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Photographing the wedding formal groups

Photographing the family groups and the formal photos at weddings doesn’t really strike fear in my heart any more. I have the experience to work efficiently, and also work around any challenges that come up. I can take things in my stride, and I’m not often ruffled. I keep things motoring along.

With that, I just had to share this amusing photo from a recent wedding – the bride and groom with the 3 nephews. Count them! And that’s about the best shot we got with all three of the kiddos in the frame.

So even with all the experience and cameras & lighting gear, plans might not quite work the way we intended. But … we keep rolling on and take this in our stride. This is a memory of the day. This is how it was. No reason to force anything with little kids and upset them. This was a real moment, and I am sure it will bring a smile to everyone’s face forever.

The final group shot of the afternoon, before heading out to the reception venue – every family member in the frame.

The only realistic way for me to have them all visible in the group, was to have everyone standing staggered on this short incline, while I stood on a chair. Of course, having their backs to the sun was my next consideration – no squinting, and no harsh shadows. The photo below shows the test photo without flash. For this much light, and still using a softbox, I needed the 500 W/s power of the Profoto B1 flash (B&H / Amazon). It has become a workhorse at weddings now – for example as shown in this article: using the Profoto B1 portable flash at a wedding.

  • Camera settings: 1/250 @ f/11 @ 400 ISO
  • Nikon D810
  • Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8E VR (B&H / Amazon)
  • Full power on the Profoto B1, diffused with 3′ Octabox with the inner baffle removed.
    My assistant held the flash overhead on a monopod.



Sequencing the family photographs

The big group shot wasn’t quite as random as it may look – I still took care to place people so that everyone was visible to the camera. Obviously I took the more calmer photos first with everyone looking at the camera – but here I wanted a final exuberant photo, even if some people will be obscured by waving arms. The client can choose.

For the rest of the family photos, I follow a specific pattern to make sure that I get all the family groupings in as short a time as possible. I don’t work off a shot-list. Instead, I create a family diagram for myself which I build up during the consultation with the client. In this way I am aware of all the ways the family is grouped, showing all relationships.

The way that I draw this up, is carefully explained in a video tutorial available on Craftsy. It also demonstrates how I use this diagram to sequence the family photographs.

The formal photo session is where newer photographers have difficulty in finding traction. Suddenly under pressure and with dozens of people pulling in different directions, it is easy to come apart. With this video tutorial, we’ll cover ways of sequencing and posing the family groups. With numerous useful tips, I cover this topic and explain how I keep everything on track during this part of the wedding day. We’ll cover the topic thoroughly, working from a diagram layout of the family groups, all the way to lighting and posing.

Check this out, as well as the other video tutorials and online photography workshops.


Related articles



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book review: Picture Perfect Lighting, by Roberto Valenzuela

I strongly believe that there’s a pivotal moment that happens (or will happen) for most photographers as they progress and become better at this thing we do with a camera – a moment of clarity when we realize that much of photography really hinges on the understanding of light and how it behaves. This was the theme of my one book, Direction & Quality of Light where I explained in the introduction that once we understand those principles, then we can pretty much use any light source, whether on-camera flash or off-camera flash, or found light / available light, or video light. Anything really.

Picture Perfect Lighting is Roberto Valenzuela’s third and final book in his trilogy. His previous two books where he explained a system for taking better photographs, and for improving posing of subjects, are bestsellers in the world of photography. With his new book, Roberto explains the principles behind light and lighting.

Before we look at a chapter-by-chapter breakdown of Picture Perfect Lighting, here are immediate reasons to love Roberto’s book.

  • A more intuitive way to explain and illustrate the Inverse Square Law, without the math!
  • How he changed his business model, and pulled out of a nose-dive photography career, by realizing what he needs to do to offer superior work to potential clients.
  • The entire Section Two which deals with Circumstantial Light, is crucial. In this fascinating section, Roberto breaks down the existing light sources in several locations where he shot, to show how the entire scene have different light sources. How you then place your subject and use these circumstantial light light sources, will affect the look of your portraits.
  • Advanced reflector techniques for portraits. (Seriously, just holding up a reflector randomly, with no intent, probably doesn’t help you much. There are specific techniques you can use to give you specific results.


This isn’t a book about a too specific topic such as off-camera lighting – instead, he explains light and lighting. Just as with his previous books, Roberto builds this up into a system. Building blocks

Throughout his book, Roberto manages to skirt just this side of too-technical, to explain the necessary ideas and concepts with clarity. The material is abundantly clarified with diagrams and illustrations.


  • You can order directly from Rocky Nook, the publisher.
  •  PPLNVN which offers Tangents followers 40% off Picture Perfect Lighting in Print or eBook form.


A summary of the five main sections of the book

1. The Building blocks of light

The behavior of light is discussed, including how light scatters; how the relative size of your light source matters; And … the Inverse Square Law explained in an intuitive way, without the math.

2. Circumstantial Light

Available light described in a more thorough way, to explain how light is affected by objects and structures and textures. In this fascinating section, Roberto breaks down the existing light sources in several locations where he shot, to show how the entire scene have different light sources. How you then place your subject and use these circumstantial light light sources, will affect the look of your portraits.

Open shade done the right way. Yes, just placing your subject in shade doesn’t give you flattering light, even if you get rid of harsh light.

3. Lighting Benchmark Test and Helper Light

Adjusting the light to match the camera settings required, instead of adjusting the camera settings to fit the light. Manipulating the location you’re shooting in, and manipulating the light through reflectors or diffusers.

4. Flash techniques

Working through the basics of flash photography, all the way to more advanced work. Roberto also shows examples of the value flash can add to your work. (I will not be the one to argue this point!)

5. Executing your lighting vision

In this chapter Roberto summarizes the book through 20 photo session case studies, to pull in the elements from each chapter. I whole-heartedly agree with this concept – it is never just one thing you do that makes a photograph successful – it is a culmination of things. You apply what you need, pulling from different techniques.



For any photographer struggling to elevate their work from blah-ness, this is the book you want! Work through it, and I am convinced you will see the results in your photography.

Because this book deals with such essential topics that are at the heart of photography, experienced photographers will have a working knowledge of much of what is presented here. Still, I would heartily recommend this book – it pulls everything together in a superb way. And for the small price of (this beautiful book), if you learn two or three things which change what you do … then it is a bargain.


Other photography books


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Photography classes – I can help you with your photography

I can help you with your photography – that I am confident of. As the author of five books on photography, and as the person who maintains this blog loaded with tutorials, articles and reviews, I know that I can. There are also Photography Workshops that I regularly present, including video tutorials, and personal workshops and Skype sessions. So there are all kinds of ways you can reach me.

If you’re a regular visitor to the Tangents blog, you might wonder why I am awkwardly introducing myself now – hang in there, there’s a reason for this …

In short – my friend Annie has hit some serious health-related snags a few months ago which derailed her life and her business – with medical costs that are staggering. She has set up a fund-raiser page, and I would like to add to this by offering Skype sessions to anyone who might need some advice and (gentle) nudging with their photography. For $25, you’d have a half-an-hour where we can go over areas where you feel uncertain and need advice, or we can do a portfolio review, or even just to hang out and chat a while. That’d be cool too.


She tells her story on this fund-raiser page – Annie’s Quest to Conquer Crazy Clots & Chronic Lyme & stuff.

Even if you don’t know Annie personally, she has tangentially featured on Tangents a few times:

As mentioned above, I want to help her through this fund-raiser page … but I also want to help you with your photography.

With this, I am offering 30 minute Skype sessions at $25 for the rest of the year. The fee is lower than the regular rate! If you’d like to do a Skype session with me where we can chat about your photography … then simply donate $25 to the fundraiser, and in the note include ‘NvN’ so I can keep track of it …. and then you and I connect on Skype and make it happen!


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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?  

review: Nikon AF-S 24-70mm f/2.8E VR Lens

One of my favorite lenses ever was Nikon 28-70mm f/2.8 AF-S, also widely known at the time as The Tank because of its bulk. I was surprised then by just how much the follow-up, the stellar Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8G (B&H / Amazon) improved on it. Now in turn, that lens has been updated with the Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8E VR (B&H / Amazon). The new lens offers Vibration Reduction (VR), and is also said to offer better edge-to-edge sharpness. This comes at a price though – the new VR version is larger and bulkier, and also needs an 82mm filter instead of the regular 77mm filter.

Currently both these lenses are still on the market, with a bit of a jump in price:

I’ve seen a number of internet discussions which said the older version has better center sharpness, even though the new version has better edge sharpness. This might be a bit of a concern then for anyone spending that amount of money, with the eye on the appeal of Vibration Reduction, and improved  edge-to-edge sharpness. One would hope that everything would be improved, and that this wouldn’t be a case of two steps forward, and one step back.

This review then mostly concentrates on comparing these two lenses: the new Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8E VR (affiliate), and the older Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8G (affiliate).


Is the Vibration Reduction really necessary?

This is something you can only answer for yourself, whether you really need it. To some it might seem superfluous for the wider angles, but it might come in handy. One of the examples I showed in another article – bounce flash outdoors with a reflector – showed these images, shot at 1/20th and with this lens, had razor sharp images, hand-held. This lens allowed me to shoot faster, without the hindrance of a tripod.

This next image is an impressionistic view of the hectic pace in a New York subway station as commuters hurtle between platforms on this escalator. To show the movement as a blur, I shot at 1/5th @ f/8 @ 800 ISO with the Nikon D810. The 100% crop will show how sharp the central portion is … hand-held at this slow shutter speed! I did brace my elbows to my side, and checked my breathing. I shot several sequences here, and the majority of images were this sharp. Again, keep in mind that you’re looking at a 100% crop of a massive 36 megapixel file.

Looking at the 100% crop, yes, the Vibration Reduction works. For me, this is a useful addition to this mid-range zoom.



Edge-to-edge sharpness at wider apertures

With these comparisons, keep in mind that we’re looking at massive 36 megapixel images, so the differences might appear negligible when printed, or shown as smaller web-sized images. Also keep in mind that this test is based on single copies of these lenses, and the G-lens had been a workhorse for several years already.

The summary on the sharpness comparisons, for those who are too eager to wade through to the end of the article:

The new Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8E VR definitely has the edge, so to speak. A noticeable improvement for edge sharpness. Keep in mind that this is with high resolution and viewed at 100% … which might not be noticeable when printed at smaller sizes.

In terms of center sharpness – there is a difference that I noticed, where the older non-VR G lens is sharper in the center. But this also seems to vary depending on which focal length you’re working at, as well as the focused distance. Look at the examples for 35mm – the older lens is clearly better (at open aperture), than the new lens in this scene at the memorial site. Yet, there is another comparison for 35mm where the difference isn’t all that apparent, and my vote would swing towards the new VR lens being slightly sharper in the center.



For the first series of comparison tests, I took photographs of a model in the studio, using studio lights. I used the two zoom lenses at 70mm only. I used a tripod to keep distance the same. For the sequences shot in the studio, I manually focused, using Live-View on the Nikon D810. This of course removes the potential for the auto-focus to bring in small errors … but it also now brings in the uncertainty of manual focus and user error.

One thing you’d immediately notice, is that at the shorter focused distance, the older Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8G lens doesn’t zoom as tight as the Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8E VR lens for the same zoom length. In other words, the older non-VR G lens is a bit short of 70mm. Well, definitely shorter than the new lens.

The first image is the centered test shot with the VR lens, but I was off in how I framed the model. The image is not quite centered. For the 2nd photo, her right eye is in the center, as intended. So the comparison isn’t quite as specific as I intended, but the results are similar to what I found for the larger part of various tests – the older non-VR lens is sharper in the center than the new lens!



Now, comparing image sharpness about half-way to the right-hand edge – our model’s right eye. (My farming was better for this series.) As you can see in the 100% crop images, image sharpness fell off very noticeably already for the older non-VR G lens.

The  Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8E VR lens maintained sharpness better as we moved away from the middle of the frame.



The test sequences were shot at the memorial site – there is plenty detail to be resolved along the center line. To simplify this test, I didn’t look at the corners – just the center, the left and the right hand edge. I zoomed from 24mm to 28mm, 35, 50 and 70mm. I shot at f/2.8 and f/4 and f/5.6 to specifically see how the lenses compared at the wider apertures. The camera was set to 64 ISO.

For brevity, I am showing just a few comparisons here to show the typical results for f/2.8 aperture. You can view more 100% crop images via this link, for a more complete comparison. The naming convention of the files should be self-evident.

The left- and right-hand comparisons for the view shown in this image, shot at 24mm:




Zooming to 35mm:




Zooming to 70mm:





I’m showing the edges here, since the central portions where indistinguishable in sharpness.




For test sequences on the first day when I shot these types of comparison photos, I shot with two D750 bodies, of which one was a rental camera. (The other test images shown elsewhere here, were all done with the Nikon D810.) I hand-held the cameras (at high shutter speed), to shoot quickly. The non-VR G lens was on the rental body. The central portions for 35mm and 50mm were softer for the older, non-VR lens. But for the 24mm and 70mm zoom settings, the lenses looked equally sharp to me. So this difference for central sharpness for this range, might be an anomaly due to the one camera being less precisely calibrated. Still, I want to show the comparison here, even if only as an illustration of the close tolerances in doing these types of comparison.




Specifications of the Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8E VR

The Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8E VR  (B&H / Amazon) offers these features and spec:

The classic standard zoom now features Vibration Reduction image stabilization, helping to reduce camera shake by up to four shutter speed stops. This helps considerably with handheld shooting in low-light situations.

Internal focusing design maintains the overall lens length during operation and contributes to a lighter overall weight.

An electromagnetic aperture mechanism is integrated into the lens design to provide greater exposure control stability that is especially beneficial when working with faster continuous shooting rates.

A revised optical design incorporates a unique aspherical extra-low dispersion element, in addition to three aspherical, two extra-low dispersion, and one high refractive index elements, to help reduce chromatic aberrations and distortions throughout the zoom range in order to achieve high image sharpness and clarity. The Nano Crystal and Super Integrated Coatings further benefit image quality by reducing lens flare for improved contrast and color accuracy and fluorine coatings on the front and rear elements protect against dust, moisture, and smudging.

A unique aspherical extra-low dispersion element is incorporated into the optical design, along with three aspherical, one high refractive index, and two extra-low dispersion glass elements, to reduce chromatic and spherical aberrations, distortion, coma (comatic aberration), and flare for consistent edge-to-edge sharpness and illumination.

Silent Wave Motor autofocus mechanism provides quick, quiet, and precise autofocus performance that is ideal for photographing fast-moving subjects.

Specialized electromagnetic aperture mechanism provides greater exposure control stability that is especially beneficial when working with fast continuous shooting rates.

Nano Crystal and Super Integrated Coatings have been applied to lens elements to minimize surface and internal reflections for a marked reduction in lens flare and ghosting.

Fluorine coatings on the front and rear elements afford protection to the optical system.



The new Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8E VR definitely has noticeable improvement for edge sharpness than the older lens. Keep in mind that this is with high resolution and viewed at 100% … which might not be noticeable when printed at smaller sizes.

However, the older non-VR G lens appeared sharper in the center for many of the test images shot at wide open aperture. This wasn’t always consistently so in all the tests that I shot – the discrepancy could be user error or mismatched cameras, as noted in the review. It also seems to vary depending on which focal length you’re working at, as well as the focused distance.

So where does this leave us? If you have the older Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8 then you can rest easy – you have a spectacular lens. If you bought the new version, then you can relax, you really have a superb lens. If you have the extra money, I would recommend the new VR lens. But either way you end up a superb lens.

My personal decision – I am staying with the upgraded lens with VR. The sharper edges will benefit me more with group photos which will be shot at medium apertures anyway.


Related links


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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:

edit:  This is a brilliant take on photo criticism:

William Gatesman wrote this wonderful piece:

Unsure about critiques?  Here's a good place to start:

And here's my favorite intro book to criticism for photography:

read first, disagree second. If at all.

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 so I'm not worry you'll get too bored.

See you at the end of the week.

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.

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...

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, 

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 Librés 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.

A bit of interior work.

Camera: Olympus OM5.2
Lens: Panasonic 12-35mm f2.8
©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; "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 and buy a copy of "The Lisbon Portfolio" I'd be outrageously happy. I might even be able to afford second Sony A7R2....


I have recently embarked on the fool's errand we also call, redesigning my website. In the course of getting started I put together a list of seemingly rational steps. One of the first things on the list was to gather together suitable visual assets to place in galleries on the new website. I was looking mostly for work done in the last three years.  

This little task had me going through scores of galleries in Lightroom to find the images that may not have been selected for self-promotion due to over sight or over work at the time of their creation. Although I am looking mostly for photographs of people I occasionally come across images like the napkin in the previous post, or these lovely parfait glasses on a bar. I toss them into the folder with everything else, not necessarily because I will use them for the website but because they stimulate something in my "looking" gland that makes my eyes happy. Maybe it's eye cortisol. 

At any rate, to tie back to the blog headline, I had forgotten that I had previously owned a sample of the 50mm f1.8 E Series lens for the cropped frame Nex cameras and, by evidence of my archives, I seem to have enjoyed pressing it into service quite often. With a credit at my camera store and an active subconscious I swept a copy of the lens back into my sphere of photography. There are quite a number of images in my files that were taken with that lens on the front of both the Nex-6 and the Nex-7. The image above was done during a food shoot at a nice restaurant. The Nex-7 and the 50mm were constant companions at the time, even though we photographed the food with a different combination of camera and lens. 

I'm happy to have one again. It plays well with the new cameras, and, I assume it will work on the A7R2 in a cropped mode...

Click and make big to see what the fuss is about.
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