6.22.2017

Focal length is a big part of a portrait vision. I prefer longer focal lengths. This portrait was shot at 189mm.


Given the choice I'll nearly always shoot longer and longer rather than shorter when it comes to making portraits. There is something about the compression, blended with lighting that helps accentuate the topology of a face, that makes a portrait seem more real to me. When the first digital cameras with interchangeable lenses hit the market in the early part of the century almost every model came complete with an APS-C sized sensor. I was amazed at the number of people who thought nothing of shooting portraits with their 50mm lenses on those cameras. While the 50mm focal length translates to about a 75mm equivalent on a full frame camera I think that's still more than a bit short for good compression when making portraits. 

We could be pedantic and suggest that the 75mm user back up a bit and then crop and that the results would match a longer lens but we know there's other stuff at play. In the early digital days part of the equation was a resistance to cropping in order to ensure there were enough pixels left over to make a decent image. I'd say that if one is shooting on full frame cameras and cropping square the same reservations apply. 

In the best of all possible worlds I'd use something in the range of 135 to 200mm for a studio portrait and I'd also specify that my background be yards and yards behind my subject instead of mere feet. The further away the background the easier it is to drop out of focus and also to light as a totally separate plane. If we put the background very far back we soon see another reason to go longer with our portrait lenses. A shorter lens will show the edges of the background sooner and will limit our ability to push it back as far as we can. In essence, a long portrait lens, delivers more options for the relationship between the subject and background. 

There are a few downsides to using a long lens for a portrait. If you light faces in one of the current styles that calls for flat and even light across a face you'll find the compression makes the face seem wider; fatter. This is rarely a benefit to the subject. When we compose with long lenses I try to create light with quicker gradations to shadow in order to create a more three dimensional rendering to the face. I'm trying to bring back a normal geometry to the face with my lights. 

One more thing about lighting. I like to make sure that the bottom edge my main light is up well above chin level on my subject so a shadow drops in under the chin and gives a visual depth between the chin and the neck/throat. Alaina certainly does not have a double chin to worry about but many corporate subjects do and it's benevolent to make sure that a well placed shadow, created by correct lighting, does its part to conceal certain...flaws. 

The photograph above was done with a Sony 70/200mm f4.0 G lens on an A7ii camera body. 

Of course, you can always ignore these conventions and shoot wider. But eventually you'll come to hate the look and probably give up photography altogether. Wide angle portraits can be that bad... You'll notice that even Bill Brandt only dabbled with wide portraits a handful of times....

6.19.2017

Why I prefer cheaper cameras now.

Studio shot with Panasonic fz2500, one inch sensor camera.

I've been watching with interest as one of my close friends, a working, professional photographer, goes through the process of searching for the holy grail of cameras to use for his work. He has a few Canon cameras; like the 5D3 and the 5DSr, he also owns the Leica SL with the honking big (and superbly pricey) zoom lens; but the cameras that fascinate and repulse me are the most expensive of his inventory. He's on his second Leica S2 medium format camera having been through a previous iteration and also a Hasselblad MF digital camera....system. 

To be clear, the MF digital cameras he's been buying are the price of a decent car. A new Honda Fit, or Toyota Corolla, at least. But there are two interesting consequences to dabbling in such rarified heights. One is that the lenses he must adapt to the cameras for his use; tilt and shift lenses, are frightfully expensive and kludgy on those cameras. Most are adapted from older systems. So every time he wants to shoot with a new focal length his minimum new investment seems to be in the $5K to $7K range. A bag of lenses along with one of the S2 camera bodies may have a combined value north of $30K. That's a lot of K. The cameras are slow to use and most of the lenses he's using are manual focusing. Even the AF models are nothing to write home about --- if you've used any decent 35mm style AF lens in the last ten years. 

The second issue is that his "hit rate" seems to be much higher when he's using the Canons or the smaller Leica camera. There's less missed focus and less missed opportunities and, when push comes to shove, the only place he sees a bit of imaging superiority in favor of the bigger camera(s) is when they are mounting on a stout tripod and used with great care. Even there I am of the opinion that the gains he is getting in terms of increased detail and dynamic range could be easily matched by using a much less expensive camera on the same stout tripod and then using new camera features to combine three quick exposures for more dynamic range and more resolution. A very viable consideration since most of his work is immobile architecture. 

So, does spending more money to buy the state of the art camera really translate into better images and better efficiencies with clients' work? Based on the variety of cameras I've bought and used in the past five or so years I'd have to say no. My friend's work has always been good, with or without the new MF cameras. I think having the ne ultra plus of cameras (or of any tools or even marathon shoes) does more by way of delivering a placebo effect to the owner. An emotional life jacket that assures one that they've covered all of their bases. That no one will come back to them and argue that they didn't make every effort to deliver the best. 

I've become a true believer in the idea that there is a big range and all of the quality metrics across all the good, current cameras are bunched up tight at one end of a long performance curve. By that I mean that most current cameras, when used for typical photo shoots and casual artistic use, generally are capable of hitting the 92 to 96% quality range. In fact, I'd say, based on years of observation, that the real appeal of the highest quality camera is nothing more than the machine providing a buffer against the sloppy techniques of the user. Most people would be better served working on their technique if ultimate quality was really their goal. 

The cool thing about cheaper cameras is that the features per dollar ratio is better and sometimes trading off the ability to do sharper, nicer 40 by 60 enlargements is righteously offset by cameras offering features unavailable on the priciest pro-targeted cameras. One feature I think is in many cases a better value is the inclusion of a long, sharp lens. I've had many opportunities to take images that I would never have had before the launch of cameras like the Sony RX10 series and the Panasonic fz1000 and fz2500 cameras. The long, fast lenses on those cameras are unique. Getting the same angle of view on a full frame camera like a Sony a9 or Nikon D5 would cost a fortune, weigh as much as my inkjet printer and be devilishly hard to handle and move around with. For one tenth the cost I get to shoot with a focal length the likes of which I would never have invested in before. And I can carry the whole rig easily over one shoulder.

Another set of features shared by the two one inch sensor cameras is profoundly good 4K (UHD) video. It's better than the video out of most high end, interchangeable lens cameras because Sony designs this as an important feature instead of a check list afterthought. It's much better 4K video from either of the small cheap cameras than video from my old Nikon D810, or the D750, or the Canon 5Dmk3 - 4, etc. etc. etc. With the Panasonic my low budget fz is a complete video solution: Just add a microphone and some lights. That makes the process of creating high value video dirt cheap and easy. 

I have an expensive and well specified Sony camera that's nearly the ultimate in image quality. When I bought it the price was $3200. But I hate taking it out when I'm shooting casual, daily art because it gets used too hard. I need to preserve its working condition so I can use it for bigger paying jobs. Sweat, heat, dust, water and all those other things aren't good for precision cameras. I'd hate to trash the A7rii just to get a couple of street images to share on the blog. I guess that's meek on my part but sometimes replacements are backordered and service is a great unknown. I'd rather preserve the integrity of that camera and trash a camera at a third or less of the price. That's why I have a Panasonic G85. For $900 I've got a camera that is weather sealed, comes with a weather sealed 24-120mm equivalent zoom lens and boasts killer image stabilization. It's also a very decent 4K video camera. Since the sensor is smaller the lens is also smaller and lighter. I can carry this camera everywhere and never stop to worry that some accident or misuse might cause its destruction. 

And you know what? The images taken out in the streets and around town are fabulous. It's a wonderful all around shooting camera; especially when I consider the performance for the money. If I drop it hard, in a mud puddle, and it gets trampled by horses I won't pretend it has a chance at survival but the loss won't be monumental or profound. It's also less complex and actually makes better use of its battery power. A win for everything except giant posters and double truck print ads ---- now, when is the last time we saw one of those?
Sony RX10iii. Long lens, close shot.

In the recent past the idea around spending big bucks for high end cameras swirled around the idea that you got a lot more rugged reliability mixed with higher overall performance, but when even budget cameras are capable of 8 -10 fps, focus quickly and well, and have wonderful color output the value equation shifts dramatically. Add in the fact that almost all digital cameras have become quite reliable and the only reasons you might choose a more expensive option (beyond the mysterious forces of ego...) would be better focus tracking and better continuous AF performance. And maybe a bigger buffer. 

It's all a matter of degree and use. I rarely have to track race horses or Usain Bolt. Swimmers are easy to track. I mostly set up my shots in the studio (where I have nearly complete control and can even use manual focus happily) So I am not the target market for super-hyper focus speed even though my income is derived from making photographs. I like the G85. If I wanted some more performance options I might migrate to a GH5 but that would still be just a third the price of a Nikon or Canon top of the line camera and less than half the price of Sony's new a9. For most people the differences (if any) between those cameras and a GH5 are probably more imagined than real; with the exception of the bigger sensor. 

At some point it pays to be honest about our camera use. Most of use know what we use our cameras for and I think most are aware that, for all intents and purposes, we are the limiting factor on the imaging chain. If I am honest with myself I'm happy with the actual performance of the G85, the RX10xxx and the fz 2500. I was happy with the imaging performance of my older Olympus EM-5.2 cameras (although I was swayed to change mostly by the bigger and more detailed EVFs on the cameras I migrated to). And I have been happy with other less prodigious cameras. 

I guess the real question is whether the final use is really worth the bigger drain on your own finances. I know that these purchases all add up. But they add up more slowly when the purchase price is lower. And there's little truth to the old German adage of "buying cheap means buying twice." since the sensor tech is the ultimate source of obsolescence and affects the proud and the modest cameras equally. 

Just some thoughts on why I keep enjoying my cheap cameras more than my pricier toys....

Sony RX10iii

The 2017 version of the Nikon FM. Or the Canonet.

video studio in a backpack.

want indestructible? Wrap a cage around your favorite camera.


A high ISO, long lens, handheld shot with the fz2500. Cheap and spectacular is a good combination.

I had a nice website yesterday, made a few changes this morning, crash fest and a largely dead site now. NOW FIXED.

Too Serious.

Anything that requires many minutes of uploading into some mysterious folder at one's ISP is fraught with peril and frustration. I read the comments left by my thoughtful readers yesterday re: my re-do of the website and, fresh from a relaxing father's day, I hit the studio this morning to make some tweaks. Most involved just removing duplicate files, changing the automatic slide show timing for the galleries and making the thumbnails in the galleries one size bigger. 

Then, unexpectedly, all hell broke loose. I tried to publish to my site from the design program only to have the program crash again and again. I tried to save the files to disk but would get 90% of the way there before the program crashed again. I tried uploading what I thought was a completed save to the ISP only to see that major parts and pieces are missing and now the site is a catastrophe. A meteor crater of programming.

It will, no doubt, be during this time period that the senior art director for Apple will decide to take a peek at my site as a prelude to offering me an exten$ive project.... And then J.J. Abrams will drop by to see more about that great novelist he's heard so much about (all fantasy). 

I may have fixed the issue. I'm trying another upload now but, as with all things modern, I am very doubtful, pessimistic. 

Well, at least I'll have the memory of having once had a mostly completed site up for a while....

edit: Hmmmm. It's wrong to always presume that we've done something wrong when it comes to computers, ISPs, web sites, web hosts, et al. Today I re-loaded application software, changed security protocols for uploads, cleared caches, cleared folders on the web server and all kinds of other stupid voodoo only to finally talk to a human at our hosting company and finding out that they did a huge server upgrade over the weekend that played havoc on their firewall settings. It got resolved around noon and I found out about it just a few minutes ago at 3:42 CST. 

We are now in the last throes of yet another upload to the kirktuck.com server and everything that I've been spot-checking looks pretty good. On days like this I re-decide that my hatred for technology is not misguided. Happy only for air conditioning, and cures for polio, tuberculosis and other assorted diseases; as well as refrigeration and Fed Ex delivery from Amazon.com. Every other advance largely proves to be more trouble that it is worth and comes with unexpected consequences. But, for the moment, it looks like I'll have my new website back. Pretty happy since I dropped days into construction. Whew.

6.17.2017

Friday June 16, 2017. Fragmented Comments About Photography and Video.

Six days till homecoming. (Image: Ben from many years ago). 

I've just spent the last few days redesigning my website and I'm in the arduous process of uploading it to my internet service provider. It contains new images, a dynamic interface and a gallery page with 13 videos on it. I'm watching the small progress graphic ( a slowly connecting circle) with much anticipation. If I were in S. Korea, home of the world's fastest broadband connections, this all would have been loaded before I even started. I can only hope we don't regress back a decade to the time when I would get 95% of an upload stuffed up onto the web only to have everything crash. Then we'd start all over again. 

Note: The upload went fine and the site is now live at: www.kirktuck.com. As with most websites it is a work in progress and exists mostly as a resource to show clients what I do. The update was motivated by my need to add video to my galleries.

Older readers will hate the large text type but probably read it thoroughly, looking for typos. Younger readers will love the large headlines and read only the largest type on the pages, opting to look at the photos and video instead.

If you have suggestions please offer them in the contents. I guess this amounts to crowdsourcing valuable feedback but, of course, there is no guarantee that I'll follow through with changes. There is emotional inertia that keeps me as far from website production as I can get. 

The Benjamin countdown continues. He is scheduled to get back sometime on Thurs. evening and we're making all kinds of plans for his welcome back. I can't decide if the banner should be discreet and elegant or if we should just go ahead and wrap the entire house. I am also considering painting a welcome sign on the roof; just in case he is able to see it from the air. We've kept his scheduled arrival a secret from Studio Dog because she is hazy about "future tense" and will start looking all over for him if we tell her "Ben is Coming Home." I don't want to see her going from door to door and window to window looking hopeful and yet confused for the next five days. 

External recorders. I wanted to also report on the use of the Atomos Ninja Flame. As I expected, the improvement in the files depends to a large extent on how much you push the files coming from the camera. If you are filming at ISO200, in good light, with little camera movement, good color balance and careful exposure I am going to tell you that an external recorder won't magically and radically improve the video image. You will not hear angels singing. You won't have upgraded your shooting rig to match the files coming off your friend's $60K professional video camera because you will already be operating in a universal sweet spot. 

It's a different picture if you need to work at high ISOs, make big color or tonality corrections/modifications and if you routinely underexpose. Then, in post production, you'll probably see what I see: More detail, an easier to correct file, less noise and a greater range of color separation. 

Is the expense of $1200 or so worth it for people making video with DSLRs and mirrorless cameras? Only you can really decide if the units fit your value equation positively, but for me  there are three or four aspects that make a great external video recorder/monitor well worth the expense. The first is the ability to use vector scopes, wave form monitors and false color to fine tune (and nail) exposure and color balance. Meters solve a lot of issues. Second reason is the much enhanced ease of use for focus peaking and just plain focus evaluation. Having a high resolution screen that's multiple times bigger than the LCD on the back of your camera is a  godsend for achieving consistent and accurate focus. Punch in on a sharp, seven inch screen and you can see precisely where fine focus exists. Even with smaller sensor cameras that have the mixed blessing of deeper depth of focus/depth of field. 

Finally, having the video files already converted to a less compressed and very standard editing format means you don't waste time transcoding your video material before you can start your editing process. Plus, the transfer from the SSDs is remarkably fast. All in all, a good productivity tool. 

Speaking of video...I have to say that I've been shooting some video with the Panasonic G85 and I wish I was more impressed. It's not bad in 4K; not bad at all, but it's not as crisp as the fz2500 or the Sony RX10iii and doesn't come close to the high ISO performance of the  A7Rii in crop mode. It's a good enough camera but even the image stabilization is a bit disappointing because it's not at all stable if you are handheld and changing direction with a pan. There are artifacts. For a sustained, handheld shot with little camera movement it's fine but when the camera starts to move the issues come into focus. I'm disappointed but I'm still, on the whole, a fan of the camera because it does a very, very nice job with still photography and the video on a tripod (in 4K) is just fine. There is no free lunch. This camera is just a discounted lunch. 

Lenses. I want to call out two lenses that are more or less obscure, have been on the market for a while and have, in the minds of most consumers, been superseded for attention by the subsequent, relentless product introductions in the lens market. They are the Rokinon 100mm f2.8 macro and the Rokinon 135mm t2.2 (cine version) lenses. Both are manual focusing and neither has any electronic connection to any camera but both are exquisitely sharp, even wide open. I had occasion to use both recently and came away with a new appreciation for them. The 135mm is especially interesting as it gives a very sharp core image wide open and, on a full frame camera gives an exquisitely narrow depth of field when used there. Look around for used copies, cast off by people with short attention spans, and buy them cheap. They are well worth it if you are casting around for a certain sort of look from your full frame cameras. 

Weather. As I understand it California, and places west of Texas, are being pounded with heat from an intransigent high pressure dome that's propelling the heat up into the 110-120 (f) range. It's expected that the temps will stay there through the next week. Here in Austin we've had a period of high humidity with actual high temperatures near the 100 mark which makes for a dangerous heat index. Not good weather for exterior shooting. Thank goodness I've been inside, working on the darn website. 

Swim Practice. We've had some great swims lately. The coaches are getting more inventive as we go along, and all of them must be frustrated engineers since everything they write on the board has complex patterns of increasing and decreasing distance coupled with negative splits and descending interval times. Good times. If you aren't exercising you might want to consider doing so as an investment in your long term ability to be mobile with your camera. No fun trying to do street photography from the couch....

A Final Note. I am have contracted to be a photography instructor for a travel company. We are on track to begin in 2018 with a fun trip (in the Fall) to Iceland followed by a December adventure in England. More details as they become available. As a warm up I'm planning a trip in late Summer to Mexico City and in the Fall to Tokyo. As the kid finishes up his senior year by May of 2018 more and more funds seem to become available for the kinds of travel we used to do before those dreaded years of parental responsibility. Stay tuned.

Feedback on the website is welcome but really, try to be nice...




6.15.2017

Today is Wacky Portrait Appreciation Day in Lichtenstein. Celebrate with Gusto.


We've entered an alternate universe here in my corner of Austin. It's a universe filled with wild life. There is a skunk (or perhaps a herd of skunks) who makes the rounds though our yard every week or so. For a while it was attempting to burrow down and build a nest in my back yard. With the clever use of high intensity light, and the application of water, I think I was able to thwart those attempts. But it's still making the rounds. Which means I have to be careful when I take Studio Dog out at night. She got sprayed once when she was young and it was a dismal experience for everyone in the family...

We also have a recurring itinerate armadillo who likes to make little cone shaped divits in the front yard. I don't mind it quite as much.

Then there was recent, four foot long rat snake that climbed down the tree next to the kitchen window in a baldfaced attempt to scare Belinda half to death. I won't go into detail about our trials and tribulations with the squirrels; they clearly have no regard for boundaries and no respect for poor Studio Dog who is hellbent on catching one for dissection...

No, the capper this week is the feral deer. Apparently a doe gave birth to a fawn behind the house on the corner. The residents of the house are out of the country so the deer apparently found a yard with a bit of ongoing privacy. But the house is on a corner and the street is busy in the morning with people walking their dogs or, in the case of Studio Dog, dogs walking their people. At any rate, the deer is amazingly protective of the area she now considers her territory and is singling out dog walkers and their dogs for active harassment. Aggressive harassment.

She has mapped out a six house area and, within those confines she charges at dogs and humans in a menacing way, telling them to move along and get the hell away from her space. When I came home from swim practice Studio Dog and Belinda took turns telling harrowing tales of their latest deer confrontation. The deer was following them so aggressively that a police car causing by stopped and the officer interceded, to the extent that he could.

Now, I get parental protectiveness, and I get that the deer were (ostensibly) here first. Bur really, can't we all just share the space now?

I'll remember that thought as I go after the four or five growing wasp's nests gathering in various spots under the eaves of the house...  How wonderful to live amongst nature.

This is why I am happy to be celebrating the more urbane pleasures of Wacky Portrait Appreciation Day here. I know it's considered rude to appropriate from other cultures but the requirement that we all drink Champagne and then nap through the hot parts of the afternoon (ALL afternoon) sold me on the need for more authentic holidays such as this one.

Wacky portrait supplied above. Done with a recent model of down market digital camera.