We interrupt my usual cynicism and gear rants to enjoy a portrait of a beautiful woman.

©2011 Kirk Tuck Photography.  Austin, Texas.

People who don't do portraits have odd ideas about the process of making portraits. They seem to think that you can meet, greet, develop instant rapport and slam out a masterpiece all in the first session with a complete stranger.  Might work sometimes.  But rarely for me.   Here are all of my secrets.  Practice, practice, practice.  My best portraits generally happen on the second or third session with a sitter.  WHAT?????  Multiple sittings?????  Yes.

There's a difference between a retail portrait sitting that conforms to both a standard style and a standard expression, and a portrait sitting that's done because you want to do portraits as art.  When I photograph some of the people you see in my blog posts the best photographs come from long term relationships with models.  Not romantic relationships but shooting relationships.  We both enjoy the process and we collaborate and creating images.

I photographed Renee Zellweger off and on for nearly a year and every session looked and felt different.  Now I have a three ring binder full of images and it's easy for me to narrow down and find the expressions that resonate with me.  I photographed Lou Ann probably once a quarter for several years and Michelle at least four times before I got the images I liked.

While this might not be a workable solution for "enterprise" or even just good business, it's a great way to get images that stand the test of time and of which you can be proud.  And it's a great way to fill each other's portfolios with work that speaks to something more than just commerce.

The image of Amy, above, came from a fun, long session with Amy and my dear friend Renae G.  While this image didn't jump out at me in the year after I created it I was looking through old files today and came across this take again and made a scan.  I like it.  It took time for my tastes to catch up to my intuition.


A Monday Ramble about the "cheap" lights and why old knowledge may be holding you back.

My latest infatuation. Cheap studio flash.  Here: The Elinchrom D-Lite 4 it

When I started out in photography there were basically two choices in buying flash.  If you were shooting large and medium format film (and most of us were) you chose between Speedotron and Norman strobes. The Speedotron Black Line Stuff was heavy, cool and expensive.  The Norman PD series was heavy, less overtly cool and slightly less expensive.  There were plenty of inexpensive options but all of them were limited by their power output.  Novatrons were a popular choice for the "dirt cheap" option but all the dirt cheap stuff was off the table for serious shooters because we needed raw power and only the big brands offered that.  The basic gear was a 2,000 or 2400 watt second box that weighed in at around 30 pounds, recycled in about 4 seconds at full power and was a pain in the butt to ratio.  If you shot lots of still life or big sets you might opt for the 4,000 watt second units.  Most of us did our still life and food shooting with 4x5 sheet film and to get a good f-stop for deep focus (f22-f32) on the slow film of the time required raw power.

So the big, high powered boxes became a truism in our business.  The belief was that these were essential to "professional" work.  Then the bulk of photographers moved to medium format for their work in the 1990's and all of a sudden we needed less light and more control.  That's when the Profoto and Elinchrom monolights became popular, along with Dynalite packs and heads.  The stuff was sturdy and metal and was good at the "wear and tear" aspect of our work.  And over time habituation made these units and the bigger units that came before them the defacto standard for "professional" gear.

But a funny thing happened.  Canon and Nikon started making digital cameras that could be used at....gulp....400 and 800 ISO and, along with their smaller format sensors, the need for raw power from big flashes vanished.  Back in 2008 I wrote a book about the phenomenon called Minimalist Lighting that was a very popular look at how the change in cameras and imaging in general allowed us to use smaller and smaller lights to accomplish what we used to do with raw tonnage and brute force.  But most of us already had substantial investments in "old school" lights and we kept using them.

I recently sold all of my Profoto boxes and heads and monolights (except for the battery powered Acute 600b) and I looked at a studio that was, all at once, freed up from the tyranny of traditional practice and conventional flash wisdom.  I knew I needed some lights in order to do the more or less traditional work that came my way and I was ready for a change just for change's sake.  I love my battery powered Elinchrom Ranger RX so I started looking for some cheap monolights to augment that system.  At the very least I'd be able to use the same reflectors and speedrings.  I thought I'd hit the sweet spot of capability and price when I found a set of used traditional Elinchrom monolights,  a 500 watt and a 250 watt set of their original, made in Switzerland, metal monolights.  They worked well and the price was astoundingly good.  $400 for the pair.  In a Pelican case.  From a trusted dealer.

I thought I'd done well until I used them at a portrait shoot.  I banged my head against the wall in frustration.  I'd become spoiled at the way you could dial down speedlights from Canon and Nikon in small increments until you got down to the point where you were adding little puffs of light instead of belligerent blasts of photons.  Even with both monolights dialed down to the minimum I was still getting too much light.  Way too much for my taste.

So I started looking again.  I don't like to use speedlights (Canon 580 ex2's,  Nikon SB-800's) for studio portrait shoots for several reasons:  1.  They are not graceful in accepting all of my favorite modifiers.  2.  They don't have modeling lights.  3.  They don't recycle quickly enough.  I was looking for all of the benefits I used to get with traditional lights but I wanted them to be more flexible in terms of power settings and I really wanted modeling lights.  And here's what I finally found out:

All of those cheap brands of lights that we'd been turning our noses up to for years were exactly what I wanted.   I've been on a buying frenzy for the last week and a half and I haven't even spent as much as the replacement cost of one 600 watt second Profoto monolight.

So, what have I been buying and why?


Another Olympus Weekend Downtown Experience. Old stuff is still the best.

So, I'm sure you know exactly what I mean when I talk about needing to get out with my camera and shoot on the weekends.  The work week can be such a drudge.  Clock in,  get to your desk and the first thing you know the asshole in the next cube starts talking about how micro four thirds sucks because you can't "get no good bokeh" and "you can only get you some good bokeh with them FF cameras" and you want to punch him in the face until you realize that you're a photographer and you don't work in an office and it was all a bad dream....  But seriously, after a week of shooting receptions and pointy-boot wearing Governors and healthcare executives it is nice to get out and shoot.

With all the hubbub about the new Olympus cameras I found my self in a consumer frenzy.  I just knew I wanted to get my hands on an EP-3 and that new 45mm 1.8 lens.  But then an unusual calmness came over me.  I sat on the floor and quietly meditated on my gear lust and then,  like a flash of lightning, I had a full fledged, new wave style epiphany!  I knew why that 45mm sounded so good.  It's because I have an even better version in my hands already.  Do you remember me talking about the old Pen F style, manual focus lenses I've been hording?  Well, there's one that I only take out of its special mahogany and gold case on special occasions.  It's the 40mm 1.4.  Yes.  two thirds of a stop faster than the new lens.  Why I'd be stepping backwards if I got the new gear.

I was so happy with this realization that I grabbed my EP2, broke the seal on the gold and mahogany box and put the 40 right onto the front of the camera and I ran into the house to announce to my wife and my dog and anyone else who would listen that I was heading downtown to shoot some cool stuff.  The dog licked herself.  My wife looked at me with that special look that said...."here we go again."

And with these positive affirmations I left on a photo adventure.  But I was sneaky.  I also brought along the 70mm f2.  Another lens that they already made and will probably make again if they are savvy enough....It's pretty awesome.

Now the first thing you've got to know is that these lenses don't auto focus and also that you are focusing and looking thru them and seeing the effects of whatever aperture you have set.  It's like having a built in, full time,  automatic depth of field button.  I think the fast lenses are pretty easy to focus but if you are a true focusing wimp you can punch the "info" button on the back of the camera until the green rectangle appears in the middle of the finder screen.  Push the center button in the middle of the control wheel and weeee, presto, you get 7X magnification for super easy and accurate focus.   

I liked this image because it's like the trick they do at the circus where they saw the pretty girl in half.  The EP-2 nailed the exposure.  The frame is as cluttered as my mind but what are you going to do?

As I strolled along in the 110 degree heat coming off the downtown blacktop I tried to find stuff that I wanted to shoot.  But I couldn't find the coffee house currently hosting the amazing goddesses that dot the Austin landscape.  I think everyone was inside, praying to the air conditioning gods today.....except for this one......

When I started out my afternoon I was a bit rusty with the Oly controls.  Too much time with those clearly laid out Canon menus....but in ten minutes or so I got the hang of it.  And then I started to find stuff I thought was funny or fun or weird.  Like the bicycle below.  Love the mirrored disco ball.  And the 40mm proved to be a good all around lens.

These people may have been visiting here from the surface of the planet Mercury (the part that faces the sun) but I just don't get the appeal of eating food outside on a brutally hot day.....right next to the street. I took a photo so I could make a little sign for my desk that would remind me not to be those people. New rule of thumb:  Outdoor dining should only occur in the temperature range of 48 to 82 degrees.  Unless you are at the beach.  That's the only exception.  You are paying for the air conditioning you might as well use it.  

Of course I'm not as sensible about dealing with the heat either.  I ducked into Cafe Medici just to grab a cappuccino so how crazy is that?  While I was photographing the cappuccino I started to get antsy to try the 70mm lens so I shot a few more images with the 40 and them pulled the 70mm out of my tiny bag.

One of the beautiful things about the EP2 is just how quiet and unobtrusive the sound of its shutter is.  I hope that they didn't "fix" that on the EP3....just to make the AF faster.  I mean afterall, if you buy the really cool Pen FT lenses you'll be spending your time manually focusing anyway.

This is image is the last one of the day done with the Zuiko Pen FT 40mm 1.4 lens.  It's not sharp enough wide open but by f2 it's pretty good.  By f2.8 it's excellent and by f4 it will give any of the new glass a good run for the money.  I hope you took my advice a couple of years ago and started snapping them up.

Dark, dark restroom.  The first shots of the day with the 70mm f2 which is sharp enough at f2 and just gets better and better.

People whine when I tell then to buy the VF-2 finder for their Pen cameras but I think they are babies.  It's part of the deal.  I couldn't imagine a real, grown up photographer using the screen on the back of the camera at arm's length. (unless the camera is on a tripod and you're shooting architecture or products.)  It's almost as stupid as using an iPhone for serious work.  

No.  It's not out of focus.  Look at the caps in the second row.  And isn't all the black space fun?

I don't think the line of Pens was introduced really to be "econo-cams" I think it was meant to continue where the half frame cameras of the 1970's left off.  And that was to provide shooters like the legendary Eugene Smith with a tool that was small, subtle,  and unassuming but which could deliver professional results.  One of the benefits of the original film Pens was the fact that a 36 exposure roll of film automatically became a 72 exposure rolls of film.  Less reloading.  Less time lost from concentrating on what's in front of the camera.  And, in a way, I think Olympus's idea of keeping the camera at 12 megapixels is an extension of that principle.  True that SD memory is dirt cheap these days but smaller file sizes also come in handy during the post processing stages.  And I don't think we're compromising quality to the degree that the forum-lurking-pixel-peeping IT boys squawk about.  If you work as a journalist or you just want to make 13 by 19 inch prints with your cameras you'll find that 12 megapixels is a sweet, sweet spot.  Better people than me were making incredible prints from the fine four megapixels in the Nikon D2h and wedding photographers were singing the praises of big-ass prints from the Canon original 1D (4 megapixels) just a few years ago.  Just ask Dennis Reggie.  His initial work the the 4 Meg 1D cameras made it okay for everyone else to jump into the pool.  Yeah, after twelve megs it's largely either high end advertising people who see and potentially want the difference, or your garden variety navel gazers who are quick to pontificate about what "the pros do!"  Which is all so much bullshit since most pros I know will use anything that works and tend to keep, and use, camera gear a lot longer than well healed amateurs.

That being said, the big argument against using micro four thirds (could they have picked a stupider name for a new standard???????) is that the sensor is too small.  And because the sensor is too small you can't do all kinds of depth of field effects with the cameras.  Like dropping the background out of focus.
But really.  You just need to the right lens and you just need to be standing in the right spot.

Here's a shot of the trees on 2nd street taken with the 70mm f2 lens.  This shot is at 2.8.  

Here's the same angle and position at f11.  Looks different to me.

On the way back to the car I thought I'd do one more of the flowers but this time I used the 70mm f2.  I seem to have gotten the background out of focus even though I was using an f-stop of somewhere between 2.8 and f4.  I also like the colors.........

Just another shot of Belinda because she dropped by the studio while I was playing with the camera.  I should get some model releases from her......just in case.

Don't fear the Pens.  Just because we used to use nothing but big complicated cameras doesn't mean the future is going to look like the past.  Everything changes.  And now, more than ever, the real issue is whether or not you showed up and shot.  Not what you shot with.  Except for iPhones.  That's silly.


Fun times for me this week. I photographed Governor Rick Perry.

Texas Governor and potential presidential candidate, Rick Perry.  Canon 5Dmk2 with a 24-105mm lens and two Canon flashes.  And now for the BIG NEWS you've been waiting for......how I used the flashes.

The week started with some telephone meetings with book publishers and editors.  And by Tuesday I was moving with dispatch on other, unrelated projects.  I had an assignment to photograph "some people" with our governor for "some companies and organizations" so I packed up my black Domke F2 camera bag and headed over to the Texas State Capitol.  The governor uses a room on the second floor for all kinds of public and private receptions and small presentations and ceremonies.  I was no newcomer to the governor's press room as I worked for Governor Mark White back in the early 1980's and photographed Governor Ann Richards there back in the 1990's.

The room is wide from side to side and narrow from front to back.  From the door behind me to the wall with the flags that faces south the depth of the room is probably 25 feet.  The ceiling is pretty high and the walls are all a nice off white.  I'd be shooting with at least two other professional photographers and one camera crew.  The camera crew brought a Lowell Omni light which they threw some diffusion over and then feathered toward the main shooting area.  Hello shadows and orange light.

I learned long ago not to use direct flash in that room.  Better options exist.  But my main goal, since I was tasked with getting good group shots, was to get an good wash of soft clean light that would flatter the crew in the group with the governor.  The flash would have to overpower the indirect, non continuous lighting that rimmed the high ceiling and the warm light coming from the chandeliers hanging just above head level.

I placed one Canon 430ex2 on a table to my left and bounced it into the white wall there.  I used it in the "slave" mode and it was triggered by the Master, a Canon 580ex2 flash.  I turned the business end of the flash around and angled it up so it illuminated the wall and part of ceiling directly behind me.  Using the Canon 5Dmk2 meant it could easily handle ISO 800 with very little noise.  I used the flash on TTL and the camera on manual.  All the frames were easily within a good range of exposure and color. The current Canon flash system is pretty good.  Probably as good as Nikon's if you take time to read Syl Arena's book, Speedliter and understand how to make it work.

We arrived at the capitol building at 1 pm with the intention of checking out the room and setting up our lighting and arranging furniture with the idea that we'd be starting to shoot at 2:10 pm.  (I'm always early.  It's much better than late.....).  We ended up starting our "program" and getting our photo ops around 3:15 pm.  Pretty much par for the course.

So, what do you wear when you go to photograph the governor and leaders from other countries?  Pretty much the same stuff we wear to corporate receptions for visiting foreign dignitaries.  Charcoal gray suit, a shirt with thin white lines on a French Blue background, and a muted burgundy tie.  Just for this occasion I wore my best jet black cowboy boots. (Now I have to change my "about me" on my website to reflect my wardrobe upgrade).  One media producer wore jeans.  He was the only one in the entire room to do so.....

I got what I needed and headed back home to the office to color correct, edit and upload.  The client dropped by an hour later to pick up the entire take on DVD.  Job done.

Now,  I'm sure you all want to know:  "Is Rick Perry running for president?"

How should I know?  I just take photographs.

Olympus EP3 is announced. I want one. Available in August.

Keep your VF-2's ready.  Here comes the latest micro four thirds camera.  Olympus announced the new EP-3 and it seems to cover two of the most important bases Olympus needed to cover in order to stay relevant to a huge number of photographers.  It now (according to Olympus and the people who've had the camera in hand) has been re-engineered to focus as quickly as a regular DSLR and there's a new sensor that is reputed to be at least one stop better in high ISO noise performance than its predecessor.  In my mind the EP2, which I assume the 3 will replace, was a really fun shooting camera and it had only those two faults.  If the performance of the 3 matches the hype then this might be the camera that all of us Olympus fans have been looking for to carry the brand forward.

Why is this important?  Because my belief is that consumers want smaller cameras, the vast majority of non-rabid photographers don't really give a darn about the sensor size in theory or practice as long as the camera works and works well.  Most people are less concerned about dropping backgrounds out of focus than they are with getting everything they want in focus.  And smaller sensors do that better.

Anecdotally I can attest to the popularity of this format in general, and these Olympus cameras in particular, by looking at the metrics on this blog site.  Though I've written over 625 blogs and covered many cool cameras the run away, most read, most debated and most linked article I've written to date is the review of the inexpensive EPL2 from Olympus.  The article has been viewed hundreds of thousands of times in the last several months.  

This really is a convergence of what people in general (90% of the camera buying population) want:  It's small, capable, has great image quality, beats the pants off their cellphone cameras, lets them change lenses, make movies and much more.  Will this particular camera be a winner?  I think it's a slam dunk.  It's beautifully designed and Olympus seems to have finally delivered the kind of performance that camera junkies crave and measure.

Will I buy one?  It's already on order.  I haven't played with one yet but the guys at Olympus know I'm ready to get my hands on one.  If they send a test model to me soon I'll have a review up that will be so in depth I'll be giving Atlas Shrugged  a contest for page count.  Confession:  I love these Pen cameras and have done some really fun work with them.  I also love using them with my large collection of original, manual focus Pen lenses from the 1970's.  Go Olympus!!!!

Added at 10:40pm the same day.  I respect Bill Beebe.  He wrote a great perspective piece about the endless introduction of new gear.  His inspiration was this product launch.  His piece made me stop and think about gerbils on wheels.  You should read this too.  Just for a bit of gear perspective:  http://blogbeebe.blogspot.com/2011/06/olympus-e-p3-too-little-too-late.html


Proud father documents award winning swimmer boy.

So.  Ben has been swimming with the Rollingwood Waves for ten years.  Since he's now fifteen that means he started when he was five.  He doesn't miss workouts.  He always has a good attitude and he's had some awesome coaches.  I'm proud of him for following through on his commitment to swim.

 For the last three years he's been coached by Whitney Hedgepeth who is also the Masters Swim coach for the University of Texas swim program.  Whitney was a swimmer at UT and she went on to win one gold and two silvers at the Atlanta Olympics.  Ben has also been coached by All American, Chris Kemp and gold medal winner (Butterfly) Tommy Hanan.

This has nothing really to do with photography other than my usual comment that learning how to be disciplined is important in everything you undertake in life.  Ben is remarkably disciplined and self-reliant.  He knocks out homework early.  He practices to win.

Yet another image of Ben.  This time he's clutching his "most improved swimmer" award.

Will he swim for the high school or college teams?  Right now it looks like swimming is losing out to cross country.  Running 6 or 7 miles a day in this heat?  It just takes some discipline and some acclimatization.  I'm confident he'll do fine.

Some random stuff I like about Austin.

Sadly, for a photo oriented blog, this is a pretty damn mediocre photograph.  But it reminds me that while people are working in offices all over the place a large number of young adults are off playing in the middle of the day.  This is the Lamar Bridge.  It spans Lady Bird Lake in the center of Austin.  Today I watched as dozens of trim, athletic adults paddled to the bridge on standing paddle boards, climbed the spans and jumped into the slow moving water.  It reminded me that we were all enjoying active participation even though it was 3:00 pm on a toasty (near record) Summer afternoon.  Today's camera:  a Canon 1dmk2n with a Zeiss 35mm f2 ZE.  This is what I get for shooting into the light.....

Let's not be affected and call this a "photowalk".  Instead let's just say I went out for a walk and I took along a camera....

This is the view from the new pedestrian bridge addition.  The ped bridge spans the lake and provides lot of "no car" access to the 12 miles of pristine running trails that border the lake in the center of our town.  The road for cars is on the right.  The road for bikes and walkers is on the left.  This is an additional bike way.  The running trail it actually next to the water, just to the right of the car road.
It really was a blue sky day.

We may be in the middle of a severe drought but you wouldn't know it by looking at the premier city parks.  It's emerald as far as the eye can see.  The power plant has been closed for years.  Now it's used for trendy/cool parties and as a set for dozens of movies.  

These are water coolers.  They are two of dozens and dozens that Luke's Locker and Runtex (running stores) put up around the lake to augment the old, warm, permanent fountains.  I like it when businesses in our city do extra stuff for their clients. For free.  Without a subsidy or tax abatement.  And check it out,  no one steals the paper cups and no one throws the paper cups on the ground.  Little stuff makes a city more fun.  When it gets super hot (over 105) there are still a lot of runners (dozens?) who brave the mid-afternoon heat.  Sometimes Runtex sends people out on big three wheeled bigs with coolers of water attached.  The ride up to the huffing-puffing runners and ask them,  "Are you staying hydrated?  Need some cold water?"   It's like having a lifeguard on the running trail.  I forget there are obese people when I'm hitting the trail.  Out of sight out of mind.

I love the Pfluger Bridge.  It's the pedestrian bridge I keep talking about.  And since it's a wide open space with no cars on top it's become more of a hanging out, sightseeing, balcony to the downtown skyline in both directions.  I use it as a portrait location.  I run across it.  I park south and head north of the lake to get to Whole Foods.  Sometimes, when the light is cool and fading quick in the winter, and the sky starts turning purple and orange I just stand on the bridge and watch the day fade.  And it's beautiful and doesn't cost anything for the show.

I love the fact that all over central Austin there is spontaneous street art.  Chalk drawings.  Stencils.  Political statements and free form sculpture.  A culture that takes time to do art is robust and doing well. If you don't like it don't sweat it.  It's all ephemeral.  It wears off quick.  If it's not nice it'll get cleaned off  with dispatch.

I love the fact that we have so many outdoor venues.  And that people don't carve their initials into the picnic tables to often.  And that they are mostly painted bright and cheery colors.  This is at Flip Happy Crepes.  They have blue tables at P. Terry's Hamburgers.  I love businesses that aren't afraid of bright colors and bold statements.

I hate to say it but I really like the tall buildings that keep springing up all over the downtown area.  It may not make a big dent but ever residence building that goes up means less traffic on the roads outside of downtown, less suburban sprawl and more concentrated night life and restaurant choices.  Now it's fun to go downtown and hang out.  Twenty years ago there was, like, one coffee shop and the streets were deserted after 5pm.  Now it feels like a big city.

And every open space seems to get more and more trees.  Don't care which side of the political spectrum you're on, no one hates trees......I hope.

So, what was I doing downtown?  Well, I worked all last week and all the way thru the weekend. I finished up video projects, I shot in San Antonio for two days.  I did a big slide show for the kid's swim team. And I didn't spend any time shooting just for myself.  In the same way runners and swimmers crave a workout when they've missed a few I missed just walking around with my camera looking at stuff.  I also wanted to get to REI and buy some "technical" shirts for Ben and Belinda.  You know the ones I'm talking about?  They use a special thin fabric that breathes and wicks off moisture and they have a built in SPF of 40 or so.  They keep you feeling about ten degrees cooler than a cotton t-shirt and they keep the UV off your skin better.  I found a bunch on sale at the downtown REI store.  Score.

And who could miss a quick walk over to Whole Foods for one of those chocolate, coconut and toasted almond bars, washed down with some fresh Sumatran coffee?

Add in a little walk thru downtown and you've got your own event.