Look. I'm smiling. It must have been a fun job.

T.D.A. Lofton and me at the event.

I did a fun job yesterday evening (Sunday) and I wanted to write about it because I come off as being so dour sometimes. I thought I would talk about having fun on jobs instead of always making it sound like challenges and technical drudgery.

My friend, Debbie Kern, with whom I've done events in at least four countries, invited me/assigned me to take photographs for a party at the Austin Lexus dealership. The party started at 5 and went till 8 pm. The catering was done by Austin veteran caterers, Currant Event and it was wonderful, a slap in the face to the subsistence entertaining people ended up doing during the great recession. Everything from fresh crab legs to bacon wrapped quail. The bars were plentiful and well stocked and the new space, with a barrel vault ceiling, was spacious and open.

I walked thru the crowds with an assistant provided by the client. Her job was to get the names of the couples and members of groups I photographed. I did an equal number of staged and unstaged photographs and another third of the images were of the food, decor and the cars. I saw my first Lexus LFA, a $400,000 carbon fiber ultra performance car, of which 500 exist worldwide.

I used three different cameras, mostly just for fun. I used a Nex-7 with the kit lens (18-55) for wide shots and really tight detail stuff---all with natural light. I used a Sony a57 with a 16-50mm lens and a Sony flash with a bounce panel for all the flash images (groups, couples, etc.) and a Sony a77 with a 35mm 1.8 as a grab shot available light camera.  Nothing long.

The pace was party cruise. No tight schedule, no big set ups. I'd almost forgotten how much fun it can be to work as a photographer at a well executed and happy party.

The image above is the first iPhone image to grace the VSL blog. It is what it is. At least it hasn't been run through the filter-mania... I'll grudgingly admit that it's a pretty good shot.


Photographing Alanis Morissette at Liberty Lunch in Austin.

It was a hot, sticky evening in Austin when I went to Liberty Lunch to photograph Alanis Morissette in concert. Liberty Lunch was "old Austin." It started as a down town, out door, music venue back in the 1970's and it thoroughly pre-dated Austin's progressive downtown gentrification.  There was a small pool called, "Esther's Pool," no bigger than a bathtub up near the stage but off to one side back in the older days and one of the first times I went there to hear music the famous poet, Alan Ginsberg was soaking in the tub mostly naked.

For a couple of years Belinda and I had a standing date to go on Thurs. nights to hear a local band called "Beto and the Fairlanes" play very hip sambas, tangos, cumbias and other latin music and we would drink one dollar Shiner Bock beers and dance until early morning. One time we won the cumbia dance contest and took home the grand prize: two cases of Shiner Bock. We threw a party at my house the very next night.

Over time Liberty Lunch got tamed. Now there's a restaurant on the corner called Lamberts and some kind of chocolate and coffee shop where the heart of the club used to be.

On the evening of Alanis' concert the gentrification was already in motion. The owners of the club built a roof over the venue so they wouldn't be at the mercy of the weather. The club that used to cater to college kids and Austin fauna gave way to hundreds of screaming, adolescent girls. The club built a plywood wall that separated the crowd from the stage by about five feet. It was the first time I'd ever seen a physical barrier between the performers and their fans at Liberty Lunch but I guess that was the price of going corporate.

The distinguished members of the photo-press operated in the space between the barrier and the stage.  As memory serves there were exactly three photographers at the concert. It was a time of film and getting fun shots actually required some.....knowledge.

All I needed was one good shot. I was shooting in black and white and I took two cameras to the event with me. One was a Leica M4 with a 50mm Summicron, loaded with Tri-X film. The other was a Leica M6 ttl .85 with a 90mm Summicron, also loaded with Tri-X. I didn't plan on shooting much with the 90 but it sure made a nice semi-spot meter with which to gauge exposure.

Alanis wailed while an ocean of young woman screamed along with their favorite songs just behind me. I took one or two meter readings, set my shooting camera and then fired away. I shot two rolls of film, 72 shots in all, and then I decided I had what I needed and evacuated myself from the hot center of the action. While I like some of AL's music I'm really not a big live music fan and I was ready to give my eardrums a rest.  I headed over to the darkroom to soup my film and then headed home. I remember it as the last evening I went to Liberty Lunch. Shortly after, in the middle of the 1990's, development on steroids came to the downtown area and swept away the feeling and trappings of the counter-cultural Austin we'd known and loved. Liberty Lunch held on longer than the Armadillo World Headquarters but in the end it seems that bare naked commerce always wins over art. Too bad.

I have many casual snapshots from my evenings at Liberty Lunch but for some reason this is one of my favorites.


Simple light works well.

I get lots of e-mail asking me to talk about tricky lighting with multiple, radio slaved flashes but the reality is that I prefer simple, one light set ups for most stuff.  And most of my personal portraits are lit by only two lights and a reflector. I think there is something valuable about mastering one or two lights before even considering all the tricky and blingy lighting set ups one sees on the web or in books the raison d' √©tre of which is to sell glorified lighting diagrams.

One umbrella. One light. One small reflector. Old, black and white film shot.

Untitled beautiful woman.

This young woman came to my studio with her older sister. An advertising friend of mine thought the older sister was a wonderful beauty and needed to be photographed. I disagreed. I understood at that moment how subjective human understanding of beauty could be. 

Fall in Austin. Back when it used to get cold.

I re-read the interview with Dennis Darling this morning. I agree with the most important part. The only interesting photographers are the curious ones. Not curious about how the gear works but curious about how memory, people and  sensibilities work. That interview is a self contained workshop on how to be creative.

Zach Scott Theatre opens big. Big.

I've spent two evenings at the theater this week. Both times I was watching RAGTIME in the new, Topfer Theatre building. It's a brand new 400 seat theater that's pretty much state of the art. Beautifully design, great bars, and a large percentage of the stage lighting is done with state of the art LED lighting fixtures. For those of you who've never seen RAGTIME it's a play set at the beginning of the 20th century in the United States and it deals with issues of racism, how Americans at the time dealt with immigration from nearly everywhere and, issues of personal morality and our responsibility to our fellow humans. The play is held together with eerily beautiful Ragtime music. Enough about content of the play, I want to write about shooting in the new space.  It's going to be challenging and I'm still coping with all the changes but that's what makes this career so much fun. Just when I get everything figured out for shooting on a small and intimate space we get to change gears and shoot BIG.

Since RAGTIME is an enormous production we were tight on schedule. The costumes and scenery weren't quite finished for our usual dress rehearsal and marketing wanted to ramp up attendance quickly. Both nights I attended there was an audience in the house which meant that I didn't the usual leisure of moving around to get the best angles and elevations. It also meant that I couldn't work in close to the stage as I have for years at the other two theaters.

I went the first night without a camera in order to concentrate on the run of the play. It was like scouting. I wanted to see where the lighting cues came in. What the action and choreography looked like. How the stage was blocked out. I did discover two interesting things that would affect my photography.  One is that most of the stage lighting was set as approximately a 3700k color temperature but the follow spots were set up as daylight fixtures. This meant that there would be a  color split depending on which light sources had dominance. I would have to set two different color balances and then be able to "see" the changes and to toggle between the two color settings.

I also learned that being stationary during the show is a whole new way of doing the work. I had to rely on the long end of my long zoom in order to get the shots I needed for most of the show. My observations on the first night let me know where the "ta-da" moments were in the play and allowed me to be ready for them on the next night.

When I came back to do the actual photography I was positioned in the center of the house about 26 rows up from the stage. There's a break between seat rows there.  Unusual for me since I've been shooting at stage level or actor eye level for most of my previous work.

What I figured out in my scouting was that the majority of stuff I wanted to capture, shots of one two and three people together in a scene, or small groups, would require long lens and enough ISO to lift up the shutter speeds to something higher that I was used to using. I did most of the tight shots with a 70-200mm 2.8G lens on the front of a Sony a57 (supposedly better high ISO performance than the a77...) All the wide, stage and scenery shots as well as shots of the entire cast on stage at one time were done with the 16-50mm 2.8 Sony lens on an a77 body.

I set both bodies up with two different color temperature/wb settings. As soon as I noticed the faces turning blue or cyan in the electronic viewfinder (yes, that's one of the fringe benefits of the EVF, real time color analysis!) I could hit the function button on the taking camera and then toggle to the needed setting.

Since I was trying to capture action, expression and movement I decided I needed to shoot a lot. How much is a lot? I ended up with around 1800 shots over the course of the three hour show. This meant I needed to be shooting Jpegs or there would be no way to edit, process and convert the files in time for the marketing department's deadlines. It also meant that I really had to nail the changes in color since I'd have a limited opportunity to make color shifts in post. The majority of images were shot in the a57 camera which did 1200 shots on one battery while still showing 41% power remaining at the end of the evening. So much for the hit against Sony on battery life...

There was a non-revenue audience in this particular run through but the electronic first curtain shutter of the Sony cameras, and the lack of a moving mirror, makes the Sony camera quiet enough to use unless you are seated directly next to or directly in front or behind someone. On the mezzanine row I was far enough in front and behind the other rows that the camera was mostly inaudible.

What have I learned or re-learned? First, the obvious. If you are shooting from further away with a longer lens you flatten out the scene and you lose a lot of intimacy in the images. There's a reason why  world class photo journalist and street artists use shorter lenses and work close in. It makes for a more emotionally exciting image. Really.

Secondly, even though the Sony 70-200mm 2.8 is a really nice optic and the cameras have built in image stabilization I was at the outside limit of my ability to hold the lens steady enough at anything longer than around 1/500th of a second. 200mm on a cropped frame camera is the eq. of a 300mm camera on a full frame camera and, at the longest focal length, every subject and camera movement is amplified.  And not in a good way.  Next time I shoot at this venue I'll try to shoot much closer. In fact, if we can do a closed house dress rehearsal I'd want to stand on stage and shoot with a collection of much faster single focal length lenses. The longest I would need in that scenario would be the 85mm and that's a whole different ballgame when it comes to lens speed/subject movement/ISO compromises.

In the final processing I could see some issues from camera movement in dark scenes. But I have mixed feelings about changing the mix in the camera bag. I could go with the new Sony a99 but then I'd lose about 100mm of effective reach which would necessitate buying longer lenses. If I use a longer single length lens I'll be switching back and forth to other cameras as the scenes change in order to get the framing I need for each shot. It's a bizarre compromise and one that I'll ponder for the rest of the week.

The theater is beautiful and the range of new stagecraft that's been made possible is breathtaking. I just need a few years of practice to lock in a new way of working with the dimensions and layout of the new space and everything will be groovy.  Photos below.


Must read essay of the day about photography.

I read this interview with my friend, Dennis Darling, and I decided to take the rest of the day off. Dennis is a tenured photography professor at UT Austin. He is also brilliant, pithy, and eccentric. All the good trappings of an artist. Read the interview and gnash your teeth or praise him. I'm going out for some BBQ and then taking a nap on the couch. Dennis already said everything I wanted to say today....



What if I was really as smart as I thought I was? It would be so weird.

Two notes that are totally tangential to my life as a writer and a photographer:  

1. Sitting down might kill you. At least that's what I keep reading over and over again on the web and in the last few paper newspapers I read. Apparently every hour of just sitting around (watching TV, reading websites, staring blankly at your computer screen, scribbling on index cards, etc.) cuts about 21 minutes off your life expectancy. I thought I was bulletproof because I swim hard for at least an hour six days a week and run a couple of days as well but the studies say: "NO."

And that's a nasty realization for someone who spends a lot of time doing file conversions and working in PhotoShop as well as for someone who really enjoys writing blogs. Because, in the past, I did all those things...sitting. By various study calculations I may already be dead and am just continuing on as a zombie.

When I had lower back problems a few weeks ago I did a bunch of research and found that a major culprit in the epidemic of lower back pain was.....ready for this?......sitting.  Around that time I started experimenting with my self by finding a piece of furniture in the studio that would allow me to read and write on the web while standing. My Sears Professional Craftsman Rolling Tool Chest was almost high enough but a stack of previous model laptops placed on top gave me the perfect elevation for my current reading/writing computer. I am able to stand in front of it with my elbows bent at ninety degree angles and type with ease.  I am also at the perfect distance from the matte screen on my 15 inch Powerbook. I have written a book chapter, a blog, an invoice and a scrunch of e-mails while standing in front of the assemblage and I'm feeling fine and productive.

I don't know what your situation is but if you are having back problems you may want to try a standing work situation. It's kind of fun. And if you rock back and forth you'll burn more calories than you would sitting (that's true just in keeping your major muscle groups flexing....) and that never hurts because it means you'll likely lose some weight if you are already at odds with your bathroom scale and, if you are either naturally thin or highly disciplined it means you can up the calorie count with reckless abandon.

The second note: I usually upgrade when new software upgrades are offered. Especially if they are offered at what I consider to be a reasonable price. For some reason I shied away from the first release of Apple's Mountain Lion, even though the price in the "App Store" was only $19.95. I just didn't want to deal with system trauma, no matter how remote the possibility. I didn't want to be one of those guys who writes (moans) on the web about loosing everything in a painfully tragic upgrade.

I waited until version 10.8.2 and today I updated the machine I'm writing this on. It was a fairly painless process. It took a couple hours to download the files and another half hour for the installer to do its dark and secretive vision. This machine is populated with most of what is also on another, newer Powerbook so I really wasn't tightrope walking without a net. But I needn't have worried. Everything seems to be going we the keyboar#$#$#%^%&$%*(*RHWRGATU$YWTGHWSTYETHEYWRYWRHYSGHAFYSRTWE%&$^^@#$^&#$%^#%&$YTHGQARYEDFGSFJERTWE&#%$&$%^&#%$*$TWETYWE

Ooops. Just kidding. I'll let you know if I run into any issues. I know, I know, you're a dyed in the wool windows guy... but the majority of our readers now read the blog with Safari so there has to be some interest in the operating system. 

Food shot. What I needed to do differently on this one.

This is an image of a really lovely dish. It's a pork shank served with spaetzle. It's hard to make big hunks of meat look fabulous no matter how delicious which is why (with the exception of racks of ribs) most meat gets photographed as individual servings already plated.  Another exception is fowl which can look good when photographed in its entirety. Our client serves up this dish as one that's shared at the table. More a bar food than a restaurant entre√©. My job was to make it fit into the series of images we would make for use in their advertising.

The image looks good in a web size and my client was pleased with the way it looks on the website for the business but in retrospect I think we could have made just a few changes to improve the overall image.

First, I think the dish might have been better presented if it had already been sliced to show the interior of the meat instead of just its delicious, golden exterior. Providing the privileged view of the insides for the package delivers more selling message per image.

Next, I could have used more olive oil on the exterior to create more shine and pop on the skin. When the dish was first presented it glistened more and we needed to apply some oil and some steam right before shooting in order to maintain that fresh from the broiler look.

In retrospect I wish that we had used some sort of garnish for the spaetzle since it looks to monochrome along with all the other warm colors in the image. A sprig of rosemary, some marinated purple onion or some other concise, fresh addition would have been a nice counterpoint to the softness and uniformity of the dish. My only concern would be potentially introducing a second point of focus which would draw the eye away from the cooked green onion garnish of the pork.

Finally, I wish I had used a stronger backlight on the dish. Just enough more raw light to add a crusty delineation to the top of the bone in the pork shank and to better define the edges of the meat.

I find it very useful to come back to an image after a few weeks and really study it. We learn more from our mistakes than we ever do from hitting it out of the ballpark every time. I'll ad this to my notebook on food photographs and take a look at it next time I head out to shoot food.

The above brings up a topic that I feel strongly about (which ones don't I...?). I've had the habit of keeping a "job journal" for many years now. I sit down after a job and write notes about things that worked and things that could have worked better. Some of the journal entries are extensive and detailed while others are little more than recordings of feelings or moods. Along the lines of, "How did that portrait interaction feel? And why? What should I have done to move it into more positive territory? Could I have changed the Gestalt?"

Usually the journals are much more technical than emotional. For instance, I did an assignment last week for a company that tests chemicals, creates reference compounds, and analyzes complex substances. It's the kind of quiet company filled with employees who have doctorates in chemistry and other esoteric fields. This was a job that is part of a recurring advertising campaign and one in which they would like continuity of the visual components.  For me, that means getting the lighting and point of view to match up.

I was doing portraits against a white background with individual people dressed in lab coats. I looked back at last year's journal entry of the same, basic job. I was able to quickly find that the distance of the background lights (three total) was 12.5 from the white seamless background. The background, measured with an incident light meter read f8.2.

The distance from the background to the subject was 23 feet. The distance from the 60 inch softlighter diffused umbrella that I used as a main light to the subject position was approximately 50 inches. I used a Westcott one stop net between the main light and the subjects right shoulder so that the ultra-white lab coat would not burn out. I was able to see that last year I used a passive fill reflector as a fill light to the opposite side of the subject. It was a 40 inch round white reflector.

Having all this information at hand meant that this year I was able to set up more quickly and surely, spend a bit less time testing and come away with images (portraits) that will match, year-to-year.  It was a time saver. There were also notes about how I post processed the images as well as how and to whom I delivered them.

The cameras changed from last year to this year but after a conversion to black and white for the campaign the biggest issue will always be the uniformity of lighting.

My notes for the food shoot done in late August are more...voluminous. And when I studied the notes yesterday I went back and referenced a food shoot I'd done several years ago with LED lights. While I dealt with a few technical issues on that shoot it presented an interesting counterpoint to the recent shoot. I think the lighting was much more nuanced in the previous shoot. I'll study a bit more and see what I can combine from both the food shoots to make the next one a little better.

Younger photographers may scoff at the idea of keeping a job journal since they can remember most of the shoots they've done so far, but jobs pile on jobs and details get muddled. At this point in my short career I can look back at my ledger and find that I've done over 10,000 assignments. Most are not memorable but some are mileposts and point of view shifters.  Having a clear, post action assessment helps me to intellectual internalize what led to success and what details led to less success.  

I still remember, with much clarity, a note I wrote myself after a personal trip where I took along everything but the darkroom sink. I told myself that I felt I had carried a boat anchor through Paris. I suggested that a small, fast camera body and a zoom lens that covered 24-85mms was all a vacationer/street photographer/documentarian would/should ever need. That and his wits. I hedge my bets when I travel and also take a fast, short telephoto; like an 85mm. But when I sit down to pack I'm always like a kid in a candy store. Bags get crammed full of stuff even though I know in some part of my brain that picking up a bag and carrying it across the studio is nothing like carrying the same stout bag on and off trains and over my shoulder for ten or twelve hours a day.  Then I read my note about travel cameras and I open the bag and start dumping stuff back into the drawers. I always thank myself later.  And you know what? I never miss the gear I didn't bring.

I think a journal is even more critical for an amateur/enthusiast. Since you don't shoot as often you tend to get rusty. A good journal is always there to remind you of what ultimately makes you happy each time you go out to shoot. And it reminds you of what you didn't use, hated carrying and wish you'd left at home. Sometimes we all need a reminder.

Go out and shoot and have a great day!


There isn't always just one "right" angle for food...


The shot directly above is my favorite for this dish but we routinely try out as many angles and croppings as we can in order to give our art directors and our clients a choice of images for a range of uses.