6.03.2019

Fuji 90mm f2.0 lens seems to work pretty well.


The second lens I ever owned was a 135mm f2.8 Vivitar lens. It was a manual focus model made with a Canon FD mount. I used the crap out of that lens and I was amazed at some of the images I got with it. I took it along on a backpacking trip to Europe in 1978, along with my Canon TX SLR and spent the trip bouncing back and forth between the 135mm and my other (only other...) lens, a 50mm f1.8 FD lens. It was actually a great combo for me, the 135mm seemed like just the right focal length for so much stuff and that made the 50mm look, in comparison, like a wide angle. I never have really warmed up to anything wider than a 50mm on a full frame camera and I often wonder if that's because of my early experiences with the longer focal length...

When I bought into the Fuji X system I fooled myself for a while and pretended that I'd only buy and use three lenses, a wide to medium zoom, a 70-200mm equivalent zoom and a normal lens, like a 35mm f2.0 on that format. But, of course, all that fell by the wayside and I started ravaging my wallet for credit crumbs and buying lenses as though all the makers of cameras and lenses were going to cease production in the very near future. I wanted to be ready for the impending gear drought.

I hemmed and hawed about the 90mm f2.0 just because of its ruinous price. Then, one day I walked into Precision Camera to find that Fuji had certain lenses on sale and the 90mm was one of them. At $300 off it seemed like a bargain so I dusted off that last remaining credit card and bought one. I was slow to embrace it. I let it sit in a drawer for a few weeks before giving it a tentative audition. The results were good and I started including it in my regular kit, with every intention of using it for --- something.  I took it to some play rehearsals but it was always just the wrong focal length. A bit too long for groupings and a bit short for tight actor shots on stage. Dialing in a sweet spot for use of a focal length can be a tedious process after one has been dumbed down by the seeming fluidity of a zoom lens.

Finally, I was asked to shoot in conjunction with a TV commercial production at the theater and I once again packed the luxurious 90mm but I started to feel that I'd never find that "use window" that would justify my outlay for the product. I started the four hour shoot with the 16-55mm f2.8 lens but sometime in the middle of an action packed evening I reached into the Airport Security roller case and pulled out the 90mm. I attached it to an X-H1 body and set the aperture ring to f2.8, reputed to be the f-stop at which the lens reaches its highest level of optical performance. And I started clicking off carefully selected frames. 

The quad linear motors were fast and largely flawless. Working on a dark set with black all around people in small puddles of light the lens and camera combination rarely hunted and usually locked focus quickly and accurately. I started feeling the potential of the lens. At a 135-140mm equivalent the lens picks out details and single person shots with ease. I found that even after years of using zoom lenses as crutches I was still able to use my actual feet to move forward or backward as dictated by the constraints of my immovable frame.

If you are anything like me you operate with a vague feeling of uncertainty. You know that what you are shooting should be sharp and of high quality but you suffer from self-doubt. Am I getting anything good? Is it in focus? Is the lens/camera combination really sharp? Will I see the difference between a $1,000 prime and any number of under $100 "vintage" lenses when I get this stuff back to my computer. Have I been duped once again by a shiny sales pitch? A fact-y advertisement? Or is there real merit to this lens?

While I am still working my way towards the right frame of mind to provide the right frame of a frame for the 90mm I am finding more and more sharp and detailed images coming out of the shoots on which I press this long lens into service. It's nice. The stand off feels good. The ability to retreat a bit and frame things more graphically is wonderful and harkens back to everything I learned in early days. 

I'm now packing the 90mm in my bag no matter what the assignment or self-assignment. I'd like to think it a bit magical but I know that's the ads talking. The real magic just comes from my appreciation of the focal length and my relative ease at using it as opposed to lenses I actively dislike --- such as any 28mm equivalent. I am still startled by the cost because I am getting equally wonderful shots out of the 60mm f2.4 macro and I paid less than half as much for it. But then again, they are two different focal lengths and two different philosophical conversations. 

For me the happy thing was to get highly detailed shots of dancers. It made the lens feel like it was earning its keep. 

The pursuit of being unnoticeable while taking photographs at corporate events.

Author, Phil Klay, at the AT&T Conference Center at UT Austin. 
Keynote speaker for the Texas State Bar. 

To be successful as a freelance anything you need to let clients know you exist and you need to be able to artfully toot your own horn. Your goal is to get noticed in a good way; a way that leads to profitable work. But if your work is about getting good photographs at corporate events your goal at the event is to blend in and be such an integral part of the "landscape" that no one breaks stride to stop and grin at the camera. 

The photograph above was one of several hundred that I shot at a reception in the large courtyard. The event was a gathering of lawyers and philanthropists who came together to raise funds for legal assistance to veterans. In one evening the audience of about 300 contributed well over one million dollars to the charity.

The event organizers value photography as it is a lasting reminder of the event and, even more importantly, because donors can be send a physical object, a print, as a "thank you."  At a well run event the photographer should make as many candid images as possible that show the true nature of the event. The photograph above gives a good, quick view of this part of the event. No one is taking any notice of the photographer or the big camera with battery grip and ample lens, or the little flash that provides just a whiff of fill light. 

After the guests get used to the presence of the the photographer and then progress to ignoring him we can move on to get quick and natural  looking arrangements of people (usually around the keynote speaker) that clearly show faces. A quick posed shot with the keynote speaker is the perfect post event souvenir to send along. But I think it's important to spend time building up the indifference to your presence first. And you do that by being low key and continuing to take photographs.

How does one become invisible? It's pretty easy: you arrive before any of the guests so that you are already part of the landscape as people arrive and orient themselves. You dress the same as most of the people in attendance. You work quickly and with a minimum of fuss. Every movement you make should seem natural and automatic. Nothing should add friction to your presence in the crowd. You appear to be a guest with a camera. If someone looks at you and you'd prefer a candid shot of them interacting, just smile, nod and put your camera down until they return to their social interactions. When shooting posed groups (a must, in addition to a good collection of candids) work quickly and act as though this is the most natural thing in the world. Work with authority but always with a smile and always asking, "Please, could I get a quick shot of your group together?" Snap two quick frames as soon as everyone is looking to the camera and then smile, say, "Thank you." and move on.

If you are tasked with taking photographs during the keynote speech and during the other speeches that are an inevitable part of most corporate events there are key things you need to do (or not do) to keep from attracting attention. In a crowded ballroom with spotlights on the stage you'll want to make sure you are wearing a dark suit and a non-white shirt (mid tone or darker). Peoples' eyes are drawn to the brightest part of every scene; the darker your apparel the less you'll stick out. Don't stand up in the middle of the room and wait to take a shot. If I'm photographing a speaker and waiting for a particular moment I'll take a knee in one of the aisle areas so that I am not even as tall as the seated guests. I stand only when I need to, to get the shot. If you stand the whole time you are near the front of the ballroom you'll pull attention away from the speaker.  One of the worst things one can do is to use flash during anyone's speech or presentation. One flash changes the whole feeling of a room.

When you've shot enough images of the speaker to cover yourself then withdraw directly toward the back of the room, never side to side and never in front of the speaker. A good withdrawal is a bit of an art. Best done during a pause for applause or during the laughter following a well told joke. Head down, not making eye contact with people at their tables as you retreat. The idea being that all attention goes to the speaker. 

Photographs taken during speeches are, to me, the only really compelling reason to depend on high ISOs. I'll happily head to 3200 or even 6400, if I have to, to avoid ever having to use flash

The only time I use flash in a ballroom setting is when someone is being presented an award, a trophy or a gift. In those situations I balance the color temperature of the flash with the color temperature of the spotlights and use the flash as a fill in to reduce contrast and to create more flattering light on faces. This use of flash also helpful in making very sharp images for subsequent public relations photos. For the most part, during the speeches, the flash stays off my camera and in the right hand pocket of my suit coat. 

If you want to be less noticeable then don't attach yourself to any groups, don't linger in conversation and limit interactions to getting the photographs and moving on. It's not the time to polish your resumé or to network. By the same token, if the event is over at, say 9pm, get whatever team photographs the client wants in the aftermath and then leave immediately. There is always a contingent of guests and event staff who will stay for another round and nothing good ever happens after the keynote speaker and the V.I.P.s leave. 

One security professional whose job is to protect high profile people like CEO's once told me, "I make sure my principal is in his suite and locked down by 10pm. Nothing good ever happens after 10pm. After that hour you are just looking for trouble." 

Pack light. Move with purpose. Lead with a smile. Exit with a "Thank you" and make sure the impression you leave behind is only obvious and apparent to your happy client. 





Willow Hall. The windows.

©Kirk Tuck. 

5.31.2019

At one point in my career as an aspiring photographer/artist I was attracted to the process of hand tinting black and white photographs.


I photographed  this image in the Paris apartment of a friend's friend. My friend Penelope had been invited to have lunch with the father and daughter and she asked if I could come along. Penelope fired up her motorcycle, handed me a helmet and told me to "hop on the back and hold on tight." 

As we raced through wide streets my small camera bag swung from side to side behind me as I clung on for dear life. I survived, the lunch was pleasant, and I asked in my atrocious French if it would be okay to take a photograph or two. When I got back home and headed into the darkroom this one grabbed me right off the bat. 

I made a series of 16x20 inch prints and did some judicious and, I hope, restrained hand tinting with Marshall's Oil Colors and tightly rolled cotton.

I took the photograph with a Canon EOS-1 and the 85mm f1.2. It was the very original version of the lens which focused more slowly than any other autofocus lens I have ever used. It was a brutally expensive tool and not at all accommodating, mechanically, but I sure loved some of the images I got from it. Obviously, I did not use it wide open as the only thing that would have been in focus would have been the little girl's eyes. At f4.0 it was just right....

I sold the lens when I got home because life is too short to wait for a ponderous lens to get to its business. And at f4.0 I can think of any number of lenses that would have done just as nice a job. 

Lesson: some stuff is supposed to be super good. It's usually also super expensive. But if it doesn't work for you it's okay to kick it to the curb. 

No Comments on this one.



Always remember, whichever side of the political aisle you find yourself, that we the consumers pay for the tariffs. Not the Chinese or the Mexicans or the Germans. We do. The tariffs are paid on the imports by the American buyers and distributors. And passed on to the consumers.

Before you go off on the media be aware that Deutsche Bank is not a hot bed of liberals but the last bank with branches in the USA that would lend Donald Trump any money.

And remember that every single camera worth buying is made somewhere outside the USA...

What do you do when you've flown on an overnight flight and you get to your destination in the morning all jet-lagged? You go out and shoot.


I love to travel but I seem to be more prone to "arrival" jet lag than a lot of people. Even in my 20's I would arrive in an exciting city with one desire... find a hotel room and crash. Hard.

But if you do that your sleep pattern gets all screwed up and you wake up in the middle of the evening hungry and circadianly confused. It never worked well for me.

Now, when I travel, I make a point to dump my luggage at whatever hotel I've booked, grab my camera and a wad of cash, and head out the door to walk through my destination city and take photographs. I allow myself to sink into the flow of the streets like an old man lowering himself into a hot bath.

This image (above) was taken on one of my trips to Paris. I was traveling alone (yes, it is possible to take a shooting vacation solo, even if one is married, and I highly recommend doing so for photographers...) and hit Paris on a warm, Fall day. I was photographing at the time with Canon EOS film cameras (EOS 1n) and I was dragging along an 85mm f1.2, a 20-35mm f2.8 and a 50mm f1.4. All the cameras were loaded with Agfa film of one sort or another. My preference then was for the ISO 100 Agfapan APX but I also carried around rolls of ISO 400 as well. In a second camera body I was shooting Agfacolor Portrait film, a nice, ISO 160 film with a long tonal range and graced with the smoothest of gradients.

As I walked along one of the parks I passed by a large fountain and was amused to find people sleeping on the ground around it. In Texas one rarely sleeps on the ground for fear of ticks, scorpions, fleas and other critters. But Parisians are brave and hearty and omni-nap-ready.

I snapped a few frames and moved on but later something about the image sitting on one of hundreds of contact sheets from the trip caught my attention and I printed it large (16x20) to see why I was interested. I haven't gotten to any sort of final understanding but I"m still interested in the image. I recently put it up on the wall. Maybe it's just that it reminds me of how good it feels to take naps.

The shooting vacation was successful, did not impact my marriage, and helped me retain a certain wonderment and attraction to the process of making photographs. A "booster shot" as it were...

A Magazine called, New Texas, hired me to photograph a big game hunter. I'm not a fan of hunting; especially not "big game", but I enjoyed making the portrait.


The only challenge in making good environmental portraits is in gaining the willing complicity of the person you've been sent to document. Since I'm not a big fan of hunting any image I make of its practitioners is going to have some sort of subtext that questions the whole pursuit. While it may be too subtle to rise to most people's attention I made the image above as a caricature of a portrait hunter. A bit too serious and a bit too intense for a man sitting on a porch just outside a comfortable house in central Texas.

It was a different time in publishing when I made this image. We spent time. We had time. I set up a large soft box with a flash head powered by an 1200 watt second power pack. The box is just out of frame to the right and used close in. I didn't use any fill on the left side of the frame. I set up a Hasselblad camera on a tripod and made twelve shots with 120 film, using a 150mm f4.0 lens.

After souping the film in my darkroom I carefully printed the full square on a number of sheets of 8x10 resin coated paper until I narrowed in on the look and feel I wanted for the print. Then I translated the settings under the enlarger to print the photograph in a larger scale on 16 X 20 inch, fiber based paper. As was my practice in the day I made one print just a little light, one right on the money and one a bit darker. The reality was that paper "dried down" to a different density than what one saw in the developer or wash trays. The idea was to bracket what you saw in the soup so that one of the prints would, in its drying trajectory, hit the spot you wanted to see.

I was happy with the image after it dried (the lighter initial exposure worked best) so I made a point to print two more for myself. Sadly, magazines rarely returned black and white prints after use; I wanted to make sure I had a good copy.

Could I have done this digitally? Of course, but it was the work itself that had merit for me. The whole process is what sharpens the vision, not just the outcome.


5.30.2019

A Few Environmental Portraits I Did for a Client Last Fall.

Up on the side of a mountain in Virginia.
November and freezing cold. A sleet storm just firing up.
A slick, one lane road in the middle of no where, starting to ice up and 
me trying to get good portraits and still make a flight at an airport 
three hours away.....

I did a lot of domestic travel last Fall. All of it for work. Very few of the photographs were made in big cities, near airports, near nice restaurants; hell, most weren't anywhere near a wall plug or a decent hotel. But it was fun nonetheless. Problem solving on the fly. 

The photographs just above and just below were done at about 7500 feet of elevation in weather that was starting to turn nasty. I'd hit the airport in Charlotte, NC about three and a half hours before, grabbed a Camry rental car and hauled ass up the through the Smokey Mountains. I needed to met up with a large crew of people who were stringing high voltage transmission wires through the mountains. 

Thank goodness for cellphones and GPS. I just made our rendezvous and followed a crew up the side of a mountain at the end of a small caravan of white, crew cab, pick-up trucks. When we got to the near the top I started scouting for a good location. I knew the client, back in Knoxville, would want to see some "product" in the background so I found a spot that showed transmission lines and pylons going off into the distance. By the time we got organized it was sleeting. We found a window screen in frame in the bed of one of the trucks and used it to keep sleet from hitting the portrait subject's face. I put my Godox flashes in a plastic bag, on top of a light stand and the guys who were waiting to be photographed took turns holding the light stand so it wouldn't get blown off the side of a cliff. 

The wind picked up and the temperatures were dropping into the 20's. Somehow we got everyone just before the crew chief got a call that a potential blizzard might be cutting through the passes. He took one look at my rental car and advised me to make a quick retreat if I was going to have a chance at making my next connection back in Charlotte. I headed back another three and half hours watching the gray get darker and darker in my rear view mirror.


Sometimes luck is with you and you stumble into an idyllic setting just about the same time you also have twelve guys who need to be photographed. That was the case when I was photographing the construction leads in a remote location in North Carolina. We were on the site of a dam project which required a bit of travel on unmarked, unpaved roads. We drove through some pretty countryside and the into an open spot when we descended into a scene that was just gorgeous. A lake, with mountains in the background and a bridge out to the middle of the lake. 

I took advantage of the early morning light, a small flash and a Panasonic G9 with a Panasonic/Leica 12-60mm lens to create the two images just below. At first I cropped lighter since that's become, more or less, a style with me. I generally like tight portrait compositions better than loose ones. But as I played around with composition in this setting I just had more and more desire to go wide and to really see the space. 



The two shots just below were in the same location but I had a different reaction. I changed angles in case the images were used at some time in the same publication but I never liked the tall grass in the frame. I finally went with a tight crop and it seemed just right to me. Same G9 and Pana/Leica 12-60mm. 



The image just below was taken on a steaming hot Summer days just outside the Florida Everglades. Again, we wanted to show "product" along with our portrait so we found a suitable location which showed transmission lines going off into infinity. I moved my portrait subject into the shadow of some thick trees to block direct sunlight and then came back in a created a main light with a Godox AD200 flash in a white 20 by 30 inch softbox set over to toward the left of the frame. I tried lower shots, tighter shots and more dramatically lit shots but this one, for me, captured the space, the outdoors-ness of location and the serious look of my guy. If you judiciously fill portraits and balance them with sun drenched backgrounds you are, in fact, increasing your dynamic range. I love it.



Some locations aren't glamorous and all you can do is channel your inner "Annie Leibovitz" and use a bit soft flash to creat a nice key to separate your subject from a so-so background. Again, I used the Godox AD200 flash blasting into a bigger soft box and the exposures were set to match with a small priority (1/2 stop?) given to the subject on the left. And then I got back in the car and headed back to the airport for the next leg of the adventure.

On all these trips I had three parameters to work within. I would need strong enough flash to overcome direct sun. I would need to use a diffuser to kill the contrast that would have been created with direct sun in the photos. I would need to be able to handle all the associated gear; getting it through airports and on and off shuttle buses, and into rental cars working completely solo. I chose two Godox AD200 flashes. One to use and one for back-up (which I did end up having to use...). Three light stands (one for the main light, one for the diffuser, one in case I needed a bit of back light, and one to hold the round diffuser over the top of my subject's heads in order to block direct sun. The lights, stands and my clothes (with a winter coat) all packed into a long Manfrotto roller case. My two Panasonic G9s, an assortment of batteries, radio triggers for the lights, and three lenses (8-18mm, Panasonic/Leica 12-60mm and the Olympus 12-100mm) all fit into a small, Think Tank backpack. One checked bag and one carry on bag. It couldn't be simpler.

I love shooting outside. It's always a challenge and I always like the play between almost out of focus backgrounds and the main subject. I'd hate for the gear to slow me down.

Odd contraptions that make handholding heavy cameras easier. Made for Video. Usable on Photography Cameras?

A production photograph from a video shoot at Zach Theatre. Videographer, Jake Fordyce, (center) is shooting with a rigged out Sony FS-5 (extra heavy duty batteries, follow focus gear, and an Atomos monitor) which is...weighty. The thing strapped to his back makes a four or five hour shoot bearable...

Those video guys are pretty ingenious. The device being used by the camera operator (above) is called an, Easy-Rig. It's a backpack with support belt and extra strength connections which support the strong metal bar you see running up over his head and ending up above his head and about a foot in front of him. At the front termination of the bar is a cable (capable of adjusting closer or further from Jake's face) that reaches down and supports the weight of the camera and its accessories. This adds a lot of stability to the handheld camera and keeps the operator from having to support all the weight with his arms. I watched Jake work with the Easy-Rig and it seems like the right compromise for a lot of shooting. It's more controllable than most gimbals and seems to require less experience to use. I can also be used in conjunction with in lens or in body image stabilization. At the same time the Easy-Rig allows more fluid movement than any tripod or monopod.

I've been playing around with gimbals for video and find them fussy and hard to control. I'm a much bigger fan of "dumb" shoulder mounts, monopods (with or without feet) and, of course, tripods. But I wonder if some enterprising company might realize that sports photographers, and some other specialist photographers, spend a lot of time holding heavy gear up in front of their faces in a handheld fashion and might benefit from a device that suspends the camera right in front of them while supporting the weight of the camera and lens with a system that transfers that weight to the hips and body's core.

I'm sure it would look a bit "dorky" for photographers but if it worked to make camera handling more comfortable and at the same time more stable I'm sure a fair number would give it a try; especially those who frequently work on sets and in other controlled environments. Yeah. I think it would be embarrassing to see a street photographer in one of these rigs but it might be just what the doctor ordered for a guy shooting a football game with a 300mm f2.8 and a big-ass camera body...

Blog notes: 

I want to thank everyone who wrote to offer condolences and other good thoughts in connection with the recent passing of my father. I enjoyed reading them all. It made a difference to me that you all cared enough to write and share.

I've been busy since I wrote that post about my father; I've made funeral arrangements, closed out accounts, cleaned out his room at the memory care facility (with the help of my older brother...) and have had two phone conferences with my family law attorneys. I've pretty much done all I can do for right now since just about everything surrounding the disposition of his estate requires either/and/or a death certificate and letters testamentary.

For the first time in at least two years I feel unconstrained by the familial responsibility to be "on call" and also to not venture away from contact and proximity for more than a work week at a time. I can now check in with my close "nuclear" family and then head out for a road trip or a flight to someplace more exotic than Austin, and spend time both in transit and away from home. It's odd to feel the weight of "availability" lift off one's shoulders.

Many have written about their grief. I rarely hear anyone say (out loud) that a family member's passing is accompanied also by a sense of relief. Relief from the schedule restrictions and restraints, yes, but also a relief from the long term and incremental drip of grief and sadness that must accompany anyone sharing a loved one's accelerating mental and physical decline. And one understands, on some level, that the person "departing" is also enjoying a sense of relief. In a moment all responsibility is removed, all expectations evaporate and someone else picks up where they left off.

While we photographers are sometimes the record keepers and curators of our families, by dint of creating and housing a visual archive, I think it's important not become a museum curator for your parent's memory since that pushes you to constantly live in and re-live the past. While the photos are bittersweet reminders of people who have gone ahead of you it's important to remember that all of these things that happened to you and your family are now in the past and your life is best lived in the moment in this day with an eye to the future; and a plan to make your every day from now forward count. No parent would want their child moored to one spot in the continuum instead of constantly experiencing the joys of life right now.

It's been an interesting experience for me, to be there for my father. But while many have suggested I somehow sacrificed a bit I would say that just as children teach us patience and kindness the elders teach us the value of this life. This moment.

Walk out the door and live. It's our best gift to and from ourselves.