8.28.2011

Going backwards in time. Buying up yesteryear. The cameras I wish I'd had back when....



It's been a mysterious week.  The heat is getting really oppressive and all out of hand and I find myself turning back the hands of time to recapture the magic of my own photography.  The photograph above was created with a handheld Pentax 6x7 film camera using a 165mm lens and whatever my favorite flavor of color negative film was at the time.  Hard to believe in a day and age when people must have their cameras focus, meter and wipe their noses for them that photographers ten or twelve years ago could go out and shoot 20 different well exposed and well seen images without any of the crutches we take for granted now.  And I've come to believe that we made good images not in spite of having no training wheels or floaties or inexhaustible sources of image frames, but because we worked within those earlier restrictions.

I've been going through a process of evaluating my work done since the dawn of digital.  As most of you may know I've been doing this long industrial art enough to have started with 4x5 sheet film.  And I was there at the dawn of the digital "revolution" shooting with everything from Kodak DCS 660's and consumer 1 meg cameras to Fuji pro cameras that took PCMCIA memory cards.  Think you're cool because you're an early iPad adapter?  Well, I've got an Apple Newton sitting on my desk.  Think we don't get what you can do with PhotoShop?  I was just looking at my 1994 copy of PhotoShop 2.0.....on CD.  And you know what I think?  I think we all got hosed by the digital "revolution."  I've got a drawer full of the latest Canon stuff but I like the images from my oldest Canon digital cameras a lot better than the newer ones.  I like the files from the 1D mk 2N a lot better than the files from the 7D.  I'm trying to snap up an older 1DSmk2 to replace my 5Dmk2 as my primary shooting camera, and I'm finding that I like focusing manually a lot better than I like letting the camera focus for me.

After I looked through twenty or thirty boxes of black and white portrait prints, originally shot on film, I've been back to Precision Camera to buy two Hasselblad 500 C/M bodies, an 80, a 120mm Makro and an old, black 150 Sonnar.  Along with a couple bricks of God's film, Tri-X.

What's got me so fired up?  I'm tired of shooting in an aspect ratio I don't give a crap about.  I'm tired of trying to find a decent SilverFX profile that even comes close to matching what we could effortlessly get with a roll of $3 film.  I'm tired of blurring backgrounds in PhotoShop when I can see em and blur em while I'm shooting with that glorious 150mm.

Have you ever wanted to start over?  Have you gotten to the point in a job or a hobby or a life where you found yourself surrounded with failed (and mildly successful) experiments that you wished you never had to see again?  Have you ever want to wipe the hard drives clean and start over from scratch?  To take all the stuff you've learned and start off in a new direction?  It's a constant with me.  There's stuff I like in my collection but I mostly keep everything, image-wise, because I fear the loss of something I didn't quite appreciate more than the freedom of being unfettered by the trappings of a past.

I've gotten over my "all or nothing" and "take no prisoners" approach to change but I think doing stuff the same way over and over again, while critical for restaurants and surgeons, is anathema for art.  And for artists.  At times I feel trapped the way Ansel Adams must have felt trapped, printing edition after edition of those same twelve or twenty greatest hits until he couldn't print any longer.

Have you ever sat down with your life's work and distilled it?  The way I do it is to look at every print and slide that stays in the "active layer" of the studio.  That's the layer where the same content rises again and again and gets used over and over again as both resource and filler.  You know it's good.  Not much of it is great.  And it amazes me, or frightens me, how few digital images would even make it into the second layer (the stuff that you shove in the filing cabinets but can pretty much remember how to put your hands on it if a client calls and asks for it.....) and how many images from the 4x5 sheet film layer are down in the primordial ooze. It seems I'd found a sweet spot with the medium format square.

For the last decade we've all been racing to find the digital camera that will give our inner artist the fully erect tool we think we've been looking for and at the same time telling ourselves and everyone who will listen that:  "It's not the arrow, it's the indian.  Horses for courses.  It's not the camera, it's the man (or woman) behind the camera that counts.  Real pros can make great images with any camera.  A true artist can even make art with the camera in his phone, Just shut up and shoot.  etc. etc. etc."  And, it's all bullshit.  Just rank bullshit by people who either don't get the search for the tool, the format and the palette or people who get it but are more interested in following the pack.  (If you've never been in the zone with a camera how could you even understand the difference it would make?)  Being in the safe spot in the Bell Curve.  The tools do matter.  If painters paid thousands of dollars for a brush you bet your ass they'd be talking about them.  If there were twenty competitors to Newton oil paints and oil paints cost a couple of house payments there'd be forums galore with all the teeth gnashing you could ever want.....

So, I'm going in the opposite philosophical direction.  I'm saying the tool leverages the artist in our field.  The tool (the medium is the message) is part of the process.   The process doesn't exist in a vacuum.  A straighter arrow kills more buffalo or cowboys.  A real pro can make a better image when he's comfortable with the aspect ratio of his chosen tool.  A dedicated artist has a strong preference for the way their medium expresses its own color palette.  And the process is as important to the art as the idea.

We've effectively cut down our choices and, thru market attrition, homogenized the vision of what a camera can be for a generation.  I realized this for the first time when I realized what made me buy an Olympus EP2 with a EVF finder......it was the ability to set the camera so I could see in the square.  And that's the way I've used the camera for the last two years.  It's not enough to crop something square in post production it's important to go thru the visualization process while you are shooting.  You have to exclude the visual clutter to realize the image.  Only those images that I shoot square really make me smile.

So, I've shot a dozen rolls of film in the Hasselblad over the course of the week.  I'd love it if it were digital and full frame (6x6) and only black and white but the process of shooting constrained is already making me a happier photographer.

I'm not suggesting that any of us is wired the same way but if you were someone who grew up shooting a different format than 35mm and you were forced to abandon it for digital's contraints you might want to revisit your roots and see how it impacts the way you see, and what joy it might bring you.

I wrote about the Sony a77 a few days ago and while their are many things to potentially like about that camera what I like about the EVF technology is that it can (Go Olympus!!!!)  put the choice of aspect ratio back into the hands of the artists in a meaningful way.  Not an "after the fact" way but in an organic way of seeing and previsualizing that helps one de-clutter their vision and provides a formalist constraint that moves the process forward.  Like turning off the hip hop on the radio when you are trying to hum the melody line of a symphony.  It works that way for me.  Less static better seeing.  Less steps to think about now for greater clarity in the moment.

A long way to go to justify my capricious purchase of a couple cheap, used Hasselblads but I mean every word.

http://visualsciencelab.blogspot.com/2010/05/public-examination-of-private-process.html

Get Ready Olympus. The Sony Nex-7 is the spearhead of the next wave......Hello Canon and Nikon.



And so it starts.  I posted an article on Friday about my belief that EVFs will soon become a standard feature in DSLRs.  A number of people wrote to say that they had used an evf in the distant past and disliked the image lag caused by slow refresh cycles and movement.  Especially in low light.  They dismissed the new tech out of hand.  And they are silly to do so.  All that's required to banish image lag in an electronic viewfinder is to increase the image sample rate and the writing rate to the finder.  A faster processor than the one shoe horned into a 2003 point and shoot superzoom camera isn't that hard to find these days.  And believe me, the marketers at Sony, Olympus, Canon and Nikon know how important this next step in "look and feel" is to the successful marketing of the new class of cameras.

But while EVFs are the revolution the mirrorless implementation is the wave of the future for nearly all cameras coming down the pike.  By eliminating the mirror entirely all cameras are simplified and made more reliable.  I think the a77 is really neato but the camera that will be a game changer for Sony, if they get their lens line up in place, will be the Nex-7.  An APS-C sensor implementation in a tiny body with a beautiful finder and all the bells and whistles.  It's a total cross over camera.   Small and light enough to fit in the pocket of every metro-sexual's Dolce jacket and soccer mom's King Ranch purse but with the kind of sensor performance we've come to expect from top of the line traditional cameras.  What's not to like?

People with special niches to service might not adapt to this camera but there's a reality to the market.  And that reality says that of camera buyers less than 1% are real professionals who earn the bulk of their living shooting with cameras.  That leaves 99% of buyers free to buy whatever the hell they want without the pretension of having to buy cameras that are built out of Swiss magic steel for treks across deserts and through the Antarctic in the dead of winter.  I visit the Canon pro forums and I hear the constant drumbeat that says, "I need a weather sealed pro camera for shooting in the Monsoons..." but the reality is that most people have enough sense to get out of the rain.  And most shots for money are in controlled environments where the subject's comfort is paramount.  Sure, there are guys shooting on the edge of volcanos and on inflatables in the Bering Strait but they are the tiny, tiny minority.  For everyone else a reasonably robust camera with a great lens and really good image processing is about the sum of their needs.

I've watched as the Olympus and Panasonic companies have renewed their efforts to remain relevant by introducing great new technologies like the mirrorless m4/3rds cameras and I own three of them myself. But I'm afraid that they're about to be steamrollered by the new big three: Sony, Canon and Nikon.  My sense is that the Nex-7 will outperform the m4/3 cameras for resolution and even noise but the big news will come next year (or later this year) when the other big two unleash bold new designs in the mirrorless APS-C space that make the Fuji-100's retro look appear lame and crippled.  Nikon will likely harken back to the SP rangefinder days and those were spectacular days for rangefinder camera body and lens design.

Canon will come out with the least aesthetically challenging version but the most operationally friendly version and then we'll see where the market share ends up.  If Sony doesn't capitalize on the their introductions quickly and in force they will have made the invitational camera that gets early adopters frothing at the mouth only to see Canon and Nikon swoop in with seemingly more mature products to snap up the great bulk of buyers who cling more to the middle of the acquisition curve.  And that's where ALL the REAL money is.  Bleeding edge is exciting and new.  Ergonomic and economical is where the cash lives.

So where does this leave Olympus?  My knee jerk reaction is to say that they will be made irrelevant by dint of specifications.  Afterall, that's how the great unwashed seem to buy cameras.  But in truth I think a realization is soaking down thru the topsoil to the roots of the market and that realization is that, really, just like the guys at Olympus said last year, "Twelve megapixels is more than enough for the majority of camera buyers."  The new way to view is on the iPad (which is already starting to kill off traditional prints sales at an ever more accelerating pace) and anything over 6 megapixels is largely overkill for that.  But where Olympus still has an edge is in pure design.  The Pen EP-3 and its recent predecessor, the EP-2, are two of the most beautiful camera designs of the last ten years.  They are elegant.  And the image quality from both is good.  They stand a chance if they get their advertising put on straight, stay aways from graphs and numbers and start  positioning their cameras as artistic tools rather than mini computers with glass grafted onto the front.

Where does this leave photographers?  Well, you have thousands of professionals looking for a new niche and doing incredibly stupid things like trying to build careers around the use of iPhones as cameras.  Just about any mirrorless camera will become a step-up instrument for them and their followers as they rediscover the limitations of trying to make ALL of your art in post processing (and there's a reason that most campaigns are NOT being done with the latest iteration of the Holga).  One group of professional photographers will hold on to what they know:  Big, weather sealed camera bodies with mirrors and big honking lenses.  They'll resist change but will line up to buy whatever mirrorless camera ends up as the defacto "cool guy" camera for evenings out without the fully loaded Domke bag.  You know?  Like on a date.  With a woman.  The new generation of mirrorless cameras will take the place of the middle ground cult cameras like the Canon G10 and the Panasonic LX-5, as supplements to the "big iron" of the macho, over 40's crowd.

The younger photographers will see the mirrorless cameras for what they are, a new way of doing photography that's smaller, lighter, cheaper and as good as the stuff that came before.  And many woman photographers, who seem to care much more about the final images and much less about technical specifications will try them out, find them good and convenient, and will go out and make art with them.

In a few years the idea of dragging around a couple of Nikon D3's or Canon 1D's will seem about as cool as driving a minivan.  And not a cool minivan either.  Think mid-90's Chrysler...... because the new generation of fast glass for the smaller cameras will have arrived.  Along with high ISO performance and fewer backstrains.  In five years the mirrorless, evf, mini camera revolution will be complete.  With Nikon, Canon and then Sony in the lead.

And where will I be?  Well......I've had the mirrorless stuff and used it to good effect since the day the Pens came out but I just bought another Hasselblad 500 C/M yesterday so I'll be damned if I know where I'm positioned.  It's all fun.  And there's room for every kind of photographer and photography.  But I'm pretty clear about the 95% of people who will venture out to buy cameras in the next few years and it's not going to be about Canon Rebels or Nikon D3x's.

The Nex and it's future competitors.  That's the future.  Even for pros.

Fun books for photographers: http://www.amazon.com/Kirk-Tuck/e/B002ECIS24/ref=ntt_athr_dp_pel_1

8.26.2011

Pro goes amateur for the day. Just another dad with a camera...

I was worried about Ben this morning but it turns out I didn't need to be.  But isn't that what worry is all about?  You pay the price now for something you may never get...  Anyway, I was worried because he abandoned swimming this year to take up cross country running.  He started at the beginning of the Summer and as you may have heard this is the hottest Summer in history in Austin, Texas.  How hot is it?  Well tomorrow the meteorologists are predicting 110(f).  And it isn't like the dry, refreshing heat of the desert; the air today was laced with moisture creating an atmospheric soup that saps your energy and your will to live.  I was worried because Ben was competing in his first cross country meet.  Today's distance was three miles and by the time his heat started running at 11:00 am the thermometer had already crept over 90.  

The meet was an invitational with tons of high school kids from five or six local high schools.  It was held out at the Decker Lake Park in far east Austin. The park is famous for it's lack of trees, lack of water fountains and lack of amenities.  But they have a decent long loop course.  Two laps makes three miles.
I got Ben up at 6:15 this morning and fed him scrambled eggs and whole wheat toast.  Normally he has only a teaspoon of honey before an early morning run but we knew he wouldn't be running until after 10:30 and a bit of protein would keep him from bonking during the race....or before.

I dropped him off at the school at 6:45 because the team all goes together on the bus.  That's non-negotiable in his coach's eyes.

Then I clicked into the "dad mode" and started thinking about what camera to bring to photograph the boy with.  I decided on the Canon 7D and the 70-300 IS lens (the latest version).  A lot of reach, great image stabilization and half the weight of my 70-200L.  I figured I'd go light and blend in with the other dads and moms who would, no doubt, be clicking away.  I set the ISO to 320, the aperture to 5.6 and let the camera meter lead me by the hand.  I used the 1/2 size raw file setting and I used servo AF set to the center, large group.

Nothing else photographic in my pockets or over other shoulders.  And that worked out well because you need to go from the starting area to the middle of the race to the finish a couple of times to get all the photos you want and if your kid is fast that means you have to move fast to effect the rendezvous.  Can't imagine doing that while porting around extra bodies, lenses and bags.  

It's easier to photograph swim meets because everything is confined into the boundaries of a 25 yard or 50 meter pool.  Find the side with the good light and you can spend a few hours shooting without much distraction.  Distance running is different.  It's a lot more acreage.  And you have to move to come home with stuff to send to the grandparents.....

So Ben did really well and finished ahead of the middle of the pack.  Not bad for a first go.  I did okay with ten or fifteen decent shots.  It was odd for me in a few ways.  The last time I shot a distance running race I was freelancing for the people who hold the Capitol 10K.  There were 20,000 participants and they ran the race on closed, public streets.  Not only did I have endless press credentials I also rode in the truck that led the race and gave me a platform from which to shoot stuff from a primo perspective.  This morning the guys started with their backs to the sun and finished with their backs to the sun.  Back lit was the name of the game.  But being a dad and not a professional photographer you take what they deal you and stand where they tell you.  But next time.....I'll scout that course in advance, get them to 180 the start and the finish,  maybe bring some big lights for fill......Naw.  I think I'll stay with this plan and just enjoy the whole process.  Seems like the right thing to do.

I think over photographing your kid's sport stuff, festooned with tools of the trade (three camera bodies a bunch of lenses, some Profoto battery systems, compass and reflectors), might be just as embarrassing to your high school boy as showing up with a banner that says, "Go Fast Sweatheart!!!!  Mommy and Daddy Love You."  That's always something to keep in mind when they start growing up.
 
After a few hours at Decker Lake, in the heat, I think I chose wisely.  The pool is the place to be.  At least until the first frosty day.  But right now that seems a long way off.

Final observation:  Before I left the house for the meet today I read in the paper about America's obesity epidemic.  Seems that we're on a curve to have 50% of the population really, really fat in the next few years.  If that worries you come out and see the kids at a cross country meet.  They're putting in 6 to 8 miles a morning on the week days and doing much longer runs on the weekends.  No fat kids here.  They all look pretty much like Ben.  Lean and moving.  Come to think of it we don't have any overweight people in the master swim team either.  Oh my gosh.  I think I've found the cure to obesity!!!!  Move.  And then move more.

What does this have to do with photography?  Come scamper up an embankment with me sometime in the middle of the Austin Summer, with a full camera bag and a couple of sandbags and we'll talk about the photographic benefits of staying in good shape.  Can't take the photo if you can't get in position.....

8.24.2011

Why the Sony a77 changes everything going forward. And "I told you so."


First, here are the two columns I wrote predicting/asking for high quality EVF's to replace optical finders going forward:




So why do I think Sony gets it when everyone else is stuck at 2004?  When I first picked up an Olympus EP-2 with the VF2 finder on it I knew I was looking at the future of professional digital cameras.  Not because the EP-2 was so incredible (and for many reasons it was) but because the EVF was such a revelation.  You could see what you'd really get.  When you look through an optical finder you're seeing an image that's always at a wide open aperture setting, and it's beguiling with a narrow depth of field and a bright image.  But a great EVF shows you what you're really going to end up with once you push the button.  It's reading all the stuff you shoved in ROM and it's finessing the image exactly the way you requested.  If you set a color balance manually it's showing you THAT color balance in the finder.  No surprises.  If you set f11 or f1.4 the EVF is showing you the exact DOF you'll end up with.  The only two glitches were the shooting delay caused by moving mirrors and the fact that early EVF's sucked in low light.  As the camera's files got darker and noisier so did the finder image.  That was/is the Achille's heel of my beloved Sony R1......

8.23.2011

LIghting like Leonardo da Vinci. Kinda.



Many years ago, when I  was still in the huge downtown studio,  I read a scholarly article about how Leonardo da Vinci executed his drawings and portrait studies in anticipation of painting.  It was fascinating to me to understand that he went to great lengths to understand the lighting and then went beyond what he saw in nature and invented his own inimitable lighting style.  The article centered around the way light flowed onto Leonardo's subjects and his construction of light modifiers to create a light which he used when concepting the modeling of faces.

His technique was to stretch a large, white cloth over top of the entirety of a central courtyard.  The cloth, two stories above his model, softened the light and gave it an unusual character.

After reading this I went into the studio and tried to make the biggest light diffuser I could.  I put two six foot by six foot frames together and put diffusion across both of them.  Then I put a series of large, soft light sources behind the whole construction.  I used a Norman 2000 watt second pack with four heads.  Each head was fitted with a beauty dish and each beauty dish was covered with a diffuser of its own.  The lights were as close to the 18 foot ceiling of the studio as I could get them while the diffuser is just out of the frame above the model's head.  My one mistake with this shot was that I filled the light from beneath too much.  I would have preferred deeper shadows under the model's chin and at the edges of her beautiful cheeks.  And, in retrospect,  I would also have preferred her to be looking directly into the lens.

Alas, my studio is too small now to re-do my experiments.  In order to add a bit more snap overall I probably would use a one stop diffuser instead of a two stop diffuser.  A bit more collimated light would add just the right touch.


It's wonderful to know that artists experimented endlessly with light, even before the invention of photography.  Being able to understand and appreciate graceful light is a talent in and of itself.  I posted this as a counterpoint to all the overdone lighting I saw today on the web.  Sometimes it's better to make simpler images.

8.20.2011

Lighting matters to most commercial projects.


This was a fun image to make.  We were doing an annual report project last Summer and part of the brief was to go around central Texas and make portraits of people who were part of "shovel ready projects."  While many national projects didn't materialize, here in Austin people did get back to work and they've been building much needed road infrastructure right through the economic downturn.

It was hot and we were working close to busy streets.  I was dressed a lot like the guy in the photo.  Hard hat, reflective Gatorade colored safety vest and work boots.  This was a classic, Kirk-style, exterior location portrait.  I like the puffy clouds in the background and the rich blue sky and the only way I know to get that combination is to shoot with the sun behind you.  But the problem with doing that is your subject will end up looking into the harsh sunlight or near enough to it to make them blink or squint.  Here's how I like to do it.  Once I figure out the composition I bring in a 4x4 foot diffuser or a light blocker.  In this case it was a Chimera panel with two layers of white, fabric diffusion cloth on it.  The diffusion took the direct light off his face which made my worker a LOT more comfortable and dropped the exposure on his face by almost four stops.  For all intents and purposes he was standing in "open shade."  But he was still squinting a bit so I put up another 4x4 foot panel with black fabric centered on his eye line right behind the camera position.  This way he'd be looking into a dark area and could rest his eyes a bit.  Over to the right of my camera I put up an Elinchrom Ranger RX AS electronic flash pack and put an "A" head into a small softbox for my main light.  The bottom of the box is on the same level as the subject's chin.  The box is about 45 or 50 degrees to the right of camera.

I was working with a Canon 5D mk 2 but I didn't like the top shutter sync speed of 1/160th of a second so I think I switched to my Canon 7D for its 1/250th of a second top sync speed.  Part of what made this a tough shoot is that we had breezes and thunderstorms on and off all day.  That meant (as far as the wind was concerned) we needed to sandbag everything that lived on a light stand.  It wasn't just for the safety of the lights or the subject; we couldn't take a chance that a light would blow into traffic speeding by and cause an accident.  Many of our locations required us to park 50 or 100 yards away and bring the gear over in several trips.  I can still remember the misery of walking through the heat of a soupy day with a 20 pound sandbag in each hand and a light case slung over one shoulder...... nasty.

At the end of the day none of that matters.  All that matters is that we get images that match what the client has in her mind.  And this one passed the test.  The best piece of gear for stuff like situations above?  A Hoodman Loupe for the LCD screen on the back of the camera.  It's great to be able to accurately judge the effects we're working so hard to get in the field.  What's that you said?  Why didn't we tether it to a big Mac on a ergo cart?  Sorry, that's just too insane.

Now that I've got my Hasselblad mojo cranking up again I'm looking for more beautiful people to sit in front of my camera.  But as Gordon will tell you, I'm horrible about delivering final images.  I'm working on the backlog.  Maybe we'll have something for recent (last two years :-) ) sitters by Christmas.  Not saying this year.  But if you are strikingly beautiful and want to come by and sit for a portrait, send me an e-mail and we'll see what we can work out.  The image of Michelle, above, was done the third time ago that beauty dishes were in style.  Still works for me....

Finally, a recent headshot for candidate for Texas Railroad Commission, Christi Craddick.  We were asked to do a nice portrait of Ms. Craddick for use on her election website and other collateral.  I went on location to the small studio at Arts and Labor, here in Austin to do the job.  We hung a grey seamless in the background and used a 28 inch Fotodiox beauty dish with a diffusion cover over to camera right as our soft but directional main light and used a Photek Softlighter II just over the left of the camera as a fill light.  I washed the background with two very even direct lights and added a gridded hair light coming over Ms. Craddick's right shoulder.  We had a make up person, with an assistant, and a very nice intern who kept bringing us good food as we worked with different wardrobe and expressions.  Altogether is was a quiet and calm session that yielded a number of very good portraits.

Canon 5Dmk2 with a 70 to 200mm f4 L lens.  All lights used were Elinchrom D-lite 4 IT's.  All the units performed as expected.  

I love shooting portraits like this.  The backgrounds and lighting are pretty much stylized by the campaigns which is fine.  It means we can concentrate on expression.



8.19.2011

An interesting client perspective. And other observations.

I was riding around in the car today shooting an exterior assignment with a good client.  We've been working on the project since Wednesday and I must say that she's been a real trouper.  We're shooting roadways and landscapes and most days it's already in the 90's when we start, and well into the triple digits when we call it quits.  She's the designer for the annual report and she's got a good eye.  I know she bought a new DSLR last year so I decided to broach a tabu subject and I asked her if she considered shooting the project herself.  She chuckled and explained,  "It always looks easy when you see good people do it but once you try it yourself you realize that it's a lot of work, that practice makes perfect, and that I would end up doing even more work than I am now but for the same amount of money.  If I use you, or someone else who's experienced, I know I'm going to get good pictures to work with and I won't have to spend time reshooting, experimenting and doing all the post production stuff that you do for me."

The overall implication was basically this:  We have a job to do and we might both be able to do each other's job but we have a limited amount of time to do it in and it makes more sense to share the labor.  We each do what we're best at.  At the end of any given year I'm going to guess that we'll each end up making about the same amount of money.  Me in profit and she in salary and benefits.  If she adds my job to her existing workload  she might have fun at first but she'd quickly be dealing with a much increased stack of stuff, some that are currently outside her professional comfort zone.  Finally she told me that she liked the way I did skies.  She likes the blue I get.  Sounds good to me.
But this put me in the mindset of thinking about my work and how I add value to projects.  It's good to understand your REAL value proposition, not the one you'd like to believe in.  I've always been a "word guy."  I love to write.  I love to tell stories.  To tell the truth I've always had to work harder than most to create photographs that people like.  And my many critics on the web are quick to point out that they don't find my work "exciting."  My friends and families are quick to tell me that my work is good but I always pushed back.  Then I had coffee with a friend named Frank and as we talked I came to understand (again) that a photo is about so much more than composition and lighting and the technical art stuff. As I talked to him, and later to my friend Andy, I came to understand that the thing they liked about my work was the way people looked in my photographs.  They valued the things that I didn't think about.  I am always too busy worrying about getting the good light, and trendy styling, and good technique but what they were responding to were the expressions on peoples' faces,  the look in their eyes, their attitude, their affect.  Andy and Frank's points of view about my talent had more to do with my selection and handling of models and portrait subjects than about technical stuff.  And that opened my eyes to the idea that photographic talent could be much more than finding just the right "super angle" and just the right glittering light and it could well be that story telling was an equally valuable component that I minimized specifically because I could do it pretty well.  

And thinking now about the photographic engagement I see it differently.  I know that what I'm trying to encapsulate in one still photo is a narrative or story about the subject.  I want to show images that look as if the subject is deeply attentive and invested and I moved away from the camera and you moved in and shared my point of view.  You joined us in the middle of the sitter's story and you can hardly wait for what comes next.

The benefit of your talent being about the process and the content instead of the design and the stylish nuance is that you are not captive to trends, styles and glitter.  If you can tell a good story you can create a good portrait.  And essentially, isn't that what all really captivating portrait photographers reach for?  Isn't that why we look at Annie Leibovitz's classic portrait work?  Aren't we trying to divine the story behind the image?  But when we look at a cliched,  highly stylized photo of another model jumping or leaping and the lighting is "oh so obvious..." aren't we looking at "See Jane run.  See Dick run."? But done with gold leaf on the edges of the deckled page.....? And when we look at an Avedon photo of a model at a sidewalk cafe in Rome in 1952 with street kids in the background aren't we sitting down with an amazing book, dying to know what's on the next page?

One of my acquaintances was telling me about a documentary he recently saw of a very good photographer who is still working, collected and revered, deep into his eighties.  After a while the interviewer asked him if the "revolution" in cameras, which had made it easier for "everyman" to take good photographs, had profoundly and irrevocably changed photography for the worse for professionals.  The older photographer laughed and said, "No more than pencils and paper changed the game for writers.  You still have to do the work.  You still have to have the talent.  You still have to be creative.  That's never changed."

And I loved that sentiment.  It's the same as the man who buys the same bike as Lance Armstrong, hoping to ride at the same level with a few hours of practice over the weekend.  Or the person who takes up the violin and buys a Stradivarius in hopes that it will take the place of talent.

I love to hear those stories but it always brings me back to the idea of talent.  I believe that it's innate and easy or that you can work hard and try to get close to what the talented people can do with the flick of a wrist and a quick squint through the viewfinder.  And I'm one of those without a drop of native talent for visualizing. (Back to that!!!)

So, I was kicking on a kickboard in the pool today and I was talking to Jane about creating art.  During our quick conversation she helped me with a new perspective.  The idea was that everyone, either through hard work or native talent, or both can be an artist.  We can all do it.  We may come to it in different ways but we all have the potential to creatively express our own vision.  But the bottom line is that most people allow themselves to get boxed into conventional lives and don't have the courage to try and live outside the box.  Or to create outside homogenized parameters.  They fear the trade off of possibly having to deal with defeat, censure and failure time and again.  And having to "eat only what you kill" by the skill of your brain.  And only that creative side of your brain.  So they choose security and assurance instead of a life in art.  And by dint of just showing up and doing the process you are providing a set of ingredients that trumps talent.  You've shown up.  You've done the work. You've battled the demons that tell you that you'll never make it.  The ones that tease you with the idea that the money will always elude you even in the face of evidence to the contrary.  And the people at large respond to the fact that you've conquered that fear and done something they really fear to do.  To step into the box of creating for themselves and making it work, without instructions.  Or a safety net.  Real skin in the real game.

It sounded lofty as we talked about it and kicked through the cool water as the white hot sun peeked over the tree line and sent a laser beam of energy glancing off the lane lines and bouncing off the lenses of our goggles.  And for a few hundred yards I was convinced that I was an artist because I'd had the courage to step off the farm and go into the woods in search of images only I could make.  The hell with the wolves....

But by the end of workout, as I got on my bike and headed back home, I realized that I'd already slid back to that place that says,  "Yes, this could be an art.  But it's also a business and we have to please the client..."  So you can see that I slide from dilemma to dilemma and realization to realization.  It's an examination of life that I'm sure we all mull everyday.  And in the end we die with it unanswered.  Because there really isn't a right answer or a definitive calculus that defines what we SHOULD be doing and what we SHOULD value.  But we never stop looking.  And we never stop longing.

Yes. Rick Perry is running for president.

     ©2011 Kirk Tuck


This photo is probably the last one I'll be able to make of Rick Perry before he's surrounded by secret service people and becomes unapproachable by everyday photographers like me.  Funny enough, this was totally "Strobist Style" shooting.  David Hobby would have been proud.  I posted this image again today because when I posted it before I ended that blog with the question: "So, is Rick Perry running for president?"  Now we all have the definitive answer.

Of course my question now is:  "If Rick Perry gets elected president can I please be the official White House Photographer?"  I swear I'd have a rockin good time.....  His staff knows where to find me.

In order to keep the blog more politically neutral I am closing the thread to new comments and hiding the ones that are already there.  Thanks.  Let's stay on photography.

8.18.2011

Putting my hands, my eyes and my head where they belong.

It all came together for me a few days ago.  I realized why I'm such a formalist when it comes to photography. Why I like the older cameras.  Why I like the old Hasselblads.  They slow me down and make me think about what I'm about to shoot.  I came home from an assignment (thank you, dear clients for continuing to believe in the value of creative, custom images...) and I was taken by the light in my living room.

It's been hellishly hot here for the last few weeks and we have six double French doors (all glass) that face west.  For a few hours they get direct sun, filtered through a few 60 foot tall, live oaks.  One day when I was in the studio I realized that I owned three, two stop silk diffusers that were currently just sitting around taking up shelf space so I went outside and put them up over the outside of the French doors.  You can still come in and out but you have to come in thru a curtain.  And when the sunlight hits the silk it lights up my living room like a movie set.  It's a wall of intense but soft, directional light.  The same kind of light you might think you'd get out of a six foot by eighteen foot softbox but you wouldn't.  It's better because the sun is further away and the fall off is less quick.  In the digital only days I would have grabbed Ben and shot a few handheld portraits and walked away.  But a few days ago when I came home I was transfixed by the light and decided I'd give the new (old) camera a try.  I loaded some Tri-X, into the camera, locked the 150mm lens on the front and then tossed the whole assemblage onto a Berlebach tripod.  I grabbed an old Minolta incident light meter and headed into the house. The finder is so perfect that I took my time comping the shot for the sheer pleasure of it.  I was critical, thoughtful, deliberate.  I pulled out the meter and metered the exposure very carefully.  I had twelve shots and I was committed to getting what I wanted in twelve or fewer exposures.

Ben was game and planted himself, as directed, on the arm of a chair at an angle to the wall of light.  It was so easy to focus the 40 year old lens.  Wide open the slender sliver of sharpness popped up like candy.  Instead of banging away with a motor drive we were both thoughtful and collaborative in our imaging duet.  The feel of the shutter release was industrial engineering at its finest.  The slap of the mirror was solid and calm like the closing of a door on a big Mercedes car.  The snick of the shutter was flawless.  And then there was a pause as the finder went dark and the whole process waited for me to wind the crank and reposition all the internal clockwork for the next shot.  Time enough to mentally process the slow changes wrought by multiple seconds of delay between each release of the shutter.  Time to talk to Ben, to listen and then to make everyone quiet again in anticipation of the next opportunity.

When we finished Ben went off to do some last minute Summer math assignment and I had the pleasure of pulling out the film insert, removing physical film and licking (yes! licking with my tongue) the adhesive paper strip that seals the exposed film into its own cocoon of paper layers to protect the latent image on its journey to the lab.

It was a wonderful experience.  And now I'm hooked.  I shot a commercial job on digital cameras today and I have no doubt that it will be well exposed and sharp as a tack.  The colors will be on the money and if they're not I can fix the raw files in any  number of programs.

But with the film camera I had to get it right.  I had to use both sides of my brain in tandem and I realized how much exercise I'd need to get my creative muscles back into shape in order to re-master real photography.  Challenge = joyous success.  Shooting film means you have more skin in the game.  That makes the sweet taste of success all the sweeter.

A break from the medium format nostalgia to talk about the Boy Scout motto.



 You know the motto.  It's "Be Prepared."  And corny as it sounds it's one of the most important things I remember from the fogs of my own history as a Boy Scout.  And I generally hew to the motto in all things photographic, from having back-ups in my gear to double checking locations and weather maps before shoots.  But I fell down on the job yesterday.  I rallied but I wasn't happy with myself.  Yesterday was our first day of shooting on an annual report shoot that will go on for the next week or so.  We have to shoot in August and, since it's for a roadway/construction concern, all the photography is outdoors.

As you might know Texas is in the midst of both an extraordinary drought and a record breaking heat wave.  We've gone over sixty days with triple digital daytime temperatures.  It's pretty amazing stuff.  If I were a landscape architect right now I sure would be reading up in the finer points of xeriscaping.....

So when I planned for the shoot yesterday I found just the right broad-rimmed hat, the perfect non-polarized sunglasses,  a Sportif technical shirt with an SPF of 40 (long sleeves please),  a very cool pair of long cargo shorts (I know, I know....) and appropriate shoes for stumbling around big blocks of concrete and rebar.  I put a case of 16 ounce bottles of Gatorade in the ice chest along with a couple of cooling neck wraps.  And then I packed the gear.

We were shooting for a square print sized brochure with ten inches on a side.  I packed a Canon 5Dmk2 as my main camera and the 7D as a back up.  I knew we'd want some sweeping, dramatic shots so I packed the 20mm and the 24-105mm L for the full frame camera and a lovely old Tamron 11-18mm SP for the cropped frame 7D.  I also brought along but never got around to using the full complement of Zeiss lenses.....

And here's where I screwed up.... I opened the filter drawer and grabbed all of the circular polarizing filters.  There must of have been two pounds worth.  I tossed them into the camera bag along with the other stuff.  And I ASSUMED I had all the filter diameters covered.  Both the 11-18 and the 24-105 take a 77mm filter.  I had 52,  55, 58, 62, 67, 72, and 82mm filters.  In some cases I had duplicates!
But not a single 77mm filter.  So I did the next logical thing and looked through the filter case for the 77 to 82mm step up ring I was almost certain I had.  Nope.  Didn't exist.

Turns out that the lens/filter combo I ended up using all day long was the 11-18+ cir.  polarizer.  I gave new meaning to "hand made photos" as I ended up holding the filter in place with my fingers, being as careful as I could be not to intrude on the image area.  Everything worked well but it was a pain in the butt.  Sometimes I was perched on top of a ladder, camera gripped in one hand, filter gripped in the other, gripped with more than my normal dose of acrophobia......all while sweating away in the direct rays of the sun.

When we finished our shot list for the day I made a careful inventory of the filters and all of my different lens filter sizes and went straight to Precision Camera to fill in any blanks.  We start up again today and I'm happy to say I feel like I am finally well prepared.....



A quick note on contracts.  When you start working with a new PR agency or Ad Agency it's an important time to revisit your commitment to getting signed contracts.  We have a policy here in the studio that calls for signed agreement forms for every new project.  If we've worked with a client for many years and are responding to a quick request for a shoot chances are we'll send them a quick e-mail outlining the project and the cost and ask them,  "Is this what you had in mind?  Does this price work for you?"  And when we get back, from an ongoing client, a response like:  "Yes.  That works.  The budget is fine."  We'll get to work even though we haven't covered ourselves with grade "A" paperwork.

But every once in a while there's a new agency taking over an account we've worked on for years.  Even though we have a good relationship with the final client it's pretty much mandatory, if the agency is "contracting" with us for the client, that we get a more robust contract in place with details about who is paying for what and when.  We also have a policy of getting a deposit for half of our initial project fees and costs upfront.  It's a quick way of separating the serious from the bullshitters.  Money talks.

If we don't get the signed contract we have a couple of choices.  Of course we can walk off the project but then we open the door to any and all competitors......and you can be sure that a new agency you haven't heard of has one or two favorite suppliers just waiting in the wings....or you can go back to the direct client and make your case to them.  Another reason to keep your client relationships happy and mutually beneficial.

And I'll let you in on one of our firmest rules:  All attorneys, churches and politicians must pay up front or when we deliver the images.  No exceptions.  Here's why:  If you get crosswise with an attorney as a client you'll never be able to outmaneuver them when it comes to collections.  They know every way imaginable not to pay a bill they aren't fond of.  Churches all believe that you really shouldn't charge them in the first place because, of course, they are doing "God's work."  They will forget an unwritten agreement quicker than a prayer.  And it's really not going to raise your professional profile within your community to have to sue a church.....  Finally, if you work for a politician and they lose....they are already out of money and you'll become just one in a long line of unsecured creditors.  And believe me, it's hard to raise campaign funds after the fact to pay off debts already incurred.

You can go all self-righteous on me if you are an attorney.  I understand that there are a ton of good and honest ones.  It goes back to the "bad apple" theory.  (In all honesty, I have friends who are attorneys who I would work for at the drop of a hat...these are rules that can be interpreted....).    You can be appalled at my lack of respect for "the church" but I've been on the other side of a couple of deals and I'm pretty sure that as long as humans are involved in the process there are a few financial leaps of faith I'd rather not make.  And no matter which side of the ideological coin you fall on I'm pretty sure, if you think about it, you'll get my very direct caveat about working for politicians.

Don't forget your hat and your polarizers.  It's going to be a hot one....