hot-air balloon ride

During my visit to South Africa, two of my friends, Jerry & Linde, arranged a surprise for me – an early-morning ride in a hot-air balloon in the Magaliesberg area. This was a first time for me – and I have to wonder now why I had never done this before – it is exhilarating! (This must be old news for those who have done this before.)

With this entire 2-week visit to South Africa, I decided to forego all the heavier, bulkier camera gear, and only take my Fuji X100s (vendor). It’s a specific decision where I forego the versatility of getting every angle from super-wide to tele, and just accept the single 35mm-equivalent lens.

So that’s all I had with me – just this one small camera. Within the limits of that single lens, it became a fun challenge to still get meaningful and interesting images.

Here is the slideshow with 24 images, from the start to a few seconds before touch-down. I hope it shows some of the beauty of this winter-time landscape in the Magaliesberg area. There was a certain 3-D look to the scenery, with the sun coming on low over the horizon. You can see various antelope dot the grassland by the shadows they cast.

The one thing missing from these images is the sheer stillness of gliding over the landscape, with just the dogs barking way below, and some cars driving by. Oh, and then the rushing sound of the burner filling the balloon again to remain buoyant.

This experience was a high in every sense.




The post hot-air balloon ride appeared first on Tangents.

We're shopping and packing. We're having celebratory dinners together at all our favorite restaurants. The kid leaves to go off to college next Saturday and I'm already getting a bit mopey and feeling useless.  I've been hanging out with the kid since his forever and I'm actually going to miss getting up at 6:30 to drive him to cross country practice and driving halfway across Texas just to see him run for 18 minutes. His crew of friends are all peeling off this week to go on their own college adventures. His friends of thirteen or fourteen years are all bright and motivated. Their dispersing to good schools all over the country. Some are taking a semester off to sail out in the Pacific. A few are going to school here in Texas at A&M and UT. Few are going as far away as Ben. His school is 1850 miles from Austin in the northern reaches of New York state.

The whole idea of his leaving is really starting to sink in as we toss last minute stuff in the laundry and I teach him for the 100th time how to tie a necktie. The transition is effecting everything. I skipped swim practice so I could have breakfast with him at least one more time. I've lost my motivation to go to work, write a blog or head out for social functions because I want to hold on to every minute. It's almost pathetic.  He's ready to go, his mom is stoically spearheading the "pre-production" and I'm hovering like a lost art director, trying to figure out how to reverse time or at least slow it down since there are so many things I still feel as though I need to teach him.

But friends of the family who have known both of us for as long as Ben's been alive are quick to assure me that the boy is much brighter than I've ever been and as worldly and knowledgeable as they come. He understands already that compound interest is your best friend or your worst enemy. He know that the measure of a person is not how well that person treats you but how well he treats the "help." He flosses his teeth. He writes "thank you" notes without parental prodding. He truly understands calculus, statistics and, at least, the rudiments of physics. He's already made an award winning video and he's already earned money for being smart.

He has done things at 18 that I didn't get around to until my mid thirties. Opened a brokerage account, made good equities investments, turned down bad jobs, learned to drink black coffee, tasted vintage champagnes and developed a taste for bleu cheeses. Given me business advice that worked out well. Bounced around plot ideas for my next book. Reined in my tendency to go off into something without all the information and so much more.

I've been spending my time buying him warm, winter clothes. Gloves, boots, hats, sweatshirts, jackets, vests, parkas, ski jackets and even long underwear. He'll be able to pack and carry onto an airline only a tiny fraction of this giant, new (and to him, alien) wardrobe and the rest I'll have to ship to him. I've actually gone so far as to call the college to make sure they have adequate heating for the class rooms and dorms.

I keep telling myself that when he is safely ensconced in his scholarly enclave I'll regain my recently wavering motivation and hit the business and writing with renewed vigor. I guess we'll see. But if the blog seems a little spotty or "off" for the next week I can pretty much assure you that it's a reflection of my state of mind. I'm sure it will all straighten itself out. I'll rediscover an "amazing" lens or camera system and we'll be off and running.

Funny that the week prior to Ben's departure I'm busier with jobs that I've been for most of the Summer. But I don't regret the work because it keeps me busy and alleviates the constant hovering that I seem to be doing when I am momentarily directionless. It also bolsters the checking account which, I am certain, has just taken the first of many painful beatings. Ah, the life of the freelance artist...But seriously,

I know that nothing will ever be the same again.

On another note I came to realize that Ben has observed my progress and immersion in photography for quite a while so I took the opportunity at a recent lunch to ask him where he thought everything was going and what was next for the world of photography. He deflected my question a few times and then he pulled his iPhone out of his pocket and put it on the table. He glanced at it, pointed and remained quiet.

I'd been pressing him to come into the studio and select a camera to take to college. I've opened up the cabinet doors and asked, "film? Digital? Leica? Olympus?" The final answer was the iPhone. He's seen the trajectory of photography and it doesn't interest him (or any of his circle of friends) at all. It's not his "cup of tea."  That makes me feel conflicted. On one hand I trust his instincts 100%. If he isn't into photography nothing I can say at this point will change his mind. On the other hand I can't help wondering if, in this respect, I've been a poor role model and have only shown him the mechanical and business side of photography but have forgotten how to transmit the joy of it.

I didn't buy my first camera until my junior year in college. Only time will tell.

One week until the giant adventure begins.

To all of you who've successfully launched your children and are reading this blog post as though it is in the rear view mirror: congratulations. To all of you who have this journey in front of you: Good Luck!
This is not a portfolio show.

There is something deeply wrong in modern society. There are large groups of people who have come to imagine that the screens of their phones are appropriate venues for sharing their photographic images (or portfolios) with other people. If you are one of these people and your friends are as clueless as you then I guess it really doesn't matter, but...if you are trying to share your work with someone whose action upon having viewed your images could be helpful to your career or your cause then you need to re-think your presentation skills and recalibrate your ideas about what constitutes appropriate displaying and sharing tactics. 

Here's the hierarchy from best case down: 

Top Layer:  If you want people to look at your images in a respectful and even appreciative way then you need to control the environment in which you show them your work as well as the medium you choose to show them. The gold standard is the paper print. A color print at a large enough size to be easily viewed (but still easily handled) is the most impressive of the presentations. If the work is matted, framed and well lit, so much the better. Show this work in a room where the light doesn't come from multiple, glare causing lights scattered across a ceiling. Do it in a place where there is little noise and fewer distractions. Allow your audience to become immersed in the experience and don't ruin it by chattering all the way through the presentation.

Next layer down: If you can't show large prints effectively (and maybe it's because you've decided to make Starbucks your office and the tables are too small....) you should consider prints placed in a book. These can be handmade books or bound books but books allow you to show work that is right sized for easily viewing while offering a mechanism to handhold the work in a less than optimal space. Give the book to your reviewer and allow them to set the viewing distance and pace.

Next layer down: If you can't do big prints, or even smaller prints (8x10 minimum), or books, you will need to default to a high quality screen device. This will probably be an iPad or one of the copycat devices from a company with less creativity and design acumen. As long as the screen is wonderful, large (full size iPad, not "mini") and dense with pixels (think Retina screen) you'll be providing a decent viewing experience for your valued audience. 

Hand the person you crave to share you images with the device and let them proceed at their own pace. It's only fair that if they have to wade through your visual enthusiasm that they get to control the duration of their trial or joy.  Again, silence is golden and an environment without a lot of extraneous motion is an effective way to garner their full intention. A busy, busy coffee shop means that the hyper-vigilent persons are dividing brain space between your images and all the movement that may be primordial, evolutionary cues of danger.

If none of these presentations are available and the screen on your phone is the only thing you can manage then you are clearly not ready to show your work to other people. Especially people whose opinions you respect.  Stop. Don't do it. Don't cause other people to  politely nod as they internally calculate just how quickly they can get away from you and this painful situation. The only people who can clearly see the screen as it jiggles around in your hand are people well under 30 with perfect eyesight. And even they would vastly prefer any of the above methods. They have phones, they know how dreary and unfulfilling it is to look at another person's work on a tiny screen.

Any of the above methods always beats sticking your cellphone screen in a stranger's face in the equivalent of a bus station, lit with a batch of mismatched, bare fluorescent light tubes stuck in the ceiling next to the surveillance cameras, casting multiple glares across the tiny screen, and expecting that they will compliment your work, or offer you the chance to photograph their company's next annual report project. 

My take is that the crappier the presentation the less the presenter cares about the work. And really, who wants to see work by an artist who doesn't care enough about his or her own work to at least display it decently. And even if you are a genius and your work is stunning who would ever be able to tell when looking on tiny screens? 

The iPhone might be a great capture tool. I know they are good for making phone calls or texts from. But they are most certainly not decent portfolio tools. Never.

Learn every part needed to participate effectively in an art culture. It's a sign of respect to your work and to the viewer to present your images correctly. It's all about putting the best foot forward and making sure the audience is comfortable. Anything less is just torture of the innocent by the painfully narcissistic. 

edit note: Let me flesh out the reason for this particular post to satisfy an anonymous commenter who asked if this take was really just a "meme" or whether I had experienced the cellphone show. I was recently asked by a college photography student if I would look at his portfolio. I assumed we were making an appointment for a future showing because I sure didn't see a physical portfolio anywhere. When I agreed he pulled out an iPhone and started doing the obnoxious "finger sweep" through an assortment of images. I stopped him and told his that I hadn't brought along a pair of glasses and that rendered this kind of showing moot. He was a bit taken aback. I suggested a future date which he hemmed and hawed about.... 

I was at Precision Camera on an errand recently and someone recognized me from a speech I had given a year or two earlier. They proceeded to come over, chat and then pull out an Android phone to show me "what they had been working on...." 

I was at Medici last week when an acquaintance just had to tell me all about the new Nikon D810 he'd bought. He pulled out his phone to regale me with some of the "incredible" shots he'd gotten with the camera, all the while doing the "finger spread" motion to enlarge portions of each image. As though I'd be able to see the difference, on a cell phone screen, between his D800e  and his new D810. 

I was doing a photo walk downtown two weeks ago when a local photographer who is known for his iPhone "art" intersected with me and pulled me into the open shade to show me some "incredible" new work he'd been doing in the streets with the same phone. I've met this character before and the best way to defuse him is to keep one's sunglasses on (couldn't see the images because of reflections, etc. anyway) and nod until his fingers finished sweeping and unsqueezing his screen and then to wish him good luck with his project and move on. 

And how many people do I meet everyday who say, "You're a professional photographer, let me show you some shots from our vacation!" And they proceed to hold their phones up in my face with their hands trembling from coffee poisoning and swish through endless dark, grainy, poorly composed shots. 

There are times when it might be okay. I had coffee recently with a friend. He had just come back from a workshop and wanted to show me what two of the models looked like. We were inside, in air conditioning. I had a happy cup of coffee in front of me. I had a pair of reading glasses with me. I was curious as to the models one of my peers had chosen over in Atlanta. I was happy to see the content of the two images he showed me. And then he had the good taste to stop. I'm actually waiting with anticipation to see a nice print of the female model he showed me. Looked like a very young Angelina Jolie. In a good way. 

But yes, this is written from recent, first hand experience. By the way, are we using the word "meme" correctly? The derivations from mimesis? To take on the property of.....?  Just checking.

And, Anonymous Commenter, thank you for "letting" me take any angle in want on your requested article about printers. Normally I just do whatever a handy authority figure orders me to do....

By the way, if  you are partial to looking at cellphone screens and think I am wrong to object you might be pleased to know that you can get the Kindle app for your iPhone or Android phone and read "The Lisbon Portfolio" between portfolio shows....

finding interesting available light & white balance options

It’s always a feel-good moment to discover interesting available light while out on a photo shoot. Something unusual to add a new flavor to a different sequence of images.

While photographing a model with Tilo Gockel and Mike Silberreis (both from Germany on a visit to NYC), we started off with off-camera flash to help with the strong sunlight. (You might remember Tilo from a recent guest article on product photography on a budget.)

Then, while positioning Olena, I saw part of her dress had a patch of bright light on it. Turning around to see where this came from – I expected sun flare from nearby building window – I saw that it was actually the sun reflecting off a traffic sign right next to us. The light that was reflecting off this traffic sign was pretty hard, but had an interesting specularity, yet appeared flattering. So we shot an entire long sequence here, ditching the off-camera flash.


I switched over from my 85mm f/1.4 to the  Sigma 50mm f/1.4 DG Art  lens that I was testing out, to shoot portraits with more of an environmental flavor. (I also wanted to see how this Sigma performed at wide apertures.)

The image at the top was shot at: 1/1000 @ f/1.6 @ ISO 64
Yes, the Nikon D810 has 64 ISO as its native lowest ISO.


choices in white balance settings

camera settings: 1/640 @ f/1.8 @ ISO 64
Nikon D810;  Sigma 50mm f/1.4 DG Art lens: Canon | Nikon

The color balance here is quite warm, even though I had reduced the warm tones in post-processing the RAW file. With the Daylight WB that I shot at, the photo appeared with more red tones. Somehow the light reflecting off the stop sign was very warm.

So now I had to choose what white balance I preferred. There are always options.

The left-hand image was adjusted (by eye) for a more neutral color balance on her skin tones, by adjusting the RAW file to approx 4000K. The right-hand image was adjusted (again by eye) for more warmth, in keeping with how the scene looked at the time. Sun-drenched. But the right-hand image wasn’t as warm as the out-of-camera image shot with Daylight WB.

This again just underlines the idea for me that you are better off with the option of having a RAW file to play with, rather than sticking to a narrower (and potentially tougher) idea of “getting it right in camera”. Besides, what exactly is “correct” here?


Looking again at the image at the top: here is the version where I went for more neutral skin tones by adjusting the RAW file to approx 4000K white balance. Because the light on her was somehow so red / warm, this now pulls the background to much colder tones, similar to how you’d do it when gelling your flash for effect.

This gives the resulting image a look that slightly resembles a cross-processed photograph.


Going with the warmer color balance again, and the comparison between “neutral” and “hey, this looks pretty good with the warm colors”. Yup, that’s a legit white balance setting. It should be anyway.

camera settings: 1/640 @ f/1.8 @ ISO 64
Nikon D810;  Sigma 50mm f/1.4 DG Art lens: Canon | Nikon


equipment used during this photo session

The post using interesting available light & white balance options appeared first on Tangents.

 This image of a corner of the Denver Convention Center has absolutely nothing to do
with this particular blog post. It's sitting here on top of the page because I like looking at the 
colors and the shape. Done with the Pentax K-01.

Starting the day with an active meditation on seriousness.
And the cult of coffee-ism. 

One of my favorite Austin ad agencies got me hooked up with a cool software company which one might call a "start up" if not for the fact that they have nearly 500 employees, offices around the world and tons of income. One thing they did not have, and which they understood the need for, was really nice photographs of their top twelve executives. Yesterday we aimed to fix that. In a previous meeting we worked together to craft a creative brief that called for me to a formal yet edgy and modern portrait, a series of action portraits at a conference table, capturing hand gestures and facial expressions as in an interview and then, finally, a waist up portrait in an exterior hallway (beautiful architecture everywhere).

The men and women we were photographing were already "warmed up" for their media experience because many of them had been interviewed for a video project the day before. 

I found a conference room that faced north a got beautiful, diffuse but directional light during the entire day. The back wall was a beautiful soft green/teal airbrushed glass. I had every intention of lighting the crap out of every shot and brought along enough gear to light up the entire floor of their office in this exquisite bank tower but when I started figuring out the shooting angles and how I wanted to pose the people for the interview shots and formal portraits I instantly saw that nature had done a much better job with the lighting than I ever could. It was just up to me to position each person to get some good modeling on their faces. This sounds optimistic but it turned out to be so true. Perfectly done lighting without lifting a finger. All of the flashes and light stands and umbrellas stayed in their cases and my most important tool of the day was my tripod. 

I had planned to shoot everything with the Panasonic GH4 and the two f2.8 zooms but.....

I was seduced by the lure of two other camera systems. The Samsung NX 30 and the Nikon D7100. The odd couple. The "hey, let's go all experimental today" cameras. Why? Who besides a good psychiatrist can really know?

Just for the sake of rationalization let's say that corporate portraits are one place where narrow depth of field imaging sells really well and I wanted to make sure I could get that look (in spades) from one of the cameras. The second rationalization is that I think the Toshiba 24 megapixel sensor with no anti-aliasing filter (in the Nikon D7100) is going to be a cult sensation. According to DXO tests it delivers nearly 14 EVs of dynamic range and it's amazingly detailed. I thought this job might be a good shake out for this recent addition to the tool kit. Even with it's funky but solid 18-140mm super-zoom kit lens. 

The day was fun and we worked at a nice pace. We had people schedule at 30 or 40 minute intervals but as with most freeform executive suites the players swapped schedules with each other all day long. My real goal was to slow them down, get them into the spirit of the shoot and not to relent until we had three good shots in the can for each person. At first I leaned on the Nikon and the zoom but I kept tossing the Samsung NX 30 into the mix with its ultimate lens, the 85mm 1.4.  I was shooting that combo at ISO 250, f2.2 and 1/200th of a second and I loved nearly every frame I pulled out of that camera and lens combination. While the operational aspects of the NX 30 are no where near as solid as the Nikon camera the lens and the sensor in it made up for all the finesse and structural nuance Nikon could build into their picture taking machine. 

Easily the best six portraits I've done this year I did hand held with the NX30 and the 85mm 1.4 lens. The pity is that I don't have permission yet to show them off. Once the client's website goes live you know I'll share them with you but for right now you just have to take my word for it. All the stuff I know about artificial lighting and state of the art cameras just went out the window and the stuff that will make it into my portfolio, from that full day of shooting will be from the NX.

It's eerie when you finally connect with a camera; when you finally discern it's reason to be there. I had to overlook the fidgety function controls and the fact that every frame seemed to see a slightly different color balance (thank goodness for raw files...) but in the end it's the highly sharp center surrounded by lush and glorious out of focus areas, provided by a premium lens, that nailed it for me. At the end of the day I had two wishes. First, I was wishing (hoping) that the rumors swirling around in a tiny part of the industry are true and that Samsung will both introduce a new, pro or prosumer camera body with an even newer  sensor. And that, if they do I get my hands on it soon. In the company of their 85mm 1.4 I would consider a well finished pro came to be a marvelous, dedicated portrait camera for studio and location work. 

The proof of the pudding is in the eating so I'll stop writing about the NX 30 and just leave it with this: With this lens and the current sensor  the Samsung imaging chain is easily on par with any APS-C camera out there from Canon or Nikon. I don't have enough experience with the Fuji's to make a statement about them. With this in mind the NX30 is going with me on my next high ISO shoot over at the theatre. There's a dress rehearsal for a one person play coming up and this focal length and sensor combo should be perfect. 

 The NX 30 body under discussion.

The Luscious Lens. May be the best one out made just for DX format.

And that brings us to the question of "what the hell were you doing with a last century paradigm Nikon body at a Kirk Tuck photo shoot?"  Well... hmm. I think I touched on this earlier but my experiences with Sony camera bodies and flashes, Panasonic camera bodies and flashes and just about everybody else's cameras and flashes has been at best, mediocre. While I may be missing some secret tricks or something it seems that most people's flash/camera combos don't do a great job of mixing ambient light and strobe. They are also a bit inconsistent for me. I'm sure someone has mastered the flash riddle on mirror less but I'm just not there yet and I've booked about $10,000 work of event work this Fall. The kind of assignments that call for flash in dark ballrooms and racetracks at night and in concert performances at night, etc. 

Whenever a new type of assignment crops up I tend to review the way we handled similar assignments in the past. How can I get the images my clients want with the least amount of fuss and failure? When I divested my Nikon gear back in 2008 the one tinge of regret was the fact that their flash equipment, and its integration with the bodies, was the first perfect match in the digital age and it's still, in my humble opinion, the top of the game in 2014. By that I mean I can focus in near darkness, on a guy in a dark suit, push the shutter button and nail the flash exposure with no real intervention from me. 

Remembering this pushed me to head over to Precision Camera and check memory against reality. I tortured my favorite sales guy for a while and discovered that my memory and reality matched up pretty well. The flash performance of the iTTL flashes and the current Nikon bodies is great. Having settled that I started imagining the working situation: Impromptu group shots requiring wide angles of view. Couples and foursomes requiring the middle range. Speakers at podiums requiring longer, maybe 200mm equivalent angles of view. That's when I started researching the Nikon 18-140mm zoom. According to DXO, DPreview and the invincible Ken Rockwell this lens is very sharp even wide open. At nearly every focal length. It matches the Toshiba sensor in the D7100 well. In many regards it's the perfect extra long ranging zoom lens. It has one huge, major, gasping flaw: It has more distortion than a car radio turned up to maximum volume. Brutal amounts of distortion. It requires minus 7 correction at the wide end to cure barrel distortion while the pincushion distortion which comes into play from 35mm onward requires a +8 correction to cure it well enough. 

If I were buying the combo to do architecture I'd have my brain examined by several professionals. Wouldn't work at all unless your client designed fun house mirrors. Ditto with product shots of products that are largely composed of straight lines. Amazingly weird. But for grip and grin photos in the Four Season's ballroom it's the best. Fast focusing, four stop image stabilization, sharp wide open and the equivalent (for 35mm frame dimensions) of a 28mm to 210mm lens. Amazingly good for what I have in mind. A specialty tool, like a hex wrench, that exists to do one thing well----social, event photography. 

At any rate that's as much as I can rationalize my purchases. But I will say that after seeing the performance of the naked Toshiba sensor I am thinking of using the D7100 camera (with a different lens) as the view camera of the studio for images requiring very high resolution. I did put a 55mm Micro Nikkor on the front and at f5.6 and ISO 100 the detail seemed endless. And profoundly sharp. 

Now, for all the linear and literal readers out there. Don't get your boxers in a bind. I am not abandoning the m4:3 cameras and lenses I've been using with much happiness for the last six months. They are much more fun to carry about and much more fun to use with manual lenses and with continuous lighting (my personal quirks abound). If you've read the blog for long you know that the gear inventory never stands still.....and that I think it shouldn't stand still. Curiosity is part of the art. The tools are woven into the process. And the D7100 is a wonderful camera with which to shoot flash on the run. No excuses.

So, between the two APS-C cameras, and the various strange lenses, the shoot for the technology client went very, very well. What a gift not having to light everything. I packed up and headed home to do the post processing. Because I was working with people who are not "on camera" professionals I felt the need to do lots of shots to catch the best expressions. When you couple the human needs with the fact that there is zero recycle time with available light my frame rate soon got totally out of control and when I finished downloading the UHS-3 SD cards I found I'd shot 1600+ images. Which occupied nearly 28 gigabytes of hard drive space, times two (the backup drive). 

I brought the files into Lightroom 5.6 (thank you Adobe for the instantaneous Cloud upgrades...) renamed them and started my edit. This morning I'd worked the pile down to 650. If you look at it from a per set up basis it's really only 18 shots per set up, per person. I'm loathe to edit further because at a certain point an errant art director will start saying, "Is this everything we shot? It seems like we shot a lot more. Oh? We did? I'd like to see them....all." 

The files started life as 20 or 24 megapixel raw files. In the case of the Nikon files they are shot as 14 bit images with lossless compression. The images are huge. Way too big (note to camera industry: Kodak gave us raw file capability in all file sizes in their DCS SLR/n camera. Why can't we have that in all of our cameras? I'd love a half sized RAW file in the Panasonics and three or four smaller files in the Nikon and Samsung.). 

I exported the files as 1800 pixel wide, mildly compressed Jpeg files and sent them along to a gallery on That way the client, the agency and I can all look at the images and discuss them with each other remotely. They'll pick finals and we'll retouch em. Even the wonky lines from the 18-140mm lens.

On a business note I thought I'd share one aspect of billing a job like this. These are all busy people. We did the shoot yesterday but they may not get around to making final selections for a week. Or a month. Or ever. You just never know. So I bill jobs like this in parts. The first bill goes out as soon as the gallery goes up. That invoice covers the shooting and licensing fee for the images we created. It also covers the cost of editing and then creating the gallery. 

Once the client and agency make their selections we'll send along a second invoice for the post production and retouching of the files along with any additional usages they may have decided upon once they've started working with the material. 

If you do billing like this you start the clock on payment right now. Today. If you wait until the end you might be starting the billing cycle clock thirty days from now (or longer) and you'll suffer by not having the cash flow and profit from work you've already done. 

Finally, as always, remember that Samsung sent me the camera and the lens I discussed above for free and that I also participate in their Imagelogger (image sharing) program. I'm never shy being critical about their cameras. I don't pull punches but you need to know the provenance of the camera and lens so you can evaluate my experiences with the knowledge that I may be introducing some unconscious bias. As with all gear: try it out for yourself or only order it from a store that has a liberal return policy. Every hand and brain is different. 

Check back in on Monday. I am taking delivery of two HMI lights from K5600 Lighting. They make all kinds and sizes of HMI lights for the movie industry.  I have high hopes for these small but powerful, daylight balanced, continuous light units. One is an "open face" and the other a fresnel. There will be much spirited portrait play in the next few weeks. Count on it.

After the (unexpected) success of my first two books the folks at Amherst Media asked me to try my hand at writing a book about Commercial Photography. I was happy to oblige because I felt that after two practice rounds I had finally found my voice and, after nearly thirty years of being in and around the business, I felt pretty certain that I finally understood the things that worked (for me) and the things that didn't.

I had experienced professional photography from the other (client) side having spent nearly eight years working with photographers as a creative director in an ad agency. I understood the issues of copyright and licensing after having been indoctrinated for years by the ASMP and having recently served as a chapter president.

While the book was enthusiastically picked up by several colleges as a primer on the business of photography the more generally audiences seemed to be underwhelmed by the whole idea. And I guess it's fair because so many of my readers don't do photography for a living. Why should they soldier through the ins and outs?

But today, after a post on Fear, which was a thinly veiled post on marketing, Malcolm (a VSL stalwart) suggested that I pen a book on the subject. So this post is my response. It's my way of saying, "I already did" and I like it the very best of all the books I've written and illustrated for Amherst Media and wish it had the mighty sales legs of the Minimalist books.

If you want to be a photographer, or you run any sort of small service business, you might really enjoy and benefit from reading it. I think it reads-----nicely.

If you are dead set against works of non-fiction I can happily point you to the novel, THE LISBON PORTFOLIO. Either way we can hardly go wrong.

Tune in here:

Wonderful Machine ( a repping and photographer consulting firm) opens the trench coat to reveal a bid for a large, east coast, advertising agency who needed to hire a photographer to make executive portraits exactly the best way possible.

I'm both a little jealous by the wonderful-ness of the job but I am also more motivated (after reading) to make sure that my fees go up year after year and my tolerance for budget jobs goes down year after year.

The actual posted bid is the most interesting part of the article but it's sure nice to also see the thought process....

Come back here and let me know what you think in the comments!

Kirk (who is currently pricing too low!) Tuck.
Zeiss 80mm Planar on a Sony a77. Delicious combo.

Happens every time. I get a new camera from a new company and I start reading all the propaganda about how great their high speed zoom lenses are. When I shot with Canon, Nikon and Sony I drooled over and bought those fast zooms. How could I not when everyone else was doing so? The promise is always the same: a wide range of "must have" focal lengths instantly at my service, coupled with a maximum aperture that seems fast enough to do almost anything. And here's the sad part: Every time I ponied up and bought the holy trinity of fast zooms I found myself, one or two jobs later, pining for the primes.

Yes, the 16 or 17mm to 35mm f2.8 zooms seem sharp enough but are they sufficiently well corrected to be used for what I think they should be used for (architecture and technical work)? Invariably not. And I hardly need a wide zoom to photograph people. I would almost always be better off with the well corrected prime lens. Perhaps a nice 21mm f 2.8 Zeiss? Then, when I'm playing around with the longer zooms it always seems to me that f2.8 on an 85mm prime or a 100mm prime gives me a little extra pop and sparkle, a bit more bite than the wide open apertures of the 70-200mm behemoths.  Not to mention that there are times when one actually wants to experiment with what happens visually when we use our fast primes at or near their widest apertures. None of this takes into consideration the comfortable formalism of being cosseted by not having to choose variations in focal lengths...

I bought a Nikon D7100 a week or so ago with the idea of using it for quick events with on camera flash. Nikon's flash system has always been really good. I figured the camera, along with the 18-140mm zoom lens would be a great "grip and grin" system for walking around in dark conference halls and gala ballrooms making flash lit snapshots. No question that the focus is quick and the files are great. But within a day of buying the camera and zoom there I was, back to pick up an AF 50mm (even though I have  drawer of fun, manual focus 50's.).  And then a couple days later for a 35mm lens. I just like the way prime focal lengths work with my brain.

I have a Samsung camera that was sent to me for evaluation and it came with a nice 18-55mm zoom lens and a very competent 50-200mm zoom lens. I shot a bunch of "test" frames with the NX30 camera and the zooms and the images were good but I quickly got bored and put the camera in a drawer. Then I started getting unexpected boxes via Fed Ex. First came a 30mm f2, which got my attention. It's a fun lens and close to the 50mm focal length on a 35mm film camera. It was the lens that made me pull the camera back out of the drawer. But the fun quotient jumped up ten notches when the next box came and it had an 85mm f1.4 NX lens inside. Now the camera and the small collections of primes is packed in an Airport Security wheeled case for use on a job tomorrow. No question, the zooms would do the job well enough but the primes do it with added fun.

This is not a new phenomenon for me or anyone else who shoots both for fun and business. We're always covering the bases and then dropping in a bigger dose of fun. And it's usually all about the lenses. Take my Panasonic system as an example. I made my initial lens selection when I bought the GH4 and it included the 12-35mm f2.8, the 35-100mm f2.8 and the 7-14mm f4.  All great lenses and all more than enough for my use in still photography and video productions. But I just had to add those unique and quite sharp Sigma dn Art lenses (19, 30 and 60mm). Then I realized that I really wanted a fast 85-90mm equivalent so I grabbed one of the Olympus 45mm 1.8's. But that made me realize that a nice, two lens, travel and art system would be well served by tossing in a 17mm f1.8. The 45mm and the 17mm do make a nice duo but they are both well balanced by the addition of the 25mm f1.4. And so it goes.

When I pack the bags for work I tend to take the zooms. When I pack the bag for fun I tend to take the primes. Rarely do I pack both. When it comes to shooting I think I have the most binary brain. It's always this or that but never both. It's either an assortment of primes or two wide ranging zooms on two bodies. It all seems easier if you can start the day making that overarching choice and ignoring whatever you chose to leave behind.

When I need to go bare bones it always makes sense to consider a wide angle to short tele zoom as a sole optic but it never works that way for me. Maybe it's my history and habit born of repetition but if I can only bring one body and one lens it's invariably a prime that finally, after an agonizing selection process, makes it onto the camera and, nine times out of ten, it's a 50mm equivalent. Something about balance. Anything wider is too wide. Anything longer is too constricting.

When it all gets distilled down my taste in cameras and lenses is all about regression to the prime.

It is so easy to become paralyzed by fear. Especially in a fragile, freelance business where nothing is certain and change is always on the menu, and the menu is always on fire.

Will the clients send the checks they promised? Is the marketing working? Will the economy tank again? Will your skill set become obsolete? Have you hedged your bets? Will your bookie break your legs?

Through my many years of hard won experience I can now tell you the answers:

Yes, some clients will send the checks they promised, right on time. No, some clients will always need to be cajoled, reminded and prodded to get a check to you and those are the first ones you cut loose and never work with again. Why? because they help fan the fires of work anxiety and you don't need em. Find the clients who keep their promises and nurture and respect them by always keeping your promises.

Is the marketing working?  Yes. No. Maybe. Good marketing is consistent and it's done over time not in sporadic binges. The marketing itself doesn't bring in signed contracts it brings you an invitation to come in and pitch in person. But you have to ask if you want to be invited in. Marketing is the introduction. Some of your marketing won't connect with the markets. Some will. The most important parts of the puzzle are to craft materials that show the benefits of your work to the client and to do this consistently. They want to know how you can help them and not the other way around. In advertising circles there is an old saying from clients: "Only half of my advertising works. If I only knew which half I could save a lot of money..."

Good marketing identifies client needs and offers products, services and features which benefit them.

Will the economy tank again? Yes, probably the split second you get yourself out of debt, get into a groove working on your marketing plan, and feel like you've finally found your pace. But if you can make it through the trough okay you'll have no trouble riding the next wave. That's the trade off. When the market tanks again the one thing you really can't do is to stop marketing. The players who market in the depths of the downturns aren't using marketing to look for work tomorrow they are making sure they are well positioned to ride the next wave.

Will your skill set become obsolete? No. Visual talent and good taste never go out of style. Yes. Everything we do now will need to be re-framed in a new way just minutes down the road. We had to learn the mechanics of digital imaging but digital cameras didn't change the way we saw. We had to learn the technical side of non-linear video editing but the new approach to technical issues didn't change the ever present need to tell good stories. Cameras and computers should be like water. They should swirl around the image and the story not BE the image or the story. Work on having a point of view. Work on crafting a narrative. Be flexible with the tools you use to record these treasures. Most people just have the tools. If your only mastery is of the tools then you sit precariously on the edge of constant obsolescence. If you can tell a story the tools are only tools....easily interchangeable.

Have you hedged your bets? Did you make those monthly contributions to the retirement account? If haven't you should know that crafty investors don't look at their retirement accounts so much as a final allowance to be carefully husbanded until the end but as a giant buffer against all kinds of lessons life delivers. The more you save the easier it is to say "no!" to bad clients and their bad work.
The more you have in the bank the easier it is to do good work. Did you start other businesses or pieces of business that are separate from your primary freelance business? It's nice to have a secondary source of income for those times when you need to spend a little while creating a new set tool set for the primary job. I write stuff. It makes life less scary when the photography business slows down.  If I couldn't write I would find something else. Make my own vodka. Own a laundry. Something unrelated.  Old wisdom says "invest in your business." New wisdom says, "Be diverse and spread the risks---and rewards."

Ah. the bookie. I'm betting most of us here don't gamble. Or at least don't gamble big. And certainly not with organized crime in the mix. But if you are running your own business you are already playing the odds and some are looking for the big pay off. I find that the business of photography is a long, long play with no big, unexpected payouts. It's the anti-lottery. You just pull on your boots everyday and go ride the fences of commerce and make sure your stock is healthy and the watering holes aren't dry.

Fear is a price we pay today for something that may never happen. It's good to be prepared. It's good to acknowledge risk and uncertainty, and it's certainly good to plan. But the way to deal with fear is to acknowledge the things that trigger fear and then move on. You'd never make payments on a car you'll never receive and that's how I try to look at fear and panic when they erupt in my brain. If I do my work as well as I can and I make decisions based on facts instead of emotion I generally have a fighting chance of talking myself out of the fear and anxiety and just do my work. When I finish each day I can stop and look over what I've done, figure out how to do it better tomorrow and then walk out the door----free and calm. At least that's the goal. Everyday.

The Lisbon Portfolio. The Novel.

In the days when DX was the only format you could buy a Nikon in we suffered from a deficit of short lenses. There were a few repurposed film era wide angles but they all seemed to have their share of problems. For a while the widest rectilinear lens was the 14mm Nikon lens which was something like $1600 and could get you to the equivalent of a 21mm on a full frame camera. Wide enough for most stuff but not for the things that really mattered.

I was hired to document the interior of the old Palmer Auditorium Building which was re-birthed, after $80 million of construction, as the Long Center. There were a lot of enormous spaces and stages as well as some tiny spaces like historic dressing rooms. I knew I wanted a lens that would communicate the scale of the interior spaces and would work well with the Nikon D2x, my camera of the moment. While very few people like the effect of a fish eye lens with its distorted lines the people at Nikon had designed into the Capture Raw software a component that "de-fished" that particular lens. You could enable the correction and, voila, you had a very wide image and all the lines were as straight as could be ( providing you were careful to level the camera while shooting ).

The lens worked fine for the assignment with the caveat that the expanded corners lacked the detail one would find in the center of the frame. They were "stretched out" to make the file geometrically rectilinear and that meant there were proportionally fewer pixels in the corners.

I subsequently used the lens on a number of jobs that required a wide view, including the job for Lithoprint (above). I am certain that we used a normal looking file for the final brochure but for some reason I came to really enjoy the look of curved fluorescent lights and so I kept a copy like this.

Wide is really no longer an issue in most camera company's lens catalogs. My current favorite is certainly the already rectilinear, and wonderfully sharp, Panasonic 7-14mm ultra wide angle zoom. There are also ultra wide angle zooms available for the APS-C systems that are very good.

If we've made any progress in the digital age it's been in the area of making lenses that are better matches for the size and technical nuances of digital imaging sensors. Good glass always seems to triumph over the nerdier technologies.

Just a blast from the recent past as I clean up an older computer and its attached hard drives.

Editor's note: Try out the comments. It's fun and easy to make a comment on the site and it makes the writer feel like there's an audience out there. Just saying.  VSL Senior Executive Staff.

Shot on assignment for Primary Packaging in NYC. Simple, single source lighting. Tri-X film. Simple design. The post production was all done in the printing. Agfa Portriga paper, selenium toned. The 16x20 inch print is so pretty, as an object, that it brings tears to my eyes. 

....Oh yes, I remember. We found tall buildings and shot from the roof tops.

This is a project we did for the Austin Chamber of Commerce a while back. The art director for the Chamber's ad agency wanted to show off the city scape and also show some representative people sprinkled amongst the downtown skyline. ( A skyline that is much, much more crowded today)>

We scouted a location that would give us a view of Congress Avenue, looking north toward the state Capitol building. We ended up shooting from the top of the Embassy Suites building, just south of the river. The Chamber of Commerce seems to open many doors in Austin so we had no trouble securing the location. We shot in the late afternoon with a Nikon D2x camera and one of the unheralded, great zoom lenses of the time, the 28-70mm f2.8 Nikon. A great lens. Incredibly sharp at f5.6 and f8.

Once we had the skyline shot "in the can" we move on to casting and then photographing our talents. We had a big ink jet print of the skyline that we referred to in the studio for positioning the people.  Everyone was shot against a white background, clipped out and composited into the piece.

The image was used as a double truck ad in magazines but another important use was on big, fabric show dividers in the convention center in Austin. The repeating dividers were ten feet tall and sixteen feet wide. At the time the D2x was the highest resolution camera made by Nikon and we worked hard to make sure that we were working with optimum technique. That meant: Always on a tripod. Always at the sharpest aperture. Always at the lowest ISO.

The images on the big, fabric dividers looked great. I'm not sure how much more actual quality a 24 megapixel camera would have bought us. After all that's only a linear increase of 20% in pixel resolution...

Fun with advertising. I remember those years as the transitional years between print and electronic media. Going forward I think we are resolutely in the electronic presentation decade. Yes, there are still corners of the business where people work with prints, and there will be printed magazines at least for the foreseeable future, but....

Working life can be so interesting and dramatic. This is a series we did for one of our favorite ad agencies. Their client was "LifeSize," a provider of teleconferencing hardware and software. The agency came to me with a fun idea---put people in situations where they might use the products and then put the whole thing in a screen which is how their counterparts across the world might see them.

Each image is a two piece composite. We shot each person (or couple) actually holding a prop HD TV surround in front of them. We did the classic white background lighting in our larger studio space which is approximately 42 feet long by 18 feet wide and has very high ceilings. 

The ad agency cast the models and had the prop made and we did the photography. This campaign was done in the early part of this century, probably around 2003. 

I remember the day very clearly because we were shooting tethered to one of the original Mac Pro laptops with the G4 processor. The camera was the venerable Kodak DCS 760 and all the lights were Profoto something or other. We were using a 20 foot firewire cable with full sized connectors on both ends and every once in a while we'd lose our connection and have to re-boot everything. 

But that's not really why I remember this one so well. You see, we were on the very last shot of the day when my assistant came hurrying over to me carrying my cellphone. "You'll want to take this!" she said, in a panicky kind of voice. It was Ben's school on the phone. Ben had fallen off some playground apparatus and broken his arm. The school nurse had already left for the day. Ben's mom was out of town. 

I tossed the camera to the world's greatest assistant and turned and headed toward the car. My assistant informed the client and then she proceeded to finish the shoot with perfect technique and poise. The clients were most understanding. The campaign went out without a hitch after we got that pesky compound fracture taken care of. 

We are still working for the same agency. I did a fun job with them last month (with no casualties) and we're on schedule to do another project next Weds. It's never fun to have a child emergency but maybe it's even more stressful when you leave a studio with ten or twelve people behind. 

I've always liked this campaign because I think the concept is so good. And it was a joy to shoot. Right up until the very last hour...

Just remarking on the balance in the universe. I wrote a blog about losing a job yesterday. The job was booked to have occurred on or around August 25th. I opened my e-mail this morning and another client was inquiring about booking the 25th. Same depth to the job. Same basic budget but with different usages. Also still life. It's already scheduled.  One in, one out. Balance.

On a totally different tangent: The image above is one of my favorites from my recent "Tommy" shoot at Zach Theatre (the play is still running and still a visual delight).  I caught it with a GH4 and the 35-100mm f2.8 lens at the long end, wide open.

I might have used a higher res camera but if you look very little in the image is tack sharp due to subject movement. But it's the subject movement---the kinetic feel---that allows me to enjoy the image. More or less resolution would have made no real difference. In fact, had I upped the ISO and made a completely sharp image I'm sure we would all find it a bit boring.... Just conjecture.

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