5.26.2011

TEN BOOKS I WOULDN'T WANT TO DO WITHOUT. AS AN ARTIST.

I read a ton of books every year.  A lot of them are like fine dinners.  You spend some real cash on them, you read them and then the experience is gone.  You're left with a memory of the way it tasted and not much more.  And then there are some books that come slamming back into your psyche without the least conscious provocation.  And they become part of your personal operating system.  Or at least the content you gleaned did.  Here are ten that I keep at hand either for reference or inspiration.  Some I keep for nostalgia and the fact that they act like time machines and give me a sense of temporal balance.

1.  The War of Art.  By Steven Pressfield.  Given the number of times I've recommended this book on this forum you would think that I was getting a percentage of the royalties but sadly that's not true.  It's just that this book is good for what ails you.  It's the kind of book that you read one time and it changes you.  You read it again because you need to move your game forward.  And this is not a photography book per se.  It's aimed at anyone who needs to start a painting, a business, a project or a process but feels paralyzed by procrastination.  It should save you about.......a year of your life.

2.  Janson's History of Art.  By various, including Dr. Penelope J.E. Davies, who teaches at UT Austin and is a work of art herself.  It's a fool who barrels on a path without looking at a map.  In art the map is Art History.  Study this book and you'll be able to speak intelligently the next time the asshole in the next cube says something like, "What a crock!  My three year old could paint that!!!"  And an understanding of 20 centuries of work that came before yours might even give you some valuable perspective.

3.  The History of Photography.  By Beaumont Newhall.  An additional book, that covers more of the last half of the 20th Century is A World History of Photography.  By Naomi Rosenblum.  Do you know about Group 64?  The Photo Secessionists?  J. Holland Day? The New Documentarians?  and all the people who did this well long before we had our sweaty hands wrapped around the fake leather skin of our favorite Nikon or Canon?  These two books and one by Helmut Gernsheim will go a long way toward filling in the gap.  It's not enough just to know who stated "Moore's Law."

4.  Any book by Elliot Erwitt.  You might start with:  Dogs.  And then work your way thru the whole catelog of books.  Along with his inspiration, Henri Cartier Bresson,  he helped create and mold what we consider to be street photography today.  His work is humorous and rich.  And he's still alive and it would be great if he got to play with some of the royalties before it's too late.  And he's so damn good.

5.  The Hemingway Reader.  Hemingway was a friend to many famous photographers and was himself the subject of many wonderful editorial portraits.  His stories are like rich photo essays and his short stories are like perfectly composed verbal snapshots.  When the world seems to weird and I want to feel something I grab my Hemingway reader and go to his classic short story, A Clean, Well Lighted Place, and I read every work.  It's inspires me to go out and try again.  It's all classic.  It's all good.  And if you don't like Hemingway I don't really want to know.

6. Speedliter's Handbook: Learning to Craft Light with Canon Speedlights.  For years Canon shooters worked with the idea hanging over their heads that Nikon's flash technology was light years ahead.  That no one could shoot decent flash images on automatic with any Canon speedlight.  We were second class rapid photonic citizens.  Then along came Syl Arena to free us.  And he taught us that TTL could work with Canon.  That we could controls those Speedlite beasts.  That we had the power to go toe to toe with Nikonians and retain our professional pride.  His book was also a wake up call to all the "fluff" books on the market.  With over 350 pages of dynamic fury he created and presented a "no holds barred" and encyclopedic tome that demystified the process of being good with flash.  I have a copy.  No, you can't borrow it.

7.  Best Business Practices for Photographers.  By John Harrington.  Harrington's no wimp when it comes to the business of doing the photography business and you shouldn't be either.  This is the go to book to understand the paperwork, and more importantly, the theory behind the paperwork.  Here's deal:  Clients want to save money but they NEED good images for their businesses.  It's their job to try to balance those two desires.  Our job, as photographers, it to get the real value of our work and not flip over like a submissive dog and just hand over the whole candy store for less than the cost of a Snickers Bar.  Don't avoid learning this stuff.  You'll damage your ability to earn a living and you'll leave a dirty campground for the next gen of campers.  If you'd like a softer intro with more focus on marketing you can always give my business book a go.  It's called, Commercial Photography Handbook, and it's a nice overview/intro to the business.  A good warm-up for John's book.  Which sits on the corner of my desk.  All the time.

8.  Richard Avedon Autobiography.  One of the most important books about one of the most important photographers of the twentieth century, and perhaps of all time.  If you've just seen small Avedon photos on the web or in little magazine spreads you should see his work in galleries and museums.  He was amazingly bright and literate and took the glossy nostalgia off traditional photography and replaced it with insanely powerful visual energy.  This book is a chronicle from his earliest work up to the 1980's.  Once a year I grab this heavyweight volume and sit in a comfy chair and go thru it.  I walk away amazed by his energy and how much his work resonates in everything we see in this century.  And I walk away chastened that I will never have the maniacal focus it takes to excel at just one thing.  His vision was so consistent.  His intellect so pervasive.  Everything else seems like a 60 watt light bulb.  On a dimmer switch.  In a bad lampshade.   Get the book.

9.  The Elements of Style. We used to be a somewhat literate nation.  Now? Not so much.  People have a vague understanding of grammar and proper word usage.  Much the same way that the guys at the coffee shop understand circuit design.  But writing well is a powerful tool for business and an even more powerful tool for moving thru the elements of society with whom we aspire to hang.   This is a short book and easy to read.  It teaches you the proper way to use our English language.  Even the people who went to "Uni" (God, I hate that abbreviation!!!!!!) will get more out of it than they think.  Once read you'll seem brighter and more promotable. More interesting to talk to.  A joy to receive letters from.  Come on.  You read the book about how to program your own flash website, I'm sure you'd like the "About me" section to read well.  Right? Here's the manual.

10.  Still Life: Irving Penn Photographs. 1939-2000.   This is a toss up with Irving Penn Portraits.  I'm generally lukewarm about landscape photography and still life but the images in the still life book are incredible and seem to set the foundation for the next forty years of advertising still life and imagery.  The portraits are classic Penn portraits that celebrate the power of shadow and the power of light equally.  A contemporary of Penn in these kinds of portraits was Victor Skrebneski who work I also like very much.  His approach to portraits was/is unique but softer than Penn's vision.  At any rate, I always learn something when I sit down with the books.

If you are struggling to make a career of photography and can only afford one book then be sure to get John Harrington's business book.  If you are comfortable in another career and you want to go deeper with your own vision you couldn't do better than getting the Janson's History of Art book.  It all starts there.  Now I have to go.  There's short story by Salinger I wanted to read before I head off to photograph today's swim meet.  Did I mention it's 95 degrees (F) here already?  Maybe just one camera today......

5.25.2011

As I do more and more video LED's seem more and more important.


 I've been doing more and more video projects and I've come to really appreciate the role of LED's in my lighting tool kit.  I remember the bad old days of video when sensors were barely able to scrap by at ISO equivalents of 80 and 100 without noisy gain and the solution was to bring is lights.  Big lights.  Hot lights.  And if you wanted to do something nice with the light, like pop it thru a scrim you needed even bigger (and hotter) lights.

Now the working methodology is different.  We do a bit of jujitsu with lighting.  We let available light reign and fill in around the edges and we use more efficient and much cooler LED's to fill in, add direction to the light and generally even things out to match the range of the current cameras.

The top image of Noellia Hernandez (now a famous New York theater actor) was taken in the studio as a test for my upcoming book on LED lighting for Amherst Media.  A lot of people trash talk the color quality of LED's and while I'll admit it takes a tiny bit more finesse in PhotoShop or Lightroom there's really nothing you can't do with the better LED light panels when it comes to correct color.

The next three photographs were taken at Fair Bean coffee shop here in Austin.  The second photo from the top shows the placement of a small 160 bulb LED panel on a stand adding some fill to the scene.  Directly behind the light is a big open window.  As you can see in the photo just below the set up shot, the color matching with ambient light is pretty darn good.  Just a touch of fill to make the shots work the way I wanted them to.

 When I'm shooting video I'm mostly using ambient light but there's always the need to add just a little more fill.  Or to add direction to the light.  What I love about working with small and medium sized panels is how convenient they are to place (they have so little front to back depth) and how easy it is to dial up or dial down the levels to match the look I want.  Most of the time I can see the effect I want directly by eye.  Sometimes I'll roll a little test footage just to play it back and make sure that what I'm seeing translates to what the sensors sees.  Either way there's no color shift as I dial up
and down.  I can't say that about any of the strobes I own and I certainly can't say that about conventional hot lights.  I recently went on location to a medical clinic to shoot.  Most of the scene was top lit by florescents and it was okay but I really needed to fill in the shadows as the doctor leaned over a patient in an exam chair.  I did what all the guys always tell you not to do.  I put an LED light directly on the camera and used it as a direct fill.  In that case and in the case of Noellia in the very bottom image, I used the little ring light I talked about on this blog about a month ago.
 I paid $39 for mine, it takes two double "A" batteries and it worked like a charm.  The only way it would have worked better would have been to include a control to vary the output.

In the photos where Noellia is wearing a white coat, just outside the coffee shop, the top one is filled with a panel just behind camera, dialed way down and the second one is lit by a panel just to the side. You can see how the light sculpts her face.  It was good not to rely only on the flat light bouncing all over the place.
The light also tends to clean up the image by adding additional light and a bit warmer color to the scene overall.

Finally,  I included a shot that's pretty close up and filled with the small ring LED on the lens.  Two things I like are the filled shadows and the catchlights in the eyes.  When working close like this with a fixed source you set the exposure based on getting a little closer or a little further away until you get the balance between the on camera light and the ambient light.  Further away gets you less snap and less fill while getting closer makes you stop down (or increase shutter speed) to compensate for the subject to light distance and that makes the background darker.  Thank you inverse square law.

I've noticed that most people are reticent to change.  But once change starts to happen it's no longer a long graceful curve.  Now, when we get to a tipping point everyone seems to capitulate and move to the new technology simultaneously.  Witness the iPad.
Two years ago I didn't have a single LED panel or Ringlight in my
 collection of lighting tools.  Now I can't imagine not having them.  I don't use them all the time.  They aren't economically at the point where you have the power to challenge the sun for mid-Summer fill light.  But in the studio, especially for still life, and for the kinds of open aperture portraits I like to do I now find them indispensable.

I recently saw two lights from Fotodiox that I really want.  One is a variation of the 1000 LED bulb panel I already own but it has two sets of LEDs and can by using them in concert can be varied in color temperature between 3200K and 5,500K.  And the steps between the two are, for all intents and purposes, infinite.  It can also run on battery packs.  The other is a smaller, battery powered version with 312 bulbs that is portable enough to be used on camera or stuffed into a camera bag as a back up.

Kind of fun to realize that the future is here how.  Tomorrow I'll be shooting fast in a school.  That little panel might be just right......


5.24.2011

Portraits should be about the person portrayed, not the technique.


It's hard to make an honest portrait if you are using your subject as a canvas upon which to paint some trendy technique.  Taking a cue from my friend, Don Giannatti,  I think your lighting and shooting should be "subject-centric;" meaning that the lighting and camera-work take their cues from the subject itself.

The portrait above is of Belinda and I'm sure I was shooting this for two reasons.  First,  I just adore her and I'm always trying to create a better portrait of her.  Secondly, I'm just as sure I was trying out a lighting style in anticipation of some upcoming assignment.

This is a classic "one light" portrait.  I'm not afraid of stepping on Zack Arias "One Light" trademark because this particular piece was done long before he picked up a camera.  (Hint, hint:  It's all been done before.  The content is all that counts....)  I used a very large scrim panel directly to the right of Belinda and as close in as I could get it without showing the edge of the panel frame.  When I say large I mean four feet by six feet large.  I used one big strobe head with a large, magnum reflector about eight feet behind the screen to yield an even light spread on the white diffusion cloth.  The light was set at a level equal to the top of the scrim frame and angled down.  I wanted the light to drop off from the top of the scrim to the bottom.  I used black flags to keep spill light from the flash off the background and the foreground.

I used a black panel to the opposite side for some "subtractive" fill.  A funny way of saying I was trying to keep light from bouncing off the far wall and adding to much fill light to my wonderfully dramatic shadows.

The background was far enough behind Belinda (twelve or fifteen feet) to drop out of focus because of the limited depth of field that resulted from the use of a long, medium format lens used at f5.6.

I can't imagine trying to convey the sweet and calm aspect of Belinda with a combination of hard beauty dish lights, glancing side lights and brash hair lighting.  Nor can I imagine doing complicated things with the background when all I really want to do is focus on her beautiful eyes.  Indeed, the lighting should be used in the service of pulling your vision of your subject into existence.

When you start working on different styles it's a good idea to figure out what you want to convey and why.  Once you get those two things figured out everything else seems to fall into place.

Update on the painting show:  I have tentatively sold my first painting.  It's the one of the coffee cup with wings on a red background.  It's a lot of fun having a silly show of paintings up.  I seem to be having extra coffee just so I can see how people react to the work.  If you'd like to see the paintings in person (fly on down from New York, I'll buy you a cup of coffee....) they are on display at the local Starbucks.  Address: 3300 Bee Caves Rd. Ste 250, Austin, Texas 78746.  (implied smiley face icon).


update:  I changed a few things on my website.  Would you mind taking a look?  http://www.kirktuck.com

5.23.2011

Performing for a crowd. Shooting tethered and presenting directly.

I gave a series of workshops at three different  colleges last month for the MAC Group, who represent Profoto in the U.S.A.  In each city and at each school I ran thru a portrait set up to show students not "the right way" to light a portrait but "my way" of lighting a portrait.  And those can be two wildly different things.  I shot all of the build up and tests tethered to a MacBook Pro so the students could gather around and see both where to lights were in relation to each other and also what effect the final assemblage created when shot and processed thru to the screen.  Kinda like working without a safety net....

The image above was part of a discussion about depth of field, fill light and shadow as well as the advantages of using continuous light for effects.  To look over the last ten years of photography one would think that portraits can only be captured with flash.  The shot above was done with an older Profoto tungsten fixture in a beauty dish with a Westcott FastFlag as an additional diffuser.  No flashes were triggered in the making of this image.

Since I was only trying to fill a computer screen with each image I chose to use the Canon 1Dmk2N as my shooting camera.  It's eight megabyte files are more easily digested and regurgitated by the tethering software and the firewire connection is faster than the more recent USB2 connections. This image was done with a Zeiss 85mm 1.4 lens nearly wide open.  It's a good example for students of the concept of limited depth of field.

My model is long time friend, Park Street III, who is both a working professional photographer and the professional sales representative at Precision Camera in Austin.  The poor guy sat thru my lecture five times in three days and must have sat in as a test subject for over 1,000 exposures.  My hat is off to Park.  He turned what could have been a few days of "hey look at these products sitting on a table" into a fun series of animated and interactive workshops.  In the end I think he'll sell a few Profoto monolights to faculty and students but, judging on how many questions we got about using modifiers, and Westcott FastFlags in particular, I'm going to bet those are the items that fly off the shelves.

The workshops were a big refresher for me and the students and faculty seemed to really enjoy them.  I just came across the image folder while I was cleaning up my laptop.  I liked this somber image of Park.

Now, I rarely use my blog to sell someone else's services but I'm going to go out on a limb and recommend that you call Park at www.Precision-Camera.com 512-467-7676 and get him to bid on your next lighting or camera purchase, and here's why!!!!!!

You probably noticed prices go up on Canon, Nikon and other top Japanese prices at all your favorite online dealers.  Some by large percentages.  It comes close to profiteering but in most senses new cameras aren't "life and death" purchases like food and heating fuel.  But it's enough to piss people off.  At the same time the staff and owners of Precision decided not to raise prices on their inventory.   As a result they now have prices that are LOWER than nearly every other big time dealer in the country.  And that's something that should be rewarded.

They are great to deal with and they even had some hot Canon products in stock last time I checked.

I am not affiliated with the store but I sometimes teach workshops thru them.  I don't receive any kickbacks or compensation from them.  They are not linked on my site as an affiliate.  I'm just saying that if you've decided to pull the trigger on something fun for the gear inventory you might save yourself some time and money if you give Park a call.  And maybe he'll return the favor by being the test subject for your next workshop.......

Photographing Suzan-Lori Parks at work. Behind the scenes at Zach.

Just like 90% of other humans I like to think I'm pretty smart.  Reality?  Probably right in the middle of the Bell Curve.  Smart enough to know about the Bell Curve but not smart enough to make up my own curve.  But my profession tends to give me reality checks all the time.  Yesterday's reality check came courtesy my friends at Zachary Scott Theatre.  They asked me to photograph Suzan-Lori Parks at work. Don't know who Suzan-Lori Parks is?  See, we're all sitting right in the middle of the big Bell Curve....together. 

Suzan-Lori Parks is the first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize for playwriting,  is the recipient of a MacArthur Genius Award,  won a Guggenheim,  nominated for a Tony award, and so much more.  She's in town to put the finishing touches and polish on her latest work, The Book of Grace.   Here's what the folks at Zach have to say:  

5.22.2011

Sunday Rant: Hubris.

Promotional images for the play, August Osage County.  Zach Scott Theatre.

It always happens this way.  I talk all about technique and miracle lenses and I start believing that I'm as smart and talented as I've led myself to believe I am.  And so the universe comes back around and kicks my butt.  I'm fifty-five.  I haul my reading glasses around with me all the time and I should be wearing the bifocals I own but I usually can't be bothered.  Today I went to photograph a famous playwright under available light in a dark theater.  I'll blog about the shoot another time but for right now it's all about my own hubris.

I packed a quick bag of stuff.  I was intent on using my Zeiss lenses on a 7D and a 5Dmk2.  I was so confident that I'd be able to make the combinations work even though the subject has dark skin and the theater I was shooting in was dimly lit and had black walls.  I brought along a pair of reading glasses so I could review images.  And it's a good thing I did because my rate of keepers was dismally low.  I just haven't practiced manual focus enough to make the 50 and 35mm lenses sing sharp in dim light.  The 85mm was relatively easier.  The other two?  Like pulling teeth.  

I could have packed a 35mm f2  AF lens and a 50mm AF lens.  I have them both in the drawer.  But I was out to prove (with a swagger) how superior the vaunted Zeiss glass could be.  What an asshole.

Now I had the distinct (dis)pleasure of throwing out about a third of my shoot to technical issues.  Oh hell, there were no technical issues.  I just couldn't hit focus reliably today.  Even with the cool screens I put in the cameras.  Didn't I test them?  Sure I did.  I walked all over downtown Austin in bright sunlight over the course of a few weeks and startled myself with the biting sharp results.  But that's not the same as trying to focus in dark, flat light, with a moving subject while handholding the camera.  Now I've embarrassed myself.  And I wasn't going to tell anyone because I shot lots of frames and I have good coverage for what my client needs, but I thought I would come clean to remind people that good technique takes unyielding practice and that sometimes the best tool for the job at hand isn't the most impressive tool but simply the one that will do the job best.

And while we're at it we might as well kick around a few mortality issues.  I had perfect vision right up to the age of 42.  I mean I could count the feathers on an eagle flying a mile above me with the sun right behind him and I could read 2 point typed from inches away.  Then, like nearly everyone else, my eyesight changed.  I compensated.  But there finally came one of those embarrassing moments that finally pushed me to the eye doctor with my tail between my legs.  

It was the mid-1990's.  Business for photographers was booming.  We were buying 5 series BMW's and dropping cash on big Hasselblad systems. We just couldn't miss.  I ordered a brand new Hasselblad 203F with the 110 f2 Planar, the 150mm f2 Sonnar and the 50mm f2.8 Distagon.  What a gorgeous package.  The 203F had a focal plane shutter which meant medium format with fast lenses and a top shutter speed of 1/2000th.  Very revolutionary compared to the Hasselblad V series cameras.  And pricey.

I took the camera along on a shoot at Motorola.  It should have been a piece of cake.  I was photographing a group, lit with flash, sitting in two rows in front of a canvas backdrop.  But no matter how I turned the focus ring I couldn't get a good, sharp image on the screen.  I finally called over my assistant and she focused the camera and swore it was in.  We did a Polaroid and it was good.  So we shot and moved on.  But I was convinced that the fault lay with the camera and lens.  I boxed up the camera and the offending lens and sent it off to Hasselblad for evaluation.....along with a spitty letter.

About ten days later I got a call from a person with a Scandinavian accent.  The conversation went something like this:

Them:  "Mr. Tuck, I have your Hasselblad camera here in front of my and we have thoroughly tested both the body and the lens.  They are perfectly calibrated."

Me:  "Well, what was wrong with them when you got them.  What did you have to calibrate?"

Them:  "Oh no, Mr. Tuck.  You misunderstand.  We got the package and your letter and immediately sent them to the lab for testing.  We didn't have to make any repairs or adjustments.  Both were perfect right from the box."

Me: (fueled with hubris):  "That's impossible.  I know what I saw.  I couldn't get the finder into sharp focus!"  (Anger and frustration amply present in my voice....).

Them: "Forgive me Mr. Tuck but I must ask,  how old are you?"

Me:  "I'm forty two."

Them:  "And may I ask when you last paid a visit to your oculist?  (pause) Your eye doctor?"

Me:  "I never go.  I have perfect vision...."

Them:  "You did, Mr. Tuck.....but now.....?"

They kindly sent me the camera and lens back and I did go to see the "oculist" and was fitted for a pair of reading glasses.  The doctor recommended bifocals but I scoffed.  Two weeks later I went back and got the bifocals as well.  The camera worked fine right up until I exchanged it for a digital camera, years later.

The moral of the story is not that you shouldn't use manual focus cameras.  Or that you shouldn't try to keep pushing the envelope.  I guess the moral is that we all age and we all change and while it's tough to admit some things get harder.  And you have to practice more than the young and the spry. 

The thing that gets in the way is.....hubris.  En garde. 



5.21.2011

Up early for a swim meet. The light was sweet.

I was up early today for the second swim meet of the Summer League season.  We got to the Lost Creek Country Club around 7:30am so Ben could swim, I could shoot and Belinda could spectate.  I carried my new favorite sports gear, the Canon 1Dmk2's and a 70-200L plus a Tamron 11-18mm wide angle zoom lens.  The pace is slower than assignment work and I had the luxury of shooting raw and playing around. I kept seeing great shots of the kids so that's what I concentrated on.
The kids are pretty blase about the swim meets.  The little ones can be apprehensive but by the time they hit their third year on the team they know what's expected and how to do the process.  I like photographing them as they are waiting for their events.  They are cheering on their teammates and getting ready to perform.  In our country club league all of the parents are required to volunteer for four or five meets, depending on the job.  Some are age group parents who round up the kids and get them to the ready bench on time for their events.  Some are timers, some run concessions and some are stroke judges.
Quite a number of the parents are good photographers.  One guy had a Fuji X-100 at the last meet (a week ago) but today he showed up with a Sony Nex-5 and an adapter Cosina/Voightlander lens.  Others sport Nikon D3s's with the requisite fast zooms.  It's amazing that most families arrive in force.  No drop offs.  Two parents with every family.  And they cheer in a nice way and are respectful of the process and of the opposing team.  The kids who live in Lost Creek and the kids who living in Westlake Hills and Rollingwood go to the same high school and are hardly hated rivals.  They just have parents who belong to different clubs.
Been alternating between the 200mm focal length on the 70-200mm and the 15mm focal length on the Tamron 11-18mm.  And it's two ends of the spectrum.  Love the perspective distortion on the wide guy.  Love the limited depth of field on the long guy.  Not really doing much this week with anything in between.  I imagine that means I'll be using the 35mm on the 1dmk2 for most of next week......

This is Ben with his group of guys behind him and to the left.  He's the shortest one of the bunch and the fastest in everything but the backstroke.  As you can see, hostess Twinkies, Big Macs and a steady stream of soft drinks are not on his diet.  When he's not swimming he's running cross country.  Today he won four firsts and one second.  Good job, Ben.

Love the ready bench at the Lost Creek pool.  It's a great way to keep the kids organized and the covering over the top means I usually have soft, indirect light to shoot with.  The 11-18 is working out for me on the 1.3x cropped 1D series cameras.  I just have to make sure not to zoom all the way out to 11mm.  When I do that it starts to vignette.  Not that I mind too much.....  In the core area it's tack sharp.

The girls are sweet and don't mind posing.  With the wide angle zoom it's no work at all.  Now the boys on the other hand can be.......kinetic and love to flash hand signs.  They also don't stand as close together as the girls....

I grew up swimming in the Summers on one team or another but we never had photographers there and if we had they never would have burned film on the group shots of little kids.  Maybe they'd shoot a few frames of the overall high point winner or a record setting relay team but never just random shots.  Remember, back then photographers had financial skin in the game.  Today I shot 1200 images.  That's the equivalent of 34 rolls of 36 exposure film.  Figure a cost of about $25 per roll with processing and before you could do anything at all with your slides you'd have already spent about $825.  Factor for inflation from the 1970's and it's probably close to $1500.  The easiest way to share back then would have been to find a space, set up a projector and invite the 140 families for a viewing.  Once.

Now we've just about got all of these edited from this morning and we'll upload them to Smugmug.  At some point I'll upload them into iPhoto and let the face recognition software do it's magic.  Then we can separate them by person and make sure we have representation for each kid on the team for the end of the year slide show.  We'll put that on DVD and sell it to the parents as a fund raiser for the schools.

Parents can go to Smugmug after each meet and see photos of their kids.  They can buy downloads if they want for themselves or prints to send to family and friends.  The whole process is, of course, automated. 


It's a fun way to spend a Saturday morning.  But I don't recommend it if you don't have a kid in the program.  You'll definitely be seen as an outsider.

Nuts and bolts:  There are basic ground rules that I observe.  1.  Going along with my essay on tacit approval, any kid that demures is not shot.  If I shot them and I feel that they don't want to be photographed I hit the erase button.  2.  I carry two cameras.  I leave all the silly crap like extra batteries, silly, puffy camera bags, tripods, flashes, light stands, vests and gimmicks in the car.  I use the kind of straps that God intended; never militaristic bandolier straps that hook into my camera's tripod sockets.  The big black straps convey the wrong image.  Over  the shoulder straps without logos are much less intimidating.....  3.  I yield to race officials and starters.  I never walk in front of an official or stake out territory that puts me in the path of a stroke judge.  I constantly look over my shoulder to make sure I'm not blocking swimmers, judges or coaches.  The swim race comes first, the kids come first, the photography is a distant third place.  We're doing these swim meets for the kids, not my portfolios.
4.  I never sell services or prints while I'm doing my volunteer job.  It's wrong to sell to a captive audience.  If you do good work people will come and find you on their own time.  5.  I never diss another shooter's gear.  Since I often show up with "charming" older cameras like Sony R1's or Olympus EPL's with Zeiss lenses bolted onto the front I wouldn't want anyone to be judging me.  6.  I never let my picture taking get in the way of watching every one of Ben's races.  Sometimes I'll hand the camera to someone else, ask them to shoot that race, so I can concentrate on the actual experience.  

7.  I try to only shoot respectful shots.  If some ogre of a parent is verbally abusing their child for "not kicking harder"  I walk on by.  If kids are crying or upset I walk on by.  The rule in this kind of photography, at least where I'm concerned, is to only capture images that people would be happy to see later on.  That includes the kids as well as the parents.  Might be funny to see a kid mess up and swim the wrong direction but it's not funny to the kid....  8.  The days of the photographer being a "big deal" on the deck are over.  Now we share the deck with parent photographers and other kids.  My attitude now is that I'm just another dad shooting photos.  I just happen to be covering each meet for all the moms and dads who are too busy volunteering to do photographs of their own kids as well........

Here's an important point:  The kids splash when they dive in.  Your cameras will get wet.  You can be a baby about it and make everyone around you wish you'd go home or you can just get used to it and embrace the idea that you're standing next to several hundred thousand gallons of water and chances are you'll have the opportunity to meet some of that water personally.  If you don't like the risk or your cameras are too "precious" leave them at home and enjoy the competition.

Finally,  I'm there for the fun.  When I get tired or I've shot enough I sit down in the bleachers and cheer like everyone else.  If you are driven to prove something you shouldn't show up.  If you are there for fun then welcome to chlorine heaven.  There's always room for one more respectful photographer on the deck.




5.20.2011

Sigma, Cindy Sherman and pricing models.....

I read, with great amusement, the announcement of Sigma's newest DSLR camera, the SD-1.
It looks like a very well designed digital camera body.  They claim that the body is carved out of magnesium and is weather sealed.  It will bang out 44 megapixel files at five frames per second.  It will take a full line of Sigma SD lenses.  It has a three inch, 460,000 LCD on the back.  I like the little strap lugs.  But the aspect of the announcement that brought a smile to my face was the revelation of the MSRP.  The price of this camera, sans lens, is just under $10,000.  The rationalization (and I think this is such a far stretch that it could only have been thought up after a long evening of heavy, heavy drinking...) is that the three layers of APS-C sized sensors each record pure color for each of the RGB colors instead of using a Bayer Filter with Interpolation for digital capture.  This also does away with the need for an anti-aliasing filter which, in theory, should make the files sharper.  When you do the math this way (3x15 megapixels = 45 megapixels) you can say that your camera captures the same size image files as the Medium Format digital cameras on the market.  Indeed, if this camera made images just like a 40 megapixel Phase One back it might  be worth less than half the price of the Phase One.

But all things are not equal.  While photographers like the high res files provided by MF cameras they also like and use the depth of field effects provided by a large sensor.  And the Phase One sensors are nearly four times the size of the SD-1 sensor.  Another benefit of bigger sensor wells spread over a larger surface area is that lenses don't have to be designed to ultra high tolerances in order to deliver the goods to the sensor as a whole.  To get the same system resolution in the SD-1 that you'd get with a big Phase One sensor you'd need lenses that were computed and manufacturer to be at least four time higher resolution.  Much better corrected for CA and other issues and you'd need much tighter tolerances because all geometric physical deviations would be amplified by a factor of at least 4.  (Quick.  Some engineer check my work here.....).

I've used Sigma lenses.  Some of them are good.  None of them are good enough to make use of the implied resolution of this sensor system.  Maybe a few of the Zeiss lenses.  Perhaps the M series Leica lenses (which would not work on this camera) but not the typcial 18-250mm zooms.  So, what were they thinking?  Will we ever know?

Here's a scary thought for all of us nay-sayers:  What if it really does what it says and we have so much gear hubris that we can't let ourselves believe it?  Naw.  Size is size.  But you have to admire their courage for putting it on the market this way.  Now when they drop the price to $4900 it will almost seem like a bargain....

So, ten thousand dollars for an APS-C camera body.  Now I think we have a real handle on just how bad inflation really is in America. ( proffered as a joke...).

With that in mind let me move on to the other interesting news of the week:  The world's highest priced photograph.  A Cindy Sherman self portrait (mise en scene) sold at auction in New York for $3.9 million.  Everyone on the web is outraged.  The "pro" forum on DPreview is bristling with "photographers" who are frothing at the mouth and exclaiming that "no photograph is worth that much money!!!!"  Even normally open minded Mike Johnston at the Online Photographer opined that the pricing was probably the result of ridiculous pissing match on the part of two collectors with too much money on their hands.

I'll take the opposite side.  I think Cindy Sherman's work represented the vanguard of work that pried open the museum market and made collectors and curators consider photography as a real and bonafide part of the art world and all that entails.  The spoils go to the pioneers.  Just as Steve Jobs and Apple reap the benefit of being first and best in the tablet market (and make billions!!!!) Cindy Sherman was part of the first wave of photographer/artists whose photos were about an idea, a manifesto, a dogma, a thought instead of being purely representative.  With Cindy Sherman, Sandy Skoglund, and a handful of others it became okay to make art about a thought instead of about a thing.  And this opened the door to current masters of the large inkjet prints who, incidentally, are getting up to half a million dollars a print for large works.  And those works haven't withstood the tests of time, nor are they revolutionary in the same sense as their predecessors of thirty years ago.

Why is a Rembrandt worth one hundred million dollars?  Why is a Van Gogh worth forty million dollars?  Why are Leonardo da Vinci paintings priceless?  In a sense, it's because they represented a giant tectonic shift in art which reflected a related shift in culture and society.  They are a visual artifact of our collective evolution.  They are our monolith on the moon in the movie,  2001 A Space Odyssey.  These works are the signposts of change in our civilizations.  That's why they are prized.  They are prized as ideas not as paper talismans.  And the world market now sets their price.  Can you really argue with the power of ideas?  Isn't that what drives corporations from Xerox to Apple to Google?

The idea moves all people forward.  How to put a price on that?

So.....back to work.  I'll need to sell a lot of photographs and videos if I'm going to get on that long list for the SD-1, let alone my own copy of a Cindy Sherman.

One last thought.  It's not important that we all own a Cindy Sherman but it is important for art in general and photography in particular that our culture is still able to celebrate expression and art as having value.  That's the real meaning of the auctioned Cindy Sherman photo.  Now just think how much more it would have gone for if she'd made it really, really big.......

5.19.2011

A visual repudiation that "Strobism" and off camera flash were invented in 2006.

A1141699 by KirkTuck/photo

Love David Hobby.  Love his whole crazy bus thing.  But some of his followers have become rabidly zealous.  I just had a conversation with a follower who swears that David invented the whole idea of "off camera flash" and that the popularity of flash photography owes it's birth and subsequent burst into flame because of the Strobist blog.


Well......I have to differ with that.  And I scrounged up this image of moi (taken by Alan Pogue) as proof that we were slamming around photons off the camera for at least a couple decades before.  In fact, I'm going to bet that this photo,  showing a Canon EF film camera actually dates from the very  early 1980's.  What we have in this picture is Kirk Tuck in his twenties, a Canon EF with a 50mm lens and a six foot coiled cord connecting the camera to a Braun flash.  Sorry, I can't remember the model.


I was at the Sheraton hotel for the election night party with the then (obscure) Texas Republicans.  They lost.  Badly.  Really badly.  I am absolutely certain of one thing.......I was using hand rolled Kodak Tri-X film.


Off camera?  We didn't even have a name for it.  That's just the way we rolled back then.  We could figure out manual guide numbers faster than kids can text on an iphone.  And no screen on the back for a crutch.  I'll say it.  Photographers today are wimps when it comes to using flash.  Just wimps.  Turn that screen off and shoot some manual "off camera" flash.  It's not nearly as hard as everyone makes it out to be......  Did I mentioned that we were also able to focus our own cameras simultaneously with our guide number calculations?  Amazing.

Did they invent photography just so we could photograph our kids?

I already had a big octabank set up, along with a small softbox for a hair light.  I'd done a portrait earlier in the day of a new executive at one of the transportation agencies I work with.  At dinner Ben asked me if I had a recent photograph of him sitting around.  What is recent?  For me it's yesterday.  I don't know about anyone else.  I said, "no." But we could take care of that in minutes.  We walked out the front door of the house and marched the long ten steps into the front door of the intergalactic headquarters of The Visual Science Lab and proceeded to Mega Studio One.


Ben sat down on the pneumatic posing stool, turned to the camera and flashed his signature smile.  One click and we were done.  Seconds later I'd converted the file and sent it to his computer in the house.  He walked in and printed out what he needed.  It was part of an assignment for school.

I like working with Ben.  He's a pro.  He's produced about 60 video projects to date and has to direct people himself.  He now understands how important it is to get the right look in camera.  Before his last assignment for his cinema class at school he came into the studio for a quick discussion about best practices with microphone placement.  We popped open a Pelican case and he chose a mic for his project. He selected the Rode Stereo Mic.  Then he grabbed a Canon 60D with an 18-55 lens on the front, the "fishing pole" for the microphone and some cabling.  As an afterthought he also popped an LED light into his Domke bag  (yes, the kid has his own brown Domke bag....).

I was about to tell him which parameters to change in the menu but he gave me one of those looks that says,  "Thanks Dad but I had this memorized the first time I used it."

I wanted Ben to be interested in photography but he's not playing along.  His focus is film and video.  He's a freshman this year but his PSA about diabetes and peer pressure won third place overall in his school and they handed him $250 in prize money.  The judges said the production values looked like film.  The thing that made me proud is that he turned around and split the money with his crew.  When I finally grow up I want to be just like Ben.