4.08.2013

Shadows and Bread.

The week has started and it's started well. I've cleaned up my studio in anticipation of an assignment that starts at noon tomorrow. Portraits. New people. One of my favorite subjects to photograph. Making my daily "bread." I've got the lighting set up already and I've tested it. I wanted to shoot the portraits with the new fluorescent lights but I've only received one and the background light doesn't arrive until Weds. (I'm so cheap, I went with the free shipping). I'm shooting with flash instead.

I've set up a Elinchrom monolight with a 60 inch Softlighter 2 as my main light. I'm using a second Elinchrom through a small 20 by 30 inch softbox on the grey paper background and another monolight into a 20 inch beauty dish, covered with diffusion, for a hair and back light. The fill is just a big, white flex reflector. I'm thinking broad and modern.

Don't know what it is about the bread shot above that I like. Maybe it's the very defined shadow against the bread and maybe it's just the look of the bread itself. Either way it's like trying to dissect a joke. When broken into its pieces it all falls apart.

Sony a850 with the nasty, old 24-105 Sony lens. I like those two pieces of gear precisely because they are NOT perfect.


Remember how cool it felt the first time you made a website?

http://kirktuck.500px.com/food_and_restaurant/

http://kirktuck.500px.com/food_and_restaurant/

We made our first website in 1998 and, of course, everything had to be hand coded. Bandwidth sucked back then so we had to make sure that every image was a tiny little jpeg that would open quickly. Once you had everything the way you wanted it on your machine you lived through various levels of agony every time you saw your site on someone else's hardware. If they weren't using the same browser that you optimized for the elements of your crafty site ended up all over the place and the type got replaced by some goo type that made your design look like crap.

Now you can just hop on the web with a bucket of images and make a quick web portfolio to share in minutes. When I finish shooting something fun I hop over to 500px and add to a gallery or build a new one. I can send the links out to potential clients pretty darn quickly.

With blogs and portfolio sites everywhere I think the traditional sturm und drang of creating a masterful website has been tamped down. Most clients just want to see the images or get the contact info. If you've done your thousand little marketing jobs right they've already seen your images in more than one place.

I'm looking into Animoto right now. Seems like a fun way to make tasty little motion bites. Do you have experience with Animoto? Would love to hear how you use it and how you market with it in the comments.

Thanks, Kirk

4.07.2013

The photographer as a farmer. Just do the work.

Crocs for the dirty work.

It's easy to fall into the trap of comparing yourself with others. It's easy to fall into the no win situation of comparing your work with the work of everyone else's you see. Some work is exciting to look at when you first see it. Some work grows on you over time. Things you thought were exciting at first blush have a parabola of excitement. The faster you fall in love with a look, a statement or a style the faster you fall out of love. Who would want a constant diet of whipped creme or a constant display of fireworks?

Your own style is more like a marriage than a one night stand. You build trust and love over time until you get to a point where you can't conceive of any other relationship. In art, then you know you have a style. You trust the process of just doing the work. This is why, statistically, married people have a much better sex life than single people. Practice, practice, practice.

The problem with the web is that we post things and hope others will like them. When you do this you give strangers power over your work and over you. The true masters of the craft ignore everything else. They do their work and then they walk away. They do their work and then get up the next morning and do it again. They don't read the reviews. They just Practice, practice, practice.
Share your work but leave your ego at the door. Present the work and then step away. The need for approval obscures the true value of what you do. 

These statements seem like declarations but they are just reminders I write for myself. Good work, like good wine, takes time to mature. It's not a process I can hurry along just because I want to. Copying someone else's vision is the quickest way to kill mine.


The Sony a850 is a camera living in two different generations.


I recently picked up a Sony a850 camera because I'd always been intrigued by the idea that the $2000 Sony used the same basic sensor as the $8000 Nikon D3X and I wanted to see just how good it could be. I also wanted a point of reference for just how far Sony had come in camera and sensor chip design since 2009. I've been using the Sony a99 and I do love the EVF but I was wondering if I could have a good back-up camera at an absurdly low price (used = 800) which would give me the same angle of view with the same lenses.

First, the good: The body is almost perfect for my hands and for my need for a camera with personality and gravitas. It feels heavy duty and stout. Everything fits my average hand very well. The next thing I noticed was how stripped down (mercifully) and easy the menu and the interface is. So far I've looked one thing up in the owner's manual and everything else has been apparent even to a slow user like me. If you take off video, live view and all the bells and whistles from a camera and its menu you end up with a camera that's extra easy to understand and to use in the real world. And yes, the optical finder is nicely done.

This is a camera that screams at me to pick it up and make some art. Any art. Anywhere and at any time. Oh, and the battery goes on forever compared to its SLT cousins. So when you are out making art you can forego the extra battery in the pocket.

The exposure metering seems unflappable. The focus, with appropriate lenses, is fast and accurate. So, what's not to like? Well, let's circle back to that sensor for a second. Once you claw your way past ISO 800 you enter a world of noise that high end users haven't seen since......2009.
At ISO 200 everything is smooth sailing. Sharp and pretty much noise free (unless you're peeking at the shadows at 100%...). Once you head north of 800 you need to use some sort of noise reduction plug in to even get near today's sensor ball park.

The second flaw in the ointment is that the raw files from the a850 don't work well with Lightroom. I'm much happier now that I've found Aperture to be a good Sony RAW converter but in this day and age it seems a bit quaint to find a raw file that doesn't at least play in a satisfactory way with one of the flagship Adobe products. Not so great in PhotoShop either.

The flaw that renders this camera my art camera (and quells my thirst for the a900 I just saw at an enticing price) is the thing that most "old schoolers" love about it. It has an OVF. An optical viewfinder. I kept looking through that OVF and assuming that whatever I saw would be rendered pretty much the same way on the files, but it was not so. The finder only shows you the here and now of your own optical reality, through glass, not the future. The EVF on the a99 shows you the future. It shows you how your image will look with the current exposure settings and creative settings. How it will look when you get it on your big machine. That may not sound like much but it's hard to wrap your head, simultaneously, around two different philosophical implementations of time. The present and the near future. The objective and the already nuanced.

I like the a850's personality. I'll keep it around for the same reason I keep the Kodak SLR/n and the Kodak DCS 760 around. They are quirky and eccentric but on their best days they each do files that look and feel different than the cameras of the current day. And they all feel interesting in one's hands. The a850 is modern enough to operate without glitches and to give me wonderful and highly competitive files at the lower ISO's. The SLR/n does a sharpness thing that's incredible when it's shot correctly. And the DCS 760 has a wonderful color palette that no other camera seems to have.

But for all my professional work it looks like the right back up for the a99 is.....another a99. Ah well. Nice experiment.

4.06.2013

Today the VSL Analysis Team is playing around with an interesting florescent light.


When I photographed and video'd Erin for Zach Scott a little while ago the video designer asked if I wanted them to budget the rental of some Kino Flo florescent lights in order to do our motion shots. (Kino Flo's were the first company to commercialize nicely color balanced florescent lighting fixtures for the movie industry on a big scale and they are now the "Kleenex" of florescent lights for the film industry.) I told him that I'd be comfortable in that project to use the existing LED lights we had around the studio. 

Coincidentally a reader sent me a link to some cool looking florescents lights on the web and the photographers at the Boston Museum of Fine Art showed off their set of Alzo florescent lights a few weeks ago when I was there touring the facilities. I guess I got a case come cumulative florescence on the brain because I decided to order one and check it out. Above and below is an three bank, six bulb florescent fixture from Fotodiox. I'm pretty sure it will match the performance of the ones from Alzo since they use the same bulbs....


My light arrived on Thurs. evening, just before I needed to leave for Sylvia Plachy's presentation. I just had time to stick in the tubes and turn the shebang on to make sure it worked. The light is very bright and much softer than my un-modified LEDs. One sheet of one stop RoscoLux will make the feel and look of the light just about perfect. In essence it becomes a fairly small softbox.

I'm sure the same company in China that makes the LED lights for Fotodiox (and about a dozen other resellers...) makes these fixtures. The florescent bulbs themselves are Osram tubes and are made in Italy.

I played with lots of photo lights that used compact florescent bulbs when I was writing my book on Lighting equipment but I never tested the bigger panel style lights like these and the Kinos. But the Kino Diva has always been touted as a beautiful portrait and fashion light source and that sounds right up my alley.

I'm booked on conventional assignments on Tues. and Weds. and I'm waiting for another light fixture from the same company (using the same bulbs) to arrive on Weds. pm and then I plan to do a series of color and black and white portraits with them. The second fixture uses only two bulbs and I intend to use it as a background light. One bigger main light pushed through some tasty diffusion and one smaller source to separate my portrait subject from a dark background.

Why am I curious about these when I already have LED lights? Curiosity. I've explored LEDs pretty thoroughly. This will give me a chance to compare and contrast. It should be interesting. Even more in the next round of videos.
















Incorporating video into the mix. Doing art instead of commercials. Sony a99 "footage."

Erin Moves in Mad Hip Beat and Gone. from Kirk Tuck & Will van Overbeek on Vimeo.

Go directly to Vimeo via the link and see it in HD for the full flavor.

I wrote earlier this week about shooting video of an actress for projection on a giant screen. The video content was used as part of the set design and arc of the story for the Steven Dietz play, Mad Beat Hip and Gone. I just wanted to flesh out what we did and how.

As many of your know I do a lot of project work for Zach Theatre here in Austin. The production they are doing now is a play that investigates that period between World War Two and the 1960's, best exemplified by novelist, Jack Kerouac's book, On The Road. The play is about two young men who are in the car following Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassidy. It's really a wonderfully imagined play about the need for meaning and connection.

The set designer imagined a set that is framed by weathered and distress, corrugated steel. The heart of the set is really a giant projection screen some 34 feet wide and 40-some feet tall which pulses with still images providing scenery cues to video providing emotional resonances. Video designer, Colin Lowry, asked me to collaborate with him in making both still images and video that would be content for the play. We did images of the male leads that included driver's license photos and mug shots. We did silhouettes of one character's father, complete with a baseball glove. And we did slow, bittersweet video of the actress who plays the love interest of all the proto-stream-of-consciousness road poets.

To produce video that's interesting is always a challenge but much of the pressure is relieved, in this instance, by good acting on the part of the stage actors and the charismatic allure of the actress on video.

We set up a light gray seamless backdrop in the rehearsal space and it anchored the still and video work and gave it a visual consistency that held the projections together. I lit the background just enough so that it would accurately retain its tone. One broad, 5oo bulb LED panel, used directly.
We lit the actor with two 1,000 LED panels projecting through a one stop silk diffuser. We used a fourth light, a 500 bulb LED panel, as a kicker light.

I wanted to use the Sony a99 camera for the video because I was comfortable working with it, having done a number of interview and other creative projects with it, previously. I also wanted to use it because, in conjunction with a Sony 70-200mm f2.8 lens, used at f4, I could control depth of field and push out any detail in the background that might have been distracting. Amazing what you notice with forty feet of information on the long side.

Colin requested that I shoot at 24fps so I set the camera at 1/50th of second shutter speed, f4 and used the ISO to adjust for the correct exposure. When you implement fully manual exposure in the Sony a99's video mode you disable autofocus. Fine by me. I used the camera's focus peaking feature to ensure good focus under dicey conditions. It worked great.

Colin and I took turns directing and ended up with plenty of footage to pare down. Erin was a consummate pro and, since Colin wouldn't be using the camera audio, we were able to direct her verbally during the takes.

The video footage and the photographs ended up being projected digitally. And they looked incredible. The production has become a critical success already.

So today I decided that I wanted to share a bit of the video footage to show which choices I made in the creating it. I wanted inky black, dramatic shadows on opposite side of Erin's face from the main light so I used no fill. You can see the effect as she turns into the shadow.

I took the footage and did an edit in Final Cut Pro X. I  used a program called  Compressor to output the images as 1080p HD video in order to upload it to Vimeo. The music I selected is royalty free music that comes with iMovie 11 and is available across the system in the Apple OS. I'm not a sound designer and I'm sure there's better stuff to put in a music bed but you can always just turn off the sound and evaluated the visual stuff...

I am captivated by the movement and the tones as they shift across Erin's face. The video adds a really wonderful layer of context for the play. I hope you enjoy what you see here...

4.04.2013

Every photo studio needs a good dog.

This is my studio dog. She prefers to remain anonymous....

I never understood just how wonderful a dog could be. We got this little girl from a dog rescue about five years ago and I've been in love with her ever since. She's at her happiest sitting in the middle of the family. Just sitting and taking in our conversations about the day. At dinner she waits patiently by my feet waiting for something, anything, to drop off the table. Once a piece of food goes airborne it's hers.

She used to spend a lot of time with my wife. For the first four years with us she luxuriated around the house while my wife did her graphic design business in a home office. For the last year Belinda has been working downtown at a big ad agency. So we shifted around a bit. Now, when everyone leaves the house in the morning, my dog travels the twelve steps from the front door of our house into the studio/office. She has a brown square of bathroom carpet (originally a prop for a photo assignment) that sits next to my desk and that's where she curls up and naps.

Every once in a while she'll leap up and run to the door to bark ferociously. It's usually to let me know that the UPS man is coming and bringing with him stuff she can't eat. She also barks to let the UPS man know that she's keeping track of him at every step.  

She doesn't like the look of soft boxes and moving light stands around makes her very nervous. When we need to do a lot of equipment rearranging she retreats to the house and finds a spot where sunlight comes slanting in. A good spot for a sunbathing nap. 

When she gets bored or I get bored I toss the keyboard onto the chair and we head out the door for a walk around the neighborhood. She loves the walks. And she's very friendly with nearly every dog she's ever met except for one mean-as-hell-psychotic Chihuahua that trash talks her whenever we go by its house. Every once in a while the Chihuahua gets loose and comes up to us all fierce and frothy. We do a "steady" command and walk past. If my dog can make it by without returning curse for curse with that tiny, mean excuse for a canine she gets a treat. A small dog biscuit that's just about bite sized.

No matter how late we human night owls stay up she hangs in there with us, yawning all the time. But when we finally go "lights out" she climbs up into the white chair in the corner of our bedroom and does one big, long sigh and then zonks out.

I consider my dog an invaluable member of the VSL team. Her input is never far off  the mark. And her ability to catch a tennis ball in mid-air is unmatched. Her only fault? She refuses to carry any gear. She is the Leica M3 of dogs.

Time drips on like a leaky faucet and we're watching our supply drip away drop by drop with the ever growing knowledge that we don't have a wrench that will fix this one.

Bill Clinton. December 2012

It's odd, at times, to watch the fevered pitch at which we work our photography. As though grabbing more and more images somehow makes us immune to the unknowable future. Amateur, professional, mom-with-a-camera; we're all just trying to stop time so we can understand our own little segment of the world, our own little serving of existence. And, at the time it seems valuable to us, as though by taking a photograph we'll have a special understanding, made clearer with our two dimensional representation, reinforced by the notion that we've got that slice of time in the bottle of our files; preserving it so we can drink from it to remember and re-live that portion over again. To feel the same feelings. 

But it seems that nothing really works the way we'd like. The memory reminds us of a different time. A time before the steady drip of the faucet makes us hear more clearly Time's Winged Chariot drawing near... And the memory of stronger muscles, clearer eyes and more connection laces our reminisces with a bittersweetness. As though we might have been better off to savor our memories than regard the hard evidence.

I remember so well the day I took these images. At the time photographers jostled with each other for position. I was in an area near the stage that was reserved for the few image makers and the video camera man who were working directly for the paying client. A grandstand full of editorial and other photographers were corralled on a stand half way back in the auditorium of 3,000 people. But it hardly mattered since everyone had a smart phone with a camera, or an iPad or some other capture device.

The thing I remember as I nailed my images and then made a quick exit to prepare for the next stage in the pageant was the fervor with which everyone was making images. As though capturing yet another image of Bill Clinton wasn't just desirable, it was necessary. I imagine that a lot of people were taking images in order to prove to friends or family that they were really in the room with someone whose office created this pathway in history (and no, I don't want this to turn into a discussion about whether that pathway was ultimately good or bad.....so don't fire up the word processor and get political. One side or the other). 

Some people were making images just because making images is what you do when you see or experience someone who is designated as "famous." And some, in fact many I think, were putting a bookmark in the moment so that they could come back at some future time to re-assess the day and the speech and reconstitute it in a different way. As a different mix.

But now, looking back only four months I feel a certain sadness. I can look at Mr. Clinton and see how much he's aged since he became known to me in what seems like only a few years ago. I captured his image and it became a proxy for the aging of a whole generation. Yes, the photo proves I was there and he was there. Yes, I can show my friends or clients. But I'm showing them only a random slice of visual proof with no context and no content beyond the inventory of how he looked in that moment.

I heard last night that one of my close friends passed away. It was sudden and unexpected. A person I shared life with for at least several hours a week, for well over a decade. One of my thoughts this morning as I was driving back home from dropping Ben off at school was that I had so few photographs of my friend. The ones I have are quick snapshots of him in small groups. At swim meets and parties.

And, at first, I felt upset that I'd made so few images of him. Almost dismayed that I never had him sit for a portrait. 

But the more I sat with those thoughts the clearer it became to me that the photographs would have never been able to capture what his friendship really meant. It was all about swimming together and sharing hot coffee with a small group of tired swimmers every saturday morning at 10:15, after practice. It was our shared love of good red wine. And our admission to each other that we enjoyed the old, campy James Bond movies. Our relationship had content and context. We logged thousands and thousands of laps together in lanes three and four of the pool. We pushed each other when we needed pushed and gave each other slack when we needed the pool just to be a safe place to get away to.

If I had more formal photographs of my friend would it be different for me today? I don't think so.  We had no unfinished business. Nothing left unsaid. Nothing that I would need a photograph for as an aid to rumination. We swam well. We played nicely and my memories will always be about the content and the context, not the two dimensional iconography of a single frozen moment. 

Funny, to me, how life has a way of puncturing my preconceptions. 

And so, when I look at these images of president Clinton I wonder what value they really have to me or anyone else. What are we really sharing? What do they really tell me? I have no connection to him, no context. They exist now for my client as part of their public relations and their marketing. And they exist for me as proof that I can photograph a speaker at a podium. An advertisement for my craft. In another sense his image is a resonance of an era in the American experience when we felt less vulnerable and more buoyant. 


Photographs don't plug the leak of time. They don't resurrect the past, only subjective memories of a past fiction. Their very thin-ness, the fact that they are a quantum-thin slice of a moment makes them only a marker of one of millions and millions of interconnected instances. Each with its own context and reality.

I am happy that I've learned to pull out my camera and put it between me and my family and friends less often. Far better that I actually take those times and events to be totally present in the moment and not busy translating them for future consumption. Better to be engaged as part of the memory rather than sidelined as its documenter.

Would I trade one lap swum for one more photograph? I would not. The time spent sharing the adventure is what gave our friendship meaning. As photographers our offset (buffered?) observations rob us of the whole-ness and immediacy of our experiences. We introduce our own parallax.

In the days of film and no digital the record of our lives was more circumscribed. Less ample. Now we have a surfeit of images but looser connections. The images work as placebos or placeholders for real, hands-on friendships and relationships. This is my reminder to shoot less and share more.....of my attention. Funny...I've always bought into the power of images but now I'm becoming equally aware of the power of just being present. Being fully there. 

Our cultural myths meet our personal realities.