More stuff from the ancient Texas town.

"If only I had a __________ I could take photos like ___________ and my career would explode like an aerosol can in a campfire!!!"  I hear it all the time.  Photographers seem so convinced that the big block between them and the holy grail of photography is that lousy camera they're stuck with.  I like the image above.  I took it in a dusty room with some light coming thru a dirty little window right behind me.  But I forgot to bring my treasure chest full of Nikon Speedlights, ala Joe McNally.  I forgot my 8x10 view camera, ala Dan Winter.  Most painful,  I neglected to bring my busload of assistants and groupies, ala Chase Jarvis.  Nope.  I managed to pull this off with a six year old, eight megapixel camera and a 50mm lens.  To make matters worst,  I shot it in the Jpeg mode.

Am I saying that these fun, casual images are in the same league as the "amazing" images my better known colleagues are shooting?  That's hard to say.  Because lately everything I see leaves me a little ho-hum-ish.  I think I've seen Joe and David rim light just about enough stuff with little flashes and sponsor reflectors.  I've never been able to pick Chase's stuff out of a line up of other quasi sport/quasi catalog shooters' stuff and I haven't seen as much from Dan Winters as I used to.  Not sure about his adaptation to digital yet.......time will tell.

But I will say that for the past few months the gear seems so secondary to me.  Yes, I still love the lenses and yes,  I'm still "academically" interested in the latest cameras from everybody but.....when it comes to actually loading up some spicy Lexar or Sandisk and heading out to freeze some photons it really doesn't matter what I grab.  I like shooting all of it.

I know this will seem like an odd confession; afterall, I've been shooting photos for nearly thirty years but I have to say that this year is the first time I can remember thoroughly liking all of my photographic work.  I like the way it looks and I like the way it feels and I like the process of creating it.  I could never look at a portfolio before without cringing a little on the inside, but now?  I see fun stuff in the finished images.  I see little details and little tones that make me feel happy when I rediscover them.  

Does this mean I've lost my critical faculties?  Does this mean I've ruptured my humility gland and replaced it with pompous self love?  Hardly.  I know that my work could be better done.  Better seen, better post processed and better cultivated.  But I've come to the gut level realization that it's just not about perfection and there are no absolutes in art.  There's no grading scale, as much as the inhabitants of DPReview crave one.  There's no hierarchy of good, better, best in the creation of a personal vision....as much as the Flickerati would love one.  I've just become comfortable with the idea that I look at things the way I like to look at them and everyone else looks at stuff and shoots it in a different way than me.  And that's okay.

In the end it's all about making yourself happy.  If you shoot for a different audience,  if you shoot for your mom's approval, or to impress the guys in the camera club, or because you think you should shoot in a style that the silly-ass consultants say is most popular with the art buyers then.....you've already lost.  Because you'll be chasing the same things as the hundred thousand other photographers in your sphere.  It's only by doing it your way that you really win.  Because in the end you can't know what's in anyone else's head.  You might as well fill yours with fun.  Viva old cameras and 50mm lenses.  And 35mm lenses and 85mm lenses.  Viva the process of shooting for fun.


How to get the best images from your lenses. And a quicky review of the Zeiss 85mm ZE.

I'm not quite finished with the project that has temporarily sidelined the Visual Science Labs English language blog but I thought I needed a break from all the discipline of writing a book and I didn't want to miss the opportunity to toss out a "Sunday Rant."  So, "Hi Everyone!"

In the course of researching facts for the book I've become aware of how much is accepted for "fact" by the great majority of web users.  A case in point is the anecdotal acceptance or condemnation of this or that lens.  One reviewer is not able to focus the lens well and in months and weeks the web froths up these facts like egg whites in a souffle and pretty soon it becomes "general knowledge" that X lens is unsharp.

I've learned the three best ways to get the best results out of any lens you happen to buy and I want to share them with you right now.  1.  Put the right subject in front of your lens.   2.  Only put interesting subjects in front of your lenses.  3.  Never put a boring subject in front of your lens....

Back to the general rant.  When I started researching Zeiss lenses for the Canon EOS cameras I started reading all sorts of reviews that talked about focus shift and soft performance with the 85mm 1.4 until you got to an f-stop of about f4.  Reading these things stopped me from buying this lens for months and months.  Recently I decided to forget all that I'd read and try the lens myself.  On my own cameras.  I had high hopes, afte rall I'd tried and then purchased both the 50mm 1.4 and the 35mm f2.0 Zeiss lenses and they have both been stellar performers.

I ponied up for the 85mm and just shot 2,000 frames with it on both the Canon 5dmk2 and on my current vogue camera, the Canon 1Dmk2N.  I never use the "focus and recompose" method when I'm working close.  It doesn't take a crash refresher course in trigonometry to understand that when you are working in close with a long, fast lens depth of field will be small, human focusing errors cost big time, and little shifts of distance make for big problems.

The lens is wonderful.  When I follow good focusing procedures the camera and lens combination rewards me with results that I like very much.  And that brings up an important point:  Good focusing technique takes practice.  Whenever I write a column about the need to consistently practice technique I get lots of feedback from people with non-photo jobs virulently defending the possibility of having good technique in spite of sporadic and periodic engagement with their tools.  I'll just summarily say,  "I don't think so."  Take the camera to work and practice focusing while you're waiting for the next great thought to strike....

When used properly no microadjustment was required for either camera.  No special stopping down routine was needed.  Just straight forward technique.

How to get the most out of any lens?  Use it all the time.  Experiment and engage.  Be fearless.  And never insult your lens by putting crap in front of it.  Literally or metaphorically.  (Non color corrective) filters make good coasters.  Not good adjuncts to carefully designed optical systems.  Cats are fun to pet but have visual relevance only to your close family.  This goes for most cars, most girlfriends and boyfriends and nearly every overweight person you've found parading around in a swim suit (unless you are Martin Parr).  This limits your range of subject possibilities enormously but it does serve to concentrate your talent and focus it rather than dilute it like a pound of ice in your Big Gulp cup of cola.

If the fish aren't running try another stream or take a break to eat a sandwich or watch the clouds go by.  If you're out for a "photo walk"  (which really just means a walk with your camera along.  Do we really need a special phrase for it?) and there's no interesting subject matter a quick detour into the mysteries of convenient cracking paint and accommodating shadow doesn't make an equivalent replacement for the subjects to which you are really attracted.  We're not in an image race here.  It's not enough to fill the bucket if all you're filling it with is chum.

Why did I buy yet another 85mm lens?  I always wanted this one.  The economy has been kinder this year and seems to have a trajectory that gives me a sense of relative security and happiness.  I've been doing more and more video projects and I like the look and feel of the MF Zeiss lenses and their buttery focus rings.  I've loved the focal length for years and always wanted to know what the Zeiss version added to the equation.

I bought it on my way to speak at Dennis Darling's photo class at the University of Texas School of Journalism, on Thursday.  I used it yesterday in Pedernales to photograph a doctor for an ad.  I used it this today to photograph Selena out at Willie Nelson's place.  I shot 1200 shots this morning.  I like a lot of them.  Do I think you need this lens?  Nope.  If you have something in this focal length that makes you happy you're set.  Will this lens make me a better photographer?  Not as much as getting more sleeping, showing up more places and getting my book project finished probably would.  Did I really need it to pursue the video business?  Nope.  I have a perfectly serviceable Canon 85 that works just fine for video.

So why?  Sometimes I like to reward myself for long jags of work.  Sometimes I like to see if other brands have something special (they generally don't).  I was nostalgic for manual focusing.  It's the same reason people buy sports cars with manual transmissions.  And no,  it's not logical and it doesn't make any sense.  Some times I do things just to make myself happy.

Remember:  The number one way to get better stuff out of your lens is to put interesting subjects in front of it.  There is no other thing that will work so well, and across all formats.  If you are shooting something just to show off your technical skills or the technical qualities of your gear you missed the point.  But my regular readers know that nothing matters if the photo is not interesting....

Back to work.  Hope everyone is well.

 Zeiss 85mm at f2.8,  Handheld

All the best from Austin, Texas.  From Kirk Tuck.


The Visual Science Lab Takes a Vacation.

At the crossroads.

I've written over 400 posts in the last two years and moderated over 6,000 comments.  My readers have clicked to over 1,000,000 page views.  And it's been a fun place to write about stuff I'm interested in.  But it's time to take a couple weeks off and focus like a laser on a paying project.  To wit, I need to buckle down and finish a book I'm writing on using LED lights for photography.  I haven't missed my publisher's deadline yet but I have stepped over my own, self-imposed, deadline and I need to fix that.

In the meantime there are probably 400,000 words with attendant photos that you can catch up on.  I'll be back in a few weeks and we'll pick up where we left off.

"Don't worry.  He'll be back."


Working 24/7 and slowly going insane? Join the club? No Thanks!

I was rather shocked when I listened to a person from a company that makes all kinds of electronic products the other day.  She made the pitch to me that her company helped stressed out, over-worked moms by making products (like phones and tablets) that would allow a frenetic mom to "disconnect from her office" and be able to "take her work along with her" so that she could be present for her children's activities.  From what I could understand this person believed in the 1990's mantra of "multi-tasking" which has been so thoroughly discredited by psychologists and process experts over the last decade.

The idea was that, between tweets, urgent e-mails, progress reports and modifications to mission critical spreadsheets, the newly unfettered mom would be able to look up from the screen and instantly enter into her child's world just at the moment when Sally hit the game winning home run or when Poindexter cinched the national Spelling Bee with the correct spelling of "Delusional". 

The more grievous idea I came away with is that now it's no longer good enough to give a company a stress and anxiety filled 50 or 60 hours of your week.  No.  The new norm is total ownership.  The excuse is that now so many people in finance, tech and commodities work in a world market and they must be accessible to their counterparts in Malaysia, must not miss the opening bell in Berlin or Kerplakistan, must be electronically present for those important clients in Kathmandu....

I have a sneaky feeling that chronic unemployment is not caused by a lack of jobs but that many jobs are being handled by one person.  The manically compulsive super workers are stealing more than their fair share of jobs.  And they are training their companies to expect "work till you drop" dedication that trades health, family life, hobbies, community involvement and the basic richness of existence for quarter by quarter profitability.  And here's the kicker:  Those super employees aren't being compensated for doing the work of three, they're giving their employers undeserved charity.  

In the self employed world we read books on negotiation.  We learn that you never give up something without getting something in return.  That's the foundation of good negotiation.  And as self employed people we never work for free (unless we are donating our time, services, goods to a needy and beneficial cause.)  But that's exactly what the super workers of today are doing.  They are giving it away for free.  And, of course, their companies are encouraging them.

It's time we took a good long look at the American work ethic and got rational.  The unions got it right back in the coal mine strikes and the meat packers collective bargaining days:  Forty hours a week is the most you can work in a reliable and sustainable way.  And by that I mean being able to preserve your personal dignity, your physical health and the health of your family and relationships.  

If you are routinely working 60 or 70 hours a week and you don't OWN the company you work for (and, in my mind, even if you do) you might consider that you are your own "scab" and you are in some ways responsible for the downward spiral of the American dream.  That spreadsheet WILL wait until monday.  Your real life can't always be on hold.  If it needs to be done over the weekend your company needs to hire a weekend shift.

So, this is a photo oriented blog, why the hell am I talking about workplace issues?  Because from time to time I write columns that talk about some of the outrageous schedules I work.  But the difference is that my projects stop and start and there's lots of in between time for rest and rejuvenation.  Joy and pleasure.  Family dinners together and weekends puttering around helping Ben with homework and Belinda with some gardening.  Couch time with a novel.   If a freelancer in a struggling industry can do this and keep his head above water then so can the valuable employees of all sorts of companies.

The electronics that we seem addicted to are also a secret weapon that helps bosses (and clients)  suck more and more from their people by blurring the lines between what is and what isn't work.  The cellphone is not referred to as "An Electronic Leash" without good reason.  

It's all about setting limits.  Isn't that what we tell our children? 

The shot above is of Belinda in Montego Bay, Jamaica.  The way I negotiated a series of projects in the Islands was to work for a week, for my usual rate, and then go back later with Belinda for a second week of vacation and downtime.  No phones, no internet, no emergencies in Patagonia.  The vacation opportunity defrayed the travel time and longer working days of the actual project.

Shot with a Rollei medium format camera on Tri-X film at a place called "The Pork Pit."  Really good pulled pork.  A quiet week by the sea.

Added half an hour later:  I read this on Kim Critchfield's FB page and loved it.  I sent a copy to Ben and to a friend who needed to read it.  I'll post this on my wall, just to the side of my computer.

One evening a Cherokee elder told his grandson about a battle that goes on inside people.

He said, "My son, the battle is between the two 'wolves' that live inside us all.
One is Unhappiness or Evil - It is anger, jealousy, fear, regret, greed, arrogance, sorrow, self-pity, resentment, inferiority, false pride, superiority, weakness and ego.

The other is Happiness or Good - It is joy, love, hope, serenity, benevolence, peace, empathy, kindness, generosity, truth, humility, faith, strength and compassion."

The grandson thought about it for a while and then asked his grandfather, "Which wolf wins?"

The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed." - Cherokee Elder


The anatomy of shooting a corporate conference. Nuts and bolts.

My business does a lot of photographs for shows and special events for corporations.  We've supplied these services in the U.S. and across Europe since the early 1990's.  And there's a lot more to providing event documentation than just showing up with a camera and a few lenses.  Some things are intangible and some are not.  But here's the bottom line:  A conference aimed at a corporation's top 700 people (out of nearly 100,000) is neither the time nor the place for event planners and marketing teams to play around with unknown quantities.  Here's what they're looking for:  Someone who's done so many of these shows that they understand all the things that can go wrong and what the priorities are.  For instance, you may have a certain executive on your "shot list" but his admin may tell you that his schedule has changed.  You roll with the punches, not them.  You change your schedule to match.  If an executive needs your chair, your table, your time, your attention, or your lunch you accomodate. They're playing an international game of high stakes and you can't be the person who threw them off their game no matter what.

This blog is not about the content of their conference.  That's proprietary.  (Good lesson).  This one will be about the nuts and bolts, to give you a glimpse at the kind of work we do and what's entailed.  

Usually this client hires us directly.  In this case a production company was handling visual intellectual property requirements so my job was to serve two masters.  I'd provide images for use in a series of videos that were shown over the course of the two days.  That was what the production company needed and that was their priority.  The main client needed in depth show documentation.  They wanted images that could be blogged throughout the day.  They wanted images for future marketing needs.  They wanted images to stick into PowerPoint presentations and other slide shows.  In short, they wanted everything.

The first thing we do, before we even bid the job, is to touch base with each client contact to get a detailed list of photography I'd be responsible for.  The next step was to figure out all the logistics and plan how to deliver everything.  Then figure out the rights package and finally submit a bid and a contract.  We made it clear that without a signed contract in hand we would not be showing up.

Every client wants to show the "look and feel" of a show and this can include everything from the early morning breakfast with messaging signs and banners to registration to the networking that takes place during the breaks between sessions.  I shot people moving from session to session, spontaneous group meetings in the hallways, product demonstrations and even the directional signs.

Ford CEO, Alan Mullaly

Equally important is the coverage of all the general sessions with emphasis on keynote speakers and appearances by top officers of the companies.  For both types of coverage you need to be able to move fast, not draw attention to yourself and get the shots you need without disturbing the subjects.  They are engaged in high stakes business.  Your job is infinitely secondary, in the grand scheme of things, to what they are trying to accomplish.  And they are scheduled tighter than a space launch.

When we shoot corporate shows it's customary to wear black when you will be moving around the "main tent".  That way, if you need to walk thru the audience or near the stage to get an important angle you blend in with the darkened house.  If you wear bright colors you stick out like sore thumb and hundreds of eyes will follow you as you move.  Some of those eyes will most assuredly be attached to angry event planners who spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to ensure that all eyes are riveted on their speakers and officers.  I wear black dress pants, a black polo shirt and a dark gray or black sport coat.  (I love the cut of LA Axis's jackets from a few years ago....the pockets are big enough to hold a flash on one side and a Zeiss 35mm f2 lens in the other.  And they look nice.  Don't forget the shoes.  I wear black Rockports because they are comfy and I know I'll be on my feet for 12 hours a day, three days straight. (And, remember to make the socks black as well.....)

Generally there will be a room dedicated to the production team.  That's where video editors edit footage for short deadline video modules, where the videographers store extra gear and charge batteries and where we still photographers keep our collection of stuff we're not using RIGHT NOW.  

Carl Zeiss 35mm f2 ZE on Canon 7D camera.  1600 ISO.  Jpeg.

It's the defacto "creative break" room where we'll get assignments, eat meals and blow off steam.  I leave my big Domke bag here and just take the camera gear I'll be shooting with for the next few hours with me.

Here's the routine:  Client gives photography shot list and video shot list to production company.  Production gives the list to me.  I assemble the gear I want to carry and head out to shoot.  We'll largely be shooting three kinds of photos:  1.  Medium close shots like this product demo or a typical team building exercise.  2.  Medium shots that might include break out rooms, signage and environmental shots of people networking and conversing.  3.  Stage shots.  These range from wide angle overviews of the entire presentation stage as well as tight and medium shots of speakers and discussion groups, on stage.

The first category is similar to newspaper "enterprise" assignments where I go out into the vastness of the convention center and try to find interesting stuff that is at least tangentially related to the show.  These are all available light under mixed lighting instruments so I need to constantly be aware of getting pretty exacting color balance.  Advanced amateur and knee jerk "pro's" will probably shut down around this point and tell me what a dumbass I am for not shooting raw and fixing everything in post.  Newsflash!!!! I'll need to shoot a lot and then hand over cards to video editors who are producing on site videos in minutes and hours, not days.  No one brings raw converters to the job.  It would just slow everything down.

This means a dependance on real professional practice to hit exposure and color balance for every usable frame or throw the rest away.  Really.  Honest.  You can be "Mr. Perfectionist" and shoot all raw but you'll still be massaging your files when the show is over and it'll be a cold day in hell before you get paid.  If you think:  "shoot for one hour, hustle back to the production room, hand over card to editor,  head back out door to shoot again," you'll have it just about right.  Even with an army of assistants there's no transition time to make the edit-raw-conversion-correction-retouch-jpeg-transfer spread in most cases.  And you never know which one of the cases that will be.  Something you shot that you thought was routine may be just what the client wanted to send out on the newswire to meet a deadline.

So, what's the basic schedule?  Let's take my Weds. as a typical day.  Our call time (when we had to show our faces in production...) was 6:45 am.  We reviewed our agenda for the day but most of the attention went to the video production crews since they had to schedule interviews, etc.  I was a known factor in the whole equation because I'd been doing show assignments like this for this particular company for nearly 20 years.  I understood the flow of the shows and, more importantly, the kind of images their marketing team was looking for.  What I really needed to know was the internal production schedule and the lead times I'd need to keep in mind in order to get the editing crew files on time.

By 7:00 I was out looking for people to photograph for inclusion into a first video module.  I also kept my eyes open for visual representations of networking.  That would be "networking without the aid of electronic devices:"  ie.  people talking to each other.  At 7:45 I turned in the first memory card and headed to the main auditorium.  Show started at 8 am with words from the CEO, a video, and then a series of panel discussions.  At the 10:00 break I head to the production office and then look, somewhat desperately, for the shortest line for coffee.

What am I shooting with during the main session?  Well here's where I had a little fun.  During the course of the show I used four different cameras.  Day one I used the Canon 5Dmk2 and the Canon 7D. When we shoot shows it's now 99.9% available light.  Never do we use flash in the "main tent" (the big ballroom).  I used a 70-200 f4 L on the 7D and the 24-105 L on the 5dmk2.  Stage lights were balanced to 4400 kelvin and the light wash gave me a base exposure of 1/250th of a second at f4, ISO 1600.

We can all talk till we're blue in the face about relative ISO capability and which camera is theoretically better but to my eye and the eyes of my editors both cameras are very, very low noise at ISO 1600.  Part of the low noise results are, no doubt, the shift in stage lighting.  The older 3200 halogens pushed hard on the blue channels of digital cameras and created lots of noise.  The higher color temperature of the LED and HID fixtures seems to equalize the amplification of the three channels and yields a lower, more correctable noise signature.  Bravo 21st century lighting!

I'm shooting the stage action from the front row or one of the front tables (all depends on how the sessions are set up....).  I need to get the shots but I need to do it in a way that doesn't distract the speakers or the people around me.  I've blimped my shooting camera with layers of neoprene that deaden about 60% of the sound.  I try not to handle the gear any more than I need to.  At these light levels a tripod or even monopod aren't necessary to get good, steady, detailed shots.  What I'm really looking for is the right expression combined with the right gestures, with my subject occupying the right space on the stage.  I want to be able to have the right colors and shapes behind them.  If I move in front of the stage I get as low as I can and I shoot from a kneeling position.  Hell on my dress trouser knees but worth it not to stand up and present myself as a visual target....

I have all my cameras set as closely as possible to the same parameters.  With Canons the least bit of underexposure seems to lead to too much saturation so all my units are set up to "neutral" picture setting. I modify that by turning up the sharpness to plus 3 and turning the contrast to minus 1.  Before the show starts I go on stage and measure the color temperature of the stage lighting with a color temp meter and then set the WB by Kelvin to exactly the right spot.  In the big showcases outside the main tent a quick WB custom setting (off a white table cloth) gets me into a good ballpark.  Out in the hallways with a mix of sun and internal lighting I depend on AWB because the light changes too quickly to rely on a single setting.

During the "main tent" session I'm getting a mix of wide shots to show how big and well done the stage is in relation to the size of the speaker.  I'm also getting tighter and tighter compositions all the way down to tight headshots.  My use of the 70-200 on the 7D is get more range.  By using the 24-105 on the 5D2 I can go wider.

I'm never happy just getting the shots.  I really like to experiment and see how new gear works.  As you might remember from a recent column I bought a couple of Canon 1dmk2N cameras and I was anxious to see how they would stack up against the much newer cameras when it came to color and high ISO performance.  I shot almost all of the last day of the show with these cameras and found that the AF performance and handling was super but the high ISO shots showed a bit more noise in the blue backgrounds than the other two cameras.  It didn't show up on the reduced size images they used for video projection (the two side screens measured at least 30 by 40 feet!!) and when I brought all the images back to the studio for a more leisurely edit for the print marketing people I found that with a tweak of the "color noise reduction" slider in Lightroom 3.0 I could make the noise profile in all three cameras look pretty much the same.  So much for progress.

I also used the 60D and it was okay but felt like a compromise next to the stellar handling performance of the 7D and the 1Dmk2's.  Files were fine.  It just didn't feel as sexy in the hand as the other two.

The real fun for me was adding in the two Carl Zeiss lenses.  I recently bought the 50mm 1.4 and the 35mm 2.0.  I love the way they render images.  The 35mm in particular is razor sharp wide open and when used up close and wide open gives you two things.  Context with the background and a really dramatic focus differential between foreground and background.  I found shooting them with the 1dmk 2 bodies very straightforward and I depending on the focus confirmation beep and signal for final focus. (Of course, I turned the beep off during the main session....).   

The real secret to good coverage is to blend in with everyone else.  With my conservative dress code and general age I was already in the middle of the demographic for this leadership conference.  Here are two very important photo tips:  1.   I never carried a camera bag around with me.  In most instances (outside the main tent) I walked around with one camera in my hands and an extra lens in one pocket.  I tried as much as possible to look like just another attendee who happened to bring along his camera.  Not like "The Camera Guy!"  Why?  Because we're not here to sell gear or set prices based on the kind of cameras we use I'm trying to sell good images.  Images that show an immersion, not a surface representation from the outside.  And every layer of "costume" puts me one layer further away from the subject.  A guy in a vest, sporting a big camera bag, with flashes everywhere would have instantly labeled himself as an outsider.  Levels of cooperation dropped commensurately.  Welcoming and inclusive looks disappear.  I see it happen all the time.

The show day ebbs and flows.  Lunch is a great downtime for everyone.  A time to revisit what we've all shot and what kind of holes we might have in our content.  We all grab plates from the buffet line and head back upstairs to the production room to eat and re-arrange our equipment for the next session.  Faster, wider lenses for break out sessions in smaller rooms.  Extra CF cards in my pockets.

I talked about not using flash for the shows but in some cases it's unavoidable.  We did a "social" function as part of the recent show over at the new Austin City Limits stage at the new W Hotel.  It was evening and the venue was dark.  Even at 6400 ISO shooting would have been very problematic.  Focusing impossible.  I'd heard so many bad stories about Canon flashes and the Canon flash technology that I approached this part of the job with a bit of trepidation.  But I'd just read Syl Arena's book on Canon flash and I was anxious to incorporate what I'd read.  I used only the Canon 7D camera and the 430 ex2 flash and I found the combination to be incredibly good. Every bit as good as the flash exposures I used to get from the Nikon D700 and the SB-800.  If I used the FEL function I never missed on exposure.  The IR AF assist was critical and worked as promised.  Shooting as ISO 800 I had the perfect combination of low flash power use and nice file construct.  Anyone who bitches about their Canon flash performance should look into the 7D and the newest series of flashes.  The performance is there but it requires a bit of education.  Thanks to Syl for a great book!

So, we started this day around 5:45 am and finished up around 10 pm.  A runner met me at the W Hotel to pick up the last card of the day.  The overnight editing crew would incorporate images from the evening into a "walk in video" for the next morning.  I headed home and went thru the holy ritual of the multi-day event photographer.  It goes like this:

Put all camera and flash batteries on their respective chargers.

Pull all memory cards and download the contents (via Lightroom) onto two different hard disks.

Check all camera sensors for dust spots by stopping down to f16 and shooting into a bright white source.  Clean as necessary.

Return all the e-mails from the day  (We DO NOT e-mail, text or take non-emergency calls during our shooting days.)

Get the agenda for the next day into the camera bag.  Add or subtract gear as needed.  

By the time all this is done it's well past midnight.  The call time the next day is the same.  It's exciting and fun.  I get to meet and listen to incredible speakers.  Each company I've worked with has some incredibly interesting players, and, in the technology sector you have a ringside seat to one of the fastest moving industries on the planet.

It's all great.  

The last step in a show like this occurs after the final session.  You'll likely have wound up with between 1200 and 1500 images per day.  I shot just enough to make sure I had good compositions and good expression and I wound up with about 3200 images for the three days I spent on site.  Now all of these images need to be edited and massaged for final delivery to the client.  They bought a license for many different uses and some will be in print where the highest quality is expected.

I start by editing out all the unnecessary stuff.  Now I have 1600 images.  Most of  them I can color correct and density correct in small patches.  Some have to be hit individually.  When I'm finished I'll burn all of the images, by day, onto DVD's.  Two sets for me.  One set for the production company and two sets for the final client.  I'll be backed up in four places but (and this is critical) we state in our contract that all current digital storage media are transient and it will be their responsibility to back up and archive critical images.  We absolve ourselves of any long term keeping responsibility.  And they (all the clients) need to understand that.  It's great to think that we'll have the work forever but the liability of guaranteeing that is onerous and impossible to ensure.

Three gear observations:

1.  The 1D series of cameras is viscerally addictive.  Feels great in the hand and, if you grew up with flagship film cameras, you'll enjoy the heft and solidity.  I was able to handhold a 200mm focal length at 1/80th with good results.  I love the way they work and how fast they focus.  

2.  Rockport walking shoes are the finest "show" shoes I've ever worn.  Great support and cushioning when you're on your feet for twelve to fifteen hours a day.  I got them in black.  I hope they make a brown pair too.  

3.  Best camera of the week was the 7D.  It's so much more responsive than the 5D2 and in this kind of work the ultimate image quality of the 5D2 is much less critical than the handling and speed of the 7D.  It worked well with the two manually focused Zeiss lenses and it handled flash as well as anything on the market.  While people make a big deal about the image quality difference between the 7 and the 5 I think it's very overstated.  Whatever small deficiencies the 7D might have in ultimate noise handling they are handily compensated for by superb handling and temperament.  I'd be happy with two of the 7D's as my work cameras.  They feel just right for this kind of corporate journalism.

Bottom line on gear?  Just use lenses like the 24-105L, the 70-200 f4L and the Carl Zeiss lenses so you can shoot with confidence at wide open apertures.  Wide open sharpness trumps high aperture speed.  Camera bodies?  Shoot the ones that feel the best in your hands because, as far as IQ is concerned, they are all pretty good for this kind of work.  With a little nudge on noise reduction even the oldest fits firmly in the mix without calling attention to itself.  The real "gear" is the mental and social gear that helps you to be part of the process and fit in.  Leave your ego at the door and get the job done.  That's the mantra.  

Just a few words of careful optimism.  It seems like the economy is starting to come back.  My recent client announced great earnings for the quarter.  The Ford CEO shared news about his company's successes this year, and several more of my clients have returned to the marketing and advertising space with relative gusto.  Now is the time to push back toward our traditional pricing models.  It's good to see the last three years as an accident or a a blip and not the start of a new paradigm.  Strong attention to good marketing and good pricing practices will help all of us in the long run.  The organics of the industry didn't irrevocably change any more than traffic laws change after an accident.  Let's buckle up and get back in the traffic.


Happy Valentine's Day. Go out and photograph something fun or romantic.

Love the cookies at Sweetish Hill Bakery!

I was just thinking about a book I could recommend to my photographer friends on Valentine's Day and it came to me in a flash:  Robert Adams,  "Beauty in Photography: Essays in Defense of Traditional Values."  A great collection of essays that bring some meaning to the life of some artists.

Robert Adams collected another series of essays entitled:  "Why People Photograph."  That's a good one too.  Fleshes out why we do what we do and why it resonates with us.  The two books would make a nice set for someone trying to get the impulses figured out.

The book that I want?  Five Beautiful Women  by Victor Skrebneski.  The book I must have but can't afford?  Of course, it's Richard Avedon.  "Richard Avedon:  Made in France"  

I hope everyone has a romantic day and falls in love all over again.  Hard to fight and argue when you're happy.

(the above photograph was taken with a Leica R8 and a 90mm Summicron on color slide film).


Street Shooting with abandon. The joy of strolling and looking.

Rome, Italy.

When we're immersed in the rhythm of our everyday lives we tend to overbook and underlook.  We scan for danger and opportunity.  Will the woman in the Chevy Suburban, juggling her latte and her cellphone, run the red light and slam into my car?  Can I grab that parking space before anyone else?  But when I go off to shoot somewhere (even if it's just downtown in my own hometown) there's a mental shift that moves me to disregard tight scheduling, turn off the cellphone (yes! They do have off switches!) and stop running the obsessive mental checklist that clicks away in my head.

I allow myself to succumb to the ebb and flow of the visual life in front of me.  I get up early and grab the camera (one camera) that I want to use based on how I feel in the moment.  I usually feel conflicted about taking more than one lens.  If I take two I find myself confused about which one might be best for each subject.  There is not "right" or "wrong" lens so the choice becomes mired in a web of countervailing possibilities.  My mind moves from decisive to indecisive and the energy that first attracted me to a subject seeps away, replaced with a paralyzing ambiguity.   One lens and one camera is best.  It's easier to wrap your vision around a subject than to be enslaved by choice.

I want to look like everyone else in the street.  I want people to think, "There's a guy.  He has a camera."  Instead of,  "There's a photographer."  It seems transparently the same but it's not.   And the people you encounter shift their demeanor based on the display you create about yourself.  One camera and a lens might say, "Tourist",  while a bagful of paraphernalia marks you as someone actively hunting images.  You become someone who "wants" something from someone else instead of someone immersing themselves in the milieu.  And people are wary of other people who want things from them.

I don't linger unless I'm trying to line up and image.  If I work without feeling sneaky people very rarely take notice of what I'm doing.  If someone catches me "taking" their image I smile and ask, with my eyes, if it will be okay to take another one.  Sometimes I put the camera down and just savor a thing in front of me because I know its beauty might be transient and inappropriate for "image capture."  Like closing your eyes and enjoying the song rather than focusing on how to capture an image of the music.

When I go out for my walks I'm drawn to scenes that show what it's like to be human.  The couple falling in love.  The woman who seems displeased about something.  Perhaps it's her ice cream.  Maybe she didn't pass her driver's exam.  We've all been in both emotional places and the photographs have the power to remind me of my own feelings.  That's why I take them.

When I walk often and for a long time with one camera I come to know it in a much different way than I do a camera I pick up only every so often.  It's like driving a car for years and knowing just exactly where everything is.  Then, one day you take your car in for service and you get a loaner car, and everything feels awkward and out of place.  It hampers your ability to drive in the subconscious and fluid manner that you've become accustomed to.

People choose cameras for so many reasons.  But I think they largely overlooked how it will feel and wear after months and months or years and years of use.

Street photography requires that you suspend your own greed for success.  The things you think you'll find rarely come up.  But if you have a list of predetermined images in your head when you begin you will have made it so much harder to find the images you weren't looking for.  And those might be the images that will surprise and delight you exactly because you never knew you were looking for them until they found you.  If you learn to let go of the desire for control you'll learn to stop suffering for your art and start having fun.

Might sound like "New Age" madness or hippy stuff but before you go back out to shoot again try reading the Tao Te Ching and see if it changes how you react with the world.


The Emotional Need for Radical Change. No thanks.

Looking for an honest (photo) marketing person.

I blame myself for staring in fascination at the car wreck that appears in front of me on my computer every morning.  The car wreck is the frothing, churning, anxiety stricken paroxysm of marketing hysteria being foisted on unhappy photographers and then being regurgitated as unassailable fact by these same practitioners looking for any life buoy in a treacherous economic sea.

Their names have gone viral.  Selena, Susan, Deborah  and so many more.  But really,  do they know more about marketing than anyone else or are they mixing in all the anecdotal stuff that's ricocheting around the web, mixing it with a big dose of "Seth Godin" and stirring in a mix of Web 3.0 Koolaide?

If you are one of the hundreds of thousands of photographers chasing after the 5,000 bonafide art buyers in the U.S. for the one or two projects a month a particular agency might assign photography for then I guess their "magic mix" might work to get your book called in.  But I doubt it.

Here are two things to consider:  1.  The markets didn't dissolve because advertising become outmoded this decade and they didn't wrench to a stop in 2008, 2009 and most of 2010 because all of a sudden no one could find a photographer by conventional means.  No.  People stopped buying photography (and so many other non-life supporting goods and services) because they ran out of money and they cut their budgets to the bone and they made the choice to keep the lights on and the heat functional so they could turn out product.  If they did paid advertising they used current materials to save money.  No "pixie dust" marketing is going to turn around a shipwrecked economy just because you want to believe in the power of web-boosted social marketing.  Good marketers offered more services to more people to cope with the downturn.  And they positioned themselves for the market to return.

2.  If you want to sell thousands of days of  photography you could go to Groupon and do a coupon offer for $20 bucks a day, day rate including all rights.  You'll fill up your calendar with all kinds of social-net-saavy-entrepreneurial-cloudhappy-new social order buyers.  But you'll go broke in no time.  Yes the net works for mass market goods and commodities.  At the end of the day it's good to remember that professional photography is not mass manufacturing.  It's a wonderful combination of art and commerce and science.  We're selling our time and licensing our vision.  And the more unique and precious we make it the more money we can charge for it. We are not infinitely scalable.  Remember that when you get into a discussion about quantity versus quality.  Or pennies versus kilo-dollars.

And that leads to the reality of every market from time share condominiums, to annuities, to art, to food, and just about any other non-commodity item or service you can think of.......people want to work and buy from people they know.  Never has it been more important to identify the people you want to work for and to physically place yourself in front of them and wow them.  Wow them not only with the products of what you do but also to wow them with who you are and how you can help them.

My business tagline is this:  "We translate your marketing genius into visual art."  I want to work with smart people.  But I want to work with smart people who sign checks.  I'm not looking to shoot 10,000 widgets on a white background.  I'm looking to shoot one great portrait at a time.  And that's the best way to find your clients.  One at a time.

What's the real magic bullet?  Surprise.  There isn't one.  I'm blogging not to reach clients for my photography biz but because I like to write and I think if you like my writing, and you get samples here, you might be disposed to buy and read my books.  I tweet for the same reason.  And I'm opinionated and like to share my opinions.  But none NONE of my clients regularly reads my blog.  They are not photographers.  They have busy lives doing the things that drive their businesses.  And they don't look at the same tweets that we photographers do.

If I want to reach them I have to think the way they think.  I don't market pretty pictures I provide marketing tools and sticky content.  They open their snail mail but they've learned to filter their e-mail.  Have you tried to text people ads?  I bet you'll never work for them again......  Next time you feel compelled to roll the dice and put all your efforts into internet marketing take a moment to reflect about tossing your "great" photography ideas into an unguided marketing pit with 60 million other creative professionals and 200 million other businesses, all clamoring to sell to the same core market = people with money, and ask yourself, "What the hell am I doing?"

Then get out your client list, send out some really nice, well targeted print pieces.  Make some appointments to drop by and show some great content on your new iPad and then ask your existing clients for some referrals.  If they like you and value what you do you'll get some good names and some new leads.  If they don't like you you're already screwed.

P.S.  I am not arguing against the need for a great website,  fun digital technology, good online communications or running water.  I just think it's time to sound a "hyperbole alert".....


Sometimes the world looks hyper real to me.

It's almost like someone boosted my sensory saturation levels and pushed the blacks a little higher.

Those are the days I really like to go out walking with my camera because the whole human/optical mechanical systems seems to be in sync and integrated.

Maybe it has to do with being profoundly left-handed.

But then, maybe it's just a fun thing to do.

Walking around checking out the way the 50mm Zeiss 1.4 works on the Canon 60D body.  Really, I think the day itself is the star. The clouds were just right and the light was like Hollywood.  Sometimes shoeleather = luck = art.

New stuff on Will's blog.  Check out the Norwegian Sumo Wrestler.........

A timely book review. If you shoot Canon it's a "no-brainer."

Usually, if I review a book it's a non-competing book like Steven Pressfield's incredible book about artists' motivation, The War of Art.  But I'm not about to sit on self interest when I find a book this good.  Here's the executive summary:  If you shoot with Canon cameras and often use their flash, and often find yourself cursing at the randomness of the results; you'll save yourself time, money, aggravation and, perhaps, even clients if you just buy (and read) this book.

This is not a fluffy picture book.  It's not an overview.  It's an encyclopedic and detailed study of what makes your Canon camera and flash work together for best results.  But beyond the rigorous exploration of things electronic flashy it's a pretty good primer about lighting with small lights in general.

The photos are not "high art," they are working tools that visually describe the process and the results.  For one lighting exercise there may be a dozen very well captioned photos that take you along for the ride and show you step by step what he's talking about in the text.

There are no Nikon, Pentax, Sony or Olympus flashes covered in the book.  But even for non-Canon users there's a plethora of good information about lighting up the world with small flashes.

The book is weighty at over 300 pages and Mr. Arena's writing style is terse and choppy. Lot's of sidebars and little boxes with "tips" and "nerd words".  That's good when you want to dig in and learn a section at a time.  If you want to curl up with a good book and get into a cohesive narrative you're barking up the wrong tree.

I just had a moment of Satori!  What Mr. Arena has done is to write the ultimate owner's manual.  The owner's manual we all wish we had gotten with our flash gear (and specifically our Canon flash gear) when we bought the stuff.  This book is maniacally detailed and well researched.  It's dense and packed with examples and information.

Disclosure and final word:  Don Giannatti (lighting genius)  told me about this book.  I asked for a review copy.  The publisher sent me one.  Free of charge.  After reading the book over two days I can honestly say that if I didn't get to keep the book (which I do) I would run right out and buy it.  I learned ten new things about the Canon flashes and the way they work with different Canon cameras.  And everything I learned is cogent to my work.  


A now a break in our regularly scheduled ranting to just show a portrait.

I like taking portraits better than just about anything else I do.  I was very happy to be asked to create portraits for a well respected public relations firm, late last year.  They had some fun, playful images that a photographer did for their website but they also needed something for presentations to more visually conservative clients.

I went on location to their offices to make images of their entire staff.  We scheduled two days to do about 25 people.  I used a 6x6 foot white diffusion scrim over to the subject's right side.  A 600 watt second Profoto monolight bounced into a 60 inch softlighter 2 umbrella was the light source.  It sat back about four feet from the diffusion scrim to help spread out the light.

I used a smaller Profoto monolight on the background with a small softbox mounted on the front and a layer of extra diffusion over the front of the box.  That light was set up about five feet from the background and about 20 feet behind my subject.

My fill to the opposite side was a small white card at least five feet away and sandwiched between two big black panels.  I wanted to control bounceback as much as possible.

I shot each person on both the Canon 5D2 and the Kodak SLR/n to see which one I liked better.  In most cases I liked the Kodak better.  In some cases the Canon.  But seriously, they both created files that were sharp and easy to work with.  At a certain level my preference was just a matter of taste.

I love doing portraits.  If I could choose any job in the world it would be taking portraits........

A nice quote I read on Michael's blog.....

'This quote from painter/photographer Charles Sheeler comes to mind: "Isn't it amazing how photography has advanced without improving?"'

(from an article by Charles Cramer, here.)


Superbowl Sunday and the retro camera adventure.

Most things start out sounding pretty fun and sensible when the ideas first rattle around in my brain.  And that's probably what happened on Saturday.  I was in a camera shop and one thing led to another and the next thing I knew I was walking out with a bag that had one Canon 1dmk2 and one Canon 1dmk2N, a couple extra batteries and a charger.  It was the charger that scrambled everything.  The used 2N body I really wanted didn't have a charger while the older model did.  Long story and much bazaar haggling later it all came together as one transaction.  

Why the hell did I do that?  Well.....since the sinister dark energy of advertising shoved me and dragged me to the Canon side for pro cameras I've done the nerdiest thing possible and read up about their digital cameras.  In detail.  Engineer/English major detail.  Left handed detail.  And I had the idea that I'd really like to play with the 1D series of cameras.  See if the bodies were as fun and bulletproof as my Canon shooting friends led me to believe.  If I like them I'll keep them and offset the $$$ by consigning my 60D and a few EFS lenses.  At least that's my rationale. But.....

Couple dancing at Jo's Coffee Shop, outdoors in the middle of the afternoon.  Warm weather in Austin can be so romantic.  Especially in the middle of February....

.....Before I could make any pronouncements, use the cameras on paying jobs or talk about them to other people I had to take one out for a spin and get my greasy fingers all over it and abuse it.  Then I had to drag the files back to my little computer and see what transpired.  That's what we're talking about right now.

I knew that the young singer and muscian, Ruby Jane, was giving a concert at Jo's so I headed over with the 2N and the compact 50mm macro 2.5 in hand  I stayed just long enough for a small coffee and an oatmeal cookie....and to take a few shots with the camera.

The screen on the back is primitive even in comparison with $400 cameras in 2011, and it was interesting to take a time travel trip back to 2005's reality.  The screen can't really be counted on for color  or exact tonality but the histogram reads out in all three colors so critical exposure information is still at one's fingertips.

The only way to be stealthy with a camera this big is to be un-stealthy and emanate the idea that what you're doing is routine, non-exceptional and part of the scene.  Within minutes everyone ignored me and went on with real life.

I liked shooting with the 1dmk2n.  It reminds me of one of my favorite Nikon cameras, the D2hs.  They are big and solid and have uranium-like mass.  Great as a platform for lenses but kinda sucky for walking around.  Camera with lens and battery is something like 3.5 pounds.

Regular Austin guys hanging out at Jo's on a sunny, mid-70's Sunday afternoon.

While I was shooting the only feedback I had was the screen.  I was right to trust the histogram.  The screen is too bright (I'll adjust that) and I keep having the compulsion to dial in some negative exposure compensation to.....compensate.  But in addition to the histogram I have a platinum level kirkogram that's the result of using manual, non-metered cameras for the last thirty years.  I also know the "sunny sixteen" rule and if there was ever a day when using that knowledge was a slam dunk it was today.  On screen, back in the hallowed halls of the VISUAL SCIENCE LAB headquarters the files look the way they are supposed to look.

But......I'd been slamming around with the Olympus EPL2 for the last month and the jpegs out of that camera were like delicious candy.  I was used to not having to lift a finger to get really pleasing color.  Now, that color wasn't always accurate but very pleasing.  The Canon 1dmk2N, shot in RAW takes a different tack.  It seems to be all about accuracy.  If you shoot in open shade the file WILL have a blue cast.  The color out of camera is less saturated.  The files not quite so finished. 

This is counterbalanced by the malleability of the raw files.  They take direction well.  Want more vibrance or saturation?  Dial it in during "post" and you'll get the look you want.  Dial in sophisticated sharpening and noise reduction and you're at least on par, at 1600 ISO, with the files you'll get out of a 7D at the same setting.  

Austinite at Jo's sitting ten feet from the live music texting with intense concentration.

When it comes to the stuff the camera is supposed to do well it really does. The two things I was expecting were great AF and fast frame rate.  After 30 seconds of playing with the 8.5 fps I set the camera in single frame and got on with my life.  As for AF, set in my default (center sensor, lock and hold) it snapped to attention with the first pressure on the shutter button and locked focus so fast I didn't even know what I wanted to focus on.

The camera is an odd mix of Sumo wrestler and ballerina.  It's thuggishly hardened but also fast and graceful.  I don't plan on slamming it around.  I'm not very brutal with my gear and never have been. But it does feel nicely sturdy.  

The real performance testing will be at a dress rehearsal for Zach Scott that I'm shooting on Tues. night.  I haven't quite decided on all my gear but I'll take these two new (used) cameras with me along with the 35mm f2 and the 85mm 1.8.  I'll probably add a 135mm just for grins.  Even with a 1.3X magnification of angle of view (in comparison with a full frame camera) I won't need anything shorter than the 35.  That's pretty much a sure thing.  I may bring along a 70-200 just to make sure.  I hope I can shoot everything with primes.  Will 8 megapixels be enough?  Well, we used to do it with 4 megapixels and we've got walls of 16 by 20 color prints and posters from those files hanging around the Theater.  I think with 8 megapixels of really big, fat, high quality pixel power we'll be just fine.

So, why the retro insanity?  If you're new to this blog you are probably bewildered.  If you've been here for a while you know that I love the cliche:  "Variety is the spice of life."  I also am of the belief that cameras from only five years ago are much better performers that our benevolent overlords at Canon and Nikon would have us believe.  They, and DPReview, have a vested interest in getting us to turn over gear as quickly as possible.  When I read the DPReview of the 1Dmk2 from late 2004 they bandied about the phrase: "Is this the best digital camera in the world?"  They thought it might be.  Could things have really changed so profoundly since then?

Yes.  It's true.  Files have gotten much bigger.  Now the 5Dmk2 I've been shooting with for the past year has 21 megapixels to choose from.  And yes, the screens on the backs are getting so, so much better and more accurate.  And if you must shoot at ISO XXXXX I'll have to admit progress has been made.

But not much has changed since 2005 to create demand for these new powers.  Most of us are still shooting ultimately for website and blog use.  Most print use is for smaller sizes or on crappy, uncoated or budget matte paper.  And I still own studio lights that allow me to pick and choose the best ISO for the job at hand.  At about $600 a body these two cameras together, with batteries set me back just a tad more than the 60D I bought a few months ago.  And I'm convinced that, for 90% of what you and I do they are still as "earth shattering" as the day DPReview got weak in the knees just talking about them.

But the bottom line is that it's really just about showing up.  Being where the pictures are.  Capturing them in your style and with your taste and insight.  These gear asides are fun because we can all talk somewhat objectively about stuff that can be measured.  But really, using them is what's important.

I sure hope no one out there mis-interprets this blog and starts a run on the used DSLR market.  At least not until after I've got my hands on a mint 1DS and a 1DSmk2.  I'm sure I'll find one of each for less than the price of a discount 5D2.  I've got my eyes open.  What do you expect from a guy who still shoots with a Kodak DCS 760 from time to time?

I shot this furniture at the W Hotel this afternoon.  I want to see how the noise was at ISO 1600.  With the white leather ottoman and the shadow under the close chair I've got a full range of tones to look at.  My take?  Very granular noise patterns and very homogenous in both highlights and shadows.  Better than my old Nikon D2X at 400 ISO and it was a contemporary.

The biggest revelation to me today is how much I like the performance of the Compact 50mm Macro 2.5.  It's sharp and tasty.  From f4-f16 the performance is flawless on these old, old bodies.  And wide open it beats the pants off the "nifty fifty" and the 50mm 1.4 at the same f2.5 to f4 apertures.  It's my true "L" series 50mm lens and I'm proud to have bought a used one for a paltry $125.  

If I were still a Nikon shooter I'd be putting my nose in the air and talking about how much better my D3 was than anything else in its range.....but at the same time I'd be scrounging around looking for a couple of older D2h's or D2hs's because those things rocked.  I still like em better than all the stuff that came in between.  And they are now officially (via the sanction of The Visual Science Lab) collectibles.

One blog delivered under a super tight deadline.  Super Bowl starts in 15 minutes.  I mute during the game and the boy and I joke about how odd football is but we're riveted to the commercials and to the chips and dips.........Go Jets.  GOAL!!!!!