Book buying guide. "Which one should I get?...."

It's the holiday shopping season and everyone's running around looking for last minute gifts and stocking stuffers.  A fair number of people have e-mailed me with a remarkably similar question.  "If I could buy only one of your books which one should it be?"  Hmmmm.  Like asking someone which one of their children should be left behind....  But what I think they are really asking is,  "Can you give me a little synopsis about each book so I can decide?  Personally?  I think it's sad to break up a family.  I'd get all four.  And that's the most self serving answer I could drum up.....

First up.  The first book.  There are now two books that have the words, "Minimalist Lighting" in the title but the subhead tells the difference.  One is about location lighting and the other is about studio lighting.  They are not versions of the same book.  The book above is the location lighting book.  The emphasis is on using small, battery powered "smart flashes" like the Nikon SB-800 and the Canon 580EX2.  But using them as a professional would have used studio lights in the "old days."  The back of the book has descriptions of five or six different actual jobs with diagrams and shooting info.  The book is intended to take someone from a shy and unsure user of "flash on camera" and give them the brain tools to take the flash off the camera, stick it on a stand, attach a radio trigger, add a couple more flashes and get everything to work the way it's supposed to.  All the samples are on location.  Many (most) of the examples are from actual paying assignments.  This is a great starting point for people who want good lighting on location.  And a good primer for using Nikon's CLS, all different kinds of slaves and diffusers.

The Second book is also called "Minimalist Lighting" but the subhead explains that it's aimed at studio lighting.  This book is mostly about lighting in the studio and I do several exercises like taking an orange and a cheap work light and show the way direction and diffusion affect the way images look.  We take one of my favorite models, Heidi, and show permutations of portrait lighting using everything from giant umbrellas, small reflectors and even bounced sunlight.  I cover florescent, flash, daylight and tungsten light and by the time you're done you have a good idea of how to outfit a home studio or a small working studio and how to do basic studio photography.  I like this book.  I wish there had been one out when I started oh those many years ago.  Instead I reinvented many wheels.....

I stuck these pipes in just for fun.  It was a classic annual report shot from 2002.  Somewhere between Gulfport and Biloxi.  

I rarely think of myself as an architectural photographer but one of my first professional assignments was a ten day, large format gig for a historical architecture magazine shooting plantations across Louisiana. The magazine liked the work so much we spent the next ten years driving around Texas, Lousiana, Mississippi and New Mexico shooting architecture with a 4x5 view camera and a box full of Schneider lenses.  This pool was for a feature on water features for a little lifestyle magazine called, Tribeza.
Back to the books in a moment........

You've probably divined by now that I'm a bit of a heretic when it comes to photographic lighting.  David Hobby may have popularized the small strobe craze but, believe me, a bunch of us corporate shooters were all over that in the 1990's when corporations were flying us all over the world and depending on us to hit the ground running in places where the A/C only worked for five hours a day or not at all.  We got used to improvising. That's young Ben holding a homemade florescent bank 
for book #2.

If you are trying to do photography as a business or you have a friend or relative who is this is the book they need.  It explains all the voodoo pricing and why it happened the way it did.  It explains model releases, contracts, marketing and specializing.  It's well illustrated and reads fluently.  Pick up John Harrington's book on business practices to round out your selection of good, solid photo business books. I'd buy either of our (mine or John's ) if I didn't own them.  Mine is a reminder to do the right thing for your business.  John's is how to do the nuts and bolts that go along with doing the right thing.

Okay.  You have no interest in becoming an underpaid, overworked professional photographer.  You already read all you needed to know about flashes and any more would be overwhelming.  You know enough to run a studio but you've got other stuff you'd rather do.  Skip the first three books and get this one.  It's a fun romp thru what kind of lights are out there on the market, what accessories help you get the looks you want and why you want a certain kind of light for a certain situation.  If you like knowing about gear this the book that will work.

Now I don't expect anyone to take my suggestions without a grain of salt because, let's face it, I'd love to sell more of my books.  I'll get a bigger royalty check.  But if you are on the fence and you'd like to make both of us happy over the holidays you might take time to read the reviews.  Here's the link to my author's page on Amazon

If you do decide to order one it would be cool for me if you'd click thru to Amazon from one of the links below.  I'll make a few dimes and you won't pay a cent more.  In fact,  if you click thru from here to Amazon for anything from diapers to giant TV's I'll get a small percentage and it will have no impact on the final price that you pay them.  Just want to be transparent.

Here are the links.....


Thanks for shopping.


Sunday ramble with a small camera. The EPL-1

2010 was an interesting year.  I felt very conflicted.  Our profession faltered, changed and then recovered, after a fashion.  Clients went away and some of them came back. But the structure feels different.  Before there was a camaraderie with many clients that went beyond an ordinary business calculus.  We supported each other.  We bent over backwards to make everything as perfect as we could for our clients and they rewarded us with a sense of loyalty.  Or maybe it was honesty.  Maybe it was just common courtesy.

Then the recession interceded and clients circled the wagons.  Many of us found ourselves on the outside of the circle.  The clients of the clients snapped their fingers and budgets flew out the window.  If the client screamed "stock" our client replied, "How cheap?"  Fear gnawed at them and broke the teams apart. And it was every photographer for himself.

But now the ad agencies are feeling pressure to be good again.  Not just hold the line or make the budget.  The new dictate is to go back to being good.  A lot of time's been lost for the ultimate clients.  A lot of market share got lost to fear and indecision.  And now they're coming back to the ad agencies and saying, "Show us something new.  Something we can't just suck out of a catalog.  Something that doesn't look exactly like the thousands of other variations that all of our competitors are using."

I had a client return.  They're big.  They didn't really get nailed by the downturn but they circled the wagons nonetheless.  And when they came back they didn't ask about budget.  And when the job was delivered they remarked,  "This work is wonderful.  It looks like HD in a standard world. It's so perfect it's three dimensional.  We'd forgotten that it could be like this."

And we almost forgot as well.  We (photographers) forgot that it really is much more than the regurgitation of technical skill sets.  It really is about vision and craftsmanship and art.  And there is a quality that comes from mastering working with the people in front of our cameras.  There is a difference between what we do as professionals and the legion of people who have new digital cameras.  And clients were amazed, after the long drought, that they COULD see the difference and it DID make all the work look better and it was WORTH paying for.

And I hope photographers don't forget this valuable lesson and accept the discounted status that accountants and account executives tried to foist on us when they held the leverage of the market.  We needed to have this discontinuation to remind all the parties that everyone was bringing something to the table.  And everyone was/is valuable in a way that can't be defined by spreadsheets and metrics.

And so this year of nascent recovery is coming to a close.  Three more large clients are back.  And they know that if we're turning the clock back it will be to the business practices of the time before the recession and we won't return to the ruinous pricing models of 2009.

I love this business.  It will recover.  It is recovering.  It's time good photographers everywhere stood their ground and started asking for what they are really worth.  2011 WILL be a happy New Year.

Technical info:  I left the house with an unusual camera/lens combination.  I stuck on old 38mm 1.8 Zuiko Pen FT lens from the early 1970's on the front of an Olympus EPL1 body, topped with an electronic viewfinder.  Manual focus all the way.  I found the metering on the EPL to be impeccable and the color to be.....juicy.  I spent a few quiet hours walking through downtown shooting jpegs at ISO 200.  I was happy with the results.  It made me feel good to see that I could go from a Canon 5D2 to a $499 EPL with a forty year old half frame lens and still make the same photos.  Amazes me.  

To everyone:  No matter what industry or profession you happen to be in let's push to get paid for the value we bring instead of bowing to the power of the spreadsheet and  precedent.  Especially not the precedent of the last three years.  We all deserve better.  Everywhere.  

My shameless "What I want for Christmas List".

 We can argue the evils of desire.  We can argue against consumerism.  We can look down our noses at reckless and wanton acquisition.....but let's save all that for some blog in the future when we're feeling fat and sassy.  I, like many people around the world, am kissing one of the least financially productive decades I can remember "goodbye" and hoping with exuberance that we can look forward to a decade of recovery and progress.  And that progress will include refreshing the equipment pantry with fresh new stuff.  Maybe not all at once but......

At any rate, it's fun to think about stuff you'd like to have even if, at the last moment, you get cold feet and conform to long habit of diverting the various nickels and dimes you could have used for the latest high speed lenses into your son's college fund or the ever voracious retirement fund.  Here's my list of stuff I'd love to pick up in 2011 if.......

1.  A plain jane 16 Gig Wi-Fi iPad.  I know.  It's silly when I have all these aging laptops sitting around. But I'm secretly jealous when my advertising friends whip theirs out and start doing the "finger dance" to show people they're latest stuff......Wow.  Prices are starting to drop.  Can I wait for the new product intros? Suspense.

2.  Copies of my two or three favorite movies on DVD.  I've got tons of old classics on VHS but new players are vanishing.  I'd start with La Dolce Vita and Casablanca.  Then, of course, all the 1960's James Bond movies......I know these don't have much to do with the obvious photography stuff but they are rich sources for style.....(rationalization alert).

3.  More LED lights.  The solid state future has arrived.  Here are some I want and some I want more of:  The 183 is fabulous.  I have two and want two more.  They run bright and the dimmers work well.  They can be used with lots of different kinds of batteries.  Yummy.  And, at the high end of the scale I want one (or more) of these Lite Panels.

4.  On a more practical note, I'd like a lithium replacement battery for my Profoto 600B Acute portable flash system......but I'll gladly settle for an extra lead-acid at half the price.....There are times when a small, extremely powerful studio flash comes in very handy outside.

5.  I sold off all my compact cameras in the middle of the great recession and I'm really pining for one little camera with great specs that I can shove in a coat pocket and sport around for those cold winter days.  Problem is I can't decide between the Canon G12 and the Panasonic LX-5.  Both are cool.  I'm leaning toward the LX-5 because you can use it with the electronic viewfinders from the GH series cameras.  I like eye finders and the electronic ones don't bug me.  A little price drop and I'm there.

6.  I've had my Apple 23 inch Cinema Monitor since the dawn of time.  Well, at least since the inception of the G5 machines....I'd like to replace it with the new 27 inch monitor.  My friend Paul has two and they look awfully pretty.  Awfully pretty.  But I just want one......

7.  I knew I couldn't resist more lenses for long.  I have a friend named Bernard.  He showed me his Canon 135 f2 L lens and now I can't get it out of my head.  According to all the stuff you read on the web it's miraculously sharp wide open and has a bokeh like butter (whatever the heck that means...)  I'm sure they'll "improve" it if I don't buy one quick and it will not be the way I wanted it to be....

While we're on the subject of lenses.   I keep thinking of things to like about my Carl Zeiss 50mm 1.4 ZE lens.  So much so that I'm adding the 21mm Zeiss ZE lens to my long term addiction list.  I'm trying hard to like my Canon 20mm but it's not trying very hard in return.....

8.  Here's something I want but I don't know if any of us will get it.  I want a brand new historical novel from Steven Pressfield.  I loved his Gates of Fire,  have recommended and given away dozens of copies of The War of Art and loved all his other novels about ancient Greece and Alexander the great.  Of course,  if more novels magically appear it just gives me an excuse to give in to resistance and put off finishing my next book(s).  I'll accept that downside.

9.  There are a ton of little things I'll put on my list as stocking stuffers.  You can never have too much fast memory for your cameras so I would love it if Santa stuff a few 16 gig CF cards in my stocking.  And, you can never have too many external harddrives so I'd willing unpack a couple of these 2 terabyte disk spinners as well.

10.  The last category is "studio comfort".  There are two things I need in the studio to make everything wonderful.  I need a pair of these crocs so I can go from the cold pool deck to the cool studio and still keep my (size 10) feet warm.  I like crocs.  Don't care if they are out of fashion.  They are strictly pool and studio wear.  I'll put on shiny shoes for clients.  And I need something to play raucous music on when young models and ad people are here that also sounds good when I'm playing Joni Mitchell and the Beatles from my time......I like this system.  It's just right for my space.

I tend to be modestly frugal.  I'll probably just opt to get myself another pack of those great double A alkaline batteries from Costco.  They're always a big hit in my office!  Dreaming is fun.  I'd be interested to know what's on your list.

happy holidays.


What is it that I like about the Kodak DCS SLR/n? And why it's important.

I met my friend, Anne, at Houndstooth Coffee to catch up.  She left her successful career in the photography industry several years ago to study nursing.  At the time she said that she just couldn't imagine herself at 65 or 70 years old still dragging the full camera bag around for hours and hours at weddings.  I don't blame her.  In many ways photography is a young person's sport.

When I left the house to meet with Anne I grabbed one of my current favorite cameras, the Kodak DCS SLR/n 14 megapixel, full frame camera.  This camera came after the ill fated and over hyped Kodak 14nx and it fixed many of the issues that made the 14nx a pariah among working photographers.  The first new, full frame camera from Kodak was an unfinished product that was band-aided by firmware patch after firmware patch.  It didn't have very good high ISO performance, in fact going over ISO 160 was pushing it for most people.  I had a color banding issue known far and wide as the "Mexican Flag" issue because the color shifted from green to neutral to red across the frame. And it also sucked down battery power like a kid's new toy on Christmas day.  Couple these "features" with a noisy and slow autofocus and you had an unlikeable package.  One thing I forgot to mention in the whole litany was the "calibration" "feature".  This was one of the first digital SLR's that had a temperature sensor built into the electronics.  The camera would, in the middle of a shoot, stop and recalibrate.  Technically the calibration would yield better noise characteristics but in practice it was just good for ill humored laughs whenever it interrupted the whole shooting experience.

The Kodak 14nx had one or two things it did quite well.  At ISO 80 it had a really large dynamic range. And, because there was no AA filter in front of the sensor, it was incredibly sharp.  But the 14n and 14nx deserved to die on the vine.  Not so the final iteration, the SRL/n.

Kodak went with a new sensor chip that was less noisy.  Now, by less noisy I don't mean to say that it achieved the silence of a Nikon D3 or D3s at 6400.  But you could use the SLR/n all the way up to ISO 400 and expect good results.  The last camera in the series also had much, much better power management which meant that you could finally take the camera out for a walk of several hours or hundreds of frames and not have to take a pocket full of batteries.

The other great feature of the SLR/n was the long exposure mode.  When you dived into the menu and set "longest exposure" you'd get a menu that would allow you to use ISO 12-50.  But only at a certain set of slow shutter speeds.  The camera would repeatedly sample the frame over the course of the long exposure and then dump out all the anomalies that caused noise.  I did a job once, in the studio, with products shot with tungsten lights.  We used the slow exposure setting at ISO 12.  The exposures ranged in the four second to fifteen second range (depending on aperture) and the resulting four foot by six foot prints were magnificent.  The lab manager whom I'd known for years called to ask me which MF digital camera I had used for the project.....

One thing the Kodak cameras always did well was color.  In fact, I think Fuji and Kodak both have made the best of the best digital cameras yet when it comes to pleasing and rich color rendering.  Is it always accurate?  Probably not.  Do I always like it?  Oh yes.  Both these companies know a tremendous amount about color.

So, clunky handling, limited ISO range and a dependence on Nikon lenses.  Occasional moire.  Some chromatic aberrations with some lenses and a recalibration "feature" ostensibly created to drive photographers mad versus beautiful color, incredible sharpness at base ISO and killer dynamic range.  Is it any wonder that this camera cycles in and out of my camera bag in a maddening way?

Well,  I plonked my Nikon 50mm 1:1.2 Ais on the front, grabbed my Minolta light meter and met Anne for coffee. We caught up.  And during a lull in the conversation I grabbed the meter and took a quick reading.  1/45 of a second at f2.8.  I manually focused because the lens is.......manual focus.  And I started clicking away.

It's a quick, handheld portrait but I love the way the camera handles skin tone.  I like everything about the file.  From the soft background to the contemplative look in Anne's eyes.  After having used the very sharp and detailed Canon 5Dmk2 I was curious to see how the detail looked so I zoomed in on the closest eye, the one that's in sharp focus.

I noticed two things right off the bat.  First, even with my old, old eyes I was able to achieve focus right where I wanted it without too much effort.  This in spite of the fairly low light levels.  And second,  the color right into Bridge (and back out of Bridge) was exactly what I saw in the coffee shop.  None of the various casts that the Nikons and Canons seem to have.  None of the casts that lead people to insist that good color can only be done with portable color charts and $100 worth of profiling software.

While Kodak never updated their PhotoDesk software to work on Apple system 10 I find that all the Adobe professional products do a great job dealing with the raw files.  Am I encouraging you to rush out and buy some Kodak cameras?  No, not at all.  I am suggesting that what Kodak did was important as a "proof of engineering" in one regard:  We can do well (better) without the AA filters.  In many ways the race for megapixels is the antidote for moire.  Manufacturers can ramp up basic resolution so they still end up with enough detail after the image has been degraded by the softening effect of the filters.  But the higher the resolution of the chips the less likely the files from them will be to have moire effects that require the filters in the first place.

The situation with the Nikon D700 and the Canon 5D2 is an interesting one.  The Nikon  files are very close to the Canon 5Dmk2 in perceived sharpness and quality even though the Nikon has nearly 50% fewer pixels.  It achieves this by making the AA filter weaker.  This means that the Canon is making up (or interpolating ) more of what you see in an image.  In real life it's a toss up.  But in theory, if the Canon camera designers trusted us enough to remove rare moire with software tools they could deliver a 21 megapixel camera with much more sharpness.  The perceived quality would be off the charts.

And no one can say it can't be done because it's done in practice every day with most medium format cameras and, currently, by the Leica M9.  And it was done successfully with the Kodak SLR/n over five years ago.  So, in many ways, this overlooked camera is a guidepost for sharper file creation from current manufacturers.

My current camera has a few glitches.  It doesn't play well with autofocus Nikon lenses and gives me an error message.  It loves to recalibrate.  But all in all I like it.  And I like it for another reason.  The files that come out look different from the files that came out of my Nikon cameras or come out of my Canon cameras.  Not better or worse, just different.  And I like the difference.  Some of my joy is from the extensive dynamic range.  It's a camera that likes overexposure.  It's like shooting color negative film:  push it to the edge of overexposure and then drag it back down.  You get incredibly smooth highlight transitions (my nemesis as a portrait photographer is burned out highlights on foreheads and cheeks) that minimize the need for retouching or intensive prophylactic make-up.

First of many new years resolutions:  I'd like to do more and more portraits and less and less of everything else.  Here's my branding message:  "There's that guy who shoots  portraits."

Nap time.


Oh Crap. It's another column wherein I'm thinking about the future.

I've been in the advertising business and the photography business for a long, long time.  I'm also married to a graphic designer who spent most of her career in advertising agencies.  I'm no stranger to what's been happening in that industry.  It no longer resembles the terrain you see in Mad Men.  

Just as the photography industry has weathered the onslaught of mindless, royalty free stock, legions of people with cameras willing to work for free,  and crumbling markets for traditional print content, the ad industry has had their share of bombs dropped.  When I ran an ad agency we'd place media for clients in exchange for a 15% mark up.  Place a million dollar campaign and you're take would be, roughly, $150,000.  Sure, we had to research and negotiate for the best deals but it still covered a lot of creative costs.  Over the years clients have whittled away at the 15%.  Now many agencies just do the research and the buy for hourly fees.  A couple hundred bucks an hour doesn't come close to the 15%.

At the same time ad agencies made a profit on printing and creative suppliers.  The mark up on outside suppliers was between 15 and 20% of production costs.  So, if you hired a photographer and he did a campaign and billed you $60,000 your mark up on his bill was $9,000+  If you really beat the photographer up and convinced him to do the job at $6,000 you pocketed a less healthy $900 but your time commitment remains the same while your risk that the image won't be exactly what you wanted grows.

Instead of pushing back on clients and educating them about what it costs to do things right  ad agencies and the art departments in magazines seem to be rolling into the fetal position on prices and lying on the floor whimpering.  What's a photographer to do?  Well, one thing would be to accept the reality that ad agencies aren't the Mecca of creative suppliers that they used to be.  You might be a lot further ahead if you went directly to the all the clients you're interested in working with and allow the work to trickle backwards.  There's no law that says you can't market to both sides at once.  

And, in the case of big businesses, you might encounter these things:  Less fear.  A well run business doesn't need to cut corners to impress anybody.  When you take fear out of the equation both sides can have a frank discussion about value being added and opportunities to excel.   You'll find.....bigger budgets.  Again, there are fewer people in the middle and, if you are lucky enough to work "direct" you eliminate the decay of communication.  You'll also be a better value proposition for the client.  

You'll also find that direct corporate clients pay their bills quicker than most ad shops.  You just have to understand their accounting systems and leverage it.  Did you know that America's number three computer company is happy to pay their photographers, upon delivery, via PayPal? Squabble all you want about an extra couple of percentage points you'll give up but I'd much rather take the hit and have money in the bank now.  Before inflation kicks in.  Hey, opportunity = cash flow.

So, why was I thinking about all this stuff in the first place?

Well.  My friend, Paul Johnson, came into town from New Orleans.  Paul is always on top of the latest technology and the coolest trends. He's done incredible cookbooks and travel guides and he's been everywhere.  We actually bumped in to each other in Rome a few years back.  Totally unexpected.

Anyways, he comes into town and we meet at Sweetish Hill Bakery to catch up.  He plops an iPad on the table and basically, over the next hour, tells me that everything has changed.  From writing books (which we both do with alarming frequency) to advertising to marketing to technology.  I get it in a big way.  He gets all the smaller ways as well.

We talk about advertising.  He points to multiple niches and click thru accountability---something traditional media only dreamed of.  He talked about interactivity and accessiblity.  And then he talked about something we both have been concerned about, vetting editorial content.  I can pretty much write anything I want here on the blog, and you have the choice of believing me or not.  But if I write for a publisher they have people who fact check and spell check (manually---with human eyes and brains) and they add value with editing and design and typesetting.  Then they add additional value with a distribution chain.  

We talked about an intersection of the two hemispheres.  Paul sees the web rapidly monetizing itself thru what I would call "on demand" programming.  The NYT is about to move to a paid model.  The Wall Street Journal has always been a paid model.  To bring it to a "local" level, both Lloyd Chambers and Sean Reid only make their content available as paid material.  You have to pay to read.  And people do.  Paul postulates that the web will change.  There will be two tiers.  There will be vetted material that is vastly different than the rantings of some guy in his basement in North Dakota and people will be willing to pay for the vetting.  Just like they pay for apps or movie content.  

I think more and more stuff will be programming.  Like short instructional videos and actual entertainment programming.  Time to learn those video chops.

Paul has a way of shaking me up and making me think.  I processed his version of the new web and the new media and I believe two things, really.  One is that the pads will be the medium going forward.  As prices fall for the iPad and it's type they will take over web surfing and communications duties from the laptops and desktops.  Secondly, I believe that the future of what we do lies in becoming the online publisher, not the online writer.  We need to coalesce the same kinds of professionals: editors, designers and production people, to replicate the process of vetted publications if we are to brand and own our part of the content space.  The wild west days of the web will give way to the new, smoother, better, more cogent content on the web.  People are moving from narrative to experiential.  From a recitation of history to a sideline seat at the present.

People don't have time to be their own aggregators and will need trusted vendors to do that.  The only way to do it is to monetize the content, not the adjacent advertising space.  

What does this mean for me?  Time to get off my butt and get a new iPad.  Time to explore publishing options.  Time to partner up with designer and a writer and some photographers and make content that people are willing to pay for.  Own the "tools" of production instead of laboring on the factory floor of the content industry.    Or...take another nap and see if this all blows over.  Any answer is right.

But in the end everything will change again and again until it all settles.  Grab onto one of the straps and hold on, the ride's not over yet......


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.