The Sunday Evening Blog. A catch all of subjects meant to bring everyone up to speed on the mundane details of my professional life...

2nd Street. Crowded with Party-Goers of All Kinds.

Quick history lesson: On May 5, 1862 the Mexican army unexpectedly whipped up on the French invaders in the Mexican area around Pueblo. Whupped 'em good. So Cinco de Mayo became a general celebration of resistance and democracy for the people of northern Mexico and today it celebrates the pride and spirit of Mexicans. The short version in Austin? Any excuse to block off downtown streets and throw a party. 

But let me back up to this morning. I worked on a video project for Zach Theatre and we started setting up lights and audio gear at 10:00 am, which meant that I started sorting gear and getting stuff together around 8:00 am this morning. The batteries went onto the chargers last night....

Shooting still photography now seems delightfully simple. I only need to pack lights and cameras. But video is mean. You have to pack all the stuff you'd use for regular photography and then dump in a bunch of audio gear. Microphones, mixers, balanced cables and microphone stands. And it makes sense to bring an assortment because, like lenses, microphones have specific strengths and weaknesses. I'd just bought a Rode NTG2 shotgun microphone and I was dying to use it today but the air conditioning system in the old theatre we were shooting in is loud like the cough of a rheumy old man amplified through the Rolling Stones location speaker stack.

But that's a whole other subject. 

I set up a white background and lit it flat and bright with two of the Fiilex P360 open faced LED fixtures. They make liars out of people who claim LEDs aren't bright enough or well enough color balanced for real stuff. With a little turn of the color temp dial they fell right in line with my Day Flo Pro Fluorescent lights. My main light was a 6 bulb Day Flo Pro Fluorescent fixture blasting through a 6x6 foot, one stop diffusion silk. My fill light was a 4 bulb Day Flo Pro Fluorescent fixture blowing through a two stop pop  up reflector.

We were making PSA's (TV commercials) and promotional web videos for Zach's upcoming rendition of Harvey. It's the play based on the 1940's moving starring Jimmy Stewart. The whole play is about a man, Elwood P. Dowd, who has a constant companion: A six foot, one and a half inch rabbit which only he seems to be able to see... The lead, the character Elwood P. Dowd, is played by one of my absolute favorite actors extant, Martin Burke.

This morning we were serving several "content masters." We shot all the material needed to do a thirty second spot with Elwood talking to his "friend" while a voice over narrator filled in the blanks. Mostly Martin sat on a park bench, in front of my white background, under my bright, high key lighting, in a 1940's era wool suit and vest (complete with a bowtie) and proceeded to ruin take after take by making the video crew (David and me) burst out laughing.

We did manage to get all of the shots we needed and a lot more. Close ups, middle distance shots and wide establishing shots. Martin played to the Rabbit just like there was a real creature sitting next to him.  

After we got our "footage?" for the PSA's we changed the background for a green screen and shot a bunch of impromptu and improvisational kidding around between "Elwood" and "Harvey." David Munns (producer and editor) will use his green screen magic to drop scenes from around Austin into the background. I can hardly wait to see it all.

Our only real issue was sound. With an air conditioner that sounds like a fleet of Harley Davidson motorcycles bereft of any mufflers in the background we tested and then quickly discarded the shotgun microphone in deference to a wickedly good set of Sennheiser wireless lavalier mics. They are great. You get them in really close ( like on a dark jacket lapel) and they tend to throw away background noise and add an intimacy with your main subject. I carefully monitored the sound through headphones as we shot, stopping every once in a while to remind Martin NOT to thump his chest with his fist...

Some smart ass will ask why we didn't turn off the air conditioning. I might as well answer. In commercial buildings they (the building managers) generally try not to put the control of their utilities or A/C into the hands of the general public. So there's not a user accessible switch that says, "PUSH HERE FOR NO AIR CONDITIONING."  But secondly, we're here in Texas with a man in many layers of wool clothing, hanging just fractions of a centigrade away from sweating like a fat man in a steam bath. Like a cold ice tea glass on an August day in downtown Houston... I think you get the picture...

I'm learning not to "wing it" in video. It's too complicated to leave stuff to chance only to have to come back again and fix it. I metered the set meticulously with a hand held, incident light meter. I photographed the scene with the video camera (a Sony a99) and checked the histogram. I used a Lastolite white/grey target to custom white balance with. I used my Rokinon 85mm 1.5 Cine lens at what I believe to be one of its best apertures, f4, and I switched the camera into still mode before each take to zoom in to 16 or 20X and check fine focus. On some scenes (especially the close ups) where Martin would lean into the camera for dramatic emphasis I check focus at both ends of his move and marked the lens at both places so I could rack back and forth between the two marks to keep him in sharp focus. Focus peaking really helps in that situation.

We reviewed the content and all the parameters are good: Martin's performance, the audio and the visuals. I hope to see a nice set of PSA's at the end of the week which I'll quickly share with all of you even though you might not be interested in video. (You lazy slackers...). Since David will be in charge of editing I handed him the memory card after we packed the car back up and breathed a sigh of relief. The editing is the hard part. At least to me...

I went home to unpack and see what the family was up to. Everyone is in work mode. Ben has his AP psychology test in the morning. He'd been out to forage for breakfast tacos and was munching on a pulled pork and egg taco with a bacon, egg and cheese in ready reserve. Belinda had already taken nourishment and had chained herself to her desk to work on an advertising project with her usual, terrifying concentration. Feeling marginalized, I headed to Garrido's restaurant where a loud, rowdy and happy crowd was already in the midst of a glorious Cinco de Mayo brunch/happy hour.

I grabbed a seat at the bar, watched Nick, the young bartender, defy gravity with liquids and munched on Huevos Benedictos (eggs benedict with an addictive chipotle hollandaise sauce) and, being the consumate risk taker I washed it down with a cup of decaf coffee. How could I resist? The owner/chef brewed a fresh pot just for me.

I spent the rest of the afternoon walking around in the sun drenched avenues of our capitol city trying to find fun things to photograph. I was carrying the Sony a58 which punches far above its price class and I was using it with a lens that continues to amaze me and grow on me: the 16-50mm 2.8 zoom. More and I more I'm saving the a99 for projects that are, in some part, about video. For everything else I've been pressing this one cheap, zesty camera body into hyper-service. My goal? To see if I can wear out the shutter before I get tired of shooting it.

Could things get any more crowded?

Last week was all about editing. It went something like this: Edit > get stumped > go to Lynda.com and learn for hours > Edit > get stumped, etc. rinse, repeat.  I knocked out two really good projects with that methodology and, more to the point, I think I'm over the hump (fear) on Final Cut Pro X.  

This week we go on industrial safari. I have a job that takes me into an international company that makes custom cabling to make portraits of the executive staff, record video interviews with the same (same lighting set up: light once, shoot twice) and then move on to making images of the design and work areas and the people who do the set up and assembly. After each cool still shot I'll shoot some "B" roll. A video crew will come in after me, the next day to do some "look and feel" sutff so the agency has enough content to make a good program. My interviews will get cut down and put on the website.

Funny, it was just a couple of months ago that I really started aiming toward doing more video in the business and now it seems to be flowing through the door and over the transom (wish I had a transom...). I guess having the intention is always the first step. Buckle up for a fun week. Glad you are along for the ride.'


What's the order of importance in making a beautiful portrait?

1. To recognize a beautiful face.

2. To connect with the sitter and get a real expression.

3. To create light that's not about the light but is in the service of making the sitter look their best.

4. To choose the right focal length and lens character to translate what you recognized as beauty.

What is the least important and most talked about trivia in making a portrait?

1. What brand of camera you used.

2. What brand of light you used.

3. Your lighting formula.

4. How sharp and noiseless your image files are.

The first four matter. The last four are boring.

If I ask my friend, who is an artist behind the camera, how his portrait session went with someone he tells me first what they talked about. And he describes the moment at which the expression and pose clicked in. If I ask my friend, who is a gear head, about how his portrait session went he tells me what camera body and flash he used. Totally different mindset. Totally different results.

Knowing exactly which gear to use without bringing imagination and passion to the shoot is something like "knowing the cost of everything and the value of nothing."

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Lady Gaga, Britney Spears, Mel Gibson and Charlie Sheen have nothing to do with this blog post. Almost.

To be honest about the blog title, I wanted to see if it's really true that you can drive outrageous numbers to your blog with the silly ploy of using the names of famous celebrities in the headline.  Blogger will probably spank me for even playing around but I think in this day and age of media silliness it's interesting to see how hidden algorithms define what we see and read..... Now on with the Sunday blog.....

I went out for a walk around noon today.  I was wearing a pair of for all mankind (#7) polarized sunglasses and, as I've noticed in the past, everything looks better thru a pair of polarized sunglasses.  Skies get dramatic, colors pop and everything gets a bit janglier.  So I took them off, even though the hot noon sun was blinding, and I spent the next two hours trying to make my camera see the way I do when I have those damn cool glasses on.  That meant cranking up the saturation and doing some mild post processing on my return to the office.  Something I rarely do.

And today, of all days, I actually evesdropped on my own fleeting thought processes as I lined up photographs.  I wanted to know, in the moment, why I took the frames (not the sunglasses, the other frames) I did as I walked around on our first hot Sunday.  And just for the hell of it I thought I'd share those thoughts with you and see if anyone was hardy enough to read all the way thru.

Cute girls on stylish mopeds are always a given.  Flashing by with a short red skirt on the first hot day makes for an almost autonomic response by most photographers.  For some reason Austin is wall-to-wall with scooters, mopeds, electric scooters and motorcycles this Spring.  From a fatherly point of view I wanted to shout out that she should wear a helmet, and some foot gear, and some long pants in case she had to lay that bike down.  But advice is largely wasted on youth and I was too busy manually focusing to follow thru with sage pronouncements.

Why?  Does everyone see it?  It looks like an owl to me.  And if the architects and nature transpired together to bring off a decidedly cubist owl how can I walk away without documenting it?  I was first attracted to the slice of transluminated green on the right side window.  Then the horns on the top pushed me to stop and the glare of the endlessly concentric eyes compelled me to say, "Yes, yes, yes.  A thousand times yes!" As I bracketed a 32 exposure HDR bracketing sequence.  Then I came to my senses, deleted all but one of the exposures and figured I was actually smart enough or experienced enough (or lucky enough) to be able to get good shots that ONLY need on frame.......  I call it "Found In Baggage Claim.."

As I rounded the corner on Congress Ave.  I looked to my left and saw a long table of patrons at the bar of the restaurant on the ground floor of the Austonian.  Packed together in a line eight across were the biggest butts I'd ever seen shoved into Sunday church dresses.  Massive legs ending in fahionable high heeled shoes.  But though I'm cruel enough to write it I'm not cruel enough to stop and draw even more attention and ridicule by bringing to greater attention the plight of the enormous via photography. Even when they sit with their backsides to the giant show window, facing the main downtown street.  So I ambled along a few doors down and found these chairs stacked.  I'd been playing with the EC-S split image screen in the camera and I was amazed at how quick and easy focus was, near wide open, at the bottom of the frame.  And I thought about that instead.

When I started out my walk I went by a tall condominium tower called, Spring.   When I glanced up I saw this intense reflection of the undiffused sun.  Most people would blink and walk away but after the trench warfare of the Olympus EPL2 review (just "Google" "Olympus Red Spots") I decided to see what the difference sized pixel wells in the Canon would do.  Voila.  No red dots.  I'm of the belief that red dots are more of a winter phenomenon..... Then I just decided I liked the angles.  And I imagined that this would be the kind of building that an Ayn Rand-y architect would build if he were working in 2011 instead of 1957.  Who can know?

At some junction I think my brain is just attracted to strong lines and color contrasts.  And I'll shoot just about anything that fits the mold.  Kind of a "find a pattern named Waldo" with buildings.  And I'm a sucker for street lights on the corner.

Why did I shoot this?  Was it something Susan Sontag wrote?  Or Robert Adams?  Or, Claude Levi-Strauss (From Honey to Ashes to Street Art)?  Naw.  I just love it when corporations or the city make art for everyone to enjoy downtown.  This is an inset mural on the brick sidewalk of Second Street and is one of five or sixes pieces of original art embedded on the corner.  It wasn't there two weeks ago.  I snapped the shot to share it with my local ad friends.  Strictly Photography as a communication tool.

I've spent 30 years discovering, rediscovering and coming to grips with the work of photographer, Lee Freidlander, and as I walked down the sidewalk on Fifth St. thinking about cellphones and how lame the whole cellphone thing is, my mind clicked in and said, "Wow, isn't that a wild and chaotic assemblage of colors and shapes and stuff?   Shouldn't you stop being an anti-electronics snob and just shoot the damn thing?"  I was shocked at the intercession of a normally distracted brain and it was so novel to actually get some proactive juice out of it that I jumped to and snapped just as the cyclist hit the panel I wanted him in.  My brain thought it was pretty cool so I printed it just to keep him happy.  I wonder what Lee Freidlander's work would have been like if he'd worked all in color.  I wonder if this image above would have any power if it were in black and white.....

Documentary shock comes when you see something in your own town you didn't know existed.  In this case, actual street sweepers.  Shades of Paris in the 1970's.  Amazing.  I'd never seen it before so this is more of a documention of my protected lifestyle that anything else.

Moving along.  Nothing to say about the enigmatic art installation that's been at the intersection of Lamar Blvd. and the railroad tracks for the better part of a decade.  I shoot it to pay homage to the noble idea of art in public places.  And to mystify the drivers who sweep under the bridge, cellphone in one hand, Big Gulp(tm) in the other.  All faith placed in the steering power of their knees and the weight reducing power of 64 ounces of Diet Coke(tm).

Finally, A quiet shot done at the mysterious insistence of my new focusing screen which has convinced me in short order that every time we remove something like autofocus we are not losing tools so much as gaining directness with the objects in front of the camera.  Let me say it succintly:  Autofocus works well but it's a sucky concept meant, for the most part, to assuage the fears and trepidation of people who are too lazy to learn the totally cool art of taking charge and doing their own focusing.  Not to worry.  I'll find a reason for autofocus tomorrow.

The high point of the walk was seeing a wealth of people in the downtown area eating at packed sidewalk restaurants.  The lure of downtown is getting stronger and stronger and it feels so vibrant and un-American (in a good way).  People walking for blocks.  People moving without their cars.  People being nice to each other because they don't have four thousand pounds of steel around them and so must be responsible for their own words and actions.  Amazingly equalizing.  Just what a culture needs.

I headed over to Whole Foods and had a wonderful chopped BBQ sandwich with purple onions and sweet pickles.  Washed it down with a Pale Ale (on tap) and headed home.  I continue to be more and more pleased with the old Canon 1dmk2n and the 50mm Zeiss Planar 1.4.  Used them for my walk and never entertained the thought that I might need anything else.

Shooting tomorrow and Tues. but hoping to have my Michael O'Brien video done and approved by Weds.  Hope the week treats you well.

Postscript:  I finally gave into peer pressure and bought an iPhone.  Now I can stumble thru Whole Foods transfixed to the screen, walking into other people, head-on, who are also transfixed to their screens and once in a great while I'll use the hipstamatic app on the iPhone like all the other aging photographers in their desperate attempt to recapture the cool they assumed they had sometime in the past.  Just what the world needs.....  But at least now I'm connected.....oh brother.

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All about change.

A wonderfully succinct thought about art.

Just saw this quote on a friend's site and thought it sums up everything very well.

"The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift." Albert Einstein


An overdue Sunday walk helps reinforce a sense of place. Regardless of which amazing camera you choose.

You purist out there are going to hate me for this but for the last week I've gotten stuck on a silly, post processing mode in Aperture that Apple calls "Toy Camera." It ramps up the contrast and saturation of an image and then applies a whopping big dose of vignette. I think I started playing with it because my images were looking meek and soft and I wanted to experiment with a more, "in your face style." I'm sure I'll get over it and go back to my flatter and less frantic post processing.

I spent my week doing portraits (stills) and interviews (video) and I was ready for some "non-human" photography time. Many people seem to think that cityscapes are boring unless you do them in one of the "great capitols" where imposing, august and intimidating buildings that were made many years ago live. Cities as populated with interesting architecture the way Palm Springs is populated with golfers (and from time to time, photographers...).  I might agree with that assessment if my goal was to catalog and show off the architectural achievements of my fair city but in fact I walk and photograph to reinforce my sense of place. I see the city as constantly growing and changing. Not always for the better but not always badly. Having a mental image of what local places look like gives me some sort of comfort that I find hard to explain.

On the day of this walk I took the (relatively) new Sony a58 and the muscular 16-50mm f2.8 lens with me. I like the camera just fine but I love the lens. And I love it even better when I watch through the electronic finder after I take the shot and watch the camera's processor apply the corrections in it's little memory banks to the image. The lines straighten out and the corners lighten up. But then I just mess it up again in post processing with my Toy Camera Mania.

I spent all week in the studio so when I went out I looked for all the places where the central Texas sun does it's hot, bright, bully light all over everything. The images above and below were taken up on the third level of the Austin Convention Center. Interesting thing, the ACC is open every time I go there. Whether they are having a car show or meeting or nothing at all the building seems constantly accessible to me. Given the long halls with flooding sunlight and all the blandly interesting post modernist touches I am amazed that it's not full of film students doing guerilla photo shoots, without permission or permits. At the very least some exploratory fashion photography? Whatever. But the bathrooms are convenient and the water fountains are cold.

One benefit of keeping track of a city center growing like a weed is knowing which locations you want to put in the background of a location portrait and what the best time of day is to make it happen well. 

Our downtown never seems to sleep. There are multiple art and music festivals just about every weekend, and something like 120 music/night clubs in a one and a half mile strip. The problem for diurnal shooters like me is that most of the big events take place outside, during the day. The sun is harsh on faces  but looks great on buildings. I guess I need to go out later and haunt the few interior venues with interesting interior light....

I like walking the city with a small camera and a good lens because it allows me to get seriously good images when I see them while making a casual and lightweight enough package so that it feels as though it's just along for the ride. If I don't find anything to shoot then no big deal.

Okay, I think I'm over my "toy camera" phase. Just had to get it out of my system...

Changing my mindset from the "loner, creative photographer" to the "team player immersed in creating content". Now there's a leap.

I think it's a quirk of the human mind to always be looking in the rear view mirror at where we've been and what we've done, and how we did it. And, in an anthropological sense it's logical. Learn from the past. You have to take into consideration that for the vast majority of the time we've been wondering around this planet (as a species, camera-less)  the rates of profound changes in process and tradition for most generations of humans were....glacial. So I think we're pretty much hardwired to look for future solutions by mining our past experiences. What that leads to in an age of hyper-change and accelerating process evolution is a never ending set of schism points between people who "get" the lastest change in X and people who just pull up hard and stop in place. No bandwidth to go any further. Shut down and operating on whatever brain operating system version was in place at the moment they hit the wall of progress. 

You see it everywhere. There are some people who don't want to learn how to pump their own gas. Others who've never adapted to using the web. Still others that "don't get Twitter" and millions who aren't sure why their otherwise rational sons and daughters walk around in a haze staring at their phone screens as though some benevolent technology god was just about to impart the "final secret" through that medium. Remember the shock, disappointment and lost sales BMW suffered when they first introduced the "i-drive" to a generation of series 7 car buyers who were baffled by the interface? And why they might need/want it?  Maybe we could chalk that one up to crappy interface design. 

I'm of a generation that loves to talk about how we did it, pre-digital. And really? No one gives a shit. I'm also of the generation of imaging specialists who think they might just skate through their entire professional lives doing just one thing or one process really, really well. And why not? They won't have to expend any additional time learning more. I read a "Pro" forum today. A traditional wedding shooter was bemoaning the story that he had "booked" nineteen weddings last year but only four this year. You could feel his anguish. He went on to say he just couldn't understand why everyone wanted to mess up their images (taken with phones) by dragging them through the filters in Instagram. He just knew that if he could show them the pristinely sharp, perfectly color corrected and (yawn) perfectly posed portraits that he was able to knock out and print onto canvas with his Nikon D3X and such and such lens he felt certain that they'd want his product. A backward look at a product that sold well in the 1980s.

So, where am I going with this? Well, it dawned on me that most businesses do better when they listen to the customers they aspire to serve. I've just come off what I would have described as a schizophrenic week just a few years ago. Schizophrenic in that I got to wear many hats. I bounced back and forth between working as a still photographer, a portrait photographer, a script consultant, a video lighting designer, a director and a DP. The two video interviews I helped create were for businesses who felt ready to up their sell on their websites. One was for a law firm the other for an executive coach. Both mixed together my long term lighting skills with new stuff I keep learning about video in the digital age. We also produced a TV commercial for an entertainment client. When I say, "produced" I mean that I worked with a creative person and my part was to set up the lighting, engineer the sound and then run the camera. My partner created the script, ran the teleprompter and did the edits.

During the same week I shot an ad image, several portraits and did some fun art documentation. In the last few days, when I've dropped by agencies that I've worked with before, either to drop off work, or to drop by some promo, my creative counterparts ask me what I've been up to. When we talk about making video their eyes light up and conversations moves from polite banter to full attention. What just about every creative person and corporate marketing person is looking for is a full on content provider rather than a breadbasket full of disparate cogs that require assembly. 
But this is not the way we used to do it in the rear view mirror.

I spoke with a regular client about an upcoming project next week. He's used my video services for interview recently and has hired me as a photographer many times over the past ten years. We discussed his need for "B-roll" video as well as still images in our upcoming location at a tech manufacturing facility. He wanted to know if I could light my set ups with continuous lights, shoot the still images and then roll some video for inserts. It was a good discussion. He's designing the new website to use only horizontal image content. That means we can go in with a video tripod and fluid head.  We'll lock it down for the stills and we'll move for the video. The budget gets a bump as well. 

This was the lighting package I took to the location ad shoot. 
Big flash and lots of power. But for the rest of the week it was...
....all continuous, continuously.

I dropped off a couple DVDs to another long term client today who asked me, "What's up?" We dove into the video conversation. When I explained to him what I was doing he got excited. "I didn't know you were doing motion." We talked about shooting video with DSLR's and we talked about sound recording and editing. He was excited. He likes the way I direct and light people in stills and was ready to incorporate those looks in video. His company is all interactive. All website design. His take on the market? People are demanding a mix of media now. Static images are not enough. They are required but the are not sufficient to hold viewers' attentions. People want both. I want both.

As part of my continuing education I'm learning the in-depth craziness of Final Cut Pro X, which is a non-linear video editing software product. I knew it was more than I could be able to figure out by brute force so I signed up for a service called, Lynda.com. They specialize in video based instruction for creative people of all stripes. They have modules for just about any imaging software from In Design to Nuke 7 and everything in between. They even have a tutorial for learning how to optimize your YouTube channel.  I've watched the basic, six hour FCPX video editing module twice and my last two edits were better, quicker and more controlled.

The cross platform "money maker." Bright, soft and powerful.

I've got a lot to learn but then I'm expecting to live a long time so I figure I'd better adjust to my ever changing surroundings. One part of me wishes that nothing had ever changed and that everyday I could go into the studio, set up my signature light, drink coffee and yak with my assistants, shoot a corporate exec on a standard background and get paid big bucks. But, on the other hand once you figure something out well enough so that the operation becomes subconscious don't you get incredibly bored and ready to move on to something new? Isn't that the true nature of a creative business?

On one of the video shoots I couldn't use my preferred microphone method which is to put a lavalier microphone on my interview subject's shirt or lapel. We ended up using an inexpensive shotgun mic on a boom instead. I spent a lot of time in the editing process cleaning up the sound. That led to a shopping trip last Sunday which culminated in an upgrade. A new, much better shotgun microphone. You can hear a difference. I hear the sound of less work in post processing. Another part of the learning curve.

Providing more than photographs requires every photographer to look to their native skill sets. If you are a natural leader you might aim at doing more and more directing. If you are an introvert who loves the process of things you might aim to be more involved in editing and special effects. If your alternate talents lie in writing then I see scripts in your future. If you love to light you'll probably figure out how to leverage all the cool stuff you learned lighting photographs into more work as a lighting designer/camera operator. Are you really into music? You could be leveraging your assets into sound design.

There's no question that the market for just still photography, especially from mid-talent people in mid-tier markets is tightening. But it's hardly the end of the world. It's just an ever accelerating marketplace's way of encouraging you to spread those creative wings, open your mind and expand the range of stuff you do.

I like doing all these different things. It's more profitable than just sitting around changing camera systems willy-nilly, hoping the latest system has some sort of magic that will get you business. And even the time I spend learning via the web or editing the work has some benefit:  I get to spend more time with my noble dog. That's a nice, stable part of the process. And yes, I do look for her advice on everything from the moral character of the people who come into the studio to whether or not a cross dissolve would look cheesy for a certain transition. She hasn't let me down yet.  Go out and be prolifically creative. It's all fun.

I'm not saying I'm great at any of this...yet. But I'm committed. I'm enjoying the teamwork of shooting video and making interviews work. I grudgingly admit that editing is not the satanic process I originally thought it might be. It's all fun. And making motion ties right into all my research about continuous light sources over the last four years. Synergy. Growth and Change. Like baking a cake.


My favorite portrait technique? Simplicity.

One light. One 12 megapixel camera. One 85mm 1.8 lens.

Just put the light in the right place and then work on seeing the person in front of you. At that point the technical stuff should take care of itself.

Back when we printed just about everything every photographer worth his Dektol at his own filed out negative carrier to use in his enlarger. The idea was that you could print everything that was on the negative. It was proof that you saw perfectly at the moment you pushed your fickle index finger down on the shutter release button. Shades of Henri Cartier-Bresson!!! While there are probably a thousand ways to make your own custom frames to fit around you digital images I find it easiest just to hop into Snapseed and customize one of their handy, pre-fab frames.

Most of the time they serve no purpose other than eliciting the ethos of printing in the wet days. But in this situation the background toasted up to white and I needed a frame to define where the white background stopped and the Blogger background begins.

I did some work on this photo in Snapseed. I turned down the saturation a bit. Because I think skin tones look more natural when they aren't Disney-saturated. I opened up the shadows and brightened up my subject's eyes to match the perception I had of her eyes while I was shooting. I was moving from objective reality to my subjective reality, via sliders.

I look at most of my RAW files as a vague starting point. And when it comes to portraits I'm willing to use every trick in the book to bring an image from the vague muddle of data that comes from my cameras into line with the pristine and always optimistic view my brain seems to store of my subjects. On any given image I might spend some time in Aperture (for just the right color and tone), PhotoShop (to repair blemishes and dust spots and meteor dust) as well as Portrait Professional (to get the eyes and the skin tones just right), and finally a wallow through Snapseed because I like the judicious use of the structure filter and the ease of adding frames and vignettes.

It's my job to guide your eyes and your intentions. I am not an forensic documentarian. My job is the opposite of strictly recording the median. That's for robots and surveillance cameras.

I suggest that we use the tools we have at our fingertips. The trick is to know when to stop. That's probably why I'm not showing the other ten variations. The bottom line is that the value lies in your original vision, not the cameras literal compulsions. Drag the image to the reality you saw in your heart and mind and the hell with the purists.


A Portrait. The way I think my portraits should look.

The portrait is a collaboration.

A.Z.  ©kirk tuck

I met the woman in this image a few years ago. We were shooting some big graphics for a trade show and she was one of the talents the ad agency selected as a principal for the ad campaign. I was smitten by her quiet and unusual beauty when she walked through the door. After the project was completed and the 9 foot by 12 foot panels were installed I sent her an e-mail and asked if she was willing to come into the studio and have a portrait made, as a fun project. 

I set up my usual lighting. A big, soft light coming from the left and used in fairly close. At first there were the obligatory smiles and poses but as we got into the session I found that the quieter, more serious expressions were the ones that made me happy. People remark that my portraits can be too serious but the bigger the smile the smaller and squint-ier the eyes. And A.Z.'s eyes were one of the features that attracted me in the first place. Why hide them behind a smile?

I used my camera of choice at that time. It was a Nikon D2x and the exif info tells me that I was using the 85mm 1.8 Nikon lens. I know this will sound monotonous but I shot all the images in the session with ISO 100 because it's the optimum ISO for that camera. 

We shot a lot of stuff in a short amount of time that evening and I sent along a few of the best images but lately I've started to go back to my favorite images and re-work them. Funny how four or five years passing makes such a difference in my perspective about how faces and lighting and post production should look. 

Here's another version:

 We are all attracted to different ideals of beauty. You work better when you work with the kind of human you find most amazing. Knowing your creative muses may be the most important aspect of making great portraits. Not commercial, sellable portraits, just great portraits.

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Thank you very much.

Why the reset? Here's my quandary: My market and my interests are shifting...

We live in a world of insanely fast changes and I work in an industry that changes even quicker. The things I've written about for the past five years have all referenced a continuum of photography that more or less reflected the viewpoint that digital didn't really change any of the underlying structures that made photography what it is, digital was just a new media to write the images to. A new kind of film that's infinitely cheaper to buy and process, and equally easy to share. And that was a comforting construct for me but it's just not true anymore.

A large number of the skills a lot of us spent decades honing are no longer relevant or even desirable. Who, in this day and age, needs to know the fine points of selenium toning Seagull Portrait fiber printing paper? Who will make use of your dissertation about the Scheimpflug formulas for calculating rear film and front lens standard movements for a view camera? And really, who gives a shit about which version of a 50mm Leica Summicron lens is really the hidden gem in the cosmology of lenses?

Much of the blog space on the web that has to do with photography has devolved into an endless review of cameras and lenses. The bloggers have discovered that talking about the latest equipment introductions is fun for the majority of readers to read. They've also discovered that most readers will click through the product links and return some income to the bloggers. It sets up an UN-virtuous circle wherein we start to customize our content to encourage equipment purchases instead of encouraging an exploration of the art. And that started to bother me. The websites I used to go to in order to read about technique or new works by ascending thought leaders have changed their mixes to be almost all commerce all the time. And while I know that's the basis of the American system (Oh...yay capitalism!!) it's also a subject line that decays quickly and irreversibly. That wonderful review about the Olympus EPL2 already seems antiquated. Like listening to Abba.

When I first envisioned writing this blog I thought I'd be writing about a handful of subjects. I wanted to show work I'd done and talk about the commercial photography world. How we make work. The challenges of keeping our personal visions alive while making a living doing images that weren't necessarily germaine to the visions that drove us into this commercial niche. I wanted to talk about the personal journey of creating art. Of shooting on the street. Of making portraits of wonderful people who made our hearts pump faster and our eyes perk up.

Here's the wonderful thing about writing a book: You only get to see the sales numbers twice a year and once you've written it and put it out there there isn't a hell of a lot you can do to change it if you get lots of good or bad feedback. Here's the really crappy thing about writing a column for a blog: You get hour by hour feedback in the form of comments, pageview metrics and even click through numbers which you can't really help wanting to see. If they are good on an article you wrote yesterday your ego is massaged and you feel vindicated and smart and dialed in. If your numbers fall over the edge of a cliff the next day you become frustrated and you subconsciously start edging in the a different direction. Which direction? Obviously, the one that protects your fragile ego.

A number of years ago I wrote two blogs that I really love. One is called "Lonely Hunter, Better Hunt" and the other is, "Coffee Time is Over, Shut up and Shoot." Both have been moderately popular in terms of pageviews and comments. But, of course, the numbers are dwarfed by anything I write that covers, reviews or even just mentions the gear. Write a long Olympus review and the numbers are amazing. Write something that discusses our motivations and watch the numbers fall through the couch cushions with all the spare change.

But here's the disconnect, a vocal faction of readers tells me how much they love the non-gear columns while the vast majority of visitors turn off and head for more gear-like pastures.  

The next problem for the blog is that after nearly 30 years in the business I feel that I can clearly see, both in art and commerce, how much bigger video is becoming. And how important it is to the whole sphere of visual communication as we plunge into the future. I like cinema and video and the art of the moving image. I like scripts and writing and acting and everything that goes with it but my audience sometimes makes me feel locked into being that guy who wrote a book about using small flashes or the guy who wrote a book about LEDs and they give me (metaphoric) disapproving looks when I mention video/motion.

Wanna see readership drop off your photography blog? Shift from writing about which camera and lens combination currently has the most magnificent bokeh in the world to writing about how to light faces in video and watch the current readership shrug and trundle off for another cup of Sanka.

The future is coming at us fast. Four of my work days this week will be consumed shooting video for clients. I haven't changed my branding or advertising; my clients just assume I will be able to bring the same lighting effects and personal rapport to the video table. And I feel that the wave is just beginning to swell. 

Sony announced a 4K television set at NAB this year that should be priced under $5,000 so it's only a matter of a year or two until the high end of the market (where the juiciest clients reside) are totally saturated with screens that deliver a much higher level of detail and tonal integrity than even the best units we're using today. And that will change so much. Levels of production will have to rise and the next generation of DSLRs (or, if you shoot with Sony, DSLTs) will have to incorporate the new 4K level of HD video. And the potential to show work on a high quality medium will become ubiquitous. But if we sit around and argue about the death of the traditional photo industry or how we need to go back to printing our own black and white photos with chemicals, or which camera is the best one right now! Then we won't share in the fun.

I don't want to create a site like Phillip Bloom's where everything is a commercial for every video gadget that's offered for wannabe movie makers. And I don't want to be a blog where we worship our past at the expense of the present. I also don't want to turn my back at timeless good work either. 

But in my mind the first step in rehabbing the VSL blog was to take down as much product specific stuff as possible. I'm no longer in the business of reviewing the tools. I'm not any smarter than many of my readers and I think they can figure out which camera works best for them. I'm no longer flogging my previous books. I've worked and worked on that and there's no rhyme or reason to their selling pattern. If I flog a book it will be the upcoming novel or a new e-book after that. I don't want to sell people workshops. I don't want to sell my audience prints.

In fact, I don't want to seek out an audience, I want my audience to seek me out. 

So what do I intend to substitute for all the decaying and moribund content that used to live here? It's easy. I want to write about my experiences making portraits and shooting motion picture projects. I want to write about how this one freelance content creator lives his life and makes his work. I'd like to showcase and interview more and more interesting people in the way I did with Michael O'Brien's video.  And I'd like to talk about this whole life and undertaking as a process that's done with thought tools and not just the cameras and lenses we buy for sport. I want to make portraits that are exciting or seductive enough to make me forget the gear.

You can come along for the ride or you can find somewhere else to live. You can join my imperfect search to bring meaning to my photographs and the work of people that I think are doing good stuff. Going forward I will be much more direct in my opinions (I've felt myself toning things down to keep the virtual peace around here) and if enough people don't like it vocally enough I'll just turn off the comments.

I'm old enough to know that all the stuff we buy is irrelevant if we don't have anything to say. And we'll never know what it is we want to say with our work if we have our collective heads up our butts chasing the latest light, lens and camera stuff. Mea Culpa. I got sucked in by the magnetic attraction of pageviews and the lure of the cash. Not anymore. 

It's hard to write for an audience you don't know. I would sincerely like to use the comment section on this particular post to hear from you, my readers. Who are you? What do you do to make money? What do you do to make art? Why are you here? What do you think the future will bring for you and for the rest of us....in a photographic sense? I'd like to hear from as many people as possible. I'll open up the comments even to the anonymous commenters. Share with me who I've been writing to for the past five years.

Thanks, Kirk

Please use our Amazon links to buy your camera gear (and anything else you like at Amazon). We'll get a small commission which helps defray my time and cost while costing you zero extra.
Thank you very much.