9.29.2010

What do commercial photographers do when they go to family weddings?


My niece got married to a really nice guy last weekend.  Do I think the whole marriage thing will work out for them?  Well, yes.  They're both sweet, practical and they like each other very much.  They threw a really nice wedding with a tasteful and happy reception.  They did so many things right that it didn't surprise me when they didn't ask me to do the wedding photographs.  They both work in the ad business and they seem to know that there's a difference between species of photographers.

My niece asked my advice and then selected a San Antonio wedding photographer.  And judging by his unflappable attitude and his assured camera work, not to mention taking great advantage of the really nice available light,  I think he and his second shooter did a hell of a job.  


If you've read my blog before you know that I take a camera with me everywhere.  If I were on the edge of death and rushing to the emergency room a priority question would always be, "Leica M with film? or Canon 5d2 for low light?"  So, of course I dragged my camera with me.  I did make it a point to stay far from the real working professional.  I didn't bring a flash.  And I mostly kept a "nifty fifty" (the Canon 50mm 1.8) glued to my camera at all times.

I did the obligatory grown up wedding things.  I made sure my kid had his suit on straight and his tie tied.  I made small talk with the relatives and relations.  I congratulated the couple and the families with great sincerity.  I smiled lovingly at my wife.  It limited my Champagne consumption and didn't dance on the tables.  But there was still a lot of dead time to fill.

So I kept my camera with me and tried to shoot some "in between" moments.  I always enjoy the "media press" at social functions so I tried to get some of that........


And, of course I needed a shot of the real photographer and his second shooter directing the group shots.  But I stayed pretty far back and didn't try to scalp any of his or her set up shots.  I figured that they were doing the hard work they should reap the rewards.  No outrageous gear on display.  Just Nikon 700D's and the requisite 24-70 and 70-200's.  Little SB-600's in the shoes but not used very often.  These guys were good and it's obvious that they had a well oiled mental checklist working in their heads.  Just enough direction to pull everyone together and make great shots, not so much direction that they got in the way of the socializing.....A real photographer makes it a real event.


I took a lot of photos of my kid, Ben because he wasn't on the other photographer's radar even though he grew up with his cousin and they are pretty close.  Ben is very patient with me but he quickly gets tired of the "paparazzi" treatment.  I couldn't help it.  I thought his suit looked cool....(24-105mm Canon 5d2)


And I wanted to put the "bokeh" of the 24-105mm zoom to the test so I had to grab a few shots of Ben with the bride's-brother's-girlfriend out of focus behind him.  Looks  pretty okeh-bokeh to me....


But then I felt a little guilty using my niece's wedding as a lens testing laboratory so I took a shot of my nephew's girlfriend as the primary subject instead of the "bokeh baseline target".    And I've decided that anyone who doesn't like the 24-105mm is pretty daft.  It's a good lens.  Pretty sharp wide open and the IS is really good.  Specially if you're going for the available light thing.


This niece is from my wife's side of the family so my wife decamped from Austin and headed to Comfort, Texas the day before to help get everything ready and to visit with family coming in from all over the place.  Ben and I were more economical with our time.  We dropped the dog off at the lux kennel and headed out in the mid-afternoon on Saturday.  Comfort is a two hour drive down some bouncy country roads so I put in a little extra time for surprises in the low water crossings.  Ben read novels on my Kindle.  (We both have found that one can read faster on a Kindle......burning through books....).

Around 10 pm, after dinner, the cake cutting, and toasting, and the inception of the dancing, Ben came over and asked the  "14 year old" question:  "How long do we have to stay to be polite?"  We were back on the road and back in our Austin house by midnight.

I'm anxious to see the professional photos.  There was so much fun stuff to shoot.  It was hard keeping my camera on the strap and out of my hand.  But I figure that if you hate having folks leaning over your shoulder.......you better do things the way you want your karma to flow.

9.27.2010

A fun video project. Kids are always fun to work with....

video
You can see it much bigger on Vimeo:  http://vimeo.com/15334802

Will van Overbeek and I were hired to do a video project last week.  Several organizations here in Austin were being awarded by The Austin Children in Nature Collaborative and the videos will be used as showcase introductions at a special program at the Austin Four Seasons Hotel.  We needed to make an introductory piece for the award program.  The only problems we had were:  No script, no actors, no direction and a lot of rain.  Since the program celebrates getting kids outdoors the rain was kind of a major issue.  The rest just go with the territory.

We made it to the Austin Nature Center just in time for the big rain.  But it let up after a while and we got to work.  For this project we used a Canon 7D with a 24-105mm L lens, a Rode Videomic and the Rode Stereomic,  a Gitzo tripod with a Manfrotto fluid head and a small, LED light (more about that later....).  For this project I operated the camera and Will did the sound.

I think we were all pretty amazed at how well the sound turned out.  The center is located near a major, elevated highway and there's random noise coming in from every direction.  Our method is to put the microphone on a "fish pole" and get it in as close to the speaker as possible without getting an image of the mic (or its shadow) in the final video.  We found the ALC (auto level control)  on the 7D does a pretty good job on its own.

Our biggest challenge was to get interviews with four and five year old kids.  They're not really good at hitting their marks and they don't "do" lines.  But with a smile on your face and a big enough memory card you're sure to get something.....then all you have to do is edit it all together.  I like sound effects but I don't think Will is as enthusiastic about them.  He did allow me to add a few "dinosaur roars", "chimpanzee chatters" and "jungle" noise from the sound library.  I think it's fun.

Since we're all about keeping things simple and fun we jumped right into editing this thing with iMovie 09 from Apple.  We used an old laptop and a calibrated, 23 inch Apple monitor to do our edit on.  We did add a firewire 800 outboard HD to the mix.  No stutters in the editing or the output.  The edit took about an hour and fifteen minutes this morning.

We did some interviews with grownups in order to get information across.

While we were waiting for the rain to stop we did an interview with the program director from the Center.  I was happy to have the new little LED light with me.  We needed a bit more light to brighten up our talent's face.  The light is called a DLC DL-DV60 and it's the perfect light to keep in a side pocket of your camera bag.  It uses 60 individual LEDs to provide a fairly small, bright source.  You won't be overpowering sunlight with it but it might be just what you need in a pinch for a little more punch.

I first played with a light like this one when I was writing my book, Photographic Lighting Equipment.
The one that was available at the time was a LitePanel Micro from LitePanels.  It was about the same size as my new DL-DV60 but it put out significantly less light.  It also sold for somewhere near $300.  The one feature that the LitePanels Micro had that I did like was the ability to turn the light down with a control knob.  It was also cool that the color temperature of the light didn't change as you turned down the power.  The DL-DV60 doesn't have any control other than on and off.  But here's the deal:  It's a little bit shy of $100.  The one "feature" it does have (and I'm still not sure if I like it...) is this:  it comes with a rechargable Li-ion camcorder battery for power.  It's a common Sony battery so replacements are widely available and it does have enough power to punch out light for about an hour and a half.

In the video we used the light about seven feet away from the program director and about three feet above her head.  It was enough to minimize shadows on her face and bring her a bit forward from the tungsten lit room.

I liked the DL-DV60 enough to buy a second one.  They can be clipped together to make little light banks and I think that's a fun thing to have in a pinch.  I've also order some bigger ePhoto panels that plug in the way and use hundreds of individual bulbs.  I'll let you know how those work when they arrive.

Will and I are starting to get into a groove with our little video projects.  It's different than still photography but in some ways the same.  Directing is always fraught with peril that mostly becomes obvious at editing time.......


This is the DL-DV60 as it sits on top of my camera.  It's too bright to aim directly at innocent people indoors without some sort of diffusion but it works well in conjunction with other light sources.  It also works well as an accent light in the same way you might use a flash on an off camera cord, over to one side.  The benefit is that you don't ever need to sync it with the camera.  It also doesn't get too hot and it doesn't flicker.  It's pretty perfect for a combination/crossover photographer/videographer.

More to come.

I'm accepting more and more video projects and finding that I like the process pretty well.  I try to stay away from clients who want to micro-manage projects.....it's almost a given that they will slow the editing process down to a crawl.  So far all of the clients have been perfect.  And the Canon cameras are working well.




    

9.25.2010

Just some street photography from Lisbon.

I put on my cloak of invisibility one day and went out to shoot in the streets of Lisbon, Portugal.  I like these photographs.   Simple camera and lens.  Lots of feet action.  Lots of moving around.  I like being anonymous in a foreign city.  I think it's all  about the "blend in".  And a little practice.  Not great art, just snapshots that remind me of a pleasant day.  And that's a decent use of photography as well.







9.22.2010

I went through a stage when all I used was hot lights. I think I'm going back....


I trouped up to Dallas to take this shot.  It was many years ago.  It was the first time I worked with Anne B. as my assistant.  Maybe that's why I remember this particular shoot.  Anne and I are still close friends over a decade later.  But what really brought this image to mind is that I've been getting back to real lighting control and I remember going thru a period when I shot almost everything with "hot lights".  I may be going back to that style because it offers such tight control for the kind of work I light to do.

This image was done to accompany a story in Prevention Magazine.  The story was about how and why to stop smoking.  The woman in the portrait above had kicked the habit and the magazine was doing a story about her experiences.

In those days I travelled with a box of interesting "hot (tungsten halogen) lights".   The box had a few Lowell Totalights,  some Lowell Pro Lights ( small focusable lights with "peanut" bulbs that put out 250 watts for light), and a couple of small, 125 watt, fresnel spotlights.  I'd use a small Pro-light shining thru a layer of Rosco diffusion gel about two feet above the subjects head in order to get the little butterfly shadow under the nose, and the flattering shadow under the chin.  I'd use another light, bounced into something flat and white, right behind the camera position, about 2 and 1/2 stops down from the main light.  Maybe a carefully snooted back light and then, finally, a "sprayed" light on the background.

The benefits of working with the hot lights were threefold.  First, it was so easy to focus the camera accurately as the image coming through the finder was much brighter than that given by the diffused and reduced light coming thru a big softbox from a modeling light in an electronic flash set up.  Second, everything about continuous light is WYSIWYG.  You can see the effects easily as you build your lighting.  Very nice change from the vagaries of flash.  Finally,  you have total control about which f-stop to use.  I used something like f4 with a 150mm lens on a medium format camera.  You can see what that gives you in terms of depth of field.  

Another thing that's nice about using smaller lights, closer in is that the inverse square law works for you beautifully.  Look how quickly the light falls off from the subject's face to her arms and mid torso.  This serves to naturally keep the attention on her face.....the lightest thing of interest in the frame.

I thought about this today on my job.  I was shooting portraits for one of the hot public relations agencies in town and I was using Westcott nets and Westcott flags to control light spill and to keep the light levels on people's hands a few stops darker than the light on their faces.  More control means a more three dimensional photograph.  And that means more return clients for me.  While I was using flash I was thinking about the creative control of hot lights and how the use of flags was really only getting me half way there.

Looks like the remainder of the month will be a search for the Holy Grail as expressed through tungsten lighting and flags.  Stay tuned.

Kirk

9.21.2010

Blending Passions. Blending Expertise.

Image ©2010 Kirk Tuck.  Cover ©2010 Swimmer Magazine.  Featured Swimmer:  Tyler Blessing.

I haven't made much of a secret of the fact that I love swimming.  I love the sport.  I love the swim workouts.  I love competing.  But what's really fun is when two passions collide.  Three years ago I was approached by Swimmer Magazine with the assignment of shooting the Indoor Short Course Masters National Meet here in Austin.  Three days of non-stop, best in the world swimming by dozens of gold and silver medal Olympians,  hundreds of NCAA All Americans, and thousands of swimmers who were solid contenders.

I had a ball.  I saw lots of people I'd lost touch with over the years as well as lots of fast young swimmers.  (Masters swimmers are mostly made up of people who swam competitively in high school or college and who stay with the sport.)  I sent along the images and an invoice.  The photos ran, people were happy.

A few months ago the editor of Swimmer Magazine assigned me a project to work on with world champion and gold medal winning Olympian, Whitney Hedgepeth, it was a technique article for a future issue.  Whitney recruited one of her top masters swimmers from the University of Texas at Austin,  Tyler Blessing,  and we headed to the swim center for a morning of aqueous fun.

Whitney has been my coach from time to time and was also my kid's coach for the last two Summer seasons.  Since the coach, the swimmer and the photographer had all spent pool time together it was easy to communicate: 1.  What she wanted to show for the article.  2.  How I needed to position myself and what sort of actions would work best for the camera.  And, 3.  How we needed Tyler to go through various "right" and "wrong" actions to show the common stroke errors and how to fix them.

The shot above was taken from the three meter tower in the diving well.  Canon 5D2 at ISO 800.

We shot a lot of stuff over the course of the morning and the editor ran 22 photos over six and a half pages.  And he used one of the images on the cover.

It's so much fun when hobbies  and jobs and jobs and hobbies all collide together.

Well.  I got nice photo credits.  I got great exposure (pun intended).  I got access to a cool Olympian in the sport I adore.  So did I do this all for free because it made me feel warm and fuzzy?  Hell no.  The second thing the editor and I talked about, after the basic nuts and bolts, was rates and usage.  Nothing moved forward until there was a signed CONTRACT.   The cover will look good in my portfolio but just as importantly the check will look good in my bank account.

This is how photography should work.  It's how it can and does work.  Just because something is fun and fulfilling doesn't negate the fact that it brings value to the person who needs to use the images.  It's called a win-win-win.  If the images were worthless no one would want to use them.....

Confused about pricing?  Get a book.  Try John Harrington's.  Get my book.  But the fundamental way to look at it is that if someone wants to use your image it has value.  You don't have to trade anything for access if you have a talent someone needs.  You can have access and the appropriate fee for usage.  If you give it away you screw yourself and diminish the market for everyone else.  Try to be like a Boy Scout.  Always leave your campground cleaner than you found it.

9.19.2010

This is the camera everyone's been wishing for. I can hardly wait. (wish it was a longer focal length)....

Fuji Finepix X100.  Finally.  A camera manufacturer with some cojones.


This just got announced by Fuji.  It's the camera a lot of people have been waiting for.  It's a super high quality, fixed lens, large (APS-C) sensor camera from a company that builds exquisite (and very low noise) sensors.  It's 12 megapixels and the MTF charts that they published on DPReview.com are just incredible.

Note that the lens is an f2.  You have a choice of using an optical viewfinder or imitating aunt Myrtle and holding the machine at arm's length to compose on the rear screen.  I'd assume that, with no mirror, the shutter sound will be......demure.

Small, light, fast, super high quality imaging, incredible styling (with many nods toward the old Leica M's) and so much more.  The only real questions are:  How much will it cost?  And,  When can I get my hands on one?

What does it take to succeed in photography? I'd say discipline is near the top of the list.

Copyright ©2010 Kirk Tuck.   All rights reserved.


When I was six years old I decided that I wanted to be a swimmer.  This was in the days before goggles were in wide use.  It was a time in which Doc Councilman was the most famous swim coach in the world and his swimmers at the University of Indiana won just about everything under the sun.  Doc Councilman wrote an enormous tome entitled, The Science of Swimming.  The book was a must read for swim coaches from California to East Germany.  He was a proponent of getting the technique right and he was a BIG proponent of getting your yards in.

I swam year round.  Beginning in high school we practiced twice a day.  I remember the cold January mornings when my best friend's older brother, Steve, would pick me up, along with three or four other swimmers, and we'd be at the pool and ready to hit the water at 5:30am.  Five days a week.  We'd swim four or five thousand yards and then, at 7:30am we'd hit the showers and head to class.

In the afternoons we'd hit the pool right after our last class and put in our two p.m. hours of practice.  During the holiday breaks, while our friends were skiing or at the beach or just slacking off and sleeping in till noon, we'd keep up the same schedule.

Now, as a 54 year old person,  I still get up six days a week and make the pool my first stop.  This morning my master's team hit the water at 8:30 am.  Most of us were hoping that we'd see Olympian and world record holder, Aaron Peirsol, again today.  He'd come to several practices during the week and we were all thinking the same thoughts, "Maybe I'll learn some technique that will make my swimming better."  He didn't show but that didn't stop us from swimming hard and getting a little over 3200 yards in before breakfast.  That's around 160 lengths of our 25 meter pool.

About the same amount of yardage we did yesterday.  Why do I mention this when, statistically, you don't give a crap about competitive swimming?  I mention it because the underlying thing that makes swimmers show up, stay in shape, compete and excel is......discipline.  And that discipline gives you quality time in the water.

Discipline is often the missing key in photographers' businesses.  It's the mental element that keeps one on task even when there's more exciting stuff going on over on South Congress Ave.  or in your neighborhood pub.  Discipline is the juice that drives you to finish each segment of your master marketing plan on time and with good follow ups.  Discipline is the thing that keeps you constantly working on your chops.  On your style, on your delivery, on your eye/hand skills.  On the big picture.

So you have a cold, the flu, a hangover, a set back.  Discipline says, "Tough! Get out of bed and get to work."  "Stop feeling sorry for yourself and finish your post production."  "Pick your self esteem back up off the floor and get on to the next big chance."

Swimmers know that every work out missed means a slight dilution of their feel for the water and a physical and mental click backwards when it comes to endurance and focus.  LIfe sometimes intrudes and swim practices get missed.  But discipline is the thing that drives you back to the pool and gets you back into peak shape.

Copyright ©2010 Kirk Tuck, All rights reserved.


I constantly hear photographers bitch that focusing manual focus lenses is hard.  Yes.  It's different than AF.  You actually have to practice and get used to recognizing the moment of highest acuity during the focus ring rotation.  Your hand and your brain have to work together.  It's not an instant thing it's a practice thing.  You do it over and over again until your hand has muscle memory of the process and your brain has tuned into the parameters of sharp focus as a moving target.  It takes discipline to practice manual focusing.   The pay off is that you have access to a wider selection of tools in that optic tool kit.

I see photographers in workshops and on locations that seem very uncomfortable with their gear.  They seem hesitant when they set it up and hesitant about where to place lights and how to angle them.  It's obvious to me that they spend very little time working with the gear.  It only gets trotted out when they have an assignment.  But what they really need is what my swim coach always called, "Time in the water."  And that's because there is no short cut to physical mastery.  Physical master of cameras and lighting gear comes from setting it up and using it over and over again.  Learning iteratively from your mistakes.  And if you do it over and over again you'll find a side benefit:  Your own inimitable style will emerge.

Just as all great swimmers learn from the same coaches and swim in the same workouts, if you were to stand on the pool deck and watch you would see that each of them has a personal swimming style that's different from their competitors and teammates.  It could be the angle of their arm entry, the pattern of their kicks, even the way they roll to breathe.  But it all comes from trying techniques over and over again until they find the one that suits their mentality and body characteristics.

It's the same in photography.  Dan Winters didn't read a book and go out, fully formed, ready to take his own style of celebrity portraits.  He worked and worked on the styles.  He assisted Chris Callis who assisted Jean Pagliouso.  And after each of them assisted they worked and worked and worked on their technique.  On their equipment handling.  And they learned how it influenced the way they saw things.  Which influenced what they shot and how they shot it.  They spent their time behind the camera and in the darkroom until their "photographic muscle memory" was deeply ingrained.  And they still do.

Richard Avedon felt that a day spent without shooting a photo was a waste.  And, as for time in the water, you have over six decades of his work to look at to see just how prolific he was and how much time he spent in the photographic water.

Behind every "rocket to success" like Joey Lawrence there's a backstory of a guy who lived, night and day with his camera until he understood what he wanted to show and how he could get the machine to do his bidding.  He might have compressed his "10,000 hours" by working around the clock from the age of 14.  He didn't just roll out of bed one morning, meander over to the local camera shop to pick up a camera and say to himself, "I've got nothing better to do, I guess I'll be a world famous photographer today."

Behind nearly every artist I can think of the secret weapon they all share is discipline.  And the better the artist the more ingrained the sense of discipline.

I'm used to swimming my yards outdoors in the freezing rain, before the sun's come up or in nice weather.  I'm used to swimming when I didn't get but a few hours sleep the night before and I'll make it to practice when I'm already sore and tired.

But I carry that discipline with me into the photography business and you should do the same.  This is a freelance undertaking.  We set the schedule.  We set the bar.  We set the goals.  We succeed by following thru.  We succeed by being better than the other 100 people who want to push us off the hill.  The practice informs the style.  The style differentiates the photographer.  The differentiation gets us noticed by clients.  The clients buy the style.  But the client depends on our discipline to make work perfectly each time.

I have the same nervous feeling in the pit of my stomach each time I head out the door to start an advertising project that I used to get when I stood up on the starting blocks before each swim race.  That's because the outcome of the race will be based on the net result of all your discipline and planning. You will win or loose based on how well you execute technique, how much endurance you have and how strong your drive to complete the race or the job is.

Discipline is mastering the camera in your hand.  It means reading the owner's manual until you understand every function.  It means backing up your files right now at three in the morning instead of some vague time in the future.  It means reaching out on a regular schedule to market to your clients.  And it means getting up and doing it all over again every day.

Photography and competitive swimming are so much the same.  The products of right thinking, much practice, and commitment.  In each, time in the water is critical to creating success.

I've said before that no one can expect to be a good photographer unless they constantly practice.  Non professional photographers sometimes opt themselves out.  They think they have an excuse.  They have other stuff to do.  But in reality as long as they can dog paddle they think they're swimming.  Wrong.  They are just wet and keeping their heads above water.  There are very few swimmers who make a living past their 20's from the sport.  But that doesn't keep 40, 50, 60 and 70 year old swimmers from practicing, racing and breaking records left and right.  The ultimate reward of discipline might be nothing more than proving to yourself how good you can be.  And if it pushes you to excel then that's enough.

Don't miss practice.
Practice good technique.
Don't cheat yourself.
Don't give in.
Don't give up.
Don't settle for less.
Work through the pains and disappointments.

You'll be a better photographer or a better swimmer.......or both.

9.18.2010

Just thinking about the role of photography in branding and marketing non-profits.

Promotional shot for a Zachary Scott Production of "Spelling Bee of......."


 I recently had reason to pause and reflect on my relationship with a non-profit theater that I do a lot of work with.  A fair amount of the work is done as a donation.  Every once in a while some staff member does something mindless and venal that really tweaks me and it set into motion a weird calculus wherein I sit back with the mental transactional calculator we wish we didn't have in our brains but all do, and I calculate the benefits and detractions of donating the work I do.

In the plus column are many things:  1.  The actors don't make a lot of money and put a tremendous amount of time, talent and heart into each performance of each play.  2.  I generally work without impediment or undue direction when I'm shooting a dress rehearsal or similar project.  When we work on a bigger project, like a season brochure, the collaboration is generally friendly and intelligent.  3.  The sets and stage lighting are very competent which gives all of my reportage style photos a big head start.  4.  We've won numerous ad industry awards and have been published in many theater publications.  5.  Everything I produce has a big credit line adjacent.  6.  In theory, I get all the comp tickets I would ever want for every show.  7.  Every year I have the option of getting the entire house for a private show.  I've generally chosen their superb holiday production of David Sedaris's, Santaland Diaries, and it's been fun to ring in the holidays with 150 of your best clients and dear friends with a first class, classic comedy. 8.  I get to try out the latest gear in highly complex situations without the fear that momentary failure will end my career.  That means I get to take more risks and really come to understand the capabilities of the equipment I'll be pressing into service for national advertising clients.

There is, of course, the benefit of hundreds of thousands of advertising impressions of some of my best work.  Delivered to the best household demographics in the best market in the entire southwestern United States, with my credit adjacent to every image..  And, 10.  I really, really enjoy the live theater ethos.

Occasionally I'll run afoul of a mal-adjusted designer or technical person and I'll get my feet stepped on.  In most cases it's because they are myopically focused on their section of the production and really don't get how the creation and maintenance of a visual brand make such a huge difference in motivating subscribers and individual ticket purchases, which are a large part of the funding for the theater.

I can only suppose that they think I'm being paid enormously well and they resent it.  The truth is much different.  And that's where the other side of the calculus comes in.

Most of the work I do is shooting dress rehearsals.  In these intensive shoots I'm always attempting to distill the play into fragments that tell the whole story.  Snippets that translate the emotional character of the work, and vignettes that give potential audiences a whiff of the sweet or tangy texture of the work.

This requires a heightened vigilance, very quick responses to changes in lighting and composition, the best gear, the best lenses, the best reflexive responses to the action in front of me.

I'm generally coming in to the theater after a full day of work with advertising clients; a demanding situation in itself.  I arrive around 7:30 pm to be ready for an 8 pm curtain call.  I'm carrying two Canon 5D Mk2's and an assortment of lenses.  There's a 24-105 glued to one body and a bunch of fast primes that leap on and off the second body.  I'll shoot between 10 and 16 gigabytes of imagery over a three or four hour time frame.  Sometimes technical issues will push the start times back to 9 or 9:30 pm and often we aren't out the door till long after midnight.  A tough schedule when you've been up since six a.m. and you've got a 7 am call at a location for an ad client the following morning.....

Occasionally, the marketing director will want to set up a shot and will request that I bring lights and softboxes.  I bring along a set of Elincrhom Rangers and heads for these times.  We'll shoot the entire dress rehearsal and then shoot what we call set up shots.

The drop of the other shoe is the scheduling.  Many times we're right up against the publication deadlines for the only local paper and the theater marketing staff will desperately need images the next day.  If we're already scheduled with clients on that day it means that we download, edit and burn to DVD anywhere from 800 to 1500 images and stick them on our studio door for an early pick up the next day.  By the time the photos are picked up we're off in another corner of town, making happy faces at corporate executives and their handlers.

This doesn't include the time spent on special shoots for season brochures and all the other attendant marketing projects that we get roped into.  And, as I've said, most of the work is donated.  Just as the time of the board of directors is donated.

I've been doing work for this client for nearly 18 years.  The board of directors loves our company and recommends us broadly in the community at large.  And that's nice but the flip side are the numbers that come when we add up the services we've provided.  If we charged our full rates for all of the projects we've delivered we will have created between $200,00 and $360,000 worth of intellectual property.  We are the visual brand, the institution's visual memory, and the day to day photographic content of all their advertising, marketing and public relations collateral.

Is it all worth it?  Is it worth my time?  It's hard to say.  At times, when the images look astounding and the accolades come rolling in, and you share in the spirited euphoria of the actors and creators the answer is a resounding "yes!"  When someone drops the ball on the comp tickets they promised your big client or when a tech person pushes you out of the way during a shoot in order to get bad snapshots for their personal portfolios you have to wonder just what the hell you're wasting your time for.

Like I said, it's a big and complicated calculus.  An intertwined and conflicting matrix.  But in the end the fact that I've been doing this work for nearly 18 years provides the real answer.  I love it and I'd be sad to abandon it.  I do it for the images and for the actors.  And the actors do it because they love their craft.  Nobody is getting rich here but in many ways the impact in the community is both contagious and worthwhile.  And isn't that what art is all about?  Doesn't real art explain what it is to be human?

What sweet power to be the visual translator of a rich, rich creative community......

(All the images in the above composite were shot with Olympus digital cameras and lenses...)

9.15.2010

Nuts, Bolts, and Mindful Looking.

Copyright 2010, Kirk Tuck.  Primary Packaging, New York.


I'm going to try and make the argument that mindful looking trumps "skinning" a shot with technique.  First a few definitions.  Let's start with skinning.  It's from our friends that turn wire frame CAD constructions (drawings and renderings)  into what are commonly called CGI's or computer generated images.  Everything starts as a skeletal wire frame and once the shape and details are rendered the artist(s) apply the color, tone and texture; or the "skin" to the construction.  This is what makes it real.  Skinning also includes the application of shadows and highlights to the "skin" in order to complete the illusion of reality to the virtual object.

I'm using "skinning" in this instance to refer to the overlaying or application of a set of filters, actions or techniques to an existing photograph in an attempt to make it a personal expression or to add value or excitement to an image.  This could include:  hand coloring a traditional black and white print,  diffusing a print in traditional enlargement, using HDR techniques, the "David Hill Look", any one of a number of PhotoShop's native filters,  etc.

The idea of "mindful looking" comes from the practice of Zen Buddhists of being aware of one's consciousness and attention in the moment.  In a nutshell the idea is to look, without an agenda, at all the things that come enter your consciousness.  "Experience this moment" or be "present in this moment" are some ways people  talk about this philosophy.  In the practice of meditation ( and in certain realms of "Gestalt" psychology ) the idea is to sit quietly and examine thoughts that come to your attention without judgement.  And then to let those thought pass.

I'm stealing the philosophy and warping the meaning.  Not because of any dire intention but because I lack the talent and insight to really use it correctly.  What I mean by "mindful looking", in the context of photography, is the practice of approaching each subject without the conscious intention to change it's meaning by altering its perceptible structure.  Without altering it's integral and organic construction in an attempt  to make a new presentation or interpretation of the subject. Especially because the changes are done in the service of our egos.

The basis of Buddhist philosophy is the interconnectedness of all things.  In a way it's a repudiation of egoistical differentiation and an affirmation that we're all in this together.....along with the rocks, trees, stars and more.  From my photographic point of view each object has it's own objective appearance, although each of us probably experience it through our senses in very different ways.  We also filter our interaction or appraisal of objects through a filter of our experiences and our very DNA.

Because of our individual filtering, all of our seeing as photographers is flavored or filtered to some extent.  But here's the gist of my point:  If you have a technique or stylist post production tweak in mind as you go about your existence as a  photographer you will consciously and subconsciously begin to look for subjects that are most conducive to the style you have in mind.  You will begin to reject subjects or compositional constructions that don't fall into the set of parameters that constitute a glide toward the post production appliques.  When you hit this behavior you resist or reject different ways of seeing subjects, or seeing light on subjects, or even different angles of approach to your subjects.  In essence, you reject any potential image that doesn't hew to your protocol driven, post capture parameters of skinning.

I think this is fundamentally limiting for an artist and also establishes a feedback loop that replaces truly creative seeing with a "sub-routine" that adds a comforting reference while stripping the act of photography of its essential representational power.  The mastery of the "enhancing" technique delivers the comfort of skill mastery in general and gives the impression of artful expression while supplanting the individual creative vision (which is powered by the act of subject selection and timing or interaction with the subject at the time of acquisition ) with a culturally "accredited" sack of techniques akin to religious rites of passage to an elevated priesthood.

In the image above I've imprinted my creative point of view thru selection of actual point of view, selection of capture tools and the gesture and timing of the subject.  It could be argued that just in taking these steps, coupled with the selection of one frame from a group of many, that I've made as many subjective adaptations to the image as anyone else along the wide spectrum of the creative endeavors, but I would make the point that, had I a post processing application in mind I might not have been able to see the image I took here because my mind would have negated the relevance of this frame while searching for frames with more pliable characteristics.  In effect, the above sample probably a poor one since the argument can be made that just in knowing that all the images in this project would be rendered in black and white I have already subconsciously rejected shots that use color as their primary attraction.....

While I've argued that adding gratuitous technique to already well seen images is mostly aesthetically destructive, and that trying to save marginal images through "filter boost" is a waste of time, I'm not really making a judgement here.  What I'm trying to say is that the mindful seeing should always come first.  Any other way of looking at and filtering subjects is a drag on the primary creative process that takes place in the unfettered mind.

If you must aggrandize an image to meet your subjective vision, so be it, but I would argue that while looking for images it's best to leave the mental impedimentia of post processing routines at the door and enter the house of exploration, selection and interpretation in as streamlined a way as possible.  I find that when I go looking for art it is elusive.  It's elusive because, at a certain level,  I've pre-defined the search coordinates and constraints and I reject, subconsciously, anything that doesn't fit that claustrophobic matrix.  If I go out with an open mind and no roadmap of conquest I am much more likely to be the beneficiary of chance or the grace of my muse.

If I do my best to capture the object and find that it can subsequently be improved in post processing I won't hesitate.  But I would wonder about the disconnection from what I search out, and the gap between the right seeing and the final altered realization if I have to routinely subject my images to the (un)tender mercies of PhotoShop.

So, I'm probably just rambling after spending long hours photographing a three day conference.  In a nutshell I'm basically admitting the we all do some post processing from time to time in the service of our images but I think it would be a good idea to go into each session with an open mind and a mindful attention to the nature of the objects we photograph instead of pre-defining that which we'd like to see as the end result.  Wow.   That was a long way to go for one little thought.....but I guess not every blog can be perfect and so sometimes you get to suffer along with me as I do that human thought process thing for a thousand or so people to see.

I don't have anything to say in any picture. My only interest in photography is to see what something looks like as a photograph. I have no preconceptions. - Garry Winogrand

9.11.2010

A repudiation of all the over complication of photography.


Just because I can change something doesn't necessarily mean I should.  Many, many years ago I was walking down Commerce Street in San Antonio.  There was a fantastic bookstore called "Brock's Books". It had been there just about forever.  I shopped there from time to time and my real pleasure was going into the maze like basement, through acres of magazines, books and other collections of paper, searching for the vintage photography magazines.  I'd stand there for an hour or so, until the smell of mildewing paper overwhelmed me, and I'd leaf through photography magazines from the 1940's and the 1950's.  The magazines were enormous then.  Hundreds of pages.  Hundreds of photographs.  And the writing........

It's enough to make you cry.  Back in the days of the American enlightenment, before the fall from intellectual grace that began in earnest in the 1980's and has accelerated since then, even visual magazines paid attention to the written word.  Interviews spanned five or six pages.  Discussions of trends and styles were meaty essays that left you sated, like a good meal.  Now.....American Photographer and even Photo District News run articles that are little more than captions.  Squiggly gray space between photographs.

The image above is so simple.  I was walking around with some sort of sad sack camera from Nikon.  I'll guess it was the original FE.  I had the cheapest 28mm lens on the front.  Had to be the old 28mm 3.5.  Probably had to be updated to meter on that body.  I was just out walking,  on the prowl for images and coffee and pastries, though not necessarily in that order.  I was alone.  Always alone.  Because photographers are like little magnetic fields and when they come into contact with other photographers or even just people who want to tag along, it distorts and disrupts the purity of the magnetic field and causes problems.  The creative impulse gets detuned and the underlying rhythm of of the walk gets distorted and wrenched out of shape.  Some people are totally immune to disruption.  I don't know what to say about them but they seem to be the same people who are immune to positive social pressure, subtle hints or straightforward instruction.

Anyway,  I walked over to Brock's Books and stood in the open shade looking down on the box of bargain stuff that they always put outside.  I don't know if they ever sold the stuff in the boxes or if it was just there to let people know that the store was open.  On this particular day I leaned over to see what was inside and loved the look of the True Romance magazine cover.  I shot two or three frames on automatic, with slide film, and then I moved on.  Didn't think much of the image at the time but it's steadily grown on me over the years.

It's too simple an image for anyone to appreciate these days.  Too quiet.  Bereft of flash and sizzle.  And that's what I like about it.  It's about the content and the juxtaposition to the close surroundings.  It's calm.  You can rest your eyes on the image.  At most it's decorative art.

But the process of bringing it to life was so simple.  An interested look.  A cutting out of the image from it's multi-dimensional existence.  A commitment of resources and then,  like water behind a boat I moved on and it receded from my immediate consciousness.  

Have you ever noticed that much great art is relatively simple?  I think of Picasso's Dove of Peace series.  Simple lines, casually drawn.  Quick, intuitive gestures.  And then he was smart enough to leave it alone, in a simple state.  Distilled to its essence.  The same with the line drawings of Matisse and the beautiful Nakamura drawings.

I was in a short, three way discussion with two other photographers last night at an opening.  I had an epiphany.  The difference between printing with Photoshop and an inkjet printer versus printing in an old fashioned wet darkroom is all  encompassed in risk and intentionality.  The traditional print maker must take a risk at the time of print creation.  Every segment of the process is analog.  It's never precisely repeatable.  Even the chemistry of the developer changes subtly between each iteration.

The wet printer makes decisions, executes them and moves through the process with necessary commitment.  Most artists have limited resources.  They needed to get wet prints just right in as few iterations as possible.  They didn't/don't have the luxury of endless tweaking and endless indecisive manipulation.  They can never really return exactly to a previous version.  Everything changes.  The motions of burning and dodging aren't mechanical.

Conversely, digital printers can, through soft proofing, try variation after variation after variation with no real economic or temporal consequences.  Rather than working to get the perfect image as a reflection of the camera capture, they become free to be like the clients we love to hate in our day jobs as photographers:  You know the ones.  You'll likely be doing a fashion shoot for some mall property with a little agency.  The art director doesn't get to do many photoshoots in the age of cowardly stock photography usage.  He knows there's real money riding on the shoot.  When asked "Which colored shirt should we use on the male model?"  He will become paralyzed.  Unable to make a strong, assured creative decision he'll move to cover his bases.  He'll answer,  "Let's try all of them.  Let's do some with the red shirt, some with the green shirt and some with the yellow shirt."  Then we ask the same thing about the female model's wardrobe and we get the same answer.  So if we try every combination of the colors for both models we may end up with a possible matrix of 12 or 16 or 20 pairings.  Imagine shooting that!!!!!!!  Imagine trying to keep up good energy on that set.

But I conjecture that the lure of PhotoShop and digital printing exerts as similar effect on budding artists and, in a way, diminishes their energy to truly create photographs.  There is always something you can fix.  But should you.  In the  photo above, it would be normal to find a pleasing color balance and exposure.  Once you do that the image is created.  But the addiction to "playing God" with the images rears its incredibly ugly head.  Now it comes to mind that with a few layers and a few simple key strokes you might just be able to increase the dynamic range.  You could restore the color of the cover (never mind that doing so would destroy the feel of the image completely....).  You could increase the shadow detail in the tennis shoes.  You could create a mask in order to do something to the tile floor.  You could add elements to the scene you could use filters and you could liquify.  But at some point you'll become paralyzed by two things:  1.  The enormous, almost infinite range of abuse you can bring to this image with no financial consequences and no rules.  2.  There is no stop sign or safety net.  There's nothing to stop you from absurdly continuing to torture a simple image until it's not longer recognizable as the original image or until you drop from exhaustion from your efforts.

None of this is to say that you shouldn't use a digital printer to output your images.  And I'm not saying that no one should use PhotoShop.  I just think it's instructive to think about how much less is required to make art than a current generation in love the with the ability to add ad absurdium is willing to admit.  The Mona Lisa won't necessarily be better if we fix the faults, add some glitter around the edges, drop in a few images of Lady Ga-Ga and 50 Cent into the background for extra flavor, maybe Photo Shop the Giaconda's outfit for a some cleavage and even the hint of a nipple.......

At every step there needs to be commitment to an original vision.  Otherwise every image is nothing more than a gessoed canvas waiting to be sprayed by the latest (soon to be cliche) technique.  I guess my first rule would read:  Be true to the content.  Everything proceeds from there.

9.10.2010

Tempest. Kirk's low light test of his 5D2.


So.  Based on reviews and DXO tests and anecdotal evidence I had a reasonable expectation that the Canon5D2 would perform acceptably at 3200 ISO but you never really know until you fire up the camera and go shoot in your own style.  3200 ISO can look great if all you shoot is high key stuff with lots of sparkle and snap.  But I figure I'd put it to my typical worst case scenario and go shoot some theater with it.

I got a call from Ann over at the Austin Shakespeare Theater asking me to shoot the preview show of The Tempest.   I said, "sure" and packed a small bag.  Here's what I took:  One 5D2 body, one 70-200mm f4 L (not the IS) and my newly acquired Zeiss 50mm 1.4 ZE lens.  I had many questions:  Would the f4 zoom be too slow?  Would I regret not getting the IS version?  Could I still manual focus the Zeiss even though I had not yet gotten the Eg-S screen?

To answer each question in turn:  No,  the f4 zoom was just right.  The light levels at 3200 gave me a comfortable 1/180 or 1/250 to play with and the benefit (based on painful years of buying f2.8 versions of these lenses from Nikon, Canon, and Leica ) was that the light weight and small size was very manageable for a two hour long shoot.  That little sucker is pretty sharp right at f4 and it handles side light and flare very well.  On to question #2.  I am not the steadiest handholder the world has ever seen and I like my lenses with the IS but in this case I came equipped with surprisingly good, after market IS (image stabilization).  It was at least as good as the Canon version.  Maybe better, because it worked with every single lens in the bag!!!  It's called a monopod.  I've pooh poohed them before but I decided to grab one of the three that sit in the umbrella bucket next to the door and give it all another shot.  You know what?  They work well.  And they work best with lenses that have tripod collars......like my Canon 70-200 f4.  I was able to shoot at least three stops slower than I could handhold.

My favorite monopod is a Leitz  Tiltall monopod that Belinda gave me as a birthday present back in 1980.  It's a very lightweight, all aluminum stick with knurled leg locks.  That makes it slower to set up and adjust but it's so minimal and black and tactical looking.  I ended up taking a Bogen/Manfrotto model which has (unfortunately) a bright metal finish.  It uses flip locks for the leg extensions so it's quicker.  I used a quick release on the top.  It's nice enough.  It's just not as cool as the Leitz Tiltall version.
Finally, there's the question of whether or not I'd be able to focus the manual focus, Zeiss 50mm 1.4 lens on the Canon 5D2 which is not, by any stretch of the imagination, set up to make manual focusing easy. Actually, it came back to me pretty quickly.  I don't this you can spend years peering down into a  dark Hasselblad screen trying to focus a slow 50mm wide angle without retaining some chops.  Ditto with the decade or so I spent under the dark cloth of the 4x5 view camera, gazing at the Stygian screen, rendered at f16 trying to find pinpoint focus.  When you've focused in hell, focusing in the modern world doesn't seem as tough......
I find that truisms in photography die hard.  When most people think of taking photographs of live theater they immediately engage a part of the photographic brain, stoked by the lore from yesteryear, that they must use the fastest lenses available.  They rush to find the 85mm 1.4's and 1.2's.  The 50mm 1.2's and 1.0's and the long fast glass as well.  I was just as guilty because I always remembered the days when we shot with ISO 400 films and every photon gathered was precious.  But it's all changed.  And I'm happy.  Fast lenses aren't always good lenses.  At least, they are never as good wide open as a cheaper, smaller, lighter lens can be at f2.8, f4 or f5.6.  If you've got one of the new generation of cameras that does really decent ISO 3200 or ISO 6400 like the Canon 5 or the Nikon D3 you can rid your lore books of much old treasure.

I seem to be getting better files because the lenses can be better corrected if they aren't speed demons.  Several lens specialists, and especially Erwin Puts, haven't written volumes about how many times harder it is to design and produce faster lenses when compared to tamer designs.  The new Canon 70-200mm f2.8 zoom cracks the credit card at nearly $2500 while the older f4 version is a very affordable $650.  What do you give up?  A pound or two in weight and one stop.  Locked on a tripod and compared side by side it would be an imperceptible difference in quality between the two at every aperture.  And I'd be willing to bet that the little Canon is a bit sharper at f4 than it's new big brother is at f2.8.

The second reason for speed back in the old days was all about focusing accuracy and finder brightness. Focusing was real work and took real skill.  People practiced focusing in their downtime. Now that's so much less important because it's the rare photographer who flips the switch on the camera body or the lens barrel and goes into the manual focusing mode.

Yesterday I upgraded the Canon 5D2 screen to the Eg-S screen and there's a little bit of difference.  Mostly it's all down to practice and acclimation.
There's not a lot to say about the ISO performance of the 5d that hasn't be said elsewhere.  It's a great camera for low light shooting and I'm very pleased with the files.  The nice thing for  me is that, even with the high speed noise reduction set to standard, there is a lot of detail preserved in the files.  It really does look nice.  Next time I'll be brave and try the 6400 setting.

I didn't have time to do these files on Thurs. because we were engaged in a corporate shoot.  We shot from 8 to 11 am which is what? Three hours.  But I've been editing the 1300+ files, doing global color corrections, processing to smaller jpegs and uploading to Smugmug for most of this day.  Amazing how much back end work there is for a typical photo assignment and how little that part gets talked about.

On Sunday I start another two day project so I want to make sure I process as I go.  Nothing worse than getting behind when there's money to be made.

Two more photos and then I'm off to D.J. Stout's book signing at the Steve Clark Gallery.  Should be fun.