Saturday is restaurant day. Photographing food. Celebrating new beginnings.

Saturday was a fun day for me as a photographer.  I'm a real "foodie" and I love it when I hear about great, new Austin restaurants that are poised to open.  So at the behest of one of my favorite restaurant marketing companies I headed down to the vibrant Rainey St. neighborhood to meet Iliana and Ernesto and to make some photographs of their incredible cuisine that is defined by their time in Oaxaca, Mexico.  The art director I worked with wanted to keep the images light and simple.  We had a short window of time and a lot to do.  I packed light.  We moved fast.

These are the owners of El Naranjo, Iliana and Ernesto.  They are joined in their newest venture by their daughter who trained at the Culinary Institute of America.  

As you can imagine, with only two weeks to go till the opening the restaurant is still a work in progress.  Tables and chairs are arriving in patches.  The floors are still being finished and the paint on the walls is still fresh.  I brought along several LED lights in case I needed to construct a lighting design but as I walked through the restaurant I noticed how the light came billowing in through the windows of one of the dining rooms.  I brought a small table close to a convenient, southfacing window and used a big, white diffusion panel to soften and direct the sunlight.  I could tilt the top of the panel toward or away from the food if I needed control of highlights and bright spots.  It's really a wonderful way to work with food.

This is the complete lighting set up. There was sunlight bouncing around the room, reverberating from the white walls and providing a nice, natural fill.  While the light changed direction over the course of the two hours in which we shot the diffuser helped us maintain a continuity that will be important on a website.

Of course, I could have brought along ten or fifteen thousand dollars of electronic flash equipment and a car full of assistants in order to duplicate the natural light and ensure consistency forever.  But to what end?

I started out shooting from a tripod with a Sony a77 camera and a Hasselblad 120mm Makro lens but I wanted to work quicker, with less restraint and I wanted to get even closer that that big lens would allow so I took the camera off the tripod, set the ISO at 400 and started working, handheld, with the Sony 30mm macro lens.  The shot just above was just what my art director was looking for and then we were off and running, looking for variations.

As each dish came out of the kitchen we'd wipe it down with small towels to make sure there were no fingerprints or unintended drops or spots on the white dishes.  We knew we wanted the close, angled point of view for each dish but I also wanted to shoot from directly over the top of each dish so that whoever ended up designing the website would have choices.

None of the food is in any way adulterated, oiled or treated.  To do so is really a misrepresentation.  Good food that looks good should photograph well without the kind of tricks that led the FTC to mandate certain rules about food advertising.  The primary rule is that the "hero" of the ad (the product you are selling) is representative of product that the consumer could find on the shelves of a store or in a restaurant.  No oil or shoe polish allowed.

I bring this up because there's a myth that the food in a food shoot is inedible.  Not so.  I gorged myself on this incredible avocado-rich ceviche.  I could make it the mainstay of my diet....

My wife loves good soups and the caldos at El Naranjo will bring a smile to her face.  My intent was not to bring the whole bowl and all of the ingredients into sharp focus but to create my impression of the soup.  It is somewhat maddening to try focusing in close to a warm bowl of soup and being able to smell the delicious and intoxicating vapors without tossing the camera aside and grabbing for a spoon.  

The specialties of El Naranjo include many traditional molés from Oaxaca.  The dish above is a medley of vegetables sprinkled with a white cheese and paired with a bright red molé sauce.  A delicious vegetarian treat.  To photograph this plate I planted my elbows firmly on the table and leaned right into the food.  I exhaled slowly and release the shutter three or four times in a row.  I was testing the "Ken-Rockwell-Slow-Speed" methodology which advises getting steady and then releasing a bunch of frames.  The idea being that your body will settle somewhere in the process and yield some sharp frames.  I'm not sure if it's Ken's methodology or the in body stabilization but I didn't lose too many frames to movement.  I worked with shutter speeds ranging from 1/30th to 1/160th.  But higher magnification has a way of amplifying movement...

I love the optimism of a new restaurant and I love the freshness of a restaurant space before the first smudge appears or the first scratch of a chair puts a scar across the wooden floors.  The bar stool were just arriving.  Interesting to shoot and then look at the exposure setting.  I was working at 1/13th of second for that shot.

Not having my camera locked down on the tripod gave me a freedom to wander around between shots and snap interesting little vignettes.  I like the view from my side of the pass window into the kitchen.  I love to see the new stoves and machines out of focus in the background.

This is a fish  that is wrapped in leaves that have a taste like licorice or anise.  The poached fish was perfect.  It's interesting to me just how good the small and cheap Sony 30mm DT macro lens is.  For around $200 I had an optic that was sharp and color neutral.  And capable of focusing down to lifesize on an APS-C camera.  The combination of the a77 and the 30mm macro equals a lightweight but powerful shooting package.

All of these images were shot yesterday afternoon.  We went through about 450 frames and lots of dishes.  Our lighting stayed the same from shot to shot.  The only variations consisted of moving a plate closer or further away from the diffusion panel to get a softer or harder lighting contrast.  None of the files have been enhanced for final use.  Some need a bit of contrast correction and some will be happier with a little bit of retouching around the edges.  That's a project for the coming week.

All of the images were shot in the full 24 megapixel raw mode.  All the images shown here were done with the 30mm Sony macro and the a77 camera.  The EVF was instrumental in being able to move quickly and with great accuracy as the images could be dialed in for focus, comp and color and shot instead of the more iterative process required when using flash or cameras with optical finders.

I am happily anticipating the opening of El Naranjo. One of the advantages of photographing food for Austin's best restaurants is knowing, in advance, which restaurants will bring a big smile to your face.  This is one of them.

edit:  Image by ©2012 Lane Orsak added below.  

A photo of my eccentric shooting technique while grappling with the tiramisu....

That about sums it up.

Thank Lane!


Which one will you end up with? And what will you want in six months?

The Canon 5D mk 3 and the Nikon D800 are both incredible cameras.  Absolutely incredible cameras.  Each is a wonderful machine with which to make digital images.  But if you were working with a clean slate and a big, fat credit card, which one do you think you'd plump down for?  Which system calls to you with the ultimate siren song?  Or is it like the choice between two great Bordeaux wines?  Both are incredible but you can only open one...

There are some among our numbers who will own both.  A few contemporaneously and most, serially.  If I didn't have a stitch of Canon or Nikon glass and no other legacy bodies what the heck would I do?

I've played with both and I'm stumped.  The Nikon has image quality galore (especially if you are a DXO true believer) while the Canon 5D mk3 shoots much faster and whips through its buffered images quicker. Some people think the Canon has a better auto white balance while others prefer the Nikon.

The bottom line, really, is that both camera are great photo machines and for most people the choice will be simple.  If you have a bag full of L glass the increase in ultimate resolution is probably not enough to push you to change.  You know logically that if the Nikon breaks all kinds of sales records Canon will have a camera to match it in a matter of months.  In the meantime you can walk around pontificating about how 21 megapixels is really "the sweet spot for pro's..."  and you can talk about how much quicker your post processing is and how few hard drives you are filling up by comparison.  Now, there is that pesky light leak thing....  I'm sure someone who used to design LCD panel systems for Canon has been banished to Sigma or some other level of industrial hell for his most grievous errors.

On the other hand, if you shoot Nikon cameras you'll lunge, without a doubt, to embrace the Nikon D800 and won't even cast a curious glance across the fence because, for all intents and purposes, the grass (for once) is greener right in the middle of your currently occupied field.  Enjoy the camera right now.  If you can get your hands on one...

But, if you have neither system, and you were contemplating buying into one, which way should you go.  As you might expect I have opinions about that.

I've been on both sides of the fence.  Most recently I owned a bunch of Canon stuff.  I owned Nikon stuff right up to and including the D700.  I'm pretty familiar with the lens selections in both camps and I think I can make some good judgements.

If you are involved in video production and you think or know that you'll want to use your camera as a primary shooting tool I'd have to give the nod to the Canon.  Not because I think the images will be better or the sound will be better but because it's so easy to use legacy manual focus lenses from so many sources on the Canon.  With the Nikon it's just not as simple.  Leica R lenses, old Nikon lenses (usable on both) and a slew of other stuff.  Zeiss cinema lenses are a good argument in favor of Canon, for the moment.

But if that's not your concern I'd steer you to the Nikon D800.  Why? Because they seem to have figured out (after the devastatingly dismal DX years) what consumers want and how to deliver it.  They want great files, total in camera lens corrections in Jpeg and raw, and they want low noise at high ISO's.  With the D800 you get most of that and you buy into a system in which a backup body such as the D3s gives you all the high ISO performance you can ask for in the market today.
Easy choice.

Which one will I buy? Now that's a bit more difficult.  See, I think all these cameras should have really cool EVF's instead of last century prism finders.  For the moment I'll be content sitting here with my Sony SLT a77's and waiting (patiently?) for the introduction of the much anticipated Sony a99 full frame SLT camera.  If you can believe the pervasive rumors we'll be looking at a body with this century's viewing mechanism coupled with the same chip as the one in the Nikon D800, weatherproofing and lotsa of super cool extras.

For most people in the market for a new camera right now I'd say, "Wait a month or two and just get the new Panasonic GH3.  It will be smaller, lighter, cheaper and for all intents and purposes, as good as anyone will need for any medium or practical use we're looking at today."  If you can't wait for the GH3 then get an Olympus EP3 or OMD.  Heck, they're more fun to shoot than all the bigger cameras I've played with. But if you go with the Olympus cameras don't forget to bundle in the miracle lenses.  Those are the 12mm, the 24mm Leica Summilux and the 45mm.  And don't you dare buy an EP 3 without a VF-2 finder.

Finally, all these cameras have one thing in common.  They'll shoot better video with LED light panels than they ever will with flash.  Pick up one of the Fotodiox 312AS two color LED panels.  Then, at least you'll be able to see what you're focusing on.....

For current Canon and Nikon users the pathways seem fairly clear cut.

Will Crockett always makes me think in new ways. I follow him because he understands customers.

Admiration for a simple approach.  Most photographers I know love to complicate a process.  We have all kinds of slogans like, "K.I.S.S. Keep it simple, stupid" but in the end we always look for the process that has, at least, the promise of perfection...if only we can grind down into the details and master it.  But that isn't always what our clients are looking for.  And, truth be told, it's not always what suits us best.

I've always been interested in creating slideshows and kinetic presentations that blend images and video but I've always been put off by the "official" methods of creating them "at the highest levels."  There are times when having to have the best or coolest of everything just makes a process a lot less fun. And if it's too much drudgery you reconcile yourself to waiting until a paying client pokes you with a sharp stick until your actually learn a new technique.

But then, out of the blue, my old friend, Will Crockett, sent me a copy of a DVD he'd just done.  That's a scan of it, above.  The program is aimed at amateurs and even beginner pros.  A lot of the DVD deals with what you can do with smaller cameras and micro four thirds system cameras.  And, guess what???  Will also thinks that because clients ARE demanding "blended" products (video and still images ) the lighting of the future seems to be...LED's.  Wow.  How about that?  (I know, I know, you just love your strobes to death and you have absolutely no interest in video.....)

The video shows, from simple to "better," how to put your images into a moving video program, complete with music and effects = for free.  And then it takes you through the ways you can share the video or use it in your business.  It's really an eye opener for me.  I've been struggling to master Final Cut Pro X but I tossed together eight or ten images in the space of five minutes and, with a website called, Animoto, I made and uploaded a fun little video.  The video costs around $40 and you might know lots of stuff that's on there already but it's a pretty good overview of what you need to know to get started if you are trying to create fun products for yourself or your clients without committing to the major time sink of full bore video production.

Here's my first attempt with some downtown Austin photos.  All videos  under 30 seconds are free on Animoto.


Will this revolutionize my world? Naw.  But it opened my eyes to all the free and low cost services out there that can help me share video and still images with friends and clients.  And I have to thank Will for that.  He does a great job explaining technical stuff and his websites are a treasure trove of common sense stuff.  If you want esoteric, look somewhere else.


Empty. Gone. Measured and prodded. We lost the patient when we did the exploratory surgery to find out where the magic lived.

 Photography? It's not in the camera.  It's in the heart.

Lighting is not a substitute for having something to say.  A new lens isn't the same as new understanding.  A new camera is no substitute for knowing your own heart...


The Laramie Project. Ten Years Later.

The Laramie Project (parts one and two) is a play about the murder of a gay college student in Laramie, Wyoming.  It's a powerful play about a heartrending event.  Zachary Scott Theater is producing the original play and it's follow up wherein the original writers go back to Laramie ten years later to understand the aftermath and the changes in the town.

It's a tough play to photograph and even tougher to watch.  It's an important piece of theatrical art that speaks to our ideas of tolerance and diversity in America.  These are images from the dress rehearsal of the "Ten Years Later."  (Click on any image to go to the gallery).

Photographic notes:  I used two Sony a77 cameras to document the dress rehearsal.  As always, I did all of the photo documentation without any supplemental lighting.  I used the 16-50mm 2.8 lens and the 70-200 2.8 G lens; one on each body.  Both bodies were set to 1600 ISO, medium size Jpeg (12 megs) at the extra fine setting.  I stayed close to the fully open apertures on both lenses and varied the shutter speeds to compensate for changing light levels.  I didn't meter but depended on the electronic viewfinder to assess my exposures.

I learned a few technical things after my first attempt to use these cameras to shoot low light theater photography. I'd left the cameras set to DRO auto which tries to expand the dynamic range of each shot.  That works by boosting shadow tones which increases digital noise.  This time I worked with that setting off.  The files are much less noisy.  I also used the medium Jpeg file size instead of the largest size.  This also reduced apparent noise.  The camera locks on focus like a badger and shoots as fast as I could ever want it to.  Being able to see what the image will look like, vis-a-vis exposure and color has changed the way I shoot theater.  I shot over 1200 files and lost very, very few to exposure errors.  It's a very elegant way to shoot.

The play is wonderful.  The Zachary Scott Theatre cast brought a level of feeling and emotion to this performance that defines, for me, the power of live theater. 

For me, taking a portrait is a process of reduction.

When I make a portrait I don't consciously think about what we're doing.  I ask my subject to sit comfortably in the studio and I try to look seriously at their face when they are not "on camera" so I can see what they really look like, and then I look again to see what they look like to me.

I may have paced back and forth before the person arrived and I may have set up some elaborate lighting constructions, the undertaking of which was no doubt a therapeutic way to keep my hands and my brain busy so I wouldn't have time to contemplate the very real possibility of failure.  Of inviting someone to my studio and then being unable to create an image/portrait/photography during the time spent together that either of us would like.  So I typically spend hours setting up lighting designs and testing them and then modifying them or changing directions altogether.

The first few minutes of a session are the most nervous for me.  I want to get right into the action of taking portraits but I know, intuitively, that I'd better slow down and start patiently so the person on the other side of the camera has a chance to settle in, get comfortable with the space, and make their peace with the camera.  Even though I am, in truth, a terrible introvert I feel the need to engage and entertain.  I don't want people to be bored in my space.  I don't want their boredom to negate our purpose.

If I'm shooting film I talk to the subject about the process.  I tell them that, unlike the endless supply of frames in a digital camera, we'll have to stop after every twelve frames in order to change the film. I tell them that the process will take more time than they might be used to.  I explain that, while in the movies about photographers the photo-protagonist leaps about like a gymnasts and screams out frantic and non-stop directions that keep the models constantly swirling and stumbling from one pose to the next to the beat of incredibly loud house music, our session won't be like that.

I explain that we'll move slowly so I can see what angles and expressions really look good in the camera.  When we find a look I like we'll try to hold in that basic set and make micro adjustments till we get everything just right.

Now, in the days of all digital, all the time, I've compromised a bit and given up shooting Polaroid tests.  It helps my process of rationalization that Polaroid no longer makes test film for my camera and Fuji doesn't make the kind I like.  So I take tests with an random digital camera set to the same ISO as my black and white film.  Once I've shot digital tests from a bunch of different angles and looked at the images on some sort of screen I am ready to proceed.

I can't rationalize shooting film in 35mm anymore.  It's different than digital but it's not what I learned on and it's not how I cut my teeth in portraits.  I shoot with a square, medium format camera.  Usually a Hasselblad 501 CM.  I nearly always use the 150mm Planar lens.  I like the 180 as well.  So my camera is on a tripod and the lens is well shaded from flare and other glancing light.  Kind of important since I'm standing right at the edge of my giant soft light.  I'm so close I bump my head into the side of the soft box, or the edge of the frame, a lot during the shoots.

On a small table next to my tripod is a stack of loaded film backs.  As I shoot I'll reach down and grab a new back from the table when I hit the end of a roll.  The used back goes on the table, but upside down.  That's my cue that the film in the back has been used up.  I have six 120 backs so every 72 frames we take a little break and I download the spent film and put it into an envelope.  Then I load all six backs with fresh film, put them back on the little table and we start again.

When we first start the shoot I think I'll want a fill light and a back light but as soon as I start looking at test shots these extra lighting instruments go away.  There's generally one light on the background and one light in a really big softbox or octabank.  These stay but the big light might get pulled in closer or raised, if the spirit moves me.

I know we're on the right track when the subject and I both feel a kind of electric excitement because we've discovered an angle, an expression and a gesture that feels so right.  I know we're done and getting stale when we start suggesting conventional poses.  These days I'm rarely looking for a portrait with a smile, unless it's genuine and unscripted.  I calm and quiet face is my secret for getting beautiful eyes.  A calm and quiet session is my secret for being able to reduce the noise, reduce distractions and reduce movement until we have a stasis and a balance that feels right.  Almost like a guided meditation.

And at some point, like an arrow shot into the air, we hit a high spot where we both know that we're "on" and that we're getting beautiful images, and then, like the arrow it all falls back to the earth.  We both know we're done.  And we thank each other profusely for the part each of us played and we promise each other we'll do it again soon.  And I hope we will.  Because almost everyone I shoot is so beautiful.