works for hobbies like stamp collecting or artistic pursuits like conceptualism. If you paint you need to learn to control the brush and the more you do it the better you are at it. It's the same with musical instruments.
How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice. When will I be done learning to meditate? When I'm dead. And how do I learn to take better photographs of people? Shoot and shoot and shoot. There's really no shortcut and there's really no advantage to learning every little fact as a cerebral tidbit. When you shoot a portrait your hands do some stuff your mouth does other stuff (talk, sing, lie, cajole, praise, engage....) and your brain does some other stuff. But to make them do everything at once and make them do it reasonably well you have to give your creative muscles daily exercise or they atrophy.
So I call friends and people I meet and relatives and anyone that will listen and I invite them over to my little studio and make photographs. And it's nearly always a nice collaboration. When it isn't it means I wanted everything my way and ended up not getting anything nice. Or the subject wanted everything their way and that didn't work either.
The image I keep in my head as I shoot a portrait is that of water in a stream. Every time a rock comes up I try to go around it. I never try to push the rocks out of my way. I don't know what's on the other side of the rock but I know I'll get there if I just stay fluid.
The way to stay fluid is to be the water, everyday. And flow.
Practice, practice, practice. Enjoy the process and you'll enjoy the outcome. Force the process and the outcome is worthless.
During the last three years there's been needed belt tightening and then belt tightening as corporate theater. Sadly, photography has always been perceived to be the caviar on the buffet. Take the good stuff off the table and bring out the hot dogs... When times get tough fewer P.O.'s get written. Fewer photo intensive projects get done. Anything that costs money but doesn't move the water polo ball toward the goal in the short term is relegated to the "wish" list, not the "to do" list. And so it's been for three long years.
But disgruntled photographers began to talk about how the "market has permanently changed". They mistook a brutal downturn for whole scale evolution. There were/are endless predictions that dollar stock and the web would be the final nail in the coffin of professional photography. No one would ever assign again. Best case (deeply pessimistic) scenario? We'd all learn how to become videographers slugging it out over in that sandbox.
But business needs images. Business needs advertising. And advertising needs to constantly evolve to keep its audiences interested. Otherwise Mr. Whipple would still be squeezing the Charmin and Madge would still be soaking in Palmolive. We'd still see "the little purple pill" every evening on the news. Nope, the audience won't go to the same movie over and over again and they won't look at the same ads over and over again. So, new and different is part of the product specification for communications. And that means new ways of looking at things and that means new images and, by extension, brand new photography.
So now, three years after the big freeze there's pent up demand for photography of the same old subjects but imaged in a new way. A new style. Not radically new but new in the way that a Honda Accord gets a facelift every few model years. Nothing worse for an executive than using an old headshot in a speaker's promotion or event program only to have aged a bit. Likely he'll end up the recipient of many, "Have you been ill?" inquiries as the audience tries to reconcile his weathered and beaten current look with the headshot in the program they hold in their hands (someone remind me to tell the story of retouching gone wild and the cancer scare story....).
Here's what seems to happening right now in the business: Products are getting new product facelifts and need to be re-shot. Executive teams have been shuffled and need to be re-shot. New markets are opening and old markets are re-opening and companies are getting ready to put on fresh faces and go after the markets.
Many have discovered that photo fees from professionals are really such a tiny part of the budget that the different between $500 and $5,000 is still just a fraction of a percentage of the overall cost of production and ad placement. They are starting to understand the overall value proposition and would rather have proven "brands" (photographers) than taking chances on unproven generics. In short, the market is showing the same signs of life it has after every market correction.
I put a photo of this building in because in the last recession the common belief in Austin was that the game had profoundly changed and no one would ever be able to sell a condominium in the downtown area in the foreseeable future. Since then, this building and about 12 others have been built, are coming online and filling up briskly. As late as last year pessimists proclaimed that the buildings would either go partially filled or that developers would have to radically reduce their pricing. Now the buildings are nearly 100% sold. People are clammering for more space close in to downtown. It's the place to be. The general take in 2008 was that real estate would be dead for a decade. Now we need more.
The market is always more optimistic and pessimistic than the facts. There aren't stock photos of the new CEO, the new building, the new factory, the new product, the new fabric, the new airplane, your kids, your daughter's wedding, or any of a thousand other subjects. We will need to take them. We may take them with tiny digital cameras, we may take them with hulking behemoth cameras but we will take them. We may deliver them on the web. They may run on the web. But they will still add the same or more value to corporations, companies, mom&pop businesses and other communicators. We just need to charge accordingly, deliver accordingly and revive the working business model.
The sky may be falling but it may be the sky in some other market. As a profession we need to stop putting energy into a myth that's destructive to our markets and our psyches. The game was called on the count of "rain" for the past few years. The clouds are breaking up. Game on.
This is one of the youngest swimmers on my son's Summer League swim team. We were at one of those morning meets where the sun was tethered behind clouds that mostly wanted to drizzle. I was wandering around our area, talking to parents and looking for fun kids to photograph. She was just adorable.
I was shooting with a 70-200mm f4 L zoom on a Canon 7D and loving the soft light. The interesting thing for me about these kid swim meets is how much fun the behind the scenes stuff is. Kids stuffing themselves with breakfast tacos and juice, endless Nintendo Gameboy DS battles, eight to ten year old boys looking for stuff to stick into air conditioning systems, groups of girls marking each other with Sharpies like south Austin tattoo artists. And me just clicking away, soaking it all in.
Season's over now. I'm just archiving stuff and looking through all the takes that didn't make the cut into the slide show. Big fun.
I would complain harder but it would be churlish since the service is free and, for the most part, competent. I know that none of us like change but I did resist kaleidoscopic, polychromatic backgrounds and dancing type. If you really hate a color on a link or you vote, en masse, to change the background color, I may respond and try to keep my loyal readers happy. But I've had enough for today and don't want to talk to my computer for a while. Must be time for a walk with a camera.
This is the Norwood Tower in downtown Austin on a sunny weekend day. Shot with the Olympus EPL, sporting the absolutely serious 70mm f2 Pen lens. Cropped square by the camera because that's the way I like it. The camera hasn't left my side today. Maybe I'll make a movie......
People are amazingly well inventoried with advice. Not actual experience, per se, just advice. If I listened to everyone's advice I'd be stuck in a practical job hoping to eck out enough good performance reviews to be able to sit tight and make it to retirement. With any luck upper management would have not pillaged the pension funds and I would be smart enough not to invest in my own employer's stock. If I took everyone's advice I would have made photography a nice hobby. But I would prudently research all the options first and then buy a system and stay the course.
If I had a real job I would be tired when I came home. If I had a real job we probably would have felt that we could afford silly things like cable television. And instead of printing photos from Russia I could be catching up on Madmen, and re-runs of Seinfeld, and watching a recent Cohen brother's movie from the safety and comfort of my couch.
If I listened to everyone's advice I would have sold stock in 2009 instead of buying it. And I would, no doubt, have flipped houses several times by now and gone from a comfortable place in a nice neighborhood to a McMansion that I could never afford now that the bottom has dropped out of the economy.
If I listened to my corporate friends I would never waste my time writing a blog and if I listened to my accountant I sure wouldn't write it for free. If I listened to the high school counselor I would have ended up as a mechanic, even though I've never been able to figure out hand tools.
But most of the advice I get these days is about trading in my chosen career for something safer. Something with employer supplied health insurance and a regular paycheck. I'd love to get my first novel published and start on a second one but all my friends and advice givers want me to keep writing books on photography because it seems to work out okay.
And when it comes to photography everyone seems to know just what's in style and how to create great art. I know that the two photos above don't rise to the level of great art. Jana and I did them for the fun value. We shot what we wanted. I shot the way I wanted. Because I've learned a very, very important lesson in life. It's short. We never know when it will end. We don't know our own expiration date. And I've watched so many people put off having true, belly laughing fun until it's just too damn late. Photography is a young person's pursuit so if you want to do it you need to get right to it. And never grow old.
There's a safe way to do just about everything and there's the fun way to do stuff. The ven diagrams rarely intersect. I may be delusional but I think it's better to do what you dream you might want to do in retirement first and then get around to the serious stuff.
I have a professional friend that just closed his photography studio. He's not cutting and running. He's not going to live his life out in a quiet state government job. He's all in. He sold the house. He sold all the gear that wouldn't fit in one camera bag. He's 50 years old and his avowed goal is to become a professional vagabond and see the rest of the world. Crazy? You bet. My advice to him? Go for it.
Just so everyone knows, this was produced by Scofield Editorial in Indianapolis, Indiana.
My absolute favorite video on the web. Fortunately most of the clients I've met who fall into these categories are out of business now..........
But I'm still working with some of these guys........
If you are on the constant search for the highest levels of resolution in your photography you are probably already an aficionado of tripods. Right off the bat I'll tell you that I don't use them when I'm walking around on the streets grabbing slices of life and moments of spontaneous interest. Nobody really does----except for the two or three fine art photographers who still prowl the pavement with 4x5 and 8x10 inch cameras---but, if I'm planning stuff out, taking portraits, shooting still lifes or shooting video,
I love having my tripod along for the ride.
So. What's my favorite tripod?
Well, if you think I'm inconstant with cameras and lenses you'll be appalled to know that I'm even worse with my three legged addiction. And here's the even more pathetic angle; I can rarely ever bear to part with one. I almost never sell off tripod inventory.....
Right now my "inventory cerebral cortex" or "gear list medulla oblongata" is locked in a death match between two diametrically opposed tripod solution philosophies. Every day, when I pack to go out shooting, I find myself with a foot in two centuries. It's the ongoing battle between wood and carbon fiber. And I'll be damned if I can find a way to objectively score them. The hell with aluminum and steel.
But first, a patented, "Kirk Tuck Fiery Declaration".....If you own a Canon 1ds mk3 or a Nikon D3x with all the juiciest lenses and you're not making a good tripod and head part of the system you're wasting your time and your money. Forget built in Image Stabilization. You can use your camera infinity stops slower on a good tripod than you ever could, hand held. An $8,000 camera and no tripod? You'd have to be dead to hold the camera still enough to see the resolution potential!!!
Just as important, a tripod locks in your composition so you can mess with the detail stuff, the exposure, lighting and (please God, don't strike me down!!!) even the wretched trend that is HDR, without compromising composition. Without unintended frame shifting.
An added (but very ancillary) advantage is that clients still equate tripod use with professionalism and the extra time it takes to set up the "sticks" and to zero in the settings on the tripod head will add value in the eyes of your check writer while giving you a few extra moments to figure out what the hell you are doing....
The most cavalier rationalization is the that the tripod can always double as a light stand in an emergency..
Sermon over. Now on to the selection process.
I have a number (I won't confess how many) of tripods but when I pack up the super high performance Honda Element the final choice usually comes down to one of three.
The logical first choice is my heavy duty, modern Gitzo, model G 1439. It's a four section, carbon fiber model, complete with a center column. With the legs extended the business point, without center post extension, is taller than me by a good four to six inches. All the hardware is heavy duty alloy, and the tripod will support all of my 158 pounds if I do a handstand on it. (Very exciting to watch....)
I've topped it with a Manfrotto ballhead, model #468 MG, which I absolutely love. I had the local shop order the version without the quick release because I never want to reach for my tripod system and find that the quick release plate stayed home, on vacation, with a different camera body. In fact, one professional camera repair person once told me that the majority of camera "disasters" brought in to his shop by photographers were from unexpected un-couplings due to quick release mishaps. What a tragic way for a camera to die.
They are called "quick release" because, invariably, the release is quicker than the photographer's "catching reflexes".
The whole Gitzo/Manfrotto system ought to please any digital photographer: It's strong. It's lightweight. There are no nasty surprises. In fact, it's such a perfect system it's downright boring----and that's the crux of the problem for me. It's like the black "jelly bean" cameras we shoot with. Just another boring extention of modernist "wind tunnel" design.
I suppose if something were a "once in a lifetime" shoot it would be the camera support system I'd take with me--- just like a dark gray suit and some black, Cole Hahn dress shoes. but....during the course of every shoot my thoughts would wander to the Gitzo's antithesis----it's romantic opposite, the wooden, Berlebach tripod, in a light ash finish.
It is exactly what the Gitzo isn't.
Hand made from expertly selected wood that's been carefully aged for over two years, each of the Berlebach's is built by hand. They even come with a certificate that names the individual craftsman. A note tells you that the wood grain on each tripod is unique--and, that this is NOT a defect! (And it is sad that it must be stated, in writing....)
The tripods are aesthetic opposites but from an "end result" point of view they are largely the same. Each one is sturdy, vibrationless, and holds your chosen camera is a motionless grip. It's just that the Berleback does it with a grace and elegance that could be right out of the unhurried, late 1800's. Don't get me wrong---the Berlebach's are currently made, but with technology that would have been right at home in the 1890's when Eastman was introducing flexible film. And that is part the charm.
So? Okay-- on to "rationalization-land" and out of the "art nostalgia sandbox". The light colored ash wood of the BB refuses to soak up heat. That makes it the perfect desert, west Texas, Sahara, Mojave (and this week, NYC) photo stability tool (P.S.T.). That, and the fact that it looks really cool, make it a nice, and $700 less expensive photo tool compared to the current Gitzo.
In this age of mass produced everything it's a surprisingly affordable luxury to be able to buy a handcrafted German tripod for under $300.
When I use the Gitzo tripod fellow photographers and hobbyists on locations who know the reputation of the former French company (now part of Manfrotto) are vaguely impressed but when I bring the wooden tripood even people with absolutely no interest in photography comment about it. There is something about hand made items in the age of iPods and Michael Graves designs at Target that appeals that appeals to something in consumers of nearly every stripe. Could it be the lure of differentiation? Or can humans feel a connection to other humans through handcrafts, on some small, subliminal level?
Both tripods allow you to spread the legs at multiple angles. Both allow for any ball or pan head dto be used. And both are superior to the usual run of the mill, steel tripods from various other makers.
I actually have two different, wooden tripods from Berlebach. The blond ash is the more compact of the two. I have one in a black finish with only two long leg sections and no center column. In place of the center column there is a ball assembly that's very heavy duty and can be used to level a view camera or an attached head. This tripod is also goes up higher that my head with very good stability.
The third tripod I mentioned as being "in the running" with the other two is a smaller, thinner Gitzo, model # 2220 that I use with the Manfrotto ballhead. It's niche (for me) is in shooting small objects from straight overhead because the center post is actually side mounted and can be used in a horizontal position. It's priceless for doing copy work out in the field.
In the big scheme of things, the binary equation of either having or not having a tripod is much more important than how nice your tripod is. As long as I've been doing photography there's been a truism that the only good tripod is one that you are comfortable carrying into the field with you. It may have been true in the old days but right now the whole commercial photography industry is so incredibly competitive that I want to make sure I bring every advantage to bear in every job. Keeping the camera still is one of the least sexy but most important skills.
Even my friends who don't shoot for money seem to have gotten tripod religion lately. It's disappointing to buy a Nikon D3x and then NOT see an appreciable difference between its files and those of your old D2x but that's exactly the position one shooter found himself in a few months ago. He was so disappointed he was ready to return the camera for a refund. I suggested we test it one more time. We put it on the bigger Gitzo and used and electronic cable release. This time the difference between the cameras was stark. The level of very fine detail the D3x and the 105 micro were able to reveal was something I had only seen previously when shooting the Phase One 45+ medium format camera.
My friend was chastened and re-doubled his focus on practicing and paying attention to all the little details we usually let slip. After all, why spend money on perfection only to sabotage it with less that perfect technique? I've owned a variety of tripods over the years and I've come to understand that what you prefer will really be a matter of taste and ergonomics more than anything else. (Given a certain level of performance). Nevertheless, here are my tips for getting the best tripod:
So far, my absolute favorite tripod head for 35mm style digital cameras with any lens up to 70-200 f2.8.
1. Spend 1/2 an hour or more unlocking, extending, locking, unlocking and retracting the legs. If you don't like the way the locking controls feel in your hand now, you will hate them in a year.
2. Don't "under buy" the system. When you shop for a tripod system bring along your heaviest camera body and your longest lens. Do they feel stable when mounted up? Can you touch the camera when your 300mm is mounted and not see a lot of vibration? If every little touch jiggles the camera, look for a heavier, stronger system.
3. Will it pass Kirk's "slap test"? Look through your finder with a long lens attached to your camera while the camera is firmly attached to the tripod you are considering. While looking through give the side of the camera a little slap with your hand. All the vibrations should be dampened out in a second. Two at the most. If it's still jiggling after two seconds---you don't want it.
4. The two weak points of every tripod I've used are the connection between the head and its quick release plate, and the second is too much play in the center column. Two quick cures: Don't use heads with quick release plates (and especially not cheap quick releases that lack safety interlocks.....). Try not to use the center column extended. Fully extend the tripod legs first, and remember to buy a systems that's at least as tall as you----without having to raise the center column.
5. Spend 1/2 han hour in the carrying the tripod around over your shoulder as you shop for more and more "essential" stuff. Does the tripod became a pain in the shoulder. Is it hard to hold onto? Uncomfortable? Too heavy? You may need to consider something lighter because over the years all those feelings will be multiplied by 1000. and you'll understand the cumulative effects of lugging something around that you don't like.
Tripods are like the three bears. One is always "just right". It's up to you to find the "middle bear".
Right now? Make mine wooden.
(This is not a blanket endorsement for all time. The author reserves the right to capriciously change his mind at any time and reach for alternative tripods which he may own now or acquire in the future......)
Dr. Cunningham and the baby deer.
Dr. Cunningham and the baby deer. Post processed.
(edit: 7 july 2010: Thought I'd step out of character and post the final edited shot right below the quick, jpeg proof shot I pulled off the raw file last night when I got home. I've changed color balance, cleaned up the color in the sky, opened up the shadows. Done a lens correction. Thought you might want to see what I would probably deliver..... KRT).
I'm keeping pretty busy these days. One of the things I'm doing is shooting photos for some medical practice advertising. One of the marketing reps I work with is running a series of ads showcasing their physicians. We thought it would be a good idea to ditch the white coats and the office location backgrounds and shoot these guys in their off hours. Try to catch another side. See what makes em tick.
When the marketing person mentioned that this doctor was raising a baby deer who's mother and twin sibling had been struck by lightning they had me at "Bambi".
We made arrangements and I loaded the car with the following: One Profoto Acute 600b battery powered flash system, a 20 by 30 inch softbox, a 48 inch white, pop-up diffuser, two light stands, a Canon 5d2 and a 24-105mm lens. I took a light meter and a hoodman loupe. And two sandbags.
The first thing I did was to sit down with the Dr. in the living room of his house and really talk to him. Interview style. What makes him the person he is? What do I want to come thru in the photograph? He's committed to giving back to patients and people who can't afford medical care. He does missions and tons of volunteer work. He's a man of great faith. I wanted to show that, somehow, in the photos.
We selected a spot with some Texas landscape in the background and I got to work while he went back to the house to get the baby deer. The sun was coming in on the right of the frame but I blocked out the direct light on him with the reflector on a stand. A tree also provided some shade for the general area.
I set up the light and the softbox about five feet from the subject's right (my left) at a 45 degree angle when measured on the direct line between the camera and subject. The bottom of the softbox is just above the doctor's chin. I set the exposure so that the metered value for the subjects is about 1/2 brighter than the background. We shot about 60 shots at nearly full power.
When the deer pooped on the doctor's hand and jeans I knew the shoot was wrapping up. The deer was amazingly cute. The doctor amazingly patient. The shoot, amazingly calm and happy. As I drove away I thought to myself, "This is what makes it all worthwhile. Meeting amazing people---who do amazing things. Not because they imagine that someone will think they are cool. Just because it's the right thing to do".
This is right out of camera. I haven't gotten in and pushed the pixels around yet. When I do, this image or one of the other selects goes right into the portfolio. It's days like this that are the reward for a life in photography.....