2.01.2014

Finally. FINALLY!!! Four of my five books about photography are back in stock at Amazon.


While the end of 2013 was fun and calm and happy for the most part for me there was one little burr under my saddle. One scorpion in my cowboy boot. One little rattlesnake hiding on the floorboard of the pickup. Three of my best selling actual, printed on paper (soon to be collector's items?) books were out of stock at Amazon.com for the entire month of January. I thought it would get resolved quickly as in: more books printed. more books delivered by the distributor. more proactive retail braininess on everyone's part. But I watched America's most potent buying season fade, watched the Christmas trees get recycled and watched the Valentine's Day adds crop up in the stores and coffee shops and the website still showed:  "Brilliant. In high demand. But unavailable at this time."

So much for my careful financial planning and my resolve to be able to buy new track shoes for the boy this quarter....

But now, like a Super Bowl Miracle, four of my five books are back in stock (although in limited supplies).  If you didn't get one from the holidays and it's been driving you crazy then now is the time to rush to your keyboard and place your order. Maybe next quarter will be the time Ben will have more shoes....

Seriously though. I like to think that there's a lot more information and examples in each of the books than you'll ever get in one day long workshop and the price of the books is about what you'd budget for coffee en route to a workshop and happy hour afterwards. Each of them is under $25.

Please go and buy a book today. Even if it's nothing more than a souvenir of our time together here at the blog.  Thank You!


If there's a special camera you need to buy on Amazon you can use one of the links above to get to Amazon, navigate to your much needed camera purchase and VSL will earn a small commission directly from Amazon at no cost to your, your loved ones or your heirs. Thanks!


Checking in to see how my first course at Craftsy.com is doing.

Victoria. My model for our Studio Portrait Lighting Workshop at Craftsy.com

It was the middle of July, last year, when I headed up to Denver to do my first photography class with Craftsy.com at I was nervous, filled with trepidation and a little overwhelmed. I had been asked to teach a class on portrait lighting which I've done many times but this time I'd be doing it in front of two cameras with a microphone attached to my shirt and a radio transmitter stuck in my back pocket. 

I guess I assumed that classes like these, educational programming that would be streamed to the web, would make use of teleprompters. And, as most people here know I can write fast and fill pages. I'd have no problem producing reams of information I could have read back on a teleprompter. But Craftsy.com doesn't work that way. They like spontaneous. Maybe the producers there like to see the "talent" sweat a bit.....(just kidding) but they don't use teleprompters or traditional scripts. I worked from an outline that we collaborated on and put together weeks in advance. 

Most of the first workshop explores portrait lighting and I made the decision to use mostly continuous light sources as we could see the effects of the different lighting instruments as we worked along. 

The finished class runs about two and a half hours. I feel like I look nervous for the first few minutes but I later get into the teaching and everything smooths out. I've come to like teaching this way since it allows me and the producer to go back and try stuff again. It allows students to back up the video and go over parts again for more reflection. And the course is available to the student for the life forever. 

An interesting addition to the platform is the ability to ask questions about the lessons or about lighting in general, on the website, and get a response from the instructor. The best part of the overall value proposition is that, if you don't like the course you have a money back guarantee. Buy it, watch it, evaluate the value and decide. 

My profits from the course come solely from royalties for each class sold. Craftsy takes some risk, I take a risk. They put in lots of production and editing time, pay their crews and producers. I put in a days or preparation and three solid days of on camera production, followed by an hour a week of online "office hours" answering questions. 

You can think of this class in two ways. One is that you'll learn basic portrait lighting and posing techniques so it's educational.  The second way is as entertainment. You've been reading my stuff here on the blog for who knows how long so now you can put a face and a voice and body language onto this mostly anonymous writer and enjoy the contrast between how you thought I would be and how I really am.

Anyway, here's a link to the class for 25% off. I hope you'll give it a shot and see what it's all about. 

Studio Portrait Lighting

Thanks for reading through this brief marketing message. 

1.31.2014

What format is this?

 

I've been playing a lot with the Sony RX10 camera for the last two weeks and admit I am a bit obsessed about it but I've been reading too many ill informed opinions on the web and the whole subject of shallow and deep depth of field are starting to drive me nuts. Everyone seems to consider so much aesthetic stuff in photography in purely binary or black and white terms. Something is either good or bad. Sharp or not sharp. In total focus or totally out of focus. Even when the rest of us see things in shades of gray, subtle gradations of settings and effects. Zones of focus...

The difference that most amateurs are perplexed and binary over is the idea that the depth of focus on all bigger formats is tiny, almost razor thin, while any camera with a sensor smaller than whatever sensor they are currently championing is only able to render scenes with an infinite range of sharpness. You can show people stuff and you can explain ideas to them but you can't understand it for them....

So, above is a shot of a sausage maker that we did in Elgin, Texas. Tell me which camera and lens you think I shot this with and why. If you've seen it in an older blog before please don't give away the technical details until people have had the opportunity to weigh in.  Thanks.

(edit: added a second shot. Take a guess at the camera and lens on the one below, as well...)


Have fun!

The reveal: the top photo, sausage maker, was done on a 4x5 inch field camera equipped with a 135mm f5.6 lens. The bottom image was done with a Panasonic GH3 using an 85mm Rokinon lens.







1.30.2014

One night at one theater then the next night at another. Bag of mini-cams in tow. ISO and mixed color insanity.

Sony RX10 at 3200 ISO.

When we last left off the chairman of the Visual Science Lab had just written about a lovely evening at the theater shooting an hilarious but traditionally produced play called, In the Room Next Door. The folks at Zach Theater were rehearsed to the nth degree and the production staff were as flawless and accurate as a computer.  And not just a generic computer....a really good computer. Go see that essay (which is a paean to the RX10) here: http://visualsciencelab.blogspot.com/2014/01/my-theatrical-test-of-sony-rx10-and.html

Well, yesterday I went to a different kind of theater production. No less fun but where the production the night before was perfectly regimented yesterday's fare was all about improvisation and on the fly, on the stage direction. The production was: The Bowie Project: A Rock and Roll Soundpainting. And you can read more about it in the Austin Chronicle, here: http://www.austinchronicle.com/arts/2014-01-31/the-bowie-project-a-rock-and-roll-soundpainting/

I was pre-recession busy yesterday with raw post processing in the morning, some accounting for Ben's college apps over lunch and a bunch of portrait retouching for a large medical practice for the first half of the afternoon. I remembered (almost at the last minute: thanks, iCal!!!) that I'd promised my friend, Colin, that I'd photograph the final dress rehearsal for his project (The David Bowie Soundpainting) and I needed to be right in the middle of downtown in less than half an hour.

Fortunately it's VSL policy to charge batteries and back up cards the minute we walk into the studio from assignment so the cameras were packed and ready to go. One Sony RX10, two Panasonic GH3s and a couple of fun lenses for the m4:3 camera. Should have just left it at home since the RX10 worked charmingly.

So, here's the deal. The Bowie play is completely improv. There's no script. There are snippets of choreography. There is a modern dance company involved. A Bowie singer. A rock band. A guy who let the fog machine run wild and two guys named Steve who loved playing with all of the cyberlights and catwalk mounted gelled spots---sometimes all at the same time. The direction? Shoot whatever you want from wherever you want. The play will last for between about 45 minutes to maybe 70 minutes. It might be longer. There's no intermission. Go!

I love most of David Bowie's music and it's always fun to see entertainers engaged in pure play so I just went for it. Here's a selection.....









 Panasonic GH3. 25mm.
 Panasonic GH3. 25mm.
 Panasonic GH3. 25mm.

RX10 wide open at 3200.






1.29.2014

My Theatrical Test of the Sony RX10. And what a fun romp it was.

My mistake. I used the clear digital zoom (interpolated pixels) feature on this one 
to get a 400mm equivalent that I could handhold.... 

One shoot. One camera. One Lens. (Not shown here, but still yummy: 24mm equiv. shots 
of the whole stage. And yes, the lines are straight).

By Austin Photographer, Kirk Tuck ©2014

If you've read the blog for a while you know that I shoot a lot of marketing images for the best live Theater in central Texas, Zach Theatre here in Austin. I've been doing it for twenty years now and I'm finally getting proficient at the whole thing. A lot of our shoots are studio productions done weeks or months before a play is ready for an audience. We used to do that kind of assignment with big strobes and Hasselblad film cameras and now we press whatever really good digital camera we happen to have into service. Any of the major brands, with more than 8 megapixels can do a great jobs when you have the camera anchored on a stout tripod, when you are using the best lenses and when you hot glue the ISO dial solidly to 100.

But the other portion of our photo assignments from Zach Theatre are what we call, "running shoots." These are the images that we take at the final dress rehearsals, and since the opening of the new Topfer Theatre (Zach's premier theater and stage) we do those dress rehearsals with an audience of "family and friends" in the house.

In the past I've tended to shoot these with full frame cameras and fast, long lenses but from time to time I've tossed in lots of Four-Thirds, micro 4:3s, and a never ending mix of strange birds like the original Sony R1 (still have some great shots from the Janis Joplin show from that camera...).
When I do a running shoot I try to cover everything so the marketing people have a wide range of images they can use across diverse marketing opportunities. That means I shoot a lot frames. So I get to know the camera I'm shooting with inside and out.

If you've shot live theater before you know that the light levels on the stage change constantly. You know that the light levels can get pretty low.  You know that the color of the light changes all the time (you can thank programmable LEDs for that...). And you know that actors constantly move and that their hands move even faster (1/250th and above can help stop hand blur. Sometimes).  You either want a camera that can read all that complexity or you need a camera that you can make adjustments and changes to almost automatically. A poorly set up camera can be a nightmare. A slow focuser will drive you nuts. And, you'll shoot at ISOs starting at 800 and, if you are lucky, cap at 3200.

In earlier digital days I found the Nikon D700 to be a wonderful theater camera when it came to focus and ease of exposure adjustments. It was great when we worked in tight. The big revolution for me came with the introduction of great EVFs.  Especially the one in the Sony a99. For the first time I could make "real time" adjustments and have a high degree of certainty that the images out of camera would match what I was previewing through the eyepiece. No more shoot-and-chimp.

I've been happy with the a99 and the 70-200mm 2.8 G lens but the entire universe is our lab and our newest infatuation here at VSL is the new baby Sony, the RX10. So, with a bit of trepidation I decided to go totally "bridge-cam" for the dress rehearsal of, "The Room Next Store."  Also known, in the theater circles as, "The Vibrator Play."  According to the camera critics I would be facing insurmountable odds. I'd be gnashing my teeth at the contrast detect auto focus. Especially on moving subjects going in and out of the shadows. The zoom of the lens would be too slow to catch any decisive moments, and the depressing capper to the whole gloomy undertaking would be the sheer nasty-ness of the microscopically small sensor. Even smaller than in the Olympus "world champion" camera. According to some critics I'd be better off using my cellphone....

Well. I'll cut to the happy ending. None of the crazy negative stuff came to pass. And the play is really fun, and funny and filled with clever examinations of sexual politics and hilarious plots twists. Well, just imagine a victorian society circa the invention of electricity and the idea of "curing" female and male "hysteria" with a vibrator.... I messed up a few frames from laughing too hard. I enjoyed it so much I was even able to ignore the woman in front of me who pulled out her cellphone and texted a bit...


Let's talk about camera set up. I have to face some limitations. The RX10 is not going to match the a99 or any full frame camera at ISO' above 800 so I decided to try to stick to ISO 800 and use 1600 as my high limit. Then I go backward and try to figure out what combination of shutter speed and apertures will match up we with that. I aimed for 1/200th of a second as a target shutter speed but I was willing to go all the way down to 1/80th since the image stabilization in this camera is very good. I knew I'd spend most of the evening at the long end of the lens so the extra stability was nice to have.

I was sitting in the middle of a (non-paying) audience (and I'm not a "dirty baby diaper hold" shooter) so I turned off the rear LCD and depended exclusively on the very good EVF. And that's actually a battery saving move as well. You see, there's a proximity sensor at the eyepiece and if you have only the eyepiece implemented whenever you move your eye from the finder it shuts off the monitor. Instant "eco" mode.



I usually shoot in large/finest Jpegs but I though I might need some extra finesse in noise reduction so this time I shot RAW which also freed me up to shoot in automatic white balance, thinking I would do my color corrections in post. I used the movable AF focusing protocol and selected "smallest" for the AF box.

S-AF for the mode. No weird modes like HDR or DRO engaged. But I did enable the Clear Image Zoom. High ISO noise reduction was not set as that menu item is grayed out in raw.

Here's what I found: The camera never failed to lock in quickly and accurately to the subject on the stage that I selected. The focus, unless the subjects were in deep shadow, was as quick as nearly every phase detection autofocus DSLR I've ever used and quicker than several camera from a few generations ago that were four to six times the price of the RX10. Sorry phase detection fans.

Here's the big news....The color the camera kept deciding on in AWB mode was, when I pulled the raw files into Lightroom 5.0, exactly like the color I was seeing on stage. Now remember, I've been fine tuning previous cameras with exact custom settings or exact kelvin settings in order to manage color but no other camera I have ever used for this kind of work ever got me so inside the ballpark before. After a while I just presumed that the files would be close enough to not need tweaking.

At 100% (the land of the pixelphilia) and at 1600 ISO the images have the mushy, painterly kind of appearance we've gotten used to seeing from high resolution, small pixel well cameras, including the Nikon d800 and the Sony a77 and Nex 7. The files at both 800 and 1600 are a little flatter (in contrast) and have softer detail than files at lower apertures. But this is only apparent at 100%. As soon as you pull back to 66% or 50% the entire image on the screen looks good.


There's that pesky digital zoom again. But you know....sometimes you want to get close.

That's as close as I could get with the (handheld) 200mm equivalent. But I sure like the skin 
tones and the detail.


I wanted the image to be a little contrastier so I used a slider setting of 10 in clarity. I went down to sharpening and pushed the amount slider to 70 and at 1.0.  Then I went one menu down and invoked a bit of noise reduction mostly in luminance but ramped up the detail slider a bit. Once done I applied these settings to all 972 files I'd shot. Then I went back through and did little exposure tweaks to groups of images.

While the files are not as good as my a99 they hand 1600 ISO better than the Sony Nex7 or the Sony a77 and I think that's also a big deal out of a camera at this price. But what really impressed me was the lens performance. This will sound heretical but I decided, given the pixel sizes and the sensor size, that the lens was probably diffraction limited wide open. All that means is that the lens is probably computed to be as good as it's going to get wide open. The next two stops might be better but probably not by much. I thought, "what the hell. Let's go wide open." Since I rarely needed more depth of field and I was generally trying to nail focus on the main actor or speaker I didn't have problems with areas going out of focus. On a couple of occasions I dived down to f4 but mostly out of curiosity. Hello sharpness.

The files out of Lightroom were done at their full pixel dimensions of 5472 by 3648. Most of the images will be used on the web or offered to magazines and other printed publications at a "press room" size of around 3000x2000 pixels so they'll be downsampled in half. If you print the images in a tabloid you'll still greatly exceed the print specs for any rational size use.

But wait, there's more. After pounding through 972 images over the course of two and a half hours of shooting via the EVF the first (and only) battery was still showing 23%. WTF???? I thought this camera was supposed to be a monster battery sucker and I thought the battery was supposed to be lame. Not in my experience. In fact, I should have mentioned that I got well over an hour and thirty minutes of "camera on" time when I helped my friend Chris shoot video on Saturday. I know what the specs say but they are based on focusing, shooting and refocusing while using a flash 50% of the time. Your mileage will definitely vary.











So what am I to think of all this? The perfect little video camera combined with a great still camera for theatrical work. Huh? Who would have guessed it? And who would have been crazy enough to test one under these conditions? Well, for that you can pretty much always count on the crazies here at VSL. We love that kind of thing.

My advice to you would be to avoid this camera at all costs. If no one buys it the prices will drop near Summer and our staff will be able to buy bucket loads of them for much lower prices. We'll use them for everything. Hell, what am I saying? I'm already using them for everything. I'll reconsider when I hit something that doesn't work. Don't hold your breath.







in other news: Belinda and I finished working on, The Lisbon Portfolio. The photo/action novel I started back in 2002. I humbly think it is the perfect Summer vacation read. And the perfect, "oh crap, I have to fly across the country" read. It's in a Kindle version right now at Amazon. The Lisbon Portfolio. Action. Adventure. Photography.  See how our hero, Henry White, blows up a Range Rover with a Leica rangefinder.....


Remember, you can download the free Kindle Reader app for just about any table or OS out there....




1.28.2014

Yo! Nikon. Go to the Fuji Site and Check Out How To Do Retro Right.

Fuji just bitch slapped Nikon. Hard.


By Austin Photographer, Kirk Tuck ©2014

Hey look! Fuji made the camera that should have been a slam dunk for Nikon. It's the right size. Just like a traditional Nikon FM from the "golden" years. It's got retro knobs that actually work like they're supposed to. It's got a real, live aperture ring just like grandpa's camera. It's not huge!!! It's got real convenience features like....video. It's got a state of the art electronic viewfinder so you can use all the power of information the camera can provide. Did I mention that it's just the right size?

What is the Fuji XT1 missing that the Nikon dF "grandpa-cam" features? Just one thing.  There's no full frame sensor.   ( You know, the large block V8 motor your creepy uncle with the mullet always waxes on about...).  Can anyone take a camera seriously if it doesn't have a full frame sensor? Well, I'd point you to just about every photo-gear site on the web and they all pretty much unanimously declared that the "quarter frame" sensor Olympus OMD EM-1 was "The Camera of the Year" for 2013. That certainly says something about our changing attitude about cubic inches and performance...

So, smaller camera, nicer control interfaces, incredibly well thought of APS-C sensor, (should have great color, great jpegs), includes added features like a modern, electronic viewfinder and, gosh golly!!! jeepers--new fangled video. A nice line up of well done lenses is also available, all with real aperture dials.

What's the Nikon grandpa-cam have that the Fuji doesn't? How about a price tag that's twice as big??? Yep. The much nicer looking Fuji (mercifully available only in black) is about $1300 for the body while the Nikon dF weighs in at a whopping $2900. 

To be honest, the sensor in the dF is the same as that in the D4 and it's supposed to be a low light monster. If only the focusing could keep up with it...  The sensor in the Fuji isn't exactly in the same glass but it might also be in a class of its own where it really counts: Image Quality and Color. Or maybe it's just par for the course these days. And that would be really good anyway.









Sometimes I like the backgrounds to go just a little bit out of focus.




By Austin Photographer, Kirk Tuck ©2014

I always laugh when I hear the arguments between various camera factions over such things as the relative differences in auto-focus speeds and the huge differences in the (mis-understood) "bokeh" between various digital camera formats. Cameras are so good and the functions are so capable that getting "good" pictures now is like shooting fish in a barrel. We did this image, above, old school: Hand-held Pentax 6x7 cm camera with a 150mm 2.8 lens and color negative film. Scanned the neg., printed it on water color paper and then scanned it again to share.

It's still all about the expression and the right time to hit the shutter button. That, and looking for those cool diagonal lines....








1.27.2014

What I learned from a really smart photographer back in the early 1980's.

This is a Polaroid 665 negative.

Janet Gelphman. Circa 1982

By Austin Photographer, Kirk Tuck ©2014

Everyone has mentors and influences in their photography careers and one of the first ones I was blessed with was a woman named, Janet Gelphman. I met Janet because we both were members of the Ark Darkroom Co-operative, located at the Ark Co-op college dormitory near the University of Texas at Austin. The darkroom had a big Omega enlarger that could print negatives up to 4x5 inches. It also had a couple different light heads which you could interchange depending on the look you wanted to get in your final images. The cold light diffusion head was a softer light source and reduced the contrast (and some of the need for fine spotting) on the final prints. The condenser head belted out direct, collimated rays of light that gave a darkroom printer excellent clarity and contrast. There were rumors of point source light heads that would give a scalpel like sharpness to prints but we were not brave enough to own that one. 

 I met many photographers there who have become quite well known including Will Van Overbeek and Ellis Vener. The darkroom was very utilitarian and only set up for one person to print at a time. It was laid out in an "L" shape with the hardware on one part of the L and the sinks on the other part of the L.  We had clotheslines strung across the room festooned with clothespins for hanging prints for air drying. There was a ferrotype dryer but I never used it after the first time I tried to operate it while standing on a damp floor barefoot. I discovered electrical grounding, unlicensed flying and unskilled landing all in one shocking moment..

There was also a print drying box with flat screens as well as a film drying box in which you would clip the long lengths of your wet Tri-x film to dry dust free....kinda. In the late 1970's, when I discovered the place, it was booked nearly around the clock. We had a sign up sheet on the door and we allowed three hours if there was someone else signing up. If no one else was signed up you could go as long as you wanted. We all chipped in for chemicals but everyone brought their own papers.

Legend had it that the Ark Co-op had originally been the Tri-Delta sorority house at UT and the room which later became the darkroom was the room of Farah Fawcett. I have no iron clad collaboration but it seems likely. 

Anyway. Janet hired me early on to help her with a daunting project, from which I learned lessons I still hold dear today. The project was this: She had been commissioned by one of the colleges (the physics or math school, if I remember correctly) to create large black and white photographs of physics concepts. To take the ideas of science and make visual representations of them. Most of the visualizations required lots and lots of propping and some special (in-camera) effects. All of them would be printed to the same final size which would be four by five feet. On double weight, fiber, Ilford Gallery printing paper which would eventually be mounted on board for installation. 

Janet was a wizard of the 4x5 view camera and spent lots of time under the dark cloth getting things just right. She taught me to focus and manipulate the movements of a view camera. She also taught me how to load and unload sheet film correctly and even how to develop it. I know she had other cameras and I think they were Olympus OM-1's but to this day I can't visualize her with anything other than the 4x5.  Her understanding of the science of photography was immense but it was all pressed into the service of her art. No gear grandstanding. Beside, back then if you called yourself a professional photographer you pretty much had to using a 4x5 inch camera as well. Even if only for some of your clients. 

I assisted her in making the shots (which is a story in itself) but the real focus of today's blog is to describe the darkroom processes we went through to print the images. The development of the negatives was straightforward. It was the printing that was the tough part. We needed to remove the enlarger from one part of its table and re-orient it so that it would cast its image from ceiling height all the way to the floor. That was the only way to create an image large enough to cover the paper size and give us the ability to do minor cropping. This meant that we had to design and build a floor sized easel to hold and mask the paper. We built this out of plywood and two inch by 1/4 inch steel plates that were five feet and six feet long.  

In order to get maximum sharpness from an enlarging lens optimized for 4x to 12x enlargement we needed to be sure to stop down to f11.  That meant, with thicker negative, that our enlargement times (with tested reciprocity factors) could be as long as three or four minutes. Some took even longer. And the ones that required burning and dodging were torturously long.

Our next big problem was print development. The conventional wisdom was to use long tubes, like PVC, with the prints rolled up inside. Of course we had to have some material sandwiched in between the roll of the paper to ensure that it didn't all stick together and that the developer and other chemicals could flow across the surface. We used thick plastic netting, tried diamond patterned plastic and several other methods but we always came away with problems in the final prints. 

We bit the bullet and actually designed and built three large, wooden trays out of plywood and resin and stacked them, via edge pillars to fit in the allotted flood space in the darkroom. The developer was in the top layer, two feet under that was the stop bath and two feet under than was the fixer. We saved the PVC for the washing. Next up was solving the issue of getting good agitation in all the baths. After much experimentation we came up with the "I'll roll it toward me and then you roll it toward you" method. We'd stand on either side of the tanks and roll or unroll, as required. 

One of the problems we didn't take into consideration was how much of each chemical would be released into our tiny atmosphere from so many square inches of exposed and commingled chemistry. Our coffee breaks became, out of necessity, more and more frequent. 

Here is our workflow: 

1. climb the ladder to focus the enlarger and hit the composition.
2. tack small  (one foot by four foot strips) of printing paper to the easel for test prints. 
3. expose a test strip (which required about ten minutes each for multiple exposure samples.
4. develop test print. 
5. dry test print in the microwave oven and evaluate dry print.
6. roll out the right size paper from the factory roll and cut to size with razor blade.
7. place paper under steel plates for flatness.
8. Expose (which could include many minutes of exacting burning and dodging).
9. Carefully transport paper to first tray and immerse, roll back and forth for three minutes in tested dilution. 
10. Roll up wet print and carefully drain then transfer to stop bath and repeat.
11. roll up wet print and carefully drain then transpire to fixer.
12. roll up fixed print with porous plastic substrate and carefully coax into PVC tube. 
13. carefully wash and use fixer neutralizer for archival permanence.
14. Take out of tube and unroll then use a two person team to clothespin the large, heavy prints to the clotheslines. Use six clothespins for safety. 
15. When all prints were created and dried we took them to a repro house and had them flattened in a print mounting machine. 

Sounds easy, right? Well, we printed an edition of six prints per image and there was a total of twelve different images. That's 72 four foot by five foot prints! We did that many editions to compensate for crinkles and dimples in the paper from handling and any other accidents that might sneak up on the precious prints. In the end it was all worth it and the installation was beautiful. The detail enormous and the concepts apt but also wryly humorous.

So, after weeks and weeks what did I learn? Well, I learned that it's not enough just to have a cool vision you have to follow it all the way through. That the best artists refuse to compromise. (Janet could have spec'd a smaller paper size and knocked the project out herself but she saw it in her mind as 4x5 feet and she was determined to find a way to do it). That every problem in photography has some sort of solution that is only circumscribed by the artist's imagination. That some infrastructure doesn't exist so you must design and build it yourself. That once you get rolling you might as well keep rolling until you are too exhausted (or overcome by fixer fumes) to go on without sleep. That the art is more valuable than the pay. That the learning to learn is the valuable lesson. And that we really played hard back then. 

I certainly don't think Janet made a fortune on this project. Not a project for a university college back in the 1970's. And not with all the experimentation and innovating we ended up doing.  But I do think she was happy that she was able to make conceptual stuff into visual stuff using a balanced mix of vision and technical virtuosity. 

But the biggest lesson I learned is that photography can be hard, hard work and being a prima donna doesn't get the work done, on working hard on stuff makes it all come together. And finally, I learned that if there's one little glitch we start all over again until we get it right. Not because the client will notice but because we will notice. So, thank you Janet for lots of valuable lessons.  We still practice them today. 

Shoot big, print big, show big. Or something like that....







1.26.2014

Upcoming Events. Random Thoughts. Changing business models. Changing Names.

I asked my peers on the advisory board, "what will I talk about for an hour?" 
They responded, "You'll fill the time, the problem will be getting you to shut up."

By Austin Photographer, Kirk Tuck ©2014

First off, events. While I question their wisdom the Association of Texas Photographic Instructors asked me if I would give the keynote speech for their convention/conclave/gathering in Austin this year. I have agreed. The speech will take place at the Texas State Capitol in one of the auditoriums large enough to comfortably seat 300  high school photography students and a like number of their instructors. The topic of the speech is largely up to me but I have been given a bit of direction. It was suggested that I show a few images and tell a few stories to establish my bona fides, my legitimacy to speak at all.

Imagine the peril of trying to come up with a speech about photography that will graceful span the interests of 300 high school juniors and seniors along with an equal number of adults who've been in the teaching trenches for various lengths of time. Kind of analogous to picking out music for mixed audiences.

The task in front of me right now is to go through tens of thousands of images I've either shot recently or have digitized from the film days and narrowing the torrent down to a trickle of 100 or so. Then I have to put them into some kind of coherent order and figure out how they will illuminate whatever the heck I choose to talk about. Which, of course, brings me to the next point on the agenda: What can I really tell kids today that is unfailing true and also valuable?

That the business used to be more profitable? More fun? More challenging? And ask them to turn the lights out when they leave? Or do I reach past the confines of my own ego, grapple with my own relentlessly approaching intersection with mortality and conjure up good news for a whole new generation?

The problem is that none of us who've lived through the transitions and who lived enmeshed in a certain work paradigm can be nearly as prescient about what is being created right now by the very generation who are inventing it.  I may learn their visual language (I've tried to find the Berlitz CD's) but they invented the language and are native speakers. I scoff at social media marketing while they are immersed in it (hopefully) and pushing and pulling levers that I don't even know exist.

I'm all set to tell them to diversify and get into video and design but that brings up a very salient question that I need to grapple with myself. To wit, is the world of still photography dead or highly diminished? If that's the case how is it that I'm still doing jobs? And if I am still doing jobs why couldn't I market to a wider swath and get more jobs? And if I got more jobs wouldn't that prove that photography is not really dying it only needed to be re-approached and re-united with a business model that works better on both sides of the transaction?

So, if you do corporate head shots and you've done them for while and your volume drops does that mean the market has ebbed away or does it mean that you haven't changed the way you market your product and you are loosing important mindshare? Are you still sending out e-mail blasts long after that well has run dry? Did you lean on direct mail back in the early 2000's but haven't tried new mix of media to reach new markets? Maybe you stayed on your spot and your potential markets shifted around you. It's entirely conceivable that the markets still need what you are selling but the players have changed, the way of reaching the new players has changed, and if you can find the new approaches to the landing zone you'll earn back the business that you presumed had become extinct.

I'm leaning toward telling them that business has always had the same rules: Invent something people need or want and sell it to them in a way that they can understand. But to sell to people you have to be clear on what you provide. What do you deliver, as a value proposition, that's different from what everyone else is selling? Is your lighting unique? Do you work with a make up person (when doing portraits) who is a valuable synergistic partner for your skills? Are you fun and funny? Can you make people relax enough to take your great direction? Can you turn the client's "brilliant" creative concepts into visual art? Are you a reliable partner for an ad agency? What makes your product (vision) and services unique?

I've been saying for years that each generation of artists grows up with their creative counterparts. A person just starting out in photography today, just graduating from school, probably has scores of friends in related fields like graphic design, web design and advertising. They may be interns right now but in the blink of an eye they will be associate art directors and quicker than you think they evolve into senior art directors, art buyers and partners. And the relationships that are forged in the beginning seem to have a way of lasting and growing and spreading. Kinda of like Linked In is supposed to do only in a genuine and real life way.  It's a process of aging together into affluence.

I might tell them that each generation grapples with scary change and that what follows is a new normal that they can build on. I see the last 13 years in the economy as a strange disruptive cycle that exceeds everything we've seen in ages. Because it wasn't just about a financial services meltdown it was about the retirement of an old technology and the introduction of a whole new way of thinking about technology. Gone are the Marxist constructs of power going to the people who own the tools or the factories and they've been replaced with a paradigm that's not yet totally up and running but it's based on aggregating value from mass distribution and fractional payments for enormous sharing. Will it work? Maybe. But my generation won't be the ones to ride it hard when the kinks are ironed out. That's going to go to the generation just coming into the markets today. The future is super bright it's just that most people don't have the right sunglasses.

But the thing I know I'll tell them is to constantly prepare for change, to constantly experiment with new ways of doing old things and old ways of doing new things. To go out and try stuff and mess up and improve and try again. The victories, I am certain, always accrue to the brave, the determined and the prepared.

The big event is Friday, February 7th, 6:30pm at the State Capitol Building. Austin, Texas. Hopefully the Texas Rangers will keep the hecklers and protesters away.

On another note: I'm mulling over the idea of changing our regular business name to The Visual Science Lab and relaunching the business. The thought process is that we are emphatically doing more stuff in more different ways than before. We're hooking up with other creative services providers on projects and then separating to work on solo work. Having a business with the name "photography" in it seems so antiquated and limiting. We're too small to get a big conference room at a hotel, gather a large focus group of targeted creative services users and dig down for hours and hours looking for an answer. Then it dawned on me that I have a very talented group of defacto experts here on the blog and I could query them.

So here are my questions: To market to new clients, ones whom we've never work with before and for whom my company has no name recognition, which sounds better, more modern and more effective for a company that actively markets both still imaging and motion imaging (including all the necessary disciplines therein):  Kirk Tuck Photography or The Visual Science Lab ? Toss your votes into the comments and we'll see how the consensus pans out.  I'm partial to the Visual Science Lab but I've lived with the other name all my life and it may just be stale to me...

Random Thoughts: Somehow being ill last week really focused me on the future. I've pretty much recovered though I am not quite up to eating an anchovy pizza with jalapeƱos just yet. But I keep thinking about how to continue to gracefully continue a career in such a weird and physical market. I was pondering this on Saturday morning as I loaded my car with lights, stands, sound gear and cameras for the quick shoot across town. I was moving slow. And when I got back home I hit the couch for a necessary nap. This is an anomaly and it's random but I wonder when I'll run out of energy to load up hundreds of pounds of gear and head out on locations day after day.

On the other hand that's the work I really like to do. I like it more than sitting behind the computer working on files or messing around with writing assignments. I just wonder if photography careers are time limited by dint of exhaustion and waning spirit.

A camera thought: I was downtown for a much needed walk today. It was 70+ degrees and sunny here in Austin and everything felt so positive and new. Construction everywhere. I took a camera that I haven't written enough about here because I'm loathe to leap to its defense or to appear to proselytize it. That camera is the Panasonic GH3. I've spent a lot of time over the past week diving back into its menus and checking out all of the customization options. But today I finally understood why I really enjoy that camera enough to have two of them (and pine for one more). It's because it fits perfectly in my hand and it does everything without drama or over complication.  I want to love the OMD EM-1 and I am convinced that it makes wonderful, incredible images but I remember my experiences with previous generations of Olympus Pen cameras and I just find all of the custom functions, function buttons and deep, deep menus to be overwhelming. I know, everyone tells me that you only have to set everything once and then just use the quick menu but what they generally mean is that you assign the buttons to the tasks you generally use one time and you'll just need to remember the buttons.

But that's not the way photography ever worked well for me. I would need a laminated card with the changes I had made and I'd need it for a while. With the GH3 the optimizations aren't as Draconian or complex. And the camera body itself seems molded for a man of about five feet, eight inches of height with average sized hands. Any smaller and the buttons are pushed together, any bigger and the camera becomes a burden.

There are a few glitches to the GH3. The color of the EVF rendering doesn't match the (more accurate) color of the rear LCD. And the finder optics aren't at the level of the VF-4. But that's about it. The rest of the camera just seems incredibly straight forward, fast and usable to me. I squired it around with the Pana/Leica 25mm f1.4 on it today. I think I shot three images during the entire walk but it really didn't matter. If I saw something great I felt confident we could get the shot. Today, the walk was the important thing.

In my mind this is a camera that pushes you to pre-edit. You really start to look only for stuff to shoot that's worthy of the camera and of your own time. There's enough junk out there without grinding out more useless imagery. Maybe I'll tell them that at my speech...

Layers and layers of photography...







1.25.2014

Half a week of craziness. And then some video.


 Sidewalk Chalk Artist in Berlin.


By Austin Photographer, Kirk Tuck ©2014

Sorry for missing so much time here at the blog. Don't know what I ate or if some disgruntled former VSL reader slipped something poison into my coffee but somewhere around 8 pm on Thurs. I felt some stomach pains which grew in drama and intensity and culminated in me spending the night getting to know my toilet much better than I had ever imagined. It was the most sick I've been in a concentrated time period that I ever remember. But as quickly as it came upon me the symptoms receded in an equally quick reverse trajectory. On Friday morning I was desperately tired and  sore but nothing hurt anymore and there was no urgent need for bathroom proximity.

I tried to make Friday productive but we had our first really big ice storm of the year overnight and all traffic ground to a halt. Good thing since I could barely make toast before having to lay back down and nap some more. A quick call to a couple of clients found them equally house bound and a round of rescheduling ensued. Sadly, the miraculous powers of physical recovery that I had in my 20's, 30's, 40's and the early part of my 50's seems to have subsided to a more normal, human level and I found myself alternately napping under a quilt or trying to stay awake long enough to make it all the way through a movie on the television. Fortunately, I didn't have to feel guilt for missing swim practice as the whole swim thing was cancelled for the day because of ice on the pool deck and the generally inability of anyone with a key to make it down the hilly, treacherous "black ice" roads surrounding the club and to open the front gate. I am almost certain that there was the usual crowd of obsessive swimmers waiting there just to see if someone would show up.

Anyway, I hope this explains why I haven't produced the long awaited for review of the OMD EM-1 versus the Nikon D800e or the New Hasselblad MF camera.   And, what happened to the long awaited review of the Zeiss Otus 50mm lens versus the Pentax 40mm pancake lens for the K-01. Or, for that matter the Otus versus the newest Lens Baby Optics.  I hope that it also excuses the missing essay on all kinds of equivalence as well as the essay on all the bright spots of today's heart warming, real life stories of how we're all using the built in wi-fi capabilities of our new cameras to make a difference for the better in the world these days. And you'll have to be patient as I put the finishing touches on my ground breaking blog about jettisoning Ming Thien's ideas about Sufficiency in camera equipment and replacing it with a call to buy  more and bigger and more often!!!

But seriously, I did venture out of the house today to help a friend shoot some cool video for a mutual friend for her Kickstarter campaign. She's the bandleader and singer for a really great quasi-country band. She and her band are trying to get a full length album produced and they've turned to Kickstarter to raise the money for studio fees and to pay band members. The funniest thing I heard in her pitch was the reward for donating $1,000. For that level of donation Rosie will have your initials tattooed on her arm!!! If she makes it big, and I think she will, you'll have visual proof that your donation made a difference...

We met at a run down club in east Austin that reminded so much of a run down club in just about anywhere in Austin back in the 1970's.  My friend Chris is the lead on this project and he was shooting with his amazing (and envy-worthy) Sony PMW-F55 CineAlta 4K Digital Cinema Camera.
(the above is linked for informational purposes only. VSL has no affiliate relationship with B&H).

He also brought along his case full of Zeiss Cinema Prime lenses. Also enviable and drool inducing.

We set up Rosie on a stage with red, velvet curtains in the background and red LED backlights. Chris was shooting the main camera and he was center stage and straight on Rosie. I set up a slider over to one side, put the Sony RX10 on it and shot tight, head and shoulders comp of Rosie for cutaways.
We recorded sound straight into Chris's camera using my Sennheiser wireless microphones with a lavalier on Rosie's collar.

The two Sony's both made images that looked great but since the PMW-F55 has huge pixels and a native ISO of something like 640 I'm going to presume that his footage will look a lot cleaner than my dinky cam  with a native ISO of 125 pushed to 1,000.  Doesn't hurt that he was shooting in 4K either.

We were humming along (like the refrigerators in the background---the ones we couldn't find the plugs to...) when we had a jarring sound interrupt a take. Something hit the ceiling tiles right above us and then scampered around for a while. It's always a bit weird to have nothing between you and wildlife than a much used acoustic tile ceiling...

We reviewed the footage and the audio before we packed up and it all looked good. I was going to use the wi-fi to upload my takes for Chris but doing 16 gigabytes that way....well it didn't look like the progress bar was making much progress. We opted to download it to an storage device instead. Now we have 16 or 17 hours of our lives back.

Chris and Rosie went off to celebrate over lunch and I trudged back home to take another nap.  I'm feeling better by the minute and can hardly wait to dive into the creation of a new blog debating the relative merits between PhotoShop 6.01.3 and PhotoShop 6.01.4.  Are the reds slightly better? Did this improvement come at the expense of inter-disinterspatial transparency in the final image? What about micro-constrast?  And how do we measure that?  Stay tuned.