My friend Wyatt is having a show at the Gallery@Lewis-Carnegie at 1312-B E. Cesar Chavez in Austin, Texas. The images are from a ten day shooting trip he did with a writer named, John Morthland, through Mississippi way back in the 1990's. They were working for a magazine on a story about musicians in Mississippi.
All of the images in the show are black and white. The prints were done digitally by a master printer at Agave Gallery from black and white negatives that started life in medium format cameras from the time period.
The show opened on my birthday. Belinda and I went by the gallery to find Aaron Franklin of Franklin's BBQ slicing gorgeous hunks of brisket for Wyatt's guests (this being the BBQ equivalent of having Willie Nelson playing at your opening.....). The royalty of the Austin photo community all showed up. The energy in the courtyard was amazing. But the work was even better. Many of the prints were of older, African-American musicians and all 40 of the prints were square; from square format film.
How good is this show? Well, I consider myself to be two things: First, a really good critic of photography, and second, a really tight-fisted person when it comes to spending money on anything but cameras, good wine and lenses. I walked into the gallery, took a spin around the show and immediately pulled cash out of my wallet to buy a print that just hit me right between the eyes. Perfect content, perfect execution and perfect printing. Cash money to buy work from another photographer (which is one thing we might consider doing more often). My logic? Buy work you love from people who are better artists than you and learn by osmosis...
The show is really, really good but it's only running through the 10th of November. If you are one of my Austin photography friends you need to get your butt over to the gallery and check out the beautifully done prints. Just seeing the prints is a master class in understanding what is possible in the printing arena. Seeing what's in the prints is even better.
For all my VSL readers outside Austin I went by today and shot an interview with Wyatt. He talks about the show, the experience of shooting it and, for all the gear appreciators, he even delves into technique. I'm booked to shoot a conference on Sunday evening, Monday and Tues. but I'll try to have the video edited and up by the end of the week. I loved the video footage (from a gear nerd perspective) and the audio from my AT 835 shotgun microphone was really good. Can't wait to cut it together.
Go see this show. So refreshing to have a photographer make a statement with actual, physical work; shared with all comers, instead of just a stream of pontifications on a blog...
©2016 Kirk Tuck.
I've been on a mission lately to photograph the people I find interesting. I met Rebecca at a rehearsal for Priscilla Queen of the Desert and I loved her energy and her quirky beauty. Earlier in the week I sent a message to her asking if I could make a portrait with her. She responded quickly and we set up a time for today.
This morning I was making marketing photographs at the theater of Jaston Williams, one of the originators of A Tuna Texas and Greater Tuna, and after we were done (wonderful shoot, images to follow) I walked over to the big Topfer Theater and scouted a good location in which to make Rebecca's portrait.
I chose the second floor V.I.P. lounge and used a combination of ambient light, streaming through floor to ceiling windows, and two continuous lights shining through a 50 inch circular diffuser. I used one more circular device, a 48 inch round, black flag to add a shadow to one side of Rebecca's face.
I used a longer than normal lens (135mm) on a full frame camera and tried to stay in the range of f2.0 to f2.8, which required shutter speeds around 1/125th of a second with an ISO of 320.
I wrote about the importance of chairs earlier this week. What an odd topic. No, we won't be starting an affiliate relationship with a furniture store....
A while back I had a walk-up studio in an un-air conditioned hotel in downtown Austin. It was primitive but then so was Austin at the time. There was a couple who shared a space across the hall from me. They converted their studio to a live/work space, which required a level of suffering in the Summer (from the heat) and the Winter (Because the only shower was a cold water hook-up outside in the courtyard at the back of the building.
Since we were all in the same big building we leaned on each other for artistic support. I would often have them over to my studio when I needed to practice my lighting or work on posing. When I was ready to move on from that space they presented me a with a chair they'd found. The seat had been recovered with several different textures of leather and they had carved "R&P" onto the back. It stood for Robin and Paul.
That was the chair I was referencing in the previous post. I loved that chair and used it for dozens and dozens of portraits. It was just the right size for most people. Sitters seemed to sink in and come to grips with the chair quickly. I hesitate to say it but I think it had some sort of posing magic in it.
Eventually the chair disappeared. I guess that happens to magic stuff. But I keep my eyes out even today for a replacement. As you can see in the image of Mousumi, above, the chair gives people a resting place for their hands and helps to anchor them in the scene. Most of my favorite, mid-1990's portraits were done with this chair somehow incorporated as a prop or a posing tool. I'm at a loss to explain why I have been unable to find another one to replace it...
On another note someone wrote that they enjoyed seeing the latest stream of portraits EVEN THOUGH they were done on OBSOLETE equipment and with dead processes. Sorry, I don't see it that way. While I know the tools help to drive practice I have to say that changes in my portraiture have more to do with the acceleration of culture that we are living through.
People seem to be more frenetic and rushed and the idea of settling in for a half an hour or an hour of conversation and experimentation just seems out of most people's mental reach these days.
I recently watched a movie called, Shakespeare In Love. I've watched it several times before and each time I walk away amazed at the brilliance of the movie and a new idea about life and process. I've come to believe that most of the great art through the ages was created by people who rejected distraction. They worked at a pace determined by the art and the process itself instead of working to external deadlines and irrational and breathless hurry. If Shakespeare was alive today he'd no doubt be rushing from meeting to meeting, from coffee shop to coffee shop and answering messages so often that something would have to give. Probably the Sonnets. And maybe, after the first successful play, he'd be paralyzed by the process of giving profitable playwriting workshops and never write another.... But maybe he was so mindful of his process that he might be one of the few who could turn off the distractions and work without regard for the invitations for interruptions.
Artists seem to work with a mindfulness that's almost entirely missing from the frantic lives so many of us engineer for ourselves. We'd like to write a book or paint a painting or create a body of work but we reflexively answer our phones, send cascades of vapid texts, compulsively check the weather and our stock portfolios on a parade of screens. On iPads, Laptops, phones and even the obnoxious TV screens infiltrating restaurants (like a nasty plague) we are glued to streams of information that are irrelevant to our own best interests and our day to day lives. Everything adds up to keep us from our real work.
I am amazed at friends and acquaintances that watch sports on TV for hours and hour a week. What a horrible way to bleed down the clock of life. Watching endless newscasts via CNN on a big cellphone is just as bad.
People's work has changed not because digital cameras are amazingly different tools but because everything conspires to quicken (and cheapen) the basic process of creating work. Instant review robs us of continuing to experiment because we think we have "something decent" in the tank. Post processing has become archly codified and almost automatic. And without sufficient time to sit quietly and ponder the unique flow of our individual lives everything becomes homogenous. The constant pull of the devices in our lives robs us of so much and replaces it with so little.
I did a portrait of an actor yesterday. He came into the session with the idea that I expected him to be efficient. He was ready with outfits and he was ready to pose. We started talking and sharing life experiences and then we started photographing in drips and drabs and when I finally slowed him down he began to smile and gesture in a genuine and authentic way. When we ended up the session he was amazed at how focused we'd become during the session and how different it turned out to be than the sessions he'd done with photographers recently.
For me it was a re-learning experience. I re-learned that one of the things I need to control in a portrait sitting is the pace. That's something I do have control over. I also need to create space for a genuine connection. In deference to the idea of mindfulness I left my telephone on the dining room table before getting in my car and traveling to the theater. I didn't even want the pull of the phone from my glove box, quietly coercing me to check messages, check updates, check to see if people still like me, to check and see if I am still "connected."
It's a subtle thing but having the intention to concentrate is pretty vital to a pure process. Anything you can do to eliminate distractions from what is right in front of you is a valuable move. It's not enough to turn something off because its very presence and availability is a temptation. A phone in the pocket is an invitation to break concentration during a costume change and change mental gears toward reaffirming something different --- your fear of being left out, or becoming micro-uninformed.
My exercise in leaving the phone totally behind made a difference to me. Sure, if the actor called to cancel I would not know until I got to the theater and someone gave me a message but I'd already blocked the time and it's not like a client will call in a panic and try to book an emergency shoot...
I might have had car trouble and it might have been good to call to let people know but really, car trouble is rare with modern cars. There really is no reason for us to carry phones all day long. If we keep them in our pockets we're probably giving ourselves butt cancer (if you keep the phone in a back pocket) or we're frying our upper thigh (in the front pocket). But the intention to carry the phone around is an invitation to becoming distracted and fracturing your attention to process.
Back to cameras. There is some stuff we learned to do with film that created interesting work but none of it is beyond the capabilities of modern cameras, if we are comfortable with shooting images that don't look good on the review screen. By this I mean that one of the many reasons we had unique art in the film days is that people didn't judge the intermediary part of the process. We knew that creating really flat negatives gave us opportunity to control contrast and preserve highlights in a very unique way. We can do the same thing with digital files if we aren't so compulsive about seeing a perfect histogram and a perfect review file on our camera screens. Heck, we could even shoot in one of the video S-Log settings to good effect. But it's the willingness to delay our visualizing gratification and accept processes that might take a number of steps to reach fruition that are important. And it's our acceptance of possible failure that allows us access to make interesting (from a technical point of view) images in the first place.
The emphasis everywhere now is on perfect files in the camera. Post processing is little more to many than making sure everything is brutally sharp and exposed within conventional parameters. Give me a flat and nasty file that has promise and I'm betting the image will be more interesting.
If you feel pressed for time to do your work and do your art I suggest you have two paths. One is to give up taking pictures and find something that occurs in smaller portions in order to occupy your time. The second would be to cut off the cable TV, turn off screen devices of all kinds and leave the phone in a drawer when it's time to really think clearly and produce. The distractions are not a positive feature but a insidious tool that creates resistance in nearly everything we try to do.
More time spent thinking and more time spent experimenting. These things should be our goals.
Just a thought on my birthday.
Finally, I do like the old work. But I like the new work I am creating just as much. You might not appreciate it the way I do but that's why you get to do your own work....
Not very hard to guess the camera.
I've been in a bit of a funk lately. Clients keep calling me to do portraits but mostly they want me to shoot against white so they can drop out the background and paste the image of the person into some other background. I get it. I lived in advertising world for years and my spouse still heads into an agency everyday to ply her art direction and design skills. But really....what happened to the idea of a holistic portrait?
Well, I figured I could either sit around a bitch about it or I could do what we have always done; get off my ass and self assign. I sent around some messages to a couple actors I've seen lately and nailed down three portrait shoots this week that should be interesting. Each of the people I've chosen is quite different from the other two. All are wonderfully talented actors. One is from Boston, another from NYC and the third is a person who tours nationally but happens to be in town to rehearse for an upcoming holiday production.
There's no client, just me and my collaborators. We'll attempt to do these portraits exactly the way they should be. I've got my gear picked out and my batteries charged up. One shoot tomorrow, two on Friday. Hope to have images post processed and ready to show next week.
A re-learned lesson: If you have pretensions of being an artist you sure as hell can't wait for people to throw inspiration into your lap...
The image above is of a musician from Austin, circa 1994. She was dating a friend and we arranged a shoot in the studio. The background reminded me of two things: Our studio downtown was huge! We could set up three or four portrait areas at a time, or back up nearly 50 feet from the background to drop everything out of focus. Second, the place was always a mess ---- even when we cleaned it up. There was always a pile in one corner or another that we called "transitional piles." Stuff that we weren't finished with yet...
Some stuff never gets done.
By the way, just listened to Bob Dylan's Album, Blood on the Tracks. The track, A Simple Twist of Fate, should have been enough to qualify him for that Nobel Prize.
Mr. Tuck will be taking Thurs. off from blogging and rational thoughts ---- he will be writing in the third person only in order to celebrate yet another birthday. My big plan? Ask the swim coach if we can swim 61 X 100 yards on the 1:30 to celebrate. Then nap. Better take my vitamins.
Portrait of Renae. One large softbox. One grid light on the background. An intense conversation. A practical chair.
One of the nice aspects of being a photographer in the age of film and slower processes was the need to have an assistant more or less full time in order to do our work. During the few slow moments a good assistant made for a great stand-in or a good model with which to experiment with everything from the films we used to the chair in this photograph.
This was taken in the pre-production phase of a project that required (art direction) a dozen or so seated portraits for a university. We were actually experimenting with which chair we would use for comfort, consistency and a more or less anonymous profile. It was a burgundy colored, red leather chair that we found at a nice furniture store. We did end up using it for our assignment and then it became the "take a break, sit down and read a book" chair at the studio until we moved and downsized. I've forgotten what happened to the chair but I know it didn't make the transition with us.
Funny that a chair could have been such a critical feature in a photo-shoot when, in fact, it was more or less hidden by nearly every portrait sitter who participated.
Photographers as a group tend to severely underestimate the visual and posing value of their furniture. I love good, old dining room chairs that aren't big and heavy. They are wonderful for those Texas subjects who like to sit backwards on their chairs and lean their arms on the backs...
Chairs. Good props. But they will never generate the debates and enthusiasm of a good, Nikon vs. Canon or DSLR vs Mirrorless discussion.
I laugh at myself when I come across older portraits that I did way back in the prehistoric times of photography. I am certain that, just like now, I searched out the sharpest and most wonderful lenses I could find for my Leica R series cameras. I am equally sure that I focused images with great care, and then I went into the dark room and post processed them with vignetting filters, Pictrols, wax paper and fllters partially covered with Vasoline. I spread out the highlights, killed the super fine detail, distorted the edges of the frame and caused light to bounce around erratically. And then I like the image. Now that it's so much easier to make all kinds of post production "enhancements" it seems that the thrill has dissipated somewhat. I'm working harder on finding a mix that I like.
But I guess my real point is that putting all the upfront emphasis on the "magic" lens or even the "perfect" camera seems a bit nonsensical if the latent image is just a starting point...
This morning's swim. I was right on time for once for the Sunday morning swim practice. I think I was even a bit early. There were five or six cars in the parking lots when I pulled in. I opened up the hatchback of my car and pulled out my swim bag and towel. Then other people started getting out of their cars and we walked over to the front gate. It was locked. Never a good sign.
We milled around and told each other that the coach might just be running late. A few minutes later the tennis pro came over and unlocked the gate. By then there were probably 15 or 20 of us but still no coach. We decided to go in anyway and pull the covers off the pool, get our suits on and get ready. One of our Saturday coaches pulled up. She was coming to workout as a participant and not a coach but she bit the bullet and decided to sub in for our missing person. (Thanks Kristen!!!).
By the time we had the covers off there were close to thirty people heading to their preferred lanes and doing their little rituals with their goggles.
We did an interesting variation for part of the work out today. We usually swim sets with defined distances and defined intervals but today we swam sets with the command line to swim as far as we could go in three minute chunks. If you were fast you might cover 250 yards in three minutes and still have ten seconds rest. We were resigned in my lane to aim for 200 or 225 yards per three minutes in my lane. If you really missed the yardage in the allotted time you dropped 25 yards on the next round.
Just as an aside for fellow swimmers on the blog: I am experimenting with two things which seem to help make me just a little faster. First, I am pulling down deeper after my catch so my arm stroke, overall, goes deeper down in the middle of each stroke. Second, I am trying to hold my hand position more rigidly and with less "give" than I have before. Being mindful about hand and wrist strength seems to make the front end catch and the back portion of the arm stroke more efficient and faster.
I know it's working when I look at the time clock and I am reinforced in that belief when I wake up the next morning and am "muscle sore" as opposed to joint sore.
I stayed in for part of the second workout this morning to work on my butterfly. I will be celebrating a birthday this week and wanted to set some new goals for the upcoming year. I thought I'd take stock of my favorite stroke. I also wanted to get to 5,000 yards this morning. It makes up, a bit, for the swim I had to miss last Thurs.
Older Leicas ruled.
Modern camera meets ancient lens. It's all good. The Sony a6300+Olympus PenF 25mm f2.8 (Half frame).
I gotta say, I think there is much more of a visual difference between various lenses than there is between camera sensor looks. I see it when I interchange older lenses and newer lenses on the same camera body. A recent, Zeiss 24-70mm f4.0 on the Sony a6300 renders very clean colors with open shadows and, since the camera corrects for lens faults automatically everything seems geometrically rectilinear and sharp. When I put a film era lens on the same camera the shadows tend to block up, the saturation can be much higher and while the resolution isn''t the same the sense of smoother, richer color transitions comes through. There is a heaviness to the older film era lenses that isn't a fault or design flaw but a consciously designed look. Maybe it's a look that is no longer in style but in an age where lens design can sometimes seem in lockstep (output wise) from maker to maker it's delightful to have more choices.
These images come from one afternoon when I got curious about what the a6300 would do with the 25mm f2.8 Pen F Half frame lens from 45+ years ago on the front of it. I expected less. I got more.
The top image shows what I've come to think of as a classic older lens design look. It's really sharp but not in a high resolution way (there is a difference between apparent sharpness and total resolution. It has to do with the intersection of tones. Think in terms of big radius vs. small radius in sharpening...). The older lens gives a high impression of sharpness but digging in to 100% shows less superfine detail than I might get from a new formulation.
I think one reason that the lens performs as well as it does in the above image is that I'm using it with the light behind me (no chance of flare or veiling glares) and I'm using the lens at f8.0, an f-stops that's almost guaranteed to make any lens look good. I love shooting this old, manual focusing gem with the new a6300 body because I can punch in to magnify, and even set a hyperfocal distance, and then walk around shooting without having to worry about refocusing as long as I stay in the same camera-to-subject distance parameters (as dictated by depth of field).
The lens has plenty of barrel distortion which is NOT corrected by the camera but, since it's not a modern lens design (with attendant physically uncorrected compromises) it's a very simple barrel distortion with no "mustache" wavy lines and so it's a quick and easy correction in Lightroom or Photoshop. (See below).
The lens itself is much smaller than modern lenses and is attached to the a6300 via a very small and inexpensive adapter ring. The lens is 100 % metal body construction and the glass on my copy is clean and sparkly. Remember that the lens DOES NOT cover a full frame sensor and, on an APS-C sensor provides the equivalent field of view as a 37.5mm on a full frame camera. A bit short for me but just right for those folks who swear that they love a 35mm lens on their full frame rig.
Looking back to 1985 when I bought this lens I am happy to report that I spent a whopping $48 at KEH.com and it came in pristine condition. I still have my collection of Pen lenses and often think of buying one of the new Pen F digital cameras just to use with the collection. It's a novel approach to creating a system.
But I will say that I do think the ancient lens works very, very well in the new world of high res and well behaved sensors. I think I'll continue to keep it...
It's odd to make an investment in a system and then have that system go away. The earliest I knew of this was back in the film days when Canon changed their lens mount from the FD mount to the EOS mount. They bit the bullet and made the change because the Canon engineers were convinced that the narrow diameter of their camera's FD mount would restrict their ability to design fast and long lenses. Rather than compromise on optical performance they instead pissed off the legions of photographers who had made vast investments in bodies and lenses. And they gave Nikon (same basic mount for the last 10,000 years) a goldmine filled with marketing ammunition.
In the long run it proved to be a prescient move as it allowed them a free hand in lens design and allowed for a flexible electronic interface that made their transition from film to digital that much easier.
More recently Olympus orphaned their Four Thirds cameras (the ones with traditional moving mirrors) in favor of a Micro Four Thirds mount, a move necessitated by the change in the way the cameras auto focused and the amount of space between the back of the lenses and the actual sensor. I can't imagine you were a happy camper if you had just migrated to the older system right before the switch and had just sunk significant money into a couple of E-5 bodies and some lenses like the 7-14mm f2.8, the 14-35mm f2.0 and the 35-100mm f2.0. All incredibly good lenses that never worked as well (focusing) with adapters and the newer EM cameras.
While the lenses would likely last for decades and give the same ultra high quality performance you would be stuck with whatever the final and most advanced camera in the system might be. In the case of Olympus it was the E-5 with a 12 megapixel sensor and a few glitches, like a penchant for back and front focusing. If you were hellbent on staying with your system I guess your short term workaround would be to go out and buy as many remaindered cameras bodies as you could so you would always have a workable candidate to put behind the lenses. But you would never be able to take advantage of the advances in sensor design that have occurred since that camera's tenure in the market. Still, if you are willing to deal with manually focusing the lens you could upgrade to the EM-1 family and still use the optics in which you've invested. So, not really a totally orphaned system.
I was an enthusiastic Contax user in the film days and when they finally closed out the Contax RTS iii and it was apparent that no further development of that mount would occur I was stuck with the choice of trying to soldier onward or take my losses and change systems (again). It would be nearly a decade and a half later when those gem like Contax, Zeiss lenses could be used once again on a camera. In this case a Sony A7rii. But even before the end of film snuffed out the Contax line they also changed mounts in mid-stream, from the Y/C mount (Yashica/Contax) to the Contax N mount. Another engineering move to a wider diameter mount.
The latest (and I think most egregious) brand abandonment came last year from Samsung. As recently as 2012 they talked about becoming the number one or two best selling camera company in the world. About two years ago they introduced their flagship camera, the NX-1, along with an assortment of lenses aimed squarely at professionals and hard core hobbyists. They induced thousands of people to trade in their existing (working) cameras as partial trade up to the new system. They spoke in terms of fleshing out the line and going after the "big guys." There were a few stumbles with the NX-1. It used a new video codec that was a real computer basher. Had they stuck with a conventional codec it's entirely possible that they could have given Panasonic's GH4 a real run for the money with video people. In the purely still photography realm the camera, by most accounts, was a stellar performer. The sensor was detailed and relatively low noise. It also boasted dynamic range that was close (but not equal ) to the Sony sensors, and delivered higher resolution.
I worked with a previous generation of Samsung cameras and found their best lenses to be rivals to the very best optics from Canon and Nikon. The two lenses that they delivered with the NX1 camera initially were very well reviewed. So, right up until the day they decided to pull the plug on the whole camera system they were pushing hard to get people to convert. Their campaign "Ditch the DSLR" was a call to move to mirrorless. And then, country by country, they pulled the plug. No more shipments of cameras but at the same time no official announcements. No one outside of Samsung (and perhaps their advertising affiliates) had any idea whether this was just a pause, a retrenchment or what. It turns out that they just made a decision to walk away from the serious camera market and did it in a most disingenuous way. Like a girlfriend of boyfriend who never breaks up with you but never returns your phone calls. Were they kidnapped? Did they perish in a plane crash? Or were they just never that into you?
So, thousands of people bought into the system and invested only to be left at the altar. Now they have a camera which is only useful with proprietary lenses and a group of lenses that is only useful with a proprietary lens mount. I doubt there will be another firmware upgrade for either body or lenses. And all the interchangeable lens bodies below the flagship are also vanishing.
Samsung obviously didn't go out of business. They still sell cellphones and refrigerators and lots of other stuff all over the world. I'm fairly certain that they looked at the trending numbers for the interchangeable lens camera market worldwide and realized that they had just, with much bluster, entered a declining, perhaps dying, market and they made an executive decision to bail early rather than late.
The sad thing is that with the introduction of the NX1 they just seemed to finally get how to make a usable camera. Something ultimately fun to shoot. Of all the events in the last two years that point most vigorously to the death of the camera market overall Samsung's decision to cut and run is probably the most visible.
I understand Samsung's exit. If I could look at all the future marketing numbers and see that in two years the total pie for all interchangeable lens cameras would shrink by over half I think I would also bail, if I weren't one of the two or three front runners. But I think I could have made a much more graceful and less painful exit. And perhaps I would have figured out a way to make the exit less painful for the consumers who had decided to believe in my company and my sales talk.
I was part of an earlier group of Samsung product testers and users in a program called, Imageloggers. I resigned from the program about six months before the NX1 hit the market. I had lost confidence that Samsung understood cameras from a photographer's point of view. Their focus was about interconnectivity ( which should have made one or two other pundits ecstatic....) and less about the traditional attention to haptics and responsiveness that real camera users demand.
Now, they are just another story line about orphaned camera systems. A sad one too. Perhaps the exploding Note 7 phones are just a bit of Karmic revenge...
Refining process in a zany business. Now, how to refine the business model for scalability (as if....)?
You've seen this shot before but it's being re-featured because its illustrated mechanics are a growing part of my tabletop workflow.
I've been writing a bit about tabletop projects lately, which may seem weird for someone who loves shooting portraits, but photographing products is nothing new for my business. It's something I've been doing since the earliest days of my career. But the way I do it keeps changing as I try to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of the process. When I started out we shot almost every product using a 4x5 inch view camera. The film size delivered image quality while the rises and falls, +tilts and swings, helped keep products square and in focus. But boy-oh-boy did we use a lot of Polaroid test material in the course of every assignment.
For very demanding images of things, like computer systems with monitors, the ability to distribute focus kept me using those ornery bellows monsters right up until client demands for turnaround and cost control pushed the studio to a total digital workflow, starting around 1999.
We've recently had a spate of tabletop assignments from medical products developer, Ottobock Healthcare; tech hardware maker, Razberi; the Bob Bullock/Texas History Museum; and a private art collector who specializes in 3-D objects. In some cases we're asked to do a fairly large number of products over the course of a single day. Sometimes we are tasked with making photographs on dark backgrounds but the overwhelming majority are done on white backgrounds, even if they are destined for the clipping path treatment. I have shot several thousand projects on white backgrounds and, at this point in my career, I am finally becoming reasonably competent at it.
In the past, when using early generation digital cameras, we relied on (slow) firewire or SCSI tethering to see images as we shot. Software was buggy and connections were often lost and images floated off into the ether after we shot them. Re-launching camera and computer software was an extremely annoying part of the mix. Tethering to a stationary computer was okay when we worked at a pace similar to the pace we worked at with film. A long tether to the workstation from the shooting area had us shooting a test shot and then leaving the camera and walking over to judge the resulting image on the monitor. Then back to the camera to make changes and then do the process over again.
We were okay with the pace and the inconveniences of being tied to fixed locations because it was the only way we really had experienced product photography. Laptops were underpowered at the time and I wasn't about to stick a full sized computer and a large monitor on an Ergo Cart and wheel it all around. Cable management could also be a nightmare.
We stuck to the tethered method until the moment when the LCD screens on the rear of the cameras became practically usable and, to a certain extent, calibrate-able. At the time we were almost always using electronic flash as a primary lighting equipment and there was always a need to check exposure and light balance. I think the Nikon D2Xs was the first camera that had a review screen that I halfway trusted. But the small size and vagaries of mixing with ambient lighting in the review mix still made the process problematic, especially when sharing the images with clients as part of our collaboration on set.
I stumbled into a new way of shooting by accident. A couple of years ago I was shooting video for three different clients and it became obvious that we needed a bigger monitor on our sets. We wanted something that could be calibrated for exposure, color and contrast and somthing that would give us the ability to see focus peaking was a big plus. I bought a seven inch Marshall monitor and used it to good effect with video. It takes two standard Nikon EN-EL 15 batteries so it can be used remotely. It was so good on our video shoots that I started bringing it along on still shoots. The process of using a monitor out of the HDMI port on my Sonys is so easy and transparent that I've gotten into the habit of bringing it along even if I'm 90% sure I'm never going to use it.
I started using the monitor for studio shoots since it is adequate for both clients and me to look at simultaneously but at first I would stick it on a light stand near the camera and we'd do what we learned in the days of tethering to computers; we'd go back and forth from the camera to the monitor. A couple of months ago I started working with an art collector who needed lots and lots of images for a high quality coffee table book. We started with the monitor on a stand next to the camera but we hit a point where the camera was mounted above the shooting table and we were trying to carefully position dozens of objects in one shot. It would be great if we could observe the changes to our layout of objects as we moved them. We grabbed the monitor off the light stand and started handing it back and forth to each other as we made our changes. Being able to hold the monitor in one hand while reaching up to zoom the lens on the camera, just a little bit, while watching the result on the screen, was so seamless and fluid. Sometimes my client would be bent over the table using tweezers to adjust a small object and I could lean in an hold the monitor in such a way that he could just glance away from his set-up and instantly confirm the change without moving out of position.
Two sets of two batteries lasted us the entire day. It also extended the life of the batteries in the camera. One battery took us through to lunch time and the second camera battery got us all the way through the afternoon. Pretty cool when you consider that the cameras were on all the time. Not having to run the monitors, in-camera, saves an enormous amount of power.
Now, you could argue that I can replicate this set up with wi-fi and an iPad but raw files tend to be problematic and I find that setting an iPad down for a while in order to re-set the objects we are shooting means that cameras time out and iPads time out and we end up going through the re-engagement dance again and again. I think it's still primitive times for using most digital cameras, along with wi-fi, in high volume, professional applications.
For exacting work we use dedicated macro lenses but lately I've tested and found that most of our f4.0 zoom lenses are more than adequate when they are stopped down to f11 or f16 in practical shoots. Our daylong shoot yesterday was done with a Sony a6300 camera and, for nearly all the images, an 18-105mm f4.0 G lens parked at f8.0. The combination of decent glass, a slow f-stop and in camera image correction results in perfectly sharp images with no discernible distortion. The lens seems to be a good match for the 24 megapixel sensor in the body and the combination rides well on the Gitzo sidearm I use on my tripod to get the camera directly over the top of sets.
I have the camera set to electronic first curtain (nothing is moving so there is no rolling shutter effect) and the shutter speeds are in the 1/3rd second to 1/15th second range so there are no artifacts from fast shutter settings. I also use a 2 second or 5 second self-timer delay for the shutter actuation so the camera can settle. I added an electronic release lately so I'll probably forgo the delay next time; but old habits die hard.
With a slap of velcro on the main tripod leg and a corresponding piece of velcro on the top edge of the monitor it's easy to set up a shot with the monitor in my hands, affix the monitor to the tripod and have my hands free to manipulate the camera controls. I could use a bigger monitor but as the size increases the mobility and intimacy of the monitor decreases. And then you are back to the situation you were in when tethered to a big desktop system.
The rest of the shooting modality is the same as always: We use high output SMD LED lights which don't change color balance and we always start out the shoot with a custom white balancing. If we are shooting on hard white board (which is highly reflective) I take a spot meter reading for a representative area and put the exposure for that area at 95%. It's not quite white but the Sony sensors are made to be pushed up. Having white at 95% means I don't worry about losing highlight detail but I know the exposure will be high enough so that I rarely have to "lift" the shadows by more than a stop. At ISO 100 this is like changing the ISO to 200 in terms of overall image quality. Not a compromise at all.
Along the same logic lines I chose the a6300 instead of the A7rii or A7ii because I pick up an extra measure of depth of field ( which can be critical for small object photography ) with no quality loss. Also, I like the 18-105mm f4.0 in this situation for it's well behaved general nature and its zoom/framing flexibility. Testing in raw with camera and software corrections turned off shows me that the lens is at its very best between the focal length range of 28-90mm so, if possible, I try to stay in that sweet spot. If I need to go to the extremes I don't worry about it at f8.0 and I don't see a huge penalty in diffraction induced softness at f11-14. I'll go to f16 if needed, in order to keep everything in focus, but in those cases I know I'll need to pop the sharpness either in camera or in post.
In almost every job in which we shoot against white the client needs a clipping path in layered files so they can drop the object onto different backgrounds. We used to have to do all clipping paths by hand because automated solutions in PhotoShop, like the magic wand tool, were not refined enough to do the job well. The edges could be too ragged. Even with the introduction of refine edge we ended up using a pen tool and going point to point, along with careful Bezier curves tossed in. The latest selection tools are much, much better and, if we have hard, defined edges in the images we can use the automated selection tools much more often, which speeds up post production.
Many have suggested that I look into using some of the companies from India (and here in the U.S.) who advertise low prices for doing clipping paths. I have tried four different companies now; two here in the U.S. and two in India, and in each case I have gotten the files back, been disappointed and then spent long, lonely nights doing the paths myself under much tighter deadlines. When your reputation is on the line "good enough" can come around and bite you on the the ass. Really.
Given the trajectory of the economy it's always good to figure out how to become more efficient and more effective. I just wish there was a way to scale what we do into greater quantities. The limitation of a one person business is that scaling generally means just working more hours.
I love doing the Craftsy.com classes and also having written a number of books. Those are both situations that are the epitome of scaling. Teach once/sell often. Write once/sell often. Too bad proprietary product shoots can't be sold over and over again to different sets of clients. Same with commissioned portraits. If someone out there has a unique way for photographers to effectively scale their businesses without damaging quality assurance I am fairly certain we'd all LOVE to hear about it. Give it your best shot in the comments!
That's all I have for now. I'm headed downtown to see how Formula One will affect us this year. Every year their footprint in our downtown has shrunken dramatically. It will be interesting to see, this year, if there is any presence at all. ... If there's not then I'll just take a nice walk.
I thought I'd break with our little tradition of mixing gear reviews and photo-philosophy by telling a little story from the archives. It was back in 2005 that I got a call from Andy Roddick's people. Andy's foundation was going to hold a fundraiser for the new Children's Hospital and they wondered if I would be available to photograph the event. The people asking were good friends and always well intentioned and so, of course, I said, "Yes." Then, having secured my engagement they let the other shoe drop; the guest of honor and entertainer would be Sir Elton John. I've always been a big fan to so I was incredibly excited to be on the team.
Now, by way of a little back story, our Governor at the time in Texas was the redoubtable Rick Perry. The same guy who more or less stumbled his way through the primaries an ill-fated campaign for president this year. Back in 2005, in an attempt to curry favor with the more conservative factions in Texas (and just two weeks before Sir Elton John's visit) Perry decided to push an amendment to the state constitution basically banning gay marriage. The legislation was called "Proposition 2" and it was passed by Texas voters in November of that year. Now, I don't know if it was a coincidence or not but just one week before coming to Austin, Texas to do his part raising money for the kids, Sir Elton John very publicly announced his official marriage to his long time, same sex partner. Around Austin people were pretty sure that this was his way of answering Perry's Prop 2 (later struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court...).
The day of the shoot finally arrived and I was excited (I was a fairly big Andy Roddick fan and a Yuuuuge Sir Elton John fan ---- a side fact, E.J. is a well known collector of photography and had, last I read, a world class collection of work. An eclectic collection... but all top quality work...) to see them both in person.
I packed the gear I was using at the time. It was a bit of a weird mix. I was getting into the Olympus system and brought along a couple of E-1 cameras (5 megapixels) with two zooms, and also a Nikon D-70 to use as my flash camera.
The venue for everything was the Four Seasons Hotel in the downtown area. We started out with a "press only" news conference with Andy Roddick. Later in the afternoon Elton John arrived and he met with Andy in one of the downstairs conference rooms. I was the only photographer in the private meeting and was called upon to take shots of Andy and Elton together as well as shots of them both arranged in various groups with members of Andy's family. It was very casual and laid back. I introduced myself to Elton John and he and I bantered back and forth for a bit about photography, Austin and Texas.
A few hours later we headed next door to a larger conference room for a press event with people from various print news outlets and three TV stations. It was typical of social news event coverage. Lots of innocuous questions and an emphasis on continually mentioning the charity that would be supported.
We had a break after that and I wandered around with my cameras and talked to some of the other shooters in the foyer.
Around 6pm the reception space outside the grand ballroom started filling up with people in fancy clothes, throw back suits, and well to do people clutching albums and CDs to get signed. Sir Elton John would be the guest of honor for a formal dinner and then would play a solo concert for a very lucky room of about 300 people. The doors to the dining room opened at 6:30 and people streamed in. Sir Elton John entered from a side door, shadowed by two of the most proficient looking body guards I have ever seen, and was quickly embraced by the crowd. He was gracious, signed autographs, stood for photographs from all comers (thankfully, this was before the selfie craze....) and was generally the magnetic attraction in the room.
At some point before dinner Gov. Rick Perry entered via a side door followed by his Texas Ranger bodyguard. The Texas Ranger was wearing his gray, felt cowboy hat. Perry was dressed totally out of character in a black turtle neck pullover, no glasses. He started to make a beeline in the direction of Sir Elton John. After all, what politician would not want to stand next to the center of gravity? But he was intercepted by one of E.J.'s enormous body guards who leaned over to the Gov. and said something, quietly, that I couldn't quite catch. Whatever it was Perry stopped in his tracks and found someone else to talk to. A short time later he vanished out the door he'd come in through and did not return. The scenario with Perry and EJ's bodyguard flew under most people's radar. But I was there to observe and document everything and it was from my overwatch position on the stage side of the tables that I had the vantage point to observe that instant.
After dinner Sir Elton John walked up to the stage, sat behind the grand piano and mesmerized the entire room with an hour long concert of our favorite hits from an arc of forty-some years. No one was allowed to photograph near the stage. I remember being the only photographer in the room. I captured the concert on the Nikon D70 because I happened to have the old 80-200mm f2.8 lens in my bag and it was the longest lens I owned. I was positioned at the back corner of the room, near a door to the kitchens.
Looking back at the files from the time leaves me with some mixed feelings. The images remind me of just how much fun it was to meet and hang out with someone whose music I had always enjoyed. A true celebrity in every sense of the word. It felt good to realize that my work allowed me to occasionally meet people who have changed the world. At the same time I look at the images and realize how primitive (relatively speaking) the cameras I was using at the time were, compared to current models.
How different the image quality might have been if I'd have had a longer lens, a bigger sensor, some in-camera stabilization, lower ISO noise, etc. But that's a silly way to feel. Looking back at the actual images I see that we got our part of the job done and that the content (as nearly always is the case) trumped the constraints of the technology of the time.
I packed up and headed home as the concert wound down. I edited my photographs and sent along my selections to the Andy Roddick Foundation and then got back to work with my regular clients. But for a week or so I was a bit star struck and every other job seemed a bit mundane. In the end Elton John and Andy Roddick raised well over a million dollars for the charity. A job well done.
And two from the actual concert:
Taking even a short vacation seems to be good for coming to some understanding about what it is you really, really like to photograph. To be clear, even though I took the routine landscape shots and the colorful shots of food at farmer's markets, there was really nothing I was excited to photograph on my trip. I thought I might make a few thoughtful portraits but since portrait work is collaborative everyone has to be in the mood, or at least unhurried enough to consider sharing some time.
Family vacations are like punishment for photographers. You reflexively bring your camera and a nice lens but the opportunities to use them for the kinds of work you might enjoy making are neutralized by the scheduling and proclivities of the group.
Ben is a fine portrait subject when he is here in Austin, between semesters. He's been working with me on projects when he's not in school and he seems to really enjoy the unhurried pace of an unstructured hiatus between the dual grinds of school and assisting. When he is engaged in the middle of a semester he is all business. He's on a schedule, burning the candle at both ends and keeping his grades up. But it precludes the kind of padded time intervals that would make slowing down and sitting in just the right spot difficult.
But there is another reason that vacations are not an optimum time for me to practice my own portrait work. I've come to depend on being able to shape light to match the moods and context that I want to portray in a finished image. I want control over how soft the roll off of light is into the shadows and I want to control the direction of the light in relation not only to the subject but also in relation to the background elements.
When I roll out to locations locally with the priority of making portraits for me I generally travel heavy. I drag along the Elinchrom Ranger flash system, a big soft box or umbrella, a C-stand or two. Some sand bags and a few extra diffusers. These are a godsend and a logistical encumbrance. And there was not way I wanted to drag them along on a weekend end vacation and even less of a chance that the other members of the family would be comfortable going along with this rather extreme program of creating family snapshots.
I know myself well enough to know that I needed to defer my usual bent of work in order to fulfill the goals of the trip at hand: to see the boy, to see his new living quarters, to sample his academic life, to meet; and have dinner with, the parents of one of his new roommates, to make sure Belinda enjoyed the weekend and to see the sights and sounds of my kid's chosen environment.
This was obviously not the time to drop into the role of producer/director. And knowing that is good. Not trying to interweave two diverse and conflicting agendas serves to mitigate or eliminate the frustration that would flow from presuming that one is always on.
My favorite work comes at events where I am supposed to be photographing. Where I have license and access to photograph. I love this image of a young girl who had just finished her event at a swim meet. I was at the swim meet as the volunteer team photographer and it was my job, obligation and delight to be charged with getting great images of the swimmers to share on the club's website and with the kids and parents. I largely ignored my family (except when it was Ben's turn to swim) and the run of the meet and concentrated on making impromptu portraits and group shots of the kids. I was able to bring a focus to doing so that made the work seem like play.
At the end of a swim meet I look back and realize that being in a certain zone made the day seem to pass in five minutes and that distraction is what happens when you aren't having fun.
I enjoyed spending time away from Austin but I also enjoyed letting go of the photographer label for the duration and enjoying the time away as a civilian. In that capacity the images I took were ones that just presented themselves, didn't require art direction or posing, could be made without revving up a light and could be walked away from in order to conform to the vagaries of the schedule.
I realized in the moment that I sometimes take my role as an image maker far too seriously. That the camera isn't the centerpiece of every social gathering. That fussing with dials and menus is not an appropriate task while sitting in the dining room of a nice restaurant having conversations with new (or old) friends.
So, what do I like? I find myself re-enlisted in pursuit of a few things that have been leitmotifs throughout my life with cameras. I love the look of wide ranging tones of luxurious black and white photographs. We can argue all day long about whether or not it has to do with suppressing extraneous and confusing color cues or if it's really just about nostalgia but, to my mind, done right, black and white images focus my seeing of the final print more acutely. I'm less and less interested in landscapes and even street images than I have been in the past. I want to work with one person in my frame and I want to have the whole experience be confined to a two person collaboration with no outside intervention or suggestions. And, more and more, I want to control the lighting.
I don't always have a specific lighting design in mind when I get ready to engage with subjects but I am always aware that there is a style and a consistency of qualities that I like more than others. I'm not a fan of light that's spectacular or trendy. I don't often light hard light (unless I intend to create the final image using the equivalent of diffusion or soft focus) or highly angular light. But I know as I work through a session, or even just an encounter, that I want more and more control over how the light works with the face in front of my medium-to-long telephoto lens.
In social situations this just isn't in the cards. Nor should it be. But it's a life long lesson to re-learn and re-learn.
I am constantly reminded that I like scenes that are rich with texture and even decay or disorder.
I labor with the idea that the work I like and finish all the way out is destined to be matted and framed and shared with a small circle of people. At times all the lights, stands and cameras in the studio are put away and the matt cutter comes out to play. It's been years since I hung a show but my re-entry into my regular routine this time has convinced me that I'm overdue and need to start thinking in terms of a small show of black and white portraits.
Finally, I spend time thinking about things outside photography that I like. Family goes without saying. And the same with my noble Studio Dog (currently just a bit conflicted; she is pissed that she had to spend three long nights alone but happy that we hired her absolute favorite dog sitter to come over four times a day while we were gone). But I also cherish my routines. I think we all do. My Sunday walk through downtown. Coffee with friends. The way an afternoon nap feels on my couch with the sun pouring through the French doors to the back garden. Early morning swim practice. Noon swim practice when I am either too lazy to get up in time for the early one, or motivated enough to do two in one day. I like the conceit of control that I've tried to construct in my Austin existence but lately have come to understand that comfort and control are also part of the nefarious impediments of resistance that keep me from focusing on doing my work.
With that said I think I'll wrap this up and convince Studio Dog to head back into the studio for some pre-production on an approaching job. Being part terrier she revels in keeping me focused on the task at hand so I can spend more down time tossing the tennis ball decorated as a mouse....
No matter what business you are in it makes good sense to step away and think, and to try and remember exactly what is was about the business that put you on your current path. More importantly, have you been true to your own satisfaction in executing on those delightful details that make what we do fun?
From "Priscilla" at Zach Theatre.
While Google tells me that 87,000,000 page views have occurred that's a cumulative measure of all links and blinks and RSSs and stuff. The total number of "I went to the actual site and took a look..." numbers is, this morning, 22,000,000. It's fun to think about the sheer number of eyeballs that have read what I've splashed out over the last eight years.
If you've enjoyed the ride consider dropping a comment into the queue to help celebrate another milestone. The "quick hello" is one of the fun things I get from filling this site with content and images (lots of images. thousands of images.)
I'm back at work but wishing I was still on vacation. I bet the same is true for you...
It's interesting to think about why people photograph certain objects. I can't recall seeing one of these coin operated, binocular telescopes anywhere in my travels across Texas, although I have to assume they exist in some nook or cranny. So they are, to me, an oddity. I remember in my youth seeing these near most big natural attractions but they seem only to have been preserved in unique spots and in unique slots of time.
The implicit intent of our visit to Prospect Mountain, near Lake George in New York, was to see the scenery. The glorious, technicolor trees and the blue waters of the lake. But when I got there I was most interested in the telescopes. I shot lots of angles and lots of different magnifications of the units as I found them. To me, they represent a time in our national past --- the 1950's and 1960's --- when car travel for vacations swelled and families became captive to a national movement: "To see the USA in a Chevrolet."
While getting anywhere in Texas is a feat of travel endurance and rewards speed and persistence, travel in the middle of New York state seems to have been a different sort of experience. One combining frequent scenic overlooks followed by Howard Johnson's restaurants and Holiday Inns. Until recently Texas had always been a poor state and travel meant one rest stop with chancy toilets every 250 miles or so (with a view of flat, hot land and blowing tumbleweeds) bookmarked by a dusty, independent version of a Motel 6, with a tired and shopworn Denny's diner next door. The Texas Whataburger chain was a sign that a town located off I-10 had made it.
But I am assuming that to a person who grew up in the northeastern part of the United States the experiences might be flipped. The desolation of Texas' open spaces might seem fantastic and unreal while the rawness of the food and accommodations might seem adventurous.
When I think of travel I think of the book, On The Road, by Jack Kerouac. The descriptions of various regions always served to remind the reader that wealth and middle class opportunity in the 1950's flowed from New York City and trickled into the south diminished by an evaporation that left the furthest points south in the deepest poverty.
When I see a coin operated telescope I am reminded of the saying among cultural anthropologists who say that there are only two places that have no trash and litter. At one end of the spectrum are areas of extreme poverty where every paper scrap or piece of trash is collected and used for something. Even if it is just gum wrappers to keep open fires going for boiling water. At the other end of the spectrum there is no trash or litter because people are wealthy enough to pay others to perform constant and strict maintenance. It is only the places in the middle that deal with litter. And the area around Saratoga Springs and Lake George was more or less pristine...
A poor family from a different region might see the unattended, coin operated telescope as something that could be wrenched from its moors and sold as scrap metal while a family from a wealthier cohort ignores the object completely because it is part of a constant landscape in which public objects are immune from a certain cultural entropy, one driven by the idea of deprivation.
As a Texan for most of my life I can only say that I love it that objects like this continue to exist, undamaged, as a marker of a time and space that is removed for most of us now. It's a reminder of an age of innocence. It is visual time travel. Like the old American sedans in Cuba.
It's so different to travel on a family vacation to a wealthy, established town in a community with history. I become like every other proud father visiting his kid's college town. Carrying a camera to record all the things that are novel and different with little regard for making art or presenting the visual material in some personal style. Just recording the things that stick out and make this newly discovered locale unique in my catalog of places. And in a year and a half I'll have finished paying for an undergraduate adventure at a private college and we'll collectively move on to the next stage.
I'm back home and trying hard to settle back into this different culture. Everything here is both new and worn at the same time. Pre-fab, tilt wall America. Young people in a hurry. Pretensions of hipness mired in a culture of discount ethos. I guess that's the thing I photograph when I'm seriously working on my own photographs. Every place is still as different as it is the same.
Our main mission was to visit our son at college. It was Skidmore's Family Celebration Weekend. Belinda and I say through a class offered to parents, showered our kid with time, money and affection, and generally soaked in the atmosphere of being back on a campus.
The food in Saratoga Springs was uniformly good. They now have a decent Mexican food restaurant for homesick Texans called, Cantina. It's right on Broadway. They've got their soft, corn tortillas down perfectly and their instincts for seasoning and spicing were spot on. Steaks at Max London's,just down the street, were also superb.
This year we added a run up to Lake George while the kid stayed on campus to study. Right now, this instant, the color of the trees is turning and the skyline heading up the highway is a riot of color. We parked in town and climbed Prospector's Peak and were rewarded with spectacular views of the lake and the cascade of technicolor trees marching down majestic hillsides to meet it.
In a previous blog post I wrote that I had decided to take a specific camera but, of course, as we were leaving the house at 5 a.m. on Thursday morning I changed my mind and substituted. The camera I ended up taking was the Sony a6300 along with the 18-105mm f4.0G lens. This combination was smaller and lighter than the ones I had previously selected and, I decided to just go and be a proud parent instead of a compulsive photo-junky. It was a wise decision as I found the a6300 and lens to be the perfect travel companion for a long weekend mini-vacation like this one.
Here's a random selection of images I made this last weekend. I'm happy I went. It's an area I'd like to explore more. And sometime I would like to go, spend a few days around the area, and then hop on the train to Montreal. Could be a fun adventure. But I think I'll wait till next Fall for that...