K.B. Dixon's Book, A Painter's LIfe, is wonderful. Perfect Summer reading.

"Bullshit is a preservative.  There is nothing better for a reputation than a hopelessly convoluted analysis by one of the tenured gods of critical commentary."

----an excerpt from A Painter's Life,  by K.B. Dixon.

I've never met Kenneth Dixon but I just finished reading a second book by him.  It's not about photography, per se, but there are so many tangential tentacles...  The book submerges the reader into the day to day life and thoughts of a painter named, Christopher Freeze, by way of a mix of conventional narrative, passages from Christopher Freeze's journal, and pithy, witty excerpts of reviews from critics.

Freeze grapples with issues that plague all artists:  How to start. How do you know if what you are doing is any good? Where will the money come from? How to balance the time needed to create art with the time needed to actually sell enough art to have the time to do the art.  Dixon's character is flawed, self-indulgent, effete, and enmeshed in a lifestyle that straddles the academic world, the art world and the small, personal world of the artist.

His characters' observation are both witty and bitchy and entertaining.  It's a wonderful book to read because it's like looking into a gold fish bowl at an occupation that most of us will never understand.  But at the same time photographers always seem to be grappling with the same basic issues:  What is inspiration and how can I get some?  Why can't I just photograph?  Why do I have to waste time doing all this other stuff.

But the book is also a wry and slightly subversive tweak at the art industry, the critics, the dealers and the amateur collectors.  Freeze's observations about the patrons of the gallery are wonderfully cynical...

The character, Christopher Freeze, ruminates about his relationship with his art dealer, his painter friends and rivals, and his wife.

The book is extremely well written.  Not in the sense that it speeds you through a pyrotechnic plot with rampant adrenaline and harrowing twists and turns but in the sense that one really enjoys the way the words come together.  His writing is both spare and elegant, and profoundly funny.

It's a book of observations.  Of judgements and opinions.  But mostly it's an explanation of the ongoing conflict between life and art, told with dry humor.

Two observations about Dixon's books:  1.  I wish I could write even fractionally as well as Dixon.  He's never obtuse or wordy.  He has an economy of style that's effective and pleasurable.

2.  Every time I picked up his book and read for a while I saw some of my flaws in his character and there was a sense of recognition. (Cheap therapy?)  He very accurately described the split nature of an artist constantly frustrated with the need to consider the market and the need to spend time and energy in actual creation.

What resonated most for me was the underlying idea that work created for an audience, exterior to the artist, cripples the important work of the artist.  Everyone makes choices and finds a balance.  This book is a look at the shaky balance of one painter.

I've enjoyed Dixon's books because they reinforce ideas I like and make me feel at least minimally attached to part of a thread that runs through our culture.  There's a familiarity that runs through them.  Finally, the books are aimed at adults.  Not that there is anything unsuitable for children but the writing speaks to people who are living adult lives.  Making a living, trying desperately to do their art, trying to balance the need for a bit of isolation with the fear of being wholly forgotten.

If you want to read something fun and insightful I highly recommend it.

It's a novel.


A quick review of one of the best cameras ever mass produced.

There are a zillion Nikon F2 cameras still floating around the photography universe.  There are two compelling reasons for that: 1. It was mass produced for over a decade; from 1971 to 1981, during a decade in which photography exploded exponentially as a hobby.  And this particular Nikon was the ultimate aspirational camera for most photographers.  2.  The camera is just flat out bullet proof.  It's like a giant squad of unkillable zombies.  It's the Energizer Bunny, it goes on and on.  And if it won't break it can go on giving pleasure to generation after generation of savvy photo artists.

Of all the cameras I've owned the Nikon F2 is still the only one I know about that has infinitely variable shutter speeds between 1/90th of a second and the top shutter speed of 1/2000th of a second.  No, I did not mis-type, you can set the shutter dial anywhere in between marked, click stopped shutter speeds and actually get controllable, fractional settings.

See the little ring of numbers that surrounds the base of the self-timer lever?  You can use that control, in concert with the control that surrounds the shutter button to set timed exposures up to 10 full seconds.  And the body?  Solid. Built of some kind of metal that won't melt, break, decompose or break.  It is even impervious to gamma and alpha rays.  Rumors abound that the Japanese tracked a meteorite of considerable size as it plunged through the atmosphere and settled in 300 meters of depth off the coast of their island nation.  Divers located the meteorite and took samples.  After rigorous testing by the JCIC it was discovered that the meteor's atomic structure was unlike anything on the periodic table.

In incredible secrecy Nikon, using a fleet of sixty enormous oil tankers and a system of air bladders the size of Rhode Island lifted the meteor intact (130.1 meters in diameter) and took it to their secret Fortress of R&D Solitude.  When queried by officials of several governments the people at Nikon gave out an official statement:  "Giant ultra-cool alloy meteorite? Never heard of it..."

Over the years they melted down this precious metal and made an alloy they called, "Inspirationium."

All Nikon F2 bodies were constructed out of this metal.  And it skewed the entire camera market.

Competitors came out with cameras built from stainless steel and then magnesium alloy at half the price but once a consumer touched the cool Inspirationium they had to have the Nikon F2.  Nothing else would satisfy them. Car payments were missed.  College funds plundered.  That product coined the phrase, "must have."

Several of these cameras have been on missions to space but most people have never heard of the top secret events in which a Nikon F2 saved the lives of everyone on a returning space shuttle.  The story goes something like this:  During lift off high speed video cameras captured footage of some heat shield tiles popping off the hull of the space shuttle.  Those ceramic tiles were a crucial part of the heat barrier that would protect the crew of the shuttle from the devastating heat of re-entry.  Everyone at NASA totally freaked out.  They were certain that the re-entry would be a disaster. The mission was kept secret because it was undertaken for some national security agency and recon satellites were being launched.

They tried to come up with a plan to save the astronauts but nothing else on the ship could withstand the hellish temperatures.  The  astronauts went on with their mission doing their space walks and talking wonderful images with their modified Nikon F2's.  Then one of the crew (an amateur photographer) remembered the rumors about the space alloy being used in the F2's and he frantically radioed mission control.  A quick satellite link up with Nikon (and much strategic arm bending concerning tarriffs and such) confirmed the rumor.  The space alloy had an incredibly high melting point.  It just might work.

Another space walk was planned.  This time it included three Nikon F2 cameras, superglue and two rolls of duct tape.  The cameras were placed over the spots where tile was missing and superglued into place.  The duct tape would certainly melt the instant the hull began to heat up but it would help hold the cameras in place until the pressure of the atmosphere  stepped in to take its place.  Everyone held their breath as the bandaged Shuttle began the descent.  The control crew on the ground was silent as they listened to the drama on their radios.  Radar from stations across the globe tracked the progress of the Shuttle.

Then......splash down.  The mission was saved.  And divers were sent to retrieve the cameras.

That alone would make an interesting story in itself but it goes on from there.  The retrieved cameras were returned to Nikon in Japan for a clean, lube and adjust and then sent back to NASA.  They only needed the saltwater rinsed out and few adjustments, other than that they were in minty condition.  A few years further down the road and budgets were cut.  The cameras were sold off at a public auction and rumor has it that one of cameras went to a famous fashion photographer in London, another is still being shot by some guy who does cigarette ads and the third one is used by a famous photojournalist who will, of course, deny that he's ever used a Nikon camera because he is, in fact, sponsored by a rival company.  But many of the assistants who've worked with him in the field swear that, when the going gets rough, and the Pulitzers and MacAuthor grants are on the line, one of the Space Shuttle F2's comes out of the bag with one of the legendary manual focus lenses and the real magic happens.  Every time.

Then there's the story of the CIA agent posing as a professional photographer in Rumania just spying the crap out of everything.  His camera prop of choice?  Of course it was an F2. The story is long and twisted but in the end he was caught red-handed by an assassin from the Rumanian government.  They faced each other and the CIA agent, Nikon F2 hanging around his neck on a leather strap, Nocto-Nikkor lens on deck, prepared to meet death with dignity.  His adversary lifted his silenced Makarov pistol and fired one shot directly at the agent's chest.

The bullet struck the Inspirationium shell of the camera which both absorbed all impact and then bounced the steel jacketed bullet right back at the assassin, striking him in the head and allowing the agent to escape.

But there is also the sad, sad story of the man in the hot air balloon who got too greedy.  He was trying to set a new altitude record for ballooning without supplemental oxygen.  He'd attained 30,000 feet and wanted to document his feat with his Nikon F2.  He was wearing it on a new, experimental strap the fit across his chest like a bandolier.  It was made of burgundy colored leather and it attached to the camera via the tripod socket. He called his strap the Burgundy Express.  But of course that single point of attachment was ludicrous and, as the camera twisted and turned on the strap it came loose and started to plunge to the earth.  Addled by the thin air our balloonist reached desperately for the camera and lost his grip on the safety ropes for the balloon.  In a flash he and the camera were accelerating toward terminal velocity.  The camera, with its small profile, accelerated more rapidly and hit the corn fields of Nebraska with a dull thud.  The balloonist landed directly on top of his own camera and was killed instantly by the impact.

But there was a silver lining to this story as well.  The camera, after falling 30,000 feet was sent to Nikon service for a quick CLA and, after an adjustment to the second shutter curtain, went back into service.  This time in the inventory of a photographer who had been struggling to succeed both artistically and in business.  Once she picked up the F2 her business picked up as well.
She went on to shoot for a number of major magazines, even shooting royalty.  And she's shilled for several other camera companies.  But you guessed it.....When the chips are down and the assets are on the block, out comes the F2 and in a matter of a few purchase orders everything returns to fashionable success.

Well.  That's all I really know about the Nikon F2 except that I have one as well.  It works.  It only takes film.  Seems you can't mix digital sensors with Inspirationium metal.

(for the painfully literal:  this is all fiction.  That means I made it up. )

I recently bought another F2 just so I'd have a back up.  I was amazed to be able to buy one for around $150. Perhaps the existence of Inspirationium is  a better kept secret than I thought.

Don't run out and buy a Nikon F2.  There aren't enough used ones to go around as it is.  And it's very complicated to use.  It has three major controls:  Focus, Aperture and Shutter Speed.  Too tough to remember without the manual.

Portraits? Read this interview with Kurt Marcus.


Lots of interesting things to read over at http://www.aphotoeditor.com

Here's one of mine:

©Kirk Tuck.  Russian Girl on the Spanish Steps in Rome.


Lisbon Pool. Snapshot.

I'd just finished shooting for five days at a trade show for Tivoli Systems (now part of IBM) and I was out walking through the streets of Lisbon with an old Leica M3 and a 35mm lens.  I walked by this pool and shot just as the boy jumped.  Of course, since the camera was already focused at its hyperfocal distance there was no delay for autofocusing and no shutter delay. I was able to capture the action as it unfolded.

I didn't have a light meter with me but I had the paper with the exposure pictograms that used to come in every box of Kodak film taped to the bottom plate of the camera and covered with Scotch tape.  I'd set the shutter and aperture for sunlight and didn't need to change the exposure again until I walked into the open shade.

Because of these two technical aspects my film shots from 14 years ago are more consistent and more in focus than what I get from the most advanced digital cameras.  Besides the immediate gratification have we really come so far?

I know that the feisty ones among you will immediately respond that all the current cameras can be used in manual exposure as well.  And that's true.  But I sure am finding fewer and fewer lenses with distance scales and even fewer with depth of field scales.  And that's a pity for street shooters.

Getting Theatrical. Do you go to the theater or does the theater come to you?

The Majestic Theater, San Antonio.

Belinda and I went to see a performance of Dividing the Estate at Zachary Scott theatre last night.  I wasn't there for a shoot so I had to leave my camera at home.  As I sat in the theater I started really thinking about the positive, symbiotic relationship I have with the theater.

Zachary Scott Theatre has a collection of over 100 framed and matted, 12 by 18 inch, color prints of my work spread across three buildings, in public traffic areas.  Each one has my credit boldly displayed.  My work for each production gets prime newspaper display with a large credit line next to each image.  The marketing people chose one archetypical image from each dress rehearsal shoot and make it into a beautifully designed, printed postcard that gets mailed out to sometimes as many as 25,000 very well targeted and very affluent house holds (approximately 250,000 local impressions per years in print). I am listed in every program as a sponsor.

And I am well presented by them on the web:  http://www.zachtheatre.org/show/dividing-the-estate  http://www.zachtheatre.org/show/xanadu  http://www.zachtheatre.org/show/fully-committed

I get all the comp tickets I can handle and last night there were four complimentary drink tickets paper clipped to my tickets.  I love a theater where you can take your glass of wine in for the performance...

Every year Zach sponsors a Christmas party for me at their production of Santaland Diaries  which means I get to invite 100 or so of my friends and business associates to an incredible night at the theater.  I've learned more about lighting than I can possible imaging by watching the ultimate lighting pros of live theater.  I've learned at the actor's feet.  They've taught me about the importance of gesture and timing and even improvisation.  I've gotten an advanced education in theater with over 200 different plays under my belt.  And they've taught me so much about marketing.  Because they do it non-stop.  And they do it well.

And I've recruited the actors as paid talent for advertising campaigns and even a corporate trade show presentation, all with great results.

The performance last night was so much fun.  Real people, acting, just a few feet from my seat.  Every show, every performance is an original piece of art.  Nothing is canned.  Nothing can ever be perfect but it can make you laugh, make tears drip down your face in public and move you emotionally in a way pre-recorded stuff never can.  In short, it's always amazing. Even when it's a genre I don't usually care for it's amazing. And Zachary Scott constantly expands my idea of what it's like to be alive and unique.  From Angels in America to Jesus Christ, Superstar every single play examines what it is to be a part of humanity.

As I sat in the theater last night I remembered the first time I shot a dress rehearsal for them so many years ago.  It was a play called, Six Degrees of Separation.  In those days we'd shoot "set-up" shots on medium format color transparency film.  We'd put the cast into a scene or a close up moment and then light it and shoot with a Hasselblad on a tripod.  We shot the actual dress rehearsal with whatever 35mm camera I was shooting at the time.  And the dress rehearsal shots were done in black and white because that's what the local newspaper and all the smaller publications printed at the time.

I shot Six Degrees of Separation with two Leica cameras.  I used a 35mm f2 Summicron on one body and a 90mm f2 Summicron on the other and almost certainly I was shooting Tri-X.  I had a Pentax one degree spot meter and I'd use it sparingly.  The light changes weren't as dramatic in the days before programmable lighting boards...

How much fun it was to see my work, just a few days later, splashed across a quarter page in the Austin American Statesman newspaper!!!  The cherry on the whip creme was the large cut line right under the photograph.  I can't remember what I got paid for that first shoot.  Iy couldn't have been much because the theater was struggling 19 years ago.  This year we're about to open a new, $20 million theater.  It makes me smile to think that all those past evenings of shooting in some small way helped to make the theater successful enough that we could raise $20 million for the new theater complex in the middle of the biggest economic downturn our generations have ever seen.

If you don't get out to see much live theater you might consider giving it a shot.  As a photographer you'll find the lighting very interesting.  And the way people move through light.  But I think you'll also have a growing appreciation for gesture, expression and movement.  It's one of the arts.  We might as well integrate it into ours...

The 50mm focal length (or its 35mm equivilent) continues to be my favorite focal length.

Odd that I've only had the Sony cameras for a short time but I have already acquired two 50mm lenses, one 35mm lens and one 30mm lens, along with a zoom that also covers the 50mm focal length as well as the 35mm focal length.  I don't have anything wider than a 24mm (35 equivalent) and yet I don't feel nearly as naked as I did when I didn't have the middle of the optical range well covered. (This was written a while ago.  I'm editing:  I've added a Sigma 10-20mm lens to round out the wide end.)

All of my current photography happens between 16mm and 200mm. The lenses are used on APS-C camera bodies so the range actually covers 24mm to 300 mm, in old school speak. But no matter what I intend or what I head out the door with the images that make me happy are always in that narrow band of focal lengths that emulate what I learned on with that old Canon TX film camera and its bulky but stalwart 50mm 1.8.

When I shot everything with the Canon 5Dmk2 I ended up collecting at least five optics in the "normal" range, including:  a 50mm Zeiss f1.4, a Nikon 50mm 1.2, a Canon 50mm 1.8,  Canon 50mm 2.5 macro and a converted 60mm Leica R macro.  I guess it's a bit of an obsession.  But one that makes sense.  We're  seduced by candy and sexy super models and loud music but we spend time with nutritious food, approachable girlfriends and soft music in our ongoing lives.  We think we love the sparkle but we stay pretty firmly in the comfort zones.  It's no different with optics.

From 35mm to 85mm or even 135mm we feel safe and sound.  We're excited to play with a 15mm wide angle but we soon tire of its uncomfortable novelty effects.  We marvel at some shots taken with an 800 mm lens wide open but after a very short while we long for the context that comes from seeing more of a scene.  And seeing more of it in focus.

I've owned the high speed, high priced normals and I've owned the cheapos and I'm here to tell  you that, unless you  spring for something esoteric like a Leica 50mm 1.4 Aspheric, you're not going to notice a heck of a lot of difference between the lenses once you hit 2.8 or so.  You know, the range we mostly shot at or above.


What's in my bag today?

Portrait of a student for the Kipp School Annual Report.

It's a guilty pleasure but I'll admit it.  I'm enough of a gear junky to be curious about what's in other photographers bags on a day to day basis.  When my friend, Paul, the architectural photographer started using digital Hasselblads for his high end projects I invited him to lunch and made sure to invite his camera bag along too.  His rolling case had two Hasselblad bodies and two backs at the time.  A 31 megapixel back and a 40 megapixel back.  He had the Hasselblad shift adapter and just about every medium format shift lens you can think of in the case.

I recently changed over from shooting Canon to shooting Sony.  I thought the Canon cameras and lenses were just fine.  I could shoot them without caveat but I like new technology that makes my life easier and I was anxious to move to cameras with EVF finders.  When I bought into the Sony system I swore I'd just get a couple of really good zooms and try to be the ultimate minimalist.  I should know myself better by now.

I did a location shoot with lots of variables for a client last week.  I didn't know exactly what to expect because we'd be shooting interiors with people and machines, some narrow DOF portraits and some very wide exteriors.  What to pack?

Here's what ended up in the camera bag:  Two Sony a77 bodies (doing this for money? You gotta have a back up camera!) Four batteries for said cameras.  16-50mm f2.8 zoom lens.  70-200mm f2.8 G zoom lens.  Sigma 10-20mm Zoom lens.  Sony 30mm DT Macro lens. Sony 50mm 1.4 lens.  Sony 85mm 1.4 lens and the Sony 35mm 1.8 lens.  As you can see from the selection my sweet spot for optics is between 24mm and 85mm.  Everything else is a specialty focal length.  We've got them but we don't use them a lot.

I brought circular polarizers for all the filter sizes as well as a Minolta flash meter.

I brought along a Tiltall tripod because I like it this week.  I also brought along two small light stands and two small umbrella in case I wanted to diffuse the LEDs.

I mostly lit things with several Fotodiox LED Panels but I hedged my bets by sticking in a couple of the big Sony flashes in case we suddenly decided to rush outside and try to do portraits in full sun.  I also brought along my Swiss Army Knife, a few Cliff Bars and extra batteries for the lights.  I brought a Moleskine notebook and a good pen with which to take notes and an old Ian Flemming book in case I had to wait for someone.

It all fit in one Domke camera bag and one Think Tank rolling case.

This is a case of rolling light and moving fast.  We did 12 set-ups that day without really missing a beat.

When I left the studio today and went for (95 degree (f)) walk downtown I carried only a Hasselblad 501cm camera with an 80mm lens.  Two rolls of film (Fuji Velvia 100)  in my pocket and no meter.  Hell, everything was in Texas sun.  It's always 1/250th, f8.5 @100.  Unless someone snuck and ND filter on the ionosphere.  And judging by the need for good sunglasses I'm discounting cosmic neutral density.

Don't know if this is interesting to anyone but it is what it is.


Old School Portraits. Collaborating about art.

The Visual Science Lab is a great place for me to talk about photography as I'd like to practice it and then have my ideas subjected to good doses of feedback.  I'm embarking for the first time into the business of selling private portrait commissions. I haven't decided whether or not to keep the business name as Kirk Tuck Photography or to do some research and try to find something that resonates more with the market I'm going after.

I do know what I want to deliver.  Black and white, and color prints that are in my own style.

I'd like to offer one more generation of people who appreciate the tradition of photography to share the practice of creating art on real film and receiving a real, custom print.  If possible, a darkroom print on double weight paper.  I'm currently looking for someone who prints from negatives.

I'm shooting a series of test portraits the way restaurants have a series of "friends and family" days before they open to strangers.  I'm choosing people I've worked with before as well as new people I've met walking around Austin.  When I have a portfolio ready to go I'll take down my  website and re-launch with new work.

It's scary and exciting but as much as I preach spending time in the water I'm also becoming a big believer in the process of re-invention and new discovery.  What good is a lot of practice if what you're practicing is something people don't need?

Finally, I'm working daily with the Hasselblad film cameras, trying to get back into that groove.  I'm having my negatives processed at Holland Photo and contact printed there as well.  Funny how much more comfortable those cameras are to me than the digital cameras. Even after 12 years.

Re-inventing the portrait.  Sounds like a book.  What do VSL follower's think?

Portraits are short stories about the person in front of your camera.

About twenty years ago I was still taking horrible portraits when someone much smarter than me said that my approach was all wrong.  I didn't know what they meant.  I'd read just about everything ever written about the technical steps involved in making good portraits---from start to finish.  I had cool gear.  The best you could buy.  And I had been making portraits for business for about ten years.  But this instantaneous mentor was right.  My portraits just sat there on paper like wallflowers at a party.  I tried everything in the proceeding ten years to improve them.  I went to workshops sponsored by the PPofA.  I asked advice from my fellow ASMP members.  I bought new equipment and tried new film but it seemed to me that I would never be able to break out of doing formulaic portraits.  At one point I thought of hanging up the ole neckstraps and trying to find something I could be good at.

Then a crusty old English professor I'd studied with invited me over to his house for a Bourbon tasting party. (Liberal arts professors did stuff like that back then...).  After I'd tasted  a few different mashes I started to jabber away to anyone who would listen to me about my visual process dilemma and my fear that I would forever be a portrait hack.  A gruff, older character in a tweedy jacket, sporting a prodigious beard and about as far gone as I clapped me on the back and said,  "It always seemed to me that making portraits is a helluva lot like telling a short story about a person.  If there's no intrigue and no story behind the picture then who the hell is going to want to look at it?"  Then the professor of French Art History weighed in.  She was a compactly and delicately built woman with short cropped hair and though she was in her early sixties she had a glint in her eye that warned you that here was a person not to be trifled with.  Especially midway through a raucous bourbon tasting party....

Here is her two cents:  "I want a picture to make me fall in love with the subject.  Or to want to fall in love with the subject.  Or at least make me give a fuck about the person in the picture. I want to smell some intrigue.  See some bare soul or at least be entertained.  Portraits that are just a description are as boring as television."

And finally, from a snarky person around my age and in my general circumstances: "Tell me a story or go wait tables."

I had been looking for people to photograph who were examples of stereotypic advertising imagery. The busty blond, the executive in a suit with the strong jaw,  the athlete with the six pack, and the girl with the perfect hair.  And what I was trying to do, subconsciously, with all these archetypes and all my standard lighting tricks was to say to potential customers: "I can take your order and provide the same thing as everyone else in the business.  Give me a try, you might like working with me."

But when I started looking for people who interested me and made my heart beat faster the whole deal started to change.  I started shooting subjects that people described as unusual beauty and it resonated in a different way.  Lou (above) was one of my patient, early muses in the process.  And making photographs of her was transformative.

I've done some backsliding since digital hit the market but I recently found (the joys of actually cleaning up your space) a journal in which I'd written down all the spicy words of advice from the Bourbon night.  I've probably gotten them slightly wrong as post hangover memory is rarely foolproof. And when I read it I realize that what I've always wanted to do with my portraits is to tell the exciting opening chapter of the person in front of me.  To give you that person's visual elevator speech.  

If I ever give another workshop I think it will be about the process of coming to grips with making portraits.  God knows my process was/is long and arduous.  The path to the next iteration of my career and the photographic careers of many other practitioners is to learn to make the portrait potent and relevant going forward.  Someone once said that out of 100 people 99 have very interesting stories to tell.  And the one percent without an interesting story is interesting by dint of his uniqueness.

Another photographer advised: "When everyone has their camera pointed in one direction there's got to be something equally interesting right behind them.  Just turn around and look for it."


The Anatomy of a fun summer project.

Poor Ben.  He's going to be a junior in high school next year and he was looking forward to a few more days of sleeping in until cross country practice started again.  But around the headquarters of the Visual Science Lab it just doesn't play out that way.  I roused him at 7 am this morning because I was on a vital mission and I needed his help.  Today was the day we photographed 140 members of the dynamic, Rollingwood Waves Summer League Swim Team.  Our mission was to make a portrait of each swimmer individually, with the pool in the background, and then to make group shots of each age group: 6 and under,  7 and 8,  9 and 10, and the elusive 11 and overs.

I'd spent days planning our strategy.  We created a sign up form and asked everyone to be sure and pay on the day of the shoot.  The sign-up form had the swimmers name big across the top and then asked for all the pertinent information.  In a nod to the digital age and endless sharing, we also asked for an e-mail address to which we will send a digital copy of each swimmer's portrait for their family to use.

Ben and I ate microwaved breakfast tacos made by our good friends at H.E.B. We brushed our teeth, patted the dog on the head, said goodbye to Belinda and headed out to put the last few bags into the extreme performance Honda Element (I'm okay with leaving stands and sandbags and even lights in the car overnight but not the cameras.  Not the really good stuff) and we headed to the pool.  The drive felt strangely familiar until I reminded myself that I'd done this drive six days a week for the last 15 years..

I decided to set up two different "stations" a few yards apart at the pool.  One station would be for the individual portraits and one station would be for the overall age group shots.  Our portrait station was lit with an Elinchrom Ranger RX AS battery powered strobe system.  I used an 18 inch beauty dish on one head and a 28 inch beauty dish on the other head.  The pack was set to a little more than half power with the distribution being 66% to the main light (22 inch) on the left and 33% into the fill light (28 inch) just over my right shoulder and up.  Both modifiers were covered with white diffusion covers we call, "socks."  The metered exposure was 1/250th of a second @f8 with sunlight in the background and an ISO of 100.

Each age group practices at a specific time.  We knew from our own experience of Ben having been on the Rollingwood Waves that the youngest swimmers, who swim first, would start arriving around 8:15 am, and we'd need to do their group shot right at 8:55 before they hopped into the crystal clear, eighty degree water and started working like Michael Phelps and Natalie Coughlin.

Ben and a parent volunteer took the filled in forms from the parents and checked off payment info.  Ben was strict with anyone who forgot to bring their forms and payment.  He's learning the lessons of capitalism early on.  The kids would line up and when it was their turn to be photographed they would hold their form up, with their name emblazoned big across the top, for the first shot.  This gave me a reference frame for each child so I'll be able to deliver their images to the right folder a week from now.

I took as many photographs as it took to get a nice smile from each of the kids.  Ben kept a close watch to make sure the flashes were firing and also ran interference between me and parents who had pressing questions.

Once we hit 8:55 we gathered all of the kids for the big age group shot, which also includes the coaches.  We arranged them all over a long picnic table, along the bench which faced the camera and, when necessary we added a row sitting cross-legged in the front.  We lit this set up with one Profoto Acute 600b pack at full power, blasting happy photons through an Elinchrom modifier called a large Varistar.  Fancy name for a 41 inch shoot through umbrella with a black on the outside/silver on the inside backing.  It's a fast and easy to use modifier.

I used Flash Wave 2 radio triggers on both stations so all I needed to do was walk between the two stations, set up the kids and coaches and make the images.  Last year I only brought one lighting system and I spent the morning moving it, and two sandbags, back and forth between the two shooting stations.  That always necessitates a couple of test frames at each location.  And it's a pain in the butt to hoist the stand and two twenty  pound sandbags and move them around.

Ben was on his game today. He headed down the big hill to the basketball courts and volleyball court a couple minutes before each group shot to round up "strays" and make sure everyone got into the shots.  He whisked all the paper work and checks into folders and got them into the car before he came back to help tear down gear and he was great with all of the kids.

I shot everything with one camera and one lens.  No.  It was not an OMD.  It was a Sony a77 with the 16-50mm kit lens on the front.  It's sharp and sassy, and the electronic viewfinder is amazing.  It's fun to watch the in-camera lens correction straighten and de-vignette each image as it comes up for review in the finder.  I could also tell immediately each time we lost a frame to a blink.  No need to put the camera down from my face and chimp it.  Seeing the boo-boo in the finder meant I could keep on shooting till we got the right look.  If you stop to chimp at waist level the kids think they're done with their part and they start to wander off.  Fun when technology makes my job easier.

We finished up the project with a group shot of the oldest kids and Ben was about to start breaking stuff down when I stopped him.  "Let's give it ten minutes.  There's always some parent that come screaming in late asking if we can't please include their kiddo."  And sure enough, a small crop of them filtered in, breathless in the next ten minutes to see if we could accomodate them.  We were pleased to.  Customer service always seems to be appreciated.

When I got back to the studio and finished meeting with the plumber I downloaded the card and sequestered it's 900 images onto two hard drives and two sets of DVD's.  Now I need to go thru and pick the best individual shot of each swimmer and the best group shot of each age group, have them printed and then stuck into presentation folders.  We'll deliver them back to the pool next week.

Not the most glamorous job in the world but pretty fun and very satisfying.  After Ben and I packed everything up in the car we headed for our favorite Chinese restaurant, Lotus Hunan and had a well deserved lunch.  First thing out of Ben's mouth?  "Dad, I thought of a few things we could try next year to make this run better..."  I listened.

Now comes the back end of the job.  But once I saw that we had great stuff on every swimmer and we had four backups in place I kicked back and took a break. I love it when stuff works out.

Kirk's Website.