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Instagram

I’m cool and hip with this Instagram thing. So much, that I had two accounts – my main account (@neilvn), and one for the Tangents blog. But you know what – it is time to embrace just the one IG account.

So to all you groovy, groovy people – please follow me @neilvn  which will be the Instagram account is where I’ll be posting images that appear on the Tangents blog, as well as anything else that is eye-catching.  Until now, I’ve used the neilvn Instagram account purely just for photos shot with my iPhone and Instagram itself. However, I think it is long overdue that I also share everything that I do that is of interest, via one Instagram account.

So please follow me there. Or don’t. I’m cool enough to act like I don’t care. But really, I do care! A lot.

If you are curious about the photograph, (without all the text over it), you can check it out here:  Personal photos from the archives – South Africa

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I hadn't seen a lot of press about this book when I stumbled across it. As a big, big Avedon fan I had to buy it and start reading it immediately. In my estimate he's one of the five powerhouse photographers who shaped Photography across the 20th century; especially in the United States of America. His work is powerful and seems to be doing a great job withstanding all tests of time.

So here, finally, is a definitive biography of a man who changed the business of photography, written by a business partner who knew him socially, commercially and as one of his closest confidantes. 

The interesting thing, to me, about the book and the story it tells is how Avedon almost single-handedly demanded that photographers of a certain stature get well paid for their work, their insight and their art. Consider this, in 1965 he was asked to become a photographer for Vogue Magazine. He'd been the super star photographer at Harper's Bazaar previously. He demanded (and got!) a contract for one million dollars per year. In 1965. And this was not an exclusive contract, nor were the demands on his time constricting. He continued to work for the French arts magazine, Egoiste, as well as a legion of commercial, advertising clients. 

The reason he was able to command lofty fees and huge retainers? It was a simple equation; when Avedon shot something the metrics of newsstand magazines sales and client product sales skyrocketed. Clearly he was able to tap into the markets in a way his competitors could not, and he was rewarded for it. 

While the book, written by his business partner of 37 years, has a chatty, sorority girl feel to the prose and the subject matter ranges from deep insights into business and art philosophy all the way to catty name calling and reputation slamming but the underlying stories are endlessly fascinating to someone like me who is still amazed at what Avedon was able to accomplish, and the legacy he left behind. 

I'm on page 335 of 672 pages and I'm loathe to put it down; even to write this...

If you want to see just how golden that particular "golden age" of photography was then this is the history book that looks behind the seamless background paper of a master image maker who was, perhaps, even more masterful as the marketer of his own image and vision. It's well worth the read if only to serve as a kick in the ass to raise your own expectations of what can be done.

Buy it. Read it. Laugh at it. Whatever. 

Note: I know that some readers don't hold Avedon in the same regard I do and I'm willing to listen to your (valid, non-emotional) reasons but if you just want to come here and trash him be aware that those comments probably won't pass by our resident censor. 
In the meantime I've got nothing new to post.
Photograph from our marketing shoot for ZACH Theatre's production of:
"The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time."

I was hauling my enormous Panasonic G85 around with me this morning as Studio Dog and I patrolled the neighborhood looking for deers and skunks at which to bark. I was giving some long thought to a few things I'd read recently on the web about using cellphones as cameras, in place of "real" cameras and it struck me that we've come to believe that it's a multiplicity of uses that drives adaptation of smart phones to take some people's daily photos. 

I began to think: What if it's not the immediacy of being able to send a photo that moment that's driving the adoption? What if people just like the form factor and the fact that newer generations of processors and software have made the images from the small form factors much more appealing and technically sufficient? 

The top dog in the cellphone market right now, for photography, video and day-to-day stay in touch at all costs syndrome, is probably the iPhone X. Big screen, fast processing, many (too many) features, much technology dedicated to things like facial recognition, banking security, fast access to multiple networks, the ability to crunch more data more quickly, etc. The downside of owning the "best" cellphone camera on the market is obviously the price. It's north of a thousand bucks. 

This led me to start thinking about an alternate product; one that I would want to have, one that would appeal to purists looking to downsize from Godzilla DSLRs into a product that was capable of taking good images but really, really fit into a pocket. And how about one without a recurring, monthly price burden? 

There are many times when I think I would like to own a super small camera that did 4K video, had image stabilization, made good images and had ample storage. Something the size of my iPhone 5S but without the initial purchase price penalty or the monthly subscription to AT&T to keep the whole mess breathing.

Here's the camera I designed in my head as Studio Dog sniffed fresh deer poop: It would have the same form factor as the iPhone 5S. All internal electronics would be dedicated to the perfect processing of images and videos. There would be no web access, no wi-fi, no bluetooth, no apps. It would shoot in raw and basic Jpeg as well as H.265 video. There would be three external ports across the bottom end of the device: One 3.5mm jack for microphones. One 3.5mm jack for headphones. One USB3 C port for charging and seamless downloading of images. The interior space would be dedicated to battery, processing and storage. No antennae, no gingerbread, but also no high prices.

The mini-camera should hit the market at $199 or less. A one time buy. No contracts. No monthly dues. No endless parade of apps to buy. Just buy the device, charge it and go shoot. Finished shooting? Go home, plug it into your computer, tablet or laptop (or even your phone) and download your images. Recharge, do it again.

There are already cheap phones on the market with cameras but most of them absolutely suck as a camera. Think of this device as the iPod of cameras. A dedicated device tuned to the way real photographers want to use them. 

Yes, we are all pretty affluent and we already have phones but think about the legions of younger, less affluent people who can't afford the stretch to the very best phones --- especially the weird conundrum of unlocked phones with no service plan. I think they (the ardent imaging fans) would lunge for something like this. 

Think also of the people who need "crash cameras" for dangerous shooting situations where the likelihood of losing a camera is high. A bag full of $199 fully capable mini-cams could be just right. They would be elegant versions of GoPros but with better performance and a more enticing design aesthetic. 

I'd buy one in a heartbeat. Part of the attraction to me is the singular nature of the device's nature. It would have one role; imaging. It would have one attractive feature set: easy to carry and nearly disposable. It would be the perfect camera for kids and people who sometimes get pushed into the swimming pool with their street clothes on. Might not survive the chlorinated water but it wouldn't cost a thousand bucks to replace. 

I don't always want a phone. If I used my iPhone as a camera I would be pissed off when people called as I was trying to take a photo. If I turn off the phone I also turn off the camera. Yes, I could ignore the ring but yes, I could ignore mosquitos and loud banging noises but they don't help me concentrate on the task at hand. 

Would you buy one? Something the photographic equivalent of an iPhone 6 or 7 but without all the social magnet bullshit installed? I would. I would jump at the chance. For those times when I'm in a suit and tie and a camera slung over the shoulder just isn't right....
Sidney. ©2018 Kirk Tuck

Tech specs: Panasonic GH5. Lens: Rokinon 50mm f1.2 UMC (for cropped framers). Aspect ratio set to square. Converted to black and white in DXO Film Pack. Tri-X setting. Finished in Snapseed. 
Sidney. ©2018 Kirk Tuck


Sidney. ©2018 Kirk Tuck


Sidney. ©2018 Kirk Tuck


Image taken in our little studio using a 4x6 foot panel with several LED lights blasting into the diffusion material on the panel. One small, battery powered LED panel on the background.

I worked with Sidney for an hour and a half and we got some fun stuff for her portfolio. It was nice to just do a simple shot in the studio for a change. Seems like everything else we've done this year has been on location.

It was fun to shoot nearly wide open and see just how well the lens and body worked together in manual focus.

More to come.

What’s in my bag – lighting gear for headshots on location

In one of the previous articles dealing with lighting gear for headshots on location – headshot photography lighting on location – I showed the need to be flexible. There I showed a number of the setups I have used, depending on the client’s needs, and also dependent on where we are shooting. With this article now, I want to more specifically show the lighting gear I have in my lighting roller case – my usual minimum setup. As you might expect by now, my lighting choice is based on the Profoto B1 and A1 flashes. It is a reliable, and easy to use ecosystem of lights.

Most often I don’t have the luxury of a lot of time to set up – so the gear should not be fussy to use. Even then, it should be flexible enough for me to change things up a little bit.

Oh, this isn’t just my setup for headshots – this is my general setup for any kind of shoot where I need my lighting gear. For example: Fitness photography – photo session in the gym.

 


 

Here’s what I roll in with when I do headshots or similar type of studio-on-location shoot. Two large roller cases (and a shoulder bag) that contain everything I need. It looks neat and uncluttered. I need to look slick and efficient in front of a client.

The taller bag is the Photoflex Transpac roller case (B&H) / Amazon) from which I stripped out all the dividers so I can more easily fill it up with light-stands and umbrellas. The interior of this roller case is 46″ / 116 cm tall, so anything that is tall goes in this bag.

The shorter bag there is the Think Tank Production Manager 40 (affiliate), which is a high-capacity rolling gear case specifically designed for lighting gear … and the contents of this bag is what I want to show here since it contains the flashes and other accessories that I would use.

 


 

In the first two compartments you can see two Profoto B1 flashes (B&H / Amazon) – they are the two main units I use during most shoots on location. On top of them, you can see the pouches with the OCF grids and gels for the B1 flashes, in case I need those.

The third compartment has two Profoto A1 flashes for Nikon (B&H / Amazon). (They are also available for Canon). I use the A1 flashes for rim lighting, or to light up the backgrounds, or I use them as fill-flash. They are also super-handy should I ever need backup flashes to the B1 units.

That red & black zip pouch has the Profoto A1 gels, as well as spare A1 batteries. I also keep two Manfrotto Snap Tiltheads (B&H / Amazon), in that pouch. They are needed to mount the A1 flash to a light-stand and to attach an umbrella. So everything in that compartment has to do with the A1 flashes.

The 4th compartment has 4 spare B1 batteries, and the Profoto Air controllers for Nikon, Canon and Sony. I primarily shoot with Nikon, but keep all the controllers together. I have the variety because I use the Profoto B1 flashes for some of my photography workshops, and need to be able to use the flashes across platforms.

Then there is the D810 with the 70-200mm f/2.8 VR II which is my main camera & lens for headshots. Of course, I bring backup in a shoulder bag – in which I carry my laptop as well.

The two blue zip-up bags in that one compartment – the one contains the tethering cables and connectors. The other bag has hair spray and cheap $1 combs.  There is a handheld mirror that I keep in the outermost pocket of this roller case.

Then you can see the corner of a white box peek out in the smaller compartment – in there I keep a spare bulb for the B1 flashes. I’ve had one flash die on me when it took a knock and the flash tube cracked. So now I keep a spare. With the two Profoto A1 flashes, and a spare bulb for the B1 units, I should we well covered for an emergency. The small blue bag with the white box is the rain cover that comes with this Think Tank roller case.

Oh, that black thing on top of that white box is …. you guessed it, the Black Foamie Thing. Have BFT, will travel.

 


 

The Manfrotto Snap Tiltheads (B&H / Amazon), are some of the handiest lighting accessories that I have ever bought. They are compact – unlike the cheaper units with the lock handle. Then they also have some kind of spring-loaded mechanism inside, which keeps the top-heavy flash from just toppling over. Brilliant!

What also needs to be mentioned – the way the tilt-head locks the flash into position, is really good. That black textured knob right below the flash, screws up, and locks the flash into position. The flash can not fall off, even if you don’t use the flash’s locking mechanism itself.

They are well thought out to ensure your flash doesn’t get damaged.

There is the slot then for you to slip an umbrella shaft through.

As I mentioned, I keep two of these in a small zip-up bag in the camera case. They are compact enough for that.

 



 

In the aforementioned article on headshot photography lighting on location, I showed several setups. Here again I want to show three recent setups I had for headshots. Of course, it is imperative that I shoot tethered – the client wants to, and needs to see the images right then. Shooting tethered helps involving your subject in the process, and allows them to adjust clothing or hair, and suggest a few changes perhaps.

Here I used a Profoto B1 and a large reflecting umbrella as the main light. I didn’t want to bounce my flash into the area behind me, because there were other vendors right behind me. So I wanted to contain the light. But it turned out that this was just a touch too contrasty as the single light source – therefore I added fill-flash – a Profoto A1 with a handy black foamie thing to flag my flash. This extra light was just enough to give a nice lighting ratio, and lifted the shadows a bit.

For the background, I had a gridded Profoto B1 with a gel to give a warmer glow to the background. The background here is a roll of Fashion Grey made by Savage backdrops (Amazon). I am now using a Lastolite collapsible White / Grey (6×7) background (B&H) which is easier to set up.

 



 

Here I had the ceiling height to use the massive he Westcott 7′ Parabolic Umbrella  (B&H / Amazon). This is my favorite large light modifier – it is light and it isn’t expensive.

Here you can see the Lastolite collapsible White / Grey (6×7) background  (B&H) which I like for the ease with which it sets up. You can see the two Profoto A1 flashes there – one to light the background, and one as a hair / rim light.

 



 

Again, a very similar setup. but to avoid the umbrella reflecting in my eye-glasses, I chose to bounce the main light into the ceiling. This gives a nice soft light that I can still make directional by bouncing it slightly to the side. There is so much spill light, that you don’t really need a fill light to the one side – you just rotate the main light slightly.

With these pull-back shots there is flare because I had my assistant step further back for these photos. For the actual head-shots, I am next to the light, and there is no risk of flare from the main flash.

In the second photo, I stood a little to the side to show the flash lighting up the background. Of course, you can dial the power up to give a brighter background.

The rim-light here is lower than I would usually set it up, but I had to reverse-engineer a previous headshot for the client.

And here is the result – a test shot of me that my assistant took. It is also imperative that you don’t keep your clients waiting – you have to be completely ready when they arrive.

 



 

Related articles

 

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checking the details.

I shot a simple interview last Friday. It took about half an hour to set up and maybe half an hour to shoot. I didn't do much pre-planning and I let a marketing person steer the interview and now I'm in editing hell. The interview subject was articulate and video-genic but... in response to rather open-ended questions from the interviewer she gave us a fast paced recital of much (good) technical information. The pain comes when the marketing team comes back and asks for about thirty minutes of great stuff to be cut down to two minutes. At that point you realize that all that water cooler talk about pre-production is a lot more than random bullshit.

The marketing team and I are both guilty of an age old issue: we should have decided exactly what we wanted this video piece to do, mapped out exactly what we wanted and stopped treating the shooting process as a classic, open ended interview. Not a "Sixty Minutes" piece. In fact, we might have served the final purpose better by defining the answers we wanted and semi-scripting our talent.

Instead I'm slicing and dicing and using ample B-roll to disguise all the quick cuts I'm making in order to piece together a jigsaw puzzle with way too many pieces.

But before you I'm strictly a still photographer - this has no relevance for me types rush to move on to the next gear review I have to point out that what I'm learning today has relevance to both sides of the aisle. I realize that I could have been delivering better and more effective still photography for my clients if I spent a lot more time and effort up front. We have a tendency to let clients indulge in the fantasy that a photograph can serve many, many situations and still work. The reality is that matching the style, content, look and feel and intention of a photography to its final and highest priority use will make for a less generic/homogeneous image and will more solidly glue eyeballs to the screen or the page.

Here's an example that seems always fresh in my mind: Four years ago, when I was shooting mostly with the Panasonic GH4 cameras (and liking them very much) a regular client hired me to shoot a series of tongue-in-cheek images, full length, of a very talented talent who dressed and played the part of: an adventurer, a plumber, a mountain climber, etc. We shot twelve images with props in all. Here's where it got dicey! This client had nearly always worked with me on web-based projects. All our images (with a few small print exceptions) went to phone screens, laptop screens, desktop screens and 1080p monitors at trade shows. The GH4 was the perfect camera for any of these uses, especially so when we were able to bring the talent into the studio and pump up the light letting us shoot at ISO 100 and at optimum apertures. We all looked at the images at the end of the shoot. The client, the agency, the photographer and the talent. We all patted each other on the back.

It was only there at the end that I overheard the agency creative director say to the client that these images were going to look great on posters! Yikes. Here I was shooting 16 megapixel files on a small sensor camera....

When the client got into their shiny German car and sped away I casually asked the creative director to fill me in. He was happy to. The images would run on the client website...and as a series of big, 30x40 inch, printed posters. I smiled as I waved goodbye to the C.D. and then frantically got on the computer to download the latest version of DXO. I was wholly dependent on software to up rez these files into something solid for the final use.

Had I gone through a logical pre-production conversation with the agency I would have asked, first, "What is our primary use of the images? Are there secondary uses? Will there be retouching/compositing involved? Who will do that process? What kinds of files will you need? How do you need them delivered? But, of course, we had gotten comfortable with the consistency of this client's previous use of our images and were only concentrating on getting the creative stuff done.

Had I done my upfront homework I might have decided to rent a higher res camera for this engagement. The client and agency certainly had the budget to pay for it. There would have been no post shoot panic. No lunging for more software.

As it was the IDEA of failing destroyed my appreciation for the cameras I had been working with (happily) and sent me on a senseless journey of camera migration, buying and selling, that lasted years until I ended up back where I started. With a Panasonic GH camera.

This is not an isolated story. And it's not always about the efficacy of the gear. Sometimes we get wrong-headed about the concept. A lot of the time we allow the presumptions of the clients to drive our mistakes.

A few weeks ago we shot in a medical practice and the talent provided to us by the client had skull and crossbones tattoos on each bare forearm. The client was standing right next to the camera. Approved every shot. We took a break and my assistant pulled me aside and asked about the tattoos (this is Austin, after all...). She suggested we rush over to a nearby big box store and get a generic long sleeve shirt for the talent. I didn't take her suggestion and act on it. I figured the client had provided the talent and knew what she was getting.

A week later, long after the images were delivered, the tattoos became "an issue." Not for the initial use but for one of the many, many subsidiary uses for the photos which we never discussed. A long sleeved shirt would have saved us (client and photographer) hours and dollars of careful and complex retouching.

But the painful awareness about the results of not doing pre-production are hardly owned only by working professional photographers. Hobbyists could earn efficiency and make better images by taking the time to knuckle down on research and planning as well. When I am in "hobbyist" mode I often head out of the house with little or no plan other than to walk around with this week's magical lens and try to find fun images, or images that make me look like a good photographer. I often get downtown and realize that there is a motorcycle parade and that a good, longer lens would be more likely to get me the photos I want than the 35mm equivalent some spirited discussion on the web led me to buy.

I might not check the weather and then spend time loitering at the Whole Foods coffee bar, or under welcoming awnings,  waiting for a cold rain to stop. All the time cognizant that I could have been doing something better with my time. And don't get me started on the number of times I headed out without a spare battery....or even an SD card in my camera.

Now I like to go out with a plan. I'm open to chance but, based on the prevailing weather, the event schedule in Austin and some little bit of self-awareness I'm at least having more fun. Now I need to translate that level of preparation back into some of my jobs and stop showing up on autopilot.

New check list: Do I know completely what my client expects? Do I have the right gear to do it? Am I prepared for the weather? Do I have an extra battery? Do I have a big-ass memory card loaded, formatted and ready to go? Have I checked to make sure downtown isn't going to be closed for some awful political rally or construction project? Do I have an idea of what I want to get from the adventure ( pro or amateur ) and am I prepared to improvise? Finally, have I decided on where I'll go for lunch? 

So, back to my video project at hand... I wish I'd used a different microphone. The sound was great but the talent kept hitting the cord and making noise. A cardioid on a stand would have been a better choice than the lavaliere I used. I wish I had asked questions during the interview that would have led to more compact and linear answers. I wish I had reviewed all of the B-roll assets that were available to me so I could steer the interview in a direction that would take advantage of the material I had in my toolbox. I wish we had scripted to a tighter time frame. I wish I could have previsualized how the interview should go in advance. There is no team in I. And the buck stops at the editing workstation.



It's a near constant in photography; we all love the idea of the fast glass with the rare earth elements and the big expanse of glass across the front. It comes from a constant source of self-delusion, we think that lenses with big apertures and the ability to suck in billions more photons per nano second will make our photographs mystically marvelous. I've fallen for the trap over and over again. I got caught again in the snare just a week or two ago and a few weeks before that as well. 

I think the lens sickness is even worse for people who shoot smaller format camera systems. We're subconsciously (or with both eyes wide open) trying to compensate for the more limited ability to put stuff out of background in our photographs by constantly looking for lenses at every focal length that might be a stop or two sharper than the standard/serviceable lenses at the same angle of view, always hoping that the newest lens computations, coupled with premium glass, will give us high sharpness and the ability to do what our full frame cameras seem to do in a more effortless way; drop things out of focus.  

Here's some advice from the field: Don't bother spending the big bucks to go from f2.0 to f1.2. You won't get what you are looking for and you'll spend dearly for the privilege of trying. 

I packed up my fast glass this last week and went off to shoot an advertising/marketing job. I had dreams of shooting heroic faces framed against gelatinous nothingness, important machines separated from their stark backgrounds by the laws of optics and physics but in nearly every case the regular and routine photos that I take for work (and for play) seem to call for more detail, more context, more  parts in focus. 

There were a few shots where I needed to isolate a small, handheld object; in almost every situation I found that "longer" was just as good or better than "faster." If I wanted to isolate an object then stepping back a few feet and zooming in with a longer lens nearly always was more interesting and effective than staying close and trying desperately to accurately maintain focus through the process. 

The new, sharp, Rokinon 50mm f1.2 UMC was out of my camera bag and on my camera for a little while during the shoot but it quickly became obvious to me that in the modern age a lens like the 12-100mm f4.0 Olympus Pro zoom could run circles around the more traditional lens. Even though it's (gulp!) three stops slower.  It was just so much easier to get exact composition along with a perfect balance of sharp and unsharp with the zoom. 

The Online Photographer recently ran a series of posts about picking lenses. One of the articles proposed a "nested" approach to lens buying. The idea is to buy an all purpose zoom like the 12/100mm. Ostensibly you'd buy one which had a focal length range that is centered around your preferred angle of view, and the lens would also have a high enough performance to be sufficient for the bulk of your work. The lens would probably be bulky so the other part of the advice was to also choose a second lens that would be a single focal length lens also having high performance and, perhaps, a fast aperture. One would use the all purpose lens for .... all purposes and use the nested, "prime" lens for those times when you wanted to divest yourself of the burden of hefty machines and get more in touch with your photographic spirit animals. 

I'm on the fence. I think it's great to be able to change your perspective on lens choice day by day but at other times I pine for the discipline to understand and accept that a lot of lens buying is just emotional compensation for not being as good at this art/craft as I should be after years and years of practice. 

Lenses, especially zoom lenses, have gotten really good lately. Cameras have more or less pounded down the need for high speed apertures to prevent noisy files. That means the only real reason to own "fast glass" now is depth of field control. I guess it makes a certain about of sense to have some fast, middle focal length options. Maybe a 50mm equivalent and an 85-90mm equivalent as well. For those times when the background is just trashed; or needs to be trashed. 

But if I were putting together a system and wanted to stay within a limited budget I'd be looking at all purpose zoom lenses first and foremost. If I still shot Nikon my first lens would be the 24-120mm f4.0. If I were still in the Canon camp it would be the granddaddy of wide-ranging normal zooms, the 24-105mm f4.0. If I were still banging away with some full frame Sony bodies I'd be all over the new 24-105mm G f4.0 lens. In the m4:3rds realm it's always a toss up between range and speed. I made my choice with the Olympus 12-100mm f4.0 but I have a feeling I'd be just as happy with the Olympus 12-40mm f2.8 or even the Panasonic/Leica 12-60mm f-something to f-something.

I've found that these are the lenses that most people; pros and amateurs, use 90% of the time. The next up would be longer and faster zooms like the venerable 70-200mm f2.8s and equivalents. In last place are the wide zooms and after that, and only then, do people pull the primes out and frustrate themselves with tightly constrained choices. 

These are transient thoughts. A hangover from my daylong shoot last Saturday. Ask me again tomorrow and I'm sure I'll be extolling the virtues of my collection of prime lenses once again. But stick around and watch me pack that camera bag for the next job. It's zoom rich. It's prime poor. 

I chalk it up to the mythic boundary that supposedly exists between our professional work and our avocation.  

2018 Lens of the year. Yes, I know. It came out a while ago...

Random hat shot. Concentric circles and oddly sensual curves.


Once again, the photograph here has nothing to do with the written content of the blog. It was done for fun with a G85 and a 25mm Panasonic lens. 

One of the interesting challenges for photographers who shoot a lot for medical practices is that presented by M.R.I. machines. These diagnostic machines create incredibly powerful magnetic fields that can strip the information off your credit card mag strip in microseconds. They can be dangerous. Any object that is ferrous can become a deadly projectile if it's inside the room with an active MRI scanner. Especially with the new, more powerful 3T generation of scanners. From a strictly photographic perspective the real issue is that you CAN'T take a camera into the scanner room and you certainly can't take lights and stands into the area with you. Anything you do to better photograph the newest MRIs will have to be done from beyond the doorway, or when the machine is off.

Here's the problem with turning off an MRI scanner: turning it back on and getting it back up and running can cost nearly $100,000. Yikes! You don't want to be the guy who takes one of these medical diagnostic machines offline...  And if you did happen to find a current MRI scanner that was down and could be accessed for a photo shoot you wouldn't have the benefit of the wonderful "running" lights and illuminated information panels that add the polish to the pictures.

Our first series of shots on Saturday morning were, of course, the new 3T MRI scanner at a clinic in Kyle, Texas. Since this was not my first rodeo with radiology I knew not to go past the MRI door alarms with things like my cellphone in a pocket, my good watch on my wrist or my wallet full of super high (ha, ha!) credit limit credit cards on my person. I didn't wear those Red Wing boots with the steel toes and I double checked to make sure none of my dental fillings were cast iron.

I took these precautions because I knew the first thing I'd be doing on Saturday morning would be cleaning and straightening all the stuff that piles up around these giant machines so I would not have clutter in my finished photographs. There was an angle from the door way that allowed me to capture the whole machine in a frame and I used the 8-18mm lens on a camera about three feel back from the door way to make a "portrait" of the MRI scanner. It was during this first shot that I realized how much I depend on just a blush of light to make a photograph work. Since I couldn't put lights in the room and was relegated to just using the existing fluorescent "can" lights in the room I tried all the tricks one can find on modern cameras, including the built in HDR which went a long way towards taming the shadows.

The real issue was when the clients wanted to construct portraits of the technicians who operate the scanners, in the room with the scanner. Again, since I couldn't light the portraits in any style I fell back on trying to position the techs so the light from the cans didn't fall on them directly but was, in a  sense, a feathered penumbra of light. At our first stop we photographed our models having regular scans and also biopsy scans. We had a resident expert on protocol with us so we wouldn't make any of the gaffs that sometimes occur. My favorite (self-deprecatating) medical faux pas (a long time ago) was to photograph an operating room scene in which the anesthesiologist had on neither gloves nor a face mask..... He was a real anesthesiologist so I thought he would know his way around the O.R..... (never assume).

We moved on from there to sonograms, mammography and various other modalities of diagnostic breast imaging. We used, mostly, Godox flashes on lightweight stands which could be controlled from the camera position. Two bounced off the acoustic tile ceilings and, typically, one used as a main light coming from a side angle and modified with a 60 inch photographic umbrella.

There wasn't anything technical to slow us down but there is always a molasses effect when using amateur talent and that involves their self-consciousness at being directed and photographed and their inevitable attempts to use humor to compensate. The marketing mission is always to project confidence from the people in the photographs and, usually, a big grin is antithetical to the serious gravity that a medical practice, which is based on ferreting out cancers and other life threatening issues, wants to portray to the public.

All you can really do is let the giggles and group dynamic run its course. That, and take a lot of images in the hopes of wearing down the grinning facades and replacing them with an almost tired resignation. Best case scenario is the medical tech that arrives in newly pressed scrubs, has no visible tattoos and has a confident bearing. One on a tight time schedule is even better as there is less playful banter and less messing around.

I worked on this project, with master assistant, Amy Smith, all day Saturday. We did about 25 set ups and shoot promiscuously in order to get just the right expressions, no blinks and good synergy between our model "patients" and our volunteer techs. By the time we wrapped up I'd shot about 1,400 raw frames and was on my third battery. Batteries go quicker when the camera's live preview is always on, but having a good, live preview means the client can always see and approve images as we go along.

In the early hours I tried to press my new, fast lenses (Sigma 30mm f1.4 and Rokinon 50mm f1.2) into service but in nearly every case it was important to show context --- or at least the expensive machines which were the subtext for our project. This meant we wanted sharp focus on faces and acceptable focus on our machines. The back walls could take care of themselves.

The two lenses that made life easy for me were, of course, the Olympus 12-100mm f4.0, and the Panasonic 8-18mm. Each had an important place in the process. But towards the end of the day I started feeling as though I could have done everything with the 12-100mm and not bothered to bring along the backpack with the rest of the lenses. To be able to go from a wide shot of an exam room with a bed, a scanner and two people to a tight shot of a biopsy needle held by a gloved hand was great. Even better was that at either end of the focal length spectrum the lens delivered sharp results.

We packed up around 5:00pm and headed back to Austin through the gray of a cool and overcast winter day. It was nice to work with Amy again. She was instrumental starting about a decade ago in helping me organize the photography for all five of my photography books and sourcing talent for the illustrations required. She's been working with more video and film directors lately so I hope to incorporate her into future film projects.

I'm not used to being assisted that much these days but it's really great to have a second set of eyes on the set looking for visual trouble and squashing it quickly.

If there is anything I'll change in our next radiology encounter it will be to use our Atomos Ninja Flame monitor to do our previews on. The bigger screen, which is able to be calibrated, would come in handy for aiding clients in seeing what the finals will really look like.

We're back at work here. I was working on a video edit all day yesterday and I sent it to my client for review last night around 11:30. I got notes back at noon today and, as always, I'm trying to figure out how to get it to shrink from 4 minutes to 2 minutes. Some sort of magic trick involved? We'll get out that editing knife and see what can be cut....

The raw files from the GH5 are beautiful and the rendering of flesh tones is nearly perfect. I have a little card in my camera case to remind me of the best ways to fine tune files. Always white balance each scene first and then figure out exposure. Changing white balance after setting exposure can cause the effects of exposure to change. Focus on faces when in the scene, at all other times focus one third of the way into the scene and calculate depth of field to cover.

one other note: I played with a Panasonic G9 recently and love the new viewfinder. Am currently considering (but have not decided) to trade in my G85 and get one of the new cameras. Might just be a waste of time, money and energy but....






Long-time readers will recognize this shot, of the Glenn L. Martin Wind Tunnel in Maryland, as the photo from the very first post on Strobist in 2006. I was happy with it when I shot it. And to some degree, I still am.

But looking at it today, there are definitely some things I would approach differently. So let's walk through it, bearing in mind what we've learned since way back then.Read more »
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