Finally, a book about portrait lighting that I can recommend.

It's rare that I see a "how to" book that's done by someone whose work I really like. And continue to like over time. I first became aware of Neil Van Niekerk's work nearly three years ago. I was researching for my LED book and looking for good, innovative photographers who had already discovered the flexibility and creative power of LED lights on their own.

A link led me to his website and I was very impressed by his portraiture and even his wedding images. (A confession: I don't generally like wedding photography). His lighting is very, very modern and most of the time you can barely tell from the images he presents that he's lit them at all. It's almost as if his models just happen to stumble into spontaneously beautiful light just as he's ready to click the shutter on his camera. I was so impressed that I got in touch with him and asked him to contribute photographs and a bit of writing about his use of LED lights for my book, which he graciously did.

His first book for our mutual publisher was On Camera Flash Techniques. It quickly became a bestseller because he writes well and shoots even better. He followed it up a year later with a book called, Off Camera Flash Techniques which was as good as his first. I recommend both of those books if you are looking for lots of tips and techniques for using small flashes to create portraits and to cover events and wedding. Especially if you are interested in doing those things in a thoroughly modern idiom.

I am interested in this book, Direction and Quality of Light,  because I feel that Neil is working to re-invent our concepts of good portraiture and he's pushing away from the time weathered "rules and conventions" that main street studios and legions of mid-brow photographers have been repeating and recycling for decades.

He uses bright, fresh and very lovely models. He also uses a variety of lighting. His camera gear is state of the art but the real state of the art is his approach to lighting portraits. This is a book I wish I had done. It's that good. It is currently the #1 ranked book on lighting at Amazon.com...enjoy.

Please use this link to order a copy from Amazon.com and help support my writing habit...


In all the excitement about Sony's cheap, new camera I forgot to make fun of their new 50mm Zeiss lens...

Now don't get me wrong...I love 50mm lenses. God knows I've owned a lot of them. And don't misunderstand me here, I think this lens will be remarkably good. What's not to love about eight elements when two of them are festooned with this magic word that makes us gear junkies swoon, "ASPHERICAL."?

And here's something for all you photo heros who spend all your time trampling through the rainy jungles and alternately trudging through desert sand storms with your lens held out in front of you like a beacon: This lens has been designed to be WEATHER PROOF. That's right. Now when you're at the art festival you don't have to worry about accidentally spilling your Coca Cola on the lens while you are grappling with your turkey leg or corn dog on a stick...

Why am I being so testy? Because I'm pissed that Sony and Carl Zeiss have the big corporate balls to charge a whopping $1500 for a 50mm lens. I think only madmen, Leica owners and madmen rationalize $1500 expenditures for lenses in a class where the 1970's Nikon 50mm 1.1.2 lens might still be the IQ front runner in the field. I guess it will all be okay if Sony also release a Sony branded 50mm 1.4 that's only $750. Maybe I'd buy one of those. But let's get rational for a second.

How much better than the Sigma 50mm 1.4 lens can this one really be and how many of us are going to go through the necessary steps to get the kind of performance that this lens promises in the real world?  For the most part this kind of lens is designed to be a great lens for low light reportage (already an issue for a number of Sony DLST models....) and that kind of shooting is mostly done quickly and handheld. Yes, you'll be holding this impressive monster in your shaky, quaking, vibrating hands and praying to the photo gods that Sony was right about getting three stops of Image Stabilization out of their latest camera bodies.

You may have paid for 180 line pairs of resolution but unless you stick that Bugatti of a lens on a set of sticks I think you'll be tooling along with the rest of us in the lane that gets about 45 line pairs of res from their 50mm lenses.

I'm sure that, at this price, this lens will knock it out of the ball park wide open. But even though I own and have owned BMW's worth of fast lenses over the years, and I always have the intention to shoot them at the bleeding edge of 1.4,  those pesky clients inevitably decide they'd like just a bit more than one lip in focus and we end up using these marvelous optics at f-stops like 2 and 2.8. But when you get to 2.8 you'll have to look hard to find just about any modern 50mm 1.4 variant that's not performing at least up to your ability to hand hold.

So, who is this lens really made for? The people who claim to only want the finest in life. And the finest in their camera bags. But wait, aren't they already shooting with Leicas (large or small)?

Will I buy this instant status symbol and wear it around on the end of my Sony a99 like a Mercedes hood ornament on a gold chain? Not unless Sony rings me up and offers me one for permanent testing (and hey! Sony! if you do that I'll wear it everywhere until I wear it out!!!). It's not that I don't crave, desire and lust after pretty glass that promises instant photographic genius but hey! everyone's got to have limits to their excess somewhere.

What's my game plan? Well, when I compare the pure performance (not the amenities) of the Sony lenses I own with the two Rokinon Cine lenses that I've recently acquired I'm pretty comfortable saying that I'll stick with my old, used Sony 50 1.4 lens (re-badged Minolta lens) right up until the moment I see the Rokinon (or other Samyang variant) 50mm 1.1.2 Super high speed Cine lens hit the market. And if it's priced like history says it might be, and I'm having high roller hallucinations I'll just take the $1500 I might have spent on the Zeiss (in my craziest dreams) and buy four or five of the Rokinons instead.

I'm not putting any links in for the new Sony Zeiss lens. If you can swing that one (and rationalize it to yourself) you probably have someone on staff who can research the best deal for you. Just check in with your house manager, I'm sure they're on top of it.

Important note: As per my track record of consistency in the last four years of blogging I reserve the right to change my mind and run out and get one of these uber-ninja lenses as soon as next week and not even notice the irony....... You've been warned.

Light Once. Shoot Twice.

The title of this blog comes from an ad by K5600 for their HMI lights. The blog is not about HMI lights...

This is an image of one of the most cost efficient and effective lights in my bag of lighting tricks. It's a Fotodiox 312AS LED light.

Light once, shoot twice. 

My business, Kirk Tuck Photography, needs to change its name. We aren't just about taking really wonderful images that have unimaginably good ROI's for clients anymore. Over the past few years we've been progressively adding other content centered services like writing, and video production. As with most successful imaging businesses we've been hard at work offering our (wonderful) clients more services that build on our core competencies. It's pretty logical to think that, because we can light people beautifully and compose them well, on very capable cameras, that we might be very capable of taking another step and also produce some video content while we have time-pressed assets in front of our cameras...  If we can script them and direct them too then so much the better.

The days of flashy website interfaces and visual gimmicks as selling tools are pretty much over. What agencies, clients and businesses in general are learning is that content is king. Having great content trumps just about anything else when it comes to a sticky web experience, and content is one thing that we can provide well. The message is the magic now. The medium is just the packaging.

The biggest synergy I can find for my work, as it's used in advertising and marketing is the combination of still imaging and video production. Clients need still images for portraits and product but they are increasingly finding that concise videos with interesting content are very popular with most audiences. Credit the rise of YouTube and Vimeo for much of evolution in this area.

Our clients have choices they can make when they source their various content. In the visual/video area they can hire a traditional photographer to make the still images and then hire a different person; a traditional videographer, to come in at a different time to create video interviews and other content. They end up paying two fees: they pay for set up and tear down of lighting and backgrounds twice, they pay for prepping the temporary studio, if we shoot at their location; or they pay in terms of lost productivity to have a valuable executive drive, first to one studio and then to another to create the various media assets they want.

Or, they can enlist the services of a flexible content creator and do a bit of time saving one stop shopping.  There is much additional value in finding one business that can provide multiple content products, nearly concurrently.

Here's a perfect example:  For two days this week I'll be working closely with an ad agency that's providing new marketing materials for a medical practice. A group of cardiologists. The biggest requirement for my company is to provide high quality portraits of the doctors as well as a two minute video clip of each doctor talking about his particular specialty. We've got six or seven doctors who need to be represented this way, in stills and video.

The problems we get to solve are these: We're working during the practice's office hours and they have very busy schedules. We need two different portraits per doctor. One in scrubs and one more formal. We're shooting in a small conference room. That's all the fixed space we can get. There is no room for a second lighting set up in a different location.

The other problem is that the doctors (and the practice administrator = client) don't want to do this twice. We won't be shooting stills one day and then coming back for video on another day. It's just not going to happen. They decided that they can only absorb the disruption for one day... 

This all points to a single solution: We have to light once and shoot twice. We have to use a lighting system that will provide good color for our raw still files and also provide great lighting for our video interviews. My ultimate goal is to finish shooting my last still of each doctor, walk over and clip a lavalier microphone on them and walk back to the camera to start rolling (anachronism now since nothing rolls) on the video.

To this end I'll use a modified three point lighting system that can be tweaked on the run. I'd like the light to be a little softer for the stills (add a one stop diffuser to the key light) and a little harder on the videos (subtract a one stop diffuser from the key light...).  I obviously can't use flash for the video so my choice narrows down. We might not be able to block all of the daylight from the room so my choice narrows down again to a lighting system with adjustable color temperatures. That means LEDs.

My shooting plan at this juncture is very simple. The agency wants to use a plain gray background. I'll have one 312AS panel illuminating the background for separation, one 312AS as a hairlight/rimlight, and I'll use two of the 312AS panels as a main light. We'll use a pop up reflector opposite the mains as a passive fill.

For video light I'll use a piece of Rosco TuffSpun diffusion over the two lights to unify the shadows and make them work as a single light. The diffusion won't be bigger than the combined area of the LED panels so the light will still be sharp and a bit edgy. When I shoot stills I'll add a Westcott flag or Chimera panel with light diffusion to increase the apparent size of the light source and create softer shadow transitions.  In essence, the whole project is an exercise in Lighting Once and Shooting Twice.

How much did I have to learn to offer this additional service to my client? I had to learn to light well with continuous lights.  That was easy. I just re-read my book, LED Lighting. The critical part in adding video is coming to grips with audio.

Audio is the make it or break it aspect of "motion capture." The pitfalls are endless. They include conversations in the next room, horns honking outside, air conditioners turning on and off, cellphones ringing, the rustle of a lav mike against a starched shirt and a lot more. 

A rookie mistake is to presume that one microphone will work for everything. It won't. A room with bare, bright walls and hard floors can be rough with a shotgun style microphone, it can pick up too much of the ambiance of a room and make voices sound off. In situations like these a lavalier microphone might be a better choice. It's closer to the speaker's mouth and rejects more background noise by dint of the inverse square law (and you thought that only applied to flashes?).

While I haven't convinced my client of this....yet....I am lobbying for us to help script each of the doctors and have their written content available on a teleprompter program, loaded on a 15 inch screen lap top. I think the doctors would be more comfortable with this and we'd be much more efficient in our shooting. There would be far fewer "ums" and "ahhs" to edit out later. But introducing services can be a one step at a time process.

The bottom line for our clients is that we save them time and money by bundling similar services during one session. There's one bout of pre-production, one travel fee, one set up and one tear down. The lighting has a continuity to the look and feel that helps hold the whole of the project together, visually. The subjects who need to be photographed and interviewed need only commit to one time slot. The client or agency has a single entity with which to negotiate, bill, schedule and celebrate with.  Add in the writing component to create or polish the content and you basically have one stop content shopping.

What is the benefit for my business? Well, for starters, we have a much better shot at keeping existing businesses as loyal clients since they don't need to effect new trials with new vendors to get the new kinds of services they need. If we service our clients well they stay happier we get to keep them longer.

Then, we bill for every service we add which increases the revenue from each project we undertake. That's a win for me but the efficiency makes it more cost effective for the client as well. We're providing two streams of content from one set up and only one touch on the time of their key money makers.

Finally, we move the business from depending on a single product to multiple products. Don't need still photography? Of course we can help you with this video project.  Don't need any visual content but you're having trouble writing that speech? Well remember, we're the ones who wrote that great script for your (fill in the blank).  

Many photographers fear change. I've had more than a few ask me, earnestly, why the hell I bother with LED lights. But the ones who fear change aren't doing nearly as well as the peers I have who dug into new avenues of business and learned new tricks. My clients want more and more services and they want more and more efficiencies in their projects. We are both a content business (IP R US) and a service business. The only important part of being a service business is giving clients what they need in a way that makes them happy.  And provides a good ROI that they can see in a glance.

Our mission now is to provide content that moves the needle. We're out to show our clients that better production, and better seeing, might have a higher initial cost but will pay off many times over in it's value to their audiences. I'm committed to controlling as much of my clients' visual messaging as possible because the value of content is all interlinked. A great photo coupled with bad design doesn't sell, and neither does a crappy photo with great design wrapped around it. When we learn new skills that build on our old skills we have a more valuable package to sell to our clients. We become a more important part of their team.  And that's just good for business. Everyone's business.

Light once. Shoot twice. That's the reason we leverage the flexibility of LED panels in our work.

( I am using the Sony a99 camera and the 85mm Rokinon 1.5 Cine lens for the portraits and interviews. The a99 has a headphone jack so I can monitor audio. I'm using a Sennheiser wireless lavalier microphone system to record audio. I have a professional Audio Technica Lavalier microphone (wired) as a ready back up.  We'll shoot 1080p at 24 fps in AVCHD and provide the agency raw footage for their in-house editor to use.... Ah, the details...)


Smaller, Cheaper, Lighter, Faster. It's Sony's Rebel.

I'm a fan of the Sony a57 camera. It's got a great 16 megapixel sensor in a pretty decent body, coupled with an electronic viewfinder. The thing I like best about the camera is the really decent, HD video I can get out of it. To be honest, if there was one thing I'd change about the camera it would be the EVF. No, I don't want an optical finder, but the EVF in the a57 is an LCD version that's not as detailed or clear as the EVFs in the Nex 6, Nex 7, A65, A77, A99 or RX1. The a57 would have been a perfect intro/tyro camera if it had been launched with the OLED version of the finder. But then would anyone have ever needed to upgrade?

Well, along comes the a58, and while it takes one or two steps backwards (black plastic lens mount??), it does comes with the higher spec finder. It keeps the same battery as the a57 (and most of the rest of the Sony SLT line) and it's also going to be bundled with what Sony is referring to as "an improved version" of their 18-55mm kit lens. And I am not unimpressed with the current kit lens.

When I first engaged with the Sony SLT system I bought two of the best cameras they had available at the time, the a77s. A couple of months later I bought an a57 as a lighter, cheaper, carry around/throw down camera and used it mostly with smaller and lighter primes in the place of a point and shoot camera. While the finder isn't as good as its older siblings the actual images are great. Right in line with competitive 16 megapixels cameras from Pentax and Nikon (in fact, it was the same imaging chip).

At one point Ben needed a better video rig so I passed the a57 camera, the kit lens, a Rode shotgun mic and a 55-200mm lens along to him and he's made good use of it. I thought I'd just go through life with the two a77s but I missed having a cheap camera that I could kick around, leave in the car and spill red wine on without too much worry so I picked up another one.

Now I'm getting ready to pass along that a57 (or sell it) and pre-order an a58. Why? Because it's cheap, has a much improved finder, has the latest generation Sony imaging chip inside and, did I mention that it seems as though it will be priced under $600 with a new kit lens?

The interesting thing about digital imaging now is how the new generations of consumer targeted cameras are getting really great sensors in them. Nikon users are beside themselves with impatience waiting for the availability of the new 24 megapixel D7100. And can you really blame them when you find out that it comes with a new sensor that sports NO anti-aliasing filter? I've always felt like that was one of the sole advantages of the Leica digital M's and the medium format cameras; the lack of an AA filter gave a better rendering of really fine detail which leads to a greater impression of sharpness and overall file quality.

Also, reading between the lines of the Nikon press releases it seems as though Nikon will be adapting some sort of on chip distance measuring meant to speed up camera AF (a la the V1 series) in live view and video. Who knows, with all the improvements Nikon seems to be making in the pursuit of good video performance do you think it's only a matter of time before they move to a mirrorless APS-C camera? Or even a fixed mirror camera?

While the Sony a58 doesn't use the new 24mm anti-AA non-filter the Nikon sports it is the first Sony camera out of the gate with a brand new 20 megapixel imager. Seems like a step down from their current 24 megapixel rectangle, as expressed in the Nex 7 and the a77, but if Sony is able to provide the same kind of great dynamic range with better noise characteristics at high ISOs then I'm sure many will embrace it.

I love it when companies make cheap cameras that, in the hands of people who know what they are doing, can perform in the same ballpark as much more expensive and feature laden cameras.

Who needs a fancy point and shoot when you can get so much performance for so little in cameras like these? And who needs behemoth cameras when the on sensor performance is so incredibly close? At some point it really is all down to the lens on the front and the brain in the back of the modern cameras. Almost like the days of film.....

The one thing missing on the a58 that I'm waiting to confirm is a plug for an external stereo microphone. If I'm wrong and they have included one then nothing stands in my way. We will extend the line...

I liked MIchelle's portrait in color but I wanted to see how it would look in Black and White.

Most of my earlier images of Michelle were done in black and white so I decided I wanted to play with the photograph of her I put up on the blog earlier today and see what it would look like if I'd been shooting it on my old favorite, Tri-X film.

I've resisted buying Silver FX Pro for years thinking that I could do just as good a job in channel mixer or the black and white adjustments in Photoshop. I downloaded the SilverFX a few minutes ago and gave it a trial run. Darn. It's good. Now I'll need to buy it. Yes.....it's better than I am at hitting the old Tri-X film feel.

I like the portrait so much more in black and white. No extraneous information, just Michelle and those beautiful eyes.

SilverFX is a plug in for PhotoShop, Aperture and Lightroom which helps make easy and (apparently) wonderful conversions of color files into black and white. It's built by Nik software and you can go to their site and download it for a 15 day trial. At some point you will become addicted and they will send you serial numbers to plug in and free the program for long term use.....after you send them the credit card info. You can go the more expensive route and keep shooting film...

A portrait from this morning. A model from twenty years ago dropped by...

I've shared a number of black and white photographs of Michelle with you over the past year or so. Most of them were taken between 1992 and 1994. She was astonishingly beautiful. Twenty something years later I think that she is even more beautiful. More subtle. More interesting.

We spent some time this morning catching up. Then we made some portraits.

I did a few things differently this morning, technically. To start with I used a set of Lowell VIP hot lights for my illumination. They are very small and inexpensive tungsten lights that my friend, Paul, no longer wanted. He dropped them by the studio last week. The lights are lamped with 250 watt bulbs.

I set up two four foot by four foot Chimera diffusion panels, side by side, with the panel closest to the camera angled to carry light across Michelle's face. I used a black panel to the opposite side to reduce room spill light and to make the shadows on the other side of her face deeper.

When I started shooting I was working with the Sony a99 and the new 85mm Rokinon lens but the focal length was too short for what I had in mind. I rummaged through a drawer and found my Hasselblad 150mm f4 lens and an adapter. The longer focal length seemed just right to me. Even wide open the older lens (made for medium format) still has enough bite for a lovely portrait.

I shot with the lens wide open, on a tripod.

Simple lighting. Simple tools. Gracious model. 


Yeah. That's what I'm talking about. My second book, on sale for $1999.98 at Amazon...

Living is a small town in Texas, away from the hustle and bustle of the sophisticated capitols of the world, I had no idea that my prowess and renown as an author was so recognized and valued. Currently, on Amazon.com, you can buy a Chinese language copy of my second book, Minimalist Lighting: Professional Techniques for Studio Lighting for about the price of a new, Nikon d600. Since my books don't have a history of dust issues I'd say it's a great bargain.

Of course, if you don't read Chinese you can always come down market and enjoy an English version for around $23.

Fun with retail. No doubt.


Talking about a lens is one thing but shooting with a lens is quite another. Here's some stuff from the 35mm 1.5 Cine Rokinon.


Oh my gosh. I'm having a blast with this lens. A couple years ago I reviewed the Leica 35mm f1.4 Aspherical on an M9 body. I shot most of my images on a 105 degree day and it was miserable but the one thing I discovered is the one thing that is counterintuitive about an ultra fast 35mm lens: the real power is getting the subject in context and still being able to drop the background convincingly out of focus. But in order to do that you must have a lens that has the same properties as the $5,000 manual focusing Leica lens; it must be sharp at and near wide open. Not all of the fast lenses from the big boys do that....But I'm going to throw in this spoiler and say, that in my opinion the Rokinon (Samyang) 35mm Cine 1.5 lens does. With ease.

The image above is a quick portrait of a stranger on 6th street from this afternoon. We were in open shade and I walked up and said, "I like your hat and the way it goes with your jacket. Would you mind if I made a portrait of you?" He was flattered and more than happy to stand there, in front of the famous Driskill Hotel, for an extra thirty seconds or so. I used the focus peaking built into the Sony a99, got a quick focus at f2.0 and shot. If I'd been on a tripod and used the image magnification to focus at 10X the image might have been marginally sharper on his face. It's sharp enough for me just the way it is.  Is the Rokinon 35mm Cine 1.5 lens sharp enough wide open? Can't say. But I can tell you I think it's nicely sharp at f2.0...which is one stop down. And I think the out of focus characteristics are very nice in the background.  The contrast in the center, the part that's in focus is snappy damn good.

When I have time I have a new focusing routine for the 35mm on the Sony a99 in aperture priority mode. I open up to f2.0 or somewhere around there, get the focus peaking outlines where I want them and then stop down till I like the shutter speed and ISO combination. I'm generally looking for exterior exposures in the f5.6 and 1/500th category with ISO's around 100 or 200.

When I left the highly secure compound of the Visual Science Lab in my up-armoured and very discreet, Honda CRV I made the decision to try and shoot everything on my walk/test shoot at apertures from 1.5 to f5.6. I wanted to see how the lens performed in the meaty part of the curve. Any middling focal length lens is fine and dandy at f8 and f11. I shot the wall above at 2.8 and I think it's pretty juicy (technical term we testers bandy about).  I've been by this wall many times a year for many years and have never seen this pattern before.

In easy circumstances (f4.0 and f5.6) the lens is unimaginably good. Every bit the equal of the Leica lens at these apertures. If you shoot on a tripod you should look no further for your 35mm optic. This one is all work and no play in the middle.  

I walked over to the Hilton and photographed their ceiling (see below) and even near wide open the lens cuts the line between tones like a razor blade.

I shot everything as a Jpeg today and most of the images here are straight out of camera with perhaps a little exposure correction here and there. Some slight sharpening with the wide open   images. But I was amazed at the concentrated, saturated colors the lens consistently provided. The green temporary food trailer below is a great example. The green just oozes radioactive...

 Near the end of my walk I started thinking that my evaluation of the lens would not be complete without a few little snaps at one of the "easy" apertures. Here (below) is an image of a building shot at f11. Seems sharp to me. Diffraction ignored.

My early assessment of the 35mm 1.5 Cine Lens from Rokinon (Samyang) is glowing. The images speak for themselves. On monday I have one of my favorite models coming by for a little session. I'll sneak the 35mm in just to see what it does wide open at low light levels. But most of the session will be done with the 85 Rokinon. Both of the lenses are totally manual. I think that's cool. A bit of control and user responsibility are refreshing. Being in control (or the appearance thereof) is calming and affirming. I like it. More like this lens. Hello camera makers! Are you listening?

Someone asked for a close crop of the top image......

Just a photograph for the sake of a photograph.


Long week. Taking a visual break from corporate...

It's been a wild work week. There was a photographer visiting from D.C. We had coffee at Caffe Medici on Sunday and lunch at El Azteca on Thursday. Still getting used to the cultural differences between the hard charging, brusk, brisk east coast and the laid back center of the universe called Austin...

I did my first job for Blackberry this week, did post production on a job for an architectural firm, gave a lecture to photography students at a local college, started in on my taxes, started and stopped on a project for a semiconductor company, did some pre-production on a food project and a project for a cardiology practice, swam, ate sushi, BBQ, Tex-Mex, New World Latino, and a Texas Tuna sandwich at Thundercloud's. (A Texas Tuna has guacamole and chopped jalapeños along with the tuna...). Started the week out with a nice steak at the Four Seasons. Finished the week warming up vegetarian chili we had in the freezer.

Now I just want to play with images that I like. And I'm not answering the phone for anyone who doesn't already have a ring tone programmed into my phone. And believe me, that's a very small circle...

I have a new lens I want to play with and after swim practice tomorrow and Sunday that's all that's on my agenda.

If you work as a professional image maker I think it's important to step away from work and do stuff that you really like on a regular basis. I've been going back and forth between post processing the image above and re-reading my favorite book, The Gates of Fire, by Stephen Pressfield.

The image above is Selena. Shot with a Canon 1dsmk2 and a Carl Zeiss 85mm 1.4 at Willie Nelson's ranch. Post processed in SnapSeed.

How much post processing is too much? When it starts to bug me I know I've gone a bit too far. But it's like soup; you get to salt to taste.

Anatomy of a friendly portrait session.

 This is a portrait of Selena.

I have a friend named Selena. She's a musician and she has a promising band here in central Texas, with lots of fans. We've photographed together from time to time and I used images of her to illustrate some concepts in my LED book. We worked on this portrait at Willie Nelson's ranch, just west of town. I wrote about the session a year ago. But I didn't really touch on the actual give and take of a portrait session; only the nuts and bolts.

When you do a session with a friend an exchange of money isn't necessarily the goal. In fact it rarely is. Each participant comes to the project with their own hopes for the outcome. Selena wanted to be able to use the images we would create for the promotion of her career. I wanted to go through the process/experience to, on one level, practice my craft but on another level to prove that a 56 year old photographer could bring a relevant vision to bear in the service of someone half his age. In effect I was trying to prove my own relevance to myself.

At the time I rationalized that I was getting value from the session by being able to use the images of Selena in my books and here on the blog but when I dig down deep I really wanted to know if I could still talk across the void of generational differences. And that was a much bigger unknown than anything having to do with the mechanical construction of the images.

We all fight the inertia of our own history and our own tenure. We learn to do things a certain way early in our careers and we tend to cling to them because the known ways are comforting in their familiarity. When you get to be a certain age there's a two way assumption that you've got a fixed way of doing things and it's never going to change. You feel this because you think you are right and your audience of younger people feel this because they've already experienced the intransigence of experience. "That's the proper technique."

I hear it all the time from people all over the web and all over life. Some people argue themselves hoarse over the noble provenance of three-to-one lighting ratios. Others offer that they'll give up an optical viewfinder system when you pry their cold, dead hands off the carcass of their Nikon/Canon/Fill in the blank camera.  And the young-ish aren't immune from the super glue of conformity either.

No, I took a day's worth of images with a conscious effort not to control things the way I had done images before. I didn't drag along strobes and softboxes and other lighting "just in case" and then press it into use for everything. I didn't presume to control the posing or the props. I tried to flow along with what Selena was interested in while trying to put my own spin on the process.

But when I look at the images even now I see the iron hand of precedence in the mechanics of the images. The one above is shot with an 85mm 1.4 Zeiss lens. It's a prejudice I find hard to break. My default is that medium telephotos with fast apertures are THE way to shoot nice portraits. I find some of the "rules" I picked up over time hard to break because they've worked and by working they reinforce their own efficacy.

But when I really drill down I did the shoot because I wondered at the time if I still cared enough about the outcome of my photography to make good work. Could I move past blasé to get back to committed? Could I find the fun and curiosity that made all of this so much fun back when I was 25 too?

That was then. Now I know that I can answer "yes." But it's important to me to understand why I take on some of the things I do. In some sense I want to see what the magic is all about now that they really have changed the formula. 

People think I change gear because I'm in love with the gear. I really change it because the only way to stay fresh and relevant to yourself and the process is to keep growing and keep questioning. I have the advantage of being able to look back and see how we used to do it long enough ago to see the stark contrast between the days of hypercontrolled and stiff photography that comprised the art when I started out in the commercial field. It's totally different today and the same old tools don't necessarily apply.

The brain stays flexible as long as you challenge it. I can think of nothing less challenging than to use the same tools to do the same craft over and over again in the same way.  It's something to think about.


Additional, unapologetic lens porn. The 35mm Rokinon Cine lens.


Loyal readers will remember that I took a chance a few weeks ago and ordered the Rokinon 85mm 1.5 Cine lens and have been pretty much delighted by the whole package. I found it to be sharp, easy to use and a nice tool for recording video. The focus peaking in the Sony cameras is helpful in using this lens for video production.

I was feeling so euphoric about the 85mm that I started looking around to see what else Rokinon offered in it's Cine window dressing.  I found two other lenses that piqued my interest; one is the 24mm 1.5 Rokinon Cine lens and the other is the 35mm 1.4 Rokinon Cine lens. At around $750 for the 24 and around $550 for the 35mm neither of them really pushed me to commit. It might be nice to have one or the other, or both, but without a pressing need for either it was hard for me to justify spending that much money on focal lengths that I already had covered by zoom lenses or APS-C style lenses. I'm trying to be a prudent business man, after all...
But curiosity is a dangerous thing. After a couple of successful video projects with the 85mm lens I started flirting with the idea of the 35mm and I kept heading back to the web to do my "research." (research = photo nerds progressively talking themselves into buying the right thing, a good thing, the first thing that comes up on the web page, anything!!!!). All of a sudden Amazon drops the price on the lens I've been looking at and it's almost $200 cheaper than it was several hours earlier. Ever the careful steward of my family's budget I put the lens in my online shopping cart, you know, just to see if the price drop was some mistake that would be rectified by, you know, putting it in your shopping cart.... But no. The price stuck. And the free shipping. And the 2% rebate. I stood up and walked around the studio. I circled back, totally captivated by the lens in my shopping cart. And then, like magic, I remembered a job we might be doing sometime in the future where we might need to use a lens like this one.....maybe.  And that was enough for the little part of my brain that sprays out buying endorphins and makes the rest of my brain get all excited about acquiring stuff.

He hammered the logical part of my brain with an huge does of endorphin/anaesthetic and the next thing I knew my trembling hand and my quacking finger hit the One Click buying button and the electronic race was on to empty my credit card and fill me with remorse.... And then what happened?

Oh yes. Well, when I got back home from lunch and coffee with a new friend who came all the way from Washington DC just to photograph in Austin, there was a box waiting patiently by the front door. I popped it open and all the remorse vanished like weak steam on a hot, dry day. There was the new lens. And it was huge and gorgeous and mostly black. I put it on the closest Sony camera I could find, popped on a few lights and started playing. Sharp wide open. Sharp at 5.6. Sharp in the corners from f2.8 on down. All tricked out for video production. Equally capable of snapping towels in the still production locker room. This one is fun.

Sony has a 35mm 1.4 that's a re-tread of a Minolta 35mm 1.4 and it's supposed to be okay once you stop it down a bit. It was originally designed for film and not the vagaries of a digital sensor. I like that the Rok 35mm is a new design and uses an Aspheric element. But mostly I like that it performs well at (for me) nearly one quarter the price of the Sony.

So, what do I gain and what do I lose? In the big picture I lose my pretension of self control when it comes to buying shiny toys. In the smaller picture I give up automation and auto focus and small size and I gain a clickless aperture, very good performance, a lens that can be used immediately with industry standard, video follow focus accessories and a lens that looks very sharp even at its widest aperture.  I'll take it.

If you'd care to join me in my complete surrender to unfettered spending you can find the same lens in Nikon and Canon mounts as well. Shop hard or wait till one of those momentary price drops hits. I'm having fun playing with this one. Still samples and video coming soon.


What lens makes your eye happy? What's your "desert island" lens?

Count me in as a 150mm user on a medium format camera or an 85-90mm user on 35mm format or a 60mm user on a APS-C camera. When I have one of those optics on the camera everything just falls right into place. Stick an ultra-wide angle on my camera and I just kind of fall apart. But I know that everyone is different. I am curious to know exactly which focal length gets your motor running......and why. Can someone explain to me the charm of the 14mm (on full frame) focal length? What's the deal with the 28mm? Personally hate that focal length more than any other.

Can you please leave a comment and tell me what lens makes your photography tick? Today, zoom lenses don't count. Let's see if you can commit to single focal length...

I like this lens because it's good and crappy at the same time.

For a couple thousand bucks you can get a pretty good zoom lens from Canon, Nikon, Sony and most of the other camera makers. For five to ten thousand dollars you can get a really good lens from Leica. And when I say really good I'm using the most common criteria = painfully sharp. But legions of Holga and Lomo shooters, as well as generations of photographic artists, continually show us that sharp only really counts in razor blades and show-off-tography. No one really cares about ultimate sharpness if the content of a photograph is compelling or thought provoking. We're mostly interested in sharp if we're trying to make a catalog style image of a product.  I have my carefully chosen product lenses but they're not always my first choice. In fact, if I'm not trying to make a faithful image to sell something I could really care less about absolute, nut-crunching sharpness.

Maybe that's why I now have a bit of a soft spot in the camera bag of my heart for a disturbing little lens that Sony stole from Minolta, rebadged and then abandoned, like an unwanted pet. I thought about it when a recent, churlish commenter took me to task for doing what I do best....buying lenses. I had a rationale when I bought the Sony orphaned lens and I gave it but I didn't know someone would expect me to defend my choices in detail. 

But here goes. I bought the Sony 24-105mm f3.5 to f4.5 lens a couple of weeks ago for a small amount of money. The lens was new at the store but had been there for about four years. That's how long ago it had been discontinued by Sony. It's a little gem. About the size of a typical 50mm 1.8 but much weightier. It came with the typical, wide angle capable, petal shaped lens hood. And a box. And a warranty card.

I bet you think this is pretty outrageous vignetting for a lens that's supposed to be designed for full frame, right? But wrap your head around this, all three images in this article were done with the Sony a57 which is an APS-C (or "cropped frame") camera. So the vignetting at f4 and 24mm is astoundingly bad. Really miserable. Yes, it clears up as you stop down a bit but who stops down anymore?

Another attribute of this marvelous optical system is it's blasé effort at being sharp.  If you do everything right and the winds are blowing from the northeast you can see vestiges of sharpness scattered through the frame....just.  But most of the sharpness is obscured by the flatness inherent in the product. And by flat I don't mean it's a lens from the pancake family of lenses. I mean that it's pretty lackadaisical about showing up with much in the way of contrast.

So, to recap: Vignettes like a bastard. Sharp as jello. Snappy as the worn elastic in the waistband of a fat man's underwear. But small and gem-like.  What's not to like?

So I tossed it on the front of my cheapest Sony camera and tooled around downtown. Truth be told I was so casual about shooting with that camera and lens combination that I didn't realize that the camera was set to manual focus for the first half of my walk. But I learned a fun fact. Every time you turn your Sony off and then turn it back on again the camera resets the lens to infinity. Cool. No lost shots for me.

I'm being a bit flip but I guess my point is that for my fun work the lens isn't really a big "make it or break it" thing. And I'm kidding when I say it's no sharper than kleenex. Like almost every modern lens, stopping down two stops from maximum sharpens it up enough.

I guess after having owned Zeiss and Leica glass for decades part of the appeal of the Sony 24/105 is that my expectations are lowered. So I'm constantly being surprised when the lens turns out to be better than I thought it was. When it hits above its weight class.

On another level I'm having fun figuring out how to incorporate the "weaknesses" of the lens into some sort of art. The vignetting doesn't bother me at all when I shoot portraits with the lens. It's kinda fun. And the more pedestrian level of sharpness is actually rather nice for some kinds of portraits.

Over the course of the infiltration and overwhelming conquest of film by digital imaging we've become so f***ing binary in our assessment of images that it makes me tired. We apply manufacturing metrics instead of looking (as we should) through the lens of "art." The dumbing down of image making brought with it a simplification of the appreciation of our art. Now instead of relating to content and concept the vast majority of new adherents analyze images based on flatness of field, sensor noise and the appearance of sharpness to the exclusion of all other parameters.

To dissect a joke is to kill it. 

What this lens reminds me is that getting to the heart of something is much more important than struggling to get to a sterile sort of perfection. It's okay to have faults. Both for humans and for lenses.

Never before have so many boring photographs been so damn sharp.

I'm learning to turn up the "vivid" control in my jpegs and then yank in some "detail" control in post processing. The lens will take care of itself.

Funny, I wrote about this nearly a year ago, but I did a comparison between some modern m4:3 lenses and their counterparts (Olympus Pen half frame lenses) from forty+ years ago and I found that, with the exception of contrast (easily correctible, or should I say, "changeable"), the older lenses were just as proficient as the "cult" lenses of right now. But they were more subtle and layered. Nothing's really changed. Only our perception that somehow perfection might be accessible.  Suckers.


Lamb Pops.

This is another dish from our shoot at Garrido's Restaurant several weeks ago. Rear lit by LED panels through a diffusion scrim and filled in the front by large, pop up reflector panels. Three lamb chops served as an appetizer.

Camera: Sony a99. Lens: 70-200mm 2.8G.

Food presentation is really an art. I'm not thinking just in terms of how we photograph various dishes but also how the presentation of food in fine dining adds to the perception of value and the enjoyment of the moment.

Plating food is part of every restaurant kitchen's performance art. There seems to be an inverse relationship between the quality (and quantity) of food, how it's provisioned on a plate, and the price of the dish. At an inexpensive restaurant I often find that the emphasis is on quantity with little regard for the disposition of the food. I recently ate a #1 combination plate at a local, blue collar, Tex Mex restaurant and the least expensive ingredients, rice and refried beans, were piled high. The enchiladas threatened to come over the edge of the plate and a massive, crisp taco sat, gargoyle-like in the intersection of the ingredients, with yellow cheese spilling out and melting into the hot rojas sauce that drenched the enchiladas. Don't get me wrong, everything tasted great and there was way too much food to finish, but the plate was over-stocked chaos. A Jackson Pollock painting of food.

Last night I had dinner at the Four Seasons Hotel's Treo Restaurant and the contrast with the local Tex-Mex presentation was vivid. My Caesar salad was linear and compact, spare and elegant and fitted to a plate that seemed to have been created just for this heightened expression of.....long leaves of lettuce. Demure and perfectly sized long leaves of lettuce.

The two cheese and beef enchiladas from the Tex-Mex restaurant would have dwarfed the spare fillet of beef that came out on its own plate at the Four Seasons, topped with a designed sprinkling of savory herbs, elegant and lonely. One spotting drizzle of reduction making a counterpoint on the stark, white plate.

When I post processed the Lamb Pops, above, it struck me that the plate design was in the middle of "no man's land." Somewhere between the two extremes.  It wasn't spare and ephemeral like our new century redux of nouvelle cuisine but it wasn't forward and ample like our popular regional dishes. The salad said, "maybe." While the drizzle of sauce in front of the lamb looks disproportionally generous. No middle ground. Or resolutely only middle ground.

There's no right or wrong way but each plate sent me a different message. One said we'll totally feed you. One said we'll whet your appetite and massage your taste buds. And the most elegant presentation said, "you can afford to stop by someplace and grab a burger on the way home. We're not going to insult you by putting much on your plate. It might monkey around with our design integrity."

The fewest elements are easiest to shoot. The ample plates tend to be tougher. But when I'm really hungry I know where I'm pointing the car. Can we have more tortilla chips please?

Just a note: As Ian Fleming's character says about his fictional life in one of the famous books, "This life reads better than it lives." I would say the Lamb Pops taste even better than they shoot. Yes. I ate all three of them as soon as the art director approved the shot. Yum.



Belinda looks up from sketching something on her sketch pad. I take the photograph. She goes back to sketching. I go back to the book I was reading. That's it. That was photography. A muse. Amuse. 

The value of photography is in being able to look back in time. My photography records the arc of my existence and of those around me.

I shot this image 34 years ago in a little house on Longview Ave. It's a portrait of my then girlfriend. Five years later we decided to get married. A number of years after that we decided to become parents. Now we've decided to grow old together.

All along the way I've taken photographs of this woman. I can see in the images that she's grown older but to me, no less beautiful than the day that I took this photograph. I suspect that I'll feel that way twenty years from now and, if the fates allow, even longer.

Over the course of the 34 years I've taken hundreds of thousands of photographs of other beautiful women, products, scenes, food and exotic locations. None of them has been an improvement either in seeing or in the technical process of recording compared with this image and other contemporaneous images.

In many ways this image belies the myth that we all continue to grow and learn as photographers. In my mind clear and unobstructed seeing is the thing that allows us to like or dislike an image, not the degree of sharpness or the breadth of tonal range.

We grow and learn as people while we age and we become more sophisticated in our ability to obscure our honest seeing with layers and layers of the mythology we share about image making and we give too much power to stories that celebrate the heroic efforts of image makers when all that is really called for is to either selfishly wish to stop time and embrace a moment forever, or a wish to honestly share something achingly beautiful with the world at large.

We seem to create new ways of doing things just to bolster the idea that we must work hard to do art that means anything. And truthfully, the art that means the most to us on a very human level just requires us to look across the expanse of six or seven feet at a subject that rivets us and holds us captive and to click one button.

Not so hard. Not so heroic. Not so nuanced. But maybe the difficulty comes when we try to make things perfect in every regard. When I am told that a new technique or a new material will bring my images one step closer to perfection I remember the idea of Japanese artists: it is the small imperfection that makes a work complete.

As I've raced toward the ever moving target of perfection I'm created more and more semi-opaque layers that make really seeing the subject in the photos I want to take harder and harder.

Clear seeing endures. Clear feelings make finding the people or things you want to photograph much easier. But it's the need to photograph something that makes the work wonderful. Not perfect, just wonderful.

Do we begin the search for technical perfection when we lose our nascent and direct connection to the things that bring us visual joy? Is it our first, uncritical connection that we spend the rest of our lives pursuing?

I can't remember what camera I used to take this but I can conjecture that it was an old Yashica twin lens camera. I can't remember what light I used but I'm pretty sure it was the one, lone battered, used Novatron flash and a yellowing umbrella that one of my more advanced photographer friends had tossed aside. But I remember looking into Belinda's eyes and needing to make a photograph so that I'd always have that memory preserved in a way that would allow me to go back to it again and again for pleasure and strength.

That's what the value of photography is to me. And that's all. All about the gear? You've got to be kidding...