Craft, vision and practice. Stories from the art world.

Some people have asked me why, "all of a sudden" I'm posting behind the scenes stuff from photo shoots when there are countless thousands of website and blog sites that are also doing "instructional" stuff.  I'll admit, when I find a challenging new niche to master I become a bit compulsive and start digging like a possessed badger until I feel like I've got a good grip on the subject matter.  Once I understand the technical issues I see how I can fold the knowledge into what I already practice.....just in case it's a catalyst for moving my real work (taking photographs of people) forward.

If you aren't interested in lighting with LEDs you probably should just be patient.  The novelty will wear off soon and they'll just become another set of lights I'll be able to use to do the things I've always done.  Once mastered they will be assimilated and find their niche in my primitive brain, leaving my conscious mind to collide with other projects.

But it does bring up a point that I like to make:  Practice is good.  Practice is learning.  Practice ensures that the eyes and fingers can keep up with the brain and the brain can keep up with your passion.  When I made the comparison of practicing photography to practicing swimming I got several (heated) responses telling me that they were nothing alike.  One person claimed that he could put his camera down for months at a time and, when the muses struck, he could pick it up on a whim and create a masterpiece.  I went to his website in search of masterpieces.  I found only pixels.  People with a paucity of passion, however gifted, want to believe that they can play with art in a detached way.  But anecdotal evidence about artists in general says,  "NO."

Like Edison's inventions successful art is built on the 1,000 or 10,000 failed trials that came before.  There's no real shortcut to the process of failing and challenging and changing.  No workshop will provide the same humiliating experience.  No handbook will provide the emotional context of despair with resolve that great artists endure.  But it's the need to keep moving toward the unknown that leads to the journey that can lead to the great works.

There's a great book about art called:  "Art and Fear: Observations On the Perils (and rewards) of Artmaking" by Ted Orland and David Bayles.  Nestled in among the other nuggets of knowledge is a story about a ceramics teacher who challenges the class like this:  He divides the class in two.  He tells half the students that their final grade will be solely determined by the sheer weight of the ceramic pieces that they each make.  He tells the other class that they need only make one piece but that the grade will be determined by their best piece.

The quantity half of the class gets to work in earnest, cranking out piece after piece.  The quality side of the class thinks and thinks and thinks, and then,  partially paralyzed by the nature of their task and their need to achieve perfection they finally produce.

In the end the students from the quantity half of the class produce far more good work and even far more great work than the other half of the class.  The constant experimentation led to making each piece better than the one before it.  Mistakes were resolved, their hand skills blossomed.  They understood the limits of their materials.  And then they challenged the limits of their imaginations.  It was a great blending that could only have taken place thru the process of experimentation and active exploration.

It was a revelation to me to read that particular chapter.  I stopped sitting around waiting for inspiration to strike and started experimenting and shooting more.  In this same vein I'm on a constant quest to see what different cameras, lenses and lights can do for my vision.  And I KNOW that when I shoot more quantity I get luckier.  There's a groove and I get down in it and produce.  And it all gets easier.  I can read the light.   Controls on the cameras fall right to hand.  It's easier and easier to direct the people in front of the camera.  Obversely, when I'm dormant for weeks I seem disconnected from the processes, timid about directing people.  Everything feels like stop and start.

I've tried to be transparent in the blog and what you are living thru as readers is my "infatuation" stage with a new technology.   And it is different than flash or hot lights.  The nature of the light is different and the way we use them is different.  It's dictated by their strengths and weaknesses.  Soon infatuation will give way to comfortable and we'll be back to looking at expressions and composition and what not.  But in a big view way this is all part of my personal creative process.  I shot for Zach Scott for hours on Saturday.  I shot all day with Jana on Sunday.  I learned stuff.  I rejected stuff.  I'm happy.

Vision is a great thing to have.  And so is style.  Unless it becomes a trap and keeps you producing the same stuff you've done for years.  It may be good for products to be consistent but I would argue that nothing kills art quicker.

By Popular Demand. Behind the scenes stuff. Or, "Does this lens make the photographer look fat?"

Since I posted photos from my shoot yesterday I've gotten dozens of requests for "behind the scenes" shots that would show how everything was positioned.  Fortunately my friend, Amy Smith, was assisting me on the shoot and she kindly provided some behind the scenes coverage.  I hope these will be help you more accurately visualize how I was placing the lights and how it affected the overall look of the shots.  

The first one is a studio shot done with my favorite light source, the big-ass 6 foot by 6 foot scrim.  I'm using a Photoflex frame and one layer of white diffusion. As you can tell I like to use the light source as close in as I can.  I have black panels on the shadow side to make sure that too much bounce from the studio's white walls doesn't fill in too much and degrade the contrast I wanted.  These are quick edits and no,  I haven't edited out fly-away hair, etc.  If the images were heading straight from here to a client we'd  retouch them first.  

While strobes might yield more depth of field and add a bit of sharpness I think you would agree that these images look more cinematic and life like.  Afterall, we chase fast lenses in all the reviews and forums,  doesn't it make sense to use them close to wide open from time to time?  Isn't that why we spent the extra money?

Yes.  You can do this with a small flash.  Really easily.  Almost as easily as just tossing up three small light panels and taking a look through your camera's finder....... Funny.  I worked at color correction and did a custom white balance.  Amy was shooting jpeg and seemed to hit the right WB everytime.  Live and learn.
I call this, "lights on a stick".  Love the wooden tripod.  Goes so well with the tennis shoes.

It's cruel to use small lights without even the tiniest bit of diffusion.  I didn't want anyone to report me for "cruelty to models" so I added some Rosco Luxe to each panel.  I think it's endearing that the little panels I use snap together to make bigger panels.  I have two more coming this week........

I'm no fashion photographer.  That's for sure.  But I kept hearing about clamshell lighting and I thought I'd try my own variation with my LED lights.  I tossed a couple of 500's on the floor, covered with some half stop diffusion and I put the 1000 through a two stop Westcott Fast Flags diffuser and blazed away, screaming, "Pout for me baby and I'll make you a star!"  Or something from "Zoolander".  I can hardly remember......

And guess what?  I had enough light to shoot hand held.  Miracles happen every day.......

That's it for the behind the scenes stuff.  Is this something you want?  Should I post more set up shots?  Just curious.  I'm not really comfortable flashing gang signs, participating is extreme snowboarding and saying "bro" and all the frenetic stuff we see on other blogs.  But I am happy to show you where we put the lights.......


Few things beat a perfect Austin Sunday afternoon spent taking photos.

It was one of those perfect Austin afternoons.  The temperature was in the 70's.  It was dry.  The sun was shining in a clear blue sky and there was a gentle breeze with just enough energy to push around some blond hair.  Jana (above) and Amy came over to the studio so we could experiment with some lighting ideas.  Late in the afternoon we posed Jana in front of the stone wall that runs a couple hundred feet across the front of my property.  The open shade was great but we added some fill from an electro-luminescent source and it filled in the gaps perfectly.  Others may argue about non-continuous spectra and other supposed inconsistencies but I think Jana's flesh tones are right on the money.
Earlier in the afternoon we all headed to the Rollingwood Swim Club to take a few shots of Jana in her superb wedding dress. We were working under a covered area and use a few tiny portable LED light panels for some fill light.  The lens was a 100 and the working aperture was 2.8.  On our way into the pool a very nice young man held the gate open for our little entourage.  It was Aaron Piersol, the world record holder in the 100 and 200 meter backstroke events.  He's also got a handful of Olympic gold medals.  Amy and Jana both approved.

We spent the rest of the afternoon playing with big scrims, little lights and bank buildings.  I don't expect anyone to fall off their seats at the photos above.  They were more of an exercise.  A practice.  I enjoyed the process of learning more about some new lights and I always enjoy hanging out with Amy and Jana.
We capped the afternoon by catching the post sunset at the bank building around the corner.  Three little LED panels on a light stand over to the left of the frame brought up the illumination on Jana while  Amy held a fourth panel about fifteen feet to the right to get just the right accent light on  Jana's hair and shoulder.  New lighting always makes for a bit of excitement but it doesn't do any better than any other light source when they are used correctly.

Hope your week gets off to a good start.  Remember, it's all just one big experiment and you'll never know what works and what doesn't unless you test your hypotheses.


Shooting Theater Ads with LEDs. Yes you can light a set.

Martin Burke as the elf in David Sedaris' play, Santaland Diaries.

Santaland Diaries, is my favorite Christmas play ever.  And when Martin Burke plays the elf in this one man production it's possible that it rises to becoming my favorite live theater performance, extant.  So, every year the marketing folks at Zach Scott come calling and we do a shoot for direct mail, website use and various other bits of advertising.  I'd like to think my work is so great that it's the reason they sell out every performance, but as I've already said,  it's a great play.........So much for my fragile ego.

They called again this year and I threw a wrinkle into the plans.  As you probably know I've become fascinated with LED lights of all varieties and I told them I'd love to help out with the photography as long as they'd be okay with me using all LED lights for the shooting production.  "Sure.  We guess."

 I went into the studio the night before to clean and set up.  I've got a nine foot wide seamless on the back wall and it's being lit by one 500 LED panel placed on either side, just behind Martin.  The lights have a lot of spill so I'm using two of the Westcott FastFlags, covered with black fabric to block any spill forward onto Martin.  The lights have four switches on the back and you can turn on and off banks of LEDs to adjust the intensity.  After a quick metering I turned off one of the four banks on each back light.

For a main light I'm using a 1,000 bulb LED panel aimed through a one stop diffusion cloth on a Chimera four foot by four foot frame.  I added another 500 bulb light just to the left of the big light.  It's mostly hitting the diffusion but I'm also letting some of the light hit Martin directly just to add some contrast and intensity to the shot.

On the opposite side I'm using a small Westcott FastFlag with a white fabric of fill (you can just see the sliver of the side profile above the flex fill that's sitting on the floor and leaning against the light stand.
That's the extent of the lighting.  So, how did it all work out?
 I was very happy to shoot with the continuous light.  I could see very clearly and quickly the effects of any changes in the lights.  If I moved something I could see it immediately.  But it did take a few minutes to re-orient the actors to a new way of shooting.  We've shot together many times and on most of those occasions we've used flash so they were used to being able to make fast moves and big gestures without worrying about blur.  For most of the time on this shoot we worked at f4, shutter speed = 1/80, ISO= 800.  If action was important I'd bump up the ISO a bit more.  (Camera:  Canon 5dmk2)
 I noticed two big differences.  The actors didn't get tired as quickly.  They are used to working under continuous lights and both mentioned that it was much preferable for them to the disconcerting nature of random and powerful studio flashes.  The light levels in the room were much higher than what I usually get from the modeling lights and that helped make the actors pupils close down, which makes images much more natural.  The second thing I noticed was that no one had to wait for flash recycling.  If I saw a fleeting expression I could catch it in a quick burst of 3 fps without any worry about erratic exposure.
 In earlier blogs I reported that I had been filtering the lights with "minus green" filtration to deal with the mild, but obvious green spike in the color spectrum of the LED panels I'm using.  I've found that if I do a custom white balance at the beginning of the shoot and keep the light on the set the same I get perfect color with good saturation and consistency across the board.  And that's without any filters at all.
While the LED panels throw around a lot of light and spread it pretty well they are still pretty hard sources when used without diffusion.  On this shoot most of the light that touched to the actors was diffused through fabric diffusion cloth.  I've also recently paid a visit to the movie rental facility here in Austin called, GEAR, and laid in a good inventory of diffusion materials that go from 1/4 stop to 2 stops and include Rosco Luxe (a beautiful diffusion material!!!!!) and even various thicknesses of ripstop nylon.  And guess what?  Every permutation gives a subtle yet very different look to the light.  It's the combination of direct and diffused light through the same surface.  And I can tell that, with a little bit of practice, I'll be lighting better than I ever have and with more control because I can see the changes as I shoot.  I guess this is why some movies look so darned good.  The DP's utilize much more control that we typically do as photographers.  We tend to think in binary terms about soft and hard but there are so many intermediate shades of gray (or collimated and diffused light rays....)
The images here are all directly out of camera, converted from RAW files to Jpegs.  The marketing people will make their selections and we'll clean up the backgrounds and retouch the skin a bit.  Am I happy with this project and the inclusion of LED lights.  Absolutely.  Will I do it again?  Tomorrow.  Literally.  Jana and I are shooting all day long.  But the twist is we'll be using both these big panels in the studio and a bunch of smaller, battery powered units on exterior locations.  I'll have examples up as soon as I can.

Final word was from the marketing crew:  "Wow.  No heat."

Zachary Scott Theater is building a new theatre next year and the plans call for them to be the second theater in the country to switch over to all LED stage lighting.  Do I feel a groundswell occuring?  Or is it just the inevitable slide and glide away from the light bulbs of the last century?

Sometimes getting a photo stolen is flattering. A little.

Renae with Bialys.

For about twenty years I had a great deal with my favorite bakery in town.  I would put up photographs on their walls of people which also featured their products and they would give me free coffee and pastries every day.  One day my assistant, Renae, and I were working in the studio and we started talking about the ongoing show.  We decided to shoot some baked bagels, which are apparently called "bialys" and quick as can be Renae popped off her shirt, grabbed the baked goods and struck a pose.

The original of this was shot on color slide film with big soft lights.  I converted it to a quadratone in PhotoShop and we printed it as a 20 by 30 inch print.  In due time the print was mounted, matted and framed and we delivered it to Sweetish Hill Bakery.  The owner put it up over the condiments.  Every time someone walked over to put cream in their coffee or sugar in their tea the print would catch their attention.

In the ten years that it hung on the wall one person complained that it was inappropriate.  The owner told her that, if she was really upset by the artwork, she might be more comfortable buying her bread and pastries somewhere else.  

But then something strange happened.  The print started getting stolen.  It happened twice and cynic that I am I immediately suspected the intolerant woman and her cronies.  And in artistic defiance we quickly reprinted the image and had it back up on the wall in short order.  A few months later it was stolen again.  And again we put up a new copy.

Eventually the show ran it's decade long course and I showed up one morning to take all the work down.  The regulars leapt from their tables, cast aside their New York Times and hung up their iPhones.

"What the hell do you think you're doing?" They demanded.  I told them I was taking down my art.  "Don't touch the Bialy Girl photo and we won't hurt you."  They responded.  I left it there for a few more weeks.  I came back after hours, eventually, and removed the photograph.

One day a few weeks later I got a phone call from a woman who demanded to know if I was the owner of the image of the "bagel girl" photo that had hung in the bakery.  Upon learning that I was she asked how much I would charge for the print and the framing of the "Bialy Girl" image.  I told her a ridiculous price and she accepted without hesitation.  She then asked when should she come by and pick up the artwork.  

I was curious though.  Why did she want it?  She explained that she had a teenaged grandson who had tacky posters of J. Lo.  up in his room.  She was determined to give him something she thought was more tasteful.

She showed up on the appointed day in a beautiful, black, Bentley automobile.  She took a cursory look at the print in the frame and then proceeded to peel off a number of bills from a wad of $100's.  I helped her put the print in the trunk and she was gone.

So, what does this have to do with the stolen photographs?  Well, about a year later I was having coffee and an empanada at the bakery when I was approached by two "thirty-something"  women.  They asked me if I was the photographer who used to show mostly naked people and pastry photos at the bakery.  In a very embarrassed way they asked me what  kind of price I would have given to two struggling college women who loved the print, if they had asked.  As it was academic at this point I said that if they wanted it because they liked the art I probably would have sold a print like that for $250 back then.  

They looked at each other and nodded.  Then one of the women reached into her pocket and pulled out that much cash.  She sheepishly handed me the money.

She could tell I was curious by the look on my face.  The both smiled sweetly and said, "Don't ask."

I never found out what happened to the other stolen print but I like to think someone liked it and couldn't afford what they assumed the print might cost.  I keep going back to the bakery.  At heart I'm an optimist.  I keep thinking someone will walk up, shrug in a confessional sort of way and hand me more money.

Food and cute girls.  Who can resist?


I'm sure you've seen this a thousand times but I never get tired of watching it.

copyright 2009 Scofield Editorial, Inc.

Problem is that it's so close to home that when I watch it I laugh and then, when it's over I realize that it parallels the reality of business so closely in our field that I cry and then eat a carton of Ben and Jerry's Cherry Garcia ice cream.  I think there's a secret workshop company that goes around the country and teaches people in big businesses to ask for much more of everything than they are willing to pay for.

The only part they left out is,  "We can't pay you any money but this will really look great in your book.."

"Oh gosh!"  I reply, "I've run out of space in my portfolio for additional photos of overweight, balding white guys in suits."


revisiting a post about style and substance. It's becoming clearer every day.

DEAR READER,  SOMETIMES I RE-read a blog and find something new I like about it.  When I do I post it for the people who weren't here a few months ago.  If you already read this back in July you are welcome to skip it.......Kirk


Style is substance and vice versa.

Dr. John Clarke, Annie Laurie Howard Regents Professor in Fine Arts, Ph.D.   Former Chairmen of the UT Austin College of Art History.  Photographed for the University of Texas at Austin.  Two lights.  One point of view.

While one can overlay faux styles onto any project there is a richness of style conferred to an image that has its own substance, its own reason for existence.   If the image exists only to show off the skills of the creator and the effervescence of the "style of the minute" the viewer can generally sense, on some level, that the image is more like a trick or a gimmick instead of the heartfelt representation of the object photographed.

On a confluent vein,  I took my son along on a photo assignment this afternoon and on the way home we were discussing what we'd seen and done.  I was tasked with taking a portrait of a doctor on his ranch here in central Texas and then interviewing him in order to write the ad copy.  I asked the doctor, who is a second generation surgeon,  why he followed his father into the practice of medicine.  He responded that he had always wanted to be just like his father.  I know his father and it's a wonderful goal.

On the way home I asked Ben what he thought of the interview.  He said that it was interesting but that he hoped I wasn't expecting him to follow my example and become a photographer.  I assured him (with a great sense of relief on my part) that his being a photographer was not something I was pushing for.  As the conversation continued Ben asked me why I became a photographer.

I expected him to think that I loved making and sharing photographs.  Or that I loved problem solving or playing with fine pieces of equipment.  But the truth is that I'm drawn to the experiences and privileged points of view that life gives image makers in its pageant procession.  The camera is a passport into a wildly rich assortment of experiential episodes.  It gives me the license to be present and aware in a way that other professions don't.

What a glorious and charming way for an avowed fiction writer to assemble the raw materials for books and stories.  I realized this when I realized that I didn't really care if the images came out perfectly as long as the clients liked them and kept inviting me back.  And then I realized that when I stopped caring about perfection the images got better and better.  And once I gave up thinking about anything but the subject, and my reactions to the subject,  my pictures became an extension of my style and became my art.

Photography is the messy intersection of art and physics.  For it to become art it must be informed by a creator's unique point of view--about the subject.  That's the magic stuff.

A photographic education. What matters?

Education is an admirable thing, but it is well to remember from time to time that nothing that is worth knowing can be taught. — Oscar Wilde


The latest victim of my iLED-ology fascination.

Intrepid Photographic Genius, Will van Overbeek, Poses For Another One Of 
My Endless LED  Lighting Experiments.  Straining The Bonds Of Friendship.......

I've come to believe, after years of trial and error,  that the only way to master a style, a light, a camera or a lens is to spar with it for weeks, wrestle it to the ground and beat on it for months and months.  Maybe even years and years.  The only problem with that for a photographer who likes to photograph people is that, sooner or later, your friends, loved ones and neighborly acquaintances will start to avoid you like sour milk and you'll have no more subjects on which to practice.

Will is a brilliant photographer and an old friend and we often meet for lunch.  But today he got too close to the gravitational draw of the studio and, like a spider,  I slowly pulled him into the web.

If you've been reading this blog for a while you probably know that I've become quite interested in LED lighting.  Interested enough to take money out of my pocket and buy three 500 bulb LED fixtures and one 1000 bulb fixture.   The light they put out is different from flash and daylight and I keep trying to get a hand on it.  To this end I'm practicing with all manner of filters and custom white balances and fixes in RAW.  Today I was going for a contrastier look.  I used the 1000 close in as a main light, with one layer of diffusion.  A 500 on the background (a gray painted wall).  I used a 500 as a hair light high and on the same side of the frame as the main light.  On the opposite side I  used a kicker light with only half of its 500 bulbs on.

The rest of the technical details are way, way out of my comfort level.  For example, I'm actually hand holding my Canon 5D2 to do the shot.  A tangle of tripods just steps away.......but I was trying to shake up the way I shoot.  My ISO was set to 100 and, amazingly, instead of a longer portrait focal length like a 100mm or even a comfortable old 85mm, I was using the 50mm Zeiss lens.  I shot until Will couldn't stand it anymore.  We called it a day after ten or so frames.

I'm starting to get my LED's dialed in and in about six months or so I should have an eminently useful methodology in place.  For now I'm just enjoying the novelty of it all.

Why am I shooting with LEDs?  Um.  For some crazy reason, corroborated by my electrical engineer friend, Bernard,  I think they will end up being the universal light as we go forward.  The lines are already blurring a bit between stills and motion and I'm betting Ben's generation (kids under 20) will have no real interest in still images when they come into the market.  I'd like to learn this stuff at the front end instead of being like all the guys I met back in 1999-2005 who were waiting to see if digital was going to "catch on".  I watched them trying to cram down the ten years of learning curve and experimentation I did with digital into ten months.  And for them it was a real "sink or swim" situation.  The market had moved around them and they didn't know how to paddle the boat any more.

And constant learning keeps the process fun.  And isn't good, clean fun what it's really all about anyway?


Shop Class As Soulcraft; a very short review.

This is one of the best books I've read this year.It's a really great look at why people aren't necessarily happy doing what they've been told they should be doing.  And it's about under-standing choices.

This is a very well written book and it looks at work in a different way.  The writer has his Phd. in something impressive and worked in a think tank and in an information technology company before chucking it all and returning the the thing he enjoys the most,  fixing motorcycles.  He makes a compelling case that work which entails problem solving, the use of one's hands and garnered intuition makes for a happier work existence.  According to Crawford 93% of high school students are now placed in college track preparation.  The college courses that most people take prepare them for......nothing other than an improved quality of conversation around the water cooler.  He posits that education inflation really means that most of the information technology jobs that drive the economy could have been admirably filled by high school graduates from several generations before. (Before my highly educated readership gets their backs up he specifically exempts engineers and doctors from his discussion on the premise that they really do learn valuable and commensurate skills that intertwine their pure knowledge base...).

As photographers we tend to occupy the "no man's land" of vocations.  All that's really required to do the mechanical parts of our jobs certainly doesn't require a college education.  We'd all do better at becoming product or people photographers by watching talented mentors and by assisting.  That, and a liberal dose of really reading the owner's manuals for the products we buy......

By going to college photographers can learn important things about art and art history, writing, literature and philosophy which, when properly digested, may add significant value to the character and quality of the way we see and interpret our work.  But in many cases it would matter not at all.  And that's the tragedy of making college into a trade school.  Having knowledge doesn't always add value to routine but skilled work.  And many times we're aimed in the wrong direction.  

I won't go into detail here and I may be skewing his arguments to fit my mythology but I will say that the book makes me feel a connection to the "blue collar" aspect of my work,  the hands on skill sets and polished craft, in a very different way.  It opened a door in my thinking that helped me see the value of tactile  and intuitive craftsmanship as a vital piece in itself,  not solely as an adjunct to a trendy, philosophically driven and stylistically homogenized image making.

I especially recommend this book to anyone who's kids are starting to think about what they want to do with their lives and how they want to proceed with their education after high school.

I'll go so far as to say this is "must read" stuff for photographers struggling with a new market paradigm of imaging, marketing and surviving.  Five stars.