In the last several weeks I've had five opportunities to test out two of Fuji's best portrait lenses. I need them both/can't pick one over the other.

 This photo has absolutely nothing to do with this blog post. I was scrolling through a folder of photographs from Iceland this morning and this one perked up and called out to me. I felt duty bound to include it somewhere. I love the sky. It's just wonderful.

Over the last several weeks I've had the opportunity to make portraits with both the 90mm f2.0 and the 50-140mm f2.8 lenses from Fuji. Both make exquisite portraits and, if I could control all the parameters of every shoot I'd probably just default to the 90mm lens and be done with it but... I can't always control several shoot parameters. Things I'm not always able to control mostly have to do with the absolute size of the shooting space and then, how much background I want to show or not show...

Having used both lenses in actual photo shoots I've had some good opportunities to look at how they perform and what the differences are in shooting with each one. The zoom is obviously more flexible and, if you are budget restricted it's the one I'd advise getting just because you have so many options for angle of view. The 90mm might be the sharper of the two when used wide open (especially on the sides and in the corners) but most of my photography with them was done with electronic flash (which eliminates a lot of sharpness robbing variables) and at one or two f-stops down from their maximums just because, well, that's how we shoot on real jobs. Endless background blur can be fun but clients really do like it when the tips of noses AND the eyes of portrait subjects are both sharp! (That's a tip for new portrait photographers). 

So, when I shoot under the usual conditions (camera on a nice tripod, I.S. turned off, fast flash speeds, good focus) both of the lenses are so sharp that, if acutance and resolution are what you're looking for, then either lens will fill the bill nicely. There are really only two advantages to using the 90mm f2.0 over the zoom. One is that you can work with the lens wide open and this buys you an additional stop of light. The second feature is that the overall rendering of the 90mm is a bit more natural and the out of focus areas are smoother. 

When I say, "more natural" I mean that the boundaries between tones are more nuanced and while just as sharp as the competitive lens the demarcations between tones are less abrupt or heavy handed. 

It's good to have both lenses available if you want to do portraits the same way I want to do portraits. I love the look of the 90mm but am so happy to have a nice substitute when reality comes calling. Here's an example: I was setting up to shoot a portrait of an executive in which there were windows in the background. I had the 90mm on the camera and could see that I'd have to have the portrait subject either too close to the camera (too large a head size) or I'd have to move back ten feet or so and reposition the subject so that I could see three windows instead of two and also have those windows, and the detail outside the windows, out of focus. It was a game of juggling camera-to-background distance and also camera-to-subject distance which also means I have to adjust the subject-to-background distances as well. The problem occurred when I realized that the wall behind the camera position was immovable and wouldn't allow me to back up the next four or five feet I really wanted. 

In this instance the 50-140mm lens provided the right solution. I ended up at about 65mms on the zoom and the relationship between background, subject and camera fell into place. 

The 90mm is a tougher lens to use on an APS-C sensor camera. It's a bit long but it has a very nice compression for portraits and, as mentioned above, the optical integrity of the lens is pretty much unimpeachable. It will take me some time to figure out the optimal working distances when using it but the times that I've gotten all the elements right have rewarded me with really, really nice portraits. It's just a matter of mentally breaking in the lens which is the same thing as training my brain to stand in the right spot.

But this is not just a paean to Fuji glass. It's true in any system. You often trade the ultimate in potential image quality for flexibility. Sometimes flexibility wins, and with really good short telephoto zooms (low zoom ratio) such as the classic 80-200 or 70-200 in full frame systems, or the 50-140mm in the APS-C system what you give up is marginal and many times masked by inadequate or sloppy technique. But that's no reason to give up on the idea of using the best solution. You just have to make sure it fits with all the variables with which you will normally contend. 

I find the Fuji zoom to be one of the best portrait range zooms I've used. It's on par with my favorite version for m4:3, the Olympus 40-150mm Pro, and it's certainly as good as the full frame zooms I've had experience with. 

The 90mm reminds me very much of a favorite lens from my old Nikon MF system; the 135mm f2.0. It was a beast of a lens but when the stars were in alignment and the subject was worthwhile it could produce images that made me look like a better photographer than I was at the time. 

I thought the Fuji 60mm f2.4 macro was going to end up being my "go-to" portrait lens in the systems but the 90mm seems to be the one I'm always trying to shoehorn into every production. It's fast and accurate in focusing and even when I shoot wide open everything that falls into the boundaries of the depth of field is satisfyingly sharp and beautifully drawn. 

Still, more often than not the 50-140mm pulls me out of jams and does so while giving up very little image quality to the 90mm. If you can afford it then it's nice to have both at your beck and call. 

I just have a feeling that continually using the 90mm f2.0 will (at least) make me look like a better portrait photographer than I really am. And that's a good thing. 

Warning: both lenses are big and heavy. If you firmly believe that the only reason to own a mirrorless camera is for the weight reduction and compact overall size then... these lenses are definitely not for you. If you are a Fuji owner and hellbent on compactalization you'll be much happier with something like the 50mm f2.0 which is a small, feather-weight lens with great performance. 

To each their own...

The 50-140mm doesn't look so big in the photo below. Carry it around all day, it will surprise you.

The 90mm is about $250 off on Amazon right now. 
I think it's pretty great at that price.


It's SXSW in Austin. Business is slow and I'm taking advantage of the break to be lazy and indulgent.

I'd like to thank the W Hotel for their nicely appointed rest rooms and 
their general acceptance of photographers who need to pee while downtown.

Following on with the idea of why we photograph and how the process has changed, I thought it would be interesting to see just what I would do if I had no schedule, no pressing things to take care of and no client projects to finish up. 

A rare week of Kirk in slow motion. I only use an alarm clock (my phone) when I have an assignment to which I must show up punctually. This morning I trusted an incoming thunderstorm to rouse me and get me going. I lingered in bed long enough to read one of Robert Adam's essays about photography in his small but potent book, Beauty in Photography. Essays in Defense of Traditional Values. The essay was entitled, "Civilizing Criticism." Robert Adam's written work is aging well; but it's still aging...

The thunderstorm at dawn meant no morning swim. One of the compromises of swimming year round in an outdoor pool. I made a mental note to go to the noon workout instead. The forecast called for the clouds to break and for the sun to burst out right around the time I'd be walking from the locker room to the pool. 

I spent the morning cleaning up the studio/office and I took time to bail out of a managed fund and into a Treasury Fund as a short term hedge against short term economic uncertainty. Part of my role balancing my dad's accounts for safest/best returns. 

Around 11:00 a.m. I packed a small sling bag I'd bought a while back from Amazon with some odds and ends I wanted to play with after swim practice. I shoved in a phone, a 14mm Fuji lens, a Fuji XE3 with the 18-55mm lens on it, some extra batteries, an old Olympus 40mm f1.4 lens (with adapter), the house keys and some cash. I went into the house to check on Studio Dog, and Perfect Spouse, and then I headed over to the pool. 

On the way over the sun did indeed break through the clouds, the temperature lingered in the high 60's and it seemed like the most wonderful occasion to swim hard. Jane was on the deck coaching and we had a guest appearance by seven time all American, and 2012 Olympic 200 meter butterfly swimmer, Kathleen Hersey. Oh my God, she's so fast... My group knocked out about 3,000 yards and enjoyed every minute of the practice.

It's hard to imagine that the day could continue to be consistently that pleasant but.... I got out of the pool and pointed the VSL Subaru staff car toward Zach Theatre where I parked and then walked across the Pedestrian Bridge over Lady Bird Lake and into downtown. My immediate destination was Torchy's Tacos on Second St. One barbacoa taco with generous avocado, and one beef fajita taco with pico de gallo; both on corn tortillas. Nice lunch. So tasty. So casual. So filled with hipsters and west coasters.

I tossed my small sling-y backpack over my shoulder and carried the XE3 and zoom lens in my left hand as I meandered through the SXSW crowds and looked for interesting things to either photograph or at which to look. I wasn't very inspired by any one thing but I liked being in the center of all the activity. 

I had two goals for my walk today. One was to get in three to four miles of good walking, for additional exercise; and the other was to get a better feel for the XE3 as a lightweight and compact street shooting camera. In the end I got both.

During previous SXSW festivals the real draw, even from day one, was the music and it was followed by high technology showcases with start up companies like Twitter peddling their vapor ware to anyone who would listen. Those were the years of the dorky giveaways. Vibrating pens, odd sunglasses, memory sticks and just about anything a human could drink. This year has started out profoundly different. Netflix and Amazon are the big draws this year but not for e-commerce or technology, no, the draw now is their movie and television production. Their content. Their programming. And they seem to be disrupting that space in a big way. 

There is a show Amazon is pushing called, "The Good Omen." I have absolutely no idea what it's really about but it seems to revolve around satanic worship, the forces of good versus evil, and apparently features a contingent of evil nuns. One part of their promo was to build a giant set reminiscent of a Halloween haunted house and have people line up and go through it for entertainment (scare factor?). I didn't have a wrist band or badge so I couldn't go in and see the inner workings but they fielded a band of 20-30 women in nun outfits and had then strolling through the streets. Every once in a while they'd stop, coalesce and sing hymns; familiar melodies but with shocking lyrics. There was one "nun" in particular that caught my eye and pushed my photographer "buttons." I've photographed the nuns every time we cross paths and I try to mix my take with some images of the entire group but I find myself narrowing down my focus to just the one. 

You'll see below some of the permutations I tried over the course of several encounters. 

While I spent today with the XE3 camera and the "lesser" zoom lens I've been going down for long walks through SXSW for most of the week. Even swimmers need good amounts of load bearing exercise for good bone density and I love to walk through urban spaces....carrying cameras/gear is extra exercise.  On Sunday I walked around with a Panasonic G9, coupled with the 12-100mm lens. It worked very well and reminded me what it's like to shoot with a camera that has a decent battery life. Yesterday it was overcast and gray and I decided to take out a Fuji XH-1 and the much glorified 16-55mm f2.8 lens. Every day is something different. Some days I shoot raw. Some days I try to absolutely nail every photograph while shooting Jpegs. It's all good practice for something.

I made a big circle through downtown today and headed back across the bridge to my car. I headed home, grabbed a big glass of water and settled onto the couch in the living room for an hour of napping. Studio Dog always likes to supervise my naps so she burrowed in next to me and put all four paws on my body. She likes to be in contact. And that's all I remember until it was time for dinner.

A few observations. I am never productive (photographically) if I bring more than one camera and one lens; two at the most. No matter which lens I bring I'll wish I'd brought something else instead. So, if I take the lens I wish I'd brought to the next day's shoot I'll end up realizing I had it all wrong. 
I seem to be settling in on standard zooms. I figure if I can't get something with one of them there's probably nothing to get. Super long lenses are a cheat and generally mean that you lack the proverbial balls to get close enough and have some discomfort in the game. 

If your last battery runs down it's a sign that you are finished for the day. If your camera breaks it's probably a sign from the photo gods that you need to do something else right now. If you struggle with your camera menu while shooting out in the street you are either an Olympus user or someone who needs to spend more time getting acquainted with your camera. ( I swear that the Olympus menus rearrange themselves during periods of dormancy; just to befuddle their owners...

There's nothing precious about being out in the street shooting for fun. You don't need to "get" every shot. You don't need to push yourself to the front of a crowd to "get the shot." You can just go with the flow, have fun and appreciate the unexpected shots the universe hands out to you for free and with very little effort required on your part (unless you try too hard). 

Bring enough cash for coffee and tacos. If you are from the north it may be "bring enough cash for coffee and donuts." Whatever. 

For me the nuns made my trip to downtown worthwhile. It's just a strange and jarring sight to see a bunch of nuns in habits singing in the middle of Rainey Street, across from the Lulu Lemon pavilion and just next to the pop up venue for Canadian Cable Productions. I could have spent a day just following them and documenting their antics. And, if I had been in good form and not so lazy, I would have approached the actor/nun who caught my eye and enlisted her collaboration on some more portrait oriented images. 

But really, it's a week off for me and I'm resisting the urge to be ever productive. Sometimes it's good  to come home with just a few random images you enjoy and a sense of calmness and a general lack of desire.  That seems to be the secret to relaxing.
I think this cup might be expressing an extreme thought about coffee.
I'd rather drink decaf than....well... die. But I'd sure want to punch whoever
it was that actually slipped me the decaf.....

Girls dressed as aliens. Promoting some start up company. It's kind of sad. Like those people who twirl signs advertising cheap mattresses, standing at intersections near strip malls. There but for the grace of God, a college education, and something or other go I......

Ah. Center. My favorite "Satanic Sister." 

Well, that's what this photographer tends to do on his days off. Tomorrow I'll try something a bit different. I might even get out of town and head west. Maybe a wide open state park is the perfect balance to a week of downtown craziness.

A word to anyone thinking about buying a pass and attending SXSW this year. Don't. It's always much more lame than you imagine it will be. And really, a Platinum ticket/wrist band could buy you a darn nice new lens.......  But if you do come drop me an e-mail and we'll try to meet up for coffee. I know how to do that.

And Here We Are, Right Back in the Mix. Now, Where Were We? Oh Yes.... Photography.

I'm currently watching with interest as the photography world undergoes profound changes. The idea which I started kicking around a few years ago, the one about all the mainstream cameras having achieved an acceptable level of competence, seems to be cascading through the mainstream now and causing, well, stress.

Camera makers' sales are down by something like 50%;  bloggers and YouTubers seem to be falling like dominos and Instagram now looks pretty much like the Model Mayhem website, circa 2010... all half naked Russian and Ukrainian models with huge, Photoshopped eyes..

There is a stalwart group of "enthusiasts" who still talk about arcane things like: Prints. Film. Archival Storage, and the importance of doing things exactly as their heroes at Life Magazine, National Geographic and Sports Illustrated did back in the last century. It's the same cohort who believe that video capability is a waste of space and resources inside their nearly traditional cameras, and it's the same group that's waiting for the market to get back to normal. Also, Alec Soth has returned to harvest what he can from the remnants of the art photography market. I mark that down as a loss, having seen his work up close at the Humanities Research Center at UT.

Frankly, I'm bored. I'm bored reading about how to make a great archival print with XXXX inkjet printer. I'm sooooo bored reading about why we all need full frame cameras. I am bored watching morons rattle on and on about the camera of the week on YouTube. I'm bored with endless resolution and truncated vision.

What I am not bored about, not uninterested in, not running out of the room screaming from, is the act of photography. I don't really care which camera I take along with me and I don't really care that much about the lenses either; no, the real magic is now almost wholly encapsulated in the process. The naked process of being outside the office, house or studio and actively engaged in looking at things I find interesting and then photographing them.

I'm almost never looking forward to printing the images. I'm happy enough working with the images I like in Photoshop, or SnapSeed, or Preview, or any other piece of software to see just what I can wring out of the photographs for my own happy and selfish entertainment. If someone else likes the images then my ego gets a nice bump for a few minutes and then we all move on.

Photography has evolved for me from a measured activity with a bevy of end goals, such as making archival prints, mounting and framing said prints and then having a show to present them to a small subset of the public, into a sport or exercise. In my mind the taking of images now is more or less like reading novels or playing tennis. Except that there is a fun connection between seeing and then putting yourself in the right position to capture the image the way you thought you wanted to see it. There is also a self-competitive game/skill of trying to time things so that composition and gesture intersect with the moment.  At least this is how I now see my involvement as a photographic  hobbyist....

Of course, I routinely change hats and also do this for a living. I have done photography as an occupation (to the exclusion mostly of anything else) for nearly 32 years. Over the years I have come to the conclusion that there are two skills that must be mastered to be consistently successful in this business over time. The first is a tolerance of absolute uncertainty and ever impending financial chaos. The second is an ability to consider routine assignments as continually interesting and artistically worthwhile.

The second point does not mean that each work assignment, each rushed headshot of a chubby office clerk, photographed in front of yet another few yards of gray seamless paper, is filled with artistic (but largely unrealized) potential that only I can unlock. No. It means that even as I go through the almost robotic steps of setting up the background light, or tweaking the front light, or turning a bored and restless subject into the right light, I'm playing a certain narrative in my mind. I'm working with the camera and assimilating ever more data points about human nature, the way light plays across a forgettable face, popular culture, and I'm gathering up new experiences and new knowledge that, in one way or another, will be folded into the almost subconscious process of taking photographs just for myself at another time. Perhaps that makes me a cynical critic of our milieu.

I'm going to admit something that will make some VSL readers gasp with a sense of procedural betrayal while others will consider this no big deal. Or perhaps, normal. Here it is: Many, many times I go out with a camera and photograph throughout an afternoon or a day. Hundreds and hundreds of frames. I try new stuff. I stick my camera into the crowd. I pick out interesting faces. I look for patterns that make my little synapses fire. Then I come home and look through the images on a computer screen. And then I throw them all away, reformat the card(s) and never look back.

It was the process of being out in the world that I wanted. And continue to want. If I need the busy work of processing ever more images I can always walk across my office and pull any one of a hundred thousand or so negatives from their sleeves and work on stuff I've already got. There is nothing happening now that has more or less significance, in a wide view, than anything I photographed ten, twenty or thirty years ago. It's just an endless re-run of variations on the human condition.

For me it all comes down to process. To the exercise. To examining the world through a temporal filter that allows me to shoot now and consider later. I look and absorb whatever lesson it was that I needed to know and then I move on.

So, why do I even bother continuing to make images? It's not for the money; I think we have enough of that to last. It's not the adulation of an audience, because, other than the folks here (and my clients) I really have never worked to build an audience. No, I go out and photograph for me because I am fascinated by the human story. I don't need to preserve it but I feel compelled to see it. The camera gives me permission to be different than people engaged in other pursuits. I get to spend my time (work and play) observing people from all walks of life and trying to see and understand what makes them different and the same. And how social evolution is progressing.... or devolving.

So, to reiterate, I take photographs. I look at them. I divine in them something that is either interesting to me or profoundly uninteresting and then, once digested, I toss the electrons back into the ether and prepare myself for the next outing, girded with a tiny bit more perspective and knowledge than I had just before. Weird, right? But why does anyone really have a hobby like this?

I spent the last two afternoons walking around downtown Austin to soak up the ever changing cultural animal we know as SOUTH BY SOUTHWEST (SXSW), one of the world's biggest, most popular, and well attended, two week long gaming, music and cinema gatherings. But I'm not really interested in live music, I'm happy enough catching up on movies via Netflix, and I have little to no interest in gaming. I want to see what all these people look like. How they gesture. How they walk, How they talk. How they show affection. How they express outrage or happiness. How they dress. And how they all mix together in the urban cauldron. That's the real story. My images of it will be no better or worse than those of any one of the hundreds of  SXSW volunteers who trade their precious photographs for access to some of the venues. I come away with an ever changing understanding of people outside my age/wealth/professional demographic and it helps anchor me with a greater emotional understanding of how ..... everything.....works.

Since I've been gone for a number of weeks I've been working, and thinking about work, without tainting the appraisal with the desire to digest and reinterpret  the information for unknown readers. But I wanted to share one insightful day in which I learned something very, very valuable about portraiture. Business portraiture.

I was asked by a small but extremely well funded start-up company to come in and make portraits of four of their partners. All very successful.  The CEO is a about a decade older than me and the rest of the team is slightly older or younger than me. I was in my vacation mode so I bid the job as high as I wanted to. Money that looks good at my level being mostly inconsequential to them they booked me immediately.

When I initially talked to the marketing person about the job I was asked what my methodology was to get good rapport with my past subjects. I'm sure I was insouciant but I tossed out the idea that the best way to handle portraits of powerful people was never to let them walk into a session cold but to spend time with each person in a casual, one-on-one interview or conversation until such a time as we were comfortable with each other and felt safe and somehow connected. 

The marketing person asked me what that might look like. I suggested that with someone like a seasoned CEO it might look like sitting down and having coffee together and spending twenty uninterrupted minutes in real conversation. I wouldn't know a deep amount about my subject but we'd have some basic intersections to break down some barriers. People are most comfortable with people they perceive to be like them. Socially or culturally.

On the shoot day I spent a few hours setting up lights in several potential shooting locations and, once I felt comfortable with my photographic provisioning, I let the marketing person know. She brought me to the CEO's office where he and I shook hands and then mutually pursued the familiar process of placing each other within a ....hierarchy. We both had graduated from UT Austin. We both have lived here for a long time. We both remember the "golden age" of Austin when traffic was largely non-existent and one could buy a decent house for much less than a million dollars. Our kids attended the same schools and we live in the same zip code.

By the end of the conversation we had identified a whole list of commonalities that gave us both more to talk about than just "where should I stand?" "What should I do with my hands?"

If you get a great portrait of the CEO it's all an easy ride from there. After a successful session I told him that I'd also like to have him reserve some time at the very end of my shooting day (after the next three people) so we could do one more session in a second location. He asked me why.

Here was my response: "Okay. So I found out when we were talking that you were trained as an engineer and in my experience, even though our first shoot was great, you're bound to go back to your office and ruminate over all the ways you could have done better. All the ways I may have done better. You'll analyze it. It's the way we do stuff. So, if I give you to the end of the day to crunch on whatever data you're taking away from this session I'm betting you'll have more fun in the second session. You'll be more relaxed and we'll both have a more highly refined agenda. It should pay off in some really good portraits. If not, well, we've already got really good stuff in the bank."

He thought it was a great idea. I proceeded to do my conversations and sessions with the other three subjects and finally re-visited the CEO.

All the shoots that day were so different from those I've done where people walk in cold and on a short, grabby schedule. They were more relaxed. They took direction better. They were more patient. It showed in all the images.

I'm going to do a workshop (kidding) and teach the new Kirk Tuck Method. I'll start by teaching everyone to have coffee with their clients and to get to know them. We'll role play and ask each other, "what do you think made your company successful?" As my favorite sales guy said when I told him about this experience: the more quality time you spend getting to know what your client really needs the more likely you are to close the sale."

By extension, the more time you take to get to know your portrait client the more effective your collaboration will be.

Random news to catch you up from three weeks ago: 

Yes. I'm still swimming. Yes, I'm still drinking coffee. Yes, I'm still enjoying shooting for the theater. Yes, I still have the Panasonic cameras  and the Olympus Lenses. Yes, I still have a bunch of Fuji cameras and lenses.

I'm still acting as guardian and financial genius (I wish) for my dad. I've gotten his tax information into the hands of his CPA. Belinda has our financial info over to our CPA. We won't get a refund. We've never gotten a refund. We don't believe in giving zero interest loans to the government (no matter who is in charge).

We still live in West Austin and still love our house. Studio Dog got a Spring time hair cut and looks adorable. She'd blush if she could....

Stay tuned as we zero in on a new "normal" writing schedule. I told you I wasn't closing the blog....

Bacon, Vodka and Snooker. What do these three things have in common?

Added after the fact: The re-launch coincided absolutely perfectly with the 25,000,000th page view. A happy coincidence?


The Visual Science Lab hits its 4,000th Post. What a good time for a break.

Paris Metro. 1992.

Photography has changed profoundly since the inception of this blog in 2009. I've logged and blogged well over the actual 4,000 posts referenced here but a good many earlier ones were purged over time as they lost their relevance. I've typed millions of words, put up thousands and thousands of photographs and met, through the internet, many wonderful people. 

Lately, it's been harder and harder to decide what to write about. Most of the cogent points I meant to make over the years have been made; repeatedly. My plan to monetize the blog fell victim early on to my general resistance to mixing editorial content and advertising. Last month was the first month that the blog logged a negative fifty six cents for affiliate earnings....Thank you Amazon.

I'd like to think that I had something to teach about the nature of working as a photographer, or about lighting, or about the selection of tools but, in the first regard, there are so many kinds of photographic work and I'm really only focused on a tiny part of the market, and one that is fairly static. In the second regard, I have been so inconsistent about what cameras and lenses I use that I am hardly a reliable source of what YOU should be using to do YOUR work. As far as lighting goes I sometimes feel as though I'm showcasing a style of lighting (and portrait engagement) that's become more of a temporal sign post of past practices than any good learning curriculum about current styles and trends.

I am neither closing the existing blog nor abandoning my intention to come back and write more. It's just that I need to re-think what's left to write about that isn't covered more quickly and completely elsewhere. It's also necessary that I believe in, and enjoy, what I write about. 

I'll be back when I feel as though I have something to say but can hardly shake the feeling that photography as we knew it and practiced it has changed so profoundly that the Visual Science Lab is now, more or less, irrelevant. Most people now use phones to capture their day-to-day life. Instagram is a better place than a blog to show off new (and old) work. Video is the new mainstream imaging format. 
CGI and AI and a host of other technologies are already eroding the last of the market share for traditional photography, and cameras have become more or less boring. They are all good and all flawed. In the end, who cares?

I'll be back when I have a new body of work to share. I'll be back if I'm struck with new insights into the culture of photography. I'll be back when I have a burning desire to write about new work. 

In the mean time I always answer e-mail. The contact page on my website has an e-mail form. If you  just copy the address: Info@KirkTuck.com I'll never get the mail and it's set up that way to prevent spamming. Go to the website (www.kirktuck.com) and use the form. Click on the link and then leave your message. Then we'll be able communicate. 

If you want to see new images with brief captions it's easy enough to find me at Instagram: 

Thank you for reading, commenting and adding to the atmosphere here. I very much appreciated having an audience. Especially (for the most part) such a brilliant, wise and supportive one. 

All the best,  Kirk

added later: The article that started it all: https://www.photo.net/equipment/leica/m6.lgc

added much later: Sad. I keep circling back here, waiting for that rat bastard who writes all this stuff to get back to work. Then I realize it's my blog and I'm not quite ready yet... but it's frustrating all the same.... KT

A totally different image from yesterday's photo session with Lauren.

©2019 Kirk Tuck


Following through on my intention to make more portraits for myself; in my style.

This is one of the 312 images I took today of my friend, Lauren. She is a public relations specialist and we've worked together over the years to create content for mutual clients. She is also smart, warm, a big fan of Belinda's, and an exceptionally good mother of two young kids.

I sent her a text last week begging her to come back into the studio and be photographed. She scheduled it right away, but on the proviso that we have lunch first at one our favorite neighborhood  restaurants, Las Palomas. As equals in the collaborative creative process is it any wonder that we split the check?

After a stop in the house to say, "hi" to Belinda and her noble guardian, Studio Dog, we headed out to the studio where I had already set up the lighting I wanted to use. It was a 72 inch umbrella (white interior/black backing for spill eradication...) with a white diffuser over the front. I used an A/C powered mono-light as my main light and dialed it down far enough to get myself half way between f4.0 and f5.6 at ISO 200.

During the course of the hour long shoot&talk Lauren did a second costume change and I tried out three different lenses to see which one I preferred. It really doesn't matter which one I preferred because the photo I liked almost immediately came into existence in its own time; not when I had on the "perfect" lens.

The second light was a small, battery powered flash covered with diffusion and directed behind Lauren towards the background. I used a black card on her left (the right side of the frame) as subtractive lighting on her face and I used a silver fill card just in front of Lauren to bounce additional light up into her face.

While this is my favorite image so far (I really need to live with all of them for a few weeks before I can objectively choose a real favorite) there are dozens and dozens of wildly different expressions and gestures from which to choose.

I am generally happy with my post processing but the next time I touch the file I'll try adding a bit more midrange contrast to Lauren's face so it reads differently. You never know until you try a few iterations but it's important to play with a file as soon as possible so you can start realizing the potential of the shoot.

I was using an APS-C camera set up to shoot color Jpegs in a square format and I switched to black and white in Photoshop. Seeing the square in the camera was a wonderful way to work; especially if your final target is also a square. Right?

As I mentioned, I tried three different lenses. One was a 90mm but it put me a bit further from Lauren than I wanted. The second was a 60mm and that focal length was just right. This was from a 16-55mm f2.8 zoom lens and even at its longest focal length I feel it's just a tad short....or wide.

I'm making an effort to create new work instead of endlessly re-posting older work (even if I really love the old stuff). The image looks a bit flat here but when I punch in it's got so much detail everywhere. I'd hate to bump up the contrast too much and start losing detail in the highlights and shadows.

Anyway, that's what I did in the studio today. It was fun.

For my reserved, European readers, I'm going to try and make you comfortable by NOT telling you exactly what Lauren and I had for lunch today. I wouldn't want to over share. (smiley face emoticon implied...).

Added. A version with more midrange constrast.


Here is a much more modern example of my basic portrait lighting done with an APS-C format camera.

While this is not the same style as my previous post, I was more interested in the actual portrait and less interested evoking a "look" here, it is still the same basic lighting set up. One big light over to the left of frame, a soft transition to shadows and then shadows with less fill that many people like.

I'm less happy with the background; I wish it was less uniform in tone and more out of focus.

If I remember correctly this image was done with a conventional APS-C camera but with an adapted Hasselblad 80mm f2.0 F series lens. I should have turned the flash down a tad and opened up one more stop. It would also have been in keeping with my usual strategy to use brighter but less uniform light on the background. Live and learn. That's why we constantly practice.

But taken just as a portrait and not as an exercise in lighting I am very pleased with it. I think my friend, Lou, looks amazing.

We've been dancing around portrait lighting for a while so I thought it would be fun to dig in a little bit....

Portrait of Michelle.

In this portrait of Michelle I cheated by using the perfect lens and camera for portraiture, available at that time. It was a medium format film camera with 4X the surface area of a 35mm, or full frame sensor. The portrait was also done with one of my favorite portrait lenses available then; a 180mm Zeiss f4.0.

I say that I "cheated" because I feel there is a difference that is more than just equivalent f-stops between formats, and is more about focus ramping, and by that I mean that trying to match f-stops between formats is a bit simplistic and it's pretty much impossible to match how quickly focus will fall off between formats even if you normalize the relative difference between f-stops. The formula is more complicated than a simple re-sizing exercise.

But to my eyes part of the charm of this image (for me) is how beautifully and completely the wrinkled canvas (not muslin) background goes out of focus. But it's not a sudden thing; the transition, and that sudden fall off of focus is what I tend to see when people use fast lenses on smaller sized sensors (like full frame or APS-C) when trying to emulate a larger format look. In those shots there is a discernible and more abrupt loss of sharp zone while the bigger formats ramp more gracefully but more quickly from sharp to gone.

For this portrait I used a very large soft box. It was 4 x 6 feet and I always used it in a horizontal orientation and over to one side so the light had more ability to "wrap" further around the portrait subject. The larger light source was additionally softened with several layers of silk that floated in several inches in front of the front diffuser of the soft box.

I use my light modifiers in much closer proximity to my subjects than I have seen other photographer position theirs. The edge of the soft box closest to the camera is just out of frame by a hair. It's also a close to Michelle as I can possibly get it.

Here's a quick illustration:

It's important to me that the face be lit well and that the fall off between well lit skin tone and deep shadow be a gradual effect with no hard lines. I try to get all of the front surface of the light box, or as much as possible, above chin level with my subject so the light under her chin goes into soft shadow and reinforces the line of her chin; the demarcation.

If you look at the play of light across Michelle's face you won't see conventional fall off as delivered from the inverse square law because all of the lit portions of her face are nearly equidistant from the front of the light source. Instead I'm playing with the angle of the light to create a shadow to one side of her nose. You can see that there is no light fall of (diminished intensity) on the lit side, or the shadow side of her face, because in the triangle under her left eye (on the right of the frame) and to the left of her nose has the same tone as the skin on the other side. But the bigger light source is creating a smoother and much more gradual transition from normal skin tone to dark.

The biggest mistakes I see from other photographers who might want to emulate this style are to use too small a light source and/or to position it too far away from the subject which makes the shadow transition more abrupt because there is less light surface wrapping around.

You might also notice that I tend to photograph portraits with the camera as close to actual eye level as I can. This is for several reasons. Lighting people from above makes them seem weaker, subservient or shy and I don't want to overlay a look on someone that isn't commensurate with their nature. The second reason is that "unnatural" angles tend to amplify the forehead and reduce the size of a subject's chin, which I find unflattering. What I imagine for most of my portrait sitters is what they would look like if we were sitting in a Starbucks or a café and we were looking at each other across a small and comfortable table. I'm only 5 foot 8 inches tall so I don't usually tower over most of the people I shoot. But I feel strongly that eyes at the same level as camera is the most natural and intimate way one can photograph a portrait sitter.

You'll note that I have a black panel positioned on the opposite side of the subject from the main light. This keeps stray photons from bouncing off the ubiquitous white walls of modern civilization and bouncing back into the shadow areas to undermine my beloved shadows. You may call it subtractive fill but it's just there to block stray bounces.

On the other side, just behind and out of camera range and behind my subject, is another black card which keeps excessive light from the main light off the background. I don't always need a black card there if the distance from the foreground to the background is 20 or 30 feet away but the closer the main light is to the background the more I want to subdue light coming past Michelle and degrading the shadows that edge the background.

The background almost always gets its own light and it's usually a small soft box with a light head that matches the color temperature and flash duration ( I like long duration flash, actually) of the main light.
If I want more undulation in the background I use the background light at an angle to the background instead of straight in. If that's the case I might also use a net to even out the spread of the light from one side to the other. The shallow depth of field from using the correct portrait camera and lens takes care of smoothing out what would otherwise be distracting glitches in the background.

In the days of film I would generally have the shoulder closest to the light be a little lighter than the rest of the subject and that would require me to burn down the tones in the region under the enlarger in the darkroom. I think I did a decent job blending the tones in this image of Michelle. It works best if there is always some detail there to begin with. Burning detail-less highlights generally just looks like shit.

None of the things in the illustration are hot glued to the floor at the beginning of the session. We're moving stuff all the time.

Many years ago I posted a time lapse video of me shooting a portrait for advertising at Zach Theatre. There was a giant scrim, I lit with hot lights, and there was a big, passive file on the other side --- but pretty far away (I want those shadows). I needed some fill because the space we were shooting in had black walls! Anyway, the time lapse covered the time spent shooting one person. I could count 25 times, at least, when I stepped away from the camera and made adjustments to the lighting, to the fill, to the background light, etc. I guess what I'm saying is that portraiture, done the way I prefer, is not a passive process in which one only stands stationary and barks commands to a compliant model.

When I feel it's needed I get in front of the camera and even mimic to my sitter what I'm looking for. It's easier for people to SEE what you imagine than to try and explain it to them in hundreds and hundreds of words.

This is just the way I like to do portraits. You prints will vary.

distillation: big lights, big modifiers, get everything on the front side of the subject as close as possible. Keep the background as far away as possible. Control the highlight to mid-tone to shadow transitions as you see them aesthetically. There is no "ratio." There is no formula. We work on a clean slate for almost every shoot.


Portrait of Renee. A rumination about process.

I like making portraits of people that I find attractive. Often, well meaning friends will tell me, "You just have to photograph my friend Solange!!! She is so beautiful." Not wanting to disappoint my friends, and mostly being optimistic about the possibility that I'll discover someone so photogenic that I am just bowled over, I almost always invite my friends to act as model agency match-makers and to help make an initial connection between me and the portrait subject.

More often than not I'm disappointed and, honestly, the person on the other end of the lens ends up being a bit.....underwhelmed with my photographic capabilities. The problem usually isn't that the person isn't beautiful in some way, or that I've suddenly lost any technical or aesthetic skill I had only days or weeks before; no, the problem is that what I find to be interesting, attractive, captivating, alluring or just plain photogenic in people is generally different from the tastes or cultural perspectives of my friends.

Part of this is the disconnection between the way people, who are not interested or trained in photography, see the people in front of their eyes and the way a camera would see the same person. They tend to subconsciously minimize flaws that the camera can't ignore or they are captivated by some facet of the person that doesn't translate well visually. In many cases it's just a difference in what I'd like to see, specifically, in my portrait subjects and what my friends think would just be a generally attractive person.

I never want to hurt anyone's feelings so we generally set a date, try really hard to make good photographs and I'm happy if the sitter finds some good images that I can retouch for him or her to reward them for their time and effort even if the results are something I would never consider putting into my own collection. All I will have lost in most of these encounters is some time and, sometimes, even if the imaging doesn't work out or the results are inconclusive, etc. I make a good, new friend and we are able to connect well on topics that are removed from photography.

One of my friends here in Austin, back in the days when I rented a large studio in the east side of town, was a wonderful painter named Mercedes Peña. She had, for a while, been married to another great painter named, Amado Peña. Mercedes was every bit the classic artist. She kept her own chaotic schedule and had a house that was so colorful and vibrant that many people mistakenly believed it was some sort of contemporary art museum devoted to brilliant and intense color.

Part of our connection was the popular morning meeting point in the Clarksville neighborhood, a bakery called, Sweetish Hill Bakery. I had a revolving show on the walls of the bakery which included some of my favorite portrait work. Mostly people with their favorite pastries or their favorite coffee. Some were a bit naughty such as one image of my friend, Renae (not Renee above) who posed for a black and white image nude, holding pastries over her breasts.

Mercedes and a large group of our mutual friends would gather in the morning for coffee and the most excellent pastries and we'd dissect and argue/discuss the issues of the day. One warm Summer morning Mercedes mentioned a younger friend who she described as "very beautiful" and asked if I would interested in photographing her. I agreed and days or weeks later Renee came to my studio.

At the time we were working in about 2,000 square feet of live studio space and it was my practice to have at least two lighting setups that I was interested in trying out set up, metered and ready to go. I thought it was the height of bad manners not to be prepared; to waste the time of someone who was, in turn, sharing their time and energy. 

When we start a portrait session I like to place the person on a stool or chair in the middle of the light I've designed and to start a conversation. Nothing deep or serious, at least at first, but touching on what the person's interest in being photographed might be, what their preconceptions of a session are, what they like and dislike in portraits that have been made of them before. 

During this conversation, in which the subject is in the sweet spot of the lighting design, I'm also making adjustments to the lights and to the black scrims that I usually use to intensify shadows and mid-tone to highlight transitions. I watch how the light plays across the person's face and how they sit in relation to my camera (which is generally anchored to a tripod). At the time I was doing this portrait I was enamored of a style of lighting that used big soft sources as main lights but very little fill. I was excited about the potential of the shadows and the intersection between deep shadows and flesh tones.

I was looking for the light to create a triangle in the midst of shadow on her right cheek (on the left side of the image and I was looking for a catchlight in each eye. 

Most portrait sessions start with big smiles and lots of anticipation from the subject about what the photographer might want to see. I like to suggest early on that we do more serious looks. That squinch-y eyes and a toothy smile are not at all what I usually want to see. 

In some ways it was easier for me in the time of Polaroid test materials and film because when we struck gold in a pose or expression or gesture I could share it with the person I was photographing and we could extend the thing I liked about the action in different ways. Shooting in this more intimate style with digital means taking the camera off the tripod and walking it over to the subject to share the image on the back of the camera which then invites a look-see at any number of previous frames; some of which might be counter productive. Certainly, this kind of review breaks whatever spell the two of you have woven between each other and requires some retrenching and re-advancement. 

At a certain point both the photographer and sitter feel they've exhausted one lighting set up and it's time to move to another look. We might take a break to go outside for fresh air or have a glass of wine and talk about painting or whatever but we build up from scratch new energy in the fresh lighting set up. Almost every session like this is rife with trial and error. Which lens draws the subject the way you want it? Which expression is most in line with the photographers subconscious preconception. 

And all the while you are gauging the interest and attention of the sitter; hoping it doesn't wane as you clumsily zero in on the exact look and energy you were looking for. 

Portraiture can be a classic example of "I'll know what I like when I see it." It's almost always that way for me. I'll start with a lighting idea and a general idea of how I think someone would look best and then the subject will turn their head slightly and smile in a certain way that just hits the mark in a way I could not explain in words. Sometimes we get the shot in the moment but sometimes we have to acknowledge what I saw and work back towards it. 

At some point you've exhausted the possibilities of that day. That session. You probably pushed past it to the point that you are both ready to give up for now. But if the session worked and the images emerge in post that make you both smile it's almost a certainty that you'll want to work together again and see if you can push a new set of images in a more daring or experimental direction. If nothing worked then mostly you shake hands, thank each other and chalk it up to just another mystery of the universe. 

At least, that's how it works sometimes....


Mr. R--------- R------ suggested: "Might be fun if you wrote a piece on why it's better to stick with one system rather than trying them all. :)"

Should we all just buy a Sony RX10 IV and be done with it for life?

Well....sure; why not? But what if I don't really believe that?

Let's try.

Many of my friends believe that my inconsistency with camera systems is an offshoot of our conversion (decades ago) to digital camera from film cameras. Somehow there is the notion that I bought a set of Nikon lenses and bodies, Hasselblad lenses and bodies, and Leica lenses and bodies, and used these for the entirety of the film-centric part of my (excruciatingly) long career.

Well, no. I started with some Canon FD stuff and then got pissed when Canon pulled the FD mount rug out from under our feet so I gave Nikon a try. The Nikons were fine but I was bored. I tried the Contax cameras. They were good and I was mostly happy until several of them fell apart in my hands. The last film centered system I owned (God! Business was good back then!!!) was a complete Leica R8 system with a couple of cameras and a bushel of R series lenses.

In the medium format realm I bounced back and forth between the Rollei 6000 series cameras and the Hasselblads; at one time owning a fair amount of both. In my defense we were shooting assignments six days a week and it was pretty easily to become comfortable in a bi-system environment. Each system had its set of interesting features.

But the era of camera buying driven by perceived NEED only arrived with professional digital equipment. We started with Kodak DCS cameras but $16,000 per body was hardly a sustainable business model. Happily, the Kodaks used the Nikon AF lenses so the transition to the much less expensive D1X camera was less painful (and thousands and thousands of dollars cheaper). What led me to abandon the Kodak cameras, which had such promise and such great files when shooting at ISO 80? Well, it was probably the 80 shot battery life and the fact that all the early cameras absolutely sucked at anything over 80 ISO. The Nikons were demonstrably better.

I could regale you all day long with rationales for my hopping adventures through the various catalogs of Olympus, Canon, Nikon, Panasonic and now Fuji but I'll cut to the chase to please Mr. R-----.

With the advantage of 20/20 hindsight I should have stopped right here: Nikon D700 (the best digital Nikon ever made.....still) the 80-200mm f2.8 AF-D zoom lens (sorry, no I.S. but no issues with the focal length becoming shorter as one focuses closer as in the later 70-200mm lenses, and just as sharp. And paid for) supplemented by the Nikon 28-70mm f2.8. Yes, you read that correctly. Not the 24-70mm f2.8 but it's optically much better predecessor, the 28-70mm 2.8 which spanks all subsequent Nikon mid-range zooms for sharpness and a general look that is more detailed and confident than anything following it.

The widest lens I ever owned for the Nikon system was a manual focusing 20mm f2.8 that worked perfectly and had minimal geometric distortions even though it was not correctly by voodoo in the camera bodies. 

With this equipment I could have done pretty much any assignment that came up in the 10 years since. Many will bitch and moan about resolution but I'm almost certain that in most cases we could easily use interpolation software to increase the overall file size and implied resolution and no one would be the wiser. Toss the D700 raw files at the latest rev of Lightroom and maybe you'd get the same resolution as native 16-18 megapixel files. Plus, the camera just worked all the time and the batteries lasted forever.

Everything since has been like extra cup holders or rear seat entertainment systems for the kids. Fun to have; convenient, but totally unnecessary. I'd go so far to say that if you can't do a job with a D700 and the lenses I listed above (go ahead and add in the 55 macro lens, if needed) using professional, industry standard techniques, then I would say the problem is with the user and not the gear. Professional cyclists don't need training wheels to compete in road races either.

So, what would I have gained? I'd probably have saved (according to some quick glances at my yearly tax spread sheets) something like $40,000 over the past ten years. (This is based on depreciation, deductions and trade-ins). I would know this gear so well that we could always finish each other's sentences.

So, no real differences in job applications, money in the bank (which I would have had to pay income taxes on...), and the thrill of knowing, as I ventured further down the path of image making, that I never took the path less traveled...

If you are inherently a cheap son of a bitch and need to watch every penny I conjecture that you could buy whatever the current top of the line Canon Rebel and two, maybe three of the f2.8 zooms and use them to complete professional assignments for the next ten or fifteen years. You could also watch your diet and wear the same pants for the next fifteen years. Buy a Honda, Toyota or Subaru, do all  your scheduled maintenance and replace everything that naturally wears out and you could drive the same car for 20 years......the seats might be a bit frayed but you'd probably be used to your Spartan existence by then.

I'd rather not shoot with the same cameras forever. I like to try new stuff. I want to see if there's really a difference in dynamic range with new sensors. I like the live view of current mirrorless cameras. I like EVFs better than optical finders (oh! the Heresy!!! Burn him. He must be a witch) and I like being able to inveigle my clients into paying me more money for a bit of video programming on the side.

I'd rather look at the cost/benefit analysis of any purchase through the lens of total net worth; not just the absolute cost of a product or service taken totally out of context.

Gear does wear out. It does become (for a tech forward client base) obsolete. The rise of 4K video and the embrace of this programming by clients is a salient point in this case. There are tax advantages to deducting new gear. But most of all the new gear keeps the game interesting, fun and engaging.

Do I need a 90mm f2.0 and a 50-140mm f2.8? No. Is it fun to try different portraits with the two different lenses to see just how something looks when shot wide open at f2.0 instead of f2.8? Absolutely.

So, if a young photographer is dead broke, can't make the rent, just had his car reposed and his girlfriend finally kicked him out of her apartment then (contextually) buying a new lens (or pretty much anything other than food) is just flat out crazy.

But let's say you are a famous novelist/photography hobbyist with a track record of say....ten bestselling thrillers on the NYT Bestseller's List, you're pulling down a couple million dollars a year. You've paid off your house, you bought your last couple of Bentleys with cash. You've put so much money into your retirement accounts that they are starting to look like the entire yearly budget of a third world country. At what point is it "okay" to drop a few thousand extraneous dollars on a new camera? And even if you are one of the .01 % you are so frugal that you sell off your old camera for 75% of its value on E-bay? Is that okay? Does that make sense? Is that defensible?

I'm sure there are readers here that are watching their dollars carefully. I'm equally sure that a few of my readers could buy their own town to shoot in if they wanted to... The idea that there's a set rule of thumb that requires us to remain in a camera system for life is a concept that lies on a continuum and only makes sense within the restrictions of context.

I don't have a plane. I don't play golf. I no longer ski because I'd hate to have an injury that wipes out walking or swimming. I don't have a drug habit (again, interferes with the swimming). I don't buy exotic cars (unless you are unlucky enough in life to consider a Subaru Forester to be a luxe, exotic car) but I do know that I love to play with new cameras and, in fact, am one of the very few people in our culture who knows how to leverage cameras in order to make income. Should I believe that freezing my gear requirements in amber is a good idea? Not on your life. I point to the intangible benefit of: Joy.

Hell, all of you should get off your high horses and go buy two new cameras. One just for fun and one to thumb your nose at complacency and abject fear of loss.