2.20.2015

We don't give away free samples but if a client wants to see a test we oblige. Someone wanted to know how big they could go with a D810 file. We sent them some Tiffs.




Advertising agencies are going through an interesting little adjustment right now. At least the bigger ones with national clients who are flocking back to trade shows. They're are moving from aiming all their stuff at the web to the opposite extreme: Posts and huge trade show graphics. The two common denominators are a need for lots and lots of resolution and also the need for content to be sharp. Unlike billboards posters, point of sale materials and trade show walls are all media that consumers can get right next to and put their noses on.

The top image is on of a hand full I sent to the agency. At full size it's a 215 Megabyte tiff file. The Image just below is a close up of my left eye. Seems to blow up pretty well.

The agency is mollified and we are continuing in our conversations....

Have a sharp day.


Meanwhile, back on the factory floor...

The Nikon 105mm f2.5

I had a blast yesterday. I went to a big hotel in Austin, set up cool lights in a large room and made a big window with lots of greenery outside my background. Over the course of the day I made portraits of 16 people that will be used in the marketing of a legal services client. We've just now uploaded a web gallery to the client for their selection so I won't be posting any of the images here yet but I was so happy with the performance of one piece of gear that I wanted to write is blog post and talk about it.

I've really wanted to put the Nikon 105mm f2.5 lens I have through it's paces. How to best show off what the lens can do? Well, how about putting it on a high resolution body like a Nikon D810, sticking it on a good tripod and shooting in a mostly electronic flash lit environment (with plenty of backlighting aimed back toward camera) and then shooting this 1977 (or older) lens at or very near wide open. To make sure we're getting the highest performance for the whole chain we used the camera set to ISO 64 and carefully metered. The lens was focuses via live view at nearly 100% magnification.

The chanting around the photographic playground is that the new generation of high resolution cameras (36 to 50+ megapixels) will be a challenge to all but the greatest (read: most expensive) lenses. A second refrain of the wisdom of the web is that only the newest lenses, optimized for digital will play at the rarified levels required. The implication is that if one isn't shooting with a Zeiss Otus lens or a Sigma Art lens or one of the ruinously expensive Nikon lenses that the new cameras will handily exceed the capabilities of that crappy, last decade glass-tastrophy you've tried to cobble onto the front of the camera. Older lenses? We're counseled not to even consider them.


Right....

I came home and shoved the raw files into the computing machine and started looking at the files. Yes, there were some where the clients moved after I made my exacting focus but I was awake enough yesterday to realize what was happening in the moment and then re-check. We've got 25 or 30 keepers for each sitter. What made me sit up and take notice is that when I clicked onto a 100% view the level of detail was hanging in there even at the absolute pixel level. While the images don't have that astringent, clinical feeling of sharpness they have a warm, rounded but complete feeling of sharpness. The nicest thing is that there were no surprises. No soft spots. No veiling flare or chromatic aberration rearing its ugly, jittery outlines. Just wonderful performance is a classic way.

Many of my favorites were shot at f2.8 which is 1/3 of a stop from down open. Now, you know that most lenses clean up their acts by f 11 or so but a thirty-something year old lens wide open? And perfectly behaved? If you are shooting Nikon cameras and you haven't grabbed one of these lenses from KEH, or some other dealer in used gear, you might want to consider it. I paid a little over $100 for a clean copy.

But making this all about sharpness makes the evaluation of the lens incomplete. Another valuable attribute of the lens vis-a-vis more modern super lenses is the contrast rendering of the lens which is a bit lower by comparison. Just like sharpening where the current methodology encourages shooting at a lower sharpness setting and the doing sharpening in post an argument could be well made that having a lower overall contrast range delivers a host of benefits including: more dynamic range, more open shadows and a smoother transition through the tonal scale. While people demanding ultimate acutance might not want this a portrait photographer will find that the lower contrast in the highlights helps to diminish burned out highlights on skin tones and provides a wider range of tonal separations on skin tone.

Right now this lens, the Nikon 105mm f2.5 ais is my current, favorite portrait lens when used on a  full frame camera. Not surprisingly, when I look at files from my time shooting with the Canon 1DS mk2 and the 5Dk2 the Canon 100mm f2.0 was my "go to" portrait lens....

We all have favorites. And it's okay for the favorites to change from time to time but I would be interested in hearing from people who've uncovered other obvious gems like the 105mm f2.5. Would you share your lucky discoveries in the comments?  Thanks!

2.18.2015

Packing up to shoot can be an exercise in waffling and indecision. Like a puzzle with too many pieces.

Belinda from some decade past. 

I am photographing 16 people tomorrow afternoon. We're scheduled to do one portrait session every fifteen minutes, starting at one p.m.  I'll spend most of the morning in a windowless hotel conference room setting up bright colors and shapes against the back wall to mimic an outdoor urban space which I will attempt to put completely out of focus, or as far out as I can manage, using a fast medium telephoto lens on a full frame camera. The thing that's vexing me right now is what to light both the portrait subjects and the back wall with. My first inclination was to use the large fluorescent instruments because they do generate ample light and they would make it easy to slide the shutter speeds around on the camera to match the fast apertures. I entertained supplementing them with small, color temperature controllable, LED panels as accent lights but I kept thinking that I've shoehorned everything lately into the continuous light box and that it might be nice to shoot with flash for a change. 

The nice thing about the camera I intend to use is that it will shoot at a native ISO of 64 which gives me a bit more control when it comes to shooting with the aperture wide open and using studio flashes. By 5pm today I decided to give the old strobes a work out and I packed them up. I intend to use five monolights firing into various diffusers, aimed at different things and I'm tentatively bringing along three battery powered flashes to throw spots of light onto the background elements when I run out of monolights.  I've packed 11 light stands. Some will hold lights and some will hold brightly colored, geometric shapes back in the mid and background areas of the room to add depth and color texture to the shots. 

Even as I was loading the flashes into the car I was remembering a big Pelican case full of tungsten fixtures; spots, floods and broad lights and wondering if I shouldn't take them instead. I really do love a well made fresnel fixture; especially when it's on the front of a hot light...

I think I'll stick with my plan to use the flashes. It's Belinda's birthday today and I probably shouldn't spend a lot of time waffling over lighting. I'm loading all of the non-precious things into the car right now because I'll want to go to the early swim practice in the morning and won't have time to come back and pack up before the shoot. We're heading out to dinner this evening and I'll be parking the car somewhere that's not really secure so the cameras will go into the car tomorrow morning on the way to practice. 

No matter which lights I ultimately pack I'll wish I'd brought something different instead. That's why I like to shoot in the studio = you can change your mind at the drop of a hat and grab a different light or camera right off the shelf and be up and shooting in no time. Remote locations always call for the use of the "check-list." 

We're heading to one of our favorite restaurants. It's called Asti. My friend, Chris Archer, and I made a video for the place last year. It's on their website here: http://astiaustin.com click on "a peek inside."

Want to see a trailer for my Studio Portrait Lighting class on Craftsy? Here's a link: http://www.craftsy.com/video/course?courseId=427

Regardless which lights we end up bringing I'm pretty sure it will be a fun and interesting shoot. And that's how it should be.


2.17.2015

A new hotel opened up in downtown this last week. It's a JW Marriott and it's enormous. The second largest in the world after the one in Dubai.


You can see it in the lower right hand corner of the image above. The new hotel was a good excuse to grab a camera and a lens and head downtown to take some walking around shots. I used the Nikon D610 with that old 25-50mm f4 ais lens I've been telling you about. Sometimes the images I get from the lens are crappy and sometimes I think they are sublime (I suspect it depends on my mood). Today I took about 80 images and liked----- 1.

But part of getting out and walking downtown is the act of moving away from the screens in the office and letting my eyes wander around at things that are near infinity, or at least further away than three and a half feet. I think that's good for your eyes over time.

The camera meters the older lens flawlessly and the focus indicator dot works well. It probably works well because I use the lens a its wider end and I generally keep it stopped down to f5.6. Just tossing the whole process a couple of marshmallows...

We now have about 50 billion hotel rooms coming on line in Austin. They say we're recession proof and I sure hope so but I remember being lectured to by the same sort of economists and chamber of commerce cheerleaders about our "bullet proof" economy twice before and both times we ended up with a bleak recession and an exodus of families, money and investors. Maybe this time it will be different....

Hope you had a respite from winter weather if you are living in the north. It hit 55 (f) here in Austin today and while we're supposed to have a cold night I guess it's all relative. We might get down to 32 (f) but tomorrow afternoon we're supposed to nudge up toward the 70's.  Good time to visit here if you live in Boston or thereabouts... We'll keep the coffee ready.

Almost forgot....with the exception of several bars the size of football fields the JW Marriott is pretty unremarkable and some of the art in the public spaces is highly questionable. Acoustic tile ceilings in the ballrooms----really?? Hmmm.

Sometimes the CFO becomes the model. Especially if we all think he looks like a European baker.


We did an advertising shoot for a sandwich company a while back and the company provided us with an employee to use in the ad to represent an artisanal baker. The company presumed that this made sense because, well, the person they recruited was one of their bakers. But he was way too young and too cool to really pull of the idea the advertising agency had in mind = serious, experienced baker.

We tried to do some usable shots with the kid but mostly we were all standing around trying to decide whether or not to pull the plug on that day's work and buddy up with our local talent agency and find someone a bit more baker-ish. That's when someone notices that the CFO standing over to the side in a dark suit might be just the person we needed. With a bit of coaxing we got him to shed the suit coat and put on a baker's jacket.

We tried many variations but this one, with the wry (rye?) expression was the one I liked the best. It was shot with a Pentax 645 and the 150mm lens in our studio on San Marcos St. I printed up a few variations and sent them along to the agency. It helps to go into a shoot with a plan but it's equally helpful to be flexible when the plan meets reality. That day I felt like I was channeling the spirit of August Sander. One of my favorite photographers from the first half of the twentieth century.

You can look at the work I've done (am doing) in one place without having to wade through the self-indulgent writing...

It's right here: http://kirktucksportraits.blogspot.com

Be sure to drop by from time to time and check it out.....

Reprising an old favorite of mine. The CEO of the Westin Hotels and Resorts photographed at the Hyatt Hill Country Resort in San Antonio, Texas.

©2015 Kirk Tuck.

There's a pervasive mythology that's often fueled by social network savvy shooters in our industry which says that all shoots for major magazines (like Private Clubs Magazine) which involve high profile CEO's (The Westin) in swanky locations (The Hyatt Hill Country Resort) require a legion of assistants and assorted functionaries in order to achieve any sort of success. I think it's nonsense. The complexity vastly inflated. And, given how easy it is and was to do the technical parts of photography the big crew just screams: overkill. 

When I got the assignment to do this project (image above) I also got a budget within which to do it. The idea was straightforward, go down the day before the shoot, find a cool location and figure out how to light it. I could spend the entire budget on non-essential staff or I could make a profit.

The lighting for this image consists of one black scrim that takes the ambient light off the subject and one big (4 foot by six foot) soft box to put better light back on him. That's it. The hardest part of the shoot was figuring out the triangle of the focal length I wanted to use (180mm), the image size of the subject in the frame (camera to subject distance) and the size and out-of-focus characteristic of the piano in the background (subject-to-piano distance). Most of that was trial and error.

The other myth that every photographer loves to feed (because they think it makes their efforts sound more heroic) is the idea that all CEO's are so busy and so curated by their entourage that lowly photographers only have access to them for tiny slices of time. Five minutes at the most. Again, mostly B.S. The smart CEO's know the value of public relations and friendly media exposure and are willing to put in the time to optimize the results. If that means giving the photographer time to do a couple variations or change course now and then they are generally compliant. 

I can't remember exactly how much time I had to do this shot but it seemed to be a leisurely experience for me. Twenty minutes or so. The original client liked the shot and used it well. And the CEO's parent company liked the shot too and bought additional usage rights (after the initial magazine embargo). 

In the days before over the top web marketing we didn't realize that we'd need to have our own entourage to propagate the image of being successful. We thought our photographs would be enough. 

To recap: Major CEO on location. One photographer. One CEO. One CEO's assistant. No photographer assistant. No digital tech. No location scout. No hair and make up. No piano wrangler. No craft service (excluding the hotel F&B). No producer. No second assistant. No Polaroid timer. No publicist. No green screen. No retoucher. No studio manager. Lord, how did we manage?

2.15.2015

Making photographs is a full time job for me. Or at least it should be.

Ben, Pre-College. ©2015 Kirk Tuck.

I've long come to grips with the realization that I'll never be mistaken for a genius or an earth shattering, artistic, photographic savant. I've tried a number of different careers and over the arc of the last 37 years and I've come back again and again to the practice of photography. I wanted it to be a working career mostly because I was so intent on photographing that any other career would be a distraction or a detour from what I enjoyed doing most. Or at least I thought.  My secret has always been that I care less about composition and style and all the surface trappings of two dimensional art; the reality is that I come to photography all the time as an observer. A sociologist, a historian and a writer. I'm looking for a spark in a photograph that makes you stop and look at an image because you are curious about what is behind the photograph. I want you to wonder what the back story is. I want you to ponder what happened five minutes after the frame you see was captured. I want you to be curious about the person in the photograph in a way that is deeper than their costume of the interplay of tricky lighting on trendy make up.

In a portrait I rarely think about backlighting or what people should wear or how to make things sharper or more----something. I think about what I would like to know about the person and how I can capture an expression I saw when I talked to this person or observed them and decided that I wanted to ask this person to come to my little, white walled room and be photographed. In my personal work it's rare to find a big grin plastered across someone's face or a chesty blond girl in a halter top with her head slightly lowered in the submissive pose/attitude that every glamour photographer seems hard-wired to try and coax out of young women. I want to talk to people about subjects in which we have an intersecting interest. 

In the last year, since Ben went off to college, I've worked through a series of thought exercises to try and understand my long time discontentment with my personal photographic work. In some part the sheer effort and time of culturally shedding film was an impediment to savoring the actual process of taking portraits. Instead of trusting to the technology we had gotten down cold (film and film cameras)  I was (and still am) wary about how the digital images will translate on the screens and then on to prints. I've been side-tracked by the pursuit of finding the tools that mimicked what we could do with our film cameras. By that I mean one day in the past we could easily load a Leica R8 with fast, black and white film and, using a fast Leica lens, capture highly detailed slices of life that intermixed grain and wonderful tonal transitions into an amalgam that was the essence of a black and white sensibility; when printed onto paper. An hour later I could put a 100 macro lens on the front of the camera, load some Kodak Ektar 25 film into the same camera and have an image making machine with no grain and almost infinite detail.

All that was second nature in the days of film was re-thought for the digital age. Early on the cameras with acres of detail also had excruciating noise when used in a high ISO configuration. Cameras with clean high ISOs had smaller files. All of the cameras had piss poor handling and viewing and focusing. Few of them felt like tools---an artist could instantly feel the electronic disconnection with the eye and hand synchronicity. As an example, until recently, if you were a Nikon user and you wanted the best tool for high resolution you had to buy a D3X. If you wanted great high ISO performance you needed to buy a D3. The same relationship occurred in the Canon camp as well. The tools in the film age could have handled both jobs with a $400 35mm body and a change of films between projects. Four years ago the same binary approach would have set you back about $12,000 for two different and complementary digital bodies. This was a huge financial cost which we were paying in an age of declining fees and an economy in turmoil; sometimes in seeming freefall. 

I've been side tracked by the technical issues from just mellowing out and engaging people and making images. Then I got distracted by the process of writing and illustrating photo books. I've also written 2200+ blogs that were partly meant to create content to anchor marketing for my book projects.  I spent a lot of time (which I don't regret) getting up early in the morning to take Ben to school or cross country practice or science fairs or other extracurricular adventures. I tried never to miss a track meet or a school function. And I worked on so many commercial projects that were boring and mentally exhausting; draining, in order to pay the mortgage and put away money for all the things our culture tells us to put away money for: A rainy day. A rainy year. Retirement. The college fund. The family vacation. Club memberships and swim dues. And every single engagement that had nothing to do with making personal photographs ate at the joy of photography like the sea lapping against an ever eroding shoreline. 

It seems that our middle class mantra, our excuse as we go through life, is that all these things we put off and delay will become magically available to us when we retire. As though, magically, we will emerge the day after we finally say goodbye to our real jobs as full fledged artists will a full set of skills and visions and enthusiasm, ready to charge out and begin competently making the art we craved to make all along. 

But I don't think it works that way. I think art is a process that takes time, in the same way that becoming really good at surgery or musical performance takes time and practice. I think about art sometimes in the same way I think about swimming. If you swam at a high level; if you swam in high school and college and then, for the sake of work and family life and other obligations, you walked away from the pool from age 22 till age 65 you would not be able to jump in on the day after your retirement from responsibility and slam out five or six thousand yards at the level of effort you could bring to bear in your late teens and early 20's. You wouldn't be able to make up for lost time in the space of a few days, a few weeks or even a few years. You might first need to lose that 50 pounds you accidentally gained, over time. You'd need to rebuild muscle mass. You'd need to rebuild flexibility and you would need to clear out arteries and veins clogged by forty some years of being sedentary. 

At some point you'd realize that swimming fluidly is the result of thousands of days, back to back, of doing and honing the same strokes over and over again. A daily trial and error that informs your flow and your position and comfort in the water. And that doesn't begin to speak to the mental training required to be truly disciplined. 

If you don't get the athletic analogy then think of pianists. Even great concert performers who've been working musicians for decades and decades still need to get up every day and spend hours and hours practicing. Practicing the same music over and over again. And with every cycle of practice there's more fluidity and interpretation. It's a deeply embedded requirement of doing art at a sophisticated level. 

Artists should wake up every day and realize that today is your only chance to engage and practice your art and craft in the way you need to in order to really connect and do the work at the level that will make a difference in your life. If you lose today you still have tomorrow but you are one step closer to blackness and have one less day to practice the way you need to in order to really work on your vision at a high level. Every day lost is one more day of erosion and entropy. 

I know my readers pretty well and most will rationalize that what they do in photography is a hobby; a clever and enjoyable pastime. Something they do for their personal enjoyment. And that's valid but I know some of you are like me. You want to be immersed. You want to make work that's different and better. And you chaff under bounds that are self-imposed or culturally reinforced. That's the struggle I understand. The desire to sit in the studio having a wonderful conversation and making what is, to you, a beautiful portrait that reveals something real and wonderful about the person on the other side of the camera. Instead you find yourself in a meeting with the sales team or at a corporate dinner trying to stay awake or cloistered in a cubicle trying to make the balance sheet balance until well into the night and then you go home exhausted and the camera that came along for the ride never left the briefcase. You think you'll shoot on the weekend but the kid's soccer game is scheduled and then the piano recital and while we convince ourselves that taking the obligatory images from the sidelines or from the folding chair in the front row of the auditorium is somehow satisfying enough. 

It's enough to satisfy your parental pride and your need to capture family memories which you will indeed cherish in the years to come but no one is really fooled into the self delusion that this is the satisfying use of photography you once imagined. That you once saw yourself doing. 

All of you practical people will say that it should be enough. That we should be happy. At least we could justify buying that 400mm f2.8 for the soccer game, right? And you might think I am one of the lucky ones. That I get to practice my craft all day long on every day. But I can only wish it were so. 

95% of the work I do for clients is not work I would do for myself. It's just not. I might be able to sell the work I love but I'm pretty certain that I'd be making a fraction of the money I can make selling the clients what the clients love. I spend time in meetings, time in front of the computer screen, time retouching the faces of people who I never had time to really know or really talk to. I spend time sorting through images that have no meaning to me but which mean something (very briefly) to my clients. I spend time in airports waiting for the next plane that will take me not to an exotic and richly visual location, but which might take me to a waste water treatment plant in Biloxi or to shill for a camera company in an aging and crowded convention center in some city I was never really interested in. I am like you. I am bogged down in the obligations and the details of life. Trapped by innocuous continuity.

But we make these choices over time. We agree to obligations. We  think we understand the tradeoffs while we are making them but there is no way we can understand how much we will have given up until we wake up thirty years into the future. By then there is no going back. No retrieval of the lost days and the lost opportunities. Realizing that means grabbing opportunity by the balls right now and taking control. It means saying no and being selfish and working on your work instead of doing everything for everyone else. 

But everyone is so different. If you are reading this in a public library because you can't afford a computer at home your reality will be different from the two or three readers who have enormous net worth but still haven't engaged in their singular pursuit of their art. The common denominator is the need to disconnect from the distractions and focus on the work you want to get done. Even if no one else agrees or likes it. Even if it's not profitable or sellable. The artist does what he does in the purest sense because he has to do that thing. Some artists are lucky and the work they crave has immediate acceptance while others work on stuff that is unaccessible by the public at large and in the community of photographers. 

It's always good to remember that though there are millions and millions of hobbyists in the world and on the web, the vast majority are shooting the same stuff as everyone else and adhering to the same hoary rules that photographers have been given (and have repeated ad nauseum) for decades and decades. Rules mostly made up by industry writers trying to wrap sellable content around the boundaries of ads.  They are mostly wrong rules and mainstream rules and boring rules and in art the only real rule is that there are no rules. So fuck em if they can't take a joke and ignore them if they don't get your work. Just do what you have to do. 

In the end we all walk off the cliff and into darkness at some point in the future. It would be sad, at least to me, to go into the abyss knowing that there was much I didn't get done because I was too busy talking about it instead of actually doing it. Do you see where we're going from here? Do you have some guarantee that there will always be time?

2.12.2015

Whatever do you mean when you say Nikon doesn't understand motion pictures?

The Nikon R10. Sync Sound and so much more.

Technology changes. All the time. Camera makers concentrate on features and new products in rotation because they can't afford to update all their lines at once. When Canon came out with the 5D mk2 and the DSLR video craze took off Nikon and their sensor supplier were busy kicking the crap out of the rest of the market with amazing high ISO cameras that also blew the doors off all of the competitors in the dynamic range arena. In some areas by as much as two stops! That distracted them from the whole video circus for a while.

There was also the insinuation that Nikon didn't know anything about motion and were engaged in a  steep learning curve but as the owner and user of a Nikon R10 Super8 film camera I'm here to tell you that they do understand that market; and very well. The R10 was/is an amazing camera and in the heyday of professional Super8 (yes, it really existed) they created camera and lens combinations that were the envy of the industry. 

Now Nikon is roaring back into the video space. The D810 and D750 have a bunch of improvements that plant a flag for them in the firmament of the motion space and, if they keep iterating in the same direction, they'll have some wonderful opportunities to succeed. While Canon got an early start and has been a player in the advanced amateur video markets for years (my first two pro-ish video cameras were the L-1 and L-2 high 8 cameras) they seem to have stalled in the DSLR space just as Nikon changed their focus from mercilessly beating on Canon's sensors to now beating them in the video space. 

The critical evaluations of the in-camera codec point to much better files being written to the cards with higher sharpness and detail. And with better image quality than the EOS 5D mk3. Canon fans could (correctly) say, "If you are totally into video you should just get a camera from the Canon Cine line-up ---like a C100 type 2----and get to work. But a lot of us are content to use our DSLRs to do the kinds of video projects that mostly wind up on the web somewhere. 

Here's what I've found with the D810. The 24 mbs, 24 fps, high quality files right out of camera are detailed, have very little aliasing and have flesh tones that look great. When you switch to 60 fps the bit rate jumps up to 45 mbs so the quality of the footage is preserved. The "Flat" profile is just right. It preserves a good looking file while flattening out what needs to be flattened out in order to grade well in post production. If you need higher image quality so that you can really beat on a file in post you are able to attach a relatively cheap Atomos Ninja Star digital recorder to the camera via the HDMI port, and get clear, clean, uncompressed 8 bit, 4:2:2 files from the camera. And you can get these files on the exterior recorder while writing regular, compressed files to the memory card inside the camera simultaneously. That gives you instant back-up. 

When I compare the D810 to the Panasonic GH4 it's easy to see that the Panasonic has the ability to write much less compressed files to the internal memory card and the ability to do 4K recording. On the flip side the D810 files have much less noise at higher ISOs and the ability to do amazingly narrower depth of field at the same angles of view, compared to the M4:3 camera. There's always a trade off somewhere. 

Nikon pretty much dropped the ball on previous camera bodies when it came to producing workable and competent video. I think the D750 and D810s are the shots over the bow that signal Nikon will be a forced to be reckoned with going forward. My one big request would be to enable changing audio levels during recording rather that having to stop, go into a menu, change levels and then start again. My take at the moment is that one could grab any of these cameras and make a really good low budget movie. Scratch that. With an out board digital recorder they could make a good any budget movie. 

My experiences so far have been very good. Just thought I'd let you know. Looking into NikonHacker.com right now. The possibilities are endless.