2.16.2020

Looking ahead. Photography settles back into a fathomable groove.


We're only human. I'm only human. We tend to look at information coming in from all sides and then...panic. Over the course of the last year I've read that many bloggers have seen their readership and incomes drop precipitously over the last few years. I've read over and over again that interchangeable lens camera sales are plunging ever lower. I read that everyone (meaning potential clients) is more than happy enough with photographs that spring from the latest iPhones. I hear from photographers (about whose marketing and skill sets I know very little) announce that all commissioned work is drying up and Armageddon is approaching our industry like a cyclone bomb of economic doom.

What's a person trying to reconcile data points to do?

I'm falling back on anecdotal evidence. Business in my little geographic niche seems to have picked up quite well after the holidays and future dates are being booked for events and advertising projects. Local friends are back at work after a lackluster Fall season.

I have a suspicion that a partial explanation for the business wobbles has to do with the nature of advertising and marketing. It seems that everyone wants to get advertising for free. Photographers seem to think that exposure on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter is all that's required to grow a business and generate queries that lead to jobs. For many social media is their total marketing strategy.

Being older, and old school, I have a different point of view. While I think one needs to select social media that is appropriate for them (and constantly test it) it's business suicide to abandon all the traditional media. Targeted traditional media has a strong place in the overall combination of customer facing communications and the fact is that businesses still need to spend money for physical direct mail and placed advertising to be successful in regional and smaller markets.

Why?

"Free" social media is saturated. Amazingly oversaturated. There are millions (billions) of people vying for attention across the platforms and even if one builds an impressive list of followers (quantity) the eyes on your material are not necessarily the target market that wants to buy any photography at all (quality). They may visit a platform like Instagram just to see what other people are producing and how it stacks up to their own work. They may be there for entertainment but a tiny, tiny percentage of them are qualified buyers of creative content.

I write this blog (God only knows why.....) and it's been up for over ten years. It's got thousands of posts to read and at least ten thousand images to look through, but I can quickly point out that no client or client type has ever landed on the blog site, evaluated the work, and proffered either a job or even a chance to bid. No, the constituency I seem to be writing for is other photographers. Competitors, hobbyists, enthusiasts and, of course, the trolls. By the logic of the web, with tens of millions of page views and high Google recognition numbers, I should at least be rolling in job offers or invitations to submit bids. The reality is that what I gain is an audience of peers who, if anything, are absolutely the worst potential customers for the actual work we produce = original photography.

100 written blog posts generate fewer inquiries and action than one, single, direct mailing of a great postcard to 250 targeted, potential and existing clients. Pretty amazing.

I've learned a lot about the real buying habits of the customers I am interested in because I have friends and former co-workers in the advertising industry, and also the corporate event industry. I'm also lucky to have two family members who are well versed in advertising and public relations by dint of having worked for large agencies. From all the conversations I have with friends and family concerning how agencies and corporations use photography and video I've been able to see a "real world" pattern that's different from the assumptions that bounce and echo around the web.

While very young advertising people at very big agencies in several really big cities might spend part of their days surfing through sites like Instagram searching for new talent I was surprised to hear that in the "real world" of advertising, with it's fast paced production schedules and shorter and shorter deadlines, the folks who work at agencies servicing international technology companies are focused on finding "rights managed" stock photography on one of three or four venerable stock agency sites. Rights managed images give the client company a bit of control so the images used in marketing don't show up at trade shows, or run in advertising campaigns that use the same images as their competitors, in the same time frame.

Word on the street is that art buyers and art directors find new photographers from a small subset of photographers who happen to be proactive; who reach out to targeted art buyers and show samples: self-published magazines of images, collections of targeted post cards, etc. Or even enticing e-mail promotions that direct buyers to creative websites, curated with images that target specific industries.

After direct contacts with these art buyers the creative (and marketing savvy) photographers might then garner the art buyers as new followers on sites like Instagram but it would take sheer luck to have an art buyer hit a random creative spirit by chance. Another route to the intersection of a photographer's work and an art buyer on the web is a link provided as a recommendation from one of the art buyer's trusted friends or co-workers.

When Instagram was nascent and posts were less overwhelming in sheer numbers it's possible that some standout people really did get discovered that way which probably led to the groupthink that now permeates the very idea of social marketing but that changed when image postings went from millions to billions. A corollary thought is: How many inhabited planets have we discovered in our galaxy from the billions of planets out there...?

While an active Instagram (or other) account is a net good thing it's probably a lot more valuable as a place to share new work with people you are already acquainted with than as a forward operating base for attracting new and qualified potential clients. It's not the totality of good marketing, just a smaller adjunct of a larger marketing plan. You need more focused vehicles that drive people to these "free" repositories of your work.

It's the same as it was in the 1970's, 1980's, 1990's and the earlier 2000's; what works to drive businesses forward is a mix of advertising materials that all make contributions to an overall strategy. For photographers it can be as easy as highly targeted post cards that are the initial opening gambit. Even mega-super tech companies like Apple and Dell still depend on print advertising, traditional television, and direct mail for a large segment of their marketing. And, if the traditional media didn't pull as well as their percentage of the overall spend, you can rest assured that the experts in data analysis at each of the companies would pull the dollars from those budgets and immediately put them somewhere else.

I hate to say it but you need to think like a major consumer tech company such as Apple to maximize your outreach to potential buyers. You target the customers with needs that correspond to the features of your products, invite them to investigate, make compelling ads, commercials and direct mail. Bring them into your advertising ecosystem and then work to keep their interest. Only when they have "discovered you" through your hard work in trad. media will the free social media because viable.

When I go through periods in which I'm indifferent to the prospect of work I tend to shy away from spending real $$$ on critical ad stuff and convince myself that a daily post on Instagram, a brilliantly conceived and written blog post, and some sharing on LinkedIn is all it's going to take to get the work pouring in. When it doesn't I, like everyone else, start to blame the horrifying decline of our wonderful industry. But strangely, when I go back to the tenets of traditional marketing (an organic mix of media) the work seems to crawl right back up to at least the baseline we've become comfortable with.

When I am amazingly motivated; enough to go out to some advertising happy hour functions and meet new people face to face, I am immediately struck at how effectively I can promote my work to a new cohort of potential clients. Beats the hell out of getting a few dozen "likes" for my photo of my lunch on Instagram.

A reminder that there really is NO FREE LUNCH to be had. You have to work for your clients---if you want to work for your clients. (See what I did in that last sentence? Cute huh?).

Hope you are having a nice, warm, happy, sunny Sunday out there. It's a beautiful day here in Austin.



2.14.2020

Happy Valentine's Day to Everyone. Hope you give as good as you get. Hope you are all in love with someone.

True Romance. Brock's Books. San Antonio, Texas.


I photographed this at least 30 years ago with a rickety old Nikon camera and a very well used 28mm f3.5 lens. Oh, and some Ektachrome 100. I've posted it every year on Valentine's Day, just for fun. 

My wife has a print of it hanging in her home office. 

What is there in life worth living for than some sort of true romance?

2.13.2020

Ever set time aside to take jaunt through your own photographs? I like to do so when I'm working on a new style, a new project or a new book of images.

Determined young swimmer at a swim meet.
Belinda in Verona.

The USMS Short Course Nationals. Austin, Texas. 2007.

Same as above. 



Alanis Morrisette, in concert in Austin, Texas
Leica M3+50mm Summicron.


An old favorite camera; consigned to history, coupled with an 85mm Cine lens.
A camera from that too short era when Sony made really fun cameras.
You know, before they made crappy cameras with good sensors inside.

Heidi patiently posing for book #2.
Minimalist Guide to Studio Lighting.

Studio Dog in repose. On green screen.

from an earlier "Janis" play.

also from an earlier "Janis" play. 
Jet Age.

S. Korean Photographer in a Chinese restaurant in Berlin, Germany. 

End of day bike commute. 

the formative camera for B. Just right for her...OM1

Ben looks into the 35mm Summicron on an M6.
At Asti Trattoria in Austin, Texas.

Kirk working the Samsung booth at Photo Expo, NYC, in 2013.

The Sigma fp was not my first rodeo with a "finder only" camera. 
Do you recognize the Pentax K-01?
It was actually a very good picture taking machine....



Austin Children's Museum. Hands on. All the time.

What last week's academy award winner looked like in 1991....
And below. 



Jenny.
Bad Cappuccino. 

Young Genius at work. His own early workstation in his father's office. 
Never too early to start them on bad work habits. 

Lou. One of my favorite magazine covers.

A freezing afternoon in Paris.

lecturing to a small group of photographers at UT Austin.

B. Person with whom I have celebrated the last 40 Valentine's Days.

Shooting Samsung. One of the few photographers in the world to own 
a Samsung Galaxy NX camera....
Out on the back porch.


Noellia on the banks of Barton Springs.

Jana, on our "get to know you" photo shoot. 
She's the face of my LED Lighting book. 

Michelle looking fabulously elegant.

The opening of Zach's Topfer Theatre.
Meredith McCall.

2.12.2020

Favorite camera ever?


A commenter named, Ray, asked me if there were cameras I regretted buying. I responded, honestly, that I never (rarely) regret having bought a camera but I do regret selling a few of them. When I look back at some of the images I was able to take with the Sonya99 I wince just a little about letting it go. 

But rather than focus on regrets I feel like celebrating the cameras I've had that I really liked. I'll keep it to digital otherwise we'd be here all day.

My top ten: 

Kodak DCS760. Nothing above ISO 100 please; and if possible let's keep it at ISO 80...but the colors (see above). 

Nikon D610.

Nikon D700.

Panasonic G9.

Olympus E-1.

Fuji XH-1.

Sony R-1.

Sony RX10-3.

Canon 5Dmk2.

Sony Nex-7.

If you want to play along let me know your favorite digital cameras in the comments. It was actually a fun exercise for me trying to nail down not which cameras were the absolute best from a technical point of view rather, the ones I had the most fun shooting and got the best results from because they were friendly enough and competent.

Thanks!

2.11.2020

I don't know why I ever, ever take reviews on the web seriously. And yes, I do get the irony of writing that here. I'd like to address C-AF and the Lumix S1 camera.


Lou. ©Kirk Tuck.

I've read and heard over and over again that the Lumix S1 camera is "flawed" because it just isn't competitive with XXX or YYY camera when it comes to continuous focusing or face detection focusing when used for video. I almost believed it because, as in politics, a lie told over and over again starts to become "true." There is a story in the photo and video marketplace that says Sony rules the continuous autofocus performance race in video. The other prevailing story is how awful the Panasonic Lumix S1 is in the same contest. I've used various Sony cameras for video and experienced foreground and background pulsing as the camera changes focus quickly, over and over again. I've also experienced my share of low light hunting with them. In fairness the last model I used was the A7Rii but it did use PD AF....

Well. Maybe I just got the only good Lumix S1 sold in north America but my experiences yesterday confirm to me that the consensus on the web is unmitigated, mindless, fabrication or out and out laziness. Let me explain...

When I bought the two S1 cameras I shoot with I decided not to care whether or not the camera was a quick and accurate focusing machine for video. Most of the video I've done over the years (about 90% of it) has been done in manual focus for one reason or another. I learned to shoot motion stuff with my own Bolex Rex 5, 16mm film movie camera and its lovely companion, the Angenieux 12-120mm zoom lens. There was absolutely no way to shoot that rig in any other way but manually. And the small and gritty finder one used to attain sharp focus was no great shakes so one really had to be on their game to nail sharp focus. Moving subjects? One did a rehearsal with the subject of the film and marked different "focus marks" at different critical distances on the lens barrel. When the subject moved from one mark to the next the camera operator moved the lens from one focus mark to another. It worked. 100 years of Hollywood film production serve to prove the process works. 

I tried the autofocus on the Lumix for regular photography and found it to be very good for the way I operate. Yes, there's some wobble if you use C-AF and a faster frame rate but the focus itself has always worked fine for me. But until yesterday I never tried using the C-AF or the eye detect AF with video production. And, having read the usual incorrect and overblown crap on various websites (big and small) I thought I'd be giving it a try and quickly retreating to the proven MF methods I've learned. 

First, let me tell you the context. 

I was asked by the folks at our regional theatre, Zach Theatre, to help them promote a very good, one person production of "Every Brilliant Thing." It's a play about a boy who tries to help his depressed mother by creating a list of all the things that make life wonderful and worth living. I'm assuming from the title that the playwright is British... 

The marketing team decided that it would be a fun bit of social media advertising to create a video, or a series of short videos, asking random people around Austin, Texas: What makes them happy? What makes their day special? What small pleasures make life extra good for them? What are their favorite things? 

We'd be moving quickly and carrying all my gear along with us. We'd go from office to office, and from exterior location to exterior location, without any crew. No DP, no grips, no sound guy, no production assistant to fetch coffee and take notes, no make-up person to slow down our process. And no pre-casting; we depended on our charming personalities to enlist total strangers to our cause. And it worked!

But, that brings me to the reason I tried out the continuous AF in the video mode for this project. I had the camera on a Benro monopod, with an S6 video head. I was using the Lumix S1 camera along with the DMW-XX audio interface so I could use physical knobs to control audio levels. We used a reporter microphone which our marketing director wielded and I had a very small, Aputure LED light in the cold show of the audio interface unit. I was trying to juggle maintaining good composition and good audio in fairly close-up shots and I thought that if I could outsource the task of focusing to the camera it would be a lot easier for me to get everything else right too.

Our first shot was done outside on a very overcast day that came complete with flurries of rain and bits of wind. I put the camera in face detect AF mode and composed my shot. I used the touch screen to touch the face of the person on the screen so the AF would know where I wanted to start. The little yellow boxes leaped into action, found my subject's eyes and locked in like a dog with stolen bacon.

The first interviewee moved forward and backward and from side to side. The background was lighter than the subject. The camera wasn't rock steady (intentional) but the take away from this first test was that the camera never lost focus, never hunted and never pulsed between foreground and background. There was no focus jitter and no sense that the camera was compulsively refocusing in any unwanted way. In fact, it was focusing exactly the same way an experienced focus puller would have performed the same task only the camera was smoother. Emboldened by our first success I kept using the video AF for the next two hours. We interviewed 38 people and did something like 55 clips. I've examined each clip in Final Cut Pro X, on an iMac Pro 5K screen, and in each clip the eyelashes of my subjects are crisp and perfectly defined. 

At first I thought that the good performance of the C-AF in video was just because we started outside and the light was bright enough to be using ISO 200 with a 180 degree shutter (1/60th) at 30fps with a f4.0 aperture. I thought, given all the horrendous misinformation on the web, that when we headed into the darker offices of the next interviewees we'd selected the much lower light would cause the autofocus to hunt and peck like a starving chicken. 

One of the locations we shot video in was an office with minimal lighting and closed window blinds. To maintain the same video exposure triangle I outlined above I had to raise the ISO to 6400 (which is actually not a big deal with the S1 as it's a pretty clean ISO for video...).  The camera and lens showed the same smooth tenacity in focusing as they had in ISO 200 quality lighting. 

When we headed to the pedestrian bridge to downtown to recruit new subjects I looked a bit comical as I trailed along behind the marketing director and the social media expert with my rig nestled on top of a stout monopod. I had headphones around my neck as we walked over to the next location and I kept the reporter style microphone in my back pocket. I didn't want to disconnect stuff since we had a bit of mist to contend with from time to time but I also didn't want the marketing director to carry the mic in case she got distracted and inadvertently tested the length of the XLR cable. And the structural integrity of the cable to audio interface connection.

So now I'm curious where the other reviewers of this gear get their results. Do they actually put a lens on the camera and point it at something or do they just parrot what the guy before them said in his basement vlog? I think it's embarrassing for the industry and ruins the overall credibility of camera reviews. 

In addition to rock solid interview autofocus I have to say that the footage directly out of camera, with no color grading and no processing, is wonderful. We shot 1080p since the final use of the content will be on social media and will, overwhelmingly, be enjoyed on much smaller screens that the ones we're editing on. With the paid video upgrade for the S1 I was able to make video at 1080p that was both 10 bit and 4:2:2 color space. It's a bit rate of 100 mbps. I think it looks beautiful. Just beautiful. 

Here's a short clip:


Zach Interviews from Kirk Tuck on Vimeo.

If I could change anything in our very impromptu interview it would have been to add more front light so I could bring down the sky exposure. With that said my waveform tells me we're not burning out highlight detail. I guess I could reduce the highlights and increase the shadows but that might mess with the overall skin tone. It's always a compromise; either shadows and highlights or access versus production time. At least I know I chose the right camera for the job.

2.10.2020

Packing for a "Person in the street" video assignment.

I'm going out today to do some impromptu video snippets to support a new play at Zach Theatre; "Every Brilliant Thing."  We're a crew of three; the marketing director, who will ask random people on the street questions about joyous things in life, her in-house social media manager (and aspiring videographer) and myself. I'm bringing the gear and running the camera.

I've packed a Lumix S1 with its 24-105mm f4.0 lens, the XLR microphone accessory, some XLR cables in various lengths, and a Rode Reporter microphone. Why not lavaliere mics? Why not a shotgun mic?

My choice of camera is easy to explain: it's the best video/hybrid camera I have in stock and the upgraded video performance from the paid unlock gives me a nice 1080p choice with 10 bits and 4:2:2 color. It's an All-I codec so it won't stress the social media manager's computer as he pummels the footage into shape in Adobe Premiere.

The lens choice is straightforward; it's a very nice, sharp lens with a wide range of focal lengths and a very good dose of image stabilization built-in. The lens I.S. also works with the I.S. in the camera body for extra stabilization. The combination of I.S. features makes the camera (almost) like a gimbal with no gimbal. I can use the lens wide open without any fear of unsharpness. And I can handhold for short takes without too much human-inspired jitter.

Just in case I decide to have too much coffee on the way to the gig I'm bringing along a monopod with a fluid head and chicken foot for stability.

So, back to the microphones. Why an old style reporter mic?

Well, there's a reason newscasters out on location still use them. They are extremely rugged and also water resistant but the compelling feature is that an omni-directional microphone like the Rode Reporter is really good at picking up sound that's very close by and then it's ability to pick up other audio falls off very, very rapidly (inverse square law to the rescue) which helps to isolate the sounds you want and reject the background noise that you don't.

A less apparent but no less important consideration is that you don't need to attach the microphone to the person's clothing like you would a lav. This means interviews, and the subsequent separation from the person being interviewed, can be quick and efficient. Unlike a shotgun microphone that has to be well aimed to perform at its best a reporter microphone offers much more latitude in placement. Just get the business end within about 12 inches for the person's mouth and you're golden.

Finally, a reporter microphone can cover both sides of an interview: the interviewer and the interviewee. You need only move the mic back and forth between the two, depending on who is speaking.

A bonus is that a good quality reporter's mic is usually less than $150.

It's raining outside today but the folks I am working with are clever and resourceful. I think we'll have fun.

Industrial Strength Imaging. Hardware.


I was playing around with the Sigma fp today and decided to give the monochrome setting a try. In a sub-menu there are settings for sharpness and contrast that can be set just for that profile. Additionally, there is a "tone" button on the rear of the camera that gives you the opportunity to create custom curves that work on all the profiles. I tried combinations of both setting banks and ended up with some interesting stuff. 

These images were shot with the Sigma fp + 45mm f2.8 lens. I tried a different approach today and instead of working close to wide open I worked closer to stopped down. Most of the shots done today were executed at f8 and f11. It required a bit more camera supervision to make sure I stayed within the realm of hand-hold-ability but that's okay; I wasn't moving too fast. 




I'm happy with the way the stuff turned out...



2.09.2020

Walking in the rain with a camera.


©2020 Kirk Tuck
"Zach Theatre; the Topfer Stage."

Sigma fp
45mm.

Evening in Austin. Heading back home with my little Sigma fp in my hands.




I took off the magnifier and the other attachments, left the heavy lenses at home and went for a walk with just the basic Sigma fp body and the 45mm f2.8 Sigma lens. It was fun. The camera is small and discreet. The lens is tactilely magnificent. And the color from the camera generally makes me very happy. 

After four days in a row of fast swimming, including an early workout this morning, a long, slow observational walk was just the thing. I think of long walks after hard swims as being recovery walks. The camera in hand makes for a good excuse to stop and examine every little thing. 

We've got interesting weather here right now. It's warm-ish (70's) and rainy and that's the forecast all the way through Wednesday. Tomorrow we're supposed to do "man in the street" video interviews for the theater but I'm thinking  that's going to turn into "man/woman in coffee shops" interviews instead. 

I'm using a Lumix S1 that's been upgraded with the video firmware unlock. Not because I want to use V-Log but because the unlock also gives me many other good codecs to choose from. Tomorrow it's my plan to use a 1080p, All-I setting since the final results will end up on Facebook, Instagram and Youtube. A really clean and sharp 1080 should be just right. 

Why not use the Sigma fp for this? No headphone jack! That's right, it's a high performance video camera that doesn't come with a headphone jack. I guess that's what the Ninja Inferno is for.... We can take a headphone signal right off the external digital audio recorder (as long as we shoot into an Atomos). Not sure how we'll monitor audio when I'm ready to plug in an SSD and try out the Raw video settings....

I'll worry about that when it becomes an issue. For now I'm using up the Sigma fp mostly because I like the way it makes photographs. 
Click on the images to see them bigger.