6.14.2017

The "fly in the ointment" when it comes to downsizing our gear and lightening our loads.


portraits for Texas Appleseed.

I've been working on ways to downsize and lighten my load recently. It must be a contagious thought as Michael Johnston at TheOnlinePhotographer has been discussing the same trend on his world famous blog lately. It always sounds like a good idea to jettison excess weight (and complexity) wherever possible. The idea, currently, is that the progress of technology enables we photographers to choose smaller, lighter cameras that deliver "good enough" performance, and that's performance that's at least as good performance as we experienced in the most expensive cameras available only five or so years ago.

I've been doing my part, at least as well as I can. I've jettisoned all the big, heavy Nikon and Canon cameras I once used and replaced them with smaller, lighter, Sony A7 series cameras. Where interchangeable lenses and big sensors aren't needed I am able to downsize again by choosing one of two superzoom cameras, such as the Panasonic fz2500 or the Sony RX10iii.

In most cases it's a strategy that works. Well, it works for most of my hobby work but the minute the focus changes to controlled, commercial photography assignments my flirtation with small and light meets the reality of total production.

Here's how it played out today. I was asked to drop by a foundation I work with and take four portraits that will be used, mostly, on their website. We've done the same kind of assignment for this group several times in the past; shooting outside and creating images in which the background of trees and sky are put quite out of focus while the person in the foreground is well lit. There's a small area adjacent to the client's building that is set aside for smokers (haven't seen one there...) and it's both accessible and well situated in terms of background.

Of course, there's always a catch. It's Summer in Austin and I heard on the radio that we're expecting heat indexes of 105 or 106 in the afternoons, this week. That means we definitely need to do our shoots in the morning. Portraits rarely work well when the subjects are a sweaty mess... But this creates a secondary issue in that each portrait subject must face east, into the rising sun (we actually started shooting at 10 a.m.). The same sun also shines, in a dapply way, through the branches and leaves of the tree just to the right of the frame. This means we need some sort of diffusion over head and to the front of our person. Which then means that we'll need to pop some modified flash into the shot to balance everything out and provide clean, happy flesh tones. And good, directional light.

So, I've followed the current style and downsized my cameras, ready to realize all the benefits of current technology and scale. I have an A7ii, and it's small and light, but when I look through my equipment drawer for a 135mm focal length lens option I have only two choices: The Rokinon 135mm f2.0 Cine Lens or the Sony 70-200mm f4.0. Both are at least as heavy as their competitors' versions of these focal lengths. I chose the 70/200 for its flexibility but I note that it must weigh at least three times what the camera body does...

I've also downsized my lights, radically. In years past I might have used the enormous Elinchrom Ranger RX AS pack and head  electronic flash system since it had its own lead-acid battery but I long since sold off the 18 pound unit and today wanted to rely upon the new Godox AD200 portable flash unit. I figured the weight savings at something like 9:1, and that's including the accessories for the Godox! Of course, as I was packing I remembered that one of the things that was good about the 18 pound power pack from Elincrhom was that I could attach it to my light stand and use it as a de facto sandbag to keep the flash head and softbox from smashing to the ground with every wayward puff of wind.

Always erring on the side of safety I grab one of the 30 pound, orange sandbags from a pile of sandbags in the corner of the studio and add it to the collection of gear I'm packing. Now the advantages aren't looking quite so obvious.

I'll also need to pack a 50 inch diffusion disk to block the sun as well as an arm to hold it, and a stand to hold them both. This assemblage will also require a sandbag so I select another orange 30 pounder and add it to the stack.

The composition needs to be pretty static so I can concentrate on pose and expression so I make sure to pack a good tripod. All of mine are rock solid which means they all weigh about the same. I choose the Gitzo because I like the Manfrotto ball head I currently have on that one.

So, I get to my location and start setting up. It's not really a big deal since I found a parking space just four spaces from the actual location. I line up the shot first and then start building the lighting and diffusion. I know I was smart to pack the sand bags because every once in a while the wind picks up and pushes on the small soft box, and on the diffuser. The higher I raise up the diffusion panel the happier I am that each sand bag weighs 30 pounds.

I estimate that in my attempt to downsize my exterior portrait shooting rig I've added a net of about 10 pounds. Not quite the result I had in mind when I started down this path.

In all seriousness, though, moving from mirrored to mirror-free in the camera selection saved me maybe one pound. And since the camera spent the morning mounted on a stout tripod it's a pound of difference I never would have felt.

So why did I bother to transition technologies? I'll say this again. It's not any sort of attempt to radically downsize my kit it's just that EVFs are vastly superior for the way I like to work. And the Sony cameras are far more flexible as tools to use across two disciplines (video and stills).

The cold, hard reality for me is that most of the weight I deal with on locations is dictated by the lighting, not the camera gear. Even in the lighting it's not really the lighting instruments themselves that are the burden but all the associated support gear: light stands, sand bags, tripods, diffusion frames, etc. Heck, I could still be using a Linhof Technica view camera and it would not be the thing that tips the scale between weight and excess weight.

So, that's the point of view from a commercial photographer but when I come home and change hats it's a different story that's more in line with that conveyed by Michael and his readers. When I put on the flip-flops and and the silly (but sun-proof) hat, stick $20 in my pocket and go walking downtown, in the heat, the relative weight of my camera and lens do matter. They matter a lot.

And any time I am going "hand held" with my camera I have to acknowledge that "ultimate quality" is not my primary aim.

In these situations I like to stick to the A7ii body (over the A7rii) but the biggest lens I ever want to carry around (versus: drive around with in the car) is the Sony/Zeiss 24-70mm f4.0. The combo is manageable. If I'm channeling a 1950's Life Magazine/Henri Cartier Bresson existence I ditch the zoom and grab the new Sony FE 50mm f1.8. It's light and sharp. Altogether, the lens and camera make a nice, small and easy to handle package that delivers really good images.

And I get to use a good EVF all day long.

Once you lose those light stands and 60 pounds of sand things settle down nicely. Leave the heavy lenses at home and it all comes together. Downsizing depends on what you need to do. If you need to control or make light you need the right tools and it's really hard to make that support gear any smaller or lighter without compromising the necessary reality of support.

If you never want to walk around all day in the crazy heat you probably don't need to downsize whatever you currently shoot with. But it might be nice if you did. If you do this photography thing as a business then having the right tools at hand always (or nearly always) trumps the comfort of having less to wrangle.

I miss my previous existence as a copywriter; the only thing I required to do my job was a laptop, a pen and a notebook. Such a streamlined existence.

6.13.2017

When will the VSL video editor return?

B&B at Sweetish Hill Bakery. 
Ancient image from the archives.

My son has been away at college for the last three years. He comes home for the Summers, and for the end of year break, and I can generally convince him, during his stays at home, to lend a hand in the business as a video editor and on set director. This Spring semester was quite different. Ben applied to and was accepted at Yonsei University in Seoul, S. Korea for a semester abroad. 

He has taken several years of Korean language and has a deep interest in the culture, politics and history of Korea. He headed out in early February and has been dividing his time between (hopefully) diligent studies and much site seeing. He's eaten interesting foods and lived to write home about it. He's traveled almost weekly across Korea and made many good friends. 

I am happy we were able to provide this experience for him but I am even happier at the prospect that he'll be back near the end of next week. 

If you've been holding off on hiring me to do some glorious and ample-budgeted video project because you missed Ben's skill in the editing bay you'll want to reserve your company's place in line to make sure we can work your project in sometime this Summer. It's a limited engagement; he's back to school in Saratoga Springs, NY in the Fall. One more academic year and then ..... ?

I smell graduate school lurking in the wings... 

(camera note: What camera did he take? I opened up the equipment cabinets in the studio and invited him to take whatever he wanted. If he didn't see something there I would gladly have bought him whatever he required. He demurred and chose to go only with his iPhone 5s. He's sent back dozens of photos. They're all pretty good. PHONE, the camera choice of the millennials. 

6.12.2017

A couple of casual shots from the Contax RTS 3 and the Zeiss 85mm f1.4.



I'm working on a new website but in my search of interesting photos to include I keep running across old favorites. I thought I would share one.


I started working with Renae nearly 21 years ago. I remember because during the first few months of working together we were still over in the old (enormous) studio just east of IH35; the "other" side of town. She helped with the move to my new location and we worked together for another three or four years before she moved to NYC, and then on to Los Angeles.

We worked a lot back then. That was the nature of commercial photography in the 1990's. The work was pretty predictable; whether it was an architectural shoot for a home builder, a corporate headshot "cattle call" on location or a product shoot in the studio, they all pretty much proceeded in the same way.

If the assignment was on location we probably sorted and packed everything the evening before. The new studio is right across the walkway from my house so many times Belinda would throw together a nice dinner and we'd break from assembling all the crap that goes along with a photographer to create images in the wild to sit around the dining room table to relax and eat with Belinda and toddler, Ben.

On the shoot day we'd get back into the studio and start hauling the gear cases out to the car around 7:00 am in the morning, hit the local Starbucks around 7:30, and then pull into the client's parking lot just before 8. It takes longer now. We're no longer a sleepy, little town so we double or triple the travel time.

We'd spend the first hour or so setting up lights and light stands, and taping down extension cords so no one would trip over them. Then we'd start working through either a list of shots or a list of people who needed to be photographed, and we'd get into the rhythm of the shoot. We'd break for a late lunch in the company cafeteria or someplace quick and close by and then get back to the process.

We'd wrap up around 4:30 pm and start packing up. If we were up in Round Rock, with the folks from Dell, we might have a forty-five minute or one hour commute back home to Westlake Hills. If we were south, at Motorola, we could do it in half the time. We'd get to the studio and unpack the car.
If we had another shoot the next day we'd take a little break, have a glass of wine, and then re-pack everything for the next day. We'd unload the film and get it ready for the lab and Renae would drop it by the lab, in the night drop, on her way home.

When jobs all bunched together we'd hire a second assistant whose main job was to ferry shot film to the lab for processing and then bring processed film back to the shoot so we could review it as we worked on the next job. If we had a full week of shooting booked then editing, packaging for delivery to clients, and then billing all got done on Saturdays and Sundays.

If we were lucky enough to have a down day; one without a client assignment, we'd organize the studio, file the negatives and transparencies, clean stuff and then take a little time to do our own photography. This (above) is from a series I did to test a look for a particular gray canvas as a backdrop.

Looking back I can't honestly say that if I were to do it all over again I'd prefer being an accountant or I.T. professional. I can say that I resent the fact that progress has made the need for a daily assistant unnecessary.

It's probably all for the best since I was never able to find someone as brilliant as Renae to take her place.

This is the image I wanted for the cover of my book about commercial photography. I might rip actual cover off a copy and paste this onto the front...

©kirk tuck.

Funny to think that, in 2009, we were still shooting black and white film 
in our big, square cameras, for everything that we thought 
was personal and important. Funny how some of the work
still bubbles up to the top. 


Sweetish Hill Bakery. Plain Croissant. Wonderful Hand.


When Patricia ruled her bakery domain everything was magical and delicious. It was inevitable that she would retire some day. I didn't know it then; before she sold the business, but it was a dark day for coffee and pastries lovers of a certain kind in central Austin. 

Under the new management the quality didn't change.....just the magic. 




Shot in the studio. Available light. Rollei 6008. 150mm. 

A Photograph of a Dancer in a second floor studio on Sixth St. Back when it was the cheap real estate in Austin, Texas. Circa: 1979.


We had so much time back in our youth. Time to sit on wooden floors and watch the light flow through big windows and still be amazed by the weightlessness of the dust floating through the shafts of sun.

I was hanging out with dancers and snapping away with an ancient Canon SLR and a 50mm f1.4. Everything was on Tri-X then and I never had to make decisions about which lens to shoot with since it was the only one I owned.

I still love the work from back then. It was propelled only by my curiosity and my attraction to beautiful people.

Funny how easy everything is when your biggest responsibility is to remember to lift the toilet seat lid.

I think we sometimes forget how important it is to celebrate our victories.


This was taken sometime in 1983. I had recently left the welcoming but soporific bosom of academia; shortsightedly leaving the stability of a steady job for the insanity of the advertising industry. But it was fun. Fun in a way that academia really could never be.

This was taken at the successful end of our very first photo shoot as Avanti Advertising and Design. We had a retail client who sold high end chocolate, Champagne, flowers and cards. The shoot required opening several (or more) bottles of Champagne so we could capture that magic moment when the cork pops and the bottle overflows. Honestly, it was vital to the creative concept....

But once open the bottles couldn't be returned and so it fell to the marketing team on the account to liquidate the luscious liquid. There may also have been some "prop" chocolates that couldn't be resold so we made short work of those as well.

The important thing we learned early on in the business was the importance of really celebrating our victories in the industry. We commemorated every successful television commercial and print campaign with a toast, a happy hour or a "all hands" friday lunch at our favorite, sloppy Tex-Mex restaurant (which, at the time, was Nuevo Leon, on East 7th St.).

This job was shot on a Pentax 6x7 camera and, as was typical for the times, ran in black and white in the local newspapers. I strongly suspect it was shot on Tri-X film and I remember making the 11x14 inch fiber based prints in my darkroom. Good times.

These days I've gotten a bit jaded about the process, and, truth be told, if I celebrated every successful job with a bottle of Champagne I would have died long ago of some liver disease.

Still, it's good to remind oneself, from time to time, that this is a tough business and sustaining success for decades at a time is a worthy thing to celebrate. I think I'll head into the house and see if there's any wine left in the fridge from the last dinner party.....

other notes: hard at work on a very insouciant and strange new website for Kirk Tuck Photography and Video. I'm using a program called, Sparkle. It's fun but so, so time consuming. Now where is that Sauvignon Blanc I remember re-corking....

6.09.2017

Something I wrote in 2011 and re-discovered today on TOP. One of my favorites....

http://theonlinephotographer.typepad.com/the_online_photographer/2011/12/kirks-take-kirk-tuck-2.html#more

I needed this reminder TODAY. I was diving too deep into the minutia of video. I think I just pulled myself back from the edge of the abyss.....

A Portrait done this week with my small Godox flashes. A return to a style that I used back when I was writing my first lighting book.

Sara B. ©Kirk Tuck

As most of my blog readers know I've been more or less immersed in the use of continuous lighting for portrait work over the last few years. It's a practice I started back when I was working on a book about LED lighting back in 2009-2010. Recently, I've had to travel more often to light and shoot both video and photographs and it's been a challenge to figure out how to pack to get the most bang per ounce across both media.

I recently bought bunch of Godox small flashes because they pack down so well and require fewer light stands on which to hang light modifiers, etc. I think the traditional flash equipment that I used for decades (mono lights, pack and head strobes) are now mostly obsolete for most working photographers (with exceptions) who need