Thoughts about photography just here at the end of the week.

image done for Texas Gas Services. Used in ads and in direct mail. Nikon D700 and Profoto flashes.

I just finished a long week of projects with my kid, Ben, helping out as an assistant. We shot for a German based medical devices company on several days, shot one day on location at a large, commercial printer; and shot more video. I love working with Ben because he's incredibly reliable, calm and smart. I like having someone around to help carry cases and to find the tiny screws that fall out onto the gray and black flecked carpets in the halls of corporate American.

I am getting ready to head to Denver, CO. for a marketing training seminar for Craftsy.com instructors and I will be there until late Sunday night. Ben is heading back to college on the east coast early Sunday morning; if the weather gods allow...

As I wind down from the week I think about the things that worked well. I also find myself continually marveling at how little actual camera handling and shooting gets done versus the necessary socializing and rapport building. That, and waiting for the next photo opportunity.

We used the Nikon D750 to shoot about 20 individual portraits over two days. The images are of sales team members, photographed against a very light, soft, warm gray background. I use the Nikon 135mm f2.0 lens but in a sharp break with my usual style I shot at f8.0. The application drove the style. That, and continuity with the client's existing work. These images will be used on websites and in small print applications. I chose the D750 over the D810 mostly to keep the files sizes reasonable.

The sales team portrait set up was lit with two Photogenic 1250 DR electronic flashes modified with medium sized Chimera soft boxes. The fine control of levels on the 1250 Drs is nice to have. You can figure out what f-stop you need and how close you want the boxes for your taste in light fall off and then just dial in the power to suit. Since we set up and took down the portrait lighting set up it was great that Ben mastered the packing/unpacking the first time and left me to the grander task of finding good coffee. It wasn't that hard since there was a Starbucks at the Westin hotel in which we were working for those parts of our adventure.

We also created portraits of several executives, in fact, presidents of their respective geographic parts of the global corporation. These are done in a style that I instituted in collaboration with the company's marcom dept. We placed the execs near the wall of floor to ceiling windows that run alongside the north of the building and let the soft, indirect light through the window work as a giant main light. We pulled some shadow contrast in by placing black panels on the opposite side of the subject from the windows to kill some of the spill from the white walls. I also used a flash into a 60 inch, white umbrella, dialed way, way down just to tweak color and add a little more to the catchlights in eyes.

For the senior executives I used a Nikon D810 and will take advantage of the monster sized raw files to tweak the heck out of the final, selected images before I get into the retouching. To a certain extent I chose the bigger camera to help me make my own mental break with the previous, less complex images we'd shot earlier. The window images have a lot of moving parts, including interior lights, open, out of focus spaces behind the subjects, as well as a bit of mixed light. The D810, in conjunction with the Nikon 105mm f2.5 was a perfect combination, even though I occasionally felt the need to drop into live view to check sharp focus...

We went from a resoundingly international corporate environment one day right into the world of craftsmen and hands on workers the next day. Ben and I got to the printing plant at 7am and got right to work. We were out to make presses (and their human masters) look monumental and intriguing. We shot environmental portraits, giant machine portraits and lots of production shots. When the clients (ad agency)  showed up around 10 am we had already shot 30 different set ups and angles. The client led us through a few more and we were happy to oblige. On this job I used several lenses that fit well. I got a lot of work done with the Nikon 24-120mm lens (which has distortion but also my respect) knowing we'd be able to correct that lens's distortion via profiles in Lightroom. It's very hand tool when working in a confined space and when you need to change focal lengths on the fly.

The other lens I made good use of was the 14mm Rokinon Cine lens which made my D810 feel much like a view camera in that I used live view for every shot with the wide angle. All the better to see the edges that way. That's another lens that benefits from profiled distortion correction in software and the D810 helps to ensure that you don't lose too much sharpness in the process.

Near the end of our engagement at the print shop the art director asked if we could do some handheld video of one of the fast moving (conveyor belt) binding operations. I didn't think we could hand hold the D810 well without a grip or stabilizer of some sort and I was about to explain why we couldn't do that to the client when Ben reminded me that we'd brought along a Sony RX10 and, with the firmware upgrades, coupled with the smaller sensor and built-in image stabilization it would be a natural for some quick, handheld video. We grabbed the camera, set it up and were shooting in minutes. The client loved it which, of course, led to some other video clips as well. The camera has the best 1080p video of any camera I've owned. We were successful. The shoot was successful.
Everyone was happy.

At the end of our short day of shooting at the printer we headed to PokeJo's for BBQ. You can keep the two to four hour wait at Franklin's. Most BBQ in Texas is pretty darn good and PokeJo's is a favorite BBQ lunch dive for us. Knowing he would not get decent BBQ again until his return in late Spring, Ben went for the three meat plate, choosing brisket, pork ribs and pulled pork. As a general nod to health he got fruit salad as one of his side dishes.

I was, of course, more reserved and managed to limit myself to a two meat plate with "just" pork ribs and brisket. We were happy to sit and talk having had lunch with corporate clients the day before and anticipating the same the next day.

Good tools, good food and good clients. Add in good coffee and a good assistant and you've got a recipe for a series of fun, engaging and profitable shooting experiences.

To summarize on the gear side: D750 = best all around shooting camera in my collection. The one I pull out when it has to be good, well focused and noise free. The D810 = a detail monster and the ultimate portrait camera for me because the dynamic range keeps shiny skin from blowing out to white when tangling with specular highlights. Also, this camera is a "known" camera by the exec class which is a good conversation starter. Sony RX10 = killer "grab it fast" camera and emergency, high quality video camera. Add one to your bag. Add one to your shoot. Add some numbers to your billing.

Well, I've run out of time for now. More after the conference. Now to summon my Uber.....


TV Commercial for Zach Theatre's upcoming show: TRIBES. Video production: Ben and Kirk

Tribes at ZACH TheatreVIDEO: Tribes is a touching and provocative play about family, hearing and being heard. We can't wait to share this show with Austin! Our first public performances are right around the corner, the week of the 27th!For tickets visit: http://tickets.zachtheatre.org/single/PSDetail.aspx?psn=3142
Posted by ZACH Theatre on Friday, January 15, 2016

Edited by Michael Ferstenfeld.  


This is a public service article for bloggers who have been in the imaging business less than five years, think they know everything about photography, and are in (publicly aired) despair about how hard it is to make a living "just" taking photographs.

Photo of Ameerah Tatum, actor. At the old studio on San Marcos St. 

Dear __________,

You seem to do a great job attracting other photographers to your blog but I'm here to tell you that they (the vast majority of your readers) won't hire you to do great assignments and make great photographs. They love to read your stuff because many of them wish they had the balls to leave the apparent safety of a corporate job to try their luck in this tough game. They are having a vicarious but safe experience watching you agonize through the process.  If you really want to do this for a living, and want all the trappings of (at least) a middle class life, then you'll have to change gears and start marketing to people who can actually hire you and pay you what you need to earn.

You love to write about gear so you must think it's the vital part of making a living at photography. No, you would be dead wrong. 95% of clients just don't care at all about what kind or brand of gear you shoot with. In fact, I have a handful of clients who enjoy teasing me about my fascination with new gear. They think it's cute. They also think that this buying habit is what keeps me from getting rich..

But if they don't care about gear then the clients must care about how well you can make and print technically perfect images, right? No. Wrong again. Clients care about how well you can incorporate their message into a photograph and then bundle it together with a charming visual sensibility that makes the image attractive and comfortable to ingest for a demographic that is disposed to buying the client's products or services. Some demographics love to have their heartstrings pulled (that requires superb people casting and direction). Some love to play the testosterone game (pick up truck buyers, lawn mower enthusiasts, beer drinkers), and some demographics like the genuine feeling of a snapshot aesthetic (millennials?); the anti-thesis of "sharp to the bone", and harder to do well than it sounds.

All clients like to work with people they enjoy being around. If they wanted to work with sullen, compulsive engineers they'd give their own compulsive engineers cameras. But they do like people who are warm, effusive, open, sociable and ..... happy. They like to work with happy people; surprise! If you approach commercial photography as though there is a set series of formulae to follow, and a metric to measure its successful completion, you've already failed. Big time. Winning means that, not only did your new client like and enjoy the photograph you created, they also liked you and enjoyed hanging out with you and working with you because you brought both your unique vision, and your sense of humor and humanity along for the ride.

How do you market to these clients since they are not photographers, do not read photographer's blogs and don't pay to attend workshops on how to find intersecting patterns in urban architecture, and then capture them with high sharpness? Cute pictures of your significant other?  Or headshot workshops, for that matter... ? Well, you speak to them directly in their language. The language of advertising and marketing, not the language of lenses and cameras. You send images to them that they would be likely to appreciate because they are the kinds of images that they would like to assign and then use in their projects.

Most of the images that successful corporate and advertising photographers create are photographs of people. People doing things, people making things and people enjoying a lifestyle. The images that seem to be most sought after, and most successful, show people directly engaged with the camera. It gives the appearance of having the model, or talent, or portrait subject directly engaging the viewer. Many years ago David Ogilvey (book: Ogilvy on Advertising) did the research that still underpins a lot of advertising creation. He found that when test groups were shown images the highest response rate; by far, was for pictures of people directly addressing the camera. Not of products, buildings, food or urban street scenes.  People looking at, and seeming to engage the viewer directly. (not to say that a good niche specialty like architecture isn't profitable too...).

The majority of people who do well in this business learn that working with ad agencies and corporations returns the most profit because those are the entities that have the most money and who need, most often, to invest in ongoing advertising that works.

I love to take portraits but would never open a portrait studio because individual, retail clients won't give me the level of fees that would make it worthwhile, nor will they repeat their visits as often as I would need them to in order to make enough money.

Most of us enjoy looking at black and white prints; some of us even like looking at color prints, but I would never depend on gallery sales to make a living for the same reason. If I had to make money from prints I would approach large corporate users of interior graphics and try to sell to them. But that would take lots of time and energy that I'd rather spend shooting.

If I hustled I guess I could market workshops and spend a lot of time traveling, and teaching other people to do what I would rather be doing than teaching. Every day, hour, week or month spent on teaching workshops, as a business, is that same amount of time lost to you for the creation of your own work. Time you will never get back; traded for one time (non-recurring) fees...

Finally, if I lived in a very bad market for the kind of work I wanted to do I would either move or go to the place that does have ample amounts of work in the style I want to do, find the clients there and convince them to use my services. We live in a global economy now. Head to NYC or London (but stay out of Austin, okay?).  I may need to travel back and forth to shoot, and visit clients, or I may be able to shoot from my location, but either way I'll be better paid for it than sitting in a crappy market complaining about the competition or the clients. And don't get me started about bribes and kick-backs....

If you want to do something at the peak of your ability (thereby gaining entry into the most affluent and profitable markets) you need to get clear on what it is you really want to do. Do you want to teach? By all means, open up your school and maximize the value to you and your flock. Do you want to try making money via selling art prints? Then dive in and make a bunch of work that sells to your (researched and targeted) audiences, and then spend some quality time building gallery relationships all over the world. But if you are truly up to the big boy business of making money shooting real images for real clients then you need to buckle down, market well, delivery great stuff, and make it all fun for the clients you would like to work with. It should be a joy for them  to call you and start out on a new project; not something approached with dread, fear, or the expectation of confrontations. I think you know as well as anyone else that your can't spread yourself too thin and be successful in everything you try. Stop taking your eyes off the actual prize.

Whatever logic you used in other industries might not convey well into a niche profession that's perceived to be an "art business." The sooner you get over the idea that you can measure everything, and then apply a formula to its creation and sale, the sooner you and your new clients will be happy, and the sooner you will be prosperous.

I can't think photography by itself will ever make us rich but saving money every year, and applying the magic of compound interest to everything we save, might just make us well off, over time.

I think it takes five to ten years to really become successful in the imaging businesses. Photography, video, etc. If you don't want to take the hard path of proving that you are competent, fun, and here to stay, then you might want to look for another way of making a living and keep photography around as an enjoyable hobby.

Here's a book that may be helpful:

Does anybody ever bother to re-review cameras that have been on the market for awhile but have been graced with new and much improved firmware? Here's one: Sony RX10.

There's this thing that happens in the camera market. A new camera hits the market and everyone rushes to review it. The camera may be good but it may have some rough edges that keep it from being great. Or perfect. Then, maybe six months or a year later that camera gets the firmware it deserved the first time around but, by then everyone has moved on to the latest miracle camera that's come sliding down the chute. The now improved, earlier camera gets no more love and dissolves into irrelevance in the marketplace. That recently happened to one of my all time favorite, non-DSLR cameras; the original Sony RX10. 

I'm revisiting that camera right now because used prices for them have dropped to "bargain" status and that camera model was visited by the firmware update fairy last year ---- with just the right amount of pixie dust and magic. If you have one be sure to update your firmware to 2.0. If you don't have one then maybe you should....

Where did we leave off with that camera? I had used it for an eight page, national shelter magazine assignment with good results and loved almost everything about the camera. It got sacrificed in one of those ill considered trade deals but it wasn't really missed as much as it should have been because, while it should have been the perfect hybrid camera (and all-in-one camera) it suffered from having a mediocre video codec, and enhanced video capabilities were one of the selling points of that camera. 
I was working with the Panasonic GH3 and GH4 at the time and just about any other camera would have been hard pressed to match their video performance. Even today some cameras might have less noisy video but few have video that can match the GH4's detail and color. So the camera found a new home probably around the time I was considering the purchase of the Nikon D810, etc. 

Last week I came across a used one for less than half the price of the same model new. It had no wear and was in "like new" condition. And I remembered that Sony had made significant improvements just where I thought the camera might need them to rise to it's ultimate potential. In the video. 

The new video firmware moved the RX10 from 28 mb/s ACVHD to 50 mb/s XAVC. This was the one parameter that every knowledgeable reviewer stuck on. Each reviewer basically said, "This camera would be the perfect hybrid video/still camera if only....XAVC." It's a much better codec. Same one used for 1080p in the Sony A72 series cameras. It handles motion better and it's a more robust codec for editing as well. It was enough to push me to go back to the change jar and the deposit bottle collection (and a little bit of plasma donation) to see if I could swing the purchase. I was successful with a last push for cushion change diving in the sofa and two arm chairs. 

Having bought the camera, and the several additional and requisite batteries, I decided that I may as well test the camera and see if the upgrade was the final piece of the "perfect bridge camera" jigsaw puzzle. One thing to understand though, is that we're talking here about version one, not the latest version two --- which is a sparkling and cool camera in its own right...

I had a strategy when I left the house today. I headed to the graffiti wall with the RX10 and a variable neutral density filter and I shot about 20 minutes of video (which is too boring to show) which proved to me that big improvements had been made and that the camera is very much ready for (well lit) prime time video production. Especially electronic news gathering varieties. Fun to set the manual exposure on the camera and then work the variable neutral density filter along with zebras in the EVF to hit perfect exposure. It worked well and, since I am at heart a very lazy person, I left the VND filter on for the rest of the time at the outdoor gallery; even when shooting still photographs. 

What is my assessment of the RX10 now? Well, with one of these and two of the Panasonic fz 1000 cameras (a very close cousin, hobbled only by the lack of a headphone jack) I'm pretty sure I could shoot a serviceable feature or at least a really fun TV sit com. I know, how about a sit com based on a hapless, 60 year old photographer who loves to press "toy-like" cameras into real world shooting assignments only to have unexpected, but very funny, things happen to him? I wouldn't watch it but I bet somebody would. 

Seriously, the camera does a great job with video. And I already liked the work I've done with a previous one in still photography. I'm glad to have another one back in the fold. I hope I won't be so cavalier about getting rid of it next time...It's a perfect complement to the rest of my stuff. Now I just need to remember all the menu stuff. 

I don't pay attention to all brands of cameras equally but I am sure this kind of improvement over the lifespan of a camera is not limited to Sony bridge cameras. I remember how excited I was when Kodak added Jpegs files to what had been introduced as the "raw file only" DCS 760. I'm also reminded of some recent, valuable upgrades that Olympus bestowed on the current EM5.2 and the venerable EM1. I welcome as many fixes as they'll give us. I don't expect them but I do appreciate them. It's made several of my cameras more fun than they were when they started...

Blog Note: Ben and I are booked on corporate imaging work (my actual job) the first three days of this week and then I head to Denver early Friday for a marketing forum that lasts until Sunday night. The tight schedule and the need to do post production around the edges of our paying jobs may mean that the blog is going dark until next Monday, January 25th. I need some downtime anyway after my last troll skirmish. Not sure where we're going with the blog. I still enjoy writing it but I'm a little concerned that its relevance has passed. That the format and the information have less value than when we started out this little venture. A good topic for discussion at the upcoming media marketing forum. I'll take notes. We'll reconvene. In the meantime, aren't the rest of you just so tickled that I wrote (and serially posted) some extra blogs for you? Stay tuned. 

Having a style you like doesn't mean you have to abandon experimentation. I like to try everything to see if I can come across ... a better style.

This is an example of making a portrait with a ring light. One of my clients insisted I buy a big, highlight flash for an advertising project (that never saw the light of day). One day Noellia came over to the studio in one of her cool outfits and I decided to drag out the ring light and give it a go. It was a fun effect. I then experimented with different post processing styles. I won't be changing my core style for this one but I learned a few new things. I think that's always the point. 

After all these years some people are still hazy about the blog...

Get the hazy reference? The person behind the camera is..... hazy. Cool huh?

We write what we want. We post when we want to. We use the "royal we" as many times as is pleasurable to me. You are free at any time to skip a post, read a post later, read all of a week's posts on one day, or to just look at the photographs displayed here and then go away.

Sometimes I will be working on a project and not be able to post for a few days. Other times, at the end of a project, I'll have more time and will make myself happy by posting more blog entries. Blogging is not my job. My job is taking photographs and making video content for clients.

Blogging is a fun outlet for me. You are not my client. You are not my boss. You are not my mother.  This is not Target or Nordstroms, I am the only "complaint department" and the complaint window has been closed for years.

I hate getting a comment telling me what to do with the blog. Especially one that says,

"Anonymous said...
One post a day, please. No one likes a serial poster."

So, if you happen to be the entitled reader who donated that thought yesterday, please stop reading my blog; it is obviously overwhelming you. If you are one of my regular readers or a commenter who includes his name along with a comment, Thank you!

Other than an occasional nudge to buy a book I've written, and a once in a while link in the copy to an Amazon product page, this blog asks nothing of its readers other than a modicum of reciprocal politeness and the willingness to share your experiences and knowledge.

I don't hawk weekly, monthly, quarterly workshops, no appeal to buy my (high nano-acuity) hyperprints, no sidebar filled with display ads, no crowdsourcing appeals, hell, I don't even have a t-shirt to sell you. (but I am working on a coffee cup (joke)).

Read at your own peril. But don't tell me how to enjoy my own blogging. Got it?

We are now ramping up the comment moderation. I've put Charlie Martini in charge. You can still disagree with me but you just can't be a dick.


We light differently for black and white and for color. In black and white contrast and tone is the thing. In color it's the contrast or confluence of colors in the frame....

Portrait of Austin actor, Woody Scaggs, show for a promotional ad. 

Style in photography is really just the process of becoming more and more comfortable with the way you like to do things.

Photograph done for a marketing project with a Theater in Austin. We were promoting a play for Live Oak Theater. The play was set in Texas in the 1930's or 1940's. I was trying to both do my style of lighting and portraiture but also to give a nod to the tools of the day. I used a number of small, fresnel lensed, tungsten spotlights to do the lighting. The edge effects and softness of the image on the sides and in the corners was done with a device used under the enlarger lens, in the darkroom.

When I did the project for the theater I ended up hand coloring the final image and we hung a show of the had colored work of the entire staff in the theater's lobby. They are still some of my favorite images.

There is something special about using low output, continuous light. I won't try to define it but I see a difference between the longer exposures and the kind of look I get from using electronic flash. 

Portraits of two Texas based photographers. Both quite accomplished in their fields.

Michael O'Brien. 

James Evans.

Both O'Brien and Evans are famous in gallery and photographic circles. Both have had several books of their work published and both are working in Texas. O'Brien, here in Austin and Evans, in the small west Texas Town of Marathon.  This is what they look like to me.

I love to make portraits of people. All kinds of people...

Over the past few years I've posted hundreds and hundreds of portrait images to this blog. When we discuss my portrait work some people feel duty bound to write, critically, in the comments that I only photograph beautiful, young women. I don't think that's true and it's certainly not a reflection of the day-to-day work that I pursue. I've put up more images of women than men but I think that's only to be expected of a heterosexual male from my generation as the female form (and the female face) has always been referenced in our culture as a nexus of beauty.

But I am equally happy photographing men. This is a image we did years ago that was used in an annual report for an international financial services company. I don't know if the company still exists but the photographic style and the depth of rapport seem more or less current to me even some 18 years later.

This image was not done in studio; it was done on location at the Dallas offices of the company. My assistant and I carved out a bit of space in a giant inner lobby, set up one of my favorite weathered canvas backgrounds and, in the course of a couple hours, executed four or five portraits that we were all very pleased with.

The project was always intended to run in quadratone black and white and, in those days if an image was intended to be used in black and white that's how we shot it. We didn't hedge and shoot color hoping to make an appropriate conversion. It helps to have clear intentions at the outset because there are decisions about tonalities that are specific only to black and white.  We also had much more latitude for dynamic range and exposure with medium format black and white film that we might have had shooting color transparencies.

While I have recently filled in shadow areas on my portraits a bit more than I did back when this was produced the basic lighting concepts have remained the same; as has my approach to working with people who stand in front of the camera. Male or female.