Well...the weather outside is frightful but the fire is so delightful...

Paris.  Late October.  Contax S2.  135mm Sonnar 2.8. Tri-X film.

It's turned colder in Austin.  The city is bustling with holiday shopping and the frantic last minute attempts to finish out business and bill it before the calendar comes to a close.  I've been working on a wonderful job shooting books as three dimensional products and then shooting the same books in lifestyle situations.  Books with gardeners.  Books in coffee shops.  Books in art galleries.  Books in your new home.

I've been working with one camera and one lens for the lifestyle images.  That would be the the Canon 1ds mk2 combined with the Zeiss 85mm 1.4.  We shoot all of it at ISO 160 and if there's not very much light we go "old school."  We use a tripod.  Amazing, the quality you can get if you do your techniques correctly.  The client was looking for narrow depth of field so we spent two days shooting at f2.5 to f3.5.  Occasionally we'd get all nutty and shoot at f4.  I've spent most of the day working with the files.  The client chose 38 for their national campaign.  The images are amazing.  A core central area of extreme sharpness that slides smoothing to totally ambiguous and romantic areas of soft focus in the backgrounds.  The side of an iPad in razor sharp relief and three feet away the arm and hand of a beautiful woman almost abstractly out of focus.

In the studio we were aiming for absolute sharpness.  I used a Canon 5Dmk2 on a sandbagged tripod and shot the books with big LED panels.  You could see every nuance of light and reflection.  Making corrections to optimize the light was child's play compared to the same set ups using flash. (Believe me, I spent two years and shot thousands of books for a national bookseller, using flash and large format film back in the late 1980's).

I used the camera's live view settings to set up the shots and to counter any mirror slap.  My lens of choice was the 90mm Tamron 2.8 SP macro.  Amazingly sharp.  And it doesn't fall apart at f16 like other optics.  I used a remote trigger to make it all go without ever having touch the camera.  The hard part was determining the correct distribution of focus over the book.

After I shot all the books I went into Photoshop and carefully, using the pen tool, created clipping paths for the art director.  We did 70 books over the weekend.  We clipped and retouched irregularities in the book's surface and did stringent color corrections.  In fact, I had the books right next to my work station just to compare color.

The client is happy and I'm happy.  It was the last job of the year.  I'll deliver the final images on DVD's tomorrow.  The year is wrapping up.  It's been so much better, business-wise, that the three that proceeded it.  Billings are up.  The quality of jobs is up and my satisfaction with the jobs is commensurately higher.

On a personal note it's been a good year.  I'm swimming with people like Lance Armstrong and Olympians, Shaun Jordan and Aaron Peirsol.  I can't keep up with them but I'm doing the same workouts.  I've finished all the work on my best book yet, the one on LED lights.  The more I use the LEDs the more convinced I am that they WILL become the dominant light source for working photographers and videographers.  My book will (hopefully) be the very first one to market with in depth information about using the lights to their highest value.  Belinda is busy working on many design projects for the Lance Armstrong Foundation and Ben is excelling in academics and holding his own in cross country.  In fact, his school swept all categories in their district this year for all levels of cross country.

I could complain about things that are not perfect but it would be churlish and silly.  Life is wonderful and I hope it's the same for you as well.  

My plans for the rest of the year are to shoot as many fun images as I can and to write about photography here on the blog.  I hope you'll come along for the ride.  Can't promise it will all be sweetness and light but if you've been here for a while I don't think you'd expect that....

Best, Kirk

The final blog about phones here at VSL. That would be "mobile" phones...

No photo for this one....

Can we talk frankly for just a minute? Thanks. I wrote a thing last week about iPhoneography and I pissed off everyone on the web. And I finally figured out why. As human beings we love the idea of freedom. We love the idea of individuality and charting our own destiny. It's hard to admit that we sometimes sabotage ourselves. The biggest problem for alcoholics and substance addicts, when it comes to kicking the bad habits, is being able to admit that they have a problem in the first place. Most addicts get angry whenever someone points out how their addiction is ruining their lives and the lives of everyone around them. They lash out. They write angry comments to bloggers.

I was temporarily blind to the big problem. Sure. The cameras in current phones are great. And there's no reason not to use them for lots of different imaging stuff. I guess I'm just hard wired to think that when we go from easy usability to cult status that something's out of kilter. But that's just me. If you can only afford "just a phone" or "just a camera" I think most people probably will take the phone. Especially if it has a camera inside. But most people living in the U.S. never really have to make that choice. Dump your cable or satellite TV fees and you can have....pretty much anything you want.

The camera caught my attention and I lashed out. But it was the wrong target. The reality is that it's cellphones themselves that really piss me off. iPhone-ography was just collateral damage for my rage. But why do I hate (yes HATE) cellphones?

Because of everyone else. Not you and me, of course. We're perfect gentlemen and ladies with our communications gear. No, I hate that woman who just drove her Chevy Suburban through the red light because she was glued to her phone. ("Sorry!" kids in the cross walk. Good dodging skills. Nobody got hurt). And I'm pissed because I met a famous photographer for lunch and, out of the hour we spent together 45 minutes of it was on the cellphone giving directions to his assistant or taking random calls. And I'm pissed because I went to see a movie and it seemed like half the people in the audience popped on their cellphones to text. And instead of the singular glow of the big screen we also had the multiple glow of dozens of hot little light spots in our field of vision. Very, very distracting. And I'm pissed off that I had to wait twice as long for a cup of coffee at Starbucks because the very important man in front of me was....on his cellphone having an inane conversation while the coffee person was trying to use mime and mental telepathy to divine the nature of his order. And I'm pissed off at the cop who ran into the stopped car in front of him because.....he was on his cell phone. And lets not forget the five or six people who literally ran into me at the grocery store while keeping their heads down, texting on their cellphones. And how about the guy who pretty much ruined our night out recently at a very nice restaurant who took a call and talked really loud about his real estate deal at the table next to ours? I was very impressed by his business acumen. But I was trying to use the dark side of the force to choke him with his own steak. And then there's the couple who came to see the one man play in a small, intimate theater, who actually took a phone call in the middle of the play. Oh, and let's not forget the people on Congress Ave. last week. One was so engaged in her cellphone call that she walked out in to traffic when the light was red and caused an accident as cars braked to prevent killing her. But let's also not forget the meeting last month where three "under thirties" and one "over fifty" had their cellphones in their laps so they could read texts while we discussed pre-production. That didn't hurt anyone but all three called, individually, to "get caught up" because they were "pre-occupied" during the meeting. That was an extra hour out of my life.

Of course we've all heard that talking on a cellphone while driving is as distracting and dangerous as having two or three beers before driving. And we know that thousands of people in the U.S. were killed in the last two years by people who lost control because they were.....talking on their cellphones or texting.

So, back to the idea of freedom. We live in a free country and that means you can do stupid stuff to yourself. You can go massively into debt and spend a third of your life working just to service debt you'll never be able to pay off. You can eat yourself to death. You can buy stupid stuff. And you can enslave yourself to your gadgets. Remember the days before cellphones? Your mind was clear and you understood your purpose in whatever moment you were in. There were so few distractions you were able to complete complex tasks in one sitting. You had real friends and you cherished your time together. You were able to look into your lover's eyes without thinking about who might be texting you.....right now.

I watch people and I've read studies. The average person with a smart phone seems to check for text messages every seven minutes. More often if they are not with friends. The average user seems to call "just to check in" with someone every fifteen to seventeen minutes.

"As long as they're not hurting anyone...." Oh, but they are. Men are earning less than ever before. Why? Because they can't multi-task. And women complain about not having enough time in the day. Why? Because studies show they are, on average, consuming 240.9 minutes of media a day. Yes. A day. That's roughly six hours, divided between their computers (non-work related) their iPads and their smart phones. This is time away from family and work. Time spent not exercising. Time not photographing or dancing or painting. Time not spent reading to their children. Time not being productive. Time not earning taxable income. And, recent studies show doctors getting much more involved in practicing malpractice by cellphone chatting during surgery. Pilots talking instead of paying attention to flight control. Police texting while driving. And construction workers texting and talking in unsafe areas. So, no one is getting hurt? Not so, according to statistics.

And I'm mad that we, as a culture, want to give people yet another reason to keep a cellphone in their chubby little hands by encouraging them to use it as a camera. It's already boyfriend, girlfriend, family substitute, time waster, traffic catalyst and social retardant. What more damage can we inflict with a few cubic inches of plastic and circuitry?

So, to me the whole idea of encouraging yet another use of the cellphone (as in photography) is like adding extra nicotine to cigarettes or extra alcohol to your can of hard lemonade. We are enabling a flood of addictive behavior like never before. In fact, if you can disable the voice, e-mail and text capabilities of cellphones and use them just as cameras then.....I'm all for it.

Does the application of technique, de facto, make everything it touches "art"?

Gary Winogrand taught photography at UT when I was a student there.  He would stroll the main drag looking for interesting people to photograph nearly everyday.  He would also stop into the stereo (home electronics) shop where I worked part time to listen to the exciting audio gear that was hitting the market at the time.  He generally carried two old, banged up Leica M's with him.  A 28mm lens on one and a 35mm or 50mm on the other.

He is widely quoted as saying that he "photographed things to see how they would look photographed."  Which implies that photography itself changes things and it does so, sometimes, in interesting ways.  But he didn't manipulate his images in post processing.  He presented straight black and white prints to his audience so they could share the slice of the past that he captured and hence, owned.

He was a voracious shooter and left behind thousands and thousands of rolls of film that were shot but undeveloped.  And more film that had been developed by not contact printed and examined.  He was obviously in a hurry to shoot as much as he could.

In a very real sense we've made an enormous aesthetic and theoretical schism from the photography of Gary's time to present work.  A current and powerful aspect of photography is the routine post processing and random manipulation of images we take.  Since many of the applied effects are supplied in a random fashion by the software used I wonder if the thoughtful practice of either previsualizing or conceptualizing the final effect is still in play.  Or whether the idea of "satori" and instant recognition at the time of capture is still relevant.

But, at the core, the question really is this.  Does the random and yet nearly statistical homogenous application of effects (canned or otherwise)  bring value to the core image or, through its overuse does the same manipulation actually devalue the image?

The analogy that pops into my mind is hot sauce.  Lots of people like the tang and bite of good salsa and, taken in moderate quantities it adds a special flavor and spice to regional foods.  But there has become of subset of hot sauce fans who, having burned out their taste buds through egregious overuse, look for hotter and hotter versions of the sauce and take delight in their ability to ingest it without running for a huge glass of water (best to try milk instead).

It almost seems to me that instead of working to find more interesting things to see or more interesting ways to express the things we can already see that we have developed an immunity to subtlety and grace and are on the "hot sauce" search for more and more "heat" in our images.  And we apply liberal canned manipulations like salsa fans dumping more and more habanero sauce over their plate of enchiladas, huevos rancheros or even meatloaf.  At some point the power of the spice and pepper overwhelms the dish we're trying to savor.  The salsa becomes the quest rather than being the adjunct to fine foods.

People move through their lives quickly and I'm guessing that the fragmented quality of modern existence requires more and more stimulus in order to capture attention.  And the preponderance of images also demands that ever more "hot sauce" be applied to make them "burn" and stand out.

At some point we realize that the "wrapper" has taken precedence over the content.  We're buying the shiny aluminum foil and not the chocolate.  I don't have any answers.  I just know that we're heading in a direction where style trumps meaning.  It's nice to be able to perceive intention and direction in content, not just in the wrappers.

I get that every new art form is challenging at first.  But the real question is whether the application of glitter to the canvas really counts...

The joy of ambient light portraits...

...even if the ambient light is well controlled.  We did this portrait of Heidi for book #2.  That's the one about studio lighting.  We (Amy and I) bounced light from the morning sun in the east off a 4x4 foot silver panel sitting ten feet up on a stand outside the studio, in through the bank of west facing windows, thru some soft diffusion and onto Heidi's beautiful face.  A little bit of passive fill to the opposite side, with a piece of white foamcore, and we were done.  Can't do it today.  It's gray and cloudy now.


Prove it.

I love to read the forums.  Everyone's an expert.  They dissect photography like it's physics.  It's all talk and conjecture.  Looking for the magic bullet that will make their pictures something more than sharp whiskers on a cat or an ultra-fluffy HDR sunset.  They talk about "per pixel sharpness" and "nyquist" and "Fournier" and "Bayer Array" this and that and all sorts of other stuff than means something if you are making a camera and absolutely nothing if you are shooting a camera.  They stake their hopes on DXO and math.

And if quantifiable analysis created art we'd be surrounded by masterpieces.  We'd be begging for mediocrity. We'd be overwhelmed.  But no matter how cool and sharp and noiseless the cameras become it's all just so much bullshit until we put something wonderful in front of the lens and push the button at just the right time.  That's the only set of metrics that matter.

You're a photographic genius?  Show me the work.

Agfapan 25 APX.  Hasselblad 2003.  150mm 2.8F.  

My most interesting camera purchase of 2011.

I've been working on an advertising project since last monday and while I don't really want to go into detail about it right now I did spend all day yesterday and most of today doing clipping paths on 70 images that my client would like to get tomorrow.  I had an internal deadline of sorts.  I wanted to finish in enough time to have some daylight left for walk through downtown.  It seems a bit counterintuitive to push a photography project out the door so that you can go and do more photography but, in truth, my walks through downtown are more of a walking meditation with a side order of looking at things further away than my monitor.  

It was gray and sulky and flat by the time I got down to 5th St. and Lamar to park my car but I didn't care.  I try not to have conscious agenda or intention when I start out and that goes for the weather as well.  For today's walk I decided to take my favorite camera purchase of 2011 with me.

I've bought some interesting cameras this year.  I bought an EP3 which I use on a fairly regular basis and find to be a very comfortable and workable rig when combined with any number of older lenses.  I'm especially partial to the feel and operation of the EP3 with some of the older manual focus Pen FT lenses that I've written about.  For about 90% of my Pen shooting I've used the 40mm 1.4 FT lens that was part of the kit Belinda gave me last year for the holidays.  I also love the look of the 60mm FT lens when I use it well at its maximum aperture of 1.5.  Pretty snazzy for old tech......

But much as I enjoy both the look and feel of the Pen EP3, and its older sister the EP2, that camera didn't make it into the car for today's adventure.  I know you're probably mentally jumping ahead and figuring that I took the new, little Nikon V1 and a pocketful of lenses.  And I really considered it as I was zero-ing in on the last five or six tedious, point by point clipping paths.  I've used it a lot lately and I'm really getting comfortable with it.  It's always on my short list for its tremendous and tenacious image stabilization alone.  But today I was in the mood for something with a little more meat on the files.  Something......depthy.

That last statement might lead straight to the assumption that I talked myself into a film frenzy and dragged out on the two Hasselblads that came back home, so to speak, to roost.  Nothing really beats the image one can massage out of a nice 500 series body, some Zeiss glass and a few rolls of ISO 100 transparency film but, with the low light of late winter and the afternoon growing long in the tooth I would have needed to haul around a tripod and after a turbulent week of being beaten up on line I hardly had the energy to leave the house, much less to go out in full equipment-nerd regalia.  No, the Hasselblads stayed all snuggled up in their drawer, surrounded by their lenses for company.  While the 250 boxes of Tri-X tugged at my heartstrings I just couldn't do it.

So I went semi-old school and tried to walk the middle path.

The camera that has consistently interested me the most this year, and the camera/lens combination that's returned the most income and the greatest number of images that make me smile for 2011 is one of those choices that I have a hard time explaining to most other photographers.  The camera is heavy and "outdated" and the lens is inconvenient to use.  But there's something about the images that come from the combination that work for me.  It's not the ISO performance because, frankly at 1600 I'd do just as well with the Nikon V1.  And it's certainly not the pocketability  because there's no pocket big enough to swallow this combo.  And it's not the AF performance because, well, the lens is manually focused.  I'd love to say I chose this camera for the incredible LCD screen on the back and its amazing live view chops but.....the screen is tiny, sucks and is probably my least favorite thing about the camera.

I took the Canon 1DS mk2 that I bought from my friend, Paul.  I coupled it with my Zeiss 85mm 1.4 ZE lens.  And I felt a calmness come over my shooting that's totally different from the smaller or larger cameras I've used.  Here's the deal from my point of view:  Even though the 5Dmk2 is supposed to have a totally superior sensor I'm not buying it.  I like to shoot at 100, 200 and 400 ISO and I find that the ancient 1DS mk2 is wonderful and rich right there.  Couple it with a fast lens and the imaging world is your oyster.  Unless you're allergic to shellfish.  The camera does a good job of letting me know when the monster big lens is in focus and the lens, in turn, does its part by slamming out sharp images even wide open.  By f2.8 it's a pixel peeper paradise and by f4 the same pixel peepers think they're being tricked because they've never seen anything as sharp.

If I could go back in time and do my odd camera shopping all over again this year I would do things differently.  I'd pass on the Nikon system  and use the same slice of budget pie to snap up the new Carl Zeiss 25mm f2 ZE.  I'd have passed on all the Pen stuff and bought another mint condition, used Canon 1DS mk2 body and I'd have forgone the Hasselblad stuff and bought the 100 Makro Carl Zeiss lens as well.  Of course, I never plan things out this well and if I had done that it would all be for naught in a few months when Canon finally launches the 1DX and it turns out to the be the most amazing thing with a Canon logo ever built.  I'm always second guessing myself and regretting one decision or another.  

I really like the sharpness and depth of field one gets at f1.6 with an 85mm lens.
It seems to mirror how older eyes see.

 There's a wonderful joy in just standing in front of rotating doors and lining up a shot.
A little to the left. A little to the right. No, just a bit more to the right.   Yes.
I've walked past this building for over thirty years and never looked up from the sidewalk.
It's like a giant, inverted, square pipe organ.  And the repeating patterns are fun.

I've turned off the blog comments for the rest of 2011 which is only really a week and a half but looking on the bright side I won't have to read through comments that tell me what a moron I am for using X camera instead of Y camera.  Or being labeled a fascist because I feel random "art" generators don't really make art. (And Susan Sontag concurred).

What is sillier than a jewelry store window after closing time?  Just naked semi-necks looking forelorn in the show windows.  I liked it better when they kept the watches in the windows all the time.
I guess that kind of trust went out with film.....

Austin is in such a state of transition right now.  We have scads and scads of new high rises put on a checker board next to all the old bars and music clubs and historic buildings.  We're caught between new wealth and the previous generation of eccentric, casual and inexpensive existence.  Cyclists and drivers of vintage pick up trucks vie with Aston Martins, Maseratis and Bentleys for lane space and parking.  The cost of everything downtown has sky-rocketed while everything outside the magic two mile radius of the state capitol is largely unchanged.  I'm reminded of the schism every time I walk through downtown.  My favorite coffee shop is in the bottom floor of one of the poshest high rise residence towers extant.  Lucky's is a few block away.  I watch the valet parking staff whisk away the shining chariots of the lucky few while the musicians who play at Lucky's sometimes arrive on the bus.  Or in a van that's almost as old as I am and even more creaky.

So, what counts as "real" photography and what doesn't?  How the hell should I know.  I've heard a lot of differing opinions this week.  But the best thing I read was about 2/3rd of the way through Susan Sontag's book, On Photography.  She made the point that a photograph is an art form but photography is not an art form, it's a process.  During her life newer typewriters and then word processors came to market but good writing remained as illusive as ever.  It echoes a quote that my friend, Bill, posted recently from the Guardian.  It goes like this: The strange thing about photography is that although it's been revolutionised by digital technology, at heart it's the same medium that entranced Louis Daguerre, Eugène Atget and André Kertész, to name just three of its early masters. And although it's become much easier to take photographs that are technically flawless (in terms of exposure and focus), it's just as difficult to capture aesthetically satisfying images as it was in the age of film and chemicals. It turns out that technology is a necessary, but not a sufficient, condition for creating art.
I would conjecture now, as I have repeatedly, that the creation of anything approaching art takes a lot of practice, a lot of trial and error, a good dose of heading in the opposite direction from the rest of the crowd and a lot of time in the water.  When you put it all together the catalyst seems to be actually doing the art.

By trying and trying you find out what works for your creative heart and what needs to go into the wastebasket.

I want to thank "Richard" for suggesting that I ditch the comments.  
His argument included the pitch that, if Hemmingway were alive today
there's no way in hell he would solicit feedback from strangers about his writing.
I'm no Hemmingway but it sure was a good way to suck me into the 

More to come.  Peace and love.  


Did you save that digital image you made of your kid playing the spoons? Did you back it up? Did you migrate it?

Ben, shot at Asti Trattoria.  Leica M6.  35mm Summicron.  Tri-X.  Scanned.

It's fun and quick and cheap to shoot digital images.  Just be sure to back them up. Nothing digital really lasts a lifetime unless you are relentless and conscientious about backing the files up.  Of course you could always shoot a roll of black and white film.  Research generally shows that, well processed and stored, black and white silver based film will still be printable long after you are cold and dead. 

Of course, you can always have archival prints made from your digital files.  That works too.

Don't listen to me. I'm just a photographer.

I'm not an anthropologist or a social scientist. I'm not a rocket scientist. I'm not the "great American" novelist. I'm not the leading expert on cardiology or proctology or bats. I'm not impervious to kryptonite. I am not a spokesperson for your favorite brand of camera. I don't have a manifesto. I don't get paid to make you happy. I don't get paid to piss you off. I don't have an agenda. I don't have a Maserati. I'm not running for office. I'm not running from the law. I am not in the clergy.  I don't want to date your sister. I'm not responsible for your sense of propriety, the appreciation of your hobbies or your happiness.  I don't speak Klingon. 

I'm just a photographer.