I borrowed a medium format digital camera but it was really just an excuse to photograph my friends.....

Last year I reviewed three different medium format digital cameras. They all had their strengths and they all had their weaknesses. But I enjoyed the process of reviewing them not because I knew I'd get better images but because it gave me a new excuse to photograph my old friends.

One of the portraits I took was of my friend Paul Bardagjy, who may be the best architectural photographers in North America. Had I proposed pointing a Nikon or Olympus camera at him I'm not sure there would have been enough of a lure to drag him into my studio. But we're all curious about new stuff and I think that did the trick.

Photographers are interesting friends. Most people have boring jobs that are repetitive and linear. Everyone knows what to expect. Everyone knows that they have to be at their desks at a certain time. They know the rules are proscribed and rigid. Unwilling to disrupt their income, most people are loathe to make drama at work so they save it for their personal lives. If you are the friend, spouse or relation of a person with a "real" job you know that they can sometimes go out of their way to introduce the drama missing from their job into their personal lives. Something personal is always flying out of control. Relationships, finances, health or weird hobbies.

Photographers, as a rule, don't do this because our work lives are filled with constant uncertainty and drama. Work that doesn't come. Checks that don't come when the work finally does. Psycho clients and crazed assistants. Weird demands and even weirder plans.

I think that's why I like hanging out with photographers like Paul. They've seen it all before. They've lived through client drama and they've been out on the edge of the business cycle but survived to shoot another day.

Paul is like that. Very few things stump him. He's an artist and a business genius. That's why architects like to have him on their projects. He gets to the root of the project and spins it visually in a manner poetic. And he does it without any drama. That's for people in lesser occupations.

About the photo: Can't remember which big, fat medium format digital camera from 2008. Almost certain that the light was a big flash in a big umbrella aimed through a big diffuser from one side. One light. One subject. One smile. All done.

Friends like that you keep around.

Have you ever experienced a job that left you feeling elated?

I did. It was several years ago. Freescale Semiconductor had just been spun off from Motorola and the people who tend to their garden of marketing content wanted to make the statement that everything good about the corporation was driven by the people who worked there. I was asked to create a light look and a compositional feel to show off their most valuable assets.

One big light from the left of the frame. A small amount of fill from the right. And a soft wash across the background. Once the lights are set I could spend the rest of the two days meeting my subjects. Talking to them about their jobs, their kids, their amazing work and even their favorite cars. Whatever it took to develop some mutual touch points so we could connect and serve this common purpose for just a few minutes.

The next time I walked into the building the posters were everywhere. 24 by 36 inches. Beautiful colors. And warm smiles.

When I looked at the posters I could remember the exact moment of each exposure. I knew it was time to click the shutter because, in that one moment, there was a real connection that I could feel. And I hope my subjects could feel it too because it was genuine.

True feelings that drive a collaboration can't be faked, or contrived. In work like this you really have to live the emotion to create the energy that needs to be part of the process.

I've been thinking about what parameters must exist in order for jobs like this to be so successful and what I've come to understand (after subduing my incredible ego) is that it is the unsung heros of the business that really provide the agar that grows the right culture.

In this case I was lucky to work with two creative heads who understood that it would work best to apply the reins gently. Heather Grant laid out the assignment to me and then stepped back to let me do the work. But I could feel her guidance at every step I took. And I think I felt it because she trusted me and I needed to show her that the trust was not misplaced.

Whatever the reason it is work I'm proud to have been part of. And when I walked away on the final day of the shoot I realized that it's never the talent of the photographer alone but the willing complicity and collaboration of people who are willing to be part of a process instead of needing to ride roughshod over the whole thing.

I'm thankful that those people are out there. And I know that a healthy dose of humility breaks down a lot of barriers........

If you are reading this, thank you!


Fun with outdoor light. Control freak central.

I did some fun outdoor images with Emily a week ago at the lake. Most of the images featured the lake in the background but I wanted to play around with a little spike of sunlight as a hairlight so we turned around 180 degrees and played to the other side. I took a break from my usual Minimalist self and dragged out a Profoto 600b (and a back up unit) to make the shot. When I shoot outside I generally light to put a diffuser up over my model to control the quality of the light. If I want harsh and angular I can add that while keeping my model from squinting.

Beth assisted me and kept a hand on the panel so we didn't have any wind+gravity accidents. I was shooting with my Olympus e30 and the 35-100mm (weight lifting) lens. With the spike of sunlight carefully aligned at the edge of the diffusion panel I added the main light of the image using a 60 inch softlighter2 umbrella with the diffusion cover in place. The light is approximately five and half feet from Emily. She is being a trooper and holding her triathlete bike over her shoulder for way too many exposures. The basic exposure is 1/250th @ f 11, ISO 200.

I like having the option of throwing around a bunch of light outdoors. It's fun. More to come from this light hearted weekend exercise.

Best, Kirk


Cheap Camera in the service of commercial art.

Every year I work on an annual report project for the Kipp Schools in Austin. These schools do a great job providing a solid path to college for underserved kids. The schools are tough. Discipline is pervasive. Achievement is rewarded. It's rewarding to be a small part of the process.

This year I worked with art director, Gretchen Hicks, from Sherry Matthews Advocacy to create a brochure that evokes the feel of an old Farmer's Almanac. The emphasis on nurturing and growth echoed the philosophy of the schools.

Enough about schools. The reason to be here is the photography. And that was my responsibility. I set up the shoot in an empty classroom. The main light was an 84 inch Lastolite Umbrella with a built in front diffuser panel. The passive fill came from a 48 inch white Chimera panel, opposite the big umbrella. As you can probably tell, I used the panel fill panel pretty far away from the subject because I like my shadows to have some weight and depth to them.

There is a tiny kick of light on the gray background. It comes from an old Metz 54 battery powered flash, used in manual on a low power setting, in a small 12x16 inch soft box. I just used it for a bit of separation.

My intention was always to deliver black and white images and I decided to shoot the whole project with a shiny, new Nikon D700. When I intend to deliver B&W I like to set the camera to monochrome so I can "previsualize" what the images will look like in their final form. I started shooting with the D700 and a 105 f2 DC lens but I just couldn't get comfortable with the images. The picture on the rear LCD just didn't have the right feel and the right tones. In short, I didn't like the way the Nikon created black and whites for display to the LCD's. The images were......mushy.

I remembered that I like the way an old Sony point and shoot camera, the R1, handled monochromes so I pulled my surviving R1 out of the bag and started shooting. Now I would have to make a choice: The camera shoots one raw every eight to ten seconds and that was just too slow. If I switched to Jpeg I could shoot fast enough but I would have to trust the camera's interpretation of black and white because I wouldn't have the post processing control of a raw file.

I went with the monochrome Jpegs. I figured that if I really screwed up I could always come back and spend another day doing the job over again. The deadline was not too pressing.

We shot all day long. It was kind of a miracle, but we got 1200 exposures out of one camera battery and one set of background flash batteries. (The mainlight was an A/C monolight).

I love the images I got from the shoot. There is a very tiny gallery here.

I sure like the images but even more I really like what Gretchen did with the whole print project. In these days of ubiquitous web projects it's really nice to see some ink on paper done well. I went to a reception at the home of a wealthy donor and the brochures were passed out. It was gratifying to see the response they got.

It reminded me that print is not totally dead. That good projects can survive. That photography is very important. That art directors don't give a crap about which camera you use or how large a file you deliver. As long as you capture something worth using.

Technical skill is always way down the ladder on jobs like this. Any professional should be able to do a decent job lighting a shot like these. The real test is being able to establish a nice rapport, a nice give and take with each kid. And sustain that over twenty or thirty kids in a day.
We ended up shooting 10 meg jpegs. In monochrome. All of which were originally conceived as horizontals. What you see in the final 8.5 by 11 inch brochure are verticals. Maybe three megapixels worth of data. If that.

Technically about as non optimal as it gets. So why does everyone who see the project love it so much? Because the content always trumps the technique. No one really cares about technical perfection if the emotion isn't there.

I write a lot about doing projects with less than optimal gear and I worry that I'm sending the wrong message. I'm not trying to say that people shouldn't shoot with incredibly fun and expensive cameras. And I'm not saying that having nearly infinite megapixels at your disposal is a bad thing. Not at all. But I think there is a pervasive sentiment throughout the field of photography that, in order to do good, sellable work, you must have the latest, most powerful, most able equipment in order to succeed.

There is another myth that seems to say that you, as a photographer, are constantly being judged by your client with one metric: Do you have the coolest gear? And what I've found, consistently, over the years is that the only people who care about gear are photographers and other photographers.

We men tend to be pretty simple and linear in our understanding of technology. We always tend to think that more is more and less is less. We judge cars by how fast they go. How quickly they accelerate. How many G's they can pull in a turn. We rank cars from best to worst based largely on performance metrics. And yet most cars can do the job.

For commuting and family vacations and running to the mall and the camera store and the grocery store just about any car will do fine. Where will you see the difference between a regular car (honda civic, hyundai, toyota) and the Porsches, Aston Martins and Ferraris? On a race track at speeds over 100 mph. How often do you drive on the track? How often do you find yourself commuting at 150 mph? Taken a cloverleaf at 90 lately?

I mentioned that the market seems to be going to the web and that all the very best video systems can handle right now is the equivalent of a 2 to 3 megapixel camera's output. Several readers rebutted by saying that computer screens and video will get better and better with technology. Sorry friends, but we've only changed our video broadcast standards once in 50 years and we probably won't change your television requirements again for a good while. It's true that computer screens will get better and better but at the same time the growth market is in netbooks with 10 inch screens and in mobile applications that will never exceed the size of a pocket.

With decent LCD projectors still in the $5000 range for anything remotely hi res I think it will be a good long while before we come close to needing the kind of resolution that even 35mm slide film gave us in projection.

The real metric should be how comfortable you are using the gear and how comfortable you are interfacing with the subjects on the other side of the camera. I don't do much landscape. I find people more interesting. I always remember what a producer on a reality TV show once told me. "People don't care is the picture is dark, or fuzzy or grainy as long as the action is exciting and the sound is perfect."

And I always remind myself that Robert Frank's images in "The Americans" wouldn't be any more powerful if they were grainless and tack sharp. In fact, I think it would destroy them.


Texas Road Art.

I love big open skies and sweeping overpasses. I like monumental architecture. I like concrete that soars up into the sky. And I like skies filled with every kind of cloud, from the little "puffies" to the stringy "sliders" that come racing through when the weather changes.

You'd think a self proclaimed portrait shooter would run screaming from an assignment that was all about spending quality time with no one but myself. Even more so when you realize that I've heard all my own tall tales any number of times. But there is something quite liberating about being handed a list of potential locations and a wide open schedule.

The client and I agreed about a fixed price for the project. I would get to choose the days, the times, the angles and the feel of the shots. As long as I understood the budget I was pretty much on my own. I could be early. I could be late. As long as I turned in the stuff they wanted everything was fine.

I shot for six days. I'd trek out in the morning and when I got to the location I'd look up at the clouds and try to divine whether they were about to break and let the blue sky through or whether they were fixin to well up and cry down on me. If the portents were good I'd start the search for the angles and the lay of the light I wanted.

My only nemesis was the heat. I did this project in August, just north of Austin, Texas. The sun beat down on me like a bad drummer from a 1980's metal band. But after a while you learn to wear floppy shirts and a big hat. You learn really quick to bring your sunglasses along. And I learned, after my first Photoshop review of the take, that you should always take a light tight loupe to evaluate your take on the rear LCD. No matter what the maker says, no screen is accurate when the sun is bouncing and banking all around you.

I liked the parts of the highway project that were new because commuters hadn't yet incorporated the route into their routines. That meant that three or four minutes would go by without any cars. In early afternoon the roads would be silent for even longer spells. But my favorite part of the project was crawling around and under the sweeping and majestic overpasses, trying to contain the mighty dynamic range of real life and slap it down to sensor manageable blends of photons. My biggest allies were my Polarizing filters. My most important technique: absolutely accurate exposure metering.

Nearly all of these images were done on either an Olympus e520 or an Olympus e1 and nearly all three thousand shots were done with two lenses: The 14-54 and the 11-22mm. Other indispensable equipment included my water bottle and my cheap Nevados brand cross trainer shoes from Costco.

It was a quiet and contemplative job that was full of straight ahead work and satisfaction. The kind of job everyone needs to wedge in the middle of a hectic schedule. And working in opposition to my typical ways made it all the more refreshing. I did another job like this for another client about a year ago and shot the whole thing on small cameras. G10's, SX10's and the like. The results were equally nice.

Not having the client there made me realize how far down the line of decisions the choice of the camera is. And how mightily we've tried to elevate it. The number one goal of this job was to create good images without succumbing to heat exhaustion........


Maybe the best current zoom lens in the world?

Much as I love my new Canon G11 I still find it rewarding to shoot with other cameras. I was out shooting photos on Sunday with my friend, Emily and I wanted to do some images that utilized shallow depth of field; not a strength of really small sensor cameras.

I decided to use a lens I've come to value above all the others in my equipment collection: The Olympus 35-100mm 2.0. My images just don't do justice to this optic. It's not a shortcoming of the lens it's because I need to spend more time getting my brain dialed into the things that make
this lens really unique. It's incredible sharpness when used wide open and the fact that wide open for this particular zoom lens is f 2.0.

Here's a sad admission: As analytical as I'd like to think I am I tend to work more by reductive trial and error than by illuminated epiphany. I don't really go out on a shoot with a fully formed image in my mind. I have to set up and shoot, then look and change. Rinse, repeat. Eventually I'll luck into a confluence of lighting styles, background treatments and even expressions that work for me and I'll spend time repetitively polishing those few meager skills until they work as a cohesive combination. Only when I reach that point do I get any kind of nice feedback about my images.

I bought the 35-100mm to replace the longer focal lengths I sold off when I switched from the Nikon system to the Olympus system. I like the idea of the lens alot. I've used it for a number of straightforward jobs but nothing that would really test the unique qualities it provides. That's the sad aspect of buying gear while the economy is in the toilet, there are fewer opportunities to do the kind of big production work that lends itself to pushing gear to the edge and marveling in its performance.

That being said, I find the 35-100mm is so good that it gives me more confidence in even the most pedestrian jobs. Combined with the image stabilization built into the Olympus e30 body the whole unit is formidably well suited to shooting anything I would have done with the Nikon equivalents with the exception of black cats in coal mines. The smaller imaging sensor gives me the same kind of depth of field at 2.0 that I got from the Nikon 70-200mm 2.8 at f 2.8 but with much better image correction wide open. Stopped down to f4 I feel that I get the kind of sharpness that the Nikon provided between 5.6 and 8.0.

Honestly, either system would work equally well. So would the Canon equivalents or the Sonys. Wide open depth of field is something special and when you want it no amount of Photoshop manipulation takes its place.

Does this invalidate everything I've said about the Canon G11 compact camera? Hardly. Wide open DOF shots get as repetitive as anything else in photography. It's just another technique. When I'm ready to move on I find the smaller cameras have equally important advantages. Sometimes, many times, more depth of field is the "hot application" but it's good to have avenues to both techniques.

While I was out on Sunday I did find a short coming that is endemic to all the current SLR's that isn't shared by their pint sized proteges. It's the flash sync speed. What good are all these fast optics if we have to shoot them at f11 in order to do cool fill flash in bright sunlight? I set up a large scrim to block the sun and took test shots for natural light. Everything looked pretty cool at 1/4000th of a second f2.8. But the scene just fell into the "blah" zone when I added in the light from an umbrella'ed Profoto 600b. Why? The sync speed on my e30 stopped at 1/250th and that limited the range of f/stops I could use to those that gave me too much DOF.

I shot some stuff on my G11 at 1/800th of a second at f 7.1 but when I tried to sync faster I ran into the relatively long burn time of the Profoto 600b at full power. Going up on the shutter speed, even though it would still sync, gave me less and less light because of the flash becomes less efficient. It stays on longer than the shutter stays open.

This is an ongoing issue. Especially for people in Texas who want to shoot at impractical times.

I'm adding a new camera parameter to my short list of requirements. I want an SLR that can sync at all shutter speeds. Every darn one of them. If I want to shoot wide open with a fast lens in sunlight then by God, in the 21st century we should have that option. It was available on the Kodak Retina Reflex 35mm SLR film cameras over 50 years ago. It's absolutely not rocket science.

It is a feature that the new Leica S2 offers on their new series of announced lenses for their new medium format camera. But in light of the current economy I don't think it's practical to spend $35000-45,000 just for this particular feature. Might just be more cost effective to dust off one of the old Rollei 6008's and a some of the PSQ lenses.

The other option is to use FP flash but, as with the Profoto, the faster the shutter speed the lower the power I get with them. This limits me to bundling a bunch of expensive shoe mount flashes together or working with the light ridiculously close to the subject. I'm give it another try.

But back to the main topic. Fast zoom lenses. They fall into the categories of problem solvers. They make stuff look cool. And f2.0 with a 70-200mm equivalent is something we could only dream of just a decade ago.

Workshop Notice: There is still time to sign up for my lighting workshop. It's this Sunday here in Austin, Texas (October 25th). I'll be teaching a daylong workshop with small and conventional flashes. We'll do most of the morning inside the beautiful One World Theater on Bee Caves Rd. and we'll spend most of the afternoon trying to wrestle sunlight to the ground outside. You can register at www.precision-camera.com Hit the link for more details.

It's the last lighting workshop I'll be teaching in 2009 and it should be raucous good fun. Your choice of one of my books is included in the workshop price. Just saying.


Canon G11. The new professional camera?

(Samples at the bottom!)
So where do I start? How about a list of stuff that a G11 (a $500 compact camera from Canon) can't handle. There's sports, of course. And very fast moving action. (Unless you manually prefocus, and consider one frame per second fast). Then there's anything that requires a super wide angle lens or an extreme telephoto lens. I wouldn't use it for weddings----not super at focusing under very iffy light.

But, if you are a step by step, left brain kind of person who likes to shoot in the streets, loves setting things up carefully. Thinks portraits can be considered and gracious affairs. Loves to shoot things with lots of sharpness and depth of field I can certainly recommend the G11. I've shot close to a thousand frames since I got it a week ago and I've done my share of pixel peeping. I could shoot portraits in the studio with this and portraits out on the street. I could (have) shot some product shots with the little sucker and no one was the wiser.

Let's be honest. Most of us like to do one type of photography and our focus on that genre makes us better at it than the types of photography we do because we're considered "generalists". If we're being frank I'll say that when I shoot for myself, from the old days of film right up to today, I've never wanted to shoot wider than 28mm or longer than about 105mm. My favorite subject is the human face and I don't sneak shots I take portraits with the full collaboration of the subject. Which means I have time to compose and chimp and generally get stuff right. This is the world of the G11. And it's better than anything I've shot except for an M series Leica because the camera tends to just disappear and the whole even becomes a calm walk in the park as opposed to the ominous frippery of a "serious" shoot.

In a studio with a big Octabank plugged into a Profoto air monolight I can use the G11 to make portraits that are wonderful in their own right. If you've been in this business for a while the greater depth of field would give the images away as being the progeny of a small format camera but you wouldn't know it based on quality and color. I'll put it up against a string of Nikons or Olympus cameras I've owned or currently owned. In fact, the instant Live View (no waiting for flopping mirrors) makes it an even more valuable studio portrait camera.

In the street, pre-focused, it's as fast as my Leica M6. In a dimly lit restaurant the combination of a new, clean ISO 400-800 and great IS gives me the opportunity to shoot sharp the way I would have with my previous gen Nikons.

So what's not to like? Well, I guess it's scary for some because it's not a camera that will wow the clients. But then isn't it the photos that are supposed to wow them? I interpreted statements by the APA crowd that we needed to "raise the bar" to mean that we needed to be more creative and more visually advanced than the "proletariat" crowd of "proamateur" photographers. I didn't see the statement as a manifesto to outspend everyone in an "arms race" to the whispery thin heights of ultimate machinery. The air is too rarified up there for most rationale practitioners....and it's time we acknowledged that the equipment "barriers to entry" are largely gone.

I'll go one step further. If you are shooting in good light and you can't make a great image on a G11 (or the previous generation G10) then you aren't as good a photographer as you think you might be...

What I like about the G11:

1. Great form factor. It feels nice in the hand.
2. Wonderful analog feel to the dedicated controls you'll use most often.
3. Great ISO performance up to 400. Very good up to 800.
4. Standard hot shoe allows you to use a range of flashes, from Canon's big guns, to generic single contact flashes to a wide range of radio triggers.
5. Sync speeds of up to 1/2000th (and not just in an "FP" mode.....)
6. Decent battery life.
7. Articulated LCD screen on the back.
8. The snappy look of the "positive film" setting in the color controls.
9. The incredibly sharp, just right focal length range of the lens.
10. Nice standard definition movie performance.
11. RAW file format. (can hardly wait for the Capture One upgrade...)
12. The $500 price tag.

I was an early adopter of digital and I've spent enough on cameras to buy a fairly nice boat but I will say that this little camera blows away the performance we were getting from most SLR's at multiples of this price only a few years ago.

Things I don't like about the G11:

1. The crappy optical viewfinder with the built in parallax distortion.
2. Um......???

Finally, I've included images from a day of shooting around Austin. Your kilometerage will likely vary. And if you just sunk $100,000 in a Leaf Medium Format System I expect you to disagree with me on every point! But that's life. As Jay Maisel would say, "It's hard to take a picture if you don't have a camera with you." And that's the whole point of the G11. It's the camera you will have with you because it works so damn well and it disappears even better.


Minimalist Lighting. Meet Minimalist Camera.

chef Emmett at Asti., originally uploaded by kirkinaustin.

Blogs, by their very nature are the process of thinking out loud in front of the whole world. Lately it seems like my posts are aimed at re-inventing the world of commercial photography. Or at least stirring up some controversy. But I'm not that profound or devious. I am just trying to work out a way for photography to be as fun and carefree for me as it was when I started this journey so many years ago. Before the gear became all consuming.

So I'll back up for a paragraph. I shot this image on a D2x with the original, old 35mm PC lens, using four Nikon SB flashes controlled by an SU-800 Controller. I was working on my first book: Minimalist LIghting: Professional Techniques for Location Photography, and I wanted to shoot the kind of image we've provided editorial clients with for years. But all the stuff in my files was done with monolights or pack and head strobe systems and I thought it would be misleading to include the shots given the nature of the book.

I'd done a ten or so images, both for advertising and for editorial that I'd used the small flashes on but I wanted to do something that wasn't tied to an art director or a campaign so I called my friend Emmett Fox (perhaps the finest chef working in Austin...) and arranged to drop by Asti restaurant and do a few images.

I've used the image both in the book and in my portfolio to good effect. The response to the whole idea of simplifying the lighting (and carrying around a lot less stuff) was at first a frightening concept to some of the professional photographers I spoke to. They seemed to think that making what we do seem easier would confuse clients and cause them to re-think the whole idea of "professional photography".

Now, almost three years later, everyone regards these techniques as "old hat" and they are fully accepted by both clients and photographers. Scary at first but then, with application and good results, much less scary.

I worked on a job as a people shooter next to a world class architectural shooter during this evolution. Just one or two years earlier he would have shot his architectural shots with a 4x5 view camera and a case of Dedolights. Two years ago he bought a Canon 5D (the original) and substituted it to good effect in place of the 4x5. As he became more at ease with the newer, faster, lighter, camera he also started to experiment with several of Canon's top line speedlights. Revelation: He could work to the same high quality with much more flexibility, require less assistance, cover more ground and be less worn by the end of the day. The increased depth of field vis a vis 35mm frame factor versus large format was a big plus for him and the increased DOF leveraged the power of the battery operated strobes in a good way.

Now the fear is gone and said architectural shooter is happily banging away with his digital camera and, usually, a small bag full of Canon EX 5xx flashes with radio slave or optical triggers. When I worked with him he had become fluid with the new techniques.

Did his clients run screaming from the room and beg him to return to the days of transparency film? No. Did they beg him to drag around hot lights and C-stands and an army of assistants? No. And most importantly, did they expect him to reduce his fees? No.

His work still graces the pages of the same magazines and promotional materials for national architectural firms. How can that be? Don't they need the cropping safety that's ensured by the bigger film? Don't they need the assurance that future media will be well served?

Apparently not. No, the clients are happy that the spaces need not be closed off for longer periods of time. That more can be done in the same amount of time. That the cost of 4x5 film and Polaroid has been eliminated (but partially replaced by post processing.....).

All in all, the photographer is happy and productive. The clients feel that the transition is either seamless or perhaps less difficult. And the product, the image, still splashes across the pages with authority. Whether those pages are in magazine or on the web. It helps that the photographer in question sees his the value of his work as the same and his charges incorporate the concept of charging for usage....

So, when I started talking about using smaller, less expensive cameras to do my work I was really starting a new cycle of thought for myself. What if I could do the same quality of final product with less cumbersome gear? I'd done it with the flashes. It worked. The book worked. A couple hundred thousand people visiting Strobist.com can attest that the new paradigm of lighting works for most common subjects. So why is it so scary when it comes to cameras?

If it's more comfortable you could define the whole movement to Minimalist Cameras as a new style. Like the people who shoot with Holgas, or Lomos, or with Lens Babies.

IMPORTANT CAVEAT: If you shoot for large scale print production this is not aimed at you. There are still many applications where megapixels and tight control and super high ISO performance are needed. And I get that. I really do. I still have some medium format tools in the equipment drawer. I'm not saying that everything is binary and can only be done in one way. I'm not trying to force anyone to pry their fingers off a much beloved !DSmk3 or Nikon D3x.

But I will say this, I think much creative photography can be done with little bitty cameras like the Canon G10 and G11. Not just done, but done well. Done in a way that diminishes the importance of technical in the service of answering the gestalt. A rejection of structuralism. A holistic approach in which the sum is greater than the parts.

I'm embarking on a little experiment. You know those jobs you sometimes get where you have a shot list and a budget and the time to work out details? I'm going to see how many of them I can do in the next six months with a Canon G10 or G11. I've already started.

Most of the jobs I'm talking about are headed for the web or for a PowerPoint or Keynote presentation. Some will be headed for smaller brochures and magazines. A little direct mail. But some will be headed for traditional print. I'm not out to trick my clients. I'll discuss the options and the techniques and the ones who trust me will let me try new stuff while the less adventurous will always have the option to go retro.

I may fall flat on my face and have clients screaming and yelling, but I don't think so. I think that, if the final output is sharp, detailed, color correct and creative no one will give a rat's butt which camera generated it. The lights were the first step.

Why would I do this? Well I recently curled up with an old copy of Robert Frank's, The Americans. He shot the photos in the book with a small screw mount Leica and a handful of lenses that are primitive compared to what we have today. He shot the images for the book on slow (ISO 100 and ISO 200) black and white film stock. Not everything is sharp. Nothing is "Image Stabilized". And yet the images have incredible power. And keep in mind that back in the 1950's the 8x10 view camera was the de facto choice of "real" professional photographers. 4x5 was the economy format and medium format was for quick snapshots. Handheld 35mm cameras were held in almost universal disdain.

I don't want anyone to think that I'm doing this because I am new to the professional and don't get the whole idea of quality. I remember shooting some of the original PR photos of Texas Monthly Magazine's publisher, Mike Levy, with a 4x5 view camera back in 1979. I've paid my dues processing thousands of pieces of Tri-X and FP-4. And even more medium format film.

But what if I can get images that I like, and which my clients like, with a smaller camera? Wouldn't it be silly not to try it?

At some point we've all mouthed the words, "It's not the camera, it's the person behind the camera that counts." Let's see if that's true. I may not be up to the creative task but let's not blame the cameras for that.



The irrational fear of people in public places.

Image from Rome. The Pantheon in the background. Circa 1994 ©2009 Kirk Tuck

My wife will tell you that I spend too much time reading photo fora on the web. I've begun to see that she's right because I keep reading the same stuff in new disguises. This morning a fellow posted a photo at the Strobist Discussion group. He was amazed to find that Cabella's sporting good store might have used an off camera flash to create one of their ads. Amazing. As though we advertising photographers had never used an off camera flash or taken lights outdoors!!!

But the thing that struck me recently is how cowardly people have become about their gear. I've seen ten or fifteen posts in the last week from (mostly Americans) people who want to know how to safeguard their equipment in such dangerous places as: Paris, France and Rome, Italy and even, gasp, Copenhagen, Denmark. The thing that strikes me as funny is that each of these places has a much lower violent crime rate than just about any major city in the U.S. And each of these cities is a pedestrian city where, even in the unlikely event of a crime being perpetrated, you are surrounded by helpful people ready to jump in and help ensure social stability.

The idea that your Canon Rebel needs be locked in a hotel safe or secured to your body with a special strap containing unbreakable wires (what a good way to be decapitated should your camera get stuck in a train door......) is laughable. If you are dragging that much paranoia along on your vacation you may need to invest in other things. Therapy comes to mind. More wide ranging travel is another.

The second kind of post that seems to come up, with annoying regularity, is the idea that, to shoot in the street, you must become a stealthy ninja and your camera should be so small that it becomes all but invisible at any distance beyond five feet. The idea being, I guess, that a hulking American, complete with baggy cargo shorts, a promotional T-shirt for their favorite NFL team, white athletic socks, and day-glo Nike running shoes (never used for that purpose), topped with a baseball cap, will be able to sneak through a crowd of well dressed Europeans and will be able to position themselves in just the right way to SECRETLY take startling good photographs.

Their ideal camera is silent with an incredible zoom lens and a very small foot print. Either that or a Canon/Nikon/Sony/Olympus coupled with a bag full of lenses. Which they are deathly afraid some grandmother from Provencal will slit their throat to own.

Face it. You'll probably stick out. Face it. People will see that you have a camera in your hand. And unless you are doing your tourism in the Sudan you'll see when you look around that almost everyone else has a camera or a cellphone with a camera, or a video camera. They're everywhere. They are ubiquitous. Believe me, people in the European community also buy and use cameras.

Back in 1994 Belinda and I headed to Rome for a few weeks of vacation and photography. I brought along one camera. A Hasselblad 500c/m and a 100 mm f3.5 planar lens. That, and a few one gallon ziploc bags of tri-x 120 film. I spent most of my time walking along shooting whatever caught my attention. If a person looked interesting I'd ask them to pose. Sometimes I'd just smile, nod and shoot.

Books on travel caution newbies to be constantly aware of their surroundings. Hypervigilant if you will. I discarded all that advice out of necessity. After every twelve frames I'd have to stop and reload the 120 back on the camera. Since I was using a waist level finder I often had to stop as the light changed and take incident meter readings. No one cared. Every once in a while an older gentleman would ask about the camera. Younger people ignored it.

After a long morning and the better part of an afternoon spent poking into the nocks and crannies of Rome (and there are many) I sat down for a moment,at an outside table, at the closest food vendor with a direct view of the Pantheon. The restaurant was a McDonalds. The couple in front of me was having an animated conversation. I looked into my viewfinder, framed the shot, adjusted the exposure and fired the shutter. It was not a silent camera given the size of the moving mirror..... The couple turned to look and I smiled and nodded. They smiled back and with their tacit approval I shot several more images where they looked into the lens.

No one was fearful. There was no conflict or even a hint of animosity or aggression from either side. And this is the way it has gone for me and other street shooters for decades and decades. If someone doesn't want to be photographed they'll let you know. If you don't push it they won't either.

I like the image above. With billions and billions of images swirling around out in the attention-o-sphere there is a very small percentage that are relational. I like images that either speak directly to the viewer or show relationships.

The first (and probably only) step is to conquer your irrational fears that: A. Someone is always trying to rip you off. B. That everyone who is photographed instantly turns into a serial killer and they are aimed at you. C. You won't have people's willing complicity.

If you are calm, relaxed and see other people as, well, just other people, you'll probably do just fine. You might want to practice photographing strangers by becoming a tourist in your own town. I find that a nice weekend of street shooting in nearby San Antonio is just the right "warm up" before a trip abroad.

Get comfortable outside your comfort zone!

Bon Voyage. Kirk


Will Crockett from Shootsmarter.com shoots Kirk

The two images on the left were done by Will Crockett, the Chicago area photo wiz who started and still energizes a website called www.Shootsmarter.com

I have the honor and privilege of being on the advisory board for the Photography Department at Austin Community College and I enjoy heading over to the school when they throw special programs just to see what everyone is interested in. ACC does a great job of bringing in really interesting photographers from all over the place so students get a good mix and know how diverse the universe of commercial photography really is.

I've known about Will and Smartshooter for a couple of years and found his website to be a really good resource for new photographers and, I'll admit it, I've even learned a thing or two on my visits there. But I'd never heard him present in person.

Wow! This guy is an encyclopedia of great information and he presents with incredible energy. He started the presentation right at 6 and there wasn't a dull or unfilled moment for the next three hours. He showed students how to light using a large Octabank, then an Octabank and a fast and easy white out background, then a totally different set up with a beauty dish and finally a set up (with yours truly as the guinea pig....) using a ring flash. His information was concise, succint, well thought out and to the point. If you were there and didn't learn something you were asleep.

I was amazed at how many things Will and I see eye to eye on that are at odds with large parts of the professional photography population. To wit:

1. More megapixels are not a benefit. Will shoots with a Nikon D700 and sets it at medium resolution for portraits. Proof is in the pudding. Will sent jpeg image files directly to an Epson 7800, bypassing Photoshop entirely, and printed out pretty darn gorgeous 16 by 24 inch images. Sharp as you'd ever want a portrait to be. Medium res would mean shooting at around 6 megapixels. He showed several images that had been blown up into enormous posters that looked great from the 6 meg files....

2. Did I say Jpegs? Yes. Will and I are both of the opinion that if you are shooting in a controlled environment you should be able to get excellent, repeatable results with jpegs provided you do two things before you start shooting. First, you need to use an incident light meter, take a careful reading and set your f-stop within a 1/10th of a stop of accurate exposure. Second, you need to do a good custom white balance from a grey card or a white card. We both get that RAW works better under uncontrollable lighting situations so let's not get too wrapped up in that one.

3. Yes. Will and I both strongly suggest using external incident light meters. Neither of use shoot without them. Fact is that the LCD's on the back of the current cameras can't be profiled and the histograms aren't the most accurate way to set exposure. Argue all you want but Will was shooting tethered and his exposures were amazingly accurate.

4. We both know that we live in an sRGB world and it's pretty much insane to shoot bigger file formats if you can only see 50% of what you've got on your monitor. Most (nearly all) labs are set up to print from sRGB and if you ask them they'll tell you that when you give them RGB or Bruce or 1998 or anything else you read about on the web they take your file and convert is to sRGB before they do anything else. If you do need to use Adobe 1998 for CMYK work make sure you've got a monitor that handles the full gamut. If it's a not an Eizo or an Artizan it's probably not quite there.......Also, if you shoot for the web please be aware that it is 100% sRGB.

Getting it right in the camera saves a great amount of time diddling around in Photoshop and that's time you can use to exercise, catch up on your reading or meet friends for coffee with.

Even though I've used the same concepts for years it was great to watch someone who's absolutely mastered his tools. I loved the way he explained stuff and I loved to watch the obvious excitement and enthusiasm he still has for the job.

Check out www.shootsmarter.com as soon as you can.

The evening was sponsored by the Bogen people and is called the Bogen Cafe. They brought a truck load of Elinchrom strobes and modifiers, nearly the complete line of Gitzo tripods and tons of lighting and portrait accessories. They also donated $30,000 of gear to ACC this week. Ringmaster of the whole event was Gregg Burger from the nation's finest local camera store, Precision Camera and Video. www.precision-camera.com. Peel back the curtain at any great photo event in our town and nine out of ten times you'll find the guys from Precision Camera there doing the heavy lifting.

All in all it was a wonderful evening. If you get the chance to go hear Will speak you won't be sorry. You'll be amazed. And if you're like me your rush back to the studio and revisit your techniques. Amazing.

On another note, I'm teaching a lighting workshop on Sunday October 25th and there are still some open slots. Here's the info: Kirk's lighting workshop

Almost forgot to mention: It is weird being on the other side of the camera.

Images used with Will Crockett's permission. All rights reserved.