A fun, Texas-style assignment. And portable lighting.

This is Dr. Russell Cunningham.  He's a rancher, a Texan, and a competition horse rider.  Oh yes, and he is also an accomplished oral surgeon.  I would probably have never met him if not for an ongoing project I've been doing for the practice in which he is a partner.

To make this image my trusty assistant, Ben, and I threw some gear in the trusty Honda Element and drove out past the town of Dripping Springs to the ranch.  Ben dragged the cases and sandbags out of the truck while Dr. Cunningham and I discussed the set up.  We shot in the open shade and went back in and filled with the Profoto 600b battery powered electronic flash firing into a Photek 60 inch Softlighter 2.  It's basically a 60 inch umbrella with a black backing.  It also comes with a diffusion cover to soften the light that bounces off the reflective surface of the umbrella.  I used the umbrella in fairly close and set the control box at half power.  I set a basic exposure for the sky and sunlit background and the used a light meter to set the flash level on Dr. Cunningham and his horse.  We brought two thirty pound sandbags along because we knew if the wind kicked up we'd need them.  We needed them!

Ben hung onto the stand and the umbrella while I fired away with a Canon 5Dmk2 and the 24-105mm L lens.  This lens has some cool features.  It's got a great range for most editorial situations.  It's got a really good image stabilization system.  It feels solid.  But the thing that keeps me reaching for it is that it's so darned sharp.  Even at f4 the detail I get in the center of the frame is really wonderful.  If I didn't suffer so badly from GADD (Gear Attention Deficit Disorder)  I could easily run my whole business with this lens and the 70-200 f4L lens.  They're a nice match.

The ad ran in color but I like the feel of the black and white treatment so that's how I processed it for my portfolio.

Every month has been different.  This one really feels like Central Texas in the old days.


Remembering that photography isn't really about the gear but about the cool things you can do with the gear.

 I make silly pronouncements from time to time.  My family and friends know me well enough to not take everything I say as the "final word."  They know I'll change my mind or my point of view when I wake up and see things in a new way.  Last week I ran a post that declared the Canon 7D my "Camera of the Year."  I hope the rational response is:  "So what?"  When I did my "Christmas List" one commenter posted a response that spanked me back into the reality I wish I spent more time in.  To wit, he said he didn't really care about the gear he just wanted the time and money to go someplace interesting and to be able to shoot there.  And that's the response I'd love to hear more often.

Don't get me wrong.  Gear is a important but only as a means to an end.  But all the tools in the world are meaningless if we don't get appropriate opportunities to use them.  But one of the tools we should have in our boxes, and one that is often overlooked, is basic camaraderie.

In my culture (pampered American living in an upscale neighborhood of intact families) we pay lip service and involuntary servitude to the overarching myth that family overrides everything else.  That nothing can be more important than family.  And I'm sure that's true in its most basic meaning.  But we've re-interpreted that, as a culture, to be an imperative that all time must be spent with family.  If you have a spare second it should be spent engaged in quality pursuits with our children.  If we have an opportunity to travel it's assumed that your spouse will share in the experience (and not via long distance).  In truth we've eroded two fundamentally healthy ways to exist.  In the first place we've surrendered our ability to enjoyed spending time by ourselves.  We feel guilty when we're not including everyone even though we'd really rather have some time to ourselves to read, create or just be a separate human being.  According to everything I've read we rebel in our teen-aged years to be able to differentiate ourselves and become individuals........why do we spend our adult years joined at the hip?

In the second place we've lost the ability to create and maintain friendships with groups of like minded people.  The photograph above was done in Rome a few years back.  These men meet nearly everyday at a little table next to someone's apartment building.  They drink, they play cards, they tease each other, they talk politics and they revel in other male company.  This easy camaraderie is vanishing in our culture.  We've replaced the more intimate surroundings and easy exchange with friends with things like loud and chaotic happy hours and quick texts.  Several mental health care professionals have bought copies of the above to display in their offices.  They say that it reminds them to remind their clients to work on building healthy networks.  Not to further businesses but to further their happiness.

I look at this photo to remember the value of everything I talked about above.  I took this image back in 1995 while in Rome on a shooting trip with my good friend, Paul.  We left our wives in Austin, grabbed a couple hundred rolls of medium format film and proceeded to have a good, long shooting trip in Rome and Orvieto.  We shared information about the best routes to walk and the best sites to see and we ended most days over dinners with wine and stories about time spent ferreting out interesting stuff.

Our interests were aligned in a way that was much different than the uneasy truce that takes place when travelling with a non-photographer partners.  We didn't need shared shooting experiences but we did appreciate the easy mix of technical and logistical information sharing mixed with observations about everything from the classic beauty of Italian women to the virtues of the antipasto buffet at Al Grappolo D'oro.

I think photography is a like living life.  Too much tunnel vision is boring.  The same view every day is boring.  The same conversations, boring.  Only by stepping outside a uniform construct, even if it's just for a few days at a time, informs us and makes us happier.  Just a point of view now that we're getting close to the end of another year.  Space.  It's the final frontier.

I showed these two images to make the point that being in the right place and being awake to life is much more important than what sort of camera and lens I used.  Or how I used it.  While it's good to make sure your shutter and aperture are correctly engaged making sure you're happiness and interests are engaged is even more important.

Note:  I screwed up and cancelled my twitter account.  I've gotten a new one.  Please see the links for the new address if you want to follow my 140 character ramblings.  And let me know your twitter address if you want followers.


Anatomy of a public relations job.

I love public relations.  I love events.  They separate the real photographers from the poseurs.  They help you channel your photo Ninja skills.  A bit before everyone started to close down for the holidays I got a call from one of my clients at Dell, Inc.  Would I be available to shoot an event at a local Boys and Girls Club?  You bet.

Here's the background:  Dell, Inc has been a major, major contributor to the Austin Area Boys and Girls Clubs for over twelve years.  In addition to very generous financial support they've also be proactive in getting computers into the hands of "at risk" kids.  And they've provided the product and funding to set up computer resources within the Boys and Girls Clubs.

The event that I was contacted about was typically Dell.  Instead of just dropping by for five minutes of face time in front of the media the Dell Executive Leadership Team showed up, in force, to lead the kids thru several hours of one-on-one instruction about doing projects......and yes, even homework.....on computers.

My responsibility was pretty open ended.  I got an agenda and a "wish list" of possible shots but no one was looking over my shoulder to approve or un-approve of a shot or an angle.  The expectation was that I'd get good shots of each team member working with real kids on real projects.  To that end I took about five hundred shots and edited them down to about 300 for the public relations team to choose from.  My goal in these situations is to work like a journalist and not effect the scene any more than necessary.  No coaching or setting up poses.  Just straightforward reportage.

There are always several challenges.  People step in front of the camera from time to time.  The lighting all came from old, overhead florescent fixtures.  Nothing was choreographed with me in mind.  I had to anticipate where I should stand and when I should stand there in order to best document an unfolding scene.  I needed to stay out of the way of the Dell in house videographer so I wouldn't spoil his takes.  I needed to use flash sparingly, if at all, to keep the natural look of the scenes.  I had to be attentive to the dynamics between the children and the adults.  But above all I had to move the camera away from the front of my face and actually look, listen and pay attention.  Otherwise I'd miss the good moments and I'd tunnel vision into cliches.

I shot with two cameras.  I got the most use out of a Canon 5Dmk2 with the remarkably versatile 24-105mm f4 L zoom lens.  Even though the light was low and mixed with light through windows covered with different covered appliques the white balance in the raw conversions was quick and easy.  I shot most things at f4 or 5.6 making good use of the Image Stabilization.  At ISO 3200 the shooting shutter speed hovered between 1/125th and 1/250th of a second.  I applied a little bit of noise reduction in the final processing.  The second camera, the 7D with a 35mm f2 on it was there just as a back up.

One wag asked me later, when I was explaining the project to him, why I didn't use the 35mm 1.4 and the 85mm 1.1.2 L lenses instead.  The misconception among people who don't regularly do this kind of work is that we could always use a faster aperture.  But it's just not true.  When you are shooting scenes like the one above you need a certain amount of depth of focus in the photograph to keep all the main players reasonably sharp at the same time.  With a 1.4 lens wide open I would have been able to render Michael Dell pin sharp but the kids would have been rendered as nice, cotton candy, bokeh-blurs.  And the kids were the real story.  If I had been braver I would have chosen to shoot at f5.6 and ISO 6400 but our turnaround was quick and I haven't played with that ISO setting enough to have the confidence I would have liked.

It was a great job to do before Christmas.  Michael Dell and the Exec. team were all warm and gracious and giving to the kids.  No one was rushed.  No one reticent.  The kids loved the computers that were donated and I was jealous that they were getting the latest touch screens monitors in their computer labs.  The Austin Boys and Girls Clubs do such a great job keeping kids safe and well directed.  And the Dell people do such a great job working with the kids.

I headed home after the last executive got into his car with the last rays of a late December sunset in the background.  I checked in with Belinda and headed into the studio to do my initial processing.  I edited down the files in the input screen of Lightroom and imported the 300+ I selected.  I imported them to two different external hard disks at the same time while re-naming them with a job code.  I also meta tagged them and wrote captions for various groups.  I checked my names in the little Moleskine notebook I carry on jobs.  Once I had all the global corrections done I exported the files as 1500 pixel (on the long side) jpeg files.  While that was running I ducked into the house to see how Ben was doing on his homework and to have dinner with the family.

Then I came back to the studio to upload the images to a password protected web gallery, send the links to my corporate contacts and head back into the house to watch an episode of "Madmen" on DVD and relax.  Before I turned in I checked e-mail, grabbed the files the team ultimately selected and postprocessed them in PhotoShop.  No big changes.  Just a stringent color correction and a bit of cropping.  In the Info palette I wrote AP approved captions and sent out the images to the wire service.

Got an e-mail in the morning that everyone was happy and proceeded to write a note to myself in my little journal.  It reads, "One job done.  I'm happy.  They're happy and I hope we work together again soon.  Note to self:  Send thank you cards."

I really do appreciate the great clients out there.  I'm happy and thankful that hey do more than just business.


We've got hard light if you want it.

Want to know how I use LEDs as softlights?  Read the proceeding blog.  I cover my favorite technique there.  But I always wonder how things look with harder light so when I had Noellia in the studio today I gave it a quick test.  All three of the panels you can see in set up shot below are either 160 bulb LED panels (measuring about 6 by 9 inches) or  my favorite light, the 183 Bulb version (complete with its own big, lead acid battery pack.  That one is 90 degrees to the left of the camera position and lighting Noellia directly.  I'm using the small diffusion panel in the slot of the front of the fixture to soften the light a bit. The next light is the one that appears on the far left of this photograph.  It's bouncing into the diffusion panel on the opposite side of Noellia to add some needed fill light.  The final small panel is the one on the far right of the photograph which is providing a back/hair light for the image.  The background light is one of the 500 bulb A/C panels running at 1/2 power (two banks instead of all four).

I hated doing hard light with flash because light placement is so critical.  With the LEDs I can see the effect as we build it and I can see if I've turned my model in the wrong direction or not while I'm setting up, not while I'm chimping.  Might not make a difference to you but it makes all the difference in the world to me.  I want to set up one shoot often (SUOSO).  Not: Chimp, chimp, chimp, chimp, shoot....

What were the technical parameters?  Glad you asked.  We shot with a Canon 5D2,  the almost never mentioned but incredibly good for the money, 100mm f2.  Our ISO was 400 and the final exposure was a comfortable 1/80th of a second at f2.8.  Custom white balance before shooting.  No mixed light.  

Funny that we have three different models of LED lights and all of them have the same color balance....

Can you do hard light with LEDs?  Absolutely.

Playing around in the studio with the LEDs.

I met Noellia six years ago.  She answered a casting call and we (the ad agency and I) used her in an ad campaign for the Austin Chamber of Commerce.  She was eighteen at the time.  When I embarked on my first lighting book I needed a patient and attractive person to sit still for lots and lots of the example shots.  She is the model on the front cover of my Photograhic Lighting Equipment book as well.  Noellia is an accomplished theatrical actor and she's been in New York City for the last year.  (Maybe that's why I didn't get any photography books done in 2010.....).  But she came back for the holidays and I convinced her to come by the studio and help me with illustrations for my LED project.  We worked for six hours today and got lots of stuff done.  The photo above is something I selected pretty much at random from the horde of thumbnails skating across the Lightroom window at the end of the day.

I used a Canon 5Dmk2 with an 85mm 1.8 for most of the day but I thought I'd throw some 60D shots in the mix just to have a real world comparison.  The 60D was equipped with the 70-200mm f4 L (non-IS) lens.  I used the tripod collar on the zoom and threw the whole rig onto my wooden tripod.  I shot wide open at 1/50th of a second @ 800 ISO.  The actual focal length was 126mm which is pretty darn long for the APS-C format.  The image was lit with three sets of lights and a really big scrim.

First up is the main light:  Two 500 bulb LED fixtures and one 1,000 bulb LED fixture pushed light thru a six foot by six foot Photoflex light diffuser.  The diffuser is mostly forward of Noellia's position and over to the left.  My camera is actually looking thru the edge of the fabric and the light stand.  It's a big wash of light and one of my favorite ways to light people.

I have one 500 bulb LED fixture illuminating the background, which is a gray painted wall in the studio.  I've turned off one bank of lights so I guess I was only using 375 bulbs directly into the wall.......

Finally, there's a little 183 bulb panel over to the back right of the set that throwing some obviously ineffective backlight into the mix.  It's a pretty straightforward design.  I notice that it's a lot easier to color correct the 60D raw files than those from the 5Dmk2.  I'm not sure yet why that is but I'm working on coming up with an answer.  I like the skin tones quite a bit.

 To add to the mystery I did a custom white balance for the 5Dmk2 but when I capriciously reached for the 60D I just set the WB on auto and blazed away.   The gray targets I use are these Lastolite flexible reflectors.  I have them in two different sizes and have come to depend on them for critical shoots with the full frame camera.  I also use the custom white balance on the big Kodaks.  But I do have a work around for color casts........I just throw my hands up and convert to black and white.

When I got into the rhythm of shooting I found that the 85mm on the 5D2 matched my intention most of the time.  Once or twice I wished I'd used the 50mm but I rarely framed anything that I felt needed to be tighter.

I still think the LED panels are absolutely cool  (literally and figuratively).  Every time I write this a handful of people (who must think that I missed out on the whole flash revolution) write back to me to let me know how deluded I am and to let me know that flash is the modern light of choice.  Not so fast my highly linear friends.  I'm starting to find the sweet spots for these lights and I'm convinced that I'm on to something that will bear fruit.  It's fun to see what happens when I mix the little LED panels with daylight on locations.  Sometimes I feel like flash demands that users clearly see that lighting has been done.  My intention in photographing is to show the subject in a way that I visualize it.  I'm aiming, on location, to make found reality match my concept of processed reality in a way that showcases or elevates the subject without showing the "magic trick" to the audience.

My early mistakes all sprung from one mistaken assumption.  The idea that all lighting was interchangeable and "cross platform" when it reality you, as the artist, are obligated to play to each source's strengths and weaknesses.  I want to get to the point where the deficiencies in my work come from my inability to concept and perform the dance well, not to be limited by my slavish dedication to doing something in the old way that belonged to another light source.  I think I'm getting there.

But mostly I wrote this to share the unalloyed and unspoiled joy of spending a day shooting a pretty girl in a series of experiments for a project that both captivates and motivates me.  Happy to have a busy mind today and someone to help me bring ideas to fruition.  More to come......


The last Sunday Blog/Rant of 2010.

I gave this camera and lens to my wife about 20 years ago.  It's an Olympus Pen FT with a 40mm f1.4 standard lens.  The kit came with a 50 to 90mm zoom lens as well.  She loved the camera and took it along on trips many times.  But eventually she abandoned it for a little zooming, point and shoot camera.  She got tired to trying to explain the whole "half frame" deal to labs.  Sometimes they'd get it right, other times they'd just print two frames up on a 4x6 and in worst case situations they'd cut the film in odd places.  Her little Olympus 35mm full frame camera, with zoom and built in flash, fixed all that and this little beauty got filed away in a box in her office.  Long story short.......she re-gifted me and I was thrilled about it.

The granddaddy and inspiration for the Olympus Pen digital cameras. With one of the grooviest lenses,  the 140mm 1.4.

While the zoom lenses from the mid-1960's to the early 1970's were no great shakes these little standard lenses really rocked and the esoteric ones are getting harder and harder to find.  So what?  Who's going to shoot half frame film anymore? Well, the film shooting is another story but the reason some photographers care is that they love putting these fast little optics on the front of the new generation of Olympus Pen's (with adapters) and Panasonic G cameras and getting to shoot with fast, fast primes and all that entails.

I glomped the 40mm onto the front of my Olympus EPL-1 12 megapixel super mini camera and shot these test frames:

Did I shoot raw?  Of course not.  It's an Olympus camera so I don't need to.  Are the three frames I'm showing you a fair test?  Gosh no.  They're shot in direct sun.  Sun that's coming at a nice hot angle from the south.  And the lens is stopped down to f5.6 or f8.  How could they not look sharp?  But for a lens that's older than most of the people who frequent Flickr, cobbled to a camera it was never intended to be mated with, it's got a lot of promise.  Tomorrow I'll do a worthwhile test and shoot it in the studio with some of those LED panels I keep talking about.  I'll shoot it at f1.4 and 2, 2.8 and 4 and we'll see just what this baby can do.

It was Sunday here and I'd been entertaining, being entertained or finishing up projects all week long.  I spent vast hunks of quality time with my loving family but I'm cognizant that they can only take so much of my bubbling enthusiasm in one long sitting so I decided to get out of the house and take a good, long walk.  I started at Whole Foods because I love looking at all the fresh produce and making silent resolutions about just how much healthier I'm going to be in the next year.  It's also a convenient and accessible bathroom stop if you're heading out to walk thru a downtown that's otherwise pretty closed down for the holiday.

I meant to spend the day shooting with the 40mm lens and leaving it at that but I brought along the Olympus Pen 20mm f3.5 just for balance.  The 40 is fun but if you're going to shoot one nearly wide open on a Pen digital camera, and you want the results to be sharp you'll want to make use of the magnifying feature and really pop the image up to at least 7x to fine focus.  But that gets old quick when you're walking down Congress Ave.  I pulled the 20mm out of my pocket and started shooting with that instead.
Olympus EPL with an ancient 20mm Zuiko lens.  Beyond retro.

Two thoughts popped into my head:  The first came as I stuck the 40mm, with metal hood, into the front pocket of my jeans.  "Wow.  I have the equivalent of an 85mm 1.4 in my pants pocket." Amazing.  The second thought was this:  "What is wide angle, really?  Is there a demarcation line between standard and wide that's measured in mm's?  Or is wide totally contextual?  To the guy who shoots birds in flight with a 400 or 500mm lens I would guess that 100 or 200mm's seems wide.  To an architectural photographer who shoots interiors all day long with a 17mm or 24mm shift lens on a full frame body I would guess that only 15 and shorter really means wide angle. I tend to shoot in the portrait range a lot and lean on my 85mm and 100mm lenses for so much of my work that the 20mm on the Olympus Pen EPL felt wide.  And since just about everything in the omniverse is in focus at f8 (with the lens set to the proper hyperfocal distance) I could set the lens once and be assured that everything was going to be pretty sharp.

So I wandered around and shot a bunch of pseudo wide angle shots like these:

I can already hear some of you laughing as you might remember that I have the very well reviewed Panasonic 20mm 1.7 lens as well.  Wide angle?  Do I know that it's the equivalent of a 40mm lens on full frame 35mm?  Well.....yes,  I do know that but I chose to forget it until I got home.  I like the 20 Panasonic lens just fine but it doesn't have focusing scale and I can't get used to focusing that one by wire.  It's so nice to have a series of lenses with manual focusing rings marked with depth of field hash marks.  We used this technique all the time in the days of film Leicas.  It works so well.  Leaves the brain free to concentrate on composition.

 In some ways the depth of field determines what my brain likes to think of as wide angle.  I rarely want more in the frame.....it's just that sometimes I want more of my frame in focus. And that's what these twenties do for m4:3rd's cameras.  Eventually I found my car and headed out of downtown.  When I finally stopped shooting I realized that I was hungry so I went by P.Terry's Hamburgers on S. Lamar and went with a Veggie Burger Combo. Can you believe that they fry their french fries in canola oil?  That they have whole wheat buns?  That jalapenos are only twenty five cents extra?  That their Dublin Dr. Pepper is made with cane sugar instead of high fructose sugar?  It was just right.  So much so that I stopped eating to take a quick snap.  Was I eating outside today?  Of course.  It's Austin, Texas.  We schedule our cold weather for night time.  That way we can sit out in the sun and the mld, 50 degree days to better enjoy lunch.....
One the way from P.Terry's to home I went by one of our very original "trailer food" establishments, Flip Happy Crepes, just to take a late afternoon shot of their trailer.  

Now I'm back home and getting ready to hit the ground running.  One of my favorite models is coming over to help me develop more content for my ground breaking LED project.  We're going to see how thinks look when the panels get ultra close to the subject.  I'm planning on giving the 40mm a bit of a work out.  I'll let you know how it all looks.

My analysis of the 40mm Zuiko?  From f2.8 on to f8 it challenges any of the offerings from Panasonic or Olympus in the m4:3rd's space.  I like the focal length and it's sharp enough to take advantage of the EPL's incredible 12 megapixel sensor.  Finding a clean 40mm 1.4 is tough.  I've seen them go for as high as $325 when you can find them.  My take on the 20mm 3.5?  It's a fun lens to have when you really get tired of AF all the time.  It's not as critically sharp as the 40mm.  On my current "watch list" for old Olympus lenses are:  The 25mm f2.8 and the 25mm f4,  the 42mm 1.1.2 and the 100mm 3.5.  I have the 60mm 1.5 and the 70mm f2.0 and both are exquisite.  I wish I were consistently brave enough to use them on jobs.  Maybe when the economy recovers a bit more I'll feel comfortable taking a few more challenges.......But know this:  m4:3rds really does work well.

To follow up on my discussion from the previous blog,  many people have written in to declare the Leica M9 the 2010 camera of the year and I'd be inclined to agree (where image quality in the only determiner) but I do need a camera that I can put a macro lens on.  Oh, and a lens longer than 75mm  (don't even start about the 90mm's and the 135.......that rangefinder doesn't have the chops to focus them well wide open and you know it.  I'm a big Leica lover and have been since the 1980's but I think of the M's as 24mm-75mm cameras only.....).  If you're going all out with your pick you might as well do as I declined to do and choose the S2.  It really is fabulous.  But my intention was to call out a class of cameras that is both very high performance and at the same time accessible.  I like the 7D because I'm shooting Canon right now.  I'd be equally happy, I presume, with a D7000 from Nikon or the Pentax K5.  It's really the class of these cameras that appeal to me.  Potent, great image quality and affordable.  That's what makes all three of them wonderful.

All the best, Kirk


Just for the heck of it I thought I'd nominate one of my favorite Canon Bodies as CAMERA OF THE YEAR 2010.

Nobody should really care what one person in Austin, Texas says about a camera but that didn't stop me.  I looked thru all the cameras I shot with this year and all the cameras I played with and decided to name one "My Camera of The Year."  How did this conglomeration of plastic, metal and silicon get the nod?  Well, I guess it was the best combination of usable, likable, high image quality, great shutter sound and visceral/implied build quality.  It had to be a camera I could use for my jobs and never have to apologize for but it also had to be a camera I could sling over my shoulder and head out for a walk with......and not regret it.  It had to have an advanced autofocus system, play well with Zeiss ZE lenses and shoot quick.  It had to have a decipherable menu and all the controls in the right place.   And it had to be "not too precious."  It's easy to nominate something like the Leica S2 because no matter how expensive it is and how slow it is the files are so good even the least capable photographer could pull good stuff from it.  But I'm no trustfunder photographer,  I actually have to pay for everything I shoot with and there's no way I could justify dropping thirty or forty large after two devastating and one slow year in a row for our industry.

I also could have gone the easy route and nominated the perky, fun and really, really good-for-the-money, Olympus EPL-1, but I get tired of telling people that they have to buy an auxillary finder and it's really best if they start buying up old Pen lenses and all that.  Really a close call though.  For less than $500 with a decent zoom lens at Amazon I think it's one of the best values in photography.  But it's not as good as my finalist.  Not as good at 1600 ISO or at 200 ISO.  But damn good all the same.

So what camera does the trick for me in 2010?  Forgive me Nikonians but it's the Canon 7D.  Where do I start?  First of all it's built like a granite rock.  But an ergonomically designed river rock.  It fits into my hand perfectly and when I hold it it lies to me and tells me that it will work flawlessly forever.  And it's so convincing that I believe it.

As you know, I'm a careful photographer and I find that when I put the camera on a tripod and use it at less than ISO 1600 and process the files just so it is a remarkably good imaging camera.  The focus has never failed me and works at the speed of light.  I could go on and on but when I started shooting digital in the 1990's we couldn't dream of a camera this good and if we could it would have cost $30,000.   We would have sworn that this would have been the ultimate collection of specifications.  Really.

But it does exist.  It handles better than my 5D2.  And the files are wonderful.  That's all I can say.  Two of these and a couple of zooms and you're ready for your dual career as both a still photographer and a movie maker.

One last thing.  I love the 15-85mm zoom lens.  It's a perfect complement to the 7D.  Do I wish it was a 2.8?  Hell,  I wish it was a 1.4 but it's not and there aren't any and if there were they'd be soft wide open. I've used this lens for half a year and love it.

You can buy more camera but you're going to start banging your head against a nasty piece of reality called, "diminishing returns."  I have lots of other toys but when it's raining or it's 105 degrees or the action is fast or the lighting is weird.......this is the camera I pull out of the bag and get busy with.

Do  you disagree?  If so, what's your solid favorite and what's your rationale?

Oh, and, what did you get in your stocking?

Hope everyone has an incredibly fun Christmas.


I still think black and white rocks. And I finally am starting to figure out how to do it in digital

This image started life in the LED lit studio.  I used a big bank of LEDs over to Selena's right side.  Their photons were flowing thru a six foot by six foot diffusion scrim.  I did a custom white balance and the camera set something that looked in PhotoShop like 5400 at +14 magenta (on the hue slider).  We were shooting with the Canon 7D and the fabulous, cheap 70-200 f4 L lens.  To get here I did the best job I could of overall color correction and then went into Adjustments and selected black and white.  I played with the color sliders until I got what I wanted and then I took the image into curves to get a nicer mid range contrast adjustment.  I also pulled down the shadows just a bit.  Then I went to the noise filter and added film grain.  That's about it.

Here's how the file started out:

And here's how it looked after I adjusted it in a way that I thought would print better and make a better black and white conversion:

It's not a gigantic change but the skin texture is subdued a bit.  I used the time honored technique of making a duplicate layer, adding gaussian blur with a radius of 34 pixels and then holding down the option key while clicking the quick mask button on the layers panel.  Then I select a brush with an opacity of about 20% and brush in the softness where I want it.  Works pretty well but sometimes I go a little overboard.  That's okay, I can always back off the effect by changing the layer opacity before I flatten the file.

Some of my neophyte friends wanted to know why I don't just hit "grayscale" when I want a black and white files so I decided to show what that would look like as well:

Seems a bit murky to me.  Amazing how much different it looks to me than the first image.  Of course all of this is for naught unless you like the look for the portrait in the first place.   I was sitting here processing the files for Selena's portfolio and I came to understand that the thing I like in her portraits is the way her eyes look.  The phrase "old soul" comes to mind.  So different to me than some of the glamor type shots I see that seem to be a celebration of estrogen over intellect......

Hope you've just about finished that Christmas shopping.......it's sneaking up on us quick.


What is portrait photography all about anyway?

I think it's about preserving what we love now to enjoy in future time.  This is one of the images that resonates that concept for me on several levels.  This is a portrait of a fireman/father and his young daughter.  He's in great physical shape.  She's adorable.  Both will change over time.  But this moment, captured in the amber of digital will not change.  It locks in what it was to be then.  How it was to look like that in the moment.  (taken with a Kodak DCS 760 camera and a Nikon 85mm lens. ISO 80).  Even the attribute of it's digital heritage is locked into an historical context.
This young boy must be twenty by now.  But this image locks him into the middle of the 1990's in a profound way.  Taken for a United Way campaign and later given to his parents as a gift it's a print the captures the transient joy of childhood in a genuine way, unadulterated by the cares of the time.  He is real and this reality of him will remain forever in the continuum of time past.
This image of Rene Zellweger is a testimony to what she looked like as a young woman.  Now you can see how she has aged just by going to a movie theater.  But this image is proof that she looked this way at one time in her life and it was this look that was critical to launching everything for her that came after that day.  And this image is a permanent marker of a time past.
 And this is how a young Russian girl presented herself to the world on the Spanish Steps in Rome in 1995.  And now it's part of the visual history of my career and a monument to my pleasure at shooting in the street.  But what do all these portraits really mean?  In my mind it's all about capturing the beauty and truth or beauty or truth that you come across as you float through life and add to your stack of aesthetic knowledge.  Just as it's often said that "we stand on the shoulders of giants" to pay homage to the people who broke ground before us, each image we take forms a continously shifting and growing foundation both for our relationships with people and our growth as visual artists.

It's a reminder that we are the curious ones who want to show the world, "Look how beautiful or strange or magical this image is.  It was a time.  It happened and it affected the forward passage of time and reality. Even if just by an infinitesimal fraction of time and space.  It's proof of a reality.  Mine.  Yours.  Ours.  Tis the season......


Just another balmy day in paradise.

 There's one fun thing about being freelance (well, there's probably more than one fun thing.....) and that is the reality that you can "call" the holiday vacation whenever you darn well feel like it.  Our last job got delivered on Sunday along with an invoice.  At that point I started telling people that we were done for the year.  And what a great day for it.  It's the winter solstice and it was also 80 degrees (f) here in Austin today with a blue sky full of sun and long, lingering shadows and caramel colored sunsets.  What a perfect time to ditch work, grab a camera and go for a walk.

I haven't played with the Canon 5D2 enough so I pulled it out of drawer and stuck the 85mm 1.8 on the front.  I walked around from 3:00 pm til 5:00 pm and I only shot stuff that I liked.  Which brought me back to a basic truth about my kind of photography.....it's little more than an excuse to stare at stuff with an intensity that's otherwise frowned upon.

Rational intention ruins art.  Or something like that. I've found that you really can't go out with an agenda and come back with anything close to what you had in mind when you set out to shoot.  Or as Woody Allen once said, (paraphrasing from a monologue in Manhattan) "Nothing worth knowing can be understood by the mind."  You really just have to be there.  The image above is the front door of the Red Fez, a bar in downtown Austin.

So I walked the route I usually walk and I looked at a lot of stuff I didn't photograph.  I wish more people spent time outside in Austin.  We're great for concerts in the park but not so great for the passagio.  Lots of cars but not a lot of foot traffic.  I spent time looking at windows. And doors.

And sometimes I found seed pods on magnificent trees against French blue skies, just begging to be photographed.  And aluminum windows with cool and warm tones, framed by black.  And I was happy just to be outside and moving.  And the camera in my hand felt like a tether.  Keeping me connected with everything I was seeing.

Belinda asked me to be home on time.  We were having a Mexican chicken soup with squash.  White cheese and tortilla chips on the top.  Garnished with fresh avocado.  Quesadillas on toasted whole wheat tortillas and a bottle of Cupcake Red Velvet wine.  I paused as I walked back toward my car, over the pedestrian bridge.  I was loving the contrary rhythms of the city.  The worker bees commuting home, air conditioners separating them from the warmth and vibrant glow of the outside, while the free spirits docked their kayaks under the bridge to frolic in the cool water of Lady Bird Lake.  And I was somewhere in the middle.  Vaguely trapped by the idea that I should be doing something "productive" but all the while knowing that I was already on vacation in my mind......

Life is short.  And can be sweet.  And all I really want for Christmas is the time and energy to enjoy it fully.  I wish the same for you.

Tech:  Canon 5D2.  85mm 1.8.  That's about it.

Book buying guide. "Which one should I get?...."

It's the holiday shopping season and everyone's running around looking for last minute gifts and stocking stuffers.  A fair number of people have e-mailed me with a remarkably similar question.  "If I could buy only one of your books which one should it be?"  Hmmmm.  Like asking someone which one of their children should be left behind....  But what I think they are really asking is,  "Can you give me a little synopsis about each book so I can decide?  Personally?  I think it's sad to break up a family.  I'd get all four.  And that's the most self serving answer I could drum up.....

First up.  The first book.  There are now two books that have the words, "Minimalist Lighting" in the title but the subhead tells the difference.  One is about location lighting and the other is about studio lighting.  They are not versions of the same book.  The book above is the location lighting book.  The emphasis is on using small, battery powered "smart flashes" like the Nikon SB-800 and the Canon 580EX2.  But using them as a professional would have used studio lights in the "old days."  The back of the book has descriptions of five or six different actual jobs with diagrams and shooting info.  The book is intended to take someone from a shy and unsure user of "flash on camera" and give them the brain tools to take the flash off the camera, stick it on a stand, attach a radio trigger, add a couple more flashes and get everything to work the way it's supposed to.  All the samples are on location.  Many (most) of the examples are from actual paying assignments.  This is a great starting point for people who want good lighting on location.  And a good primer for using Nikon's CLS, all different kinds of slaves and diffusers.

The Second book is also called "Minimalist Lighting" but the subhead explains that it's aimed at studio lighting.  This book is mostly about lighting in the studio and I do several exercises like taking an orange and a cheap work light and show the way direction and diffusion affect the way images look.  We take one of my favorite models, Heidi, and show permutations of portrait lighting using everything from giant umbrellas, small reflectors and even bounced sunlight.  I cover florescent, flash, daylight and tungsten light and by the time you're done you have a good idea of how to outfit a home studio or a small working studio and how to do basic studio photography.  I like this book.  I wish there had been one out when I started oh those many years ago.  Instead I reinvented many wheels.....

I stuck these pipes in just for fun.  It was a classic annual report shot from 2002.  Somewhere between Gulfport and Biloxi.  

I rarely think of myself as an architectural photographer but one of my first professional assignments was a ten day, large format gig for a historical architecture magazine shooting plantations across Louisiana. The magazine liked the work so much we spent the next ten years driving around Texas, Lousiana, Mississippi and New Mexico shooting architecture with a 4x5 view camera and a box full of Schneider lenses.  This pool was for a feature on water features for a little lifestyle magazine called, Tribeza.
Back to the books in a moment........

You've probably divined by now that I'm a bit of a heretic when it comes to photographic lighting.  David Hobby may have popularized the small strobe craze but, believe me, a bunch of us corporate shooters were all over that in the 1990's when corporations were flying us all over the world and depending on us to hit the ground running in places where the A/C only worked for five hours a day or not at all.  We got used to improvising. That's young Ben holding a homemade florescent bank 
for book #2.

If you are trying to do photography as a business or you have a friend or relative who is this is the book they need.  It explains all the voodoo pricing and why it happened the way it did.  It explains model releases, contracts, marketing and specializing.  It's well illustrated and reads fluently.  Pick up John Harrington's book on business practices to round out your selection of good, solid photo business books. I'd buy either of our (mine or John's ) if I didn't own them.  Mine is a reminder to do the right thing for your business.  John's is how to do the nuts and bolts that go along with doing the right thing.

Okay.  You have no interest in becoming an underpaid, overworked professional photographer.  You already read all you needed to know about flashes and any more would be overwhelming.  You know enough to run a studio but you've got other stuff you'd rather do.  Skip the first three books and get this one.  It's a fun romp thru what kind of lights are out there on the market, what accessories help you get the looks you want and why you want a certain kind of light for a certain situation.  If you like knowing about gear this the book that will work.

Now I don't expect anyone to take my suggestions without a grain of salt because, let's face it, I'd love to sell more of my books.  I'll get a bigger royalty check.  But if you are on the fence and you'd like to make both of us happy over the holidays you might take time to read the reviews.  Here's the link to my author's page on Amazon

If you do decide to order one it would be cool for me if you'd click thru to Amazon from one of the links below.  I'll make a few dimes and you won't pay a cent more.  In fact,  if you click thru from here to Amazon for anything from diapers to giant TV's I'll get a small percentage and it will have no impact on the final price that you pay them.  Just want to be transparent.

Here are the links.....


Thanks for shopping.