6.02.2012

A post from 2009. Thought of it today as I reached for my 50mm 1.4 and my NIkon F...


 

Ben Tuck.  Post Swim.  Nikon 50mm 1.2 ais.

My first camera was a Canon QL17 which sported a reasonably good 40mm lens.  It was soon replaced by a Canon TX SLR camera with a Canon 50mm 1.8 lens that seemed to remain locked on the front of my camera for most of its usable life.

When I look through my current equipment I find that I have hoarded a large number of normal lenses including:  Nikon's manual focus 50mm 1.4 and 1.8 lenses, two manual focus Micro lenses (both 55mm),  Nikon's auto focus 50mm 1.4 and 1.8 lenses, a Leica 50mm Summicron and 50mm Summilux for the M cameras and assorted "normal" focal lengths for the Olympus E-1 and the ancient line of Olympus Pen "half frame" film cameras.  I won't even start to recount the number of normal lenses I have for medium format cameras.

All this begs the question, "why?"  Well, first of all, every one of the normal focal length lenses is a superior performer.  One stop down from wide open every single one of them starts to really shine when it comes to sharpness, contrast and intangibles.  Two stops down and they beat every zoom lens on the market.  (We can argue forever about the new top zooms from Nikon).  They sit beautifully on the cameras instead of sticking out like some Freudian flagpole. This enhances the cameras shooting profile and makes the whole ensemble less intimidating.

But all of this would be moot if the angle of view wasn't so compelling.  I love the angle of view that a normal lens gives you.  Shot correctly it can seem wide or narrow.  Shot close at near wide open apertures the 50mm can give you incredibly shallow depth of field as in my shot of Ben.  But the real bottom line is that this is a focal length that matches my residual vision. Meaning that if I distilled everything else out of a shot this is what would be left.  

Those of you who are amateur mental health care professionals will probably wonder what motivates me to own so many different iterations of the 50mm.  Clinically, you might just go with exaggerated fear of loss but in reality I think it's the idea of being like a painter and having multiple brushes, each of which provides a different and distinguishable nuance to the canvas. The 50 1.2 Nikon does shallow depth of field with a sharp "core" better than anything out there.

The 50mm MF 1.8 Nikon does great sharpness across the entire geometry of a full frame better than any of its brethren (except for a few macros), while the Summilux does exquisitely sharp center with soft, happy, mellow edges better than anything else.  Couple that with a little rangefinder focusing and you've got and incredible package.  I bought the normal autofocus lenses around the time when the only cameras you could get from Nikon and Fuji were cropped frames with smaller viewfinders which impeded the focusing of fast manual lenses and I hold on to them because I find the Nikon D300 and the FujiFilm S5 Pro to be really spectacular cameras for different uses.

And, of course the obvious advantage of the fast 50's is their light gathering capability.  A sharp fast lens wide open can be two stop faster than the best zooms.  That equals two full shutter speeds of hand-holdability and action stopping!  Just like having VR in every lens.

The sweetest thing of all for a Nikon shooter like myself (edit: now a Canon shooter!!!)  is that the current generation of Nikon digital cameras, like the D3, D3x, D700 and D300 actually make corrections for the short coming of the lenses attached to them.  I have found the 50mm 1.2 to be much improved in its performance with these four cameras.  The other lenses seem sharper and contrastier as well. One of my favorite new combinations is the old Nikon F4s (film camera) with the new Nikon 60mm Micro AFS.  The lens is impressive on digital cameras and even more impressive on the old film camera.  The combination drives me to shoot more film just so I can marvel at how well it all works together.

Even though I have lots and lot of 50's and related focal lengths I would say that my total financial investment is less than $2,000 or about the price of one 14-24mm Nikon Zoom lens. If great wide angle work is your interest you really only have one compelling choice.  I don't see that way and I'm thrilled to be able to match my optic to my vision of the moment.  I'm just about to buy the new Nikon 50 1.4  AFS just for its center core sharpness.  Stay tuned and I'll get a nice review of its performance together.

Finally, a friend really liked a quote I threw out on his discussion site the other day.  I want to share it with you:

"There is no real magic in photography, just the sloppy intersection of physics and art."
Kirk Tuck,  March 2009

Please help me spread the word about this blog.  I'd really like to open the dialogue to as many people as we can.


Best, Kirk

A Dancer and her feet. 35mm film. Oldest School.


I don't ever remember worrying about grain or noise when I shot film.  It was what it was.  I'd load the camera with Tri-X and try to do right by it.  Sometimes I underexposed and it looked one way and sometimes I'd overexpose and it would look another way.  But we mostly took what we got and reveled in the way the images looked.

I tried to spend as much time as I could over one summer here in Austin with a group of dancers.  They were fun, beautiful and glamorous.  We'd spend afternoons in a second story dance studio over what is now an endless row of music clubs on Sixth St. and the dancers would dance and I'd make images of them.  Most of the negatives are lost to the shifting sands of time and bad conservation.  Every now and then I'll come across another set and print them.  Not once have I thought that it would have been any better if I'd been able to reach into the future and grab a noise free,  digital camera to work with.  A guilty confession?  I like grain.


Michelle in the black dress.


I remember our session like it was yesterday.  Michelle walked into my studio in this fantastic dress and I was enchanted.  She always had a regal presence and the austere black dress against her pale skin made a wonderful contrast in tones.

We started our session as we had several times before, shooting some film and then stopping to talk.  Taking a Polaroid and then sharing it to see where we wanted to go next, what we could change about the pose or the expression to make the photographs a little more interesting.  And then we'd start again.

It was generally quiet in the studio.  We always shot alone.  No make up people, no assistant.  And we were unhurried in a way that seems almost impossible today.  We might start at three in the afternoon and not stop until after six in the evening.

The pauses between rolls of film were always longer than the actual photographing.  We'd talk about life and gossip about people we knew in common and we'd talk about things like 'what makes something beautiful?'  We'd talk about silly stuff and we'd take more photographs.

I work quietly and I try to give my subjects lots of feedback.  Nearly everyone needs to ratchet down their expectations.  We're not trying to sway to music or change poses every time the flash goes off.  We collaborate and build up slowly to an expression and a pose that I like.  That I'm sure she will like too.

Shoots done well  have a natural rhythm.  When I took this portrait we were working with film.  This camera got 15 images on a roll of film.  The camera took film inserts instead of film backs.  I would load four or five inserts and we'd work our way through them and then take a break, change scenes, or  Michelle would change clothes while I unloaded the spent film and reloaded new film and we'd start again.

In every session there's stuff that almost works but you know you're not quite there.  If you are in sync with a subject you'll both know when you've built up the energy to something special and you try to ride that wave but it's inevitable that there's one real crescendo in a session and everything after that is just due diligence.  You wind down and at some point, though you know you'll regret breaking the spell, you have to say, "I think we got it."

Then you hug and promise to get together soon to share the contact sheets or the files and you walk your beautiful subject to her car and say, "goodbye."  And then, if you're like me,  you can't sleep until you've souped the film and looked at every frame, holding your breath a little bit and searching for that one frame that encapsulated all the work you'd both done on a rainy, wintery afternoon in a big studio in another time.

Later, when it's freezing outside and you've got the time in an evening you go into the darkroom and bask in the solitude.  Tanning to the red safelights.  Listening to an old CD from a long time ago and praying that the print you just stuck into the developer tray will come out half as well as you hope it will.  And then you try again, and again and again.  You drive home at 2 in the morning knowing you have something good on the drying screens.  And then you show it on the web and write about it many years later.  That's how you know you really like an image.

Visible Means of Support.


Sometimes the cameras and lenses don't matter nearly as much as getting them into the right place to make photographs and keeping them steady.  In that regard perhaps the micro four thirds cameras have an advantage since they are lighter and smaller than their bigger acquaintances and therefore easier to secure in weird places.

I recently had a need to position a camera about ten or eleven feet in the air.  I needed to shoot a building while including something in the foreground and if I shot at conventional eye level the foreground feature would have been too prominent.  Sadly, I'll have to admit that in my collection of tripods I don't have anything that will go nearly that high.  I could buy some monster tripod from Gitzo but it doesn't make much economic sense if you can find a way around the problem with tools you already have sitting around your studio.

I have a Werner extendable ladder that is eight feet tall when used in it's "A" configuration.  It's sturdy and solid but when collapsed it fits into my Honda Element and it's easy enough for one person (usually me) to carry around on a location.  All I need was a way to add two more feet of extension and also add a tripod head that would allow me easy movement for exacting composition.

I have a Pelican case under one of my shelving units that's filled with miscellaneous grip equipment that I've accumulated over the past two decades and that was my first stop when looking for stuff that would hold a camera to a ladder ten feet in the air.  One of my over riding goals was to have the camera mounted securely so it wouldn't come crashing down on the heads of the unsuspecting and, of course, I didn't want to see if the camera could survive such a rigorous drop test.


From the grip case I chose four components.  The most important was the Bogen (or Manfrotto) Magic Arm.  This is an articulated arm with a center knob.  Position the studs on the ends where you want them, position the arm exactly where you want it and clamp down with the knob.  Everything becomes as solid as a single bar of hard metal.  I've attached Magic Arms to so many supports I can even begin to remember them all.

At each end of the articulated arm is a 5/8's inch stud on a ball.  This allows for a lot of fine adjustment and, when the knob is tightened the studs and the ball are held solid.

The next step is to outfit either end.  I needed to attach one end to the top steps of the ladder so I chose a Bogen Super Clamp.  It fits on the stud and its jaws clamp on to whatever support you are using to make a super strong connection.  How strong?  I've used two Super Clamps to suspend a hammock in the studio which easily supported a 160 pound model.   Super clamps are a steal and a must for most studios.  I don't think I've ever paid more than $30 for one and they never wear out or go out of fashion.  The Super Clamp makes a secure connection for the Magic Arm at the top of the ladder.  Now I need to figure out the other end.

I attached a Manfrotto bracket to the other end of the Magic Arm and used that to mount a Leitz Ball Head to my contraption.  The ball head is sturdy enough to support a Sony a77 and a Sigma 10-20mm lens but you'll want to use an electronic cable release or the camera's self timer so you don't move the camera too much.  It takes a few seconds for my whole "ladder/tripod" system to settle when you touch the camera...

If I owned a ten foot tall tripod I would still have to bring along a ladder to stand on to look through the camera.  With my Magic Arm / Super Clamp rig I am getting double duty out of my ladder.

Here is an outtake of the final shot....







6.01.2012

Breadsticks. How else would you make art for a bakery?

Rosie. Photographed with a Rolleiflex 8008i. 150mm Zeiss Sonnar.

I sometimes go to a Bakery called Sweetish Hill Bakery.  It was founded by a brilliant woman who studied pastry and bread making in Vienna while her equally brilliant husband studied literature there on a fellowship.  They were/are both bohemian literary intellectuals who've supported generations of writers, painters and even photographers here in Austin.

I met Patricia, the baker,  many years ago when I had been assigned by a small city magazine I freelanced for to photograph and write about a hÃ¥ute cuisine restaurant she had recently opened called, La Provence.  At the time I was little more than a recently graduated university student with a 4x5 view camera, a 90mm wide angle and a 210mm normal lens and, maybe, ten sheet film holders.  I also had a Polaroid back which helped immensely in those times when I lost my nerve or lost my place during a photo shoot.  I had a small lighting kit that was made up of a very rudimentary Novatron flash generator in industrial gray and two flash heads.  The only modifiers I owned were two 40 inch, white, translucent umbrellas.  But I had always been keenly interested in food and, when I met the owner of the restuarant in her chef's whites and her generous apron we hit it off because of our mutual love of everything edible.

She had the clear advantage having grown up in a food/restaurant family in Philadelphia and honing her instincts in the fine restaurants in the capitols of Europe.  

I wrote the best review I could and took photographs that can only be counted as "beginner's luck."  The magazine ran my dining room shots, complete with perfect roaring fireplace, as large as they could and both my article and Patricia's restaurant were a roaring success.  I continued to work with Patricia on every project she touched.  I shot cakes and pies and pastries.  I shot foie gras and koulibiaka.  Wellingtons and Toll House cookies (the best on the planet).  My child has only had Sweetish Hill Bakery Pennsylvania Dutch Chocolate cakes on his birthdays (at five he wondered if other children's mothers just didn't know about Sweetish Hill...).   And I've spent at least a morning a week, and sometimes many days a week, sitting on the benches outside the bakery enjoying great coffee and wonderful, hot from the oven, pain au chocolats.

For most of the past 20 years I had a show of images hanging in the bakery.  They were always of people with their favorite pastry or coffee.  Some were nudes with pastries.  When I saw someone I wanted to photograph for the walls I would approach them, reference the work all around them and.....ask.

That's how I met Rosie, above.  I'd been sitting at an outside table on a hot, crisp morning and she walked into the bakery.  I glanced up just as she pulled the door open and decided that she had to be included.  I had my business card in her hand before she even hit the cash register.

I kept my studio set up and ready for a basic portrait most of the time.  I've been lazy about it lately but I'm getting back into the habit of having one big light and a gray wall pretty much ready all the time.  

Turns out that Rosie was a popular photographers model in Austin when I shot this image.  And I could tell from her easy demeanor in front of the camera.  She dropped by with two thin loaves of bread in hand and we shot a quick five or six rolls of medium format transparency film.  I was using a motor driven Rollei SLR with my favorite medium long lens.  The light came from a big, 4x6 foot softbox.  We made a big print for the wall and had it framed.  It was on the wall for years.

Patricia sold the bakery to her partner a few years ago and started a company that makes organic, super high quality school lunches for a little constellation of the best private schools in town.  She's on a mission to make healthy lunches for kids.  She started at the top.

Patricia gave me so many great opportunities.  She's one of the people I can point to who made a lasting difference in my career as a photographer.  And many of the great chefs I've photographed around Austin worked in her kitchen when they started.  I can count 40 or so in the last ten years who've "graduated" from her bakery or one of her restaurants and gone on to great things.

The best gift she gave me was a better understanding of food in all of its glory.

One light.  One bakery customer.  Two loaves of bread and camera.  What a nice recipe.

Another image from the Bakery Series.


edit: A nice essay on patience and photography over at the Luminous-Landscape.  Read it here:

My Website: 



5.31.2012

Taking career advice from the graffiti on a bridge.


Do you ever find yourself pulled in too many directions at once? I've got so many balls in the air I feel like I'm juggling while I'm asleep.  Sometimes it's good to just go for a walk.  As I walked over the Pfluger Pedestrian bridge that unites south and north Austin I looked east to the old railroad bridge for the thousandth time.  This time it made sense to me.  Focus on one point and BREATHE.


As if to underline the advice I looked out over the expanse of Lady Bird Lake (which is also the Colorado River running through the middle of Austin) I saw literally hundreds and hundreds of people out paddle boarding or kayaking.  They weren't in a rush.  They weren't worried about market share or ROI they were just soaking up the sun, watching the other beautiful people around them and ....relaxing.

Sometimes you need a reminder that there might be more things under the sky than compulsively working or even compulsively photographing.  I need to put my work life on a diet.

A quick test of the a57 in use at 3200 ISO/ 3200K


I love shooting in the theater when the light is sweet and the plays are interesting.  I bought a Sony a57 just for shooting in low light.  When I shoot it at 3200 the files look great at normal sizes.  When I look at 100% I see some noise reduction smoothing at play.  I had the camera set to "standard" noise reduction and shot Jpeg last Tuesday, at a dress rehearsal of Dividing the Estate.


I was using the Sony 70-200mm 2.8 G lens and I liked what I got.  I might shoot raw the next time around just so I can try some other styles of noise reduction.  The new version of Lightroom (4.1) seems to have well thought out noise reduction.  I never seem to mind fine, monochromatic noise, it's only the splotchy color noise that I don't like.  I noticed that the ISO 1600 shots I'd done with the a77 camera on the same evening cleaned up well.  I shot them in raw.

I'm getting more and more comfortable with the EVF in the a57.  I know it will nail the exposures and I'm getting a handle on the qualitative differences between the contrast on screen and the contrast in real life.  While the EVF is not as good as the one in the a77 it's acceptable.  And the nice part of the compromise is that even the raw files from the a57 are easier to handle than those from the a77.  Post processing 1,000 images from three cameras shows you just how much more time nearly doubling the shooting file size takes on the backend.






Panasonic G3 meets a lens from another time.


I was pleasantly surprised by the file above.  It's nothing special.  The subject matter is banal.  The composition is boring and the lighting is nothing special.  But....

I shot it with an odd combination of gear that most would hardly expect to render anything technically decent.  Let's start with the lens.  I'd brought along a 150mm f4 Pen F lens that was built around 1970.  It works on the micro four thirds cameras with an adapter.  The lens is all metal, the focusing is smoother than marbles in Vaseline and the aperture ring is so well damped it suggests clicks instead of pronouncing them.  But it's over forty years old.  We've all been subjected to marketing messages that try to tell us that only with the latest supercomputers have any lenses been designed that have value....  Tell that to Zeiss and Leica and Olympus.  They've been making keepers for a long, long time.

On a micro four thirds camera this lens gives one the same field of view as a 300mm lens on a 24 by 36mm framed camera.  That means there's a lot of magnification going on.  I'm not the steadiest shooter; I presume that most habitual coffee drinkers aren't either.  So I'm not sure why I ended up shooting with this lens handheld.

I brought it along with me when I met my friend, Frank, for coffee at Trianon Coffee House last Tuesday.  He's a big fan of the new OM-D and I wanted to show this relic to him because Olympus's first small frame camera system was an ancestor of his new camera system.  I'd been thinking about the excitement concerning the announcement introducing the new Olympus 75mm 1.8 lens and I have owned and used the older 70mm lens, designed for the Pen f system for many years.  My 70mm lens is a f2.0 and it's slightly shorter so I question why Olympus had to make their new lens so much bigger.  I think their roadmap forward is largely a reflection of the previous lens line.  I can feel a 60mm 1.4 coming up soon, as well as a 100mm f3.5 macro and maybe a few 38mm f1.4's.

But the whine on the forums is about the lack of longer lenses.  And I wanted to show Frank the 150mm because I'm sure that we'll soon get an upgraded version for the m4:3 cameras.  I had no real intention of shooting anything.

I brought the lens along glomped onto front of my Lumix G3.  It's a from a camera family that seems stained by the idea that their jpeg files are substandard.  Color impaired.  Bad DR.  

At some point I turned around and handheld the camera and lens and shot the image above while seated at the table.  The camera was set at ISO 1600.  Standard Jpeg.  The lens was wide open at f4.0.  There's no image stabilization anywhere in the system or, for that matter, anywhere in my system either.  But I was able to hold this long lens (the same magnification as a 300mm lens on a Canon 5Dmk3) and lens steady enough to get an image in which I can see small type clearly rendered from 30 feet away.  Amazing.  

There's only one reasonable explanation:  Clean living.  Because it can't possibly be the gear...


Panasonic G3.  150mm E. Zuiko Pen lens.


5.30.2012

Dividing the Estate. A play directed by Stephen Dietz


I went to Zachary Scott Theater last night to see a new play directed by Stephen Dietz.  The play, Dividing the Estate, written by Texas playwright, Horton Foote,  is set in rural Texas and concerns a family hell bent on dividing up the family estate to save each member of the family from his own, self-inflicted, economic demise.  Stephen Dietz was masterfully directing the play and even though it was an early dress rehearsal the cast pulled off a great performance.  I really enjoyed it.  Some parts had me laughing out loud while others reminded me of more or less universal family dynamics.

But I was there to get some work done. We started right at 8 pm. I used three cameras:  an Olympus EP3 (with VF2 finder) and both the 45mm 1.8 Olympus lens and the 25mm Lumix Leica Summilux 1.4.  The combinations worked well.  I kept that camera at ISO 800 and the files were well behaved.  My one modification to the EP3, for this evening's work, was to cover the blue "on" light with a piece of black gaffer's tape.  It was too bright for my taste.  The camera locked focus quickly and I shot mostly in the range of f2.8 @ 1/125th.


I used a Sony a57 camera with the 70 to 200mm f2.8 G lens.  I used the lens at f3.2 and generally, with the camera set at ISO 3200 I was able to shoot without any problems at shutter speeds of 1/250th to 1/500th of a second.  I was happy with the camera's ability to lock focus quickly and I was happy with the shallow depth of field and uncluttered feel to the out of focus areas.  The files at 3200 ISO were just fine (shot Jpeg fine at 16 megapixels).


My final camera/lens combination was the Sony a77 couple with the 16-50mm lens.  I shot this combo at f4, 1/125 to 1/250th of a second @ ISO 1600.  I shot these files in the raw format.  Not for any brilliant reason but because I forgot to switch the camera to Jpeg after my last project...
The noise at 1600 was easy to handle and the files looked the best of all three cameras.  But not by much.  I would have been happy shooting with any of the three.  

All of the cameras were shot handheld and the image stabilization was turned on for all three.  Not that it matters but I was using Transcend class 10 SDHC cards, 16 gigs, in each camera.  I've been using them since I switched to cameras that take SD's with no issues.


I have become much more used to the layout of the buttons and controls on the Sony cameras and I was much more comfortable using the cameras in the dark at the rehearsal.  I credited that to having already clicked through about 30,000 exposures between my three Sony cameras since I bought them several months ago...


I really enjoy shooting dress rehearsals for plays.  Not just plays I would enjoy as an audience member (like this one...) but also work that is challenging to me as an audience member.  When I'm shooting I'm following the basic story but I'm mostly looking for things that are more engaging to me like an actor's pose or gesture.  From the commanding stance of the actor in the image just above to the engagement of the actor below.


What the marketing people really want to see is different than what I want to see as a photographer.  Their interest is in groupings like the one below that, with the addition of a good caption, go a long way to giving a short hand glimpse at what the play is all about.



In between dramatic moments and groupings I like to take images that are more akin to portraits.  The lighting on this production was especially good for photography with well filled shadows and not too many lighting cues with over the top color casts that might not succumb even to good post processing...


I love the juxtaposition of the forward actor and the out of focus actor in the middle plane.  The light coming through the side window and the plane of the back wall add so much dimension.




Austin acting legend, Barbara Chisholm, had me laughing out loud in her role as a Houston woman of means who's, "NEVER WORKED A DAY IN MY LIFE !!!"  She played the role so well.  I know.  I've been to Houston...




I'm sitting in the studio now.  I've post processed all of the files and I'm waiting for Lightroom to convert everything to manageable Jpegs.  It's taking a while to crunch through the large raw files I shot with the a77.  Once we've converted everything I'll stick the files on DVD's for the marketing director.

We are transitioning to Summer here.  I've ordered a new air conditioner to replace the dying one in the studio.  It should be here tomorrow.  We don't mess around with dying air conditioners in Texas.  Not after last Summer.  

I'm busy putting together a book of essays for my e-book project.  More about that to come.

Hope everyone is staying cool and having fun.




5.28.2012

Bringing "outside" into the studio.

Showing off heat shrink cable insulators for 3M.  In studio.  
4x5 inch Linhof Technikarden view camera.
240mm Symmar lens.
Studio Electronic flash.
Key feature:  Dirt Styling.

RTFTRJ.