6.30.2010

A rather boring article about how I lit a portrait on location last week.

One of my most important tools.  The standard apple crate.  Used in film and video productions everywhere.


I was shooting some executives at an industrial company here in Austin last week and the client let me know that there were one or two execs in other cities who would also need to be shot.  They weren't going to budget for me flying out of state just to do one or two head shots so they asked if I would document the set up and be willing to share the information with photographers with which they have relationships in the other cities.  Of course.  I'll share just about anything.

I used this handsome devil as an example because it was easy to get a model release from him. :-)


It's pretty standard lighting.  In a nutshell it's a big soft light from the left, a big white reflector from the right, a gridded flash on the light gray background and a small flash in a small softbox from the back of the set.   The image I chose to use as an example doesn't have the backlight added in.  Sorry.  You'll just have to imagine it.

Above.  The view from the left of the camera.  You can see that I'm using a Softlighter 2 60 inch umbrella with it's diffusion "sock" on the front.  It's hooked up to a 1200 watt second Elinchrom Ranger RX AS pack but it's on the low power tap and set to a fairly low setting.  Though the wide angle lens I've used to make this image distorts the size/distance relations the light is really right next to the chair.  Almost touching it.  The camera is a Canon 5dmk2 and I'm using the 70-200 f4 L lens at around 135mm as my taking lens.
Above is the view from right behind the camera and it gives you a better idea of the various relationships between the lighting instruments.  I use the apple crate to stand on because I am five feet and eight inches tall while some of the taller subjects were six foot, three and six foot, five.  (Mutant giants?)
I always use this zany Lastolite pop up target to set custom white balances with.  I like this Will Crockett version because it has a target to focus on.


I use an incident light meter to meter every light source and get them all in the right target zone.  I base my whole exposure around f5.6.  I fine tune it for each person.

Here's what I'm using for the light on the background.  It's a Vivitar 383 df used in the slave mode.  I like them because in the slave mode they are triggered by an optical slave and the setting overrides the auto shutoff.  Since the light is basically direct it only takes 1/4 power to give me the spot I want.  The box on the front is from Speedlight Prokit.  It's a multi-purpose little light modifier.  You can use a grid on the front or a softbox style diffuser.  It's a pretty good accessory for taking the edge off direct light and softening out the edges.  With a grid in place the fall off is very pleasing.
This is a view from the right side of the set up.  The combination of a 60 inch softlighter diffused umbrella and the 48 inch white reflector is the basis of most of my quick light set ups for indoors.  By moving the umbrella closer and further from the subject I get more or less contrasty light.  By moving the reflector closer or further from the opposite side of the subject's face I get more or less fill in the shadows.
And where oh where would I be without the Barbie kit?  Most of the executives I photographed needed just a touch of translucent powder to shut down the shine on their foreheads and noses.  Please note the white barber's drape which I put over the subject's clothes.  Keeps light colored powder off dark colored jackets.
There's nothing special about the back light.  I just want the barest touch of back light so I use another Vivitar 383 df down at 1/8th power and it seems just right.  I think people make a very common mistake when they use a back light bare.  The light just doesn't seem to match the rest of the light in a conventionally lit scene.  A small box works well.  If we were working in my studio I might have used a big piece of foamcore to flag the light and prevent spill but the space was big enough and the ceilings far enough away that it just didn't become a problem.  A grid on the front of the box would be a good addition as well.
Here's what the scene looks like with my back right up against the grey a paper looking out toward the camera.  Not too intimidating.  Pretty straightforward.  It's nice to have a standard set up that you can fall back on when you are working quickly and need repeatable results.

I like the Elinchrom and I also like the Profoto battery units.  It's nice when you are in a big setting not to have cables running to distant sockets.  And at the low power settings I was using that particular pack is good for several thousand flashes.

We set up starting at 8:00am and finished testing the set up at 8:35am.  My first of ten portrait subjects, the COO, arrived right at 9am.  We finished our last shot just in time for lunch.  My default for delivered food on industrial shoots is usually Jason's Deli.  I order the quarter Muffaletta.  Good stuff.

After a "walking lunch" I broke down this set up and we proceeded to our afternoon shoots around the factory using mostly available light and a good tripod.

So, what constitutes a good tripod?  That's coming up.

Learn how to do the big group shot. You never know when you might need it.

©2010 Kirk Tuck.  The Rollingwood Waves.  At the Westwood Country Club Pool.


This is a very short blog.  I have very little actual advice to give about shooting group shots.  My first piece of advice is to stop spending time fidgeting around with your gear!  This was what we call a "grab shot".  You throw out a suggestion and hope people respond.  When they do (like these young ladies instantly snapping into a line up and throwing arms around their comrades) don't waste time fooling around with how you might compose or whether the exposure is "just" right.  Just push the button a few times till they get bored and then move on.  In the tradition of Zen Buddhism there is no "right" or "wrong" way to do something.  Just decide and go.

My second piece of advice is to always take advantage of overcast days.  Groups in full sun squint, are uncomfortable and the results are way too contrasty.  If you can't wait for clouds look for shade.

My third and last piece of advice is to start with small groups and move your way up to the larger ones.  Get a feel for being in charge and then come to grips with the fact that you'll never truly be in charge.
If there's no money on the table it's a hell of a lot more important to have fun.....and be in the fun....than it is to make everybody miserable getting the  "perfect shot".

©2010 Kirk Tuck.  Practice on the smaller groups first....  If you're in the shade you don't even need fill flash.

Trumped by a graphic designer.

photo of the mighty "Rollingwood Waves" fourteen year old boys.  ©2010 Belinda Yarritu.


I've been photographing my kid's Summer league swim team for the better part of ten years now and I like to think my photos are pretty good.  Last Saturday was the last swim meet of the season and, to tell the truth,  I was too burned out to lift up the camera and hit the project with gusto one more time.  Had too much on my brain.  So my wife, Belinda, (who is also a wonderful graphic designer) grabbed my Canon 7D and asked me how to use it.  I was going to give her the long explanation but she just wanted know know if the focus would lock when she pushed the button half way down.  Yes.  I put the camera on "P" for professional, set the focus for center group, one shot and she was on her way.

When we did the final slide show on Sunday night, for all the parents, kids and coaches, this was the hit image of the evening.  Now, looking at stats on Smugmug this is by far the bestseller from that day.  And she did more.  Many more.  Like this one:
photo of a mighty "Rollingwood Wave" five year old boy in the lake.  ©2010 Belinda Yarritu.


She captured the exuberance of the kids in every shot.  Mine seemed so posed by comparison.  The amazing thing is that she did about 250 images using just one lens.  It was the only one I brought along (I figured we had more than enough images for a good slide show by that point in the season-----silly me).
It was the 60mm macros for Canon's smaller sensor cameras.  Equivalent to about a 96mm lens on a traditional 35mm camera.  No zoom.  No wide.  Definitely a "zoom with your feet" optic.

She shot everything in jpeg.  Large/fine.  And it was weird when I went to process the stuff.  No exposure comp was really needed.  After she really got into it she was able to really connect with the kids as well.  I love this photograph because it's so close and so full of energy:
photo of the mighty "Rollingwood Waves" ten year old boys.  ©2010 Belinda Yarritu.


When I look at the photos it makes me wish I could start all over again and unlearn so much of the "safety" stuff I've subconsciously taken on over the years.  But most of all I wish I could compose like she does and ignore the technical stuff like she does.  One of my wry, female, creative director friends saw the images and pronounced (loudly and with a certain amount of serious intent....)  that I should become Belinda's agent and assistant.  I could do the techno stuff and Belinda could do the art.  Been thinking about it ever since......

She's a very good graphic designer.  Here's her old website:  www.belindayarritu.com  the new one is just waiting for me to write some copy........

I shouldn't be surprised that Belinda is a good photographer.  She was shooting with an Olympus OM-1 before I ever picked up a camera.  And if I remember correctly she only had one lens.....the 50mm 1.8.  And she's worked with the best photographers in the business for the last twenty years.  I guess having a point of view and the visual chops is the counterpoint to so much of what I get around to talking about here.

Anyway, I just wanted to share.  Drop a comment her if you like her stuff.  Sometimes she gets around to reading the blog.

6.29.2010

Marketing works. But it only works when you do it.

I am constantly reminded that for marketing to work you have to send it out.

Many of you have jobs in other fields and have no interest in marketing for photographers.  I get that.  But there's a fairly big proportion of young photographers here and I thought I'd throw together a blog about the most important aspect of professional photography, marketing.

Lots of photographers and reps save up and do one or two or three big marketing blasts a year.  And they send out material or e-mails to thousands of people at a time.  I think it's kind of dumb.  When I wrote my book, Commercial Photographer's Handbook, for Amherst Media I interviewed a lot of art directors and art buyers so that I would really understand how all this works.  To a person they all had the same basic response:  "We get so much stuff it's hard to remember what someone sent last month, let alone last quarter."  

What the really means is that you've got to stay in front of people.  But no one media can do everything. All the media you can use work together to build people's awareness that you,  A.  Exist.  B.  Provide Photography.  C.  Have a style they like.  The image above was sent out as an e-mail blast to around 100 people.  Why 100?  Because if you don't get a good response you might find out that people don't really respond the image.  Isn't it better if only 100 people see a ho-hum image to start with instead of 1,000? Next,  you could call to follow up with 100 people by making ten calls a day for ten days.  That's about as many as you can follow up with and not burn out.  And finally, you can handle those numbers without having to outsource to a bulk mailer.

I sent out about 100 of these e-mails as embedded pdf's.  I got two responses one business day later with invitations to show the book.  I booked a job on the second appointment.  In the next few days 14 people e-mailed me to comment on the mailer.  While it's not a huge response it's typical of the responses I get if I choose the right images and send out the right mailer.  

I think people send out a lot of e-mailers but I think campaigns should alternate between e-mail and direct mail and other kinds of promotions.  For every e-mailer campaign I do another print campaign to balance things out.  I recently had a series of 5x7 prints made at Costco for 29 cents a piece.  I sent out three prints in one envelope.  Each print has my website address and my tagline on the front.  (I just add the type to the photo in PhotoShop...).  The most telling response I get is, "Wow.  I love getting actual mail.  These days photographers seem to rely totally on e-mail.  I get a XXX number of e-mails a day and I don't have any real way of dealing with them or filing them for later.  If I like a print I can pin it up on the wall or stick in a physical folder."

The two questions I get most from other photographers are:   1.  How do you build a mailing list?  And, 2.  How do you decide what to send out?

To answer the first question, I have two strategies.   The first is that I've been building a personal list, one contact at a time, for nearly 20 years.  I meet someone, shake their hand, talk about the photography and/or advertising business and boom! they go into my address/contact book.  That's supplemented by buying a yearly list from Freshlists.  The first list is continuity and the concept that it's easier to sell to people who've already done work with you or know you throw referrals and social intermingling.  The second list exposes me to my (potential) new customers.  It's a nice mix.  Your friends get a mailer and call to tell you that you're a genius.  The new people start to get to know you.

When it comes to what to send out I follow the path of the greatest general emotional response.  Doesn't matter if I particularly like a piece but if three art directors all tell me that a piece is a favorite I'll use it mercilessly.  There's a strange idea afloat the you need to only show the newest stuff and that everything must be constantly updated.  I find that to be total and utter bullshit.  I think you should layer in "golden oldies" along with new stuff so there's continuity of marketing.  People may not remember you name but they may remember an image.  If you send it out frequently they'll find yo and use you if they like the piece enough.  Don't get me wrong. I think constant experimentation is great.  But I also know from studying advertising that you need to let an image sit and build for a while before you change it.  It takes a while to show up on people's radar even if they've seen it in passing several times before.

Bottom line?  If you are bitching about slow business and you're not mailing and e-mailing and following up then you must not REALLY want to be in this business.  But remember,  the mailing and e-mailing is bullshit by itself.  Those media are really just an invitation.  An opening.  What you really want.....and what really closes deals.....is sitting across the table and showing your portfolio.  And also showing off WHO you are and why they should care.  Even in the age of total internet most deals are done over coffee and a handshake.  Nothing else compares.

That's the end of my marketing sermon.  Now, back to our original programming......

6.28.2010

My friends are packing. Not heat. Cameras.

Summer vacation at Barton Springs Pool. Austin, Texas  (Sony R1 camera).

I'm the last person to tell someone not to buy gear.  I'm like the guy at the buffet table who likes everything and I'm always trying to slide it on my plate.  But even though I'm well stocked and hitting buffet table over and over again I'm not trying to slide the table thru the door and onto a plane.  Because I've been there and it's not pretty.  At some point in the parabola of passion that is photography we get the notion that we've got to have everything "covered".    Simple but insidious concept.  Like mold in that air conditioning evaporator pipe.  "Covered" means the inventory grows as you discover new stuff that fills in gaps you didn't even know you had before.  "Covered", when it comes to lenses means you've got zoom lenses and prime lenses that stretch to supply a focal length at every degree from 5 to 180.   If you are truly "covered" in the brainwash sense of the word then you've got the widest and longest lenses offered by your camera company of choice and no unavoidable gaps in the focal length continuum.

I know that no one intends to take every lens they own when they go on vacation but even to be "covered" from 14-200 means some hefty poundage.  Especially if you are partial to the f2.8 constant aperture zooms from Nikon and Canon or the f2.0 constant aperture zooms from Olympus.  I maintain that thru practice you could generally find three individual focal lengths that will do everything you really want and provide other benefits as well.  I am reminded that, for decades, the holy trinity of primes was something like: 28mm, 50mm and 105mm.  If you were a minimalist Leica shooter it was probably either 28mm and 50mm or the 35mm and the 90mm.  The zoom (r)evolution gives use more flexibility but at the cost of having to become a porter for the gear.

But as bad as the lens choice dilemma is the body conundrum may be worse.  And it's more insidious because in so many ways it's an intersection of conflicting benefits and detractions.  To that point, I have a friend who is a Nikon shooter.  He's going on vacation.  And he'll be doing a fair bit of traveling and hiking in another country.  He's lucky enough to have both a D3s and a D3X but his good fortune is also part of his travail.  He knows it would be crazy to take both.  Especially since the 24-70 2.8 and the new 70-200 2.8 are a foregone conclusion.  But how to choose?  The D3x, used at lower ISO's is perhaps the best imaging DSLR ever created and easily the most detailed.  But the D3s is very, very close in quality, has a couple stops advantage in low light and brings a smaller file size bonus to the table.  They weigh about the same.  Which one do you put in the camera bag and which one do you leave at home?    Then there is always the argument that you need a "back-up".

The back up craze is a wonderful boon for camera companies because it implies that cameras are inherently unreliable.  Most of us have racked up tens of thousands of exposures with lots of different cameras and I rarely hear of a failure these days.  Doesn't matter.  Every pro that's survived from the film days wouldn't be caught dead without a back up camera on a job and that seems to trickle down into the thinking of advanced amateurs who channel the pro vibes.  So, do you bring two D3s's or do you default  to the idea of a small, agile camera that's cheap and nearly expendable as your back up?  Something like a D5000.  If you were a Canon shooter you could default to a Rebel T2i as the back up for your 1DS Mk III.  If you go the first route, two D3s's then you have the weight to consider.  If you back up with a D5000 you have the additional second battery type and additional charger to think about.

Then there's the question of backing up the files.  Do you bring a laptop and back up to the hard drive and perhaps also to a DVD?  Certainly will make your evenings thrilling.....(Yawn).  The missus or mr. will be so excited.  "Oh boy, honey.  We can watch Baywatch in German, like God intended, while I burn these disks...."  Or do you buy one of those gold plated Epson back up appliances?  ( I find the price of CF cards at places like Costco are soooo cheap that it makes a lot more sense to buy ten or so cards and use them like old style film.  Use em up and put them aside and pull the next one out.)

Here's another interesting avenue to pursue:  Do you lean on the VR/IS in your camera or do you schlepp around a tripod.  And if you take a tripod, just how big and competent should it be?  If it's too small it ends up being a useless burden.  To large and it becomes a heavy, but more useful, burden.  Maybe that's why the people at Leica invented the ultimate table top tripod...

And then there's the luggage.  Unless you're planning on buying your vacation wardrobe abroad you'll be bringing a checked bag and then a bag full of camera gear.  Will it be a Think Tank airport Psycho with all the trim?  It's got to have rollers or you wear yourself down.  But the cases themselves are heavy.  Maybe that has you considering a Gura bag.

So why have I started on all this?  Well, I have a friend who loves photography and he and his wife are going to Prague and points east.  He's a doctor in Austin with a very successful practice so this is hardly a once in a lifetime trip for him.  He wants to take great photos but he also wants the trip to be enjoyable for his wife.  He's been worrying the travel inventory for a good while.  He called me over the weekend to pick my brain (or what was left of it after nearly a week without an air conditioner in my car......).

We did the logic thing.  One body, one lens.  In his case an Olympus e3 and a 12-60mm lens.  No flash. We talked about a tripod but I reminded him that everywhere he would want a tripod it was probably forbidden to use a tripod.  In the end we decided that the imperative was to enjoy the romance and not let a camera get in between.  That was the deciding factor.  That's something people don't think about.  Enough.

I've been doing this for a long while and have made many trips to shoot professionally and for fun.  And I've made trips with the family where I've taken only a point and shoot.  Here's my general advice:  If you are doing the job professionally take everything you know you will need.  Don't assume you can rent great gear in Lisbon or Tanzania.  If you are going on vacation with your family take a good snapshot camera with a wide ranging zoom lens and pass it around to everyone in the family.  Make sure to take a lot of group shots.

If you want to do art do what the big boys do:  Buy one plane ticket.  Choose your favorite (most productive camera).  Choose three of your absolute favorite primes or one zoom.  If you can do it with one prime--more power to you.  Then clear your mind and shoot without a schedule and without compromise.  You can't serve multiple masters.  You need to be clear about why you're traveling and why you have people with you or why you don't.

It's not hard to figure out but the desire to have it all is crippling.  Don't delude yourself, you can't do art on a schedule.  You can rarely do art with an audience and you'll rarely have fun running to catch up with the rest of the group.

It was interesting for me to have my behavior reflected back to me by another parent at a swim meet recently.  I was diligently shooting all the kids diving and racing during the swim meet.  Deborah, a parent of one of Ben's peers (my 14 year old son) came up to me somewhere near the end of the meet and she said,  "It's so fun to watch you.  You concentrate on getting pictures of all the kids.  And then when Ben gets up to swim you put the camera down and watch every second of the race.  You never shoot his races.  It's weird."

I know why.  I want the pure experience.  In the moment.  Not filtered by the camera and the process.

Have a nice vacation.

I thought this was professional gear.......

I figured out the almost fatal flaw of shooting Canon.  Maybe some of you really smart people out there can fill me in and educate me.  Lord knows I need it after this week.  Okay.  Where to start?  When I shot with Nikon you could ditch the silly "DCS...." at the beginning of every file and you could change the naming structure so that each camera's files had a unique identifier.  I called one camera KRT, another camera was D700 and a third camera was BOY.  And here's the important thing:  As long as I never reset the counter there was NEVER the possibility that I would have different files with the EXACT same name and number anywhere in my workflow.  Never ever.  I also knew which camera was having a maintenance issue because I could instantly identify troubled cameras by their three letter "call sign".

Seems eminently logical to me.  And to millions of photographers around the globe.  But not to Canon.  Canon will allow you to write copyright info to the metadata but you can't change the naming config. (If you can, let me know how---in the camera----and I'll send you a copy of my book.  One person only).  Who cares if you only shoot with one camera body?  But what do you do if you shoot two pretty new cameras like a 5d2 and a 7D?  When I shot my project on weds., thurs., fri. of last week I came home and started doing my regular workflow.  It was then I noticed LR 3 tagging some files with a "-2" which means that there's already a file in the folder with the original name.  Yikes.  I went back and looked at everything I shot and there was a 250 or so shot overlap.

So I went into the LR3 menus and figured out how to do a rename.  But it's a pain the butt because you have to conceive of a naming convention and make sure to keep track and reset for each camera you download from.  What a stupid idea.

My searches on the web were interesting.  I quickly learned that most people buy a re-naming program and run it on the folders after they are downloaded from the CF card to the hard drive.  Adding a big ole step.  And again,  you have to figure out a consistent way to tag the right camera.  So if you have  pocket full of CF's to download you are in a for a mondo fact finding session before you can get anywhere near messing with your files or doing any editing (in my book editing is "thumbs up or thumbs down" on images, not post processing.....).

I ended up buying the best reviewed of the renaming programs and I'm sure it will work fine but I shouldn't have had to do it.  It should be a simple matter to make the camera work for me rather than the other way around.  I guess this is in the same category as Nikon forcing people to buy Capture NX instead of bundling like Canon does with their software.  But what if you are in the field shooting for a magazine with two bodies and you need to do stuff quickly?

It just plain sucks and it makes me a bit angry.  What do you guys who shoot Canon do?  Don't tell me your whole workflow but what do you do to ingest images and how do you decide how they will be labeled or renamed?  These are pressing questions for me.  Last week, from Sunday to Sunday we shot nearly 4800 files.  I want to make sure that this first step (ingesting) doesn't screw up the rest of my workflow.  Anybody got suggestions?

Again, if I'm wrong, you know I'll apologize to Canon.   But if I'm right I'm sure I'm not the only one pissed off about getting dozens of menu options I'll never use but not getting the one feature that every pro would use.........

6.26.2010

If it's Tuesday Night it must be a dress rehearsal at Zach Scott Theater.....

I love the call from Jim Reynolds that starts with, "Well, The Drowsy Chaperone is opening on Thursday and I wanted to see if it's possible to get on your schedule for Tues. night so we can have you shoot the dress rehearsal."  Like they need to twist my arm.  If you aren't shooting for a great local theater you are missing out on big fun.  Yeah, you'll get some good press because your credit will be next to fun images that go viral all over town.  And yeah, you'll get to use some of the very best stuff in your portfolio.

It doesn't hurt that the actors give you better expressions and gesture than you'll ever find in a non-actor model.  Or that highly professional costume designers are doing your wardrobe for you.  Or that set builders are making things look great.  Don't forget that you've got a lighting designer making  your images look ultra dimensional.  Did I mention that you'll be helping a group of dedicated artists fill the seats and keep working in the field that they love?  Did a I mention that theater people throw the absolutely best parties imaginable?

But the real reason to shoot for a great theater in your city is the fact that you have a front row seat for the best drama, comedy and musical performances I can imagine.  I'll tell you a secret:  Belinda and I hardly ever go to movies anymore because live stuff is so much more exciting.  A movie is the same. Over and over again. But in the theater every performance is absolutely brand new.  A different interpretation.  And every night the actors put everything on the line.  No retakes.  No retouching.
This past Tues. I dragged a bag of gear over to the theater to do the dress rehearsal for the funnest and funniest play I've seen in a long time.  It was called, "The Drowsy Chaperone".  The cast was packed with Austin's favorite actors.  Meredith McCall, Scotty Rodgers, Martin Burke, Jamie Goodwin and many more.  Even with the IS technology in several of my lenses I had a hard time holding my cameras still enough because I was laughing so much.  Amazing.  I'm getting eight tickets for next Saturday night so I can enjoy it without any distractions.  Like full CF cards.
No doubt someone will want to know how I shot it.  I took the Canon's this time.  5d2 and a the 7d.  The 24-105 on the 5 and the 70 to 200 on the 7D.  Everything on manual.  Spot metering.  Color balance set at 3000.  Most of the files were shot at medium res.  I didn't use lights and a tripod would slow me down too much.  I just paid attention to hitting focus and hitting the timing.  That and getting the exposures right on the money. (Meter caucasian skin and open up 2/3rd's of a stop.  Meter white with vague detail and open up two stops.....etc.)
I'm back to shooting the theater stuff in Jpeg because it's so much quicker of a workflow and I get so many more images on a card.  I can shoot like one of those New York fashion photographers from the 1970's who had two guys who just kept loading identical Nikon bodies with film and handing them to the "artist" as he blazed through roll after roll.  I love to shoot a couple thousand shots during the dress rehearsal.  You never know what you'll catch.  I guess if I can to two or three rehearsals I'd know what to anticipate and I'd be able to pare down the take....but who's got that kind of time?
The important thing in shooting theater is to keep your head in the game.  There's always a cute actress you'll want to fall in love with.  You always end up fascinated by the good lighting that's being done.  And for people that are moving!!!!! But you've got to keep your head in the game.  Watching the action outside the viewfinder and anticipating the blocking.  Most importantly is to watch for gesture and expression and keep remembering that the money shot for the newspaper is two or three actors, close up, interacting with lots of energy. The love scenes.  The fight scenes.  The glorious finales.
Watch the backgrounds and keep an eye open for good color contrasts.  I love white on white with silhouettes in the background.  And I love stuff that moves.


And not much beats actors on roller skates.  The moment before the kiss is more exciting than the kiss because of the anticipation.  The lead up to a punch is more exciting than the punch.  And the lead up to implied sex is better than the stage version.  There's more emotion in wanting than there is in getting....
I go to a lot of theater.  I shot this play on Tuesday evening and the night before I was shooting a Shakespeare production at Richard Garriott's place  (yeah.  I'm name dropping.  Really, Shakespeare...) but when Zachary Scott Theater pulls out all the stops and does a big production musical comedy....well, they had me and my cameras at "Hello."  If you live in Austin and don't go see this you're either on life support or you don't know the highest and best way to spent your entertainment resources.


It's all worth it to see the reigning master of Austin theater, Meredith McCall, as.........The Drowsy Chaperone.

If you fancy yourself to be a photographer.  If you want more exposure.  If you need some other art in your life.  Find a theater to support.  They'll thank you, but.....you'll thank yourself.  

( I love the shot just above.  It's not my shot.  It's the best collaboration of a marketing director, a photographer, a prop master, a costume person, a lighting designer, a set designer and a great acting talent.  Beats sitting at home.)

Tested by the mischievous gods of photography.....a tale of relative woe.

Before I plunge into my "tale of woe" let's get one thing straight.  All hardship is relative.  I'm not for a minute suggesting that my set backs this week are anything more than a minor annoyance.  Compared to famine, disease, amputation or even a severe headache my travails are less than a mosquito bite on the ankle.  And a bite inflicted on someone with a very high tolerance for mosquito bites.  Still, it's interesting because life's foibles are part and parcel of the photo trade......


I was lucky to be asked to do a fun job by one of my favorite ad agencies last week.  I'd just finished a job for a tech company from the mid western U.S. so my brain was already cogitating in the sphere of industrial pictorialism and I was hungry for more.  I won't go into details about the shoot or the actual clients because I signed some NDA's.  But I'll give you the big picture.....

The job was ultimately for a company that does printing and just about every type of advertising delivery and mailing you can think of, with the exception of television and web content.  They own plants in several cities.  They own and operate web presses (not presses for the web but giant machines that print high volume stuff with ink on paper.....) and sheet fed presses.  Complex mail stuffing and sorting machines.  Pre-press machines and much more.  And they needed an assortment of photographs that would show how they span the chasm between good, old fashion high craft and very modern and very high tech integration of digital data.

I love shooting stuff like this and I love working for companies that produce a physical product because it's visual.  Can't tell you how many software companies we've done projects for that basically have nothing visual to represent their "product" but the wrapped box the program disks come in.  We shoot two basic things for those kind of companies:  People meeting.  People working at their computers.  In the shoot I just finished we got to shoot precision gears, pulsating metal rollers, sluicing ink, platemakers, pressmen pulling huge sheets and much more.  We did the IT think with people making data but the bulk of the job was real people using real mechanical machines to make real stuff.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.  I need to throw the woe at you first.  So, when you estimate jobs like this you have a few calculations that go something like this:  How much time will I spend shooting?  And post processing? And meeting?  And traveling?  And, ultimately, what sort of usage licenses are we conveying to the client?  We'd be shooting in Ft. Worth on the first day and Austin on the second day.

Ft. Worth is (on a good day) about a three hour drive from Austin so it makes a lot more sense to drive it than to wait at the airport, fight about baggage restrictions, get delayed, fly to DFW and wait for a rental car, etc.  I decided to leave Austin mid afternoon on Weds., meet with my client for a preproduction pow-wow in the evening at my hotel and then, refreshed, hit the ground running on Thurs. morning early.  It would be a full day and it didn't make sense to get up at 5am and drive up, shoot all day and drive back at night.  Especially with an equally big and important chunk of the job continuing in Austin on Friday.  Sounded good to all involved.

I had my car's oil changed and a good "once over" done by my Honda dealer the day before and they gave my car a clean bill of health.  I had a ripping good lunch at Sullivan's Steakhouse with good friend and art director, Greg, dropped by Precision Camera to pick up yet another lens and then, at 2:30pm I headed north on Interstate IH-35 for my dat with destiny.

I'm tooling along with the cruise control set at 70 and Elvis Costello's, "King of America" on the music machine when, up ahead, the tire of an eighteen wheeler goes "Kaa-blam!"  and sends heavy rubber shrapnel everywhere.  On particular piece is guided by the mischievous photo gods right into the lower right hand side of my windshield where it leaves a nasty scar of a crack.  Why do tires explode?  Not sure but I think some it has to do with high temperatures and that afternoon it was up around 100 degrees in the shade.  The car thermometer was telling me that the roadway temp was around 121 (f).

The sudden smack against the windshield sure woke me up.  I weighed the risks and my relative position and decided that the windshield was virtuous and would hold for the next few days.  My heart stopped racing and I pressed north.  Then the next shoe dropped.  I was 45 minutes out of Ft. Worth proper when the air in the car started to feel warm and clammy and then warmer and clammier.  I turned off the air conditioning and attempted to restart it which causes a grinding noise and made the car shudder.  The air conditioning gave up the ghost and joined all the other appliances that have let me down in a circle of hell where they no doubt wait for me to arrive.  Ready to put me to work......

Windows open, I press on into the maelstrom called Ft. Worth rush hour.  True to form, trouble comes in threes.  I was making good time in the heart of the city, looking for loop 820 when everything ground to a halt.  A truck driver flipped his rig.  All traffic was blocked for the better part of an hour. Which is generally just annoying when your AC works and you've got a handful of good CD's or something ripe and saucy on the iPod.  But with no water in the car and the temperatures on the asphalt in the Mojave Desert range I was getting a bit nervous.

I stumbled into the Courtyard by Marriott, handed over my credit card and begged for water.  I'd made it.  But what do you do when your schedule is tight and compacted over the course of three days and your horse is crippled?  My response was to suck it up, get the job done, get back to Austin, get the job done and then see to the car this coming monday.  It was a miserable drive back home.  It got hotter and hotter and the crack on the windshield got bigger and bigger.  But the bottom line is that I'm quite capable of spending time in the heat.  It was a matter of comfort and not safety.

But the responses I got from other photographers ranged from all over the place.  One suggested that I should have hired an assistant to pick up my car at the client's facility and spend the day shepherding it through the local dealer.  But there's never the guarantee that you'll get the car back on your schedule.  Every corporate person I talked to suggested, cavalierly, that I get a car service to pick me up, take me to the airport and that there simply must be a service that deals in stranded cars for busy execs. (I don't fall into that category).  Several wealthy doctor friends suggested that I should have just called my bank and whatever car dealer I favored and bought a new car and had it delivered to the workplace in time for the drive home.  No muss, no fuss.  One worn and battered old assistant suggested riding the Greyhound Bus but I'm not that cheap yet....

I guess it would be fun to hear what you guys would have done........  


The job went off without a hitch and the client couldn't have been more gracious. We shot 1500 frames in two days and I've already edited the take down to around 800.  In addition to the facilities and machines we also photographed their senior executives.  Everyone was so down to earth.  Another reminder that, perhaps, companies that make real things are a bit more grounded and nicely process driven......

It was a fun, old fashioned (pre-recession) style shoot.  Lots of moving around.  Lots of images and permutations of images.  Grizzled crafts people.  Bright technicians.  Lots of "show off" photo opportunities.  Given a choice I'll take industrial assignments every day of the week over just about everything else out there.

Your car, like your camera and your lights, is part of your kit.  I guess I need to start making contingency plans for transportation just the way I have back ups for everything else..........one more thing to worry about....

Best, Kirk

6.22.2010

Summer Time is Swim Time.

Ben's been on the Rollingwood Waves swim team since he was five.  Now he's fourteen.

In a week the Summer league swimming will be over.  We'll have an awards picnic at the pool.  We'll have a show of images using an LCD projector and some white seamless paper tacked to the side of a wall.  Kids will laugh at photos of each other.  Parent's will say, "Awwwwww.  That's so sweet."  when they see  random photos of their kids.  And things will calm down.    Then Summer will be over and Ben will be in high school and it'll be back to the endless studying and relentless projects.  He's taking a film class (movies) this year.  It emphasizes screenwriting.  But they also shoot a project.  And then Summer will be over and only the master's swimmers will come to the pool with any sort of regularity.  I'll miss it.  So I'm shooting a thousand images a week.  Trying to lock in visually what I feel emotionally when I'm at the pool.  It's so much more than swimming.  It's about growing up.  The tidal flow of life.

Don't remember the camera or the lenses.  Just the race.  And later, when I get in to swim, I imagine the same cool water across my face.  Maybe the only magic in photography is the power to condense so much into memory.

Wonking out with a blingy new lens.

Canon 7D with 15-85 used (with boundless enthusiasm at.......50mm.


So I convinced myself that I needed a lens that would cover a lot of focal lengths.  You know, a "walking around" lens.  And I convinced myself that, since the Canon 24-105mm lens was really computed and designed for full frame cameras that perhaps it wasn't really optimized to give me the very high resolution performance that an EFS (lens for Canon cropped sensor) lens might give me.  I pored through the test reports and then capriciously bought an EFS 15-85mm 3.5 to 5.6.  I would never have done it but the single best zoom lens I ever shot with on an APS sensor Nikon was the 16-85mm and I was hoping that this lens would be Canon's answer.  Big deal.  Almost all of my favorite shots are taken around 50mm.  Like the one above.

But I did shoot at both ends just to see what it would do.  Straight out of the camera there's distortion galore.  And vignetting to beat the band.  Not use to seeing that after using Olympus's better lenses for the last year... But, after I pushed the right buttons in LR 3 the lines straightened up, the corners got brighter (but not too bright) and everything settled down.

I'm not saying this lens is good or bad.  I kinda like it but that's more because I like the way it feels and looks.  When I shoot for pay I go with known good performing lenses.  But I'll keep pounding away with this one till I like it or sell it.  One thing though,  it's a great set of focal lengths.  About 22mm to about 130mm in one tube.  Groovy.

Here's what it looks like wide with some wild polarizing thrown in just to make it fun:
I love Texas skies when they're crystal clear and laden with big, puffy clouds.  And I always love walking around the downtown lake.

Here's from about the same vantage point using the other extreme of the lens:
You can see the above power plant in the wide photo, near the middle....

And, of course a tromp through Austin's downtown always leads me to the Frost Tower so I tried the long end on that as well:

Finally,  another 15mm frame of the hike and bike trail bridge and I was done with this most schizophrenic of all optics.....
No big assertions no big review.  I like all the focal lengths.  I don't usually shoot wide but sometimes it's fun to try it out.  I don't like the slow apertures at the long end but what are you going to do with a 5+X zoom?  I will say that the IS/VR operates as advertising.  Even with five espressos (an exaggeration meant to be funny and not serious) I could still hold most stuff still at 1/15th of a second.  In the heat.  Dehydrated.  During and earth tremor.  While standing on one foot.

Okay.

Old Tech. Sweet Tech.

I don't sleep much.  I like to stay up till one or two in the morning working on stuff.  Mostly post processing assignments and doing pre-production when things are quiet.  The dog usually comes out to the studio with me and sleeps on a purple carpet right next to the desk.  I like to get up in the morning in time for the early masters swim workout at 7am.  Sometimes I wake up late and go to the 8am workout instead.  But I guess the point is that I have time to think about stuff.  Maybe too much.  When everyone else in the house is asleep my brain likes to see what's new in the world of cameras......

I'm always interested in what's next but maybe to the detriment of "what's now".  Cameras are a good case in point.  I love the new stuff.  And there's a thousand ways to rationalize it.  Most rationalizations have to do with how much easier it will make my job or how much more accurate the screens on the backs are.  But sometimes I veer over the line and start pontificating about how much better the files are.  And it's true.  Camera files have increased in detail and resolution, and much of the noise and banding that plagued earlier digital cameras has been dealt with.

I've been shooting with a Canon 5dmk2 for the past few weeks and the files are, indeed, pretty spectacular. (not out to start a camera war so I'll pre-emptively say that the Nikon D3x files are probably even better!)  So, just when I'm thinking everything makes sense and I've got it all figured out I do something silly like rearrange my equipment cabinets and stumble across some old tech.

I pull it out, charge up some batteries (yes, in days of old a walk in downtown was usually a 3 battery adventure with many cameras and not just a 20% on one charge kind of thing) slap on an old favorite lens and head out for some shooting.  In this case the camera I stumbled across was the first really reliable, affordable (by some standards) full frame DSLR, the Kodak SLR/n.  Nice specs.  14 megapixels.  Lotta bit depth.  Good raw files.

Lots of downside too.  Horrible, horrible LCD screen.  Bad hump below the eyepiece made for an ergonomic nightmare.  The electronics sucked down battery charge like you wouldn't believe, even when the camera was turned off.  The ISO's above 200 were plenty noisy.  Over 400 they were  unusable.  There was sometimes moire.  And color shifts across the frame.

But.....it was a great camera.  Not to many menu choices.  And in its narrow window the colors and sharpness were superb.  I shot with it a couple weeks ago.  A bit downtown and a few portraits.  Toe to toe with the 5dMk2 for flesh tones and color.  The Kodak actually had deeper and richer color but I guess I could match the Canon to the Kodak with enough saturation, hue adjustment and steeper contrast curve.  But,  the fun thing is that it really is toe to toe in its narrow band of capability.  And this is a six year old camera in a field that changes every six months.

Not saying I'm going to head backwards to 2004 or that you should abandon your D3's or A900's.  Just a nod to some engineering that did a good job putting food on the table and making big, brilliant photographs for a couple of years.  I've sold a lot of cameras as the digital bus has lurched forward from pothole to pothole but for some combination of nostalgia and historical appreciation I've never been able to sell my two favorite Kodak cameras:  The DCS 760 and the SLR/n.  In a sense, the DCS 760 and it's ancestors going back in the fog of time, invented and codified our idea of professional DSLR's.

Sometimes it's fun to see how far we've come.  And all the ways in which we really haven't.

Photo with Kodak SLR/n and 50mm Nikon 1.1.2 lens.

6.21.2010

The Ten Trends I Am Fond Of.

Ten trends, products and things I DO like in 2010.  Not too controversial.....


1.  How about smaller and lighter cameras.  Anyone notice that the Canon 7D is nicer to use than the 5Dmk2 and that the 5dmk2 is easier to shoot all day than a 1dsMk3?  That an Olympus EP-2 is a hell of a lot more fun to shoot than an e3?  That less weight makes you less tired?  That we're mostly shooting digital and all the cameras should be smaller.  Thank goodness some of the camera companies are getting the message.  Not all pro cameras need to be designed for lumberjacks with hands as big as Frisbees.  Some people under six feet tall also pursue this hobby/profession.

2.  Laptops rule.  Desktops drool.  When my last big, hulking tower gave up the ghost I gave up having a fan cooled missle silo under my desk.  I'm not an IT guy.  I'm not "hot  swapping" drives and I'm not generally waiting for much except for slow loading websites and I have it on good authority that an i7 chip isn't going to hurry along a slow feed from a distant server.  In 2008 I went all lap top all the time.  And I love it.  Need to go into the field? Laptop.  Need to drive a big screen? Laptop.  Need to fiddle with crap and add your own gimcracks and whizzer retarders and biforcated omegavalve flux limiters?  Then you need a Windows tower and you probably don't have time to do photography what will the upgrades, patches and whatnot.  If my machine is running slow I can't tell.  Most times now all new Apple technology works so well it's just invisible.  I'm sure it's the same on the other platforms as well.
No more 10,000 rpm fan noise.  No more sticker shock.

3.  Cheap CF and SD cards.  The price of removable memory cards is falling quicker than the size of raw files is increasing.  Amazing.  For once it works out for the little guy.  Right now 8 gig cards are so cheap (and I'm talking the first tier brands) that they are cheaper than the price per frame of film.  In other words it would be equally cost effective, compared to film, to just shoot the cards and file them in the filing cabinet, using a new card for each project......That's amazingly cool.  Especially when you consider early digital adopters routinely spent thousands of dollars for cards measured in megabytes, not gigabytes.  We did the ground work.  You get the  pay off.

4.  Lens Magic.  Cameras and raw converters are getting so smart they are correcting for lens flaws on the fly.  Including PS5's raw converter.  Now we get optics that are 50% better just for upgrading our software.  Bonus if you shoot Nikon because the camera does it all, transparently.  Wow.  Better edges, no vignetting and more sharpness.  Like open bar.

5.  I know this is old news but I love photo books you can make online and have delivered to your house in a week.  They look good and they look cool and it's a great way to make gifts for family and clients.  Who would have ever thought your could have a custom, hardbound book full of color images and type for less than $100.  Less than the price of a decent dinner for two.  Unimaginable just a decade ago.....

6.  The iPad.  I don't have one but I love the idea because it's only a matter of time before my publisher gets all four of my books onto the ibook store.  Yes.  And I've seen that it's a great way to present video to potential clients.  More like this.  Plus I could run my whole business on a 32 gig model (without processing images, thank you.)

7.  God bless lights that are smart.  The Nikon SB900's, the Olympus fl50r, the Canon 580 ex2's.  Any of which can be used in groups, wirelessly, to do the kinds of things that we used to do with forty or fifty pounds of metal and explosively huge capacitors from Speedotron, Profoto and others.  With the new camera performance it's only a matter of time before we all go battery powered.  It just takes more coaxing to pull in the old guys.  I still have some big lights..........(but I love the little ones.....).

8.  VR & IS  "You say potato and I say potatoe".....    Virtual tripod in your lens or body?  What's not to like.  Seems to offset years of coffee drinking and what not.  Just remember to turn them off when the shutter speeds get higher or the camera lands on a tripod.  Don't cancel out your advantages.  This stuff really works.  Well.  So why am I racing to finish this so I can go pick up a new tripod?  (Because the ash wood Berlebach's are so cute... and they do IS/VR right on down to seconds and minutes....).

9.  Don't get me started on video capability.  I've done seven or eight projects so far this year with Canons and Olympae and it's amazing the quality and performance your can get out of these if you shoot certain syles.  If I were news gathering I might want a traditional vid cam but these are great for "on tripod" set up stuff.  Can't go backwards now....

10.  Price/performance ratios.  We're getting Porsche performance for Hyundai prices these days.  When I compare the cash we dropped in the early part of the century for six and twelve megapixel camera I can only grin and marvel at all the stuff we're playing with now.  Across the board.  Amazing how far digital has come in ten short years.  Amazing.

There's a lot more but I'll save it for another time.

Ten photo trends I am NOT fond of and ten that I AM fond of.....


Ten trends that I think are aesthetically unpleasing, or thoughtless or dumb..... Not that I've EVER been opinionated....


1.  Photo vests.  Isn't it time we lost the photo vests?  We don't have rolls of film rattling around nor little attachments that need cosseting anymore.  Zoom lenses have largely replaced the 20, 24, 28, 35 etc. lenses that used to sit, all lumpy, in our vest pockets.  Batteries last so long most of use carry only one spare.  Isn't it time to admit that, even if photographers wanted uniforms, that these would not be our top choice.  It's too hot for most of us in Texas to  even think of wearing them except as overcoats in January.  And who really wants to look like a greeter at Walmart?  If you need to wear them to shoot, well, okay.  But as around town wear?  Not likely.

2.  Giant camera bags.  Oh God.  You know the provenance of giant camera bags from Kata, Tamrac, Tenba and so on?  They were invented in an unholy collusion between chiropractors and camera makers.  Camera makers figure that the more pockets there are in a bag the more likely you are to stuff them full of new glass and bodies.  And that's a plus for their bottom line.  The chiropractors know you have a huge deductible on your real medical insurance so when your lower back finally gives out from carrying half of Sigma's inventory they'll suck you into weekly treatments.

3.  The guys who carry giant camera bags.  Ever covered a press event?  Most shooters have one camera around their neck and one over the shoulder.  The two cameras with complementary lenses cover just about anything.  Well.   So shooters can bunch together without knocking each other over and still get the shot.  And then, along comes the guy who doesn't get fashion cues or social cues but loves to bunch up the queue.  He's convinced that he'll need that 8mm fish eye and the 300-700mm zoom and they're all in the bag right next to something from Gary Fong and something else from The Endless Photo Gimmick Superstore.  He comes swinging the bag through the crowd like an elephant in an antique lens shop.  Takes up two places.  You can actually see his spine bending to one side.  People move away in case he snaps........Kinda like the guy on the two day trip who has a whole Samsonite Hard Luggage collection.  If it doesn't fit in the original Domke F1 bag it shouldn't be over your shoulder.

4.  Giant Prints.  Does crappy art get better when it gets bigger or is the new trend for big prints part of the aging process of the baby boomer generation.  Like large type and boxes full of colorful reading glasses.  If an image doesn't look good at 8x10 why would it look any better as a wall size thing?  Could we have a return to the idea of a hand holdable piece of art?  I think it's mostly a matter of wishing.  A lot of commercial guys bought wide carriage printers hoping the public wanted giant prints.  Turns out most of them just want the digital file.  Let's cap it at 17 by 22 inches unless there's a compelling space to fill.  And enough space to back up and take it all in.

5.  Smart Phones and dumb users.  This is the opposite thing.  The legions of people who come up to show you "this incredible shot" on the screen of their iPhone or the inferior windows equivilent.  It's what? two by three inches.  And they have it in their hands.  Which are shaking from caffeine poisoning.  And the sun is bouncing off the screen that you can't see unless you take your reading glasses out of your camera bag.  It looks like crap.  It will always look like crap.  And doing the thing with your fingers where you make part of the image bigger to show me just how sharp it is?  That's not working either.  Phone cameras are for you, personally.  It's a private thing.   Or, you could use the device to make phone calls.  (We don't encourage cellphone use.  most people are dumb enough without the risk of brain tumors......caveat added at attorney suggestion....getting ready for that class action thing).

6.  Technicolor vomit.  Doesn't sound good and it usually doesn't look good but they've at least cleaned the name up and now they are calling it HDR.  For some people being a photographer is just not enough.  They want to be artists.  As in painter type artists.  So they take their images and additional images of their images and put lace collars on pigs and glowering landscapes on the land of the Munchkins and gold foil on sunsets and call it art.   Now, just for  moment I'll admit that I've seen ten....maybe a dozen.... images made using "HDR" techniques that looked pretty good.  Amazing really.  A guy in Precision Camera showed me a small album last weekend that was great.  Very interesting stuff.  But that's a dozen out of the thousands.  Here's a new rule.  If it doesn't look good enough to take as a plain photograph puking color all over it really isn't going to help.  Nor is flattening out all the contrast.  (No, really, you are not increasing the contrast range.....honest.)

7.  Portrait bling.  This is an easy one and I'll admit, a matter of taste.  Not every portrait needs to be back lit, rim lit, and otherwise turned into a facsimile of a broadway stage show with can lights across the back of the stage.  If the light isn't motivated by the light we see in real life we get tired of it real quickly.  How many times was the "pull my finger" gag really funny??  Or the whoppee cushion.  neato.

8.  Gulliver's travels.  If micro-processors keep getting smaller and better then why are our cameras and lights getting bigger and heavier.  I like the smaller cameras like the Olympus Pens and the G series from Canon.  Can anyone explain to me why the D3 has to be so much bigger than a D300 or even a D700?  Why Canon's One series has to be bigger than any camera we ever shot with in the film days?  Do they really sell them by the pound?

9.  Open That Kimono.  Why are the big camera companies afraid of open standards?  Their raw converters have a tradition of sucking.  Not just sucking in terms of interface and operation but as in sucking away your life force as you wait for them to process.  Can't we all just get along?  Can't we all just use DNG?  My hard drive is littered with raw converters and no one has the time or budget to keep upgrading them all.  Maybe this is why so many people use Jpeg as their default.  By the time Adobe has their camera RAW profile ready they've already learned to use the camera and so don't need the "water wings for the unschooled" that Raw really represents.  Yes, yes.  Raw is so good for squeezing the most out of your shot......and you did use a tripod, a meter and mirror lock up, right?  Liar.

10.  Weird new camera straps.  One of my friends came up to me on saturday at Precision Camera (the book signing, remember?) and he had this big, black military looking strap worn bandolier style across his chest.  At the bottom of this one loop strap he had an Olympus EP2 dangling upside down by an attachment to the tripod socket.  As he stood there talking I stood there waiting for the screw to work free and the camera to come crashing to the floor.  It was basically a black, nylon web belt with one attachment point to the camera.  Of course you'd have to totally remove the strap to even use a tripod.  Great design, yeah?  Worn over one shoulder.  My friend looked faint as he stood there and I could see that the strap was digging into his carotid artery on one side, cutting off blood to his brain.  I wonder what cut off blood to his brain before he actually bought the strap?  Otherwise, why would he have bought it in the first place?

Why buy a better mousetrap if you aren't having a problem with mice???????

I'm too fatigued now to write about the trends I do like.  I'll have to do that later this evening while I'm processing those raw files.  The ones my friends told me to take because it would be superior to let the camera think about things instead of bringing a couple decades of experience into the mix and getting it right in the first place.......curses.

6.20.2010

I wrote this a couple of years ago for Photo.net. There's a link to the full article with photos.

http://photo.net/equipment/leica/summarit-m-lenses/review

Several people in the last week have told me that they've found M8's (not the M8.2's) for really cheap prices and they want to know what I think about buying them.  I sent them to this article with the caveat that much had changed since I wrote this and I know find several cameras that have much better image quality and more resolution for less outlay.  Even though some of the M8's are at fire sale prices.  I don't intend for this to be an endorsement of Leicas.  Just bringing up what was on my mind two and a half years ago when I got a box of Leica stuff to play with for a month.  Bottom line, in retrospect?  The camera could be better but the lenses are just fine.  So, for fun...........

Leica M8 and Summarit-M Lenses Review

A working photographer's review by Kirk Tuck
You’ve probably heard all kinds of opinions about the Leica M8 digital camera but most of them were likely based on conjecture, and on the widely circulated stories about the tendency of the camera’s sensor to turn certain polyester products purple when photographed in bright light. I wanted to do a hands-on evaluation because I’ve used Leica products since 1980 and I’ve found their optics second to none. I love the feel and the ergonomics of the bodies and I’m very comfortable with rangefinder focusing. I find the rangefinder focusing to be the second biggest selling point of these cameras, right after my regard for their astonishingly good lenses. I also wanted to try out the Summarit-M series of lenses, as they are a more reasonably-priced series of quality lenses from Leica.
So, what’s the Leica M8 all about? In a bare bones summary it is a digital version of the Leica M7 rangefinder camera with a few added attractions. That makes it a hand built, high precision rangefinder camera that takes a range of very well designed and produced lenses. It’s not an SLR. There is no moving mirror in front of the sensor plane, and rather than focusing through the lenses all composition and focusing is done through a viewfinder frame that shows the boundaries of attached lenses with bright frame lines projected into the viewfinder. It is the extension of the Leica “M” franchise that has continued its relevance in the world of photography for over five decades.
Since digital routed film, I’ve been photographing with a constantly evolving assortment of Nikon and Kodak SLR cameras. The current Nikon D700 is a wonderful camera which produces remarkably good files. The Nikon lenses are also very good. During this transitional period in photography I found myself constantly pining for a Leica “version” of digital. About a month ago a box arrived at my house and I found myself with a loaner Leica M8 and four of their new Summarit-M lenses. It happened on the same week that I took possession of my first Nikon D700. The coincidental appearance of the two cameras together led me to test them against each other in “real world” shooting situations. The results have been interesting, frustrating, fascinating and amazing. The Nikon D700 does everything well. The M8 does a small handful of things really well.
(For background information about the Leica Rangefinder M series cameras, please see my 2001 article on the Leica M6.)
It is amazing to consider how far digital photography has come in such a short time and how nice the files look. The Leica M8 has maintained its (admittedly niche) relevance in spite of its less than cutting edge technology. It’s frustrating to note just how much better the Leica could be. We’ll cover these issues in the course of this review. We’ll also take a good, hard look at four new lenses that Leica recently introduced that nicely rebute the idea that all Leica glass is only affordable by investment bankers, surgeons and oil sheiks.
If you’re anxious to get your own Leica set for hands-on experiments while you read this review, Amazon.com has the Leica M8 and Summarit-M lenses available.

Let’s start with a little background

The Leica company was “the” camera company in the world right up until the 1960’s. In the days before SLRs with “instant return” mirrors, Leica made the finest rangefinders available. They also made incredible lenses to go with their camera bodies. Rangefinder cameras were the gold standard because they offered very bright viewfinders and very accurate focusing for wide angle to moderate telephoto lenses. The typical photographer in the 1950’s got along very well with lenses in the 28mm to 90mm range. In 1954, at Photokina, Leica introduced a new style of rangefinder camera based on a new lens mount that has lived on relatively unchanged for over 58 years. The first model was called the M3 and that camera is still much sought after today because of its high magnification viewfinder, its relatively silent shutter and its bullet proof mechanical construction.
While current competitors talk about shutters constructed to go up to 150,000 or 250,000 exposures before failure, stories are legions of Leica M shutters going strong at a million or more actuations! The M introduced a new lens mount that allowed photographers to change out lenses very quickly, with less than a quarter rotation of the lens. The new mount also gave lens designers more room to work their magic with new generations of optics that, to professional photographers in that era, were amazingly good. I still use a dual range 50mm Summicron from the late 1950’s on my Leica M6 film cameras to this day with results that rival the best current lenses from Japanese companies.
Leica sold millions of M3’s and later variants of the body style but they made a few missteps during the early years of the 1960’s that left them in a precarious situation from which they have never fully recovered. They totally missed the idea that consumers would throng to SLR’s to gain features like, a much wider range of available focal lengths, the ability to compose and focus through the taking lens and, of course, the lower price of the new generation of cameras. Nikon started the ball rolling in 1959 with the well received Nikon F. Pentax added a system that allowed metering through the lens for greater exposure accuracy. By the 1970’s, Nikon, Canon, Pentax, Olympus and Minolta had pushed the entire market for cameras away from the rangefinder paradigm and drove consumers steadfastly into the arena of the SLR. Leica tried to gain back market share with several SLR product introductions but by the time they hit the market their offerings were perceived to be very expensive and a few years behind their competitors when it came to features.
However, in one part of the market, the Leica continued to be popular with street photographers and artists who needed a highly capable imaging machine that was both stealthy and quiet. It was always easier to focus fast, wide angle lenses with the M cameras and few machines beat them when it comes to quiet and unobtrusive operation. They were the cameras of choice for top photographers like: Henri Cartier Bresson, Robert Frank, William Klein, Lee Freidlander, Sebastio Salgado and many others.
These artists looked to the Leica M series rangefinder for three attributes:
  • the bright, easy to use, always in focus, viewfinder
  • the high level of mechanical reliability
  • the low aural and visual profile of the cameras, which helped the photographer work in a very candid manner
The next biggest reason to own a Leica rangefinder has always been the glass. Leica is one of the acknowledged leaders in the world when it comes to designing and building lenses for cameras (and microscopes). Leica earned this reputation by taking a lead in all areas of lens creation back in the 1950’s and never relinquishing that lead over the decades. When I wrote an article about the Leica M6, $1350 (review), for this site back in 2001, many readers posted opinions about the relative value of the brand but few refuted the technical sophistication and superiority of their lenses. Granted, most photographers don’t work with the highest level of technique that would make the differences between brands of lenses immediately apparent (tripod mounting, exact exposures, critical focusing, etc.) but many people did write to say that the effects of the Leica glass were “special”, “had a three dimensional quality”, “added a special feel”, etc.
If I were to distill what it is about Leica lenses that make them superior I would have to start with the design philosophy they’ve espoused for decades. The lens should be sharp and usable at its widest aperture! If you build an f/1.4 lens it should be usable at f/1.4. Most of their competitors build lenses with high apertures that could only be used in the direst of photographic emergencies and then with mediocre results. Leica’s designers also design for the way people look at photographs. Their emphasis is on high apparent sharpness and great rendering of micro fine detail. If they have to sacrifice things like extreme corner resolution or ultimate resolution, they will do so. They are lenses that are meant to be used rather than tested on optical test benches (although the high level of implementation also enables them to perform well in those arenas as well).
For example: A fast aperture, wide angle lens like the Leica 28mm f/2 Summicron-M, $3995 (review), is highly usable at f/2 with the center two-thirds of the frame being critically sharp. Stopping down one or two stops only serves to sharpen up the extreme corners of the lens. The Leica 75mm f/2 Summicron-M, $3395, is highly corrected across the frame at f/2 giving up only in the area of close focusing.
While Leica’s lenses are traditionally three, four or five times as expensive as lenses from their competitors, generations of working photographers (and very discerning amateurs) have not hesitated to buy them, knowing that the unique characteristics of these optics can be powerful differentiators in what is otherwise a very homogeneous marketplace. Here’s what Leica has done for us lately.

The Leica M8

They took the time-proven M series camera body and redesigned the guts to bring us a unique digital photographic tool. They worked with Kodak to include a very good sensor that yields some interesting trade-offs. The first thing you’ll notice about the Kodak 10.3MP sensor is how much dynamic range it has. It’s hard to blow out highlight detail with this piece of silicon. I captured samples of Noellia Hernandez drinking coffee and deliberately overexposed by one full stop. All of the highlight detail was easily captured when converting the industry standard .dng files in Adobe Camera Raw. This capturing technique, similar to the way we used to handle color negative film, also yields much cleaner shadow detail because it is captured much further up the curve where there are many more steps of shadow information.
The second attribute of the sensor is the very neutral, very film like rendering of color and tonal relationships. The more experienced photographer is not satisfied with high color saturation at the expense of fine gradations of tone and color. In fact, after spending several weeks with the M8 I couldn’t stand to look at files shot at “standard” settings on the Nikon D700. I wasn’t happy again with the D700 until I reduced the saturation settings and started using profiles that were custom produced for that camera.
Leica also took a good, hard look at the prevailing practice of putting “anti-aliasing” filters in front of camera sensors to reduce or illuminate moire patterns in the final files. Kodak has a history of producing cameras (like the Kodak SLR/n) that use no anti-aliasing filters in front of their sensors. While moire patterns do show up from time to time, these cameras have the appearance of producing image files with much greater amounts of fine and micro fine detail which, in turn, allows for greater enlarge-ability and a greater overall perception of quality. Leica chose to go only with an infra-red blocking filter in front of their M sensor and the results can be wonderful. The feeling of sharpness and detail is wonderful. The results from my Nikon D700 are also very good, but they are, to a certain extent, interpolated data. This means that the camera is making up information to give me the impression of sharpness. In some cases this works well. In other cases, not so well.
When Kodak designed this sensor chip for Leica they had to take into consideration just how close the back of a Leica wide angle lens could sit in relationship to the sensor. Since Leica lenses don’t have to be designed to compensate for the space required for a moving mirror they could optimize their designs and have the back of the lenses close to the film plane. When digital came along one of the obvious design issues was the difference between the way film and digital respond to the light coming through lenses.
Film doesn’t care about the angle that like strikes. It will engage at most any angle or direction. Digital sensors are a bit more finicky and require light to come into their pixel wells at a much less severe angle than can be handled by film. In order to keep the information of the sides and in the corners of the frames from falling off too quickly Leica and Kodak needed to come up with a way to compensate for the severe angles with which light strikes the edges of the frame. This is especially critical with wide angle lenses which already have a tendency to vignette as a result of their designs.
Their solution was to add micro lenses over the pixel wells to focus and deliver light energy in a more direct fashion. In a further enhancement the micro lenses over the outer areas of the sensor are increasingly offset to cope with the increasing angles of light. The result is a sensor that, in conjunction with software enhancements, yields files that are very even across the frame.

So, what are the inevitable trade offs in this sensor design?

Well, five years ago we would have pronounced this camera and it’s sensors performance as “state of the art”. But now we have cameras like the Nikon D3 and D700 and the Canon 5D to compare it to. The Leica/Kodak sensor is not a low noise champion. At ISO’s up to 1200 it is very well behaved and few would have issue with it’s noise performance. At ISO’s over 1200 it starts to become noisier and the old Kodak “blue channel”noise starts to intrude. The Kodak CCD’s pixels measure 6.8 microns and are not in the same league for low noise as the latest generation CMOS chips used in the Nikons and Canons. In my mind this is not a deal breaker for two important reasons:
  1. The camera doesn’t vibrate like cameras with moving mirrors, which gives about two stops more hand holding ability.
  2. The prime lenses have much better performance at wider apertures than most of the more commonly used high quality “pro” zoom lenses from Canon and Nikon, adding another two stops to the mix.

What did Leica get just right?

If you haven’t shot with an M series camera you certainly should seek out a dealer and play with one of these bodies. This is a design that they got “just right” over fifty years ago. It feels perfect in the hand and once you get the hang of the rangefinder and the clear, clean viewfinder you’ll be spoiled for using SLRs. It is also much smaller and lighter than other professional camera and lens combinations. Big thumbs up for design and the integration of new digital components into a trusted body style.
The shutter release on Leicas has always been exemplary. The M8 is no exception. A soft touch turns on the meter while a bit more pressure triggers the shutter. But it is important to understand that the point at which the shutter releases has a distinct feel that gives the photographer perfect feedback. The shutter fires exactly when you are ready to fire and not a microsecond before or after. And since the camera is manually focused there is never a time lag while the camera tries to figure stuff out. In fact, since there is no mirror to release the triggering of the shutter is almost instantaneous. From tap to snap the time elapsed is no more than 25 milliseconds. Nearly twice as fast as the Nikon D700! Less time lag means more direct control, more pure reaction. This is the Leica’s true high performance characteristic.
I think they got the shutter itself just right. All previous generations of Leica M cameras used a very simple and very robustly built, cloth focal plane shutter. It lasted forever and was very quiet in operation. The trade off was a very slow 1/50th of a second electronic flash sync speed and a top shutter speed of 1/1000th of a second. Forget about using one of those shutters for fill flash in just about any situation! In the new M8 Leica switched to a metal and carbon fiber composite focal plane shutter offering the same high reliability but giving users a top shutter speed of 1/8000th of a second (the previous shutter topped out at 1/1000th of a second) and a flash synchronization speed of 1/250th of a second, which is very competitive. The trade off is a bit more mechanical noise from the shutter. But it is still quite low when compared to the obtrusively dynamic shutter noises that thunder out of myD700 body—and there is no mirror slap to add to the sound.

Leica got their new series of Summarit-M lenses just right.

Here’s the deal. Leica has always made the finest high speed lenses in the 35mm market but the trade-off has always been the ruinously high cost of those lenses. This limits the number of people who can afford to use the Leica as a system. For years, Leica enthusiasts have hammered away at Leica trying to convince them to make a line of more modestly specified lenses at a much lower cost.
While high speed glass with sharp maximum apertures provides a look and feel to images that can rarely be equaled by competitors, there are many situations in which high performance at large apertures is not necessary. Typically, the depth of field at full aperture is razor thin, limiting the usefulness when more than one subject needs to be sharply focused. The interesting aspect of lens design is that it is much easier and much less expensive to design and produce lenses with less ambitious apertures. In fact, the complexity of a lens design generally is thought to increase by a factor of four for a one stop speed increase.
Part of the increase in complexity and cost in lens design is the need for extremely high manufacturing tolerances as the diameter of lens elements increases. The short version is that it’s possible to make very high performance lenses with more modest apertures, at a fraction of the cost of more esoteric lenses! That is just what Leica has done. Over the last year they have introduced four new lenses for the M cameras. The lenses are all called Summarits. That’s the name Leica uses for lenses that have maximum apertures of f/2.5. The new lenses include: 35mm, 50mm, 75mm and 90mm. The barrel designs of the 75 and the 90 are very similar to the Leica R lenses and include rubber focusing rings. The 35 and the 50 are both very reminiscent of Leica lenses in the same range, designed in the 1970’s and 1980’s. They each have a protrusion, or a “finger grip” that provides a good purchase on the focusing ring to facilitate easy focusing in-spite of a fairly narrow, metal focusing ring. Compared to SLR lenses all four of the Summarits are tiny; the 35mm and 50mm especially so.
The construction is flawless and each lens has a heft that belies its size. Even so, the entire quartet of lenses and an M8 body together will tip the scales at only around 2.5 kilograms!

How the Summarit-M Lenses Stack Up

All four of the Summarit lenses share the same neutral color and contrast characteristics. Except for the angle of coverage you would be hard pressed to believe that you were seeing images from four different lenses! Here are the family characteristics:

High Sharpness

High sharpness across the full frame at full aperture, even higher sharpness when stopped down! The 35mm needs f/5.6 to achieve highest sharpness, the 50mm is eyeball slicing sharp at f/4 and the two longer lenses are just right by f/3.5. When I say they are sharp I mean that even my best and latest Nikkors can’t compare.
I shot one test of a model using the Leica 50mm at f/5.6 and the new, Nikon 60mm AFS Micro at f/5.6 and they were very close. The Leica had a certain impression of sharpness that, to quote many Leicaphiles over the years, actually looked, “three dimensional”. There was nothing wrong with the rendition of the Nikon lens but its interpretation seemed clinical and lackluster in direct comparison with the Leica 5o.
Of course, we weren’t comparing apples to apples as the Leica had the advantage of drawing on a sensor that didn’t have an anti-aliasing filter dumbing down the detail. It would have been interesting, but outside the scope of my capabilities, to adapt the lenses so that they worked on each company’s camera bodies for the sake of comparison. However, when reviewing digital cameras and lenses it is important to change one’s mindset and evaluate the body and lenses together as a unified system. That is the way they will be used.

No Flare

I shot with the lenses for a month in the bright Texas sun and never saw even the slightest hint of flare. That stood out to me. In my Nikon system there is an inertia toward using zoom lenses. They offer so much flexibility. If we never compare the zoom lenses to anything else we generally find the performance convincing (or like so many aspects of digital images, we find it to be “good enough”). The reality is that the large number of elements in a modern zoom makes them flare “magnets”. If there is flare a complex zoom lens will find it. One of the advantages of prime lenses is their much simpler construction. With fewer elements and fewer glass surfaces these lenses are much more flare resistant. This is not just seen in the absence of classic diaphragm reflections in the images it also makes a lens much clearer and more “contrasty” by eliminating the “veiling” effects of less dramatic flare. Any amount of flare degrades sharpness, contrast and color saturation. I can see these effects when I compare a lens like the Nikon 50mm f/1.8D AF Nikkor, $125 with the Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8G ED AF-S, $1740. In many instances you can see a noticeable increase in lens performance with just the addition of an efficient lens hood.
The best compliment I can give to this family of lenses is that in most cases, they are as good as their much more expensive Summicron and Summilux brothers and sisters. In my opinion, the 35mm Summarit is slightly superior to the 35mm Summicron, but it does give up nearly 2/3rds of a stop. I wouldn’t hesitate for a moment to use any one of these lenses instead of the high-priced spread.