4.30.2016

Stabilized video camera rig at Eeyore's Birthday Party, in Pease Park. Getting technical and meeting woman at 24 fps...


Eeyore's Birthday Party has been around for a good, long while and though the drumming and face painting continues a lot of things have changed. In years long past one saw lots of Nikon and Canon cameras over peoples' shoulders, now they've been replaced mostly by phones and new school videography. As the drummers get older they have started erecting tents to ward off the sun; unfortunately, they crowd together under the tents and this takes away any inner circle area for free spirited dancing. This year there were two drum tents and no dancers. First time ever.

There were still Austin hippies of various ages, smoking dope on the hills. There was still a Maypole with children spinning around underneath. Lots and lots of tie-dye,  but the ever growing sea of vendor stalls (which sell food, beer and lemonade to raise funds for local charities) is spreading like tacky suburbs around a once hip city core, and trampling the inherent coolness of the festival.

All at once it felt like just an open field with a whole lot of disassociated people all trying to act as those they were doing something really, really fun, alone together. But mostly the crowd just spent time milling around with a beer in one hand and a phone in the other.

I guess it's the way of all city expansions. Something lost and, maybe, something gained...

Little more to photograph here. All done.


Film Cameras in the wild. Extra points for dragging around a 6x7cm medium format camera AND a spot meter!!!

Photographer at the Graffiti Wall. Austin, Texas

I was walking back to my car from Eeyore's Birthday Party today and I made a slight detour just to see what might be happening at the Hope Outdoor Gallery (aka: the Graffiti Wall). Attendance was sparse but there was one person who caught my eye. She was grappling with a medium format Mamiya camera and had a spot meter tucked under her left arm. I remember those cameras well. I don't know anything about the photographer but I'll say this, she must have an above average level of determination to continue working on location with all six pounds of camera, and ten shots on a roll...


Fun with belts. A video that our talent thought up during our still shoot for Klikbelts. Go to Vimeo to see the video in 1080p. It's just 800 pixels wide here....


klikbelts 2K Final from Kirk Tuck on Vimeo.
This video is about klikbelts 2K


Here's the client's site: https://www.klikbelts.com

4.29.2016

Fun with cameras. Shooting belts all day yesterday for Klikbelt. Stills with a Sony a6300, video with an RX10.


Yesterday I had fun shoot with a company called, Klikbelt. They make belts that incorporate an Austrian made, quick release buckle originally designed for military use. The belt is selling well as a fashion item and also in hot demand from people who need, well, quick release belts. Our assignment was to show off the range of belt and buckle colors. You can combine silver, brown, and black belts with silver and black buckles. We spent the first part of the day in the studio. 

I set up my usual studio lighting for situations in which I'll be shooting both stills images and video. I'm using a 6x6 foot diffusion scrim over on the left side of the frame and filling with a 24 by 36 inch softbox on the opposite side. The big diffusion scrim is powered by three of the CooLED 100 watt units while the softbox is lit up with another 100 watt unit. Our basic exposure for the subject position (single person, standing) was ISO 400, 1/50th of a second, f4.0. The light was even, soft and still directional. 

The very first shooting task was to shoot "how to video" about how to actually put the belt together. You need to loop the belt through your belt loops before attaching the unattached part of the buckle. It's hare to explain but very easy to understand if you are watching a step by step run through. Since the lighting was set for video as well as stills we were able to interchange cameras on the fluid head on top a big Benro tripod and immediately start shooting. I used a Sony RX10 for video because the new XAVC codec looks really good in 1080p and we would not need anything larger since the videos will be used exclusively on the client's website. 

Twenty minutes later we switched cameras to a Sony a6300 with an 18-105mm f4.0 G lens and got busy shooting all the endless variations of belts and buckles on both our male model and our female model. We alternated models for efficient wardrobe changes and were able to get a huge number of shots down by lunch time. I think the secret to working fast in the studio is good preproduction and that's something the guys at Klikbelt really delivered on. They has their shot list narrowed down, the wardrobe sized, prepped and ready and they hired two great models who've done this kind of work professionally. I made good, solid meter readings and put marks on the floor of the studio to designate exact exposures for people standing in those spots. I also set a custom white balance, reading the light color at the subject position, before we got started. 


In my daily business I try to make sure that the studio is completely set and lit the night before we start a shoot. There's no sense wasting a client's time and the time of their talent while I set up diffusion panels, tweak lights and generally arrange stuff. I also make sure we have plenty of snacks, bottled water and a Keurig coffee machine with good K-cups. Nothing fancy but enough fuel to keep everyone rolling through. I spent Monday and Tues. working on a product shoot, and all day Weds. knocking out the post production for that shoot so the set up for the belt shoot got done Wednesday night, after dinner. 

The client checked images on the monitor as we went along so, no surprises for anyone at any point in the studio shoot. Once we'd gotten all the studio work done everyone packed up the wardrobe, I tossed the necessary gear I'd need for the afternoon into my car, and we all headed out for lunch. 

After lunch we headed over to the Austin Rowing Dock for some paddle boarding and then hit some locations in Zilker Park. We finished up the day with a spur of the moment video that was creatively sourced from our talents. Shot handheld with the Sony RX10 and a Zomei VND filter. It's hilarious and fun, and all about the belts. I'll try to get a working copy up in the next few days. 

The folks at Klikbelt are really into the advantages of extensive social media so, for a change, I was allowed to post whatever I wanted from our shoot; immediately. None of the images here have been retouched or highly corrected. That will come after the client and I have narrowed down the large number of files to a small bucket of just the good ones. I did take a few minutes during the day to shoot some behind the scenes shots of a simple set up we used on the dock of the rowing facility. (See below). 

Our model, Chase, kinda fishing. The half tucked shirt is absolutely intentional and if it doesn't appeal to us we may not be in the audience the client was targeting with this series...

A scrim can be a handful when the wind kicks up but having a four foot by six foot, white diffusion scrim is a wonderful thing when you find yourself shooting in full sun. (Same set up for the image just below).

Our model, Stephanie, fishing on the dock. Lady Bird Lake in the background. 

A Summer passtime in Austin is just hanging out down at the lake. There was quite a stir just down the bank from us as a large group of people hustled to get out of the water, quickly. Seems a six or seven foot long (dubious/dangerous looking) snake glided in from one side of the water and wiggled across to the other shore... 

It was a good, fun day of shooting stills and video. A change from the earlier part of the week when I was working alone, shooting black box technology. 

A quick few thoughts about tools: The LED lights are wonderful to work with in the studio. I love being able to put a softbox on a fixture or, fashion a snoot for some hard light using some black wrap foil. There is a speed and fluidity that comes with working in a purely WYSIWYG mode. It makes moving lights around, looking for the right reflection on a black face panel, so much easier. 

In our "fashion" shoot, the LED lighting helped me switch back and forth between video and stills almost instantly. If we saw some action we liked during a still series we could stop and reprise it in video with a quick change of our cameras. It required no complex thinking, only a bit of direction. Even the shooting (video) camera was preset for exposure and white balance. Shooting quick inserts was a matter of putting the camera on a tripod with a quick mount and then pushing the red button and yelling, "action." (But, in real life, I don't really yell "action"...). 

The RX10 worked well as a quick video camera indoors and, with addition of a variable neutral density filter, outdoors; even in direct sun. Right now, for fun, loose, unconventional video the two RX10s (the "classic" and the type 2) are my favorite cameras. I am consistently amazed at how great the images are out of those cameras for video (and for stills). 

The Manfrotto, hybrid Still/Video fluid head (which I've written about before) has gone from "ho-hum" to my favorite tripod head lately. It functions quite well as a fluid head video tripod but the big ball head has a switch on the base that allows you to free it from its horizontal constraints and work as a well mannered and well damped, conventional ball head. I've long since put the panning arm in a drawer. It gets in the way for still shooting and, I find that I mostly just grab the head and pan it with both hands when shooting with these smaller "video" cameras. Love that I can take just one unit and have it do dual duty, with precision and grace. 

The a6300 was my camera of choice. I've tested it a lot recently and (blasphemy!!!) find the super fine Jpegs to be really, really good. Especially if you take the time to manually set exposure and color balance. I didn't need the enormous raw files of the A7R2 and I was also anxious to lean on the smaller camera for very fast focus, fast frame rates and very good face detection AF. Over the course of the day yesterday I shot nearly 2,000 images using just two batteries. I have the "review" set to off, which saves battery power. And who needs review when you are able to "pre-chimp" every shot you make? The 18-105mm f4.0 G stayed glued on the front of the camera because it's a nice range of focal lengths, has really good image stabilization and the optical performance is totally satisfactory for all but the most demanding applications. It's a balancing act between that last 3-5% of performance versus smooth and efficient usability. 

Why didn't I use the a6300 for both stills and video? Simple answer is that I like to keep the cameras preset for their dominant tasks. Shooting outside with the a6300 I wanted to leave the camera set at a high shutter speed and I wanted to use DRO to open up the shadows a bit. I didn't want to use that combination for video and I didn't want to make mistakes by having to dive into the menu to make changes while we had talent in front of the camera. Having two cameras, each preset to their dedicated tasks, is easier for me, mentally; and results in fewer user errors on a shoot. 

The nice thing about using the RX10 is that it makes a great back up camera in a pinch. 

The final device that I want to talk about is the simple diffusion disk. It's so wonderful to be able to stick a piece of material between the sun and my subject and watch the light open up and get pretty. It's the cheapest lighting tool I know of and I seem to use these collapsible disk reflectors on every shoot, for pretty much everything. From blocking the light from ugly sodium vapor fixtures, to taming sunlight, to providing UV protection for the photographer. I'm partial to the "five in one" variety of collapsible diffuser/reflectors that allow you to have translucent, black, white and silver surfaces just by changing around (or removing ) the covers. I have one here in the studio from Chimera that just celebrated it's 30th birthday. I have another specialty version from Westcott that is a one half stop silk on a collapsible ring. I use it often and keep looking for more at lower strengths than the typical, low cost versions (they use thicker diffusion materials = not as sexy but...lasts longer and is probably cheaper to source and use in manufacturing). 

We are heading down the rabbit hole with our video shoot for a utility company so we'll see how an assortment of late nights chasing storms effects blog productivity. I already know that it's not conducive to a good swim schedule...... sigh.

4.27.2016

My last re-post of older columns this week. Something controversial from 2013. Looking back three years to see how accurate my assessment of the market was....

10.28.2013

The graying of traditional photography and why everything is getting re-invented in a form we don't understand.

Gloria. Cropped image from Samsung Galaxy NX camera. 60mm macro lens.

On the last day of the PhotoPlus Expo I finally got why the camera industry has hit the wall and may never come back again in the same way. The folks who love cameras for the sake of cameras, and all the nostalgic feelings they evoke of Life Magazine, National Geographic, 1980's fashion, and 1990's celebrity portraiture, and other iconic showcases that made us sit up and really look at photography, are graying, getting old, and steadily shrinking in numbers.

I can profile the average camera buyer in the U.S. right now without looking at the numbers. The people driving the market are predominately over 50 years old and at least 90% of them are men. We're the ones who are driving the romantic re-entanglement with faux rangefinder styles. We're the ones at whom the retro design of the OMD series camera are aimed. We're the ones who remember when battleship Nikons and Canons were actually needed to get great shots and we're the ones who believe in the primacy of the still image as a wonderful means of communication and even art. But we're a small part of the consumer economy now and we're walking one path while the generations that are coming behind us are walking another path. And it's one we're willfully trying not to understand because we never want to admit that what we thought of as the "golden age of photography" is coming to an end as surely as the kingdom of Middle Earth fades away in the last book of the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

This is not to say that photography is dying. Or that the generations coming behind us are doomed to failure and despair; far from it. They are living the golden age of photography from their perspective, and their heroes in the field are names we don't even know. This is a generation that values a personal vision that arrives as quickly as a phone call and has a much shorter half life than the one we experienced for our work, but then again, what doesn't move faster these days?

As I photographed in the booth for Samsung I looked out at the waves of people who were exploring the various products on the showroom floor and I became aware that most of them were well over 50 years old and the elders were carrying their big Nikons and Canons as badges of honor and with a smug attitude that their equipment choice was the one that would persevere through the ages.

But the very thing that makes a ruling party or a ruling generation is the same thing that will kill its paradigm. Our version of the market is almost a completely closed loop. At this Expo we worshipped at the altar of the same basic roster of speakers and presenters who've been speaking and presenting for the last ten years. We've closed the loop and the choice offered to younger photographers is to sit and listen to people old enough to be their grandmothers or grandfathers wax on about how we used to do it in the old days or to not come at all.

When I listen to lectures about how the market has changed what I hear from my generation is how to take the tools we programmed ourselves to love and try to apply them to our ideas of what might be popular with end users today. So we buy D4's and 1DSmkIV's to shoot video on giant Red Rock Micro rigs and we rush to buy Zeiss cinema lenses because we want the control and the idea of ultimate quality in our offerings while the stuff that the current generation is thinking about is more concerned with intimacy, immediacy and verisimilitude rather than "production value." To the new generations the idea of veracity and authenticity always trumps metrics of low noise or high resolution. And that need for perfection is our disconnection from the creative process, not theirs.

Our generation's fight with digital, early on, was to tame the high noise, the weird colors, the slow buffers and the old technology which saddled us with wildly inaccurate and tiny viewfinders and batteries that barely lasted through a sneeze. We pride ourselves on the mastery but the market moved on and now those parameters are taken for granted. Like turning on a television and assuming it will work. We are still staring at the technical landscape which rigidly disconnects us from the emotional interface of the craft. If we don't jump that shark then we're relegated to being like the photographer who makes those precious black and white landscapes which utilize every ounce of his PhotoShop skills but  which, in the end, become works that are devoid of any emotional context. In fact, they are just endless revisions of work that Ansel Adams did better, and with more soul, fifty years ago. Technique as schtick. Mastery for mastery's sake with no hook to pull in a new generation. Of course we like technically difficult work. It was hard for us to master all the processes a decade ago. Now it's a canned commodity, a pervasive reality, and what the market of smart and wired in kids are looking for is an emotional connection with their images that goes beyond the mechanical construct.

It's no longer enough to get something in focus, well exposed and color correct. It's no longer good enough to fix all the "flaws" in Photoshop. What the important audience wants now is the narrative, the story, the "why" and not the "how." The love, not the schematic.

So, what does this mean for the camera industry? It means that incremental improvements in quality no longer mean shit to a huge and restless younger market. They don't care if the image is 99% perfect if the content is exhilarating and captivating. No one cared if the Hobbit was available at 48 fps as long as the story was strong in 24 fps. No one cares if a landscape is perfect if there's a reason for the image of a landscape to exist. No one cares if a model is perfect if the model is beguiling.

My generation has long been fixated on "getting it right" and that presumes that our point of view is the one that is objectively right. But it's always been true that "your focus determines your reality."

What it really means for the camera industry is that the tools they offer the new generation must be more intuitively integrated and less about "ultimate." In this world a powerful camera that's small enough and light enough to go with you anywhere (phone or small camera) trumps the huge camera that may generate better billboards but the quality of which is irrelevant for web use and social media. The accessible camera trumps the one that needs a sherpa for transport and a banker for acquisition.

I look at the video industry and I see our generation drawn toward the ultimate production cameras. Cameras like the Red Epic or the Alexa. But I see the next generation making more intimate and compelling work with GH3's and Canon 5D2's and 3's. Or even cameras with less pedigrees. The cheaper cameras mean that today's younger film makers can pull the trigger on projects now instead of waiting for all the right stuff to line up. Cheaper good cameras mean more projects get made. More experience gets logged. More storytelling gets done. My generation is busy testing the "aspirational" cameras to see just how perfect perfect can be. And we're loosing ground day by day to a generation that realizes that everyone must "seize the day" in order to do their art while it's fresh.

If I ran the one of the big camera companies I would forget the traditional practitioners and rush headlong toward the youth culture with offerings that allowed them to get to work now with the budgets they have. Ready to do a video project? Can't afford a Red One or even a big Canon? How about a $600 Panasonic G6 and some cheap lenses? Ready to go out and shoot landscapes? Will a Nikon D800 really knock everyone's socks off compared to an Olympus OMD when you look at the images side by side on the web? No? Well, that's the litmus test. It's no longer the 16x20 gallery print because we don't support physical galleries any more.

So, there we were at the trade show and the majority of the attendees were guys wearing their photo jackets with a camera bag over one shoulder and a big "iron" on a strap over the other shoulder. And they had their most impressive lenses attached. And they walked through the crowd with pride because they were packing cool gear. And the pecking order of the old-cognescenti was: film Leica's, then digital Leica M's, followed by Mamiya 6 or 7 rangefinders, followed by Fuji Pro-1's, followed by big, pro Nikons or Canons and so on. While the few young people there zipped through the exhibits and took notes of interesting products with their phones.

The next generations aren't adapting to "hybrid photography" they invented it in a very natural way. We're the ones trying to label the intersection of video and stills and the co-opt it. But we keep overlaying our own preconditions to the genre.

If we understand that our focus determines our reality then we can try to change our focus and better understand where photography is headed, outside the parameters of our own little, private club. And that understanding will help us swim back into the  current of current of photographic culture instead of swimming against the tide trying to get back to a place to which we can really never return.

Yes, some people will still use "ultimate" cameras to create "ultimately sharp and detailed" landscapes, cityscapes and artsy assemblages but their audiences will be constrained to other groups of aging practitioners. Art is a moving target. To understand the target requires a constant re-computation of the factors involved.

It's a hoary stereotype but we need to look to the music industry. The delivery systems have changed profoundly and the music along with it. We can cling to Stan Getz and The Girl from Ipanema  but we certainly won't connect with the current market. I'm not saying we need to love hip hop or Daft Punk but we need to understand where the market is now. It's wonderful that you enjoy waltz music or polkas but if you want to swim in current culture you probably won't find those genres conducive to gaining general acceptance.

Cameras are and will get smaller and lighter. The lenses will get smaller and lighter and easier to carry around. The gear will get easier and easier to use. And why shouldn't it? The gear will get more and more connected. Maybe the cameras don't need to master the entire internet on their own but it will get easier and easier to move images from camera to phone or camera to tablet. And why shouldn't it get easier? Making the process harder for the sake of artisanal martyrdom doesn't move the art along its way. And why should it?

Where is photography going? Where it always gone. It's going along for the ride with popular culture. It's the traditionalists that feel a sense of loss but the sense of loss is from the constant evolution of tastes and styles. If you look at photo history you'll see generational warfare at every junction. Resistance to smaller camera formats! Resistance to color film! Resistant to SLR cameras! Resistance to automation!

And in the art you see Robert Frank as the foil to the arch perfectionism of Group 64. You see William Klein as the antidote to the preciousness of Elliott Porter. You see Guy Bourdin as the antithetical anti hero to Snowdon and Scuvallo. Each move forward was contentious and cathartic. Just as Josef Koudelka was the revolutionary to Walker Evans.

The camera market is in the doldrums now because it is conflicted. Go with the aging money? Or go with the maturing new markets? Go with a shrinking but loyal market or blaze a new trail based on new cultural parameters? The spoils will go to the companies that get it right.

What do I see as "must haves" for the industry to resonate with the new markets?

Cameras must be smaller, lighter and more accessible. 

Cameras need to work with less nit picky intervention on the part of the operators.

Whole systems must be smaller, lighter and more financially accessible.

Cameras should be interconnected with phones and tablets in an almost mindless way.

Cameras must no longer be precious and coveted. They need to be more like phones. A commodity that gets replaced as new stuff comes out with feature sets more conducive to the mission.

Apple has it just right. Make things that are simple to own and simple to use. Make menus easier and not harder. Eliminate the need to make unnecessary decisions. Make design more important and ultimacy less important. Change the focus of consumers in order to own the markets.

Is my advice any good? Naw. I'm as trapped into my generation as anyone else. But I do know that the first step to freedom is to throw off the resistance to change. You'll never change the momentum of the overall market but you can always change your own focus. And then you may open new doors of perception that allow you to do your own work....but in a new way. Like a bridge.

Continue to tell your story. But make sure you are delivering it in a way that people will be able to understand. Change is inevitable and fighting it is the first step to failure.

For a while my markets drove me back into full frame cameras. But those markets have changed so much that it no longer seems to matter. Now I'm just looking for cameras that are fun and easy to embrace. They all take good enough images now. Ultimate quality is now taking a back seat to intimacy and immediacy. A big camera is no longer a prerequisite for a place at the table.

Edit: go see what Michael Reichmann has to say about all this: http://www.luminous-landscape.com/essays/pdn_photoplus_2013.shtml

Edit: Just read this at the NYTimes and found it .... familiar: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/27/opinion/sunday/slaves-of-the-internet-unite.html?nl=todaysheadlines&emc=edit_th_20131027&_r=0

(EZ reader translation for people who have forgotten how to read long stuff....

All cameras now good. Technical Mastery not as important as in year's past. Old guys love technical mastery. New guys like making different style images and don't care about image perfection. Aesthetic pendulum swings from perfect to emotive. Some camera makers evolve. Some not.  Cameras getting smaller and easier to use. Old styles of shooting fading. New styles emerging. Good time to be a photographer. Change is inevitable. Change is good for young people. Change harder for some old people. Kirk is happy and now goes off swimming. May toss all old gear and just get better phone. short enough?)



Studio Portrait Lighting


in other news: Belinda and I finished working on, The Lisbon Portfolio. The photo/action novel I started back in 2002. I humbly think it is the perfect Summer vacation read. And the perfect, "oh crap, I have to fly across the country" read. It's in a Kindle version right now at Amazon. The Lisbon Portfolio. Action. Adventure. Photography.  See how our hero, Henry White, blows up a Range Rover with a Leica rangefinder.....

Remember, you can download the free Kindle Reader app for just about any table or OS out there....

Edit: Added 11/6: Here's another one that will make you gnash your teeth: http://visualsciencelab.blogspot.com/2013/08/has-bubble-burst-is-that-why-camera.html

Family Photography: Candid Moments & Storytelling





Since my schedule is uncooperative for writing this week I've been posting some favorite, older posts. Here's one about making more interesting photos. From 2012.

1.12.2012

How to shoot far more interesting photographs...

(consumer camera.  consumer lens.  continuous light.)

The only way to shoot more interesting photographs is to become a more interesting person.



And, how do you do that?

Listen more, talk less.

Travel more.

Eat stuff you never tried before.

Go some place scary.

Make friends with people who are smarter than you.

Make friends with people who are actors, artist and musicians.

Change your habits.

Read more novels.

Read more poems.  (Try Billy Collins...or Wallace Stevens.)

Go to museums. Look at the art.

Go to  art galleries.

Go to a mosque.  Go to a church or go to a synagog.  Go to a house of worship that's not your current brand.  


Learn new stuff from your kids.

Pick a place that's one tank of gas away and go there.

Go on a life threatening adventure.

Spend a month on a cargo ship.  Or a fishing boat.

Take naps in the middle of the day and stay up all night.

Try your hand at abstract painting.

Date your wife.  Or husband.

Change political parties for a while.

Put down your cameras until you really learn how to tell interesting stories.

Become a more interesting person and you'll take more interesting photographs.  Really.

NSFW (well, American workplaces, at least): It's time for Eeyore's Birthday Party again. This Saturday at Pease Park, in Austin, Texas. Here's gallery from 2011...

Another post that is NOT about A camera. Re-posted from 2012. A good year for writing.

3.20.2012

Why are we afraid to make beautiful photographs?


I understand that it's fun to see just how minimal you can get with your gear and still pull out a recognizable image.  Recently the combination of iPhones and Instagram has given rise (once again) to the aesthetic of the "distressed" image.  It's like re-strip mining, in a sense, since Polaroid transfers already pulled up the richest lodes of the distressed movement years ago, before people got tired of squinting at the images to see what the hell they were really all about.  Before that it was Polaroid SX-70 film that was reworked during its development with the business end of chop sticks, tooth picks and other implements of art.  In the 1980's we all lived through "cross processing."  It was a groovy way of fucking up your film to get a different look.  Back then you did it through chemistry but now you can do the same amount of damage/inspiration? with the click of a button.  And, of course, there are Lomos and Holgas, and before them the seminal Dianas.  Plastic cameras that help you innovate by producing "distressed" pictorial results.  

I think every generation goes through this kind of experimentation and then, realizing that it is as much of a dodge as any other technique practiced for the benefit of the technique instead of the subject,  the real artists drop the schtick and the glitter and go on to create really original art or they move on to another hobby.  Perhaps "action painting" or bead craft.

We seem to have hit a point in photography where it's not enough to just interpret beauty.  If we photograph a woman we feel we must "enhance" her by smoothing her skin and using "liquify" filters to "thin her out."  We seem immune to the charms of beauty that is too obvious and even an inch outside mainstream constructs.  Same basic idea with men.  We've hit a pothole in the road of photography and now were stuck in the low gear of insisting that all photos of men be rim-lighted and have the "clarity" sliders maxed out.  Craggy skin tones and over the top lighting.  For every male over 21.

If you like doing all the distressed stuff don't let me stop you.  I'm not always right. You could be right.  Instagram could be the reincarnation of Leonardo da Vinci made whole for the masses.  But if you get a queasy feeling looking at one more "enhanced" portrait or one more Instagrammed snap shot.  If you start feeling vertigo at the non-stop progression of overdone HDR landscapes and city scenes you might want to join with me and ask:  "What's so bad about the reality of beauty?"

I think the appreciation of art follows the pattern of the pendulum.  A gifted artist tries a technique. The technique is antithetical to the prevailing ethos.  The technique finds popular and critical approval.  There's mass migration toward the technique and the new practitioners lack the original, driving idea that acts like a motor to power the technique.  Lots of derivative work is generated.  The technique reaches maximum cultural saturation and like fashion it goes out.  Old style.  Last year's stuff.

If the race, for the last five or six years, has been toward the grunge-ing of images and the instagramming of images for maximum nostalgic distressed effect then it seems logical that we're on our way back to the opposite side of the pendulum where beauty is consumed raw and quality is a technique that society is happy, once again, to explore.  Are we on the cusp of learning how to shoot well? Again.

How to use a tripod to gain clarity?  How to use our cameras to convey the richest manifestation of beauty instead of looking at beauty through layer after layer of dissembling electronic filtration?
Count me in.  I want to be part of the new trend.  I want to aim higher than a lame display on an iPhone or a quick hit on Twit.  How about you?  

4.26.2016

A re-posting of an essay from 2012. The role of criticism.

3.25.2012

The Vital Role of Critics and The Ongoing Sabotage of Art.

It's okay to say that a photograph sucks. If you put work in a gallery you are inviting the world to experience it and react to it.  You get your shot.  The critic gets his shot. And if you've spent money on framing and printing and boxes of mediocre red wine and baskets of chips and bowl of hot sauce and printed invitations,  it can sting when a critic calls your work into question.  But that's the nature of the beast and part of the function of having exhibitions.  You get to hear or read an evaluation of your work that your mother would never give you.  Either because she loves you too much or is indifferent enough to want to avoid having yet another difficult conversation.  Your role, as an artist is expression.  Not necessarily self-expression but expression that moves the dialog of social reflection forward by taking apart the cultural DNA in a new way.  But there's a limited bandwidth of gallery space, attention and oxygen in the world of fine art and the critic is like the big bouncer at the velvet rope who helps keep out people who are just taking up space.  And I am, of course, ignoring "decorative art" which functions more like furniture.  Which is a wing of the decorative arts....

The web is the same as gallery space.  Every entry either unconsciously dilutes the whole forward momentum of enlightened culture or adds another highly concentrated drop of "go juice" to the mix.  The middle ground is just a waste of ones and zeros. Art should have something to say.  It shouldn't just lounge around. But somehow, when we make the very public gesture of posting work in publicly accessible forums we have the expectation that everyone will play nicey-nice and say uplifting and positive things.  Like the art teacher in primary school who is deathly afraid that any criticism will damage someone's self-esteem.  Given the all but anonymous nature of the web (for so many years my readers have come to believe that I am a middle aged, professional photographer who struggles with issues of access and finance when, in fact, I am really a precocious 25 year old billionaire ex-pat living in my own building in Dubai surrounded by dozen and dozens of super-model wives while playing with hand made digital cameras from NASA while finger-painting over the tops of my collection of Picasso's and Renoir's. Go figure...) the minute anyone receives even a good natured critique that calls any facet of the work into question the original poster flies into a rage and goes into a defense mode akin to a dictator facing insurrection.  He is protected by the wall of his own anonymity.

But critics serve a few valuable purposes.  They point us toward really worthwhile work.  They coalesce and put into words our subliminal understanding that some work is just unmitigated crap, and they help us to understand what works and what doesn't work in a piece of art. Our biggest problems as an "art" culture are twofold:  1.  While there has been an exponential explosion in the number of people making and showing their "art", and a parallel explosion in the sheer quantity of "art" they are now creating, the number of critics has remained static or has declined.  The number of critics with a grounding in both the history of Photography and general Art History has remained the same or declined.  And as the sheer dilution by numbers and hollow mimicry of worthwhile work continues to move photograph en masse from art-to-craft-to-mindless automatic recording the talented critics remained leery of sticking a foot into this tar baby manifestation of declining culture and have chosen to work the more fertile and invested fields of painting, sculpture, performance art and the "photographic classics."

Our second problem as a culture, where critics are concerned, is that we don't want to believe that they have value.  Just as a garden must be perpetually weeded to prevent its total overrun by predatory and unwanted tangles of hardy and invasive weeds, critics really do serve a valuable purpose.  They metaphorically weed the gardens.  When we dismiss their intrinsic value we are basically saying that photographic art is just about feeling good and that everyone should get a trophy.  Especially now, in the age of the privileged amateur who wants all the benefits conveyed by the hard work of his predecessors with none of the heavy lifting.  We, as a culture, have chosen to ignore our own art history so that the re-awakening (like zombies) of so many past styles and subject matters is embraced as stunningly new and innovative.  We give more value to the retread than to the original because we have no understanding and no cognizance of what went before.  And how current art stands on the shoulders of its predecessors.

Of course we'll believe that every thing we come up with is gold if we've never actually taken time to see and understand real gold.  We don't value the good critics because we don't understand what they're talking about and we don't understand what they're talking about because we think our hobbies are shortcuts to relevant statements of art.  Without knowing or understanding that what we're mechanically re-imaging has already been invented, shown, harvested and appropriated.  And been done better.

We went to school to become engineers or doctors or lawyers and we disparaged learning about our own culture at our own peril ("why would anyone want to pursue the liberal arts? What will they do with that degree?").  By doing so, in the pursuit of commerce, we throw away the important messages attached to the past.

Maybe what modern photography needs is more, and more educated, critics.  I've often stated my opinion that if work had to be shown in a physical gallery to be taken seriously people would put a lot more thought and care into what they showed.  We'd raise the level of art and the level of discourse by several orders of magnitude because people would have real "skin in the game."  And they'd have to confront a public and intimate encounter with their audiences.  As it is now we hide behind the screens and can be as prickly and abusive to critique as our fragile egos demand us to be.  If we were giving a gallery talk, in person, the discourse in both directions might be more disciplined and collegial.

I post photos here that, in retrospect, have no real value.  I never get called on it because this is the web. I could pull a better construct out of an old camera bag.  I think we all have a duty as artists to do several things.  First, we need to understand the history of the field in which we want to do work.  We need to read books like Beaumont Newhall's, The History of Photography.  And we need to read the print versions so we can see the plates well reproduced.  We all need to go to many, many gallery shows of both old masters and new, rising stars, so we can see what prints (the gold standard) really look like.  They are the standard that we really work towards.  We need to understand that the web is just a transitional tool that shows us a representation of what the final, physical art might look like.   Once we understand where we've been, just how good work can look "in person" and what the manifestos around art creation and photography are all about we can then speak to new work in a language that has real meaning.  It goes beyond, "great capture. All the kitty whiskers are sharp!" to a more adult dialog of understanding a work's resonance and messaging in the context of a complex culture, separate from reality TV and Facebook.

I see the world of photography on the web as so much adolescence.  Not that the practitioners are teenagers but that the level of discourse is so course and simple and fractured.  It's not an "us versus them" scenario with me being on one side of a technological divide and everyone else being a futuristic expert.  I've been pounding away in the world of computers for decades, and bought digital cameras before the great majority of the Bell Curve had even heard of their existence.  What I'm arguing for is the idea that, before inflicting on our shared culture, another meaningless rectangle of bouncy color and vacuous content that we all have a responsibility to understand what it is we want to say, why we want to say it and how well we can talk.  Then art moves forward.

I would welcome more and more critics.  We need people who can say, "You Suck." in a way that makes sense, moves the discussion to a level of higher quality and helps to weed our gardens so that visitors can more clearly see the beautiful flowers that bloom there.

Before you rush to respond and accuse me of being an elitist and an ego-maniac let me say that I felt compelled to write this because someone who likes my work, on a forum, posted a link to my website galleries and suggested that people go and look.  One person responded that he didn't see anything special in my work and questioned the purpose of the link.  The critic was attacked again and again for not seeing the value.  But he made a valid point.  The work I have on the web is series of tiny representations of images that are meant to be seen really large and in print.  Reduced and denatured by the contraints of the web they lose the majority of whatever power they might have had.  As does all work on the web.  The naysayer was, in fact, assuming a responsible role as critic and showing that in spite of my rhetorical skills, which help to create fictive value to the work I've posted, the work itself didn't resonate as it would have in it's primary and physical iteration.  He was right to force the question.  And my defenders wrong for not pursuing the conversation based on the primary aesthetics of presentation and the value of an image reduced from 30 by 30 inches of selenium toned, fiber based print to an sRGB version at 1000 by 1000  pixels.

If I could wield supreme power over the internet there are a lot of things I would change.  Like eliminating all advertising... But one of the first things I'd do is erase all the images from every website and gallery, stock file and sharing facility and let people and culture start all over again.  But the TOS on every site would include, in all caps, "Please imagine that the work you are about to post could change lives, change minds, enliven culture and move our society forward in its understanding and compassion.  Don't post random crap just to post it."


The hell with photographic workshops and seminars and tutorials and all the other mindless dreck.  We have more than enough technically accomplished technicians.  Now we need to concentrate on history and taste and aesthetics.  We need workshops that take people out of their quantum jobs and immerse them in the "what and why" of our art instead of the "how to."  And we need to cultivate workshops all over the map that teach people how and why to have critical exchanges about art that don't end in gunplay.

edit: an interesting, related article by Alain Briot: http://www.luminous-landscape.com/columns/artistic_license.shtml

edit:  This is a brilliant take on photo criticism: http://www.photowings.org/pages/index.php?pgA196

William Gatesman wrote this wonderful piece: http://wmgphotoblog.com/2012/02/21/a-cubist-critique-of-photographic-art/

Unsure about critiques?  Here's a good place to start: http://www.pixiq.com/article/doing-a-photo-critique

And here's my favorite intro book to criticism for photography: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0240516524/ref=oh_o02_s00_i00_details

read first, disagree second. If at all.

4.25.2016

I'll be taking a few days off from blogging this week. We seem to have too much actual work to take care of. Jobs stacking up.


I'm busy setting up a lighting design for some jet black, techie products. They should come rolling in on a Fedex truck this afternoon. At least that's what the tracking information tells me. I'm trying to get organized and pre-light because tomorrow afternoon (when I was originally scheduled to be working on this project) we may get a severe weather storm and a different client called to make sure I could "stand by" in case we have some power outages, flooding, etc. that might make good video for an another upcoming project.

I could be standing around in my yellow pancho with my steel-toed, waterproof boots and a hardhat shooting video of "weather events" by dinner time tomorrow. (Rain covers and a waterproof bag at the ready).

But we still have to ship back the tech product and then spend Weds. doing post production on everything.

That, and a dual-natured (photo/video) project on Thurs. are tightening my schedule like a set of vise grips.

It's all fun and practical work but something has to give. I'm afraid it's going to be the VSL blog.
I should be back on Friday. Until then we have over 3,000 blog posts in the vault and you have the keys. I'm pretty sure that a few of you have read them all. I'm pretty sure the rest of you haven't. But then Michael Johnston is back at the keyboard over at theonlinephotographer.com so I'm not worry you'll get too bored.

See you at the end of the week.


A few years back with yet another small camera...


One of my early forays into small, mirrorless cameras was a dip into the Nex line from Sony. The Nex 6 was a pretty decent body with a 16 megapixel camera but my favorite was the Nex 7. The finder was good, the dual dials were good and the low ISO, 24 megapixel performance was great!

There were a few downsides that led me to move on. One was the horrible state of the menus in those two cameras. It was sheer chaos. And the main issue I had with the Nex-7 was its temperamental interaction with various wider lenses. Magenta splotches were rampant and the edges of most legacy wide angles were soft. When you piled on with lots of noise at 800 ISO and above you essentially were working with a compromised camera. That being said, it was a nice shooting machine if you stuck to normal and longer lenses and worked in the same, basic fashion most of the time.

I've recently bought a Sony a6000 and an a6300 and I'm loving them. The menus are much better and the sensors are leaps and bounds better. My one wish? I'd love body with the dual dials we had on the Nex-7 camera. Those felt great and were quick and functional. It was an elegant design.


The Sony RX10ii is a good working camera.

Just some event documentation with a Sony RX10ii.

I've worked events with every kind of camera you can imagine. Lately I used a Sony RX10ii to capture an open house at a new, corporate headquarters office here in Austin. I brought the RX10ii along just as my "fun" camera and I carried a bag with all the usual, stereotypical DSLRs with their assorted lenses, flashes and accoutrement. I'd planned on using one DSLR body with a 80-200mm f2.8 lens over one shoulder and a second body with a 24-70mm f2.8 lens over the other shoulder. Flashes at the ready on both of them. At least that was my plan...

I arrived early (personality glitch) and pulled out the "fun" camera to play with until all the action started. But a curious thing happened; I started shooting the catering set ups, the decor, the signage and the overall environment before the guests showed up, and every shot I clicked off just looked exactly like I wanted it to look. At first I thought it was just "screen hypnosis."

I get "screen hypnosis" a lot when shooting big, DSLR cameras. What it basically means is that the screens on those cameras make the images taken look really great. The exposures look perfect, the colors rich and accurate. The downside is that there's a depressing letdown when you finally get home and look at the images on your computer screen. The exposures can be darker, the colors muddy, and there are even awkward and unpleasant moments when one blows up the images and is confronted by the reality that some lenses (no matter how often you try to tune them) are still front focusing or back focusing. Not enough to totally ruin the shot but enough to suck the fun out of shooting.

I knew from experience that what I see on the rear screen, or the EVF, of the Sony RX10ii is pretty much exactly what I am going to see when I get home. I took a few minutes to zoom in as far as the RX10ii would allow me on a review shot and everything still looked great.

I pulled a small, manual flash out of the big bag and stuck a bounce card on it with a fat rubber band. After a few minutes of trial and error the flash, used in "guide number" mode, gave me wonderfully consistent light. By the time we finished up with the event I had done the entire assignment solely with the small, all inclusive camera.

While the RX10ii might not be the right camera for you, or the type of work you usually do, I am finding that for everything but portraits that require thin depth of field, this camera is a good fit for lots of day-to-day work.

I don't know why I should be surprised that the Sony worked well, I was able to do large parts of a three day event back in October of last year with two similar, Panasonic fz 1000 cameras, with good results. The performance of these cameras in every regard except for high ISO performance (over 800 ISO) is as good or better than the cameras we had at just at just about any price as recently as a few years ago.

The benefits of having one system that gets me from 24-200mm at a constant f2.8 is wonderful. 20 megapixels of great detail is most welcome. The ability to hold it, easily, in one hand is also good.

But when you add to this the ability to plug in a microphone, switch on good 4K video, and knock out a quick video/sound bite with a client, it is like whipped creme on the top of a hot fudge Sundae of tasty camera fun.

These are good working tools. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise. Are they the best choice for everything? Naw. It's nice to have something like a Nikon D810 or a Sony A7Rii for more traditional, high resolution-driven assignments. That, and when you need some narrow depth of field.

I can hardly wait to try out the RX10iii...


4.24.2016

Cleaning up the studio and setting up for next week. A (almost) weekly tradition here for the last 20 years. Why should this week be any different.

I couldn't help posting this as I love all the intersecting lines and the oval.
Of course, I could never have a creative conference in here; it's too bright!

 When I moved into my current studio space nearly twenty years ago is seemed relatively spacious. Nothing like the East-of-downtown space I left behind but uncluttered and of a good volume. The walls were white and the ceiling was high and the studio was about 20 feet from the kitchen in the house. The nicest part was going from paying an exorbitant rent of $2,200 per month to, basically....free. 

But one habit didn't change; I'd work through the week, going from job to job, and changing gear to match the parameters about as often as most obsessive people change underwear. By Friday of most weeks the floor, and other horizontal spaces in the studio, were covered with spent cameras, props, lenses, abandoned coffee cups and bundles of extension cords, running hither and thither. 

The floor from my door to desk generally looks like an obstacle course by Friday at "closing time." Unless I'm working under a tight deadline I try to ignore the mess on Saturdays. That's the day of the week when we do our longest, hardest swims in the mornings, have lunch as a family, and generally get the shopping and external stuff done. In the evenings we try to do anything but work...

By Sunday, right after the morning swim practice and coffee, I'm ready to get back in and straighten out the mess. Well, it's not that I'm very motivated to do this but I know that if I don't get a jump on it the rest of my week will be.... trying. 

My new downsizing fad hasn't been visited upon the lighting gear (yet) and I was sorting framed art all of last week, so the studio looked like some mischievous giant had turned the space upside down, given it a good shake, like a Snow Globe, and then set it back down again. I looked at my schedule and realized that I'd booked a day and a half of studio still life shooting early in the week, a day of fast turnaround post production, followed by a Thurs. shoot that would involve location still photography and studio based videography (against a white background). I needed to get organized. And that's pretty much how I spent today. Studio Dog was unamused and refused to step into the studio, demurring simply because it was the "weekend" and the cock of her head at my request for company made clear that, in her mind,  some things are just not done on balmy Sunday afternoons. 

We take delivery of five high technology products on Monday which all need to be photographed from multiple angles by Tues. At the end of the day the products have to be repacked and turned over to Fedex to be overnighted home to their masters. I'll spend Weds. grinding out beautiful clipping paths and other wise dropping out backgrounds. Since the products are all black I will spend (too much) time dust spotting in PhotoShop as well.

Since I won't have time to clean up the studio on Thurs. (the shoot starts early) I wanted to try and bring enough order to the space now; up front, in the hopes that I can spiff the place back up on Weds. evening.

Most of the people I talk to who are not in the advertising or imaging businesses don't seem to know that so much of our time is spent doing mundane domestic tasks, and very little of our time is spent casting for high fashion underwear models, or sipping Cuba Libr├ęs on tropical beaches. When I mention the time we spend "refreshing" the studio they are shocked, presuming, of course, that all the drudgery is done by my entourage. I would love to pretend that it's been years since I've had to load my own memory cards into cameras and that my assistants make sure the cards are formatted but....we're well into 2016 and I've yet to hire any other assistant than Ben. And since he left to go back to college around the third week of January... well.... let's just say I wear multiple hats.

The only saving grace of doing the cleaning and straightening myself every week is that I've learned by muscle memory and reflex to put everything back exactly in the same place from which it came. The monolights get packed with the correct sync cords and the right reflectors. Extension cables go back into the cable bag. Etc.

I'm sure some efficiency expert out there has been bar-coding their gear and scanning it by way of running inventory, but I think that may just be a little bit too organized. At least this week, with all the other camera gear gone, organizing the Sonys in the camera case was much easier than it's been for years.



4.23.2016

Meeting room.

A bit of interior work.

Camera: Olympus OM5.2
Lens: Panasonic 12-35mm f2.8

Working self portraits. And an announcement about my free, "Professional Family Portraits" class at Craftsy.com.

©2013 Kirk Tuck. Kirk Tuck

Every once in a while I post a self-portrait. You may think I am a profound narcissist but actually I'm uncomfortable with the way I look in photographs. I still imagine myself at about 24 years of chronological age; maybe 19 years if you are just counting evidence of emotional maturity... But I post them because, in fact, they are part of my portrait process; in the studio and on location. 

I spend a lot of time setting up lights and cameras in advance of executives breezing into my photography space to have their portraits created. In the heyday of film photography the process seemed more technically demanding; the lights were bigger and heavier, things took longer to set up and then fine tune, film backs had to be loaded and looked after. We got used to using assistants and a fringe benefit of having an assistant in tow was that you always had a "stand-in" to use while roughing in your lighting design, and during that awkward phase when you are trying to decide on just which lens to use, and how far away everything needs to be from everything else. 

These days lights are smaller and modifiers are quicker to set up. There's no film loading, no Polaroid timing and peeling, less need to carry around a lot of crap. If something needs to get cut from the budget to accommodate a single portrait project I'd much rather cut out the assistant fee than start carving on my own fee. Right?

The offshoot of this new, parsimonious perspective for shooting is that one doesn't always have a reliable stand-in for the set up process. And I'm never confident enough to photograph an important and time sensitive assignment without having a look at how everything is working. 

I routinely get everything where I think it should be and then set the self-timer on my camera and step in to the scene to get a read of how everything will work. It's very helpful and there's always some fine tuning to be done. More fill, less fill; more cowbell, less cowbell...

A few years ago I got an assignment to set up and photograph about 70 different people. We were making their portraits with former president, Bill Clinton. It was at a big corporate event, right after Mr. Clinton's keynote speech, and the timing was as tight as one could imagine. Now, I have a lot of hubris but not so much that I would go into a big job like this without padding my meager skills by adding a good assistant. I hired one of the best. 

But on the day of the shoot, as I was hauling stuff to the meeting room where we were to set up, I was met by one of our clients who let me know that there was some mix up with the Secret Service and that my assistant had not cleared some bureaucratic hurdle, or something. There was no option to add someone to the roster since everyone on the photography set had to have a background check and security clearance. I'd be setting for this one up solo. 

I took a deep breath, reminded my self that this was not my first presidential "grip and grin" rodeo, and proceeded to do my usual lighting and camera set up. My SWAT team minder refused to act as a stand in so, minutes before the arrival of the entourage, and the eager crowd of V.I.P.s, I found myself doing the usual self-timer induced tweaks. In addition to the regular lighting and camera set up I had duplicate gear staged and ready to go. I made it through the event with no issues and everyone was happy with the files and the prints that I delivered. Once again I mentally thanked the camera makers for including self-timers on their cameras. 

I have started a folder for all the self-portrait images. I look dour in almost every one of them. Is it any wonder why? They are all taken moments before the arrivals of high maintenance CEOs or other "interesting" people. If you want to see happy self portraits then I'll need to start taking "post event" stand-in shots. But then I would probably look just as curmudgeonly; the images would be taken in advance of my least favorite photo task, cleaning up and packing.

A brief, self-serving notification. My free course at Craftsy.com; "Professional Family Portraits" is just about to click over to +200,000 enrolled students! I think it's a big deal. That's a lot of people. Now, if I could just convince all of them to rush over to Amazon.com and buy a copy of "The Lisbon Portfolio" I'd be outrageously happy. I might even be able to afford second Sony A7R2....