1.02.2012

Soup. On location.


I was working on a story about a non-traditional Thanksgiving feast for a spa magazine out of California and we needed to do some "studio" shots of the various presentations coming out of the home kitchen of the writer.  I kept scouting around for a good location in the 1980's style kitchen but not finding anything that would work well with the various dishes and the stylish bowls and plates we were using.  I took a moment to walk outside and re-center my thoughts.  This would be the moment the photographer goes outside for a cigarette except that I don't smoke.

While I was standing in the writer's back yard looking at a small, kidney shaped pool, my eyes rummaged across the remains of a home improvement project.  Probably tile used in the rehab of a bathroom on the second floor.  I grabbed four pieces of the tile and headed back into the house.  I built a small stage with the tile on the floor of the living room because it was the space with the least traffic, the closest proximity to the kitchen and the most space in which to set up lights.

The lighting was very straightforward.  One electronic flash in a medium sized softbox from the top left of the frame and one big piece of white foamcore as the fill from the opposite side.  Incident light meter reading with the ball of the meter aimed directly at the camera.  Power on the pack juggled until I got f16.  I used a Bronica SQ-Ai, medium format camera with a 150mm lens and Fuji ISO 100 transparency film.  We took Polaroid tests to make sure we had the exposure right and then proceeded to shoot ten or so dishes.  The soup was my favorite.

The chef brought the soup in a pan and carefully poured it into the bowl, which was already positioned on the set.  He then garnished the dish and added the olive oil drops.  When he moved out of my light I snapped a three shot bracket and we moved on to the next dish.

The story ran eight pages and looked good.  Sometimes work is straight forward, once you figure out what to shoot on and where to shoot.

1.01.2012

An old post becomes my mantra for the new year.

12.22.2009

"The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek." Joseph Campbell


"The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek."  Joseph Campbell

Nearly every photographer I've ever met is afraid to approach strangers in public and ask permission to photograph them.  The few that were not afraid were most probably sociopathic.  So, how is it that some people are able to overcome this fear and take photographs of strangers in public?

They begin by confronting their fears.  You work up your courage.  You approach the situation with butterflies in your stomach and you ask.  And, surprisingly, most times the person smiles and says yes.  They are flattered.  They are human. They are part of the continuum of humanity.

The more often you practice the better you are able to push down the fear until you nearly conquer it.  Then you move on to the next challenge.  The next fear.  Joseph Campbell says it better an I in one quick sentence.  

Consider this next time fear of a deadline, a meeting, a new way of doing something presents itself.  By pushing against the fear you may unlock doors of which you only dreamed.  Steven Pressfield, in his incredible book, The War of Art, basically says that resistance is strongest the closer you get to accomplishing your goals.


Happy Holidays!   Kirk

added Monday morning:  good article on multi-tasking, etc. by Mike Johnston:
http://theonlinephotographer.typepad.com/the_online_photographer/2012/01/quality-time-multitasking.html





It's a new year. I'm playing with a new camera. No. Really.


Why?  What was I thinking?

If you've read my blog for a while you know a few things about my camera habits.  I'm generally spending my days in a state of confliction.  I think the future of cameras and imaging lies in the smaller sensor cameras like the micro four thirds and cameras like the Nikon V1, and even smaller chipped cameras like the Fuji X10.  I also think the proliferation of electronic viewfinders (EVFs) is welcome and inevitable.  The conflict comes from my endless trail of legacy cameras and thought processes that, like little anchors, keep me from fully embracing what I see as the future of photography.  I am also rooted in its "glorious" past.

I love the look of a portrait done with a medium format camera and a medium/short telephoto but I know from experience that the quality is just an echo of the look I used to get when I would shoot portraits with a Zeiss 240mm f5.6 Planar on my 4x5 inch Linhof camera.  Those images were sublime.  And, recently I've come to like the look of the Zeiss 85mm 1.4 ZE lens on my Canon 5Dmk2 or the older but no less elegant 1DS mk2.  But those images are an even fainter echo of my original film standard.  But time and tastes move forward.  And I'm pretty convinced that I can learn to love the look of the Olympus 60mm f1.5 on a micro four thirds camera.  It's an adjustment but I've been adjusting downward since the start of my career.  And so has most of the market.

So, some days I shoot things with the old Hasselblad and some days I shoot with the Canons and sometimes I'm convinced that the smallest of my cameras is sufficient.  If you are wired like me you have my heartfelt condolences...

For the last three years I've been exploring just how much can be done with the smaller gauge cameras and I've come to find that you can actually do a lot.  The images look good and the introduction of faster lenses is giving us back some of the DOF control for which we longed.  The small cameras have come a long way in a very short time and show no signs of slowing down.  My favorite "flavor" has been the Olympus Pen line.  I collected their ancient film ancestors, the Pen FT series, from the 1980's on and I use the older, manual focus lenses interchangeably with the new optics being brought to market by Olympus and Panasonic.  And, with the release of the EP3, I was a very satisfied customer.  If you haven't handled an EP3 you might want to play with one.  It's a cool camera and it's small, light and svelte (but no, you can't fit it in the pocket of your jeans) and the files are solid and well finished.

But you've probably been reading about Olympus in various financial publications or in news aggregation sites on the web.  They've been having some self-inflicted legal/ethical problems lately in their executive suite and the fall out might affect the stability or even the life of the company in general and the camera division, specifically.  If you have an investment,  emotionally, financially or artistically in the use of Olympus Pen cameras this thought has surely crossed your mind:  "If Olympus craters what happens to my investment in all the cool glass?  What's my future roadmap for new bodies?  How will I be able to keep using the format I've come to enjoy?

I rejoiced, in 2009, when Olympus launched the EP2 because in many was it was the camera I'd been looking for through the years. In a way it was my dream camera.  I could program it to shoot in the square format I'd come to love in my medium format days.  I could use an eye level viewfinder with an EVF that showed my chosen aspect ratio.  The lens flange to sensor distance made the use of my older, Pen FT lenses easy and even allowed me to use Leica and Nikon lenses on the camera.  It's small, light and beautifully designed.  What was there not to like?  The EP3 was even better.  The whipped creme on the whole confection was the well implemented VF-2 EVF.  It was very satisfying to see the effects of filters, exposure settings and fine tuning in the eye level monitor as I shot.  I would have used the cameras for everything if not for a few oversites in design vis-a-vis professional, commercial use.  For example:  Would it really have been so hard to include a PC sync port separate from the hot shoe?  If that had been done I could shoot with my studio flashes and still be able to compose at eye level.  Would it have broken the design bank to add an external microphone socket instead of bringing the signal through the hot shoe plug in?  If they had done that I could use high quality external microphones in my video projects and still compose and follow action (especially in bright sun) with my EVF.

But, over time, I made peace with these shortcomings and learned to enjoy shooting with the cameras.  I bought back up bodies.  I bought batteries and lenses, started settling into the system (in tandem with my bigger Canons) and then.....the financial revelations and scandal rocked the company.

Once the news spread across the web I started thinking about alternatives.  I wasn't worried so much about the lenses because of the ability to use so many legacy lenses.  When it came to the dedicated lenses I didn't blink either because they so rarely fail.  My real concern was/is bodies.  I didn't want to find myself with a drawer full of wonderful, small lenses and nothing fun on which to put them.

Of course, the logical destination for all my market research was Panasonic, a partner in the m4:3rds consortium.  Panasonic is a giant in the electronics industry and dwarfs Olympus in resources and financial strength.  

I started looking around and was immediately drawn to the GH2.  In many ways it is the complementary adjunct to the slender and stripped down EP-2 and 3.  I see it as a chunky but reliable tool that brings more flexibility and depth to the overall system.  
My first use of the camera was this morning at Barton Springs Pool.  A giant, spring fed pool in the center of Austin.  It's a tradition to start the year off with a jump into the 60-something degree water.  Today the air temp was 45(f), some years it's in the 20's.  People still come and jump.

I walked around to the far side of the pool so I could photograph my friends doing their big, simultaneous, group jump.  This is a stone stairway on the NE corner of the pool.

Air mattresses and floats are only allowed at the east end of the pool.  The lifeguard stands have been there without change since I moved to Austin 37 years ago...

Random Jumpers.  I was getting used to the timing of the GH2 and the reach of the lens.

My friend, Ed, leading the charge off the diving board.  Afterwards we go to his house for homemade waffles and great coffee.  Not much shutter lag...

Where the EP3 is a svelte and designed for eye appeal the GH2 is designed like a pudgy miniature DSLR.  But in several compelling ways it trumps the Olympus camera for sheer usability in a commercial arena.  The camera has a built in EVF that's at least as good as Olympus's VF2.  That leaves the hot shoe open for flash triggers, flashes and microphone feet.  A separate connector for an external stereo microphone means not having to make a choice between external microphone and EVF, as you must make when using a Pen camera.
I bought the camera with the 14-140mm lens.  It's the equivalent angle of view to a 28-280 on a full frame, 35mm camera.  This is the 14mm end.  It's pretty darn sharp, wide open.

This is the 140mm end of the lens from the same position as the image above.  It passes my sharpness tests, wide open.  Nice lens.  The hood comes with it.  
Suck on that, Canon. (not cranky, just making a point.)


The other big advantage of this Panasonic and its less expensive and complex sibling, the G3, is a new sensor that provides more resolution with less high ISO noise.  The GH2 uses 120 hz sampling in AF and processing and matches the EP3 for focusing speed and accuracy.  But, the camera is much bigger and bulkier.

After an hour or so of skimming reviews I went off to the camera store to play with one.  I liked the way it worked and I liked the way it focused so I bought one on the last day of 2011.  I bought it in black and I sprung for the 14-140mm lens because the review on SLRgear.com was compelling.

I've had the camera for about 26 hours and I think I will end up liking it very much.  It has a touch screen on the swivel LCD that's well implemented and easy to use.  It focuses about as fast as my Canon 5Dmk2 and all the files I've shot are good.  I like the lens and think it's fun to have a 10x zoom range.  In operation the camera has been rock solid. 
zoomed way out.  Very snappy focus in good light.

I'm not recommending that you go right out and buy yourself one.  Especially since I've heard rumors that a GH3 might be in offing. And I am optimistic that Olympus and its investors will work out their issues in a way that leaves the camera arm of the company healthy and innovative.  In the meantime it's nice to know that there are alternatives in the wings.  Many of you will profess to dislike the GH2 because it's bigger than the sexy Pens.  I agree.  But the Panasonic G3 is much smaller, less expensive, and uses an even better sensor so that could also be an option.   But I'll be doing some more reports as I have more experience with the machine.  I'm looking forward to doing video production with it as well.
Based on what I've seen so far you could do 90-95% of the images most commercial photographers need to do for money with this camera and lens.  Nice.
I'm a sucker for industrial stuff.  I've spent way too much time shooting annual reports.

 The shadow on the building didn't trick the light meter for even a second.  I never get tired of shooting the Frost Bank Tower.  It's a nice looking building.

While it's a bit harder to throw stuff out of focus with shorter focal length lenses it sure is nice to be able to keep lots of stuff in focus when you need to...

I would like to thank the W Hotel in Austin for giving me the opportunity to use 
one of their bathrooms, both for the call of nature and to test the image stabilization of the 
14-140mm lens.  This was shot at 0.8th of a second (as I understand it that's almost a full second) wide open.  And to make the test even more punishing it was right after leaving Caffe Medici and their wonderful, full strength, cappuccino.  I'll say that the IS works pretty darn well.

If you click on the photos they get bigGER.

As far as bulk and weight goes, it feels to me like the GH2 is right in the middle between one of my full sized Canons (think 5D2) and the Olympus EP3.

Always fun to start the year out with a new toy.  So far 2012 is exceeding my expectations.  I hope it's a great year for you and everyone else.

a program note:  The "no comments" initiative we embarked on in mid-December has yielded remarkable results.  The emotional comfort metrics are out of the ballpark.  We'll keep it in place just a bit longer until we get a good idea of how this year is panning out.  If you really need to comment you are always welcome on our Flickr forum:  http://www.flickr.com/groups/visualsciencelab



12.31.2011

2011. The year in review.

For me 2011 was the year of LEDs.  I started writing a book about how photographers and videographers use LEDs as main light sources in late 2010 but the bulk of the writing and shooting for the book was done in 2011.  And I learned a great deal not just about LEDs but about how our choices of tools tend to shape our vision as artists.  For example, it's easy to shoot without blur if you use flash, and it's easy to shoot at smaller apertures when you use bigger studio flashes but there's always a trade off.  Every stop smaller means more and more is in focus and that might not be the effect you want if you really stop to think about it.

I learned that it's fun to work at the edge.  A lot of lenses fall apart when you get close to wide open and a lot of us aren't as great at focusing as we think we are.  Neither are our cameras.  DSLR's are fast but the trade off, at least at the widest apertures, is accuracy.  Shooting with continuous lights that aren't as powerful as tungsten lights means having to pay more attention to technique.  Depth of field is a fickle ally at f2...

I learned that writing a book about a subject that is just becoming popular is harder than writing a book about something you've been practicing for 20+ years. (Go figure...).  To the best of my knowledge my LED book will be the first book dedicated to showing photographers what's out there and how (and why) to use it.  This means that you can't really research much on the web besides product availability and manufacturer hyperbole.  You have to actually buy the stuff and play with it and use it until you get the hang of it.  And then you have to translate what you learned.  I'm sure, in a year, there will be dozens and dozens of books that deal with the same subject and I'm equally certain that most of them will use the entrails of mine to make a new product.  Happens all the time in the book business.  One only has to look at all the "Small flash on location" books that have hit the market in the last three years to see that.

Writing a book like this is harder than it looks.  You have to pioneer some stuff.  You have to go out exploring in other fields like the video industry and interior design but, toughest of all, you have to sit down and write.  And every time you get the thoughts marshalled just right someone comes out with something new or you realize that you need to create a series of images to show what you're talking about.  And for me that generally means finding a model, setting up both the shot and the behind the scenes shot and then creating captions for the photos that are short enough to fit and long enough to get the ideas across.

Once you've written and re-written the manuscript and selected and corrected the 150 or so images you send the whole package off to your editor and wait for their input.  Invariably I talk about something that really requires an illustration and the editor is quick to point out the gap.  Which means I have to go back to the project and shoot again. The LED book weighed in at about 45,000 words and has been edited down by at least 20% (thank goodness).  You make your final corrections, have Belinda proofread it again, send it back and cross your fingers.  But it doesn't stop there because every book is really your baby and if you want it to do well you have to play a major part in the marketing.  That means getting it in front of people, cajoling good reviews for the all important Amazon.com page and also getting your local camera store to push the book.  I'll do book signings anywhere in Texas.  Really.

But there's a downside to all this.  In fact, there are two.  The first is that authors don't get a paycheck, they get royalties.  But the royalties don't come in the mailbox until the book is written, photographed and sells.  The royalties follow the initial sales by about six months.  No sales mean no royalties which means you basically spent half a year of your life working hard on something with very little return.  When I believe in what I'm writing that's a risk I'm willing to take because, to a certain extent (a large extent) whether or not the book does well is in my control.  I can try to concept better, write better and make better illustrations.  I can decide to work harder on marketing the book(s).  

The year in which you actually do all the writing and shooting is grueling because, since there's no income from the project yet, you have to keep working at your "day job" and for me that means being available to clients at the drop of a hat to do photographs.  And it must be Pressfield's law that the more in the groove and motivated you are to finish your book project the more the clients want and need you.  When you hit the last lap of book production is when you get the high production, out of town job that has the world's tightest deadline.  And that deadline is usually the day before the book is due.

I remember when I wrote my first book.  I'd never done a book project before and I was afraid that the publisher would take a look at my stuff and declare it crap and cancel my contract.  I worked and worked on the book and ten days before my deadline I got booked on an out of town assignment for eight days.  Lots of details and lots of travel.  I would shoot all day, travel in the evenings and try to polish my book late into the night.  When I got back home I was trying to do the final lighting diagrams on my computer and I started seeing dark spots in my peripheral vision.  Then I couldn't focus on the screen correctly and my heart was racing.  I stumbled into the house and asked Belinda to drive me to the hospital.  I was certain I was having a stroke (I'm an ace hypochondriac...) and we rushed to the emergency room.

The diagnosis? Acute panic attack.  The short term cure?  Half a milligram of Xanax.  The book got done and went out on time via Fed Ex.  And I waited for feedback.  On the edge of my seat.  And.....nothing.  I was certain the publisher was shaking his head and moaning.  Finally, a week or two later I called.  They loved it.  And the book was successful.  But the birthing process, for me, was incredibly painful.  And it's nearly as bad each time.

But here's the thing that sucks about writing a book, or putting photos on the web, or basically doing any sort of time intensive project like a movie or a book:  the minute is hits the book stores, or Amazon or, in the case of movies, a DVD being offered for sale it's stolen and copied and pirated everywhere.  I can go to a dozen bit torrent sites right now and download stolen or pirated copies of all four of my current books in English, Polish, Italian and Chinese.  Someone will recommend one of my books on a forum and actually post a link to a bit torrent site where they can get it "for free."  Pisses me off.  But how many days of your life can you commit to doing "take down" orders/requests/submissions?

I hope the LED book hits its audience.  But even if it doesn't I enjoyed the process and I enjoyed the "time in the water."  And I know it's part of the process of becoming a better writer.

What will 2012 bring?  I'm going to go out on a limb and say that this will be the year we re-invent the whole idea of portraiture.  From the ground up.  New rules.  No rules.  I'm out to figure out how to make portraits that people look at, gasp, and demand to have at any cost.  That's the business goal for me.  And I think there might even be a book hiding in there.  Sure would give me an excuse to re-invent my whole genre.  Yes?

Below.  A random LED sampler.

















I did want to say that through good times and bad, here on the Visual Science Lab I've had a wonderful time getting to know really smart and engaging people; readers, from all corners of the earth.  I've had heart warming e-mails, notes in the real mail and been the recipient of stories that brought tears of happiness to my eyes and a catch to my throat.  I know I have a tendency to change course and change my mind but in spite of that I try to write honestly and from the heart.

Some of you think I should be relentlessly positive but that's not a holistic portrait of my humanity.  We get pissed off, we see things that shouldn't be, we resist change just for change's sake, and it's folly not to speak out when you feel it.  But I do try to layer in as much of a sense of satisfaction and wonder as I feel.  And I feel it most days.

Happy New Year.  May your pictures make you happy.  Screw the critics.  See the world through your own lens.  That's genuine.  Take your photographs instead of copying what everyone else has already done.  Be there for your family and friends but make time for yourself.  Thank you for being here.

12.30.2011

It's not, "Who Moved My Cheese?" It's "Who Moved the Path?"


Belinda standing in front of a painting she did in school.

Making art has never been easy.  Well, that's not strictly true.  The process of making the art is as easy or as hard as the artist makes it, but figuring out how to make a living doing the art you want to do is the incredibly hard part.  I had it all figured out in the 1980's and 1990's but then the path to profits for photographers changed.  We went through the same transition art directors and designers did when they became typesetters and color separators.  We learned how to become our own color labs and printers.  But the print part didn't last very long and most of what we learned through long, dark hours in front of glowing screens and of massaging ink jet printers to get them to spew out color correct prints has already fallen by the wayside. Nobody wants or needs prints anymore, they want digital files they can use now.  On an iPad or in a website.

There's cheese out there and it's still in the same spots.  It resides in client checkbooks and client direct money transfers.  It resides in P.O.'s and credit cards.  But our evolving culture, intertwined with fun and disruptive technologies changed the path to getting to the cheese.  And we need to learn a whole new process of navigation.  We, as professional photographers, need to figure out a new way to get to the cheese.

Here's how not to get there:  

1.  Depend on gear.  Why? Because clients no longer care, the market no longer cares and the images no longer care.  If the image is shot on (God Forbid) an iPhone or an 8x10 view camera nobody really cares as long as it's technically usable and the image looks great.

2.  Depend on print sales.  I don't know where to start on this one other than to say that we had a good recovery year in 2011, as far as billings go, but this is also the first year when we really had nearly zero request for prints.  At all.  Zero.  Clients want images for mobile devices and high res images for commercial process printing but the era of display prints is as dead as a 8 bit computing.   Ask your friendly neighborhood wedding photographer how those print sales are coming along...

3.  Depend on traditional imaging.  And by this I mean learning the rules for "three point" portrait lighting, the rules of "correct" architectural photography or the rules that pertain to how all of this has always been done in the past.  Nobody cares if the colors match up exactly (except big companies with products) and no one cares if the lines are straight (except for architects...and maybe not even them).  If you are still doing headshots with two umbrella lights and a cute little spot on the background you may already be done with the profitable part of your career.  In this regard change is good.

4.  Depend on selling stock photography.  The world market now contains billions and billions of stock images.  And unlike the billions and billions of burgers McDonalds has sold they have not been digested and returned to the earth to fertilize the land.  All billions and billions of them will live like zombies, seemingly forever, and the prices will continue to spiral down and down like a dying seagull.  Heading for the zero zone of the horizon.  Have you played the lottery lately?  Are you one of the handful that have won millions of dollars?  No?  Have you broken even on your lottery "investment"?  No?  And chances are you never will.  Nor will you make any real money ( or even fake money ) in the stock photography business.  There's always a person or two who can point to some income but if you strip out the camera costs, the time and the learning you'll find them radically upside down and not the least bit dependent on stock sales for survival.

5.  Depend on print sales of "fine art" prints.  Here's the funny deal:  In a way, photography is a mechanical process and people in our culture have an enormous belief in the power of the creative machine.  They respect the camera more than the artist.  Now cameras have become incredibly easy to use.  When poeple want art, more and more, people are buying their own cameras and shooting their own art. Which is fun. Which leaves them less disposable income (and inclination) with which to buy your art.  Sorry.  I know it's probably better art, but the great unwashed have a different metric for just how good the art on the walls needs to be than we special artists....  And remember, people don't really want prints, they want stuff for their screens.

6.  Depend on the corporations.  They're busy tapping into their own employees for "free" art.  You know Bob in marketing?  He's a wiz with a camera and he's volunteered to do all of the XXX art work for the XXX project.  And the best thing is that since he's doing it on company time not only do we get it for free but the company also owns the copyright or IP.  And if Bob's stuff doesn't turn out quite as well as the stuff they're used to paying for they have a graphic designer who's a wiz with PhotoShop and she can fix it in a heartbeat.  

7. Depend on magazines. Right.  I'll just let that one lay there while we all think about it.

If the traditional paths are nearly gone we have to find  new ways to make money with our art.  People are quick to tell you about new career paths you might want to consider.  You could make "apps" for other people's cellphones.  But that's not what you bought your first camera to pursue, is it?  And you could teach but it would have to be in workshops because the number of faculty positions is static and the professors already teaching are so frightened by what's happened to the market in the last ten years that they'll never venture out away from  academia.  But maybe you're a loner, an introvert, a working artist, and you don't relish the idea of spending weekends with groups of people toting overstuffed camera bags around and trying to figure out how to use their cameras.  And maybe you're tired of the question they ask over and over again in your landscape workshop:  "How can I make money shooting landscapes?"

The real answer, going forward is that you'll have to invent new paths to profitability and that's going to take some hard work, some experimenting and a lot of new marketing.  The cheese is still out there and it's going to go to the people who identify the new "needs" of the market and deliver.

I'm not sure where everything is going but I know it's not going to go on the same way it has been.  I'm pretty sure that my business would be a lot less profitable if I didn't write books and articles.  I've made some in roads into the video business.  I'd love to figure out how to make "old school" art portraits deliverable to a new market.  And I'd love to find a way to package and sell the stuff I want to shoot.  I am convinced that an iPad app that shows just images isn't going to be nearly as profitable as an iPad app that shows an experience.  And I'm equally sure that people are becoming more and more interested in the experience of experiences than in the souvenirs.  But there might be a way to explore all these options and still stay true to the art you want to do in the first place.

As Seth Godin would kinda say,  "Choose yourself."  If you have a book project in your head, and you know you can do it, don't wait to be invited by a publisher.  Put together a package and sell it to your own investors.  Don't wait for the market to find you.  Find the market.  Don't wait for the money to decide to head in your direction, put together your product and go find the money.  

But I guess the biggest thing is to decide what you really want to do.  Are you an artist or are you a business person?  If you are just in this field to make money you've chosen poorly.  If you would pursue your art regardless of all the hurdles and blocked avenues then you might want to separate the idea of what you do for love and what you do to live.  Find easier ways to make money and live so you can do the hard work of doing the art as a separate part of your life.

The pathways to profit have changed and now we need to act like pioneers instead of map readers.  It will take re-invention and exploration to find new ways to keep doing what you love.  Ask any working professional in the arts if he or she is still doing it the way they did it ten or even five years ago and I'm sure you'll quickly find that the successful ones have learned to tack into the headwind and keep moving forward.  They might be adding stuff they never thought they'd do before but that's part of the deal.  

And the ones who are still doing their art exactly the way they did it ten or twenty years ago fall into two camps:  1.  People who support themselves outside the construct of the working artist.  Or, 2.  Those whose work is so individual and so beautiful that it falls outside the run of the mill and is coveted by clients.  Regardless of how anachronistic the delivery or approach.  What a great spot to be in!  

Most of us have chased the business so hard we've lost part of what the art meant or means to us.  Maybe the re-alignment of the economy is a way for us to get the meaning back.  Compass ready?  Move forward.

One last point.  There's still work out there.  It's going to the people who market best.  The analogy is one we all should understand.  If we want the sharpest photograph we should use the best technique. In most cases that means putting your camera on a tripod. But most of us forego the tripod far too often.  Getting work means cold calling and meeting with potential clients but it's far easier to just put up a website, throw some stuff up on Tumblr and wait.  The marketing is the tripod.  It is the technique.  While we're looking for the new roadmaps it's a good idea to make sure you're marketing well to the people/clients you can identify right now.

note:  This was written from the perspective of someone whose sole income is derived as a freelance artist and writer and it was intended to speak to other people in the same boat.  If you are in a different business and the market hasn't shifted yet for you then count yourself lucky.  But don't think all other trades and professions are immune.  The digital shift happens in a heartbeat.  And the cure is nearly always a mystery.  Anyone can give advice but the best advice generally comes from those who've been there and survived.

final note:  This is not angry, cranky or pessimistic.  It wasn't written with that intention.  It's meant to encourage people to think of new ways to do what they already love and continue to make a living.  


12.28.2011

It's all about the multi-tasking. And good food.

I originally posted this in 2010.  It's an article I wrote for a printed-on-real-paper magazine.  It's a review of Mexican food restaurants for Tribeza.  Since then I've written two more books and I feel strongly that working photographers are going to have to become masters of multiple mastery.  You need, at the minimum, to be a good writer as well as a good shooter.  Here's the kind of editorial work that comes and goes in the magic flux that keeps me busy and paid:


12.13.2010


My story on Austin Mexican Food For Tribeza Magazine. Just for fun.

This story ran in Tribeza magazine a while back.  I was driving with my kid yesterday.  I told him that good writers were rare in our society and that he should practice his writing.  I went on to say,  "If I were in charge I'd make you write a new essay every day."  He immediately countered with,  "If you did that I would be a much more rebellious child..." Touche'  This article may not appeal to everyone but it's a classic example in the editorial world of getting more work because you can put two disciplines together.  It's cheaper to put a writer and photographer on a plane if they are the same person........ And you get paid for both parts....



 A Taste of Mexico

Story by Kirk Tuck

There is a time and place for shiny, novel, ersatz, newcomer Mexican food, but the time is generally after an evening of drinking and the place is usually somewhere I really don’t want to be. Like most Austinites, I want my Mexican food to be authentic, tasty, and time tested. There has always been an uncomplimentary inflection involved in the discussion of Tex-Mex food that stems from the conceit that the clichéd gooey-cheese, orange grease, and tortilla-laden cuisine, cut with hot peppers, was invented only to insulate the human system from the onslaught of margaritas and beer and doesn’t really constitute nutrition or “cuisine.”

I couldn’t disagree more. Some of my all-time-favorite meals have come from a handful of Mexican restaurants sprinkled around Austin—meals that married incredible combinations of ingredients with masterful preparation. In fact, when “foodie” friends from either coast hit town in search of great meals, we usually default to one of three established favorites. These are restaurants that have three things in common: (1) They’ve stood the test of time and are just as relevant to diners today as they were the day they opened. (2) They’ve focused on providing engaging dining experiences that combine great food with just the right ambience. (3) The food is still the compelling reason for their existence.

The three restaurants I refer to are Fonda San Miguel, Manuel’s (on Congress Avenue), and El Azteca. They are totally different in style, presentation, and aesthetics, but each provides a rich experience in its own right.

In fairness, I should make this disclosure before going any further: We’ve been going to Fonda San Miguel for more than 25 years and El Azteca for at least that long, and we were around for the birthing of Manuel’s, which turns 25 this year.


These three restaurants offer totally different dining experiences; El Azteca is the prototypical family-run Tex-Mex-style restaurant serving traditional dishes that blend the tastes of South Texas and Old Mexico. Along with Matt’s El Rancho, El Azteca has set the standard for Mexican “comfort food” in Austin for decades. It’s the perfect place for cabrito and all our usual “combination plate” favorites. It’s very casual, with prices to match.

Manuel’s is the opposite of El Azteca’s homespun, East Side, laid-back feel. Located at the epicenter of downtown, Manuel’s is sleek and stylish. A study in black and white with touches of warm neon. The crowd on any given day is composed of young downtown professionals, a mix of advertising and magazine creatives with a blend of politicos and attorneys thrown in for flavor. The food is a perfect blend of interior Mexican traditionals with a generous nod to ongoing culinary evolution. And the presentation of the specialties is second to none.

Then there’s Fonda San Miguel: a world-class restaurant with a split personality. It can’t seem to decide between being a celebrated destination dining venue or a museum-quality art gallery, so it gracefully merges both inclinations to present a unique visual and gustatory experience beyond that of any other restaurant in Austin. Chef Miguel Ravago is doing wild and wonderful things that marry the finest traditions of haute cuisine with nuances of Old Mexico. When the food is combined with the incredible collection of art, the result is an evening that is very much a special occasion.

I’ll start with our Tex-Mex traditional, El Azteca. The building is modest and shows its age. The restaurant has been there for 46 years, after all. Walking in the front door, we were greeted by Daniel Guerra, the son of the restaurant’s founders. The walls are decorated with won- derfully kitschy Mexican calendars depicting “ripped” warriors atop Mayan pyramids and ample, half-naked women in ceremonial outfits from the ancient Aztecs, if the ceremonial outfits had been designed to be worn by Jessica Simpson at a car show. The calendars are a tradition started by Daniel’s father. He imported them from Mexico to be given away to regular customers. Now they are available for sale.




The highlight of our recent lunch was roasted cabrito (young goat) served in tasty, small chunks and accompanied by a traditional mild sauce, guacamole salad, and frijoles à la charra. The cabrito is a specialty of the house, and it was just right, almost crispy on the outside, tender and moist on the inside. We also ordered a vegetarian combination plate that took us right back to our early Austin Tex-Mex roots.

Refried beans, rice, a vegetarian taco, acres of wonderful queso, and an enchilada. Nothing heroic, just perfectly proportioned, and served promptly. From the fresh, hot chips to the easy-to-eat house-made salsa, everything about El Azteca says “rich, comforting food served up by family.” The one thing that will surprise you is just how affordable the food is.

Manuel’s Downtown is a great blend of streamlined, modern decor fused with authentic interior Mexican dishes that never disappoint. I love coming in for lunch with a fairly large party and sitting in one of the rounded, plushly upholstered corner booths with a view of the entire dining room. But the restaurant really comes alive during the dinner service, with the kind of bustling energy you normally experience in the most popular New York cafés. The waitpeople, dressed all in black, whip through the room. The patrons, also dressed mostly in black, meet and greet with alacrity, though the lucky ones who’ve already been served are oblivious to everything but the beautiful presentations and addictive smells and tastes of the great food.

On a recent visit we sampled an interesting trio of disparate dishes. The camarones veracruzanos, served on a bed of perfectly cooked rice, was a shrimp lover’s wish come true. Huge, plump sautéed shrimp, painted with a delicately spicy red veracruzano sauce, dominated the plate. The folks in this kitchen do seafood really well. Next we turned our attention to a crowd-pleaser, the enchiladas verdes. I order these chicken enchiladas covered with a piquant tomatillo sauce nearly every other visit to Manuel’s. The blend of cheese, chicken, and salsa is as close to perfection as you’ll find in Austin. On my last visit, I was pushed to try something new, so as a compromise I ordered the enchiladas banderas. The banderas are like an ultimate enchilada/ salsa pairing “taster” plate. Your choice of chicken, beef, tender pork, cheese, or mushroom enchiladas is sauced in all three of Manuel’s handcrafted signature salsas: verde, suiza, and adobada. Now I have a new favorite dish.

Most of the entrées are served with black beans and Mexican rice. Another dish that blew us away was the chile relleno en nogada. This is a roasted poblano pepper stuffed full of shredded pork, almonds, and raisin picadillo, topped with a walnut cream brandy sauce. A visual note that took the presentation to the next level was a sprinkling of brilliant vermilion pomegranate seeds. For lunch I can never resist the pork tacos, and I have another friend who is just addicted (really, in a very clinical way) to the ceviche.

I saved Fonda San Miguel for last because it’s so different from any other restaurant and even our own cultural expectations of what a restaurant can or should be. The luxe quality of the food is a given. But the food is just one part of an amazing blend of art, decor, cultural touchstones, attention to craft, and details, all of which come together perfectly. In most restaurants, waiting for your table is a bothersome experience that requires the more compulsive among us to keep one eye on our dinner companions and the other on the seating hostess to prevent “bureaucratic table loss.” At Fonda San Miguel your short stay in the atrium area will find you surrounded by exotic plants, graceful design nuances from the best of Old Mexico, and a collection of exceptional art. That would be real, museum-quality pieces that rotate through the restaurant from Tom Gilliland’s remarkable collection of eclectic and renowned international artists. Combine this with drinks from a well-versed bar staff and perhaps a plate of salmon tostadas to munch on, and you’ll find me hoping it takes at least half an hour for our table to be ready.

The two dining rooms are amazing. The larger room is delicately lit with strands of small spotlights that supplement the warm glow from a grand collection of majestic hanging bronze fixtures in the center of the room. The smaller room has some of my favorite paintings, and it also has a graceful sense of privacy about it. There is always one problem that afflicts Fonda San Miguel regulars, though. In a nutshell it’s this: If you order one dish you don’t get to order something else. Go for the Jaliscostyle steak caballero—a succulent 16-ounce bone-in ribeye served with chile de arbol chimichurri—and you won’t have any room left to even try the enchiladas suizas de jaiba (enchiladas stuffed with crab and covered with a white sauce). It’s a sad state of affairs for the indecisive.

On one of our recent visits we went with a dish that transcended the entire category of Mexican food. It was the cordero. Four plump, perfectly grilled lamb chops served with a chipotle cheese potato casserole and a mixed green salad. The lamb was easily as good as any cut of meat you’ll have at any premium steak house, while the subtle bite of the potato casserole provided a perfect counterpoint. Also sampled was a classic pescado Veracruzano. A broiled fish fillet in a traditional Veracruz tomato sauce sprinkled through with onions, Spanish olives, and capers. It was a definitive rendition of a popular dish. The range of the menu is breathtaking, and the kitchen rarely stumbles. Add in a few extras like the person in the corner show kitchen continually making hand-formed flour and corn tortillas that come hot to your table, and a well-stocked selection of fine wines, and you’ll understand why people come from all over Texas for the Sunday buffet or from as far away as Paris to sample the offerings.

So the next time one of your confederates suggests “grabbing some Mexican food” at some new place that used to be an auto shop or at some dive that puts grated cheddar cheese garnishes on the tacos, that will be the perfect time to step up everybody’s game with a visit to one of the genuine masterpieces of Mexican cuisine. From basics to blue sky, these are the restaurants that deliver what you really want. If you haven’t been to these three temples to the various genres of Mexican food, I truly envy you. Now you get to try each one for the first time!

Shoot more, think less.


Thinking really seems to get in the way of shooting.  The cooler the gear I own the less I shoot.  And the cooler the gear I own the less I like what I shoot.  There's a lot to be said for the primitive approach to any art.  The more direct and uninflected the connection the more visceral it is to your intended audience.  Maybe that's the appeal of smaller, less complex systems.  Fewer choices means more direct interaction with the art itself.

The Quiet Image is a Wonderful Thing.

We've all seen images that seem forced.  Lots of time and effort went into the preparation for the shooting and we're delivered a photo with pizzazz. But the general effect is one of instant hyperbole alert.  Especially now when everything seems to have been done and tried.  By pushing all the buttons and frantically trying to make everything just so perfect it's so easy to see the hand and the mind of the creator (that's "creator" with a lower case "c")  in every frame and that severs the suspension of disbelief by which so much photography becomes embraceable.  If we feel we're seeing a private moment, captured unprepared from the slip of time we believe more heartily in the image's verisimilitude.  We feel invited to share a wholly objective slice of time, frozen. 

The biggest obstacle to emotionally unconstructed shooting is the preparation itself.  When we signal our intention the antennae on our subjects snaps to attention and creates a different energy.  It is at once on guard and also preening in an attempt to earn the upcoming inspection.  If you make a shot a big deal then babies cry, teenagers pose, middle aged women grimace and everyone else toys with taking on the persona of everyone they've ever seen photographed on TV or in a movie.  The greater the preparation, generally, the less likely you'll ever achieve an image without artifice and posture.  A microcosm of Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle.  Oh, to trifle with position and momentum....  We love the random and unplanned shot of Henri Cartier-Bresson when he captures a man, in mid-air, jumping over a rain puddle.  We feel betrayed when we find out that Robert Doisneau possibly staged his greatest hit, Le baiser de l'hôtel de ville (Kiss by the Hôtel de Ville).  

But for generations great and not-so-great-but-okay photographers have had a salve that could salvage much of the emotion of the moment glancingly portrayed.  They carried their cameras with them at all times and made images every so often, and for no obvious reason.  Almost random documentation but always in the service of the process of obscuring the artist's intention of the moment in order to wear down the vigilence of his subjects.  And in this way they captured and continue to capture images that give us a front row seat to the impression of reality unfolding.

There are current photographers who are good photographers but whose work is very much about the prepared and orchestrated image.  Perhaps because it's possible technically now in a way that it wasn't before, many of these photographers create images of subjects like dancers leaping on urban rooftops at sunset. They are frozen in space and lit by electronic flashes.  And the artist's hand is so obvious that most viewers take one look and start mapping out the banal mechanics of the technique rather than being charmed by the kinetic vivacity of the seeing.  The fill flashes at sunset cue us that applied lighting technology was involved.  And we (fellow photographers) , as a large part of the photographer's audience, understand that flashes were placed on stands, with modifiers, and the units were under the care of an army of assistants, and the dancer is most likely springing off a mini-trampoline that we can't see but understand to be just out of frame.  Further, we understand that she's leaping over and over again to until the photographer is happy with a shot.  And we are unable to believe that we've been privileged to see something that genuinely happened because it was going to happen rather than the event being entirely constructed for the attendant audience.

The same could be said for classical portrait work.  The best of that genre works when the surroundings are minimal and subdued and works less well when we see more and more of the hand (and taste) of the photographer.  An old gray wall means that the image could have been taken, in the moment, in any anonymous location while a brilliantly colored seamless background peppered with posing blocks and faux Greek columns disallows our ability to divorce technique from message.  In essence, what Richard Avedon was doing by shooting against white backgrounds was to divorce reference from image.  And in that way make the structure of creation recede and the collaborative interaction (which is part of the human condition) move into the foreground.

The more cues we see in a portrait that reference a manufactured reality the more we are effected by the trappings of the attempted art and the less resonance, intimacy and value we feel directly from the intended subject.

For the binary readers who've wandered in from the "how to" pages of the web let me quickly say that I'm not making a stand that all images have to be totally candid to be successful.  Far from it.  The work of David Chapelle is brilliant in its own fully manifested intentionality.  A large part of his success is that his images are constructed as inside jokes about culture and society and we, as viewers, are invited into the "special" circle for whom the joke is shared.  We feel the inclusion as well as the cultural messaging and that makes his images, obvious though they are, work on a level that others don't.  

Annie Leibovitz's best work isn't necessarily the work that is most candid but she does a good job creating lighting and staging scenarios that amplify reality instead of re-inventing it or, with inflection, re-parsing it.  In this way we look at the images she creates, even the big tableaus and we accept their believability because she's hidden her artifice so well.  To a less well visually educated audience her work could be the result of a quick candid, albeit a nearly perfect one.

All of this is to say that doing approachable images of people can be tough.  The fewer things you try to control the more believable the images are to the widest range of viewers.  But, if you do need to alter the light, create a different background or otherwise enhance or change the reality you'll do best, over the long run, if you can make your controlled parts as close to a sense of reality as possible.  And you'll work to catch the moments between the peak moments as well.

Just a thought about taking images that work for people.  

12.26.2011

Has our almost complete adaptation to color imaging changed the way we shoot?

When I first undertook photography my perception was that most serious artists and aspiring artists used black and white film in their cameras and, by extension, in their seeing.  And, to my mind, there's a giant chasm between seeing in color and seeing in black and white.  When we look with a black and white or monochrome sensibility we tend to looks for graphic shapes and forms that are recognizable and not too finally detailed.  We look to recognizable forms that tell stories or describe objects.

But in color we tend to look for pleasing chromatic combinations or pretty pastels that can nestle next to one another in a pleasing and hue driven pattern.  Or the antithesis, a garish pattern comprised and composed of striking opposite colors which usually sit, glaring at each other from the opposite side of the color wheel.  Knowing what our final destination will generally be we select subjects and scenarios that aid our artifice.  If we know we're diving into the pool of color then the juxtapositions of colors becomes (consciously or unconsciously) our target and goal.  Conversely, when we know we'll be making images in monotone we look for content to carry the visual narrative and tickle the part of the brain that wants to know the story.

You can see this in image after image on the web.  And I'm not making a value judgement either way other than to say that I think B&W is being marginalized into a photojournalistic ghetto of photographic art and I'm hoping that, like the phases of the moon, that images about things and forms and textures come back into our perception of the orbit of art and start to re-assume precedence over the titillations of candy color.  

Soothing but empty.

A story I want to hear.....

My old camera can beat your new camera. I think. Maybe.

Back in 2005 I bought a Kodak SLR/n which, until the arrival of the Nikon V1, was the most villified DSLR camera ever introduced into the market (except for its predecessor...).  This was a camera with issues.  If you aren't familiar with it go back to DPReview and read the review of the Nikon version's Canon sibling here: http://www.dpreview.com/reviews/kodakslrc.  What you'll find is a flawed but somewhat brilliant camera for the times.  It was the direct descendant of the first full frame digital camera on the market, the Kodak 14N.  In 2004 the SLR/n delivered 14 megapixels of big pixel, full frame files and it did so for about $3,000 cheaper than the Canon 1DS that followed it onto the market.

The issue is that photographers aren't engineers.  In the film camera days you could press a camera into service to do just about anything.  But the Kodak engineers were building a camera that worked very well in circumscribed situations.  It was a great portrait camera with lots and lots of RAW file headroom.  And that translated directly into big time dynamic range for the time.  But the parameter that endeared it to me (and you'll notice it's one of the few cameras in my studio that hasn't been upgraded, traded away or resold over the years) is the fact that the sensor did NOT have an anti-aliasing filter over the top.  That means a great impression of sharpness all the way around.  In fact,  at ISO 160, in a head to head comparison with the Canon 5D mk2 at 21 megapixels I think you'd give the nod to the Kodak as far as impressions of overall sharpness go.

So why didn't it sweep the market?  Well, in the hands of studio portrait photographers who could control light and lenses, it was a hit.  But Kodak marketed it as an "all arounder"  and that's where the SLR/n hit the wall.  It was pretty well controlled for noise up to about 320 ISO but over 400 ISO and it fell to pieces.  It would take six to eight seconds to start up and, as the temperature changed, it would stop to recalibrate its electronics.  Kinda of a "turn off" when you are building up to that shooting crescendo....

The whole machine was based on parts from a less expensive Nikon camera body and the finder wasn't great.  But man, could it knock them out of the ballpark when it was working in the narrow constraints that described its strengths.  I routinely used (and should still be using) its special, low ISO menus.  Choose ISO 12, 25 and 50 and the camera turns into a detail machine.  The longer exposures let the camera do iterative exposures which are then binned and sampled and in camera crafted into noise free, high quality files.  I've done 40 by 60 prints of product for clients that brought tears to my eyes and those of the lab manager who printed them our for us on a Lightjet printer.

But as a low light, wedding/photojournalists/art camera in chancy available light.....it sucked.

The files it kicks out in RAW are true 14 bit.  They are also 4,500 by 3,000 pixels.  And none of the pixels sees the image thru a blurring filter.  If you shoot at the lower speeds or at 160 ISO I think you'd find the camera keeps up with the 18 to 21 megapixel wonder cameras of the moment.  And it does so with lots of dynamic range, its own very desirable color balance and palette and an edge acutance that most camera makers would kill for.  
I hadn't used it in over a year but I felt like taking a long walk all by myself today and just doing something different.  No small cameras with small sensors today.  No film today.  No agenda today.  I plastered a Nikon 50mm 1.8D onto the front, set the camera the way I like it and hit the long route through downtown.  Walking and looking and not feeling compelled to shoot too much.  But little by little I came to remember what I liked about this camera.  I did a quick shot of a leaf on a fence with the sun behind it.  And when I got back to the studio and looked at it at 100 % I was happy.  So I made a 100% crop to show off the structure of the leaf and the detail of the edges.

I have stack of batteries for the camera and I charged them all.  I find that digital cameras really need to have a battery attached to them at least once a month and I'd been negligent by about 11 months.  The attached battery allows the camera to suckle over time and keep small capacitors formed.  I'm sure it helps maintain other electronic needs as well.  For the first hour or so the camera was antsy.  It would give me random "card corruption" messages and tell me that a file couldn't be written.  But like a spirited horse it eventually took to the bit and calmed down.  By the end of my walk it stopped giving me messages and was writing every file to memory.  I've decided to pull out the A/C adapter and put the camera onto the adapter once a month (at least) over night.  I'm hoping that keeps it happy.

I spent the late afternoon just soaking up the newly re-emergent sunlight and spinning an ancient Nikon circular polarizing filter in front of the lens.  The files that emerged in ACR were wonderful right off the card.  Very punchy with solid highlight structure and lots of sharpness snap.  The colors need a bit of nursing but that seems to be endemic with all older digital cameras.

I'm convinced that the files (at ISO 160) are just a bit better and sharper than the files I get out of my recently (Canon) overhauled 1DS mk2.  And nearly as detailed as those from the Canon 5D mk2.  Not a bad performance out of a camera that basically died of marketing neglect and was sabotaged by reviews aimed at the great general marketplace.  Like just about anything else some of the coolest performances necessitate the greatest practice and skill.  

We all love the newest and greatest stuff to shoot with but I'm convinced that for studio portraits the Kodak is just about where most of us want to be.  Long tonal scale, great bit depth and wonderfully rich colors.  Just be sure you have some substantial lighting and tripod support standing by to take advantage of the strong points and to ameliorate the weak ones.  

I came back home as the light faded in the west.  The afterglow was beautiful today.  I chauffeured the child somewhere and headed back to the studio to look at what I'd shot.  Wish I had two of these cameras, in perfect condition, because I'd love to use them to make artful portraits.  As it is I ordered yet another battery so I could be sure of at least having the camera functional for another year or so.  If it finally gives up the ghost I do believe I'll have some sort of ceremony for it.  It was, after all, my first full frame digital camera.