11.22.2016

A Black and White Photograph of Jack.

©2016 Kirk Tuck. All Rights Reserved.

My Favorite Portrait of Boston Actor, Jack Donahue.

©2016 Kirk Tuck. All Rights Reserved.

Jack came to Austin to join the production of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and I found his performances to be really wonderful. When the play finished its run I asked Jack if he would be willing to sit for a portrait. He was. We shot on a nice, sunny afternoon. He's got great stories to tell and I had a blast.

Lit with two LED lights lighting up a 50 inch, circular diffuser. Camera: Sony A7Rii. Lens: Rokinon 135mm t 2.2 Cine lens. Tripod: The good one. 

I am currently post processing and retouching a bunch of selections for Jack. I'm very happy with the results of our session.

Testing. Always testing. 

The Ghost of Jacob Marley and Scrooge. On Stage at Zach.

©2016 Kirk Tuck. All Rights Reserved.

Photograph taken at rehearsal on Sunday. Camera: Sony A7ii. Lens: 70-200mm f4.0 G. Raspberry flavored SD memory card. Human tripod. 

A few months ago I wanted to buy a battery grip for my old, used, Sony A7ii. I went to Amazon and looked at the official Sony accessory. I am sure it's made from very rare plastic only grown in the plastic orchards of Fiji but I found the purchase price --- breathtaking. 

A little more research uncovered a generic product from Vello. The price was well short on $100 and, with Prime, the delivery was free. I ordered one that did not arrive on time. I called Amazon. They sent out a replacement. In the meantime the first one arrived.  DOA.  My hopes of finding a low cost alternative were temporarily shattered. I sent it back and the second one arrived. I pulled it out of the box and installed batteries then screwed it onto the the base of the camera. The device has worked flawlessly for over 10,000 exposures. 

I am thankful that the USPS mis-delivered and then re-delivered the first drive. Had it arrived disfunctional but right on schedule I would have sent it back and decided that all such cheap substitutes were without value. 

The combination of the A7ii and the Vello battery grip makes for a perfect ergnomic pair for me. I find the camera to be pretty much perfect with one tiny exception (certainly NOT a deal killer...) and that is my wish for the silent shutter options shared by the a6300 and the A7Rii. Every other aspect of the camera (with grip) is exactly what I want in a daily shooter. So much photographic happiness for < $1,000. 

Tonight I go back to photograph the full dress rehearsal and I'm very excited to see Zach's version of "A Christmas Carol" again. They have re-invented a hoary classic and made it accessible and fun, all without diluting the wonderful message of hope and re-birth that runs through the play. Tonight I get to see it with different cameras and with Belinda by my side. Nice working conditions. Thankful for good clients. 

11.21.2016

Funniest thing I have seen online all this quarter. In keeping with the "Holiday" season...

https://modernnativity.com/products/modern-nativity-set


A couple of images from "A Christmas Carol" -- Zach Theatre Style.



As I watched the play to determine how to photograph it tomorrow night I played around with the camera and lenses I brought with me. For the first half of the show I used Sony's top DXO-rated zoom lens, the 70-200mm f4.0 G. I shot it mostly wide open. After the intermission I decided to take a chance and shoot the rest of the time with my Contax/Yashica Zeiss 50mm f1.7 lens. I guess I should not have been surprised but I have to say that the single focal length lens, shot mostly around f2.8 was much sharper. So much so that I noticed in the thumbnails. To really pop the images from the zoom I added about 35 point of sharpening  (1.0 pixel radius) in Lightroom to get the effect I wanted. But when I hit the prime lens files I had to turn the sharpening to zero. 

On another note, in my blog about practice (yesterday?) a commenter mentioned that better (more expensive and newer) gear might cut down on the need to practice as much. Interesting thought. I pondered what the difference in final output might be if I was shooting the play with a Nikon D5 and the latest, ultra expensive 2.8 zooms, at a total cost of about $10,000 instead of the used Sony A7ii ($950) and the very used Contax 50mm lens ($125+Fotodiox Adapter @$28).  

Then I remembered shooting last year with Nikon's very good D810 and their good lenses and getting results that were really no different than those generated by my current, largely second hand, collection. Maybe I just read the owner's manual more carefully with the Sonys....

At some point the contrast of the stage lighting becomes the dominate issue in limiting overall quality. What looks great and exciting to the human eye leaves a bit to be desired from a digital capture point of view. 

Be sure to click on all the ads below!!! (if you are reading this in a feed that last sentence is sarcasm. There are no ads below. We just f-ing forgot to monetize...oh well).

11.20.2016

Can you undertake "too much" pre-production? I'm inclined to say, "no."

Yeah. I did it again. I walked around downtown this afternoon, looking at stuff and spending time operating the controls on my camera. 

Yesterday I talked about practice. I wrote about going to a rehearsal at the theater and trying my hand (for the thousandth time) at shooting in the dark. Well, I was in the dark but the actors were in little pools of light... And they moved from pool to pool as they talked and gestured and, well, acted. And some of the pools of light were eddies of warm light while others were gelled cool. All the pools were different exposures. All the backgrounds black.  I processed the imagines this morning and assessed them while I ate a cinnamon roll I'd baked and drank so-so coffee that sprang from a Keurig machine. From start to finish the images got technically better and better. It was a lesson reinforced. Practice is not good, it's essential.

Yesterday's rehearsal was for the production of "Santaland Diaries." It will be performed on the smaller, stage, in the round, at Zach, but our big money-maker for the holiday season will be a very rock+contemporary culture inflected version of "A Christmas Carol." It's a big production on our large, Topfer stage and it's a complex musical with lots and lots of moving parts. 

This morning it occurred to me that I could better serve my client on Tuesday, at the official dress rehearsal, if I knew the progression of the show, the actions that lead up to big crescendos of action and poses, etc. With a bit of judicious scouting I'd know when to shift and when to shoot and how the lighting cues will affect my photography. Photography that will be used across a lot of media to drive traffic to the play over the course of a month. 

I sent an early Sunday afternoon e-mail to the stage manager asking if it would be okay for me to drop by and attend the tech rehearsal this evening. It's the last rehearsal without an audience and while it may stop and start it will give me ample opportunity to survey "the lay of the land." I pushed a bit and also got permission to photograph. A way of taking visual notes ahead of the official, assigned shoot on Tues. 

Now, this is hardly a burden since I love this particular production, enjoy the music, and am a big fan of many people in the cast. I'm heading over right after supper and should be ready to watch at 7:30 pm, when the curtain opens. 

I'm taking along the Sony A7ii and the 70-200mm f4.0 G lens and I'm intent on getting some shots from angles I won't have ready access to with a full house on Tues. Am I getting paid to spend my Sunday evening doing research/pre-production for a job? Not in money, no. But I'm guessing that my pre-knowledge of the blocking, lighting and timing in the show will make my images much better --- or at least more efficient, on Tues. 

I don't mind going the extra mile because I am less motivated by immediate financial gain and more motivated to push the quality of my meager interpretation of my chosen art to as high a level as possible in the belief that I'll get several wonderful photographs for my portfolio. This is a good strategy for me since I have, sprinkled through my website and my portfolio, images created for the theater five, ten and even fifteen years ago. They are some of my favorites. Short term investment in pre-production, and on site research, in order to create art that can represent me well down the road. 

Besides, I'll get paid for Tuesday's shoot and that's what the client originally budgeted for and signed up for. How I end up getting the stuff right is totally on me. 


Today's free equipment fascination (free because I already own it) is with the Sony A7ii, the cheap grip and a Contax/Zeiss lens. The image above shows the 45mm lens I shot with downtown today. Focused carefully and shot at f5.6 or f8.0 the lens creates sharp and sparkly images that I like. 
How's that for a short review? 



Sunday Image. From rehearsal. Also, Feedback.

A scene from the Zach Theatre Production of "Santaland Diaries."

I call this one, "looking at the work." 

I've been mulling a few things over in my mind the last few weeks. One is about our (collective) growing addiction to "social media" and our headlong dive into web programming (YouTube videos, video equipment reviews, camera reviews, printer reviews, online profiles, forums, specialty websites, etc.).  I read an opinion piece in the NYTimes called, "Quit Social Media. Your Career May Depend On It." by Cal Newport. In it he makes a number of good points, including the idea that social media is engineered from the ground up to be sticky and addictive. Also, that the more you consume the more you want to consume. He rightly asserts that, in any moment of boredom, it is too easy and alluring to just click into social media to get a quick fix of faux connectedness. The cost is all the surrendered opportunity to go out and have real experiences with real people. 

The article from NYT covers much more than my quick synopsis so if you have an impassioned response to what I wrote above I suggest you go and read the whole thing first...

At any rate, I am certain that blogs about everything are included in his general view that surface dives into endless content on the internet robs us of genuine experiences, the focus to be able to work on real work with discipline and diligence, and more; it also robs us of being really present. It's impossible (my opinion) to pay attention to anything in front of you if there is always a subroutine running in your brain that coaxes you to seek the solace of the screen. Or emotionally implores you to "check in."

I wrote rhetorically this past week about declining comments here and one reader chimed in with a litany of the blog's flaws. The foremost being that I write about the same few things over and over again. Those would include: Experiences shooting corporate work. Experiences shooting for the theater. Experiences walking in Downtown Austin with a camera. Experiences relating to swimming. Showing my favorite, old portraits.

The remedy, according to several other commenters, would be for me to: Get in my car and go on a long roadtrip to places I have never been before in order to get new experiences about which to write. Get on a plane and go to exotic, foreign locales to get new experiences about which to write. And, search out new and exciting equipment about which to write.

It was from this bubbling cauldron of introspection, New York Times guest writers and the insights of my readers that I have come to the conclusions that most social media is a waste of all our time. And that some of my readers misunderstand what this blog is all about. And, that everything must evolve or die. 

Remedies? I'm no longer actively posting to or reading anything on Twitter. If you left a pithy rejoinder there hoping I would stumble across it and have an epiphany you will be disappointed. More to the point, you won't likely get a response. I'll use Twitter now only to automatically post links back to the latest blog I've written. Ditto with Facebook, which seems to be the biggest demotivater ever invented by humans. Don't leave messages for me there because chances are I will read them .... never. 

My recent direct mail efforts have convinced me that few to none of my actual commercial clients follow me on Facebook (thank God! after this insane political season...) and even fewer on Twitter. They do react, almost every time, to a personal note, a post card, a direct mailing or an e-mail. I've never been hired or referenced from a contact on social media. Doesn't happen. 

Now, on to the more personal eye opener: Some seem to think that I write on this blog in an effort to establish a mercantile quid pro quo. Their idea is that I write content for them and in return I harvest profits, sell products, get money, accrue financial advantage, etc. They (perhaps subconsciously) view the VSL blog as a service which receives renumeration as a result of having attracted their eyeballs and delivered freely shared content. As if, somehow, their reading of my essays helps to vault my career and net worth skyward. I only wish that was so. 

I write because I love to write. I presumed that people read because they were interested in what I was writing. Now I see that a certain segment sees this blog as a form of general,  somewhat generic, photographic entertainment; the entry price of which is the chore of reading through things they don't like in order to find the one or two gems that inadvertently hit the screen. 

Sadly, as a I ante up the $65,000 per year to pay for someone's college expenses, I have very limited excess funds with which to fire up the Range Rover and set off to Patagonia to report on the state of various Four Season Hotels and Ritz Carlton Hotels along my route. At sixty one years of age I find my access to super models and skateboard celebrities a bit curtailed, so I won't be switching my focus (ha, ha) to all new subjects that are more popular. And since I haven't been emancipated from the need for income I don't really have the option of ditching all my blue chip corporate clients to pursue the (much sexier?) realm of poorly paying editorial jobs that might allow me to go somewhere different and make a photograph of someone doing something trendy which I can then overlay with an Instagram filter and peddle around as new art. 

I'm pretty sure I'll keep writing exactly what pops into my head and I extend to all of my readers the option to read it or not. If you'd like to show your support for my efforts be sure to click on all the ads below...

If you want me to write specific content, hire me.  

Have a great Sunday. I'm heading out to walk through downtown Austin, swim, ruminate about a video job I'm in pre-production on and then post some of my old, square, tired, black and white portraits. 


11.19.2016

Saturday Practices. In the water, at the theater.


After months of warm weather it's a seriously refreshing experience to get from the locker rooms to the pool in 40+ degree weather with a gusty wind blowing. It was a long slog through a complicated set this morning. By my count a little over 4,500 yards. I've been practicing one part of my freestyle stroke lately and that's an acceleration of my hand/arm during the last half of each arm pull. It must be working because I've been sore and tired after every practice... Seriously though, changing a stroke takes time and uses one's muscles in a slightly different way. The proof is in either speed or increased endurance or both. My stroke technique is a constant work in progress which improves by plateaus as I practice.

After the swim, and coffee with fellow swimmers, I grabbed a small Husky tool bag filled with small cameras and lenses and headed to the theater to practice a different skill set. I have two lenses that I get great results from --- if I slow down and practice good technique. One is the Rokinon 85mm t-1.5 and the other is the Rokinon 135mm f2.2. Both are manual focus lenses with fairly long throws on the focusing rings. Manual focusing moving subjects in changing light is something that takes consistent practice; even with aids like focus peaking. So, I requested permission to come to a rehearsal of SantaLand Diaries in order to actually get some practice.

With long, manual focus lenses there are things to consider: The closer you are to a subject the harder it is to focus quickly. Stopping down a manual aperture lens on camera (a lens that works at its "taking" aperture) means that a lens shows more depth of field in the finder which makes finding the exact point of sharp focus much harder; and finally, the longer the focal length the shallower the depth of field which means that a close focus subject, moving in low light is a tough target. That's what I was working on today. Meredith McCall (above) and Martin Burke were in full rehearsal mode for a production that opens at the end of next week. They didn't mind having me around, after all, someone has to supply an appropriate laugh track.

I shot three or four hundred shots and used the two lenses in a much different way than I would if I'd been hired to do the shoot, or if the results were mission critical for the theater. I played more with shooting wide open which meant having a much bigger ratio of crap-to-good photography. But that's why it seems to me important to practice. Often. The brain and the eye have to work in concert until the hand movements driving the lens controls become second nature. I think the only way to get there is to do stuff over and over again until it becomes fluid. Until there is a certain flow.

I felt it today with my freestyle. Not all the time but just when I was in a certain groove and not over thinking the mechanics. I started to feel the same way at the end of the rehearsal at the theater. Not all the time but mostly when I trusted my intuition and committed without hesitation to pushing the shutter button. I can only imagine that if I still had the energy to swim four or five hours a day that I'd be able to drive toward textbook technique much more quickly. Never perfect but closer to perfect quicker.

By the same token, I'm sure if I worked on the small stage at Zach Theatre with the same camera and lenses every day, instead of once or twice a month, I might build a fine combination of muscle memory, intuition, and insight into the rhythms of each director and actor and thereby become a much better documentarian of live theater.

All I can do at this point is practice and learn. And there's so much to learn but it seems to be all about how my physical and neural collaborations happen. Nothing about facts and figures, or vital pages in an owner's manual. Practicing on Saturday to be a better swimmer on Sunday. Practicing in rehearsals on Saturday to be more alive and aware in the dress rehearsals next week.

11.18.2016

We're about to have our first day of Autumn here in Austin. Here's how I know...

From the Zach Theatre production of: A White Christmas.
Sony a99. Sony 70-200mm f2.8

The leaves are just now falling off the trees. Two days ago it was 90 degrees but tonight it's supposed to dip into the forties and by Sunday, into the thirties. People are changing from Sandals to real shoes; from shorts to old jeans. From t-shirts..... well, they are still wearing t-shirts, but they may have a light jacket in the car...

People are making plans for Thanksgiving and the Christmas plays are about to launch over at Zach Theatre. I've been shooting marketing images for, "Santaland Diaries" and "A Christmas Carol" and I've seen the first of the invitations to Zach's famous New Year's Eve party. Add it all together and I believe it's the real arrival of Fall in our town. 

The photo above has always been one of my favorite theater images. It was taken back in 2012 for the production of "A White Christmas." I came across it recently while doing a quick search for images I'd shot with either the Sony a99 or their 70/200mm lens. This came up for both. The dynamic range in the original raw file is great and the lens sharpness at a wide open aperture is really good. A constant reminder that if we don't get carried away with spec-manship the gear we have in our hands at any one time is perfectly usable for much longer times spans that we are generally willing to admit. 

So, how am I dealing with this new severe weather? Well, we may have to turn the heater on this weekend so I've gotten a new filter. Nothing special since I put in one of those pleated, 3M. Allergy Relief filters in about every three months. I'm buying fewer bottles of Sauvignon Blanc and Proseco and stocking in more Cabernets and Merlots. I'll make sure I have a dry towel in the car every time I go to swim practice and --- I can finally start comfortably wearing suits and ties again. Oh Joy! I've also washed a few of my favorite sweatshirts in preparation. 

The big task on my seasonal plate right now is to come up with a clever photographic idea that I can put on a holiday card to send out to clients. That's a tough one. If you have any great ideas just toss them over the transom and I'll co-op them immediately!



Wrapping up the week. Some observations from mid-November.

Choreography rehearsal. Zach Theatre. Sony A7xx + Sony 50mm f1.8

Yesterday afternoon I finished reading an older Hennig Mankell novel, Firewall, sat on the back porch with Studio Dog, ate some Siggi's vanilla yogurt and relaxed for a few minutes. It's nice to put some calm time in the middle of the day. It's a chance to collect my thoughts. 

Then it's back to work. I packed up to shoot an event at the Four Seasons Hotel. For the last decade and a half I have volunteered to provide photography for Texas Appleseed's annual fundraising dinner; it's an event I always look forward to and the Appleseed foundation is a great non-profit resource for legal change in Texas, and beyond. I won't go into their mission here on the blog but if you are interested you can go here: Appleseed.

The event attracts the top attorneys, judges and politicians from all over Texas. Last night over 400 attendees packed the ballroom at the Four Seasons to honor one of their own and to raise a half million dollars or so for the organization. Since I've photographed the event each year for the past 15 years I've gotten to know the names and faces of at least half the attendees in any year. It makes my job easier because I know in advance who needs to be photographed and what small groupings will give my photography the most utility for my client. 

I packed up two different camera systems because I was indecisive, when I left the house, about which system to use for the evening. I ended up using both. On one side of the case was the Sony a6300 with its 18-105mm f4.0 lens and on the other side of the case was the Sony A7ii with the 70/200mm and the 24-70mm lenses. I brought along a Yongnuo flash and an even cheaper, Neewer flash to use through the evening. I've never bothered to buy a Sony flash or a high priced TTL flash for the Sony cameras because I've learned, through the years, that shooting events via TTL makes for a nightmare of correction in post processing. I paid $55 for the Yongnuo flash and $35 for the Neewer flash and both have been just fine for everything I've done with them. Both are fully manual. Both have built in optical slaves. Both take 4 double "A" batteries. Both have a single contact on the shoe. Both seem uncomplicated and reliable. 

I used the a6300 combo for most of the evening because for the first hour and a half there was a cocktail reception the lobby which was a great time to circulate and make photographs of couples, and small groups. This was an "all flash" situation and I selected the a6300 because it's probably the fastest and surest focusing of the current Sony family. I used to dread shooting with flash in the lobby area in front of the main ballroom at the Austin Four Seasons because the ceiling was painted with an sea foam green paint that precluded the use of ceiling bounce with flash. They recently renovated and painted the ceiling a very nice and mellow white. Perfect. I ditched my bounce card, put a small diffuser on the front of the Yongnuo and calculated the exposure for bouncing off the ceiling while being seven to ten feet from my subjects. The little diffuser directs most light to the ceiling but there's also a little bit of front light which makes a great, subtle fill. 

I was able to use the flash at 1/8th power for nearly everything. This gave me f5.6 at 1/50th of second, ISO 640 for everything. If I was standing closer I'd drop the flash power to 1/16th and if I was standing further away, perhaps for a wider group shot, I'd push the power up to 1/4. Unlike my experiences with Sony, Canon and Nikon dedicated flashes, used in TTL mode, I had NO variance in exposure or color from frame to frame. This meant no need for frame by frame exposure correction or color modifications. The light was nice, soft and the color was perfect. It's a nice way to shoot with flash and it's lovely that the Four Seasons decided to paint their foyer ceiling a delicious shade of white, just for me.... 😉

I shot about 550 exposures with the a6300 and the flash. These also included awards presentations on the main stage. I never needed to change camera or flash batteries. 

But I did pull out the Sony A7ii and the 70-200mm lens for photographs of the speakers on stage. Shooting speakers is NEVER a situation in which you want to use flash. 400 people in the audience don't want you to either --- I'm pretty sure of it...

I set the camera to ISO 3200 and the used the lens wide open at f4.0. While the stage lighting wasn't great (for profit events generally invest a bunch more money in lighting...) the images were perfectly usable and the additional reach of the lens certainly helped. 

Dinner was quite good, with nice wines and a very nice steak and salmon combination. I enjoyed dinner very much. 

The evening wrapped at 9:30 pm and I packed up my little assortment of camera tools and headed back home. It was a nice way to spend a Thursday evening. 

Observations: I don't know if it's burnout from the elections or if I've just lost my touch as a writer but comments from readers have more or less ground to a halt. I'm not taking it personally since the daily visitor numbers are steady and it's not like I'm selling a lot of product on the site that needs pushing, but it is nice to get feed back. Maybe I'll ask questions in a better way. 

Speaking of the election, most people I know are dead tired of hearing about it and I know I've more or less given up on opening Facebook because of the torrents of emotion being expressed there. I've stopped listening to or watching election news for now. Someone be sure to tell me if an all out ground war with Canada is imminent. My focus for the rest of the year is to meet nice, new people and make nice portraits. In addition, I'm more and more interested in making video interviews. I have a bunch of material for a video about Wyatt McSpadden and I'm looking for a big gap in the schedule so I can sit down and edit with few interruptions. I have a backlog of personal portraits to post process and deliver as well. 

I haven't pre-ordered any new gear (or computers) but I am watching the Fuji medium format camera with great interest. I'm not sure if the advantages are overwhelming, when compared to something like an A7Rii but I'd like to test it for myself when it becomes available. After shooting several nice portraits with the Rokinon 100mm f2.8 macro lens I'm not sure I need anything better....

People seem a bit unsettled about gear right now. My friends have a weird expression on their faces. They'd like to buy something new just to keep the process they've been indoctrinated in moving along but they haven't seen much that tweaks the buying impulse. The consensus is that the stuff we all have in our hands right now is just "super" and the improvements are marginal enough for most people not to be discernible. A bad kind of place for the camera makers, I think. 

The only action that seems fun was the introduction of small, but powerful, portable flash systems from Profoto and Elincrhom. I love the looks of both but find the pricing ..... adventurous. I'm negotiating to get units from both for evaluation. 

On the marketing front. What is the ROI on our latest little flurry. This is fun. I sent out 65 marketing pieces which consisted of a cover letter and a postcard with the Michael Dell image, in an envelope. The marketing message was about my event photography services. The cost of the mailing, with ink, paper, stationary and postage was about $125. The first of the mailers went out on Monday and the last batch went out yesterday. I got an e-mail yesterday requesting a bid for executive portraits from an existing client who referenced the mailing. The portrait project should net between $2,000 and $3,000 so I'll mark the self-advertising venture with a big plus even if this is the only project that results. 

Truthfully, I don't expect directly correlated results from marketing I look at it as long term brand building; but I have found in the past that getting a marketing piece reminds people of projects that need to get done and motivates them to "pull the trigger." 

The next marketing effort hits in two weeks and will showcase portraits. I'll keep you posted. 

While we are usually winding things down this time of the year I am waiting to hear back from a client about a potential job in Salt Lake City for the week of the 5th through the 9th in Salt Lake City. It's a straight up advertising project and one that I'd love to do. It would make a nice coda to an interesting year. 

Tomorrow I will be back over at Zach Theatre (after swim practice, naturally) to photograph a behind the scenes look at Martin Burke in "The Santaland Diaries." It's my favorite holiday play and one of my favorite actors. This is something I asked to do instead of it being a request from my client. Just wanted to give a few of the fast lenses a bit of a workout and get some fun stuff for myself. Of course, I will share with the theater.

Back to Lightroom. We've got work to do.