My story on Austin Mexican Food For Tribeza Magazine. Just for fun.

This story ran in Tribeza magazine a while back.  I was driving with my kid yesterday.  I told him that good writers were rare in our society and that he should practice his writing.  I went on to say,  "If I were in charge I'd make you write a new essay every day."  He immediately countered with,  "If you did that I would be a much more rebellious child..." Touche'  This aricle may not appeal to everyone but it's a classic example in the editorial world of getting more work because you can put two disciplines together.  It's cheaper to put a writer and photographer on a plane if they are the same person........ And you get paid for both parts....

 A Taste of Mexico

Story by Kirk Tuck

There is a time and place for shiny, novel, ersatz, newcomer Mexican food, but the time is generally after an evening of drinking and the place is usually somewhere I really don’t want to be. Like most Austinites, I want my Mexican food to be authentic, tasty, and time tested. There has always been an uncomplimentary inflection involved in the discussion of Tex-Mex food that stems from the conceit that the clichéd gooey-cheese, orange grease, and tortilla-laden cuisine, cut with hot peppers, was invented only to insulate the human system from the onslaught of margaritas and beer and doesn’t really constitute nutrition or “cuisine.”

I couldn’t disagree more. Some of my all-time-favorite meals have come from a handful of Mexican restaurants sprinkled around Austin—meals that married incredible combinations of ingredients with masterful preparation. In fact, when “foodie” friends from either coast hit town in search of great meals, we usually default to one of three established favorites. These are restaurants that have three things in common: (1) They’ve stood the test of time and are just as relevant to diners today as they were the day they opened. (2) They’ve focused on providing engaging dining experiences that combine great food with just the right ambience. (3) The food is still the compelling reason for their existence.

The three restaurants I refer to are Fonda San Miguel, Manuel’s (on Congress Avenue), and El Azteca. They are totally different in style, presentation, and aesthetics, but each provides a rich experience in its own right.

In fairness, I should make this disclosure before going any further: We’ve been going to Fonda San Miguel for more than 25 years and El Azteca for at least that long, and we were around for the birthing of Manuel’s, which turns 25 this year.

These three restaurants offer totally different dining experiences; El Azteca is the prototypical family-run Tex-Mex-style restaurant serving traditional dishes that blend the tastes of South Texas and Old Mexico. Along with Matt’s El Rancho, El Azteca has set the standard for Mexican “comfort food” in Austin for decades. It’s the perfect place for cabrito and all our usual “combination plate” favorites. It’s very casual, with prices to match.

Manuel’s is the opposite of El Azteca’s homespun, East Side, laid-back feel. Located at the epicenter of downtown, Manuel’s is sleek and stylish. A study in black and white with touches of warm neon. The crowd on any given day is composed of young downtown professionals, a mix of advertising and magazine creatives with a blend of politicos and attorneys thrown in for flavor. The food is a perfect blend of interior Mexican traditionals with a generous nod to ongoing culinary evolution. And the presentation of the specialties is second to none.

Then there’s Fonda San Miguel: a world-class restaurant with a split personality. It can’t seem to decide between being a celebrated destination dining venue or a museum-quality art gallery, so it gracefully merges both inclinations to present a unique visual and gustatory experience beyond that of any other restaurant in Austin. Chef Miguel Ravago is doing wild and wonderful things that marry the finest traditions of haute cuisine with nuances of Old Mexico. When the food is combined with the incredible collection of art, the result is an evening that is very much a special occasion.

I’ll start with our Tex-Mex traditional, El Azteca. The building is modest and shows its age. The restaurant has been there for 46 years, after all. Walking in the front door, we were greeted by Daniel Guerra, the son of the restaurant’s founders. The walls are decorated with won- derfully kitschy Mexican calendars depicting “ripped” warriors atop Mayan pyramids and ample, half-naked women in ceremonial outfits from the ancient Aztecs, if the ceremonial outfits had been designed to be worn by Jessica Simpson at a car show. The calendars are a tradition started by Daniel’s father. He imported them from Mexico to be given away to regular customers. Now they are available for sale.

The highlight of our recent lunch was roasted cabrito (young goat) served in tasty, small chunks and accompanied by a traditional mild sauce, guacamole salad, and frijoles à la charra. The cabrito is a specialty of the house, and it was just right, almost crispy on the outside, tender and moist on the inside. We also ordered a vegetarian combination plate that took us right back to our early Austin Tex-Mex roots.

Refried beans, rice, a vegetarian taco, acres of wonderful queso, and an enchilada. Nothing heroic, just perfectly proportioned, and served promptly. From the fresh, hot chips to the easy-to-eat house-made salsa, everything about El Azteca says “rich, comforting food served up by family.” The one thing that will surprise you is just how affordable the food is.

Manuel’s Downtown is a great blend of streamlined, modern decor fused with authentic interior Mexican dishes that never disappoint. I love coming in for lunch with a fairly large party and sitting in one of the rounded, plushly upholstered corner booths with a view of the entire dining room. But the restaurant really comes alive during the dinner service, with the kind of bustling energy you normally experience in the most popular New York cafés. The waitpeople, dressed all in black, whip through the room. The patrons, also dressed mostly in black, meet and greet with alacrity, though the lucky ones who’ve already been served are oblivious to everything but the beautiful presentations and addictive smells and tastes of the great food.

On a recent visit we sampled an interesting trio of disparate dishes. The camarones veracruzanos, served on a bed of perfectly cooked rice, was a shrimp lover’s wish come true. Huge, plump sautéed shrimp, painted with a delicately spicy red veracruzano sauce, dominated the plate. The folks in this kitchen do seafood really well. Next we turned our attention to a crowd-pleaser, the enchiladas verdes. I order these chicken enchiladas covered with a piquant tomatillo sauce nearly every other visit to Manuel’s. The blend of cheese, chicken, and salsa is as close to perfection as you’ll find in Austin. On my last visit, I was pushed to try something new, so as a compromise I ordered the enchiladas banderas. The banderas are like an ultimate enchilada/ salsa pairing “taster” plate. Your choice of chicken, beef, tender pork, cheese, or mushroom enchiladas is sauced in all three of Manuel’s handcrafted signature salsas: verde, suiza, and adobada. Now I have a new favorite dish.

Most of the entrées are served with black beans and Mexican rice. Another dish that blew us away was the chile relleno en nogada. This is a roasted poblano pepper stuffed full of shredded pork, almonds, and raisin picadillo, topped with a walnut cream brandy sauce. A visual note that took the presentation to the next level was a sprinkling of brilliant vermilion pomegranate seeds. For lunch I can never resist the pork tacos, and I have another friend who is just addicted (really, in a very clinical way) to the ceviche.

I saved Fonda San Miguel for last because it’s so different from any other restaurant and even our own cultural expectations of what a restaurant can or should be. The luxe quality of the food is a given. But the food is just one part of an amazing blend of art, decor, cultural touchstones, attention to craft, and details, all of which come together perfectly. In most restaurants, waiting for your table is a bothersome experience that requires the more compulsive among us to keep one eye on our dinner companions and the other on the seating hostess to prevent “bureaucratic table loss.” At Fonda San Miguel your short stay in the atrium area will find you surrounded by exotic plants, graceful design nuances from the best of Old Mexico, and a collection of exceptional art. That would be real, museum-quality pieces that rotate through the restaurant from Tom Gilliland’s remarkable collection of eclectic and renowned international artists. Combine this with drinks from a well-versed bar staff and perhaps a plate of salmon tostadas to munch on, and you’ll find me hoping it takes at least half an hour for our table to be ready.

The two dining rooms are amazing. The larger room is delicately lit with strands of small spotlights that supplement the warm glow from a grand collection of majestic hanging bronze fixtures in the center of the room. The smaller room has some of my favorite paintings, and it also has a graceful sense of privacy about it. There is always one problem that afflicts Fonda San Miguel regulars, though. In a nutshell it’s this: If you order one dish you don’t get to order something else. Go for the Jaliscostyle steak caballero—a succulent 16-ounce bone-in ribeye served with chile de arbol chimichurri—and you won’t have any room left to even try the enchiladas suizas de jaiba (enchiladas stuffed with crab and covered with a white sauce). It’s a sad state of affairs for the indecisive.

On one of our recent visits we went with a dish that transcended the entire category of Mexican food. It was the cordero. Four plump, perfectly grilled lamb chops served with a chipotle cheese potato casserole and a mixed green salad. The lamb was easily as good as any cut of meat you’ll have at any premium steak house, while the subtle bite of the potato casserole provided a perfect counterpoint. Also sampled was a classic pescado veracruzano. A broiled fish fillet in a traditional Veracruz tomato sauce sprinkled through with onions, Spanish olives, and capers. It was a definitive rendition of a popular dish. The range of the menu is breathtaking, and the kitchen rarely stumbles. Add in a few extras like the person in the corner show kitchen continually making hand-formed flour and corn tortillas that come hot to your table, and a well-stocked selection of fine wines, and you’ll understand why people come from all over Texas for the Sunday buffet or from as far away as Paris to sample the offerings.

So the next time one of your confederates suggests “grabbing some Mexican food” at some new place that used to be an auto shop or at some dive that puts grated cheddar cheese garnishes on the tacos, that will be the perfect time to step up everybody’s game with a visit to one of the genuine masterpieces of Mexican cuisine. From basics to blue sky, these are the restaurants that deliver what you really want. If you haven’t been to these three temples to the various genres of Mexican food, I truly envy you. Now you get to try each one for the first time!


Another interesting Sunday that makes me think we haven't come as far as we think...

 Drying dishes in the kitchen the night after the party.

I've owned a Kodak DCS 760 since they were introduced back in 2001.  Or was it 2002?  No matter, it's a camera I've always enjoyed using if for no other reason that it was built on the chasis of the Nikon F5 and had, at the time, the best viewfinder, shutter and overall mechanical operation of any camera in the early part of the century.  I also shot a bunch of memorable ad campaigns with it.  It got a lot of use because one of the things Kodak did very well was the implementation of tethered shooting with Photo Desk software.

The camera is quite beefy at almost five pounds with a 50mm lens on the front.  Over time the inconveniences of using the camera became apparent in light of new competition.  The Nikon D100 was smaller and lighter.  The D1x shot faster.  The screens on the backs of newer cameras got bigger and better.  But I think the thing that finally got my pair of DCS 760's consigned to the "C" drawer of the equipment toolkit was the batteries.  The camera originally launched with NiCad batteries that had all the usual NiCad bugaboos.  The batteries, when new, were good for about 125 actuations.  Additionally, as long as the battery was inserted into the slot on the camera body the camera suck down power.  Even with the power switch firmly set to "off".   As the batteries aged they were good for fewer and fewer shots per charge.  Finally, when we got down to 20 or so shots per charge the camera was relegated to shooting only in the studio and only when cabled to the AC adapter.  Why bother to keep them for so long?  Well, there were sharper and the color bit depth was nicer than any of the six megapixel cameras Nikon had on the market over the years.  Finally Nikon introduced the D2x and I put the Kodak's away.

Every once in a while, in a fit of nostalgia, I'd do a big internet search for new batteries.  But the few times I found suppliers the batteries were in the $149 price range and when I inquired they were invariably out of stock.  Eventually I dumped most of my Nikon stuff and started up an "on again/off again" relationship with Olympus.  Then, realizing that I could be married to more than one camera system I also added the Canon stuff.  Now were shooting with 21 megapixels or shooting with cameras that fit in my palm and take older Pen lenses.  But I never got over my infatuation with the Kodaks.  And every once in a while I'd come across a photo from those cameras that was......perfect.  Technically as good as the stuff I produce today (within the resolution limits) and with a color palette that's enchanting.

I guess I'll open myself up to a little ridicule and say that they were the first digital cameras I used that really had "soul".  A feeling of ergonomic complicity.  Files that went beyond my one dimensional intentionality and worked on many levels.

So a week ago I came across another one of those (wow) photos and I did another web search.  But it started and ended at Amazon, my online vendor of choice.  A vendor offered brand new metal nickel hydride batteries for $49 each.  I ordered two.  They came quickly and I charged them up.  Today was my first opportunity to put them to the test.

Flowers from Leslie.

So I clicked the 50mm Nikkor 1.1.2 AIS lens on the front and, after a few shots around the house I headed downtown to get in a nice walk and a wine tasting at Whole Foods.  I brought both batteries, fully charged, anticipating the same kind of performance I'd gotten from 760 type batteries in the past.  I shot over 225 images with the first battery and it's still reading a full charge!!!  I feel liberated.

In case you're thinking about running out and buying a DCS 760 for yourself let me arm you with a few caveats.  Mind you, these are things I'm willing to work around because I've worked with much tougher cameras and I don't presume they'll make French toast for you and also clean up the kitchen for you......

The screen on the back is as close to non-functional as you can imagine.  I use it only to set menu items and make sure that the whole system is still working.  There's no way you could use that screen to judge exposure.  And you'd be foolish to even think about judging color on it.  It's dark, it's horribly contrasty and three or four colors have over the top saturation problems.

I do what photographers have done for over a century.  I look at the light and guesstimate and exposure. I'm usually pretty close but even if I'm up to one full stop over this camera's raw files make short work of it.  They have latitude that makes some current cameras seem like three stop toys.  I drag the slider back in Lightroom (which does a superb job on conversions from the DCR files) and I'm right back into the sweet spot.  Just don't under expose!!!!  That's a problem.  The blue channel gets very noisy if you have to push the pixels......

My biggest caveat for you is this:  Be careful shooting this camera.  When you see the "Kodak" color and the sharpness of a camera with NO anti-aliasing filter you'll never want to go back.  Seriously.  The color is just so good.  It was the first series of cameras to supply color into 16 bit channels.  Not the 14 or 12 bit color of today's cameras.  We're talking "Holy Grail" color.  And, within the six megapixel resolution, the sharpest camera ever created.  It spanks the Nikons and the Fujis and especially any of the six megapixel Canons out there.  If you use one you'll start trying to convince clients to work with smaller files and smaller final image sizes just because it's so nice.

But not everyone is into just sharp if they can have sharp and resolution.  And I see the point every time I go big.  But if you go by the older standards of viewing distance the DCS 760 acquits itself well at enormous sizes.  There's something about sharp edges that transcends a lot of foibles in the quest for big prints.

Most clients are looking for web stuff.  If we only shot brightly lit scenes and in the studio we'd be able to please all but the most pretentious clients with this technology from nearly a decade ago.  But here's where my argument all falls apart:  Imagine a camera with only two ISO settings.  Imagine you have ISO 80 and, in a pinch, you can also use ISO 100.  There are ISO's all the way up to 400 but for the most part, unless you are going for a paean to Pointillists you'll want to stick to the bottom of the scale.  And that won't be fun for everyone who's been spoiled by the high ISO performance of Canon and Nikon's better cameras.  I'll face it, this camera makes my Olympus EPL-1 (at less than $500) look like a low light champ.

I also wanted to talk for a second about the reason I still have a few Nikon lenses even though I'm mostly shooting with a Canon 5D Mk2.  For some reason Canon is really good at everything but fast normal focal length lenses.  I'm sure they'll fix this deficiency at some point but I've shot with their 50mm 1.4 and their 1.8 (the "Nifty Fifty")  and, to be frank, I'm wholly underwhelmed.  So much so that I even went out and got my own Carl Zeiss ZE 50mm 1.4.  But after looking at results from the Nikon AIS 50mm 1.1.2 lens I think I've wasted some more money.  The Nikon is better wide open, better stopped down and better built than any of the Canon offerings.  (Yes.  That includes the 50mm 1.2 L which is overbuilt mechanically and under executed optically. If you gave me one I'd get my money back and buy the Nikon or the Zeiss 50mm macro.......)

All of the images I'm showing here were done with the Nikon lens.  And the results please me as much as when I use the Nikon lens on my Canon 5D.  What I like most about the Nikon 1.1.2 is the way it goes from wide open to 5.6 and the only thing that really changes is the depth of field.  The Canons are almost unusable wide open.  And really, that's a shame.  There are reasons, sometimes, to cherry pick the best from multiple vendors.....

I'm not writing this to push you to buy an old, rugged Kodak camera.  I guess my real intention is to make you think about the treasures you may have relegated to the equipment cabinet that may just need a new set of batteries.  If you've got an old Canon 1DS or a Nikon D1x or a Fuji Sx you might want to pull it out and re-evaluate it.  If you kept it around you probably know that there are some special attributes that attracted you to the camera in the first place.  Now that raw converters have become much better you might want to re-audition the older cameras just to see if they have some attribute that really makes them stand out.  In a good way.  Example:  I love the way the old Kodaks do sky.  Lovely blue and the contrast comes from being able to hold vast amounts of detail in the shadows.

There's a touch of magenta in these late afternoon clouds.  Do you know why?  Because it's late afternoon and there's a touch of magenta in these clouds.  I'm shooting a job later in the week with a famous computer CEO.  For that one I'll use the Canon 5D2 and the latest flash equipment.  For my own art?  Right now it's a toss up between the two Kodaks (DCS 760 and SLR/n) and the Sony R1.  Let me know which cameras from days gone by you think have a bit of magic in them.  There's bound to be dozens I haven't played with yet and I'd hate to miss something good.

Site Note:  I'd like to get to 500 followers.  It's an ego thing.  It looks good on the sidebar.  If you subscribe and you like what I write would you consider becoming a follower.  It's more fun for me if I can look you up and see what you're all about, too.  End of message.  I hope you're having a hell of a good holiday and not going anywhere without some kind of cool camera.

Best, Kirk


Today I'm taking a break from photography to host a party for 100 people.

If you've read my blog over time you know that I swim with a masters swim club.  We have some pretty august members.  Five or six gold medal winning Olympians, the random world record holders and even a few famous people from other sports.

And no matter what your rank in the pool if you swim with our group you are part of the team.  We swim six days a week and have workouts available at 7am, 8:30 am and at noon.  Longer workouts on Saturdays and Sundays.  We average 3,000 yards on weekday practices and 5,000 yards on weekends.

We have a number of coaches who were All Americans or Olympic contenters, on the deck.  To a person we are more competitive than most.

We swim in an incredible outdoor pool that's heated to 82 degrees.  We swim there all year long.  Even when it snows.....

We generally get more natural vitamin D than any of our friends.  This year I'm hosting the Holiday Party for everyone at my house.

I've got a refrigerator full of spiral cut hams and smoked turkeys.  I've got cases of wine strewn thru the dining room.  Every one is supposed to bring a pot luck side dish. And if you don't like my wine then it's BYOB.  But what dawned on me is how great it is to have one hundred+ extra friends.  People I see four or five times a week and have for decades.  How we check in with each other.  How we take care of each other.  I think it will be amazing to see what all these people actually look like with their clothes on.......

Sometimes it feels great to take a day off from photography and just play with your friends.  The fire pit and the marshmallows are ready.  The weather report says "clear with a high in the 70's today."  I'd better charge the batteries for the point and shoot camera.  Something tells me we're going to want some documentation.


Old Tech. New Tech. No Tech.

The two images above are from a campaign I did a while back for the Austin Lyric Opera.  At the time my camera of choice was the Kodak DCS 760.  I guess this would have been back in 2002 or 2003.  I was using hot lights so I could have complete freedom of choice for apertures while using the Nikon 105 f2 Defocus Coupling lens.  It was a wonderful combination.  The six megapixel camera could be used without an anti aliasing filter and that was fine with me.  But while the camera was capable of giving me very sharp images the lens was equally capable of taking the edge off.  We shot tethered to an aluminum Apple Powerbook and the shoot was wonderful and very productive.  

Time marched on and I've been thru many cameras since in a silly search for the "holy grail" of cameras.  But two Summers ago, just to do something different I charged up the aging batteries and shot a kid's swim meet with the DCS 760 and a Nikon 180 2.8.  It brought me back to the idea the cameras are never really obsolete if they still do what  you want them to do.  The files were wonderful.  The pictures, even better.  

I came across the camera in a drawer in the studio last week and immediately re-bonded to it.  Five pounds of picture taking potential.  I went on line and ordered two new batteries (which came yesterday) and I've been shooting it ever since.  New rule:  Never get rid of old cameras.  

That's my version of old tech.

Below is new tech.
I was doing a book on the business of Commercial photography and asked three really great photographers to contribute some photographs.  I was writing profiles of them because each, in his own way, defined what I thought was great about commercial photographers.  The gentleman above is the best living portrait photographer I know ( and it pains my ego to admit it.....).  His name is Wyatt McSpadden, and his book on Texas BBQ is amazing.  But even more amazing is the body of work he's assembled over the last 25 years.  To my mind he defines "master photographer."  Go and check out his website:  Wyatt's Website and tell me I'm not right.  On second thought, don't bother telling me because you'd be wrong.

Anyway,  I was tested the latest Phase One camera,  at the time a 45+s and making files left and right.  I love the way it handle skin tones.  And this is my example of New Tech.  Super sharp, super accurate and more expensive than both of my cars.....

But I always come back to no tech. 

The above image is an actor I shot years and years ago on 120mm Kodak Tri-X film.  I souped it by hand because that's just what we did back then.  When the film was nice and dry I made contact sheets and then sat around with a cup of coffee marking my selections with a grease pencil.  I'd draw quick circles around the keepers and then go back and draw three lines under the "must print" frames, two lines under the "under consideration" files and one line under the,  "go back and re-look if the other frames don't enlarge well" files.  The I wandered into the darkroom and made a bunch of test strips and test frames and then work prints and then a few final prints.  When they dried down I looked at em and went in again and did one more round of printing.

It's sad to show you this image on a web browser.  It's like describing what it's like to drink coffee instead of giving you a hot cup full.  It's like telling you how exciting it is to drive a sports car at the limits instead of putting you in the driver's seat and letting you take a few laps.  Well, I think you get the analogy.  I look at a 16x20 inch print of this and I'm still amazed.

We can do things quicker and cheaper now.  Is any of it technically better?  I don't think so.  Does it really matter?  Not if the image is good.

Old Tech.  New Tech.  No Tech.  Doesn't matter if it serves your vision well.

the holidays are upon us.  I humbly submit that a good book about photography will be most welcome by the photographers on your list.  Here are a few suggestions:






What goes into a "simple" assignment?

I was going thru some older work; stuff from the early part of the century (doesn't it feel weird to type that phrase?) and I found this image from a job I did for a telecom company thru a large ad agency, here in Texas.  The telecom was doing a series of newspaper ads about a "mentoring" program they inaugurated and supported.  Our brief was to cast four models and shoot them against both a white background and a black background.  We cast these two people for our African American mentoring duo and we cast a caucasian women and girl for our other mentoring duo.  We would shoot them in five or six different configurations in front of each of the backdrops.

So, how do you budget something like this and what all is involved in shooting it?

No matter how simple the shoot, when an agency is putting together a campaign that will run nationally for a client they want everything to become "bulletproof".   And a bullet proof Honda Civic cost tons more than a "run of the mill" Civic.  We would need to cast a large number of people so the agency and client could pick exactly the right mix for each pairing.  We'd need to rent a bigger studio so we could bring in lots of wardrobe choices and so we could accomodate art directors, creative directors, their assistants and, of course, a product manager and program manager from the client as well as their assistants.  Of course we'd also need space for the hair and make up people and space for the food catering.  So, yes....a bigger studio space.  We took a creative meeting and went into great depth about EXACTLY what the clients all wanted and then we went back to the studio and bid.

The total project came in a bit under $30,000.  (I know I hear someone out there grumbling, "I woulda done it for $400.  Or a byline....."  Right.)  Here's how it all breaks out.

Our casting director (freelance and paid by the day) gets in touch with model and talent agencies in Dallas, Houston, Austin and San Antonio.  Everyone sends out books of models.  We narrow down selections until we have several dozen who all look as though they might be right for the part.  We rent the studio for three days for casting.  We schedule all of our "possible" choices to come in over the course of three days to be photographed and interviewed.  We also have a general casting call during those three days to pull from non-affiliated actors and other potential walk-ins.   After meeting and photographing dozens and dozens of people for each position we have prints made of each person, with their information on the back,  we put these into a book and send them to the art directors and producers at the agency.  After a week of winnowing down the selections and getting them approved by the clients we get their four main choices and four back up choices (in case we can't make the scheduling work for everyone.)  

Once scheduled we book the studio for another three days.

At this point we begin negotiating with the talent agencies.  Professional talent is paid for showing up and then paid residuals for each 12 week run of ads.  We were negotiating for more uses and trying to keep the budgets reasonable.  When we successfully negotiated with the talent agents we set up a schedule and started putting together a team.  After my assistants the most important two people were the make up person and the wardrobe person.  We had a budget and a wish list for wardrobe, as well as sizing for all of our talent.  The wardrobe person gets moving.  We book our favorite make up person and she books an assistant.

At this point we get a rough head count and call our favorite caterer.  The magic number is 24.  That's not a typo.  We'll have 24 heads for a one day shoot with two pairs of models against both white and black backgrounds.  We'll need pastries, some protein and lots of coffee first thing in the morning on the day of the shoot, snacks during the morning, a sit down lunch for everyone and snacks in the afternoon.

We lock up the caterer and pay a deposit.  Next up is to get parking at the downtown studio lined up.  We negotiate with a building near the studio for six of their spaces and pay a rental fee.  That will take care of the agency and client cars.  The crew will use spaces next to the building if they have lots to load in (caterer, wardrobe).  My first assistant and I will go into the studio space the day before to set up the first background and design and test the lighting.  We'll be using two Pentax 6x7 cameras with 200mm lenses and we'll bring two back up bodies and a back up lens.  We're using big soft lights.  My trademark?

In the week leading up to the shoot we check in with the wardrobe person and the caterer as well as the studio management, just to make sure.  We give daily progress reports via e-mail, to our client.

On the shooting day the first assistant shows up at 6am to open up the space, turn on the lights and meet the caterer who needs to be set up and ready for the onslaught of crew that will arrive at 8am.  The talent arrives at 9am along with the clients and agency folk.  While the first pair of talent sit in make up the wardrobe person and the client and agency figure out what they want each talent to wear on set.  These items are steamed, ironed, de-tagged and made ready.  We're doing the guys first but we choose the wardrobe for the female talent and have them change before getting into wardrobe.

For every set up we shoot tons of Polaroids and spend a fair amount of time making adjustments to the background/foreground lighting ratios and direction of light.  We also get to a consensus on what kinds of expressions we want (but we end up shooting a big range......).  Then we shoot in earnest and burn twenty or so rolls of 120 (ten frames on a roll) or 220 (20 frames on a roll), pausing every once in a while to shoot more test Polaroids, just in case.

As we go along one of the assistants will pin Polaroids to a wall in linear order by "time shot" so we can be cognizant of continuity and progression.  When we hit the half way mark (as near as we can tell....) we break for a delicious lunch.  Half an hour later everyone is back to work and the caterers are pouring coffees and cleaning up from lunch.  We've got bowls of fruit and nuts and chocolate on the food table for anyone who needs a quick burst of energy.

The shoot goes on the rest of the afternoon.  My second assist marks every roll of film and logs it into a book.  We'll process the film in batches so that in the worst case scenario of a lab catastrophe we'll have enough variations to cover the client's needs.  In the end we shoot about 150 rolls of film, a mix of 120 and 220, all color transparency.  All carefully metered and double checked with Polaroid tests.  The first batch of film goes to the lab.

We booked the studio for three days.  One day was for loading in and pre-production, one day for shooting and a final day for rounding up wardrobe, packing out gear and cleaning everything out.  I don't need to be there for most of that and that's great because it gives me time to hunch over a light table with my first few test rolls and a good loupe so I can make sure we've really nailed the exposure before we begin running all the film.  One batch at a time.  

Once we get back film we snip out the blinks and dark frames caused by shooting too fast for the flash recycle.  We put it all in a notebook and deliver it.  I use the 50% advance we asked for (and got) to pay all of the crew and suppliers.  And another job goes out the door.  Did they want it produced in a cheaper way?  No.  They wanted what they wanted.  A job that almost could not fail.  If one camera dies we had three more.  If the lens died we had a bag full.  If  a light died we had several replacements standing by.   Don't like the green shirt?  We have red and yellow and blue.  Need a vegetarian entree'?  We've got that too.  It's dangerous in this business to presume that everyone wants the lowest price you can possibly offer.  Many, many times they want to assurance that everything will be just as they want it to be.  And many times photographers get hired not because they are masters of imaging (that's assumed) but because they are also masters of production.  Just a few shots against white and black?  No, not really.  It's really the intellectual property and creative content that ended up powering ads used in hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of ad placements.  Maybe millions. 

And if you are going to spend real money on buying space doesn't it make sense to have the right photograph to provide the visual message?  If you start bidding big jobs my advice to you is to have a checklist and never assume the client isn't interested in doing something right.  If they don't have the budget they'll tell you.  But if they do.........


Taking a walk and thinking about old tech versus entropy.

Here's an interesting exercise:  Grab any old camera and go walk around somewhere eminently accessible for two hours and shoot whatever you find interesting in a style that you find....interesting.  I've recently become interested in the idea that some of the technology that we've casually tossed aside over the last ten years may have had some hidden talents.  I've tossed aside the new Canon stuff and taken, over the last week,  my old Olympus e520,  my newish Olympus EP-2 and an old, old Contax T vs film camera out with me when I leave the house or studio.  I'm always pleasantly surprised that for every weakness I find in a "vintage" camera I also find some hidden treasures.

Yesterday I went to swim practice (crowded and rowdy) had coffee afterwards where I spilled a cup. (I was trying to be "green" and brought a cup with a lid that's damn hard to get off......).  Belinda, Kirsten (our "Yard Coach") and I spent most of the afternoon clearing brush and doing Landscapy things.  At four I'd had enough strenuous physical exercise and decided to grab a camera and take a two hour walk around downtown Austin with my old, Sony R1 camera.  In my opinion the R1 was the ultimate "bridge" camera:  APS sized chip (reportedly the same basic chip that the Nikon D2x sported....) a really cool swivel screen in addition to a usable EVF and, the capper,  a fabulous Carl Zeiss 24-120mm equivalent zoom lens.  A lens that DPReview proclaimed to be worth the entire price of the camera alone.

None of the photos is earth shattering or particularly tricky but I'm happy with them all.  Even the last one, hand held at some obscenely slow shutter speed with an almost unusable ISO 3200.  The camera just flat out works.  I'd done a bunch of jobs with this camera and a twin back in 2006 and 2007 and I remembered it as a great performer when you could use it at ISO 160 or 200 but it was a recent reviewing of a review that reminded me of it's really good long exposure capabilities.  I didn't have a tripod with me but I stabilized the camera on the railing of the pedestrian bridge over Lady Bird Lake and made a series of 15 and 30 second exposures of the afterglow from the sunset, behind the Lamar Blvd. bridge.  I think they turned out well.  Not something I usually shoot but I guess there's no law that says I have to spend all my time shooting beautiful people.......

While the R1 has a raw mode it takes five or six seconds to write a raw file to the buffer and during that time the camera locks up and won't shoot.  With that in mind I always shoot Jpegs.  My last technical observation about the camera is that its ultra-quiet shutter will synch with flash all the way up to 1/2000th of a second, its highest shutter speed.  I put this camera into the "under rated, under praised tools of the decade" category.  You'll never shoot sports with this camera but portraits and still life are natural subjects.  In many ways it reminds me of medium format cameras.

Along the same lines, the previous blog essay showed off images taken with two Kodak cameras that came on the market back in 2001 and 2004 respectively, the DCS 760 and the DCS SLR/n.  I was so happy to look at those images that I went online and ordered two new batteries for each camera.  I fully intend to shoot the heck out of them before something goes south.  Why?  Because they look different and in some ways better to me than my cameras that embody current tech.  And because I already own them.  And when I pull them out of the drawer after a hiatus of months and months it also satisfies my urge to buy something new......

We are nothing if not creatures of trained habit.  I've traded in too many cameras that I later wish I'd kept.  The lure and allure of the new is powerful.  The Sony R1 is a reminder that previous technology is also fun.  A formalist exercise?

What did I learn from my exercise?  I tend to shoot tight so I made it a practice to shoot near 24mm when I could.  I tend to believe AF, sometimes to my detriment, so I concentrated on placing focus manually, exactly where I wanted it.  I took hyperfocal distance into consideration instead of just arbitrarily assigning a focus.  I played with the edges of the frame more.  I'm trying to loosen up my composition.  Got a lot done in two hours.....

the holidays are upon us.  I humbly submit that a good book about photography will be most welcome by the photographers on your list.  Here are a few suggestions:






Lunch was happy, happy.

I'm shooting an event for a company this evening, downtown.  I probably won't have time for dinner.  So Belinda and I headed over to El Arroyo to have lunch.  I had the Sante Fe enchiladas and she had the "lite" plate.   The photo above has nothing at all to do with today's lunch other than it was lunch once.

I've done a fair amount of food photography over the years.  I've got two cookbook credits and I've done several dozen magazine spreads and probably a similar number of projects for the hospitality industry.  The photograph above was done at Uchi, here in Austin, for a lifestyle magazine.  I loved all the food that the owner/chef prepared for me.  What I like most of all was the clean and simple presentation.  I try to make the food look like it was lit by beautiful, clean daylight but in truth I lit it with a big white diffuser very close in to the left side (as you look at the food) and a white reflector four or five feet over to the right.  I used the reflector a bit further away than I might typically because wanted the little heart shaped shadow of the herb leaf to show well on the bottom right side of the frame.  I used a Kodak SLR/n and a 100mm macro lens.  I still use the camera from time to time and every time I do I wonder why I ever bought anything else.  And then I remember that it's not the most ergonomic or fast solution for anything other than slow studio work or studio-type work on location.  But what a magnificent file you can get out of it.  Just amazing.  The colors, tones and contrast is just wonderful.

It's a pity photographers didn't appreciate the Kodak products more for what they really do well instead of  insisting that every camera be the uber-camera.   You know, the super box that can shoot in inky blackness AND lock focus on five soccer players running in five different directions, simultaneously.  The camera of today:  The Swiss Army Camera.  "We can do it all."  Just not nearly as well as a precision crafted tool created just for a particular job.  I pity Kodak.  They made an incredibly good product (for portraits and food)  and then tried to sell it to the wrong market (weddings).  And, in some ways, we do that as photographers.  Hard to be good at everything.  That's why there's a lot of stuff I don't shoot.

But I like to shoot food.  And I like to eat it.  And if I can have lunch with a different fun and interesting person every day of the week I count myself happy.  As in "lunch was happy, happy."

(side note:  Many of you may be too young to remember this but Kodak basically invented digital photography in the 1980's and 1990's.  The earliest Canon and Nikon professional cameras were hybrids with mechanics by C&N and electronics and sensors by Kodak.  They owned the market until 2001 when Nikon came out with their own D1x and Canon came out with their D30.  Even then Kodak's "beast" the DCS 760 was (in my opinion) the camera to have.  It out muscled the other two in resolution and had a bigger sensor (1.3 crop factor).  It's real strength, and one rarely mentioned by reviewers or dilletantes was.......drum roll, please........Dynamic Range.  Used in raw, the files could do absolutely amazing stuff and the market is just now, nine years later, beginning to catch up.  I had reason to go thru older files today and look.  I'm still amazed at the quality of the files and the depth of the range from shadow to tweaked highlight.  The camera also had an stout buffer.  Twenty or so full raw files at one frame pers second was about three times the throughput of the other cameras of the day.  At one time I liked the look so much I had three of the cameras.  Now I keep one around for nostalgia.  At 6 MP they aren't resolution competitive with current cameras.  But for jobs that aren't going to leave the web?  Magic.)

Here are two samples from the DCS 760:

 This was shot on a sunny day for a sports medicine practice.  They have a 24 by 36 inch poster on one of their walls that is breathtaking.  All it took was a good interpolation tool at the right lab to bring out the quality inherent in the file.
This was shot for the 2006 Annual Report for the Kipp School.  It was blown up to a similar size for a fundraising event by the same lab.  People assumed it was from a Hasselblad negative........

And finally,  another example from the Kodak SLR/n.  I think the skin tones and shadows are amazingly good.

Amazingly good cameras.  Can't say I like the files from my Canon 5d2 any better.......

the holidays are upon us.  I humbly submit that a good book about photography will be most welcome by the photographers on your list.  Here are a few suggestions:






Afternoon Dessert.

Whenever I write two or three columns in a short amount of time that are critical of mass culture, or take pokes at the irrational foibles of our own industry (photography) I get an inevitable spate of caustic comments letting me know that I am a washed up "hack" and a "bitter old man" and those comments are generally followed by the assertion that I am so out of touch that I just don't understand the nuances of progress.  And there's the consistent perception that, since I complain about the systems I must be mired in financial decline and lashing out.....I thought about these things as I delivered another photography project to a large, international technology company this morning.  Of course the client had to wait until after swim practice.

I'm doing just fine, thank you.  But my tone must be quite bleak because, today at lunch one of my close friends (and a daily reader of the VSL blog) remarked that my last several blogs had him worried about my state of mind.  Over a double cheeseburger at P.Terry's I assured him that I was feeling chipper.  I guess the bane of experience is having seen how good something can be and then watching its decline.

We talked about my article lambasting cellphone use.  He argued that I must get used to it because society was changing.  I argued that in Texas we've been able to carry concealed weapons for a while now but we haven't made it "culturally okay" to shoot them off in restaurants and movie theaters in moments of unalloyed joy.  He just shook his head.

So, on a lighter note:  Dessert.  There are few things as yummy and fluffy as a lemon cake with white icing and little sweet crystals of lemon festooned all over.  I did a decidedly happy project several years ago for Tribeza Magazine.  I wrote ad article about three different kinds of bakeries here in Austin and what kinds of goodies they make.  I also took the photos for the article.  My first stop was at Sweetish Hill Bakery.  I'd like to talk about the complexities of lighting in this shot but........it was the existing light in the bakery and I just maneuvered around until I got the warm reflection in the metal backsplash, opened up 2/3rd's of a stop and shot a series on aperture priority automatic with a Nikon D200 and the 18-200mm VR lens.  Yes, yes.  I know that the camera is hopelessly obsolete and the lens has all the sharpness of a Coke bottle bottom but just three years ago I hadn't read all  that vital information so my photos were able to turn out well enough. (insert smiley face).

I was so smitten with the cake that I bought it after I shot it and Ben and I feasted on most of it, growling at Belinda so she would keep her distance.......(insert smily face emoticon).  It tasted as good as it took.
On another day, but for the same assignment, I went to the historic Driskill Hotel and gained access to their pastry and dessert kitchen.  The hotel has a nice cafe where one can go at all hours until late at night and have drinks, dessert, coffee.....whatever your pleasure.  I've always been happy with their chocolate cake, especially when they go all "Pixar" with the alien tentacles of chocolate waving around in the air.

The nice thing about jobs like this, either for the writer or the photographer, is that you are doing the businesses a big favor.  You've chosen them as one of your favorites so they know that, at worst, they'll get their name and address in the article, and in the best case scenario they'll have some of their flagship products showcased in large photographs, and the writer will describe a very positive experience that will leave the reader with at least a heightened curiosity about the offerings on the menu.  Everyone wants to discover something new.

Sometimes writing is harder than taking the photos.  In both of these examples the available light was ample and appropriate.  In fact, you can see the reflections of the ceiling mounted florsecents in the white dishes in the photograph just above.  But the writing has to spring, fully formed, from out of nowhere.  And you could handle it in a thousand ways.  I prefer to get my inspiration from the source so I made notes while I savored every bite of the chocolate cake, interspersed with ice cream.....

I used a small, lined Moleskine notebook and a Mont Blanc fountain pen ( a very discreet one ) to write the text.  And, of course, I have my own technical flourish for the writing......I choose to write my notes with my left hand.  Not so wild when you find that I am, in fact, left-handed...... (to my more "opaque" readers:  the previous three sentences were meant to be ironic. Or sarcastic.  Or both...)

The last segment of the article was about the Mexican Bakery on South First St. They are 100% traditional, right down to the ingredients.  I'm not sure the editors really wanted to do this bakery, but I did and I was writing and shooting the article.  So I shot here too.  It was the most fun.  I love this place because the customers have character and the food is a riot of color.  It also tastes great.

Same very involved lighting and technical information as the two photographs above.  The same Coke bottle lens and primitive body.  The same lack of all lighting gear.

I'm having a stunning afternoon.  Thank you for asking.  Potential clients have called inquiring about video projects (thank you!) and photography projects and the calendar is full of fun, contracted projects for the next two weeks. I have two book contracts.  Everyone here is in good health and my swimming continues to improve as I take Steve's advice and work on technique instead of brute power.  The dog is sleeping peacefully at my feet.

I'm taking a break in a little while to find just the right dessert for Merienda.  I'm thinking a big Mexican cookie and coffee.  Maybe you'll get up and have an afternoon snack too.  Couldn't hurt.