Fine Tuning medical images, pre-post.

I don't know what you do for a living but my job is different every time I leave the studio. A few months ago we did a job for a medical imaging practice here in Austin. Like most of my jobs it was fun, it moved fast and I learned lots of new things about other people's jobs.  Our project was to go to several clinics and photograph the staff and "patients" (model released employees of the practice) doing their jobs, making scans, making patients feel comfortable and mixing science with a human touch.

At the time my cameras were relatively new to me and this was a good job in which to push the limits of mixing available light with gentle boosts from small, battery powered LED panels.  I shot the job above with a Sony a77 camera and the 16-50mm lens.  The lens is the finest 24-75mm equivalent lens I've ever used.  In the center area it is very sharp even at its maximum aperture.  The Sony a77 gets a few knocks from every reviewer for what we perceive to be too much noise at ISO's from 800 and up.  And I'll admit that when I first started using the cameras, especially for low light theater work, the files did seem plagued with noise.  Nothing like the noise in previous generations of digital cameras but again, nothing like the clean files in cameras like the Nikon D3 and the Canon 5D either.

Before the job started I took a day to shoot some tests at 800, 1600 and 3200.  I took the files into Lightroom 4.x and started playing around with exposure, noise reduction and sharpening and I was able to make a start on fine tuning my approach to shooting at higher ISO's with these cameras.

My first exercise was to think rationally about what the files would actually be used for and then see how they looked in that application instead of just opening the files up at 100% on a big monitor and obsessing about the "grain."  The file above is about 900 pixels wide.  If you click on the image a couple times you'll see it at 2,000 pixels. In either of these sizes the noise issue is immaterial to me.  If you blow the file up you'll see more noise but you'll be looking at an enormous image. Not something most of my clients need for websites, small "rack" brochures and as 8.5 by 11 inch magazine ad issues.

When I dug into the files I discovered something else.  If the files are exposed to the right of the histogram (the files look bright but not blown...) the noise drops way down. The brighter the exposure in the camera the lower the noise levels in post processing. Given that the a77 has one of the widest dynamic ranges (in the top ten at DXO) and a longer characteristic curve in the highlights than many competitors I am able to pull good, solid highlight color detail out of files that appear to be blown out in the EVF or the camera histogram.  I fear over-exposure less with this camera than I did with previous generations of cameras I have owned.  And that makes this a bit more like what we used to do in the film/darkroom paradigm.  With Tri-X we'd routinely rate the film (expose the film) at ISO 200 or 250 and then compensate in the development in order to match the tones we wanted to see in a print.

With good technique I can use ISO 800 with the Sony a77 and have a nice file that response well to nuanced noise reduction without throwing away too much sharpness.

But there's more. I've learned to handle shooting my files the same way we did when we used to shoot with transparency film. I've learned that I can't just let the shadows fall wherever they want to fall and then depend on the shadow recovery slider in Lightroom or PhotoShop to save my ass. When a shadow is too dark and I know it needs to be open, even by only half a stop or three quarters of a stop I grab a light or a reflector and I fill it.  Limiting the range of light values ensures that I'll be able to get a usable file with much less noise in the shadows.  No matter what camera you're shooting boosting the shadows, either in post or in camera with something like a DRO setting, adds noise and decreases the appearance of delineated detail in lifted shadow areas.  Even the new miracle cameras (see: Nikon D800, Canon 5Dmk3 and Olympus OMD EM5) will give you cleaner and more open shadows with less noise if you take the time to toss in a fill reflector or a light to bring up the levels of the shadows.  Just because you can fix most of it in post doesn't mean you should.

When I can depend on a light source to help me boost exposures in the shadow areas I can dependably get clean a77 files at 1600 ISO as well. The handiest light I own, the one that's far easier to use than flash, is the Fotodiox 312AS LED panel.  These are small and light, put out ample light for low light available light situations and they have the added benefit of continuously changeable color temperature between 3200 and 5600K.  They also have a continuously variable power control.  With two camcorder batteries attached I can use the panel for nearly two hours of continuous run time.  If I'm careful to turn off the lights as soon as we get the shot I can use them for a full day when making images like the one above.  At 1/3 the cost of a single SB-XXX flash from Nikon or similar flash from Canon I think these lights are "no-brainers."  And since they are battery powered there's no scramble to run cables or find working outlets.

In the image above I was crouched into a corner to shoot. The camera was set at ISO 800 and the room was mostly lit by two overhead florescent fixtures.  The part of the measuring machine closest to me, the big, white ring, was in shadow and I knew it would either go too dark or I'd be forced to bring up the exposure on the part in post by nearly a stop and a half, which would add a lot of noise to the newly opened shadow area.  And the correction would also shift the higher tones. There's no free lunch.

I added one of the LED panels to my left.  There wasn't room for a lightstand so I balance the panel on the edge of a shelf. Using the permanent live view on the camera and looking through the EVF I fine-tuned the color temperature control until any sort of color cast difference between the room lighting and the LED light vanished.  Then I used the "volume" control to get the exact amount of fill that would be needed to lift the shadows without adding a second shadow anywhere obvious.

I also wanted to lift the value of the light on the face of the technician in the green suit so I put a second LED light just to the far side of the "patient" and just out of frame.  I "gobo'ed" that light with some black wrap (thick, black aluminum foil) so I didn't get too much spill on the rest of the scene.  That gave me light on the tech's face without messing up the nice series of contrasts through the rest of the image.

It took far less time to set this up than to write about it.  But essentially what I'm trying to say in all this is that good technique can be critical, even in the times of endless post processing, to make an image sing in just the way it needs to.  Taking time to add light instead of depending on lifting the shadows in software is an example.  We've done shoots light this for decades and have always depended on the ability to light in order to control the nuances of shadow and highlights.

Just because we've popularized microwave cooking doesn't mean that there's no place left for the sauté pans or the oven. Lighting to taste.  Season to taste.

I used the cameras at the opposite end of their ISO range this morning. Beautiful portraits in a conference room with a perfectly exposed exterior of trees and greenery.  ISO 50 is gorgeous.


Accelerating in the Web-O-Sphere.

©2012 Lane Orsak.  "Kirk at Work."

A little over a month ago, June 9th to be exact, we reached what I thought was a fun milestone: The VisualScienceLab blog had just clocked its 6 millionth pageview. It took a while to get there. Almost four years.  Well, pageviews fly when you're having fun; VSL will celebrate the 7 millionth pageview today!

I thought I'd take a second to reaffirm what VSL is all about. I've been involved in photo education and in the business of commercial and advertising photography for a long time.  I've seen trends come and go.  I've seen "truths" about the market and about gear be embraced and discarded over and over again.  But for most of us the love of a good image endures.

VSL is my medium for discussing the trends and gear that affect us right now. Today. Most of the time the essays and ensuing discussions can be good, clean fun. Sometimes we'll have honest differences and perceptions (and that's what the "Comments" are for...) but most of the time we'll discuss the relevant (to me) issues of the day, speak the truth about doing this nutty artform for a living, and occasionally wade into the raucous swamp of the hobby's craziness.

I have made a lot of good virtual and real friends along the way and I hope to keep up the conversation with you (or, in Texas, "y'all") for some time to come.

If you haven't signed up as a "follower" you might consider it. It doesn't affect anything other than my ego. No junk mail from me will follow.  But it lets me know that you appreciate the time and energy it takes to write and share.

I'd love to read more comments (even if I disagree with them) so sharpen your virtual pencils and let it fly.  Thank you very much for reading. Thank you for clicking on the Amazon links when you feel the lure of good gear calling your name.  It doesn't cost you more and it earns me a small commission which I generally use to buy more gear to play with and review.

Whether you shoot film or digital or both or even with (gulp) your phone I am happy you are here.  Unless you're a jerk.  And then all bets are off.


What are you willing to give up for more performance?

Performance has many metrics.  Sharper. Faster. Brighter. More resolution. More snap. More speed and more endurance.  And it seems inevitable that for every push forward in one of the performance metrics something somewhere has to be sacrificed.  For instance, if you want a faster lens you'll need to accept the trade-off that you will have a bigger, heavier lens.  If you want a full 35mm framed digital camera you'll pay a higher price and have less depth of field.  If you want bigger image files you'll need more storage and perhaps a computing system with a faster processor.

The trick is to narrow down your choices and figure out what you really want (need?) and what you're willing to give up to get it.  If I wanted the ultimate in photographic resolution would I be willing to give up part of my retirement fund or to go massively into debt to buy a Phase One 180 eighty megapixel digital system with incredibly expensive glass to go with it?  It would mean doing without lots of other things and the trade off might only have temporary benefits that might get lost in several quick generations of new camera/sensor designs.  What would I be willing to trade?

Recently I confronted two "wants" in two different fields that are strangely linked by one strong addiction.  I wanted to swim faster and I wanted to be able to handhold my cameras at longer exposures at least as well as I did in my "fresh and happy" twenties.  I also wanted to reduce my hereditary propensity for anxiety and all its nasty symptoms.  What was I willing to give up that would accrue me advantages in all three areas? What beloved ritual/habit/addiction would I be willing to abandon in order to become faster, steadier and calmer?

About four months ago I realized that I had some anxiety when I tried to go faster in the pool.  Increased anxiety manifested itself as tighter muscles (which cause a certain amount of physical resistance) and more difficulty effortlessly breathing as well as an elevated heart rate which slows down recovery between sets.  Even as a college swimmer I was plagued with a certain amount of performance anxiety that could degrade my overall speed and endurance.  Around this time I also realized that I was slowing down.

In my other world, photography, I noticed that I had developed more shake in my hands and body and that I wasn't able to hold a camera as still as I had before.  While image stabilization worked fine not every camera and lens I want to shoot with has image stabilization built in. (Hello.  Hasselblad...).  Often I like to shoot on the edge of what might be possible.  I like to get lucky shooting candid, available light portraits with medium telephotos like the 85mm 1.4 lenses; handheld.  Wide open.  The longer lenses magnify any sort of operational shortcomings and not being able to hold a camera still is a big operational shortcoming.

I made the (for me) momentous decision to stop drinking caffeinated coffee.  Yes.  You read that correctly.  Kirk Tuck no longer drinks super strong, deep black, potent caffeinated coffee.  The physical transition was quick enough, a few days of crabbiness (but I'd been so crabby on caffeine that no one really noticed a change...) some mild headaches and of course the standard bleeding from the eyes and ears and the grand mal seizures (just kidding about the last two symptoms..) but the psychological addiction was harder to shake (ha. ha.)  I've read about addiction and overcoming addiction and I realized that I couldn't do this halfway.  I couldn't vacillate.  I mean, look at what I had at risk: Faster swimming, better photographs, more patience.

After the first two weeks I noticed that my swimming improved.  Slowly at first and then more radically.  People I had never been able to hang with in workout suddenly came into my sights.  I no longer feared sets of 200's and 400's.  My butterfly stroke endurance increased by leaps and bounds.  But most important to me, my performance anxiety faded and then snuffed itself out altogether. I became both faster and much more relaxed in the water.  During this time I was also able to concentrate more on the mechanics of my freestyle stroke.  I watched an amazing swimmer named Kristen and began to copy her longer and more aggressive arm extension at the front end of her freestyle stroke, her perfectly delineated forearm catch and the decisive and powerful hip roll that kept it all rhythmic and flowing.  Just this weekend my times for 50 and 100 yard repeats dropped again.  I was muscle sore at the end of yesterday's workout but that was because the increase in my speed and endurance added another 1,000 yards to my usual workout.  My fellow swimmers and coach noted and commented and that was nice.

But I know most of you don't really care about swimming and that's okay.  In the realm of photography I started to notice that, in the first few weeks after my caffeine abstinence, my calmness (bordering on drowsiness) was yielding a diverse menu of positive results.  My grip and hold on cameras gets steadier and steadier.  At this point I feel as though I've regressed to my early thirties.  A 50mm 1.4 is generally sharp for me down to a 1/30th of a second when I am mindful of the process.  The bigger reward is more patience.  More proclivity to wait for the right moment instead of hurrying through a shoot or a scene or a moment.

A surprising side benefit of eliminating the liquid speed and slowing down my brain is a calmness in other work situations. The best example is my recent portfolio show where I was able to be less guarded and more affable.  I wasn't overly worried about the outcome and it translated into a better engagement with all the people I met and showed to. In all honesty, it was my first non-anxious portfolio show of my entire career. (that's sad just to read).

So, what did I really give up?  The psycho-chemical effects were easy to give up.  After two weeks all of the cravings were gone, physically, but I realize that I'd been drinking juiced up coffee religiously and with reckless abandon for the better part of thirty five years with very, very few breaks.  The culture of coffee was interwoven in everything I did.  I made extra time to get to shoots so I could drop by the coffee house and get a big cup of hot speed.  On the way to track meets and swimming meets and other events with my son, Ben, the coffee cup was a constant companion.  And I can't remember business meetings that didn't somehow revolve around the intoxicating elixir.  Locations were sometimes determined by their proximity to the best coffee in town.  And a bad shot (of espresso) could ruin my morning.

But I quickly learned that if I could get over my visceral repulsion to decaf that the meetings would still go on.  I've saved over $7,000 in the last three months on coffee purchases (just kidding, my habit was maybe $5 a day) and that's enough to buy a new camera and a couple cool lenses.

The biggest benefit is that fact that I now sleep like a baby, don't yell at bad drivers, and I can handhold a camera steadier than I've been able to in at least twenty years.  If that's not worth giving up an anxiolytic substance I always have my ace in the hole:  The best set of 100 freestyles I've swum in nearly a decade.  All for free.

What would you give up for better performance?



Auto Focus Micro Adjustment and the Sony a77

I couldn't really adjust for this lens but that's okay, 
I know from recent experience that it's "wicked sharp."

As I work more and more with the Sony a77 I find lots of things to like about the camera and very few disappointments. One of the reasons I chose to go with the a77's as my primary shooting cameras ( in addition to the brilliant EVF and really nicely implemented video) was the Auto Focus Micro Adjustment control.  I've been pre-occupied with other camera controls in my quest to really master the camera and I left lens adjustments to last.

But recently I've been working nearly wide open with the 50mm 1.4 lens and I noticed that it would routinely back focus. This led me to jump into the menu and get busy.  I also noticed that my 70-200mm G lens (a whopping $2000) wasn't as sharp as my previous Canon and Nikon zooms so I thought I'd take a crack at that one as well.  In the end I tried every Sony lens I owned on both bodies and now, after hours of being really compulsive and fastidious, I am even happier with my little Sony system than before.

When I first accessed the control the ability to adjust was greyed out on the menu. I finally decided to push the "clear" button and a message came up telling me that 30 lenses had already been registered and that I would lose all those settings if I continued.  Since I'd been using the camera with this control deactivated anyway I decided that it would be "no skin off my nose" to go forward.  I pushed clear.  Now I could make adjustments to any of the Sony branded lenses I put on the camera and it would save up to thirty lenses of my choice.  Do I think the camera was used before me? Decidedly not. I think the camera comes that way by default.

I actually kept notes as I worked.  The 50mm needed a "minus 8" correction.  The 70-200 needed a "minus 6" correction and the 50mm 1.8 DT lens needed a -3 correction.  Most of the lenses were right on.  The little 85mm 2.8 shocked me.  I've always used it to shoot portraits and nothing with sharp lines or edges. When I blew up my test file with the LensAlign it was so sharp wide open that I was temporarily giddy.

I tested all my lenses at 2.8.  I figured most gaussian lens designs will have a bit of focus shift from wide open to 2.8 and that trying to get them just right at 1.4 was perhaps a futile endeavor.  Happily, once I adjusted the 50mm 1.4 at 2.8 I went back and checked it wide open and was happy to find the same correction needed.  At least the lens is consistent.

I tested eight lenses and I did this on two bodies and there were mild differences between bodies.  I almost messed up the test entirely as I had inadvertantly set the focus mode to local which allows the camera to choose between a little cross of squares.  When I aimed at the target I would get different readings each time and when I tested at different distances I needed different numerical values as well.  Once I realized my mistake and set the  camera to center spot AF everything fell right into place.

The 70-200mm is now very sharp wide open and wickedly sharp one stop down.  I took the time to re-test at every marked focal length and found that, once you've set the right value, it tends to be the same for all.

In addition to the stellar performance of the 85mm 2.8 I was also amazed at just how sharp the 16-50mm 2.8 lens is.  It's the sharpest wide to short tele high speed zoom I've ever played with. I can go out shooting now with a sense of assurance that I'm getting the ultimate performance for myself and my clients.  And it was a bonding experience for me and my camera.


A large part of inspiration is patience.

A few years back we were doing an annual report for a California company that built and managed water and wastewater treatment plants across the southern United States.  It was a wacky trip that started in Houston and rolled over to Gulfport and Biloxi, Miss. and then off to California It was our first annual report done entirely with digital cameras.  I used two of the Fuji S2 cameras but I snuck along a little Leica M6 with a sampling of lenses.  Just enough to get the job done....Just in case.

Right before I headed to the airport my favorite camera pusher, Ian, called me.  The Nikon 12-24mm lens for DX cameras had just come in, he had one on hold for me.  Did I want it?  You bet.  Those were the days when there were very few wide choices for cropped frame cameras and most wide angles designed for film looked like crap on the full frame cameras.  Good thing I stopped by because 80% of the images in that year's annual report probably came from that one optic.

But this particular blog post doesn't have much to do with lenses at all.  It's more about patience.  We got into Biloxi around noon and headed to our location.  The sun was direct, the plant looked boring and the sun showed off every inch of rust or wear. I shot the stuff on the list but none of it was more than technically good snapshots.  We were going to call it a day and head back to the hotel, have a few drinks and a good dinner but something kept us there. 

I finally said, to the art director and the direct client, "You guys go on ahead and I'll catch up with you after the sun sets."  But they were troopers and stuck with me.  As the sun started to go down the clouds and the sky got more and more interesting.  We kept going back to stuff we'd shot before and re-shooting and re-shooting.  The plant was quiet and there were few people around.  I used my clients as models to show scale and add a human component.

We knew we were getting better stuff as the light lunged for the horizon.  The intensity of the light dropped and the color temperature dropped as well, giving the landscape a golden glow for a short time.  We went back and started shooting the same stuff again.  We knew by now what angles would look good.

When the sun dropped down over the horizon the light became omni-directional, soft as premium toilet paper and the color of the light started it's gentle shift through the register.  Now things were fun. The year before we'd looked at black and white Polaroids as they came sliding out of their wrappings.  This year we hovered around the little screen on the back "oohing and awing" over the colors and the increasingly gentle tones. 

Fifteen or twenty minutes later the light changed again. We were enjoying the wonderful reflections in the waste water tanks.  And we shot another round.  We didn't think it could get much better but for some reason I still can't fathom we all silently agreed to stay a little longer and see what happened. It was so un-corporate and so cool creative.  I couldn't imagine how it would have looked on a spreadsheet schedule.  Something like this probably: "Shoot WW treatment plant, wait 15 minutes, repeat.  Wait fifteen minutes, repeat." And somewhere a bean counting lawyer would intone heartlessly, "Are we paying for all these repeats?"

But then the sun and the afterglow disappeared altogether and we discovered....long exposures.  We spent another hour or so shooting all the images we'd shot before glowing in blue against the warm yellows of the plants lights.  It was a rare act on all sides of patience.  We could have tossed on a polarizing filter and pounded out shots of the plant, right on schedule and have been back to our hotel by 5:15 pm to watch CNN, have a few glasses of wine and tell tall tales over an expense account dinner.  But it seemed like the goddess of patience came down and dusted us with a magic wand until we achieved what it was we really wanted.  

I shot maybe fifteen different scenes after the sun went down.  And I can't really say that it was "my" creative prowess that served us that evening.  We worked together as a creative team.  Each of us spotting some great angle or some coincidence of color and tone that worked just right. I just translated the collaborative energy into digital files.

What's the reward for patience? How about being inspired again and again by what could, by most counts, be considered a boring subject?  How about savoring the calmness of the moment? How about seeing what your camera will do with changing light colors and intensities. 

When the job wrapped up I got a phone call.  The client wanted to know how well the images would print large.  I said I'd do a test.  Now I know that no professional photographer seems confident enough to do any sort of enlargement these days with anything but a 24 or 36 megapixel shot but we were working with Fuji's insane (but remarkable) interpolated 12 megapixel files that in reality were coming off a six megapixel sensor.  I sent the images off to the professional lab and they printed them at 24 by 36 inches on a LightJet printer.  The enlargments were amazing.  Just amazing.  No appreciable noise at our usual ISO 100 or 200 settings and endless color and tone.

They say that patience is a virtue.  But I think it is its own reward.  And I would say that the first step on the road to patience is a beautiful tripod and a low ISO.  Taking time to let the camera soak in all the photons it wants in a leisurely and civilized way.  

I think we need to be on guard against impatience.  You can't hurry the creative process of children and photographers any more than you can hurry nature.




Jana. In the city.  Dead of Summer.

It's pretty rare for me to shoot stuff in full sun.  But sometimes you've got to try new stuff just to see what your camera will do.  This image started life as a file from a Canon 5Dmk2 camera and an 85mm 1.8 lens.  I shot it in the raw format and I tried to see just how much detail I could capture in the highlight areas on Jana's forehead and nose.  The real trick is to keep the highlight detail without plunging everything else in to the abyss of blocky shadows.  Some of it is careful metering but a lot of it is the wonderful dynamic range in some of the cameras we've had the pleasure to have owned.  The Canon 5Dmk2 was one of the those cameras.

But lately I've had equal success with the Sony a77.  It's all in how you use the cameras.  And how much you know about their personalities.  And to really know the personality of your camera you have to take it out on a series of "dates" and play with all the buttons.

I've shot the Sony a77 at ISO 3200 in the theatre and found it a bit noisy for my taste when I blow up the files.  But I've also shot a number of studio and full sunlight projects with the camera at ISO 50 and it's amazingly good there. In fact, it's exciting at ISO 50.  Why? Because the dynamic range is something to write home about.  How did I know it would happen like that? Because I took the camera out and shot people in the full sun and tested it.

I'd never met Jana before but I wanted to have a real person to shoot so I looked around on a model site, got in touch with her and arranged to meet her and one of her friends at a downtown coffee shop.  We spent a couple hours walking around downtown talking, shooting film and getting to know each other's aesthetic tastes.  After that we shot together again for one of my book projects.  

I've found that shooting test charts and boring set ups in studios is a flawed way to really understand a camera's potential. You have to shoot what you'd normally want to shoot with the camera to really understand it.  

All cameras are flawed in one way or another.  The denizens of the web forums would have you believe that some cameras are holy because of their high ISO performances alone.  Others are fixated with mega-loads of mega-pixels. I'm partial to the way cameras feel in my hands and how they operate.  But I guess the real point is that only you can assess whether the amalgam of parts and design and science that make up a particular camera connect with you.

If you read enough on the web you'll either ultimately be wildly confused or you'll end up chosing a consensus camera and never even touching or considering the camera that might be the "Goldilocks" camera for you.  Not too big, not too small, not to loud, not too ugly.  Just right.

I've just about finished testing every single parameter of the Sony a77 camera and next week I'm going to do the exercise of writing a full on review of the camera and a couple of my favorite lenses.  It's a flawed camera.  But no more so, in my estimation, than the Canon 5D mk2, the Nikon D700 and any number of other cameras I've worked with.

In a nutshell there are three reasons I still like the Sony a77 and haven't traded my two copies away for whatever the camera of the moment is:  1.  The camera has a very wide dynamic range, is very noise free and has wonderful tonality at ISO 50.  And, according to DXO's measurements it really is 50.  Not an electronically pulled 100.  2.  Once you've mastered using a good EVF on your camera for stills and especially for video you will never want to go backwards, even if the camera has some quirks.  And 3. I've come to respect and use some of the weirdo features I never, ever thought I'd touch.  I like the Multi-Frame noise reduction setting.  I humbly admit I like the built-in HDR capabilities (but I try hard to make the effects invisible).  I like the built-in electronic +1.4 and +2.0 teleconverter button.  That means I can keep the 50mm 1.8 or 1.4 on the front and push a button to get closer for a tight portrait.

The bottom line is that my a77 is more fun than previous cameras I've owned.  And the wonderful 50 ISO helps me work wider with studio flash and helps me get images with a look that's fairly unique among inexpensive DSLR's.  What I get is limited depth of field with high sharpness, wider dynamic range and incredible detail.  And for most of what I shoot that always trumps being able to shoot sports by candlelight.  In fact, with the exception of set up sports shots for advertising and the kid's swim team in full Texas sun, I never shoot sports and don't understand why that and BIF ( which stands for "birds in flight" and is another aspect of photography I have absolutely no interest in) capabilities in a camera seem to make so much difference to the other hundreds of thousands of camera buyers who also don't shoot those things.  If you do you might want a different camera....

But to be honest my perspective was built up over years and years of shooting and making money with big medium format cameras on tripods with slow, sharp, grainless film.  After showing a portfolio to people who potentially will pay for my work I've confirmed that real art directors still value the same things they valued in the film days.  To paraphrase:  They want their images sharp and technically perfect.  They know how to degrade them in post.  They can grunge up a beautiful shot but it's ten times harder to take a grungy file and make it sharp again.

Will your camera do what you want it to do? The only way to really know is to test.  Don't trust my opinions or Thom Hogan's or DPReview's.  Trust your hands and your eyes and the output onto your screen or prints of images that you like to shoot.  That's all that counts.

The process every photographer secretly (or not so secretly) fears. Putting together the portfoliio.

The floor of the studio while deciding what to include for a portfolio show.

I have a portfolio show with an advertising agency today. When I first set it up with the art director I assumed I'd be showing my work to him and maybe one or two more people.  It was my intention to throw some work on the new iPad and sort it into galleries with an app called, "Portfolio" and then let them fingertip drag their way through.  It's a nice, intimate way to show one's work and it doesn't require a bunch of physical work.

Of course there's always Murphy's Law. In the interim between setting up the portfolio show and the appointment this afternoon someone at the same agency called me up and asked me to bid on a fairly big project. Then, when I confirmed our portfolio show the art buyer let me know that eight of the creative people in the agency would be attending.  Yikes! Eight people hovering around a (now) tiny iPad?  Curses.

What to do and what to show?  I decided I'd do the show with both a traditional 13 by 19 inch leather portfolio case, filled with prints, and the iPad.  I might also bring along a beautiful little 8x8 inch leather book filled with black and white portraits.

The nerve racking part of the whole process is the question of what to put into the big print book. So I did what any crazy artist would do and immediately dumped the better part of 1200 large prints onto the floor of the studio and started sorting. And here's the sad reality:  I'll be sorting and changing and sorting and changing right up until the time of my appointment, trying to fine tune the selection. Not an efficient way to spend the day.

My "brilliant" friends who are also professional photographers would laugh at me.  They've got bound books (which removes all temptation to meddle) filled with their greatest hits.  But I like to custom populate my portfolios with images that are aimed at the market I'm pitching.  If an agency is heavy into healthcare I want to make sure that I've got a good sampling of the images I've done for hospitals, cardiology practices, cancer practices and oral surgeons.  At the same time I don't want to come in so heavy in one category that I can't represent my interest in other kinds of  industries in which they may have good clients.

My wife, a graphic designer of many years, tells me to put together a book of great portraits and just to show what I want to get. Nice advice. But it would really depress me to go in with a book of great portraits only to hear, "These are lovely but we were hoping to see some food as we just landed a big hotel account..."  Or something along those lines.

While this may sound like something only commercial image sellers should have to worry about I think it's also germaine to amateur photographers as well.  I think nothing is as ruthlessly, painfully instructive for every artist than the task of narrowing down your work to your top  thirty to fifty pieces. In fact, I think we should all undertake the discipline of having to put together a big, printed portfolio (say 13 by 19 inches?) because it will make you really look at your work with a critical eye.  Does the work hold together stylistically? How will handle the inevitable vertical and horizontal interplay between prints? Does your chosen subject matter hold up for 25 or 50 images?  Do you have 25 to 50 keepers? (sometimes I feel like I have ten....)

Try it as an exercise.  Put together a beautiful portfolio of 25 images. Don't put in anything that's not perfectly seen and well printed. Don't put in stuff that's so limited in appeal that only you would get the emotional appeal of the image. Don't stick it in a nappy plastic binder. Invest in a real portfolio case.

What will this buy you?  Well, when people ask you about your photography work you will have a very impressive and comfortable way to present what you do.  I think everyone would agree that seeing beautifully printed images writ large beats the heck out of watching your "friends" scroll through the screens of their cellphones, "Looking for that great shot..." Your audience will be impressed if only by the fact that they've probably never seen photographs well presented before.

It's a way of organizing your vision and your style.  And the process will probably nail down, for you, what you really like to see and what's just the same kind of fluff everyone else is shooting and showing on the web.  But the most important aspect of putting together the book is the solid feeling of having really done something with your work.

A company called Itoya makes some really nice, inexpensive portfolio books with leather-like covers and crystal clear insert pages.  Do your own ink jet prints or send them to a lab that's well profiled like Costco.  In Austin we have an additional embarrassment of riches in that we have good custom labs at Holland Photo Imaging and Precison Camera.  I have a fair number of prints done at Holland Imaging because they run specials on large prints imaged onto C-print papers, including metallic finishes that look really cool.

Okay.  I think I've got it.  One big book, one small black and white book, and my greatest hits on the iPad.  Now, what am I going to do for leave behinds? 

I should stop coasting and do this (portfolio showing) more often. Practice makes perfect.  Now where have I heard that before.....

Edit: After the show.  I went with my plan of showing a book of square, black and white portraits (10 by 10 inches in a nicely book bound presentation), seven different galleries on an iPad and one big book of 13 by 19 inch color prints.

Of the eight people present several were intent on viewing everything on the iPad. The lead creative director loved the big color and everyone, universally, liked the black and white book.  The reasons to bring both are ample.  I think the big prints had the most impact but the iPad supplied depth for people whose brains are wired that way.  In the end the iPad paid for itself because, in response to a spontaneous question from the creative director, I was able to play for the group some video projects on which I've been working. That opened up another line of potential business.

I took along ten copies of a postcard (5.5 by 8 inches) which has one of my favorite images of a weathered looking concrete contractor in a hard hat in front of a wall of incoming storm clouds. The group asked for contact information and was delighted with the cards.

After I update this I'll sit down and write each person a "thank you" note.  And that completes my portfolio show.   Thanks for your interest.


Local Photo Hero, Michael O'Brien (by way of NYC) still has the real stuff.

©2012 Michael O'Brien.  Do not use or copy without his direct permission.

Michael O'Brien and an NPR reporter went in search of Texas ranchers affected by the long drought. Michael used a 4x5 inch view camera and black and white Polaroid positive/negative film to capture the images.  Go and see the photographs and hear the story of last year's incredible drought in Texas.  

The images are so uniquely different than what we normally see.  They are incredibly lit.  I can't wait to see them as big prints, chocked full of detail and tone.

To see more of Michael's work:  http://www.obrienphotography.com/


Lead Singer In Church.

I like portraits that look like this. I like all the stuff out of focus in the background and I like the almost defiant stare from my subject.  I like that she's not overly made up. I like that her hair curls up and sticks out on the right side of her head.  The image was done with a Zeiss 85mm 1.4 ZE on a Canon 1Dmk2n.  The light is pretty obviously just what's available.

I guess my point in showing this and talking about it is that I didn't have a traditional client telling me how to shoot.  Rosie and I were out on Willie Nelson's ranch on a misty fall day with no one to please but ourselves.  So much of developing and holding on to a style you like has to do with spending enough time playing and shooting what you want.  Not what you think someone else wants.

I think it's all about practicing the fun.


Ben and Kirk shoot a commercial for Zach Scott's rendition of Xanadu.

Xanadu for the stage is a send up of the movie version from the early 1980's.  And this is the TV commercial that Ben and I worked on to promote the show:

It's fun, it's silly and it's 15 seconds.  Ben and I loaded up the car, set up the green screen and shot a bunch of variations with two of Zachary Scott's talented actors.  Ben acted as grip and sound man while I ran the camera. Creative Concept and Postproduction were done in-house at Zachary Scott Theatre by web marketing guru, David Munns.

Tech Notes:  We used a Westcott muslin ChromaKey green background (10 by 20 feet) lit by four 500 bulb LED fixtures.  The key and fill lighting was done with two 1000 bulb LED fixtures.  The actors are backlit with two of the battery powered Fotodiox AS-312 LED panels, gelled with a weak magenta filtration.  Both of the 1K bulb panels were covered with diffusion materials and the fill was further softened with a Westcott FastFlag diffuser.

We shot with a Sony a77 in the AVCHD 1080 60i setting alternating between the 16-50mm kit zoom and the 80mm Hasselblad Zeiss Planar lens on an adapter.  Focusing was done manually, assisted by Sony's really cool Focus Peaking.

Ben was wrangling a Rode Videomic on the end of a no-name "fishpole." When I looked at the footage on a 27 inch monitor I was amazed at the quality.  Even better, under controlled lighting, than my previous Canon 5Dmk2.  

The theatre is also editing down a :30 second spot to follow up this teaser.

Ben and I will be at the dress rehearsal next week. I'm shooting stills for publicity and Ben will be shooting BHS ("behind the scenes") video for the web.

Just thought I share a little project with y'all.

Edit: Several people asked if I filtered the LED lights that were used as the main lights on the actors.  The answer is no. I did a custom white balance at the beginning of the shoot and it seemed just right.  As the sensors in cameras get better and better so too does the ability to do really good white balances; even with sources that have lower CRI's.