Savoring a Sunday Commercial Shoot.

Me shooting a Nex 7 into a mirror at Caffe Medici on Congress Ave.

It's Sunday and the first really cold, wonderfully Fall like day we've seen in Austin so far. At 6 am everyone should be tucked into their warm beds, fast asleep and enjoying a temporary and happy state of short term hibernation. That would not be my fate. The alarm clock on my cellphone chirped and prodded me awake and I stumbled into the bathroom to brush my teeth and splash cold water over my face. The dog looked up from her comfortable chair across the room from my warm bed and then put her head back down with a look that said, "Too early even for dogs." She promptly went back to sleep.  We haven't turned the heater on yet but the temperature last night got all the way down to 43 degrees (f). I noticed, as I left the bedroom, that my dog still had, as a blanket, the old black sweatshirt I'd gotten up to cover her with in the middle of the night.  She seemed cozy and warm.

I padded down the long hallway and looked out the windows at the moonlit landscape. I sat in the dining room and put on my socks and shoes. Then I headed out to the studio to print off a finalized shot list for today's adventure. I didn't bother to turn on the overhead lights, a motion sensor turned on a small LED panel that illuminated the path to my desk.  After the list came off the printer I headed to the car.  I had loaded it last night. Three monolights with all the trimmings, large umbrellas, a trio of stout light stands, the old, wooden tripod and a case of cameras and lenses. Safe enough in the driveway. Safe enough behind the rock wall that divides the front yard from the street.

As I opened the door to the car and the interior lights jumped on I noticed an armadillo lumbering away from my front yard. He'd already dug enough holes looking for grubs and it was time to head back to his hidden lair. In my neighbor's front yard nine deer, from tiny spotted babies to horn bedraggled bucks, stood around eating grass and ornamental plants.

I drove off to get a cup of coffee and something to eat at Starbuck's to help me on my journey to my Sunday project; a photo shoot for a Spa out near Lake Travis. Hot whole wheat bagel with low fat cream cheese and a half caffeine, half regular grande coffee in the new and unstained cup holder of the studio Honda and I was ready to drive the curvy, four lane strand we call Bee Caves Rd.

At 7 am on the button I switched off NPR and got out of the car and stretched my legs. The cold air was so novel and bracing that I just stood and soaked it in for a few minutes, then I started to load up my little luggage trolley with equipment and headed into the Spa.

The owner was there and a cleaning person. We got to work arranging flowers and moving equipment. I set up a small studio in one of the treatment rooms and I would use a simple process green background, one light in a big 60 inch umbrella and round, silver reflector to create portraits of all the employees as they dropped by the spa all during the day. I dedicated a Sony Nex7 and the seductive 50mm 1.8 Nex lens just for that recurring task. With a Wein infra-red trigger wedged in the adapter in the hot shoe it was so easy to just pick up the whole package and shoot.  We did a dozen+ portraits over the course of the next nine hours. Just simple images for the web. I shot against the green background so the art director or I could easily drop the background out and paste in simple pastel colors and use the images on a newly designed website. We shot the portraits in between the main events.

When the art director showed up we started shooting interior scenes in earnest. I used a Sony a77, set to raw and sporting either the 16-50 2.8 Sony lens or the 10-20mm Sigma lens to create wide tableaus of the public spaces. It was past dawn by then and the soft morning light from the west trickled through the windows and curved around the furniture and flower arrangements. I used the camera on a wooden tripod so I could shoot at low ISO's and still use f5.6 or f8.  Every now and then I'd need to add some fill to an area, light up the far recessed of a hallway or spill light out of an open down. I'd grab an LED panel, one that has color temperature controls and continuously variable power control and simply place it where it was needed and visually match the colors to the existing light. Amazingly simple and elegant. A wonderfully efficient way to finish off the construction of static, architectural shots. Amazingly, the colors match very well.  I carried around two of the Fotodiox 312 AS panels I've often written about. After today's shoot I'm ordering two more and pressing them into more and more situations where I'm not at the mercy of the sheer, overwhelming power of direct sunlight. It makes shooting in interiors to easy. And fun.

After shooting half a dozen unpeopled interiors our staff and models started to show up and we proceeded with greater dispatch. We had a full dance card and I had every intention of not just checking shots off a list but of creating some art that would bring smiles to the faces of the spa owner and the members of the ad agency who would be working with my photographs.

We shot a couple getting massages. We shot them separately and together. We propped with flowers and candles and perfect little accessories. We shot people getting manicures and pedicures and facials and stuff I don't even understand.  And all the while we worked to make sure that the images we took would work in the constraints of a 16:9 format that was the template for the revolving "hero" shots on the homepage of the new website, under construction.

With the monolight in a small room for portraits the rest of our interior work was lit with one or two of the small panels. We were lucky that the Spa faces out over a golf course and indirect daylight flowed in and mixed effectively with the well designed interior light coming from interesting fixtures and well placed spots.

Late morning we headed outside onto an expansive deck and shot couples lounging, an impromptu catered lunch for five woman and lots and lots of images of the clear, deep blue Texas sky, cleared of haze and hesitation by the cold north winds that swept through only hours ago.  On the deck and under the covered portion of the deck I used powerful monolights with Varistar modifiers to fill in and bring the scenes into striking range with the radiant sunlight splashing over the backgrounds.  We worked the deck hard. We took a lot of images with variations and variations. I'll toss the ones I don't like in the edit but it's going to be a hard edit because there's so much to choose from.

I worked a with longer lenses on the patio so I could put the far backgrounds out of focus. My favorite two lenses for this kind of work were the Sony 85mm 2.8 (which is nicely sharp wide open) and the slightly shorter but equally snappy and sharp Sigma 70mm 2.8 macro.

It's never enough just to shoot the wide scenes and the establishing stuff, good coverage also calls for ample details that help give the flavor of a place. The flower arrangement on the painted, weathered chair, a plate full of macaroons and chocolate tarts,  half drunk bottles of white wine against crisp white tablecloths and the little clusters of dark grapes next to irregular shapes of chocolate on small, elegant bread plates.  They all add up to a feeling and a texture that feels like the last stages of an event you've just stumbled upon.

We break for lunch to eat and drink our morning props and consider the list of afternoon images.

Now we're back indoors shooting wide panoramas with models having their hair combed out or blow dried, LED panels pushing accents of light into the parts of the scene where I want eyes to wander. The camera's large LCD screen pre-chimping, via live view, what we'll see in the final shots.  Today I decided not to trust autofocus but to use the power of Sony's pre-chimping live view to magnify my target subjects in each set up and painstakingly set the best focus. It felt like I was wrestling back control from the machine and from the relentless inertia that pushes us to abdicate the use of our brains in this process and just depend utterly and unwittingly on the caprice of our cameras focusing systems, even though we've all been let down by them from time to time. No? Then you are either very lucky or lying your butt off.

Around 3 pm our art director left, exhausted. The lure of family and a few hours of recreation before hitting the office tomorrow called hard. The client and I soldiered on looking to augment our initial list and push for more.

At one point I knew we were both in the zone when we decided we wanted to show the spray of a shower, lit from below. Lights on the floor of the shower.  Being drenched by the powerful spray. Undaunted we put the LED panels into clear, plastic trash bags and put them, face up, on the floor of the shower, directly in the spray. The streams from the shower head were back lit and bottom lit and looked like serene science fiction. I wiped off the exterior of the bags and checked the LED panels. No harm done. We went off in search of more water features with which to tempt our LED's fates.

Finally, we done everything we could think of, had filled three eight gigabyte SD cards with images and done things with lights that most people never think of.  Around 5 pm I packed the gear into the car and headed back to the studio. The envelope with cards is locked in the filing cabinet and is in line, after two other clusters of cards, to be ingested tomorrow. I'll edit them over the course of this busy week and have a nice set of images on a Smugmug web gallery later in the week.

I was happy to work on Sunday, it opened up my schedule for a trip to Abilene this coming Tues. and Weds. The maiden long voyage (comparatively) for the new studio car. Apparently new studio cars bring their own sandwiches. Just thought I'd share a different kind of Sunday story.

Hope your week looks fun and productive. Nice to be swamped and challenged.


Oh. Oh. The Making of the first completely digital James Bond Movie.

I know not everyone will care about movie making here at the VSL blog but I am a big Ian Fleming & James Bond fan. If you like the movies you may find this great article about making the latest "Bond" film with all digital movie cameras very interesting:


Definitely not shot with consumer DSLRs but a really engaging look at how the movie industry works.

The movies generally are campy, action-y and over-produced (but incredibly fun) but the books, mostly written in the 1950's, are a whole other story. They are written with ample visual description and are now like a time machine allowing readers to see a world before our time through the eyes of a brilliant and cynical observer. Go grab an old Ian Fleming novel and lose yourself for an afternoon. Guilty pleasure but pleasure indeed.

Yes, it's true. I shoot my lamb chops on the floor.

Several years ago I was commissioned to write an article for Tribeza Magazine about four different Mexican restaurants in Austin with four vastly different approaches to that cuisine. The grande dame of both fine Mexican dining and just flat out "fine dining" is without a doubt Fonda San Miguel.  A superb restaurant with a world class art collection on display, a dining room that is world class art, and food that crosses over genres effortlessly.

While the other restaurants presented me with their variations of enchiladas and chile relleƱos the chef at Fonda San Miguel led with this plato of wonderful, delicate, moist lamb chops accompanied by a side of savory scalloped sweet potatoes. We were working in a sun drenched atrium and the floor was a perfect color complement to the food.

I like setting up lights and making a spectacle when I'm shooting.....sometimes. But there's also a time to just calm down, use what is at hand and let the subject do the talking.

Nikon D2X. 16-85mm.


Once on this Island. A studio shot.

Shot with a Hasselblad camera and a 150mm Zeiss Planar lens. Film: Agfapan 100 apx. Printed and then scanned from the print.

The thing I liked most about the images I made of this show, besides the beautiful and energy filled faces, is the way the curtains on the left and the background behind the actor on the right are rendered. I used a giant softbox with extra diffusion very close in to the actors and kept the power on that flash head as low as possible. I was shooting at f5.6 or around there. I lit the curtain with a small softbox and put the curtain far enough back so that it was lit separately from the actors. There's a third set of lights on the far background, modified by grid spots.

In my mind, at the time I was shooting this, the construction of the out of focus background elements was as important as the lighting on the main subjects.

Re-visiting the idea of the long tail. Buying valuable knowledge in an inexpensive book.

I wrote my first photography book back in 2007 and it was published in 2012. That seems to mean that the information in the book is five years old and, like cheese, it must be past its expiration date by now. But oddly, it continues to sell briskly on Amazon. I think it's because while the model numbers of the flashes and cameras and radio triggers change faster than a presidential candidates position the core stuff, the real information has hardly changed or been rendered obsolete. The basics are still the basics even though publishers are always trying to repackage the basic information with new visual candy. The book has been ranked as high as #19 on Amazon in its early days, and, for the last few days, it's been in the top 20 to 30 thousand books on Amazon.  Pretty amazing to me when I consider that there are over 8 million titles to choose from in their sales catalog.

Most interesting to me when looking last night at Amazon's tally of the four lighting books I've written is that all four of them, at that moment in time, were still in the top 100 books about photographic lighting. What this tells me is that people are looking for the concepts and details more than they are au currant illustrations. It also shows me the power of creating intellectual property with a long tail. Last year my publisher wanted to revise this book but I think it still has some legs. It's got forty five star reviews and I still get e-mails from people around the world who find the contents valuable.

I am a firm believer that books are the best value proposition for self education on the market today. They are infinitely re-readable. Unlike streaming workshops on the web one can stop and mull over a concept and then go on reading. A book will sit in the back pocket of your camera bag or on the back seat of your car and wait for you to come back to it. The batteries won't run down. You can look at illustration photographs side by side. You can pass it along. You can write notes in it. You can rip out the pages and tack them to your wall. You can share it.  And when you come back to it time and again it always seems a little different. The market and products may shift and change but the basics are more robust. All of that for the price of four or five vente mochas at Starbucks. Seems reasonable to me.

If you aren't familiar with the book above it's my stab at explaining why I thought we were destined to evolve our shooting styles from big, heavy lights to smaller, battery powered flashes and it also provides a guide of what kind of gear to buy and how to use it to your best advantage.

The Fuji X-E1 is an interesting camera.

My friend Paul and I had lunch on Tues. We are both camera-a-holics. We should both be in some sort of rehabilitation program for obsessive camera buyers. But there it is. Until someone does an intervention I count myself as incorrigibly curious and always ready to jump into the other pasture where the grass seems greener and more lush.

Niether of us own or have used the X-E1 yet but we are already putting together our basic, new systems in our heads. I have a good tolerance for zooms, especially ones with short lengths and with the word "ashperical" printed really big right inside the filter ring. Paul will naturally hold out for either the Zeiss glass that's said to be coming or, at the very least the cherry picked, single focal length lenses from Fuji.

Why are we so interested? Well, the chip and the lenses are the deal with Fuji. I've read a number of reviews of both this camera and it's older, more expensive and more problem laden big brother and while there are a bunch of nits to pick with some of the operational characteristics of the camera the universal consensus seems to be that the sensor is magnificent and that most of the lenses rise close to the top of the heap compared to what is available from everyone else. Leica excluded, of course.

The body is well styled and beautifully and simply designed. It seems like it would be a good take anywhere camera. The use of an EVF means that zooms lenses aren't an issue as regards the finder. The black finish and the black lenses harken back to the Leicas they seem bent on imitating and referencing. But mostly I think I am interested in the camera because the implied quality of performance seems to rival a Leica M9 at a price point about 1/6th or less of the price.

While I am currently infatuated and satisfied with my Nex-7 (especially after the firmware update) I can't help but wonder just how much better the overall performance of the sensor really is. And everyone with a Nex 7 is always in the waiting mode for more and better dedicated lenses from Sony.

Two things slow me down from actually putting in an order for this camera. The first is the feedback from owners who've shot both Sony Nex 7's and Olympus OMD's who have also auditioned this Fui camera. The EVF is not up to the level of quality and implementation of those cameras. I'm not sure I want to go backwards now that I have finders I really like.

The second thing that holds me back is the fact that the camera currently really has to be viewed as a Jpeg only proposition. That may change now that Adobe has raw files to work with but Fuji introduced a new RAW format with a new way of de-mosaicing the output from the sensor and it seems that the only way to consistently get good conversions is to use Fuji's slow and flawed software.  I've been down that road before with the S3 and S5 cameras and I won't load Fuji's software product onto my little computing machine again. But as I've stated, all that may change as the products mark time in the market and in the hands of third party software developers.

If you are transitioning from dinosaur DSLR cameras into a new century of photographic tools and you are ready to toss aside the heavy iron and start making images with mirrorless EVF cameras you should go into a store and check one of the X-E1's out. If they've fixed the focusing issues of the X-Pro-1 and maintained the quality of the sensor it might just be one hell of a photographic imaging device. And what they didn't get right out of the gate might be tweakable in firmware updates.

Fuji's has always made cameras and camera sensors that intrigue me and have enabled me to turn out beautiful files. And their lenses are also well regarded. I hope that these cameras are the spearhead of a whole new family of cameras from Fuji. I can hardly wait to put one through its paces.


Why I'm adding another Nex 7 to my tool box.

I've always liked the Nex-7 for silly reasons. I like the way it looks. I like the fact that it packs such a dense and information rich sensor in such a small package. I like that it actually accepts and uses my Pen FT lenses well. I like the fact that I can put just about any lens in the world on the front of it. I like the fact that I can put my collection of really good Sony Alpha lenses on the camera and keep auto aperture and even effect fast AF. But there were several downsides to the camera that kept me from joyously recommending it to friends and family. One was much web discussion about the camera's sensor having some incompatibility issues with the outer regions of wide angle lenses and another caveat was the really slow review function. The time from shooting and image until it wrote in the LCD or in the EVF seemed glacial. 

I've toyed with the idea of getting a second body because I've had really good image results from the camera and I really liked the way it handled after I got conversant with the menus and the controls. I was on the fence though since the cost of another body might make me re-think my budget for other goodies such as the a99 and the VG-900. But, on the other hand, I love to buy and use cameras in pairs. I'm sure it comes from my old film days when having a second loaded camera was like a safety net in fast moving events and having a redundant and intimately familiar back-up was a nice safety blanket. Most of use started carrying around two cameras because it was easier, during assignments, to assign one prime lens to each body rather than stopped to cap and un-cap lenses and replace other lenses back into their padded bags and pouches.

Nowadays having two identical cameras means not having to change lenses in dusty locations (that's everywhere) or not having to change lenses at all. And in an age of ultra-battery dependance a second camera that shares a battery and a charger is a bonus. I was hesitant. I liked the symmetry of two identical cameras and it's worked out well when I use my two a77 cameras together on a shooting day. But some of the issues above slowed down my purchase of a second Nex-7.

But that was before yesterday....

Yesterday I downloaded the firmware update for the Nex-7, followed the instructions, restarted my computer in the ancient 32 bit mode and did the upgrade dance. Now my Nex-7 camera slams that review into the finder almost instantaneously. The review is state of the art. And my test with the kit lens point to much improvement in the outer periphery of images taken with my kit lens at its widest focal length setting. For all the clumsy fingered the update also enables one to disable the movie button so there are no accidental triggerings to complicate one's life. For me now the camera has achieve an almost platinum level standing with me. The few gripes I have are easily rendered moot. I wished that the batteries lasted longer but then I realized I could just buy three more and not worry about it. I wished the kit lens were faster but I just started using faster primes.
Now I've shot several jobs with the Nex7 and find the image quality, especially at ISO 100 and 200 to be nothing short of superb and I think a second camera is the correct next purchase.

I'm sure someone will ask me about the upcoming Nex 6 but I'm one of the users who will gladly trade away a slight improvement in high ISO noise performance for the rich, dense information I get from the 24 megapixel sensor. And I don't relish moving away from the Tri-Navi dials now that I've learned to use them almost unconsciously. Better two slightly older cameras with the performance I really like than one new camera with its attendant new learning curve.

Yes. I know this all sounds "cult-y" but there you have it. Sometimes a camera works for you and sometimes you have to drag it kicking and screaming to do what you want. I'll take the easy path where I am seduced overtime by the totality of a camera's charms rather than dazzled by a single metric of promise.

Order one today.

Kinky Friedman. Texas writer, musician and perennial gubernatorial candidate


Hmmm. Digital or Film? And why?

Your unique selling proposition is your unique way of looking at the world.


I will confess to being a horrible landscape photographer. I can point the camera at trees and lakes and mountains and beautiful skies and do all the technical stuff but I don't "get" landscape. It's a genre that doesn't get my heart racing. I don't pine to rush out at "first light" and make photographs while the mists delicately burn away in the first tentative moments of sunrise. Architecture? I do like a few older buildings and a handful of modern buildings but most dwellings and offices and public buildings leave me feeling like I've just walked through an appliance store and detoured down between the row of white refrigerators and matching washers and dryers. 

What I like to photograph is people. I like to make portraits for a couple of reasons. One is that it gives me an excuse to get to know people I've never met before and it gives me an opportunity to get to know the people that I do know so much better, and in a different way. The other reason is the interactive nature of having another person collaborating in the mix.  In a good portrait session there's always such an abundance of good energy and a wonderful feeling of sharing. Even a "bad" portrait session has its own "charms."

Yesterday I spoke to a group of photography students at Austin Community College about the business of photography. It's one of those moments when you are trying to distill and translate messages about the thing that you do so you can share the ideas. And the idea that kept coming to me as I tried to explain how to be "successful" in this crazy business was simple.  You need to understand that you will have a style and a vision that is unique to you. This is the thing that you nurture and once you understand what it is this style and vision is the magic stuff that differentiates you from everyone else in your market. Not everyone will like your style or understand your vision but your job, in the pursuit of a sustainable business model, is to find the people and the markets that not only "get" what you are doing with your photographs but also values them and are of the opinion that these unique expressions can either be used to move their own projects forward or, that they stand alone as visual objects that enrich the lives of people in these markets.

When I studied portraiture I devoured books by Kodak and every magazine article on portraiture that I could find. I waded through lighting ratios, charts that showed you which lens to use if you were shoot a full body, a three quarters, a half or a tight head shot portrait. There were rules galore for both lighting and the use of backgrounds and props. You could study the art of posing for weeks or months. In some corridors of photography and photo education there are more rules and restrictions than are offered by most major religions.  And awards are routinely given for strictly following the rules of the game.

It's only when I ignored the rules entirely and started to make portraits that I liked on some gut level that my portraits really became interesting to me. And once they became interesting to me they became interesting to more and more people who were not me.

The goal of a brand is to have your product become recognizable. To be different enough that one can pick your image out of a stack and know that it's one of yours. That's gotten a lot tougher as everyone copies everyone else's styles but it is do-able and it's something to shoot for, whether you do the work professionally or just for your own aesthetic pleasure. Because in many cases it means you've started listening to your own muse and your own ideas of good and bad and you can now proceed away from the learning and into the creating.

There are constant essays and blogs that profess to teach a person how to create their style but I find them mostly useless or downright dangerous to my progress as a portrait photographer. What I've come to know, for me, is that my work improves as I do more and more work. When I look for inspiration I look at paintings and movies. But mostly I use the images that my mind seems to create as I read descriptions in novels and images that come to mind when I read well written dialogue.  My work is at it's worst when I see a body of work on the web that's alluring, or flashy and new and I veer off my course and try to emulate it.  Then I'm not doing my own work, I am slavishly copying the vision of someone else and there's none of the power and insight we can bring to our own work embedded in my final product.

My style springs from my desire to be directly engaged with my subjects. There isn't a technical consideration that dominates. I think that's how art works best.

The photo above was done with a Hasselblad medium format, square aspect ratio camera. I like the square and it feels like I've come home to a warm house and the smell of baking chocolate chip cookies with walnuts in them when I come back to using one of these cameras after using most cameras with other aspect ratios. I used a medium length telephoto lens because it seems right when I look through the viewfinder. I light the way I do because big soft lights, used from the side are flattering but they still have the power to model the contours of the face. I want to reveal but in a gentle way.  But above all my primary goal is to make you become interested in the person pictured. To make you want to meet them and talk to them as well. 

In the end I see beauty or energy in the faces I like to photograph and I want to show everyone the wonderful engagement I experienced.  I always find it interesting to go through the process of distilling down what I do so I can explain it to someone else. If you want to be a good portrait photography it's much more important that you be curious about the person you've selected to shoot, and excited about showing the aspects you find captivating,  than it is to know everything there is to know about light or cameras or technique. It's actually the only important creative thing you bring to a shoot which no one else can.