Why the process of photographic portraiture is so different from all other types of photography.


Over the years I've read so many quasi-scientific manifestos about "how to shoot." I just read an essay by our friend, Michael Johnston, in which he talks about shooting too much or shooting too little. How his mentors would go out with six frames of film to do an assignment or, conversely, how a teacher at an art school program was "prolific" and wanted to instill in his students the same machine gun approach to shooting. 

It seems most of the recent talk about "process" revolves around whether or not one is committing the sin of wasting film or pursuing the opposite approach and hoarding their film/digital frames. The underlying concept seems to be that there might be an exacting number of frames that one might be expected to commit to on any given genre of photography. 

But the trigger for me of the essay was MJ's decision not to drill down and let the reader know just what kind of assignment called for which approach. Was his example of going out and forcing himself to use just one 36 exposure roll of film connected to a portrait shoot? Was it a landscape project? Was it a bout of street shooting? Was it a commercial shoot in which he was working carefully to a specific comprehensive layout in collaboration with a marketing team? If we don't know what our guides are shooting then how can we possibly make any sense out of their intentions? How are we to understand if they are, in fact, over shooting or under shooting?

Not trying to criticize Michael because his essay was a quick afterthought about his blog post yesterday about a photographer who currently shoots architecture with large format film. But his writing spurred me to think about the whole subject a bit more.

I also come across writers who make the assumption that everyone who is shooting in a 35mm format is making lots and lots of frames while photographers who work with large format cameras are magically imbued with strict discipline and shoot only a handful of images when confronted by each scene. I am instantly reminded of the stories surrounded Richard Avedon's photo session of "Natasha Kinski and the Serpent." It was a beautiful photograph and it was made on very expensive, 8x10 inch color sheet film. If one assumed that photo writers are correct even part of the time then one would also expect that Avedon might have tried to get his shot in five or ten frames. 15 to 20 frames at the outside limit. But multiple sources confirm that this was not the case.  

In fact, Avedon exposed more than 100 frames of very large sheet film on one pose and took well several hours working at it before making the frame that he judged would be the "perfect" one. That doesn't take into account the vast numbers of 8x10 inch Polaroid frames he took just to get everything into the ballpark of his vision. 

He knew when he got the frame not because he was counting the number of film holders used and judging the number to be sufficient. No, he kept firing the camera until one moment arrived where the serpent, laying over and around Kinski's nude body stuck out its tongue right next to her ear. Avedon, prepped by the numerous previous frames, and the extensive trial and error of an artist who has mastered his vision (and not just his craft), was waiting and watching for just that sort of additional magic in the shoot. He tripped the lens shutter on the view camera at that exact moment and got the frame that went on to grace millions of posters. 

A casual writer about photography might hear that story and deduce that Avedon "wasted" those frames and should have just set everything up and waited for the right moment, shot his one frame and then moved on with life. A highly skilled portrait photographer would understand that those previous 99+ frames were the fuel that powered the creative moment into existence and that without them there would be no perfect frame. 

I've seen people work both ways on photographic assignments. Some are parsimonious with their frames as though they are wasting something precious which they'll never recover. Others are generous to a fault with their frames and shoot until their memory cards fill up or their film supply is gone. But, again, it all depends on what kind of photograph they are pursuing. What their aim in the adventure might be. One approach seems too rigid and structured, giving power to the process of photography over the imperative of gently guiding along a more nuanced process and, step by step, building a rhythm and rapport with a subject. 

With a landscape scene one might be able to understand that the scene in front of them will have a perfect moment of exposure where the balance between light and dark is just right and the angle of the sun is like a sculptor's chisel. Working with a digital camera or a film camera and well understood light meter the photographer might be able to capture the image while using only five or six frames, taking time to try a frame or two over and then under the median value. She might bracket a bit to get the perfect balance. 

But here's the vital difference between portraiture and all other forms of photography: only (good and great) portraiture requires the photographer to enter into a relationship, a rapport and a collaboration with the subject. No one walks in cold and, on meeting a portrait subject for the first time, fires off five or six frames, deludes themself that they have a perfect shot, and terminates the session. Unless your only goal it a clinical documentation of the person in front of the camera. 

The hope of most portraitists is to work through a process that involves getting to know the other person as well as possible, looking more keenly with each exposure for slight changes of expression, angle, glance, gesture that eventually come together because the photographer has used his accruing knowledge from all the previous exposures to gently guide the subject into a physical space and emotional realm that is, to the photographer's point of view, the definitive image of his sitter. Each frame builds on the frame before it. Each subtle change distills the image into it clearest essential truth. To arbitrarily and methodically limit the encounter to a certain predetermined number of frames is sheer folly and eliminates the chance that the frame after the "last" frame may have been the best frame. 

Each session that I've ever done that's made me feel as though I've gotten good work follows a similar pattern. The first frames of the shoot are awkward and stumbling for me and the subject. They are trying to orient themselves to the space, to the light, to our proximity. They are trying to divine my intention in the shoot just as I am trying to unearth theirs. By getting started and photographing we start to both build a comfort with the process. I'm vocal during shoots. I encourage, suggest, and when frames work I heap praise on the subject and the process. You can feel the subject getting more and more comfortable over time. As the frame count grows there is a diminishing of stress and tension. At some point we've worn each other down in the best of ways. I've let the subject trot out all the cliché poses and expressions they've seen in other people's work; whether on Instagram or in a magazine. I've been worn down by working through my reflexive routines. My desire to "shortcut" and try poses and expressions that have worked well for other subjects. At a certain point I stop trying to overlay these on my subject and the person in front of the camera has started to trust me with her potenital image. 

As the frames fly by we get into a tighter synchronization and we divine, by trial and error, how the light looks best on their face. How their posture influences the personal power they feel. How my voice and cadence motivate movement, or I might ask for them to pause so when can fine tune a pose rather than constantly changing (like models on TV). 

At some point somewhere in the process of shooting, reviewing and shooting again we both realize that we've hit a high point and that the energy we had moments ago is starting to dissipate. We keep trying so we don't miss something good but at some juncture we're both ready to end the process. But as my subject gathers their belongings, finds their silenced phone, grabs their alternate wardrobe, I keep the camera in my hand and look for the unguarded moments that might have their own magic. 

I can't keep track of the number of times we turned off the studio strobes or big LEDs and walked into an area in the studio that is flooded with some beautiful and soft natural light and I watched it flow across my subject's face and begged them to stay and  let me shoot just a few more frames. It is, after all, an art project and not a mathematical problem. There are no upper or lower limits on the number of frames it might take to get a portrait that's special. That's why we don't count frames and don't artificially restrict the shooting process. These are photographs, not spreadsheets.

It would be as though you were constrained to only drive your car in one of two ways; always at 30 mph or less, and only at 90 mph or more. We follow the road and handle the curves as required by the feel of the car and the road conditions at hand. Not by preset scenarios.

The process of landscape photography is one of discovery. Once discovered the artist conceives of a way he or she would like the final photograph to look and works, more or less methodically, toward that goal. The landscape is the landscape. It doesn't change second by second. It doesn't toss out a gesture that changes your understanding of your subject.  The light may change but that's one parameter. 

In convincing and intimate portraiture it's much more important to build a relationship between photographer and sitter and to understand that it's only with their willing complicity that each works to make one image a culminating treasure of their combined efforts. And that takes shooting no small number of frames. 

I recently did a photographic assignment on which I needed to work with six different subjects in the course of a day. Each needed to be guided through six looks. While not my brand of "art" portraiture it still took a lot of back and forth, a lot of role playing, prompting, encouraging and cheering on my part to get each model to share their energy without reserve and without worrying about looking goofy. 

Even though my lighting didn't change much I needed to go through about 3,000 frames in a digital camera, or about 500 shots per person, to get the looks that I wanted and that my clients needed. I needed to work with the models in collaboration to make it work. The models aren't mannequins that can be positioned then photographed with some requisite number of frames. They are all fallible and insecure human beings who need to be guided into a process, supported in their interpretation of the process, and then coaxed into blending the best of my preconceptions with theirs to make images that are both authentic and connected. 

We used 36 frames for the final, international ad campaign. Should I have tried to set a limit or was I right to respect the process as well as the individual needs of each model/photographer interaction?

I've shot a lot of product in my career. I can light a white seamless for products in about 20 minutes. With digital cameras and their direct previews I can probably shoot most products in one or two frames. Then I could walk away from the shoot having fulfilled the letter of the contract. But even in these situations there is an opportunity to move the product around, shift the lighting and come away with variations that might be even better than the original concept. If we limit our frame use we'll never know....

I continued to be surprised that the process of portraiture, as a subset of photography, can be so misunderstood. Either that or I am just slow or inefficient at fostering relationships and too lost in the emotion of photographing people to stick to a "logical" and "cost effective" process. 

But that's the only way I know how to do it. 

Final thought. An anecdote about a major ad agency's expectations for film use. 

On my first big assignment for GSD&M Advertising I needed to photograph four different mentor/mentee pairings for a series of ads done for a cellular phone service company. It was a bigger job, dollar-wise, than I had ever done before. One advantage I had was that my assistant made an instant connection with the art buyer. My assistant and I labored over the bid process. Somewhere in the bid was an estimate of how much medium format color transparency film I would use, how much Polaroid test material, how much processing would be required. We bid optimistically (at least from my point of view). 

The art buyer came back to us and said they were fine with everything in the bid except for the film and lab costs. I was ready to sharpen that pencil and whittle the film cost to a bare minimum. But before I could commit to that the art buyer said, "The client will be on the set and they expect to see a lot of different variations and subtle changes. You need to double the amount of film and processing in your bid. And, in fact, since we haven't shown them numbers yet you might want to triple the amount. Otherwise we'll need to give this job to someone else." 

My assistant and I took the art buyer's suggestion and proceeded. We shot more film on the two shoot days than I ever had before. Our film and processing cost for the shoot was about $6,000. (Medium format transparency film + Polaroid + Testing and Processing). Part of our overall profit was in the mark-up we charged for film and processing so we made more profit into the bargain. 

The clients were happy and I learned a valuable lesson: Don't artificially limit your process. Don't be your own limiter. Some of the best frames were on rolls of film we would never have shot if the client had accepted our first bid. 

It's still true in the digital age. Especially in portraiture. 

One more note: my typical headshot shoot for a single pose takes about 100 frames. Rarely fewer. We talk and shoot, shoot and talk, and I can see non-models relax more and more, frame by frame, until it's just two friends talking. That's when the eyes start to look kind and welcoming and smiles become genuine. 

Just saying. 


I wanted to show you how ISO 50 looks on the Leica SL2 but Blogger tends to compress the goodness out of images. So I made you a gallery on Smugmug. Details in the blog.


Whenever I write something about the color rendering of a lens or a camera, or the sharpness of one of them, and then post images here on the blog I'm inevitably a bit disappointed by how the images look within Blogger. 

Today I was using the recently acquired Leica SL2 and the ancient and battered Leica 28-70mm (which vignettes like crazy on the L-mount adapter at the wider focal lengths...and close up) and I was experimenting with ISO 50. I wanted to see what the low ISO (which is native) 50 would look like. How would the colors look? What does the ISO 50 setting do to the dynamic range? Is it better? Is it worse? I tried it and liked it a lot and wanted to write about it here but why write if you can show pictures, right?

But the conundrum is that whatever I show here is size limited by the program and the format. Not so on Smugmug.com which is where most of my client galleries happily reside. Then it dawned on me that I could just create a gallery and share the images with you that way. 

If you follow the link you'll see that I've required no password and the images can be downloaded at the full resolution at which I shot them. You can look on your own machine to your heart's content. 

The files started life as middle resolution Jpegs which is about 22 megapixels. The downrezzing in camera makes them appear a bit sharper. I set the WB manually to the cute little sun icon. I was able to set a lens profile in the camera menu for the exact Leica lens. 

If you click on the image you'll go larger but there are tools on the left hand side that allow you to go all the way to the full res. Also, if you choose to download an image it will download at the full resolution. 

These are for personal use. Please don't repost them. Thanks!

It's taking me a while to get used to the SL2 since the interface is so wildly foreign compared to just about everything else. But now it's starting to build up some happy momentum. See if you agree....


One of the best parts of using mirror-free cameras is the vast choice of lenses one has. Here's some images from one of my perennial favorites.

I've owned a lot of 50mm lenses. I still own a lot of 50mm lenses, but when it's time to put one on a camera just for a comfortable walk I eschew the big, brutal, take no prisoners lenses, with their extensive collections of complex and specialized glass elements, and reach for a lens that's more than adequately sharp but has a low profile and, even with an adapter, an equally low weight. My choice, across mirrorless systems for the last five years (at least) has been the "pedestrian" 50mm f1.7 Contax/Zeiss lens made for the Y/C system. 

It's easy to handle and is an appreciated weight-saver in combination with heavier cameras like the Panasonic S1R or the Leica SL2. I like that the external aperture ring is instantly accessible and that the lens is manual focus and comes complete with a nicely done focusing scale which allows me to go back to the time-tested approach of setting approximate distances on the focusing ring and figuring out the best aperture to cover the subject area I'm interested in. With a lens set in that manner one can walk around and shoot as fast as the shutter can react and not worry about AF hunting or pesky sensors locking onto the "wrong" target. It's the quickest way possible to shoot. 

While the sharpness isn't as astringent and over the top in the way you'll see with many current, high dollar 50mm lenses (looking at you Panasonic!) it's very, very good for its age, provides a nice, but rounded softness wide open and then becomes fully competitive by f4.0. While only a few years ago, in that era where the block-headed Luddites were still rampaging about the sins of electronic viewfinders and making promises that we'd only be able separate them from their flapping mirrored DSLRs upon death, one could pick up a nice, mint copy of the Contax Zeiss 50mm f1.7 for somewhere between $125 and $150. Now, with the delayed realization of the potential of electronic viewfinders, people are flocking to mirrorless cameras and, upon learning that just about any older SLR lens can be used on their new, mirrorless camera with an inexpensive adapter, the supply of exceptional but inexpensive older lenses is not just getting more expensive it's drying up altogether.

Contax also made a 50mm f1.4 lens in the same mount and it's very nice too. But it's no better than the f1.7 version and having tested both I could find no real differences in their overall performance from f2.8 on to f11. I've never bothered to pick up the f1.4 version since it adds at least 50% more weight for no real world shooting advantage. Especially in current times when camera ISO engineering allows us the freedom to shoot in almost any kind of light. 

The focusing ring on my lens is smooth as greased Teflon and the overall look of the files from that lens is beautiful. Different than the look of my hyper-real Lumix S-Pro 50mm, but beautiful nonetheless. 

I took it out for a brief time on Wednesday just as excuse for another walk. We (the camera, lens and I) got stuck in some rain but I had an extra face mask in my pocket and it covered the lens and lens mount nicely. I didn't worry about the camera; the SL2 has an IP 54 weather resistance rating. I've no clue what that really means but their website ensures me that the camera sealing is prodigious. Doesn't matter. It wasn't raining hard. 

It was the performance, proven over time, with the 50mm Contax that led me to also buy the Contax Y/C 28mm f2.8 and the 135mm f2.8 (a lovely lens!) lenses. With cheap adapters I use them all the time with the big Panasonic S1x cameras and the new Leica. They are so easy to use and manually focus with those EVFs that I sometimes ignore focus peaking and magnification altogether. 

Seems a bit silly to put a cheap, used lens on a pricy camera but the whole point of a great camera body is how well it fits in one's hands and how much fun it is to use. The whole point of a great camera lens is that it gets out of the way and lets one shoot in the style desired without letting any egregious flaws diminish the quality of the final product. Iris slicing sharpness is not always my highest priority parameter in a lens. 

I am always brought back to reality when it comes to lenses and our collective (and misguided) desire to always have the very best, by the thought of how excruciating it would be to take a casual walk with a camera bag filled with Zeiss Otus lenses. Or a bag full of Sigma Art Series high speed primes. The happy reality of working with the old, manual Contax lenses makes photography and walking about aimlessly as fun as it can be. 

Sign in a soon to be opened, new restaurant on 2nd St. 

I ate my multi-grain super toast with intense purpose today. 

It was good.

Checking in with my downtown mannequin friend. Late evening.

One of the many wonderful things I like about Austin
is the high proportion of truly fit people who live here.
Not just young people but also 75 and 80 year old marathoners
and pools full of former Olympians as well as people just out walking for fitness and pleasure. 
While we have peripheral 
suburbs filled with regular, chubby Americans it's so 
refreshing to see fit people all over the place. 

Maybe, subconsciously, that's why I'm putting my
camera bag on diet today...



Technology rocks. My dental procedure was so much less dramatic than my anticipation. I was so inspired I immediately ordered another Leica camera.

 So.... I went in for the root canal today with all the trepidation you may have sensed in yesterday's post. My endodontist was amazing. She delivered Lidocaine injections so gently that I almost burst into tears at my emotional relief. The optical instrument she used to magnify her view and carefully check her work had a big logo on the side. I took it as a sign from the photo gods. It said, "Leica." 

The procedure lasted about 40 minutes and I was sent on my way with a few advisos. The most important thing being not to chew food while numbed so I don't merrily bite into my own cheek! Or drink hot coffee and risk drooling down my nice, clean, white shirt.

On the way home I thought about the omen of the logo on her optical device and assured myself that any residual pain would be minimized if only I had something fun to play with, and a new menu and interface with which to challenge my aging brain.

I already had an item selected and in a shopping cart at the LeicaStore in Miami so I went ahead and did the Apple Pay magic and committed. In a few days I should be the happy owner of a mint condition Leica SL, the predecessor of my current SL2.

I've been interested in that camera for nearly six years now. I know the technology has mostly been superseded by the march of time but I'm also interested in it because of the industrial design and the historic position it occupies as Leica's first interchangeable, full frame, mirrorless camera. 

I have seen raw files from the camera that I like very much. For portraits it has a look that's different and more convincing than what I get from other cameras. I think the lower pixel count will make it a nice adjunct to the SL2 --- for all those times when I want to shoot raw but don't want to deal with the storage of more huge files. 

The SL is not a sports camera or a wildlife camera since it depends entirely on contrast detect AF but for the way I use cameras, using the center focusing square and sticking to S-AF the focusing, it is reported to be both fast and accurate except in really low light settings. 

SL cameras were originally sold at $7450 when they first arrived. The price dropped to $5995 near the end of their run. A very clean, hardly used body can be had, with a 30 day store warranty, for about $2,000. It's not cheap but neither is the expense ruinous. 

24 megapixels, a body carved out of one piece of aluminum, an insanely big and high resolution EVF and the ability to use all my L mount lenses. What's not to like?

If I thought I could get away with buying myself a new camera every time I visited the dentist I'd be darned sure to go in for a cleaning and check-up every three months....

A full report is promised as soon as I take possession. "Now, bite down...." 


A new adventure of me. I'm heading into to see an Endodontist about a root canal Wednesday morning. If I have to sit through that I'm hellbent on rewarding myself with some juicy photo-toy.

 So there's one thing in life I hate more than just about anything else and that's having a shot of lidocaine administered into the soft tissue inside my mouth, next to my gums. Can't stand it. I'd rather accidentally drop an expensive lens into a wood chipper that's running at full speed. But that's what we've got on tap for tomorrow morning; if I'm unlucky. The injection, not the lens sacrifice...

My dentist took x-rays at my last check up, a few weeks ago. Harnessing some magic power she wields she was able to intuit that I might need to have the first root canal of my life done so she sent me to a specialist. 

I'm meeting with said specialist tomorrow and she (the endodontist) is planning to take her own x-rays and run a few other tests to either confirm or repudiate my first dentist's diagnosis. If all their stars line up together then they'll want to do the procedure right then and there. 

I'm old enough to have heard horror stories about root canal procedures from the old days when mechanical shock and awe was the oral strategy of the day. I've been told by many friends now that there are new, modern techniques having to do with ultra-sonic this and that which are mostly pain free and less....dramatic. 

But what neither dentist, nor my well-meaning friends, seem to understand is that it's not the procedure itself that fills me with gut-twisting dread. No. It's that numbing injection with which the whole process begins. That's the part that rivets my anxious brain into the paralysis of conjecturing about the worst case scenario of pain and suffering every time. 

I'm so wound up about tomorrow's (mis)adventure that I haven't been able to play with a camera or even consider taking a relaxing nap on the couch today. In fact, since I exited the swimming pool this morning (it was a nice and challenging swim, thank you for asking!) I've thought of very little else than the first half hour of tomorrow's ordeal. 

There is one glimmer of hope for me though. I've discovered that I can take my mind off the torturous anticipation, even if it's just for a little while, by going through a list of all the fine photographic products I might choose from to help balance myself and offset my trauma, after the fact, from the slings and arrows of outrageous dental anxiety. 

I have one thing in mind already but it's rather pricey and wholly unnecessary. But as my friend, Paul, quipped when I talked it over with him, "When did that ever stop you?"

So, who here has had this sort of brush with dentistry lately? And how well did you survive it?

Oh, the unfairness of life. Who would have thought that there is specific karma for not flossing as often as you're instructed? 

Ah well. We'll be through with that saga by lunch time, but the sour memory will continue through the day since I'll be nerve blocked and constrained to eating only bland and non-chewy food like yogurt until the numbness subsides.

Signed, Petrified with fear in Austin. KT

Hey. I figured if MJ can complain about the rigors and desperation of learning to type correctly I can certainly splash out my deepest fears as well....

Lens of the day. The 65mm Sigma i series lens. On the Leica SL2.

It's a nice combo; the Leica SL2 camera and the Sigma Contemporary 65mm f2.8 lens. They work well together. The resulting files are crisp and detailed. The focal length is almost perfectly optimized for my personal preferences. 

The lens is part of Sigma's new Contemporary "I" line of lenses which also includes a 24mm f3.5, the 35mm f2.0, and the 45mm f2.8. I'm certain Sony's recent announcement of new, smaller, slower lenses is a concept directly and shamelessly derived from their keen observation of the Sigma 45mm lens's popularity on the market over the past year but, whatever it takes... It's just nice to see a bit of rational thought come back into the lens market. 

The Sigma "I" lenses are constructed of metal, are incredibly well finished, are weather resistant, have external aperture rings, and are one of the few lens options for L-mount users who might not want to start a new hobby in weightlifting in order to photograph more than a few feet away from their cars.

When the newest of the Sigma I lenses hit the market I took one look at the 65mm and ordered it from my local camera shop. I like normal lenses but I like longer normal lenses even more. This lens and the 70mm Sigma Art macro lens I bought this year are both right in the sweet spot for me as good compromises between portability and having a bit of distance between myself and my photographic subjects. Since portrait styles are changing, generationally, I'm also finding that I'm willing to put up with a bit more distortion in order to use a focal length that's shorter than what I used to be comfortable with. I cheat by using the 65mm f2.0 mostly on 47+ megapixel cameras when I shoot portraits because then I have the safety of shooting with some air around the subject and being able to crop the images quite a bit, if necessary, to gain back a modest degree of beneficial foreshortening. Viva compression!

The 65mm is an excellent performer. Check out the review on Lenstip.com and you'll find, that when it comes to resolution and sharpness it is currently one of the highest rated lenses on the entire site; regardless of price point. Even wide open, within the center 2/3rds of the entire frame, it's sharp and resolves well. 

The lens is designed with 12 elements in 9 groups and also utilizes 1 SLD element and 2 aspherical elements. It's amply engineered for a lens with a modest focal length and a less ambitious maximum aperture. It's one of the sharpest lenses I have ever used and its rendering of contrast and color are equally impressive. It's available in E mount as well as L mount and it's exactly the kind of lens that both Leica and Sony should be offering to the market.

When the L mount version is used with the Leica SL2 the camera makes use of software corrections for geometric corrections as well as vignetting control. One of the things I really like about the camera and lens combination is that Leica makes it easy to use their very well implemented focus peaking feature and it's a perfect complement to the Sigma's big, comfortable focusing ring. The combination makes manual focusing fun. And I like fun. 

I bought the lens and paid the full asking price of $699. No one flew me to Maui or Portofino to convince me to either try the lens, buy the lens, or sing it's myriad praises. My acquisition and use is based solely on the idea I have that this focal length, and the impressive performance of the optical system, are conducive to getting better images in my own style. It didn't hurt that I'm an avowed "lens nerd" and this lens also comes with a magnetic lens cap. The lens cap didn't push me over the edge to purchase it but it sure didn't hurt. 

Sigma continues to do some very interesting stuff. Maybe they think their mission is to show the bigger and more awkward camera and lens makers what the future looks like in order to guide them into a better tomorrow for the sake of the entire Japanese camera industry. Then again, maybe they are just a more creative company which is less afraid to dabble in a little bit of risk. 

The 65mm combined with the 35mm f2.0 would make a perfect match for travel and street photography. With the 35mm one could crop a bit and get a useable 50mm equivalent from that lens. With the 65mm and a high resolution camera one could crop to an 85mm equivalent without much image quality loss. Add in the 24mm f3.5 and you're ready for everything but sports and wildlife. But you wouldn't be buying middle focal range lenses for either of those pursuits, right?

All images below shot with the 65mm Sigma and the Leica SL2. I'm also pretty sure I shot them all at ISO 50 which is a native, not "extended" ISO option on this camera. Works for me.

cropped down to 25% of the original frame. 

I was on a kick when I shot this group of photographs of limiting myself to using the SL2's ISO of 50 for everything. I figured the in body I.S. would make everything okay. When I look at the full size files coming from the camera I am amazed at the purity of the colors and the amazing detail. Can't wait to try this out in the studio for portraits. ....nice reds and nice blues together in the same frame.

building with dorsal fin.

My recent obsession with yellow. And red. 

Again, 25% of the original frame...

Personal note: I'm so delighted with my friends and colleagues. Just about everyone I know (in the vaccine-able age groups) has gotten either their first dose or both doses of the Covid-19 vaccine. I just got an invitation to meet for coffee with my favorite creative director. We'll get together next week and see what kinds of new projects we can collaborate on. Then I got a call, not ten minutes later, from a photographer friend who is having an outdoor BBQ on Sunday. He had a caveat. He could only invite me and could not extend an invitation to my spouse because she is still a couple weeks behind us on getting her second dose of vaccine. The BBQ party is strictly limited only to people who have been fully vaccinated and then put in their two weeks of immunity nurturing. I accepted in a heartbeat since my friend's version of BBQ ribs is life altering. Forget being inclusive --- the lure of ribs is powerful. 

All over our social media feeds friends are starting to check in to see where we are in the process and when we can all get together for coffees, lunches, dinners and happy hours. We're still shy about restaurants and indoor dining but it's prime time for outdoor dining in Austin. Finally, finally, finally seeing some social light at the end of a long and ominous tunnel...

A much better documentation of this photograph of Gov. Ann Richards.

 ©Kirk Tuck.


A Portrait in belated celebration of the vernal equinox....


What Zoom Lenses Am I Currently Using? How do I like em?

My lens collection is almost like a living organism. Some stuff wanders in from the street and makes itself comfortable in the gear drawers, some succumb to ennui and slowly vanish while some eventually are injured and die. Zooms seem more susceptible to transitioning in and out than single focal length lenses but I guess that's the nature of this particular life form. 

I have a little flock of zoom lenses that, I must admit, I'm looking to change around a bit. But I'm not sure where it will all end up. But here's where we are today. This is what my choices are when I need to stock up my camera bag and go out for fun or profit: 

1. Panasonic 24-105mm f4.0. My all around, most leaned on, extended normal lens. It covers everything. If I were a rational human I'd just own this lens and the next one on my list and I'd get back to my job as a statistician who enjoys the benefits of a calm cup of decaf....

2. Panasonic 70-200mm f4.0. As above. This is a wonderful longer zoom and it has no discernible personality. It's totally transparent, just does its job and goes home to watch the weather channel. I love it for its high performance but dislike it for its lack of drama and excitement. 

3. Panasonic 20-60mm f3.5-5.6. This lens makes me feel like I have the wider focal lengths adequately covered. I owned a 20mm Art lens that weighed three times as much and cost me twice as much but I never, ever used it on a job. With this little, cheap, plastic lens I feel as though I've given the concept of very wide angle focal lengths the attention I believe they deserve. 

4. Leica R 28-70mm f3.5-f5.6. I had very low expectations for this one because it was cheap and a little beat up but have come to like it more than all the rest because it has....personality. It can be really sharp. The colors can be very deep and accurate. But sometimes it flares and usually the corners are...whimsical. The built in lens hood has lost its grip so I've lashed it into its fully extended position with ample helpings of black gaffer's tape. The first R to L adapter I used on the lens was a bit loose so the lens vacillated between focusing on infinity and just pretending to focus on infinity, which made for a bit of healthy user friction. But every once in a while the camera and this lens really bang out some nice images and it's the most fun to use. 

I like all the lenses but I like the little, cheap, used Leica zoom the same way I like a clumsy puppy. It's adorable and has potential. 

What am I saving up all my discretionary cash in order to buy next? 

I think I would really love to play with the Leica 24-90mm f2.8-4.0 SL lens. It's supposed to be really sharp and contrasty and it covers my favorite focal lengths well. It's big, fat, heavy and ponderous but we'll keep the smaller Leica zoom I talked about just above. 

I turned in all my post production, etc. this morning. I delivered it to the client on a 1 terabyte HD. I'm happy with how smoothly the whole process went. Ready for the next round. 


Has the mania for ultra-fast lenses hit a peak? Will it now subside and allow lens makers to concentrate on better compromises?

another portrait. 

I'm the first to admit that I've been suckered into the wild enthusiasm camp about lenses with very fast apertures for most of my time in photography. When we shot with film cameras a faster lens meant a brighter viewfinder which meant easier focusing. An added benefit of focusing with a fast aperture lens at its widest setting was very narrow depth of field which also helped with nailing focus. 

Since everyone (most people?) were able to focus their faster lenses more accurately a mythology about the lenses existed. Since the lenses were better focused the resulting images at any aperture were sharper so they looked better. This led people to believe that the faster and more expensive lenses were also capable of higher overall performance. It made sense to people because they were, daily, judging the results of more accurate focusing and mistaking at least some of the benefit as coming from a better designed lens when compared to slower lenses. 

In the mid-1990s autofocus technology got better and better and camera makers didn't need to make focusing screens that were optimized for highest acccuracy (at the expense of brightness). Since nearly everyone buying newer and newer cameras used AF for almost every shot the camera makers looked at the compromise matrix of focusing screen engineering and changed the mix to favor super bright screens at the expense of manual focusing discrimination. All in all it's a compromise that makes the most sense for the most users. 

Now lenses both fast and slow would benefit from the same accuracy in autofocusing because the focusing was no longer done on the screen but buy an AF sensor instead. So, essentially, the need for super fast lenses for higher focusing accuracy was cancelled. But the mythology continued. 

I read an article which I can't source at the moment but it was about lens design. It may have been written by Irwin Puts about Leica lens manufacturing but it essentially made the point that more modest aperture lenses were much easier to manufacture with consistency and high quality than faster lenses. 

It seems that every time you need to increase the diameter of the lens elements to increase the speed of a given focal length a doubling of diameter requires many times more manufacturing accuracy than a slower lens. Also, fewer elements are required for optimal correction. 

For the first ten years of mass acceptance of interchangeable lens digital cameras (roughly 2000-2010) the one reason to own faster lenses was the rather poor noise performance of then available sensors. On my Nikon D2Xs any ISO over 400 was mostly unusable for commercial work. Noise reduction apps for post processing proliferated like bunnies. An argument could be made that companies like Sigma started designing their ultra-fast Art series line of primes in order to provide a sharp, wide open aperture to compensate for the low ISOs we needed to use at the time. But that never meant that fast lenses could be designed to out perform slower lenses for things like: contrast, sharpness, resolution and lower distortion. 
And those are all the things needed in most lenses to make them successful.

Now we've entered a new age with digital. It's the age of miraculous ISO performance in cameras. One no longer has a rationale, beyond the look of a particular lens design, to splash out two or three times (or more) money to buy a faster lens if an f2.0 lens offers all the performance of an f1.2 or f1.4 lens that weighs three times as much and takes up a lot more real estate in your camera bag. 

I write this because I'm trying to reform my bad lens buying habits by introducing some rational thought into the process. I guess my epiphany came when I struggled with the weight, size and ponderous AF of the original Sigma 85mm f1.4 Art series lens. It was a monster to handhold, and, if truth be told, it, like most ultra-fast lenses, was a one trick pony. It could do really great zero depth of field images. But after you've seen a few years worth of strangely narrow depth of field you come to realize that it's not a vital part of usual and successful imaging. Better to concentrate on shooting at apertures that let one actually see the majority of a subject clearly and with acceptable focus. 

Another rude awakening has been my odd dance with the Panasonic S-Pro 50mm f1.4 lens. Optically, it's magnificent. At f1.4 it's as sharp and contrasty as any Leica or Zeiss super star lens I've ever tested. When you stop it down it gets better and better. But it's ponderously large and also weighs a ton. I find that I very rarely take it out and shoot it for pleasure. Though I've had it well over a year I can count on my fingers and toes the number of times I've actually needed its particular performance envelope in the work that I do. And the work I see most commercial photographers pursue. 

When I head out the door for fun I look into a drawer filled with lenses and ponder. I like the 40-60mm range and at first I look to the 50mm lens and fantasize about how wonderful all the subjects I photograph will look by dint of the lens's amazing performance. Then I quickly become more rational, realize that I'll mostly be shooting at f4 or f5.6 and move on to finding a more comfortable and more than adequate alternative. Usually it's something like the Contax/Zeiss 50mm f1.7 or the Sigma 45mm f2.8. Lately, I've been shooting more often with the Sigma 65mm f2.0 and am finding it to be a powerful imaging tool. Very sharp at f2.0 and among the very highest performance long normal lenses extant, when used at f4.0 and f5.6. Why carry the weight if the f-stops at which you'll be photographing are in the middle of the range?
Even older lenses made for film cameras, if well designed and built, are delivering surprisingly competitive results at middle apertures. Even at f2.0 most of my lenses hold up well. Making the purchase of ultra-fast lenses kind of....stupid. 

Photographers are being regaled this month by a torrent of "news" about a new 50mm f1.2 lens from Sony. It's supposed to be really good, and maybe it is. But it's too expensive and it's not going to deliver a better photographic experience for most users compared to good lenses in the same focal length with which they already use. It might be better at f1.4 but by the time it gets to the optimum picture taking apertures of f2.8-f8.0 most of the benefits essentially are limited by the resolution and imaging potential of the camera sensors and the techniques of the users. But they will have splashed out big cash to mostly end up with performance that's a near even match with lenses with smaller maximum apertures. 

I'm also seeing an endless parade of 50mm lenses from Chinese makers that boast f.095, f1.0 and f1.1 apertures. Interest seems to be running high among the faithful. 

I've tested a couple of these and find them to be very difficult to focus well, wide open, and not very high performers when used that way. When stopped down they become....adequate. That's a pretty sorry review for modern lens. 

I'm more interested in lenses like the Sigma 45mm f2.8 which I've written about here from time to time. It's not great performer wide open but in the middle ranges it out performs just about any zoom lens and is better than similar focal lengths from Sony and several other makers when stopped down just one stop. Soundly outperforming them at two stops down (f5.6). It's built like a tank, is fun to use and still compact enough and light enough to be a 24/7 carry lens.

I think the reasons to own fast lenses are diminishing and as our hobby and industry continue to change I'm betting we'll see more and more lenses done in a traditional way = a fast enough aperture for any real use. A small enough footprint for comfort, convenience and handling, and a price that is affordable to many more users. I count all that as a win. 

Interested to know how you feel about this. Am I once again totally off base and wrong? What benefits (if any) do you get from using ultra-fast aperture lenses? Share?

Program note; written a few hours later:  Matti Sulanto is a Finnish photographer and a Lumix Ambassador. He has a nice and informative YouTube channel where he discusses nuts and bolts, reviews cameras and goes out for photo walks in all kinds of crazy weather. Today I wrote this blog post and ten minutes later I was on YouTube at Matti's channel only to find that his post today was also about the same subject. We posted almost simultaneously!!!

He's got a very slightly different take on it than I do.... but mostly we're in agreement. check it out.