The trough.

It's inevitable in a self employed arts based business to have cycles where you go from being overwhelmingly busy to overwhelmingly slow.  It's the territory.  We chose it.  But it's not the amplitudinal changes of work commissioned by customers that gets me, it's the indecision.  It's so easy to stray from what we probably should be doing.

I've chosen exactly the wrong way to run a business.  I have corporate clients who want nice, tidy photo shoots.   When the economy is booming they're shoveling assignments in the front door.  When the economy goes into free fall they hibernate.  Then I have advertising agency clients and, guess what? their clients are also corporate clients....subject to the same financial mood swings.  So we learn to even out the cash flow and supplement income by doing things like writing books.  And then the books become like a small business and we do things like write blogs in order to tangentially move book sales forward.    Everything moves me further and further from the core.  But that may be the progression in our industry that everyone is seeing.

Once you have a few successful books under your belt you get a bit of notoriety and the universe seduces you into doing more and more tangential stuff like participating in workshops and giving guest lectures to various college classes.  And you spend more and more time doing things that look less and less like photography as you understand it.  A friend calls up and asks me to work with them on a video. That seems like a good idea.  Diversification, right?  But not having a straightforward path seems so ambiguous.....

And it's amazing how flexible you mind can be when your clients and the economy are also practicing flexibility.  Last Summer I participated in a workshop in Dallas where I spoke about lighting with small flashes to nearly 1200 people over the course of two and a half days.  These were all scrapbookers who wanted to take better photographs to stick into their scrapbook projects.  Why did I do it?  Well, it appealed to my ego, of course.  But business was slow and the money was good.  And it was an opportunity to promote two books that dovetailed nicely with the overall tenor of the conference.  The focus of the conference was to gently teach non-technical people the technical things they needed to know to have more control over their work.

But in the course of preparing a 50 slide presentation, practicing some strobe techniques, traveling and being present at happy hours and social dinners I moved further and further away from my solitary practice of photography.

Now we're three quarters of the way through another years.  I've done a few more workshops.  I've worked on twice as many commercial assignments this year compared to last year and now it feels like we're heading back into the trough.  The low spot between the waves of work.  I'm thinking about teaching another workshop but it feels so disingenuous if I'm only doing it because I think I need to supplement my core business.  In the best of all possible worlds a workshop would be a small group thing where really complex and involved ideas that intersect creativity and technique would be shared.  Not a group introduction to stuff I've already written about plenty of times.

I had a good Summer and early Fall as a photographer doing real assignment photography.  But as a result of the last two years I always feel the cold sweat of impending doom wafting over me like a chilling breeze.  And so I pitched a book project on a new lighting technology/technique.  And the publisher accepted.  And the moment I got the e-mail of acceptance I remembered the old Texas curse, "Be danged careful what you hanker for.....you might just git it."  And all the calmness and optimism that led me to pitch the project, the joy of new learning, the challenge of writing, the happy anticipation of shooting a whole new body of work-----that all paled in an instant; replaced with the anxiety of knowing that now I have to perform.  I have to make the great new photos.  I have to master the new technology.  I have to deal with the gnawing doubt that I may have "bought a horse who won't make it to the finish line..."  I have to help sell the property once we make it.

And there is always the indecisiveness that comes from knowing that a project like this can push you to a new level......or level you.  But it's nice to get started.  Back to the typewriter and bit of isolation.

I suffered through two years of deep and relentless anxiety starting back in 2007.  It was interesting for me and also very scary and devastating.  But through it all I worked, wrote four books and kept the business moving forward.  I sought professional help.  I went to therapy.  I swam more.  But in a flash I found the secret and the anxiety abated.

A brilliant woman, named Pat, sat with me over coffee one morning and explained what she thought were the underpinnings of anxiety.  She said that anxiety was the combination of Ambiguity, Loneliness and Indecision.  She felt like it could be treated by understanding those three causes and working to erase them.  That, and the choice of the right bottle of Scotch.

While the new projects I've signed up for are daunting I'm decisive about how I'll do them and there's no ambiguity about why I'm doing them.  And, unlike the first four books I did,  I'm inviting friends and colleagues into the mix to help me make the projects really sing........and to keep me company.

And maybe the successful completion of these projects will bring me full circle.  Back to the core of photography.  And back to the fun of new discovery.

Just some Friday morning introspection.  Indulge me.


I like images that use natural light and added light. They seem harmonious.

This image of a radiologist was lit with the light of the screen in front of her and also by a small flash in the back of the room that bounced off the ceiling and boosted the overall illumination and added an accent light that separated her hair from the dark screen of the monitor behind her.  I used a Fuji S5 camera to make the photograph and I still marvel at the sharpness and dynamic range when I look at the full sized image.

I shot at f2.8 and, of course, the camera was on a tripod for the exposure.  The tripod often being the most important tool in creating good shots.

Lately I've become very interested in using small LED panels to take the place of flashes.  Part of the reason is the general compulsion to keep learning and to keep commercial photography interesting for me.  But another part of the equation is the belief that these light sources will be become the ubiquitous light sources of the future.  At some point flash might become the specialty tool and LED's the day-to-day lighting instrument of choice.  Maybe not, but there's no real cost for experimenting.

I did a portrait today and I lit it the same way I would have with flash or with tungsten but this morning I decided to use LED panels as my primary light source.  I set up a nine foot wide gray canvas background and lit it with two conjoined, small, battery powered LED panels.  Like these:  Little LED. They made a nice soft glow that surrounded my subject.

I used the six foot by six foot PhotoFlex light panel with diffusion that you've probably seen me use for Zach Scott portraits and other favorite work.  Over to my left and positioned at about a 45 degree angle to my subject.   It's no secret that I love huge, soft light sources. It's a beautiful way to light faces. Behind the large diffusion panel I used two of the ePhoto 500 LED panels.  The photo shoot was very successful but I learned some of the limitations that come with using inexpensive (read: not very color accurate) LED panels.  And I learned that the shortcomings are in no way insurmountable.

Seems that no matter what the distributors say there is a nice big spike in the green spectrum of the lights.  If you do a custom white balance you'll be pretty much okay but you might find some anomalies in the color balance that lead to a few splotches.  I shot my Canon DSLR in RAW so I was able to lower the saturation and increase the luminance of the green channels (and, to a certain extent, the blue channels) in order to compensate.  But here's what I learned through subsequent trial and error:  adding a 1/4 strength minus green gel filter does a reasonably good job compensating for the aberrant color spike.  The name of the game is get the light as close to daylight as possible.

If you don't have a color meter handy you can always set your camera white balance to daylight, shoot a white target, use the color eyedropper to correct to white and note the numbers you get in the Lightroom develop panel.  You're looking for two separate but related parameters.  You want to see how close to 5500 degrees kelvin the color temperature is and you'll want to note how many points of green or magenta have been dialed in to get a neutral white target.  You'll likely see a swing over to the magenta side of the scale which means you'll need to add some magenta to compensate.  If Lightroom indicates that it requires 30  points of magenta to render neutral white you'll probably have a filtration starting point of between 1/4 and 1/2 minus green filter.  That's actually a magenta filter that takes out green.

When you filter you're going to loose some power and that's important with LED panels.  They don't put out a tremendous amount of light and the light they do put out isn't collimated into efficient columns of focused light like you might find in a well designed tungsten fixture.  You may need to move the panels closer in to the diffusion material.  Don't worry.  Nothing will catch on fire.

So, why go through this exercise if you already have tons of great flash equipment that works well?  For one thing, the quality of continuous light is different than flash.  There's also.....no flash.  And that means fewer anticipatory flinches and blinks.  You get into a motordrive rhythm that's heavenly.  And with modern DSLR's you never need to stop.  There's ample light for focusing and the ambient light (after you've figured out the filter factor) makes nice fill light.  It's also new and different.  And for me that's enough.

Nostalgia for the days of giant cellphones and invisible photographers

I love huge cellphones because you could always see them.  When you could see the big instrument in someone's hand you had an 80 or 90% certainty that they were talking to someone other than themselves.  Now, with the tiny phones,  you can't really tell whether the person weaving down the street, running into strangers, or the person in a car running right through red lights is just insane, inebriated or, in fact, has some tiny device they are cupping next to their heads and is talking passionately about nothing at all....

In the days of the big phone the call was theater.  Now the call is in the service of ever shifting plans or to assuage general feelings of disconnection.  I conjecture that entire groups of people now have have un-purpose driven lives and use the ubiquitous cellphone to get the next set of directions from some extra-planetary overlords who control the general population via microwaves.  It could be that the person next to you taking snapshots with their iPhone or their Verizon Punk phone is really just triangulating your position so that the overlords can assimilate you as well.  I also get the feeling that cellphones are largely responsible for adult onset Attention Deficit Disorder.  Never have I seen a person change gears and go from a full out, impassioned conversation to a passive and submissive listening mode as quickly as in the past few years.  A Pavlovian respond to a tiny few square inches of plastic and Lithium Ion.

Perhaps this too shall pass and people will go back to diligently practicing their lives with purpose, picking up their phones once or twice a day in order to check messages and return calls.  Maybe that's the hope of economists optimistically calling for enhanced productivity to pull us out of the economic mess.  Naw, the nature of the universe is to constantly move from order to chaos.  From momentum to entropy.  Why should humans buck the trend?


some photographs that I liked taking and still like looking at. What is style?

Why I like to use different cameras:

I don’t think about what camera I should use that much. I just pick up the one that looks nicest on the day
-- William Eggleston
If you want to change your photographs, you need to change cameras. Changing cameras means that your photographs will change. A really good camera has something I suppose you might describe as its own distinctive aura.
-- Nobuyoshi Araki
(Thanks to Tokyo Camera Style for the quotes!)

Looking back at optimistic writing. This started life as a side bar.

I wrote this in the beginning of the year.  I'm sharing it now because I feel that the optimism reflected here is warranted.  The markets may have shifted but business is coming back.  Let's get ready:

It's a new year. I'm smiling

So it is 2010, the market for advertising and commercial images is in shambles and no one really knows what to do.

Why am I smiling?  Because I think the market will recover and build and be stronger than ever before.  It's just that we might be doing different things than we were before.

I'm pretty sure we're going to be doing video.  That's fine.  I've owned my own sixteen mm Bolex film camera.  I've shot projects on Super8, 16mm, 35mm, one inch video, Beta SP, Hi8 video and now Mpeg video via a DSLR.  And you know what?  The lighting is the same across the formats, the camera moves are the same and the tradition of visual storytelling hasn't really changed much either.

My favorite assignments are magazine style videos for websites.  I've been doing a bunch of them for Glasstire Magazine with my friend, Will van Overbeek.  I love the idea of creating video content for different media.  I'd love to make a bunch of programs for the iPad and for the other tablets that are sure to come shortly.

I think there is a market for really good decorative art.  Perfect pieces of art to hang in homes, offices and business public areas.  I've recently had a few sales and much interest in my work from West Texas.  Finally,  I think that the market for good portraits will revive and grow.  It's just that now a portrait might be a combination of still and a short introduction interview.  Multiple uses and multiple formats.

Finally,  I think the market for advertising and editorial images will grow again as art directors rediscover their courage and push clients to do work they can both be proud of.  That will take imagination and the budgets to produce custom work with well thought out concepts.  To participate we'll have to hone our stylistic chops and show what we want to share in.

If you are a potential client here's what we should do together:  1.  Make great art.  2.  Come up with new concepts and styles that will give you or your final client real differentiation.  3.  Leverage moving pictures on the web and in handheld presentations.  4.  Integrate writing, photography and video into cohesive creative packages, like a meal prepared by a great chef instead of selecting each portion of a meal from a steam table......cafeteria style.  One vision, one team.

Who knows what we'll be able to accomplish.     www.kirktuck.com

Crazy Business. The search for alternate lighting.

One of the crack staff at the Visual Science Lab holds the KRT-LF2007zorbato beta 2.0123.  An assembly of "under the sink" florescent fixtures, white gaffer's tape and, of course, a well placed Bungee cord.  The background is subtly lit with actual daylight.

The universal lighting instrument doesn't exist.  Yet.  But that doesn't stop intrepid or misguided photographers from spending time and energy looking for alternate light sources.  Something different from the ubiquitous shoe mounted flash unit.  Witness the proliferation of low cost florescent lights recently aimed at the gut of the photo market.  Marvel at the sheer number of "me too" monolight flash units pouring out of China.  And share the agony and the ecstasy of my breathtaking dive into the pool of LED lights recently.

There area couple things driving this new lighting evolution.  One is the introduction of generation after generation of digital cameras with built in (and very, very capable) HD video capability.  It's like having a chocolate bar or a small bag of potato chips;  you just have to try them.  Take a bite.  It's the same way with the video stuff.  After most people take a big bite of supposedly sexy video they recoil from the whole enterprise.  Holy crap!  Video actually takes enormous amounts of both planning and work to do well.  Surprise!  But that won't stop people from giving it a try.  And when they do the first two things they discover are:  Lighting helps.  And flash doesn't work.

This leads them on the "Journey of Continuous Lighting Tools".   At first blush the time honored tungsten movie lights comes to mind.  But the joy is short lived.  The lights are hot.  Hot enough to quickly destroyed the filters you put on them to convert their tungsten light balance to match daylight.  Hot enough to effect your air conditioning bills.  And the lights suck up power.  Lots of power.  Enough to pop circuit breakers left and right.

That leads people to florescent lighting.  Which leads people with deep pockets to beautifully color corrected Kino Flos but leaves those of us with shallow pockets to try our best with Home Depot fixtures or the cheaper camera store/Frankenstein lighting units.  Some are really good.  And with high quality, full spectrum, high CRI lamps can be really, really good. But most miss the mark when it comes to color matching with daylight.  And the tubes, being glass, are big and fragile and filled with toxic mercury (well,  not "filled" but there is mercury in them....).

That leaves LED lights.  And so far I'm having fun playing around with them.  I've bought a couple of "no name" bigger panels from vendors on Amazon but I'd really like to play with the entire Lite Panels catalog of lighting units.  The panels I have now put out a fair amount of color correct light and are both "green" and cool.  The one thing none of the continuous lights do is to freeze action well.  For that you either need a lot of light or a bright FLASH of light.  But I've been eyeing  progress from Lite Panels of a version of their product that can be synced to your camera and, when you trip the shutter, the panel's LED's do a quick burst of light that's 400% stronger than regular "full power".  Makes sense since the turn on time of the LED's is nearly as instantaneous as that of a Xenon flash tube.....

When the manufacturers perfect this instant flash technology and bundle it in with their regular continuous performance these LEDs could become the Universal Light we've been looking for.

Related but having nothing to do with technical details is the fact that I'm always looking for interesting looking light.  (That was a convoluted sentence.....)  and the ability to use LED's close in, and in radically different configurations, means a different aesthetic lighting method and that means a new look.  Or the creative adaptation of an existing look.  At any rate, it means constant exploration, which = fun.

More fun is a good thing to have.

Note:  I just found out that two local cinema rental shops in Austin rent Lite Panels......hello?  Also,  if you've purchased on of the ePhoto 1000 LED lights will drop me a line and let me know how you like it?  It's next on the list.  Must hide list from family.....