5.26.2018

OT: In case anyone is wondering Captcha has done a great job smashing the spam.


The torrent of spam I've been enduring has ground to a halt. None today. Two weeks ago there would have been dozens of invitations for hair regrowth, marriages to foreign super models and so much more. I should have added Captcha to the blog years ago. 

I love being asked if I am a robot. 

If I were to be a robot I'd hope to be eight feet tall, ripped like a Spartan and encased in a solid Vibranium shell. And I would go looking for people who spam. With my adamantium claws out.

F*&K Spam.

A mopey Saturday thinking about getting older in a what is purported to be a young person's field. Screw it. We're not done yet.


It's going to be another hot day in central Texas. My brain is working overtime these days and I have trouble sleeping in past 6 or 6:30 in the morning. I'm thinking about what comes next. What will the next set of wrinkles in my working life be? How will I move the business forward? Is photography really evaporating or is it my own personal engagement that seems threatened? 

With my only child having successfully graduated from college I no longer feel the tug of complete financial responsibility pulling at me. But that's been replaced by a new worry: Am I no longer relevant to the world of commercial photography? Have a I crossed some universal but invisible boundary that will progressively limit my connection to the business of taking photographs? Will age discrimination or disengagement finally thin out my selection of clients until I am left sitting next to the computer, a pile of gear next to me, waiting for someone --- anyone to reach out with an e-mail or text and invite me to the next engagement?

When I look in the mirror I seem old now. My hair has shifted from brown to gray to mostly white. I have age spots. The people selling tickets at the theaters no longer even ask before tendering my "senior" discount ticket. I have multiple pairs of bi-focal glasses; some in the house, a few in the studio and an extra set in the car. I like the glasses because they are sometimes effective in hiding some of the wrinkles around my eyes. 

These are all external cues but on the inside I can't shake the feeling that I'm an 18 year old trapped in the wrong container. I watch many people sink into that gloomy sense of adult resignation but I watch just as many of my friends fight the progression toward the trappings of being older with every breath. In fact, I've even come to believe that an egregious expenditure on a new toy is really the desire to affirm that there's more life left to live; that the purchase of the hot new camera or the amazing new car is really an unconscious act meant to convey that you believe you'll be around for a while to enjoy the fruits of the purchase. That you are continuing in the continuum. 

The house was quiet when I got up. The dog looked up at my from her bed, metaphorically shook her head and then, with a sigh, nestled back into the upholstery and dropped back into a nice, even sleep. I went into the kitchen and made myself a couple of multiple-grain toaster waffles and ate them while drinking a glass of water. I chided myself for a lack of courage --- my real 18 year old self would have eaten cold pizza just before the Saturday morning swim workout. He might have been going to the pool directly from a late date...

I felt slow and stuffy and tired on my way to the pool but when I finally hit the cool, fresh water it only took three or four laps to brighten up and get into my groove. I swam in a lane adjacent to one of my favorite swimmers. She's competitive and driven and at least 14 years younger than me but I matched her lap for lap as we pushed the intervals down and I hit the end of each set with my heart pounding and my lungs greedy for more air. I savored every flip turn that I executed well. I focused on the front end of my freestyle stroke trying to grip a hold on the water and move my body past that point. It's as much a mental practice as anything else. 

The sun came up fully on the pool, it was 8:30 and we'd done our 3200 yards for the morning and yanked ourselves out of the water. An unspoken belief among swimmers is that if you are in good enough shape to swim masters you never use a ladder to get out of a pool and you never put a knee down on the deck during your exit. You place your hands wide on the deck and pull yourself straight up high enough to toss your feet under you. Sure, if you are nursing a bum shoulder you are temporarily exempt but, a knee on the deck.....? 

But what does any of this have to do with photography? I'll conjecture that a large measure of the disquiet I feel right now is that I'm becoming aware that peoples' perspective about "who" photographers really are comes from the advertising created by the people who make products for photographers. Their ads mostly feature youth as practitioners of the modern photographic art.  There are some hoary holdovers who've continued to have media relevance well into their senior years. I just read Thom Hogan's article about the Sony junket last month. He was rubbing shoulders with venerable like Bob Krist and a few others but the event was dominated by the YouTube Youth Gangs like Kai and his cohorts,  and the (now aging) hipster crew from DP Review. Jordan and Chris, as of late from DP Review's newly revitalized video channel, and many other newly post adolescent photo/video/bloggers. 

The message in advertising, and video blogging on YouTube and elsewhere is that photographers are young, hip, innovative and aspirational. They spend their days snapping pix of their beautiful boyfriends and girlfriends and virtually sashaying around Instagram with an air of coolness that increases with every media post and its attendant "likes". I guess I see enough of the programming to have understood the message and taken it to heart: "this is a young person's game in a young person's universe." When you see the meme often enough it's hard not to internalize it and worry that you've become as obsolete as an old Canon Rebel. As worn as a film era Leica.

This messaging misrepresents reality. All around me the successful photographers I encounter are almost without exception past forty. They are comfortably established, they jumped and struggled up the waterfall, from film to digital, like successful salmon in the run. They are the ones with the credit lines that allow for impulse purchase follies like medium format cameras, European flash systems, and Billingham bags. But the marketers miss the mark with their messaging. They only have eyes for the millennials now, the one segment of the population swimming in student debt. The generation hit hardest, economically, by the giant recession of 2008-2009. The generation in full embrace of the iPhone as the camera of choice. A misguided read of marketing stats if I've ever seen one...

When I write this all out and think about it logically I suppose life has always been like this. Every generation grows and peaks and wanes. Advertising has always preferred the cute and the young. Understanding it makes me feel better. I love taking photographs and it's really not up to me to determine the relevance of my craft to our current culture. I don't have enough data points to ever really know. It's enough for now to still have good work and still have the desire to get out every day and visually interpret my world in my own way.  And with role models like Duane Michals and Elliott Erwitt how can we go wrong? Persist or perish. There are no other choices. 

But DAMN. Isn't photography a blast?!

In car selling circles the Toyota Avalon was smirkingly referred to 
as "the geezer pleaser" for it's soft ride, ample trunk and 
welcoming interior appointments. If there is a camera that 
I would call a "geezer pleaser" it's got to be something like
the Nikon D800 or D810. Lots of nostalgia, good performance
and middle of the road comfort. Some would say it's the Nikon DF but 
I think that's more like a vinyl topped, two tone Riviera...

In a flash of coherence this is sometimes the message I get from online discussions 
and advertising about photography.


I like the pool because I can't take my cameras in with me. 
It's just me and a couple thousand gallons of water and some people 
who want to swim faster than me. Whether or not they succeed is, in some
part, up to me.

Now it's time to change gears and go to lunch with the family. Later in the day it will be time for some fun photography. What Robin Wong would call, "Shutter Therapy."

5.25.2018

Finally! A lens that will test your strength and endurance, giving you a workout as you shoot. The Sigma 105mm f1.4 ART. Taking things to uniquely ridiculous, but highly coveted, extremes.

Five of my friends who know that I'm a pushover for really cool lenses in the 100mm range sent me links to the press releases about this lens today. It's the splash resistant, dust resistant, fast focusing and incredibly big and heavy = Sigma 105mm f1.4 Art lens. If you go to the Sigma site and read all the stuff about it right here you'll come away highly conflicted; I know I did.

On one hand you have what might be the ultimate 100-105mm focal length prime lens. The MTF curves sure suggest it. It seems to be one of the ultimate "bokeh" optics of our time. Super sharp wide open and with a creamy out of focus character that borders on sinfully sensual. Of course you want one. But remember, this may the only 105mm prime in photo history that comes with its own tripod mount. It's got 105mm front filter ring and it's dense and heavy with important sounding glass elements.

At $1500+ it's pricy. At 1.4 it's fast. At "ART" lens it's bound to be sharp and well corrected. If you can avoid the inherent hernia potential almost promised by this product then this might be the ultimate portrait lens. My finger hovers over the "one click pre-order button" as I type this..... Maybe yes, maybe no....

Industrial Strength Imaging with an old, used Nikon D800 and a small selection of lenses. Mexico


A few weeks ago I found myself in a factory in Matamoros, Mexico that does all kinds of parts manufacturing for various industries.  My goal was to spend a day photographing and come away with a couple hundred usable photographs that would range from showing high tech circuit board and wire harness assembly to showing workers bending large sheets of metal that are used to make rack mount shelving for servers. The facility was well over 100,000 square feet and, like most heavy production facilities, required eye protection, ear protection and safety shoes. 

My main camera and lens combination was the Nikon D800 and the 24-120mm f4.0 VR zoom lens. The camera does low light well and I was able to handhold shots that didn't have subject movement at  shutter speeds down to 1/30th of a second with confidence. 

Working across the border is interesting. We had to check in with the Mexican immigration folks to get a work visa for me. A lot of people might skip this and rely on the "idea" that they can get away with being tourists but there are spot checks at the factories near the border and not having a valid work visa could cost serious time and money.

I don't speak much Spanish beyond what's on the menu at my local Mexican food restaurant even though I've been married to someone who is fluently bi-lingual for the last 30+ years. I'm used to working here in Austin and it was interesting to work with folks who didn't speak my language and vice versa. We did fine with equal amounts of limited Spanish and limited English and a bit of pantomime. 

My working methodology in the factory was to have all the gear I needed in the rolling case and to leave the rolling case in one of the front conference rooms, and just putting the camera and lens on a Gitzo tripod with a bullhead to walk around with. If I knew I might need a faster lens I stuck it in a tiny camera bag that lived on my shoulder. I kept an extra battery in my pocket and, with a 256 GB, UHS-II card in the SD slot, I rarely needed to revisit my gear depository. 

Most of the work I did was on the tripod. Some of the shots, like the person using a grinder (above) were shot handheld. The tripod allowed me to get depth of field when I wanted it and to plumb the depths of vibration reduction when needed. 

I also carried around a small, pop-up Lastolite gray/white color balancing target. I kept it clipped, with a carabiner, to one of my belt loops, and I would grab it and take a new reading as I moved from location to location. I was trying to get close with the dominant light source in any area knowing that, in RAW file mode, I'd be able to nail white balance exactly in post. If you start too far away it can be difficult to correct across the full spectrum. 

While I spent most of my time with the 24-120mm f4.0 VR on the camera I did get a fair amount of use out of the 85mm f1.8 and the manual focusing 28mm f2.8 lenses I brought along. There are times when the fast aperture of the 85mm makes more artsy looking images. Clients still like it when the background goes out of focus.... The 28mm was useful because it's so well corrected for distortion. Stuff just looked better in some instances when I shot with that lens. 

On several occasions I switched over to Jpeg from RAW so I could use the in-camera HDR feature. A three stop range (the most you can get in-camera with a D800) was sometimes very useful in wide shots when I could not control all the light.

I love assignments like this because it's fun to spend a day playing with photo toys and doing continual technical problem solving. Tossing in some light from an LED panel for one shot, a little bit of flash, bounced off a wall, for another series of shots.

What would I do differently if I could re-do this assignment? 1. I'd listen to a Berlitz CD  that teaches Spanish for the entire six hours I spent on the way down in the rental car. 2. I'd bid it as two shooting days instead of one because I kept seeing in my mind, after the fact, all the shots I missed or could have done better. A second day would allow for new thinking and a certain amount of "do overs" that might yield a bunch more keepers. But, 3, I'd stop being dumb and stop driving half way across Texas when I could have flown to Brownsville (the American side of the border) in 45 minutes on Southwest Airlines. But I guess I'd never get the opportunity to listen to the language CD, right?

I chose to use the Nikon D800 rather than the Panasonic GH5 because most of my shooting was done in marginal lighting and I really needed good looking files at ISO's like 3200-6400. I did, in fact, take the GH5 and the 12-100mm lens and used it for two different video interviews. The Panasonic system was perfect for that!

The real star, as far as I am concerned, was the 24-120mm lens. You could shoot just about anything with that and have it look good. Go get one. (Or the equivalent in the system you prefer). I already have an equivalent lens for the GH5; it's the Olympus 12-100mm f4.0, a remarkably sharp and stable lens for the smaller format camera. Primes? Sure, when you have an agency tagging along as a client and don't want to spoil them by moving too fast......

Paint Shop.

Parts curing.

The tripod comes in handy when you need to have a person in the frame and 
there's no one else around. 

From the light of an acetylene torch.....

I recently wrote that I resisted temptation at the camera store because a potential purchase didn't match my game plan. Readers were stunned to know I might have a game plan for camera and lens purchases.

Noellia helped me test medium format digital cameras a few years ago.

What!? Kirk has a "game plan" for camera purchases? We would never have guessed...

So, what is it?

Some people like consistency and routine; others don't. I have photographer colleagues who bring the same lights, the same cameras and the same lenses to the same kinds of jobs for years on end. They upgrade cameras only when there is a significant leap forward in the performance of new camera that comes from the same brand they've invested in. And for many of them it's tough to change even this one small part of their working routine. It's disruptive for them and means having to figure out where the maker moved the switch they used all the time on their previous camera from the same company. They decry having to learn slightly different adaptations to their working metholodogies in PhotoShop or Lightroom (and they absolutely hate it when things change around in the software...). 

These same photographers only replace lenses when they've succeeded in scraping every last photon's worth of value in the lens. You've probably seen these lenses sitting forlornly on used shelves looking as though someone had alternately, and repeatedly, pounded on the barrels with jagged hammers and then dragged them along through harsh mud. These users would laugh at you if you told them you were trading a lens you bought two years ago because a new one came out that was sharper in the corners and didn't focus breathe (as much). 

In the same way that they look at their gear (consistency, consistency, consistency) the also look to their work. The same softbox goes on the same stand which goes exactly this far from the subject. The camera is set at the tested parameters they decided they liked when they first used the camera.  Color, looks and style are consistent and the same. Overlaying the same structure to every kind of job. 

Yeah. I get it. It's efficient. It's cost effective. It's logical. And if I had to work this way I think I'd check out and never touch a camera again. 

Last year's game plan was to go all in on the Panasonic GH cameras. They are pretty remarkable and the available lenses (and the lenses I've bought for the system) are very, very good. As the guy behind ODL Designs often writes, there is very little you can't do with this format. I mostly agree.  

But there is something about the lure of bigger formats that drives me back each time into a full frame camera system. In the past I made the mistake of believing that one set of cameras (the holy grail) would be able to handle everything I could throw at them and I've searched high and low for that ultimate system. But, for me, I've come to a realization that it doesn't work like that. One company doesn't have the overarching magic sauce or brilliant feature mix that works for everything.

While the Panasonic GH5s are the best video cameras I can imagine (for the price) I have to say that compared to my older Nikon D810, and to the Sony A7Rii I also used for months and months, the smaller format can't compete with the lower noise of the recent full frame cameras. There is something addicting about the noise profile difference that gets me when I compare the cameras for certain uses. 

In the past I would struggle with whether or not to just sell the Panasonic cameras and go "all in" with a full frame system from Nikon, Sony or Canon. But now I'm just giving up taking responsibility entirely. I'm keeping my collection of Panasonic and Olympus m4:3 gear for all those times when I want more depth of field in a still life shot, want incredible video performance, want/need a smaller, lighter solution for day long shooting situations and fast breaking, hybrid jobs. 

But I do want a couple of full frame cameras with high megapixel counts for those times when I'm trying to deliver an "ultimate" file to a client or when I'll need to do a lot of post production and want to start with really big, 14 bit uncompressed raw files. 

I've lately been using the Nikon D800 series cameras and, over time, I'm learning the differences between what might be fun to own and what might be the most advantageous gear for the business. And where to draw the lines. 

With my kid out of college and my expenses much less "expense-y" than they have been for the last four years I am also interested in buying a quality level in the full frame system that I didn't need exactly for the business but want just for the hell of it. 

So, I'm sitting here with the Panasonic system and I'm making a stand against trading it for anything else. I'm also sitting here with three interesting Nikon cameras (D800, D800e and D700) as well as a hodgepodge of lenses; including two that recently died....

What's the plan? By the end of the year I want to winnow down cameras bodies and end up with two D850s. They seem to be on back order everywhere so I'm not in a hurry. The D800e and D800 vanilla are doing their jobs just fine. Mostly I am looking at moving up to get a much quieter shutter (even in the regular drive modes) better autofocusing and enough improvement in video to make each of them a viable "B" camera in situations where we need lots of coverage. 

The lens I use for so much fast moving work is one I'm pretty happy with. It's a 24-120mm f4.0 VR that is sharp, contrasty and wide ranging enough to be used for lots of applications. Most of the other lenses I have are less convenient or offer less performance. 

I'd like to end up with four lenses, in addition to the 24-120mm. These would include: The Sigma ART 24-35mm f2.0. I owned one three years ago when I was shooting with the D810 and I've regretted selling it ever since. If I need to go wider than 24mm I'll borrow or rent. But this lens is amazing within its limited focal length range. I currently have the Sigma ART 50mm f1.4 and it's perfect. No changes there. 

Next up would be the Sigma 85mm f1.4 ART lens for those times when I want skimpy, skimpy depth of field but want it coupled to high sharpness. I'll keep the Nikon 85mm f1.8D lens around for those times when I want more mobility....

Finally, I want to get a new copy of the Nikon 70-200mm f4.0 for all those times when I can't get closer to the stage in the theater but want to crop tightly. I found it to be a better lens than the previous generations of f2.8 Nikon zoom, as long as you don't need the extra stop (most of us don't...). 

This is not a lightweight package by any means. It's not cheap either but it represents the focal lengths and speeds I want to shoot with  coupled with a high definition camera. Most times when I work on annual reports and in industrial sites everything is in a Think Tank roller case and we're also dragging around a lot of grip and lighting gear. Seems like we'll be able to pull this off and change gears again. 

Anyway I look at it the two systems give me more options, more choices, more chances to screw up and learn more. At any rate, that's the plan (today). Always subject to change. 


5.23.2018

Ah. The leading edge of the tipping point...the rush to professional mirrorless cameras.

Zach Theatre Production Stills from "Two Guvners"

We won't have statistical assurance until the numbers start rolling in at the end of the year but I can feel the vibes everywhere these days; mirrorless professional cameras from Sony have just created the front wave of a tipping point that has professional photographers moving from their traditional Nikon and Canon gear to Sony's newest A7iii and A7Riii cameras. In droves. 

I was at my favorite bricks and mortar camera store, Precision Camera, yesterday when a thirty something photographer brought in his nearly new Nikon gear and traded in about $12,000 worth of current lenses, and thousands of dollars more in camera bodies, in order to switch to Sony A7xxx cameras and lenses. (Yes, I considered buying his Nikon stuff from the store but remembered that I have a different game plan in mind...). 

Earlier in the day I got a phone call from a photojournalist/advertising photographer I've known since college---a decades long Canon full frame shooter---who was calling to pick my brain about several menu options on his new Sony A7iii cameras. He'd just shed his collection of Canon gear completely and was "all in" on the newest Sony product. 

I was driving back to Austin from San Antonio this afternoon when one of my video/still hybrid shooter friends called to "pick my brain" about how to choose between three different Sony full frame camera models. He called back a bit later to let me know that he'd ordered the new A7iii camera body (he already shoots with an FS-7 video camera and so has a lot of Sony, and converted, lenses to play with...). 

Two days ago a photographer on the east coast called, presuming

5.21.2018

How did my "take" from the 2006 production of "Rocky Horror Picture Show" stand the test of time. Twelve years later.....


I've had an interesting re-entry into daily work life. One of my clients whom I have worked with for nearly three decades called to see if I had "the files" for a project I'd done for them in 2000. They were preparing 50 year anniversary campaign and were looking for images taken in each of the five decades during which their company had flourished. I went over to the CD and DVD archives, stuck on a Metro shelf in the corner, and looked through the material. Nothing. No sign of the work. Perplexed, I looked at my notebooks from the time to see if they held any clues. Of course they did. Making notes is the secret to long term understanding...

2000 was a transitional year in my business. It's the year that 35mm film started to jump the shark and morph into digital. Somewhere in that year I abandoned 35mm slides and color negative film almost entirely and started depending on digital cameras as a replacement. There were still a few years left in which I worked with medium format film for the more intricate and very high image quality assignments but, as digital cameras continued to improve, these too fell by the wayside and were replaced with ever advancing digital images.

I found an entry in the notebook about the job in question. We'd done the pre-production marketing images (the highest value stuff) with medium format film and a little assortment of Hasselblad cameras and lenses and then had done the higher volume, less exacting work with a 35mm SLR film camera and Nikon zoom lenses. By mutual agreement the client had held onto the film as it was proprietary and they had bought exclusive usage rights, paying in 1990s prices. 

I talked through this turn of history with the client and they went through the process of contacting a procession of previous marketing directors until one of them led the current custodians of corporate branding (over the phone) to a small closet in the basement of headquarters, where the images languished in black notebooks, in banker's boxes, on a series of shelves. The original requestor had scanned the images he needed at the time and filed the "take" very professionally and with every intention of revisiting the work. But that was two careers ago. 

I wondered how the old work would stand up in today's market. Would the old 35mm slides and plastic pages of big square transparencies seem hopelessly outclassed

A self portrait. Narcissistic or exploration?


There's something about mirrors that calls to me like a moth to a flame. When I walk by a mirror or a highly reflective window, and I just happen to have a camera over my shoulder, I feel a compulsion to pull the camera off and document what I look like. I think it's mostly curiosity; to understand how I look to everyone else, who live outside my brain and ego. 

I was in the Tang Museum at Skidmore College last week and I kept finding mirrored surfaces. I had a camera with me that does wickedly well with image stabilization and I tried every permutation I could. Now I know what I look like when I'm in a museum on a cold, rainy day and I've found a way to understand what my exterior presentation is all about. Does the Columbia rain jacket make me look fat? (implied smiley face emoji). I think we should all post some self-portraits. (And we should call them "self-portraits" unless we shoot them with a cellphone.....then we can call them "selfies").