1.30.2010

Pervasive video and the Apple iPad change everything.


Untitled from kirk tuck on Vimeo.

I don't think still photography is going away. There's a lot to be said for the print and unique moments in time. But you'd have to be ostrich-like not to get that video is becoming pervasive. This month I've partnered with a friend to shoot a couple videos for an online magazine. Being photographers we were seduced by the rampant hype on the web to shoot with the Canon 5Dmk2 camera as a video camera. It works well but there are some limitations. The biggest stumbling block is sound. You have one amateur microphone input that feeds into an auto level control preamp. You essentially have no control over sound. One is the inability to really see fine focus on the back panel screen. Another is the short "timing out" of the lifted mirror. If you don't get ready to shoot quickly the camera times out and you have to go back and reset all over again. Finally, in opposition to all those people who are enamored with the incredibly shallow focus you can achieve, too little depth of field can be a pain in the butt.

If you've read my past blogs you'll know I'm loathe to jump onto the "high priced" bandwagon. I know we might be able to fix the 5Dmk2 sound with the Magic Lantern aftermarket firmware. I could learn to meditate and become patient with the kludginess of the still camera interface, etc. but I thought I'd take a stab at iconolasm and just pull a cheap camera out of the bag and see what I could do with it. I call this the "Ultimate HD video on a budget" rig.

The footage above is not meant to be a polished piece of film making. My goal was to test the visual quality and usability of a $349 point and shoot camera. Let's face it, whether you use a $2500 Canon 5dmk2 or a $10,000 professional video camera you're still just getting 1400 by 1000 pixels per channel for a file of around 2 megapixels. I figured that, with good lighting, the Canon SX20is might be up to the challenge.

If you go cheap here's what you get: A 12 megapixel still camera that also "moonlights" as a 720p HD camera. Two decent, directional microphones (and, what's this? settable manual audio levels----if you want them). How about a zoom that works (sllently) during taping as well as several autofocus and manual focus options. I'll let you judge the cleanliness of the files.

So, is this the painstaking work of weeks? No. It's an hour of walking around in downtown Austin on a sunday afternoon and about 1/2 hour of editing on an old copy of iMovie 08 a couple of weeks later, after finding the footage on a card I was about to reformat. That's about it. Coupled with canned RF sounds from Apple and a free upload to Vimeo. Need to see what the HD version looks like on Vimeo? You can go here: http://www.vimeo.com/9094309

So, what did I find out? That it takes practice to do smooth pans with a fluid head. That cheap cameras don't always zoom nicely. That the image quality with good light is very usable. That I'll be buying a separate audio recorder and a shotgun microphone sooner rather than later. And that Apple and Canon have made it easier to capture video but no less easy to come up with a great idea and great direction. My take away? The real magic in video is the planning, the script and the sound. Getting pretty pictures is less complex.

So how does the Apple iPad fit in to all of this? Well, I think it's going to become the default device for all future magazines and newspapers. The iPad and other similar devices will reconstruct media as "apps" and people will buy them the same way the do games and songs on the iTunes store. Think about it. Great content that mixes still photos, video, type and audio interviews in one device that's large enough to comfortably take and read everywhere. Books, magazines, movies, TV shows, presentations and portfolios all in a device you can carry and use just about everywhere. And you can argue about whether or not it should have come with a camera or the ability to read flash but you just expose yourself as a previous generation thinker. Rev up those credit cards. This is one of those tectonic shifts that will revitalize the economy and our relationship with art and media. When everything is available you'll always want the good stuff. Prepare for the ascendency of the creative class. Get those IT guys out of the way before they get trampled.....

Let me know what you think of the Vimeo interface because I'm thinking that will become my default for sharing video. Now let's get back to work on some interesting photography. Thanks, Kirk

1.24.2010

Sunday Rants and Opinions


Cleaning your studio is like peeling an onion and finding gold inside.  Sundays are more routine for me than weekdays.  I get up, drink coffee and read the New York Times.  They I read Michael Johnston's blog, The Online Photographer.  Then I go to masters swim practice and we swim hard for an hour and a half.  I meet the family at our favorite bakery and hash over the week with the same friends we've shared our Sunday mornings with for going on fifteen years.

In the afternoon I either write or prepare the studio for the upcoming work week.  Today it was all about the studio prep.  I'm photographing an ad campaign for a regional utility this coming week and I wanted to make sure everything was ready.  That means testing cameras, charging batteries and making sure I have model releases, snacks and enough horizontal space for props and client stuff.  It also means I finally have to deal with stacks of prints and boxes of negatives that overflow onto the main floor.

I can't stand to just tidy up a stack of prints and toss them in a century box.  For some reason I have to go through and look at all of them. And when I do one or another catch my eye.  Today this one of my friend, Lou, stood out.  So I plucked it from the stack and put it next to the monitor so I could look at it for a while.  Why do some prints make you sit up and take notice on some days while other prints nudge you for attention on other days?

It's Spring-like today in Austin.  The highs were near 70(f).  There was a stiff breeze for most of the day.  People were out in shorts.  People were all over downtown.  I associate this image with Spring.  But I think the aspect that caught me was the print itself.  This was printed on the last of my graded Ilfobrom paper made by Ilford a long time a go.  It's a thick, double weight fiber stock and it's a classic glossy surface that's been air dried.  The print was selenium toned and archivally processed.  It's probably the tenth or eleventh sheet in the process.  We used to test a lot in the darkroom.  The print took a while to make because I used a semi transparent aperture device under the enlarging lens to blur the edges and corners.  And the device was very imprecise.  You had to wiggle it around a lot to get the look you thought you wanted.  You couldn't stop down the enlarger lens too much or the clear plastic edges of the aperture blades would start to come vaguely into focus.

I was also captivated by the edges of the print.  You can buy plug-ins for Photoshop that will approximate corners like this and I wonder if anyone who never printed in a darkroom really understands what the edges are all about.  At the risk of boring darkroom veterans I'd like to explain.  When we bought negative carriers for our enlargers we had to buy a negative carrier for each format of film we used.  Nearly all of them were cut out to be just fractionally smaller than the actual frame in the same way that camera viewfinders, for the most part, show slightly less than the full frame.  If you wanted to include all the image you had to get a file and fileout the edges of the negative carrier to show the edges of the film.  Everyone filed in a different way.  It was a craft project with not need for absolute accuracy.

Over time it became the style to cut your carriers wide enough so that you could read the edge print of the film when you made your prints.  Your negative carrier was uniquely yours.  No one else's was filed in exactly the same way.  Just as no one else agitated film during development in exactly the same way. Now the addition of frame lines in post production is largely a meaningless application, separated from it's need and it's meaning.

After the print was washed for an hour or so,  and more or less supervised through the wash process so that the paper didn't stick to the side of the washer and retain some future staining potential,  it was  scrapped dry with something that resembled a windshield washer and then place face down on a mesh screen to air dry.  The air drying left the prints with gentle bends and curves and and slight curls.  So, when the print was totally dry you'd place it under a stack of same sized prints and let time and gravity flatten it out.

No matter how careful a darkroom worker you were there were always dust spots that had to be attended to.  We'd mix up different colors of Spot Tone dye until we could match the selenium toned color of the black and white image and then we'd carefully pick up just the slightest touch of dye with a triple zero spotting brush and carefully work from the center of the tiny spot to the outside edges, working with tiny dots to make a whole tone that was an indistinguishable part of the whole fabric of the print.

Only at this point, when you'd made an investment of time somewhere in the range of four to five hours, would you have perhaps one or two prints that really made your heart sing and your eyes come alive.

It's a bit frustrating now to show work.  The venue seems always to be the computer screen.  The file, a scan from a negative or a digital camera capture.  But there's so much more to see on the prints.  My friend, Keith is working with an Epson 3880 these days and he brings along amazingly good prints when we meet for coffee.  His work is among the first I've seen (and believe me, I've seen plenty of inkjet work over the years) that captures the feeling of the darkroom.  His tonalities are great and his profile and printing are impeccable.  But there is something missing.  It's the imperfections that made hand printing in the darkroom what it was.  Just as we are subtly put off by a perfectly symmetrical face we are put off by perfect grain.  No matter that a stochastic screening method was used.  We cognitively see the regularity of the process and it annoys us that it's so reproducibly, relentlessly perfect.

That's what dawned on me today.  The imperfections are the surprise, the subtle humanizing of art.  The imperfections are loved for the same reason a child's primitive drawing is so special:  because no two will ever be entirely the same.  The one print you have is the only print just like it.

Not all prints fall into this category.  It's not that prints are magic just because they were printed in a darkroom.  But prints that required work;  required burning and dodging and blurring and diffusing (just in parts and just for short segments of the total time) were done with human hands and the inconsiderately inacccurate metronome of our minds and the swish of our hands.  And no matter how hard we might try those prints are unique.  And unique is what appeals to minds that are inundated with perfectly manufactured everything.

I propose that the next time you really want to show off your skills and your vision you do so with some righteous skin in the game.  Take this challenge:  Pick your favorite dozen digital images or film images and make the best print of each one you can possibly make.  Burn it where it begs to be burned and dodge it with the subtlety of of a surgeon.  Print it on the surface you know will bring the image into its best light.  Print it with some border around  the edges.  Give people something to hold onto while they hold it in front of their eyes.  Make it as large or small as the image demands.  Not everything has to compete in size with Gursky or the hyper-realists.  Some images are graceful at 4x5 inches and painfully dissected at 4x5 feet.

Then take these majestic prints and show them to people in areas where the light is neat and clinical.  Does it work? Was the idea and intention well thought out?  Does the subject beg you to linger and stare.  This is what good printing does.  But it all starts with an image that pushes you to do the process.

Let's be honest, if you know you're going to throw something up on Flickr, and Flickr is going to compress the image and smush around with the sharpness.  And the size means that the image won't show off anything subtle or detailed.  And you know people are going to look at them the same way they eat candy, but on a screen that's probably not nearly as well calibrated as yours,  then you really don't have much incentive to do the whole deal and commit to making the process work the same way you would if you were presenting 16 by 20 inch prints.  You WILL see cracks in your technique at that print size.  You will confront what artists have confronted for years when they had to commit to a process that invited detailed and lingering inspection.  You will care what you put on the paper in a totally different way.

This is not a rant about the difference between film and digital.  It's a rant about the difference between craft and convenience.  Between a home video and a movie.  Between toaster strudel and a real breakfast.  I know that the web lets you share your work all over the world. But it only lets you share at a level that may not show your skill and vision.  This is merely a test.  Make the big print and then show it to yourself.  At some point you will begin to have a whole new appreciation for quality.  And you may grow a new and more sophisticated audience rather than the routine, "Nice capture!  I'd have used a fill light on the other side to even out that girl's face!"

So I found the print and put it up on the wall next to my monitor and then I looked at the scan that I included above.  Do you remember when television sets had physical depth and most were about 20 inches diagonally?  And then you went out to see a movie?  And the sheer size and profoundly better production values hit you right between the eyes?  It's a lot like that.

The return of photographers.  I spend most Sunday afternoons walking around downtown Austin and enjoying the rhythm of the city.  When Austin was younger and photography was profoundly different more people carried around their Nikons and Canons and Olympuses and made art as part of their daily routine.  Everywhere you turned someone had their camera.  For months now the streets have been solitary.  Not a photographer anywhere.  But today I crossed paths and intersected with tons of photographers.  It was near sunset and couples were toting tripods,  shooting peeling walls and each other.  Reveling in photography.  And it was affirming to see.  It meant people had turned off their distractions and made a decision to be visually enchanted.  And to peel the onion.  And to look for a little bit of gold.

1.22.2010

Shooting White on White. How I do it........


I've written before about shooting stuff for Zachary Scott Theater, here in Austin, Texas.  I've been doing it for 17 years and I'm still having fun.  We shoot three major categories of photographs.  The first is set up shots to be used in marketing pieces to promote current and upcoming productions.  The second category are the "running shoots".  These are reportage style shoots that take place during the final dress rehearsal.  The third category are the shoots I do for the season brochures.  These are marathon sessions where we shoot to a concept that will be used throughout the year as both the theater's branding image and thematic leitmotif.  The images here are from the first category.  General promotion for a show.

Shown in these images is the cast of "Altar Boys", a really fun musical comedy.  But I'm presenting them here in rough form to show how I light white background images.

Yep.  That's me up on that bench pointing a Nikon D700 with an old 24-85mm zoom lens at the actors.  That's my ancient Gitzo carbon fiber tripod and you can see why I love it.  Even without the center column extended it reaches up seven feet tall.  I like shooting down.  It's a fun angle.  The shorts and sandals are mandatory summer wear here in Austin.


The front light is very simple.  It's a huge 84 inch Lastolight umbrella with its own, built in white diffusion panel.  It's beautifully soft.  Even when used twelve to fifteen feet from the subject.  Why the heck would I use it so far away?  Well, if you remember the inverse square law, the further away the light source the less fall off there is from side to side in the image.  And you can see how evenly the actors are lit.  The only other frontal modifier is a silver 48 inch reflector panel to the opposite side.

The nuts and bolts of getting a good, white background are simple:  You want very even lighting across the entire background.  That's why I'm using four umbrellas.  You want to make sure the light from the umbrellas doesn't spill forward and strike the subjects directly.  That's why we carefully focus the light sources into black backed umbrellas.  Finally, you want to forget all the nitwits who say you don't need a meter if you have a digital camera and you want to pull out your incident light meter and make sure that the white background (according to your incident light meter) is one third to one half of one stop brighter than the light on your subject.  Anything brighter and you risk the light bouncing off the background, wrapping around the edges of the subjects and degrading the whole image.  Once your histogram hits 255 how do you measure 1/3rd of a stop more?  You can do it easily and quickly with an incident light meter!


That's pretty much the long and short of it.  Each of the background lights was a self contained, 300 ws monolight while the main light was powered by a Profoto 1200 ws Acute and one head.  We shot maybe 250 shots with different groupings, expressions and gestures.  The finals were used in brochures, newspaper ads, post cards and on the web.  When we finished with the project my assistant, my friend Will and I went to Chuy's for some Tex Mex food.

A more in depth explanation of this set up is in my book: Minimalist Lighting: Professional Techniques for Studio Photography, from Amherst Media.

If you want to dive into how I shoot portraits we're doing a day long workshop in Austin, Texas on February 13th.  Hit this for the sign up page.....

1.19.2010

beautiful people are everywhere. get them into your studio.



Hardly a day goes by that I don't see absolutely beautiful people out walking on the streets, in the coffee shops and at the grocery store.  This is Mousumi.  I met her when I did a press check on a print project.  I did what I usually do:  I told her I would like to make a portrait of her, asked her to check out my website and to call me if she felt inclined.  That's really all you can do.  But I try to do it when I am confronted with beautiful people because I know that if I do nothing I may never have that opportunity again and I'll regret it.

There is a scene in the movie, Citizen Kane, where on old man in a monumental office is being interviewed and he is reminiscing about his past.  He remembers a day in his youth.  He was about to take the Staten Island ferry out and was watching a ferry coming in.  At the front rail was a woman about his age that he described as the most beautiful vision he'd ever seen.  He wanted to go and meet her.  Somehow strike up a conversation.  But he didn't.  And his boat was leaving.  And he got on and left.
And eight decades later, with moist eyes and a hesitant voice, filled with emotion, he says, "And there isn't a day that's gone by since then that I don't think about her...."  The regret of entropy, of procrastination.

I think every portrait photographer has in mind certain kinds of faces, and people with certain kinds of energy, that resonate with their styles.  If you depend only on paid commissions to do your art you may never be blessed with the kinds of subjects that add a vital spark to your process.  Without that spark of energy all you have is a job.

I think one of our goals as artists is to discover beauty and share it.  To make our interpretation of beauty a part of the fabric of our collective culture.  It's a wonderful responsibility.

1.18.2010

A fun, interesting, happy advertising job.

I didn't want too much time to go by this year without celebrating the jobs that make advertising photography fun, interesting and addictive.  And this job for client, LifeSize, definitely fits the bill.  I always love getting a phone call from my friends at the advertising agency, Clutch Creative.  Jason and Steve, the two owners and creative directors do really nice creative work, they have fun on their projects and they value their collaborators.

When they sent me the brief they were clear and concise.  Just for good measure they sent along comprehensive layouts (called "comps" in the industry....) so I'd know what they needed and how we should bid.  Our bid included pricing for the actual shoot as well as usage fees for their intended uses.  In putting together an advertising shoot there is so much more to consider than just how to shoot the photo.
Who would be making the props (including the screens that each actor is holding up in their photo)?  Who would do the casting?  Who handles wardrobe and what wardrobe do we need to bring?  How would we handle shooting the scenes that were dropped into the background?  Where would we shoot some of the big sets we needed to construct for the shots against white background?  How would the individual parts be composited together?  How would we feed and provide snacks for  a revolving door of models, make up people, assistants, agency creatives and clients?
We ended up using the living room of my house as the shooting studio.  It measures twenty four feet wide by nearly 50 feet deep and has very high ceilings.  With the help of my assistant, and the patience of my wife, we moved all the furniture onto our screened back porch.  And the night before the shoot we set about putting up white seamless paper and designing the lighting for the first series of shots.  My regular studio, which is just outside the front door of my house, would serve as a facility to store props and wardrobe and would provide a nice space for our make up artist to work in.

When you shoot against a white background it is critical to be able to place the model far enough forward from the background that there is no spill or "wrap around" light coming from the background which might lower the contrast or provide unwanted fill.  In set ups like these an incident light meter is critical to me.  The background must be metered to be one third to one half of a stop brighter than the main subject exposure.  Too bright and you'll have light bouncing forward that is unwanted.  To dim and you'll need to cut out each object, point by point in Photoshop instead of being able to use speedier drop out  tools.  While many will say that they can use the histogram in their camera I've never been able to camera meter something that's whiter than white, reliably!

We scheduled our talent to arrive in waves because, in addition to doing ads with individuals in them, we were also grouping three and four people together and using them in conference room shots and office shots.  The background photographs were shot on separate days.  Our first talent was in make up by 8am on the first day.  We shot these ads several years ago so the camera we used at the time was the Nikon D2x.  We always used the D2x at its base ISO of 100 and tried to use the lenses at their tested optimum apertures.  Generally f5.6 or f8.  We shot the talent and the screen in one shot because we needed the direction and the quality of light to match.

We used a ton of lights.  Four Profoto 300 ws monolights on the background, each firing into white umbrellas with black "spill kill" backings.  Each bank (left and right) of the lights on the background were flagged with black panels to control spill.  We used a Profoto 600 box with two heads throttled all the way down to provide  gridded backlits to help separate our key subjects from the background.  The main light was a 60 inch Octabox with a Profoto light head attached to a 1200 watt second box.

Timing from shot to shot was critical as was the ability to work quickly in setting up and tearing down group settings.  We shot tethered to a laptop so the creative guys could evaluate every change of light, expression and gesture.  The shoot took place over four days.  After the shoot was wrapped we still had a mountain of work to do.  We had to reset the living room to ensure domestic tranquility, reset the studio to ensure some kind of work flow and then return all the stuff we'd borrowed.  Finally, we settled into the giant edit and sent over 1200 likely candidates for the campaign.
No light failures.  No camera failures.  Totally professional talent, sourced from a real agency (Agence Talent), meant no cancellations or "no shows".  No human failures to speak of.

In part I am writing this because we're about to ramp up for another big, multi-day shoot and this blog serves to remind me of all the things I need to get done before we can start.  I hope my luck holds and the universe isn't carrying a grudge with me for anything.    I'll share another campaign with you soon.
Thank you very much for reading and participating.  Really makes this all worthwhile.  Kirk


That's a wrap.

1.11.2010

My Long, Final Rambling Review of the Olympus EP-2 Camera.


I'll start by saying that I've been seduced by a number of cameras over the last two decades so any reader should take this review for what it most certainly is:  an infatuation with an exotic new stranger.  That can't be helped.  What I'd like to do is talk about the way the camera works, what are the weak points and what are its strengths.  What is it good at and what kinds of things it will let you down on.  Don't bother asking because I'm not going to run out and buy a Panasonic GF-1 and run hours of esoteric tests in order to tell you the differences in the way it focuses with extreme telephotos.  I won't put up charts that prove or disprove the levels of noise in the files.  I will tell you what is annoying as well as the attributes that led me to pull out my wallet in one of the worst years I've suffered thru as a professional photographer and plunk down for a new camera.  So with all that in mind I'm ready to begin.


I've used a bunch of different cameras and different systems over the years and there are a few systems that are very well designed for ultimate user pleasure.  The best I've used are the Leica M series cameras and I used them to shoot for business and pleasure, in conjunction with medium format cameras, for many years.  The immediacy of the finders and the Spartan control interface made shooting very straight forward.  I also loved the Contax ST SLR film camera in conjunction with the 50mm 1.4 lens and the 85mm 1.4 lens.  And in my opinion usability comes before ultimate image quality in the hierarchy of features.  The EP-2 is good here and bad here.  The good:  When the camera is set up the way you want it and all the controls have been customized there are usually only two controls you might need.  One is the +/- exposure compensation and the other is the aperture control.  If you shoot manually you might add a third to the list and that would be shutter speed.  If you can shoot without constantly changing controls, aspect ratios, quality settings, color settings and more then you'll love the camera and you'll be able to use it the same way people use their Leicas.  Look through the finder, let the camera find the focus and then shoot.

If you are obsessed about constantly trying to shift parameters to match small nuances in scenes or you just can't make up your mind you may be doomed to float through the Olympus menu structure for a while till you get the hang of it.  And while Olympus has their own logic and it is learnable it is very different from Nikon's sensible interface and almost as bad as Canon's nearly indecipherable GUI.

I tend to use the camera the same way when I'm shooting for my own enjoyment.  I set the focus for the center sensor, shoot in single shot mode instead of continuous, and I have the camera set for to lock the exposure and focus with a gentle, but not complete push of the shutter button.  I set the noise reduction to off and the noise filter to low.  I generally shoot in aperture preferred mode and usually choose to work one stop down from wide open.  I think the kit lenses and most of the e series lenses that I use with an adapter are sharpest at that setting.  If I'm walking around during the day I'll set the WB at "daylight" and if I'm inside I'll set the WB at "auto".  If I use the camera after dark I'm almost certain to use a custom WB of 2800.  It works well for most interior lights (fewer florescents in Austin and more MR16 and other tungsten track lights).

I love image stabilization and keep the camera set at IS #1 unless I'm using a tripod.  Then I turn off IS altogether because I'm convinced that it degrades the image slightly.  If I'm out in the sunlight I use the custom color setting called "#1 enhance" which seems to try an in-camera HDR kind of thing that brings up the shadows and tramps down a bit on the highlights.  I'll add a little black back into the mix with levels or curves when I process the images.

When I'm shooting out in the streets I generally use the electronic viewfinder all the time.  I think it's the real step forward for all of these cameras.  In this regard I consider myself an early adopter as I have two of the Sony R1 cameras that also came with decent (but light years worse than the EP-2 EVF) electronic viewfinders.  I hardly every use the rear LCD screen unless I'm showing a frame to someone.  Which is rare in itself.


Controversy Alert:  I know this is going to sound scary to all the people who've been doing digital for a long time, but I tend to use the camera almost exclusively in SHQ (super high quality) Jpeg.  Now before you get all lathered up please understand that I'm using the camera to do my own art.  If a corporate client puts money on the table I always fire up the whole RAW workflow deal to make sure I've covered all my bases.  But for the most part it's totally unnecessary.  One of the main reasons I switched systems from Nikon is that I found that Jpegs straight out of the camera were really nice from the Olympus cameras and always a bit problematic with the Nikons.  For my taste the Nikon ones had too dark a midtone curve and too red a skin tone.  Yes, I know I can spend hours in Lightroom making exactly calibrations.  I know I can spend hours creating and uploading custom curves in Nikon Capture and uploading them to the camera but the whole point was that I didn't have to do any of that to get pleasing color and contrast from the Olympus cameras.  And the EP-2 might be the best of the bunch from O just by dint of being the most recent.  Somehow the same people who depend on RAW are the same people who denounce using a meter.  Go figure.  I shoot Jpeg. You can shoot raw.  The Olympus does a big, fat 12 bit raw file.  It's less compressed than raw files from their competitors.  Whether that makes it better I have no clue.  I just know that the EP2 EVF gives great feedback for color and density, letting you get a Jpeg just right in the field and saving you a lot of butt time back home in the Photoshop saddle.

Also, you can denounce me as a heretic if you like but nothing beats the Olympus blue.  You can shift curves and play with hue and saturation with other brand files but every time you change a setting you mess up another part of the curve.  First Controversy Alert Over....

I've now spent over a month shooting daily with the EP-2 and I find the ergonomics of the camera just right for my admittedly small hands.  I buy medium sized gloves.  I wish I had big paws because then I could swim faster.  But I don't and it seems that the EP-2 is aimed at medium and small sized people.  I can imagine it might feel a bit small to all the 6 foot, plus people in the world.  That's what makes camera choice so damn subjective:  everyone is different sized!  The camera is solid but even with the attached kit lens it's still half the weight of a Nikon D300 with a similar lens.  Maybe even lighter than half!  And that means that a tromp around downtown Austin for three or four hours doesn't wear me down or hurt my shoulder.  I wish Olympus would make a micro 4:3rds version of the 25mm 2.8 e series lens.  I like it pretty well and use it frequently on the camera with the MMF-1 adapter but it would be great if it was reduced down in size equal to loosing the adapter.  That way the camera and lens would be about the size of most cheezy point and shoot cameras and would, at that point, become almost invisible to the rank and file subject on the street.  Two of these cameras, a 9-18 and the 14-42 lenses and one longer focal length would be the absolute perfect travel system.  No question.

IS.  Image stabilization.  I use it whenever the camera is in my hands.  When I'm using the kit zoom I can handhold really sharp stuff reliably down to around 1/13th of a second.  If I stopped drinking coffee for a month I bet I could hold that rascal still at 1/4th of a second.  We're down in the zone where the tripod is almost vestigial for this camera.  I keep one in the car but the nice thing about the way I like to shoot is that I can kill two problems with one tripod.  Since I almost always set the aspect ratio on the camera to 6:6 (or square) I use a fluid head on my tripod.  This allows means I'm prepared to go either way: Stills or Video!

So, now that I've brought up the video let's talk about that for a second or two.  Remember when you switched to digital in 2000 or 2001 and a bunch of your friends kept saying that digital wasn't ready for prime time and that film would be around for years and years?  Well, they were largely wrong and no one in the film or photo industry could believe how fast the curve of adaptation changed and accelerated.  It took Kodak completely by surprise and Fuji is still catching up.

Well, that's where we are with video and digital stills today.  Most older (post 35) photographers profess to have little interest in video and instead are waiting for the market to turn around.  Good luck with that. The market has already turned and it's now voraciously devour the advertising market for single image still work.  Those pros who are waiting are going to be waiting a long while for everything to come back to the way it was.  But then maybe time is a big moebius strip and everything will be the same somewhere on the continuum.  I think we're heading down the big slide of video at the water park of imaging and it's pretty hard to put on the brakes when you are going 60 MPH surrounded by torrents of rushing water.  But we could argue this point forever.  I may be totally wrong but I'm so happy that Olympus put just the right kind of video into this camera.

Are there things they missed?  Sure, but they'll add em to the next model.  Here's where I vent:  Those dim product managers at Olympus have a really nice video tool here but I can't really leverage all the power locked up in this tool for want of a $50 plastic adapter that should have been ready to roll at the launch.  It's called an EMA-1 and it fits in the accessory slot in place of the beautiful EVF.  It provides an interface that allows you to plug in just about any kind of microphone you might want to use.  I'd love to plug my friend, Will's Sennheiser shotgun microphone in the plug and get great voice recordings alongside the video footage.  But I can't because these unfortunate dunderheads didn't bother to get all the product synced up.  I hope Charles Garcia or someone else from Olympus reads this and gets on the stick to get me an EMA-1 because I'm stacking up projects that need to have sound and it's so last century to use a separate digital sound recorder and a clapper board to do modern video.  It's just not right.

On to the video.  It works well.  You can set focus, shutter speed and aperture in manual.  With the enormous number of manual focus lenses that can be used with adapters, from the original Olympus Pen's to the AIS Nikkors, there are tons of lenses that you can do follow focus with.  I haven't done big projects with the camera as a video camera yet but I see one big pitfall.  You have to remove the EVF and use the EMA-1 in it's place if you want to have external microphone capability.

I've shot test footage in a number of different lighting situations and, as long as your exposure is on the money, the footage looks great with very little to none of the jello effect that plagues other c-mos type DSLR hybrids.  Everyone else seems to be chasing 1080p resolution but I'm very happy that Olympus chose to go with 720p and here's why.  The vast majority of markets going forward are going to be web based communications and some on site display footage at trade shows and retail stores.  We're not going to broadcast with this stuff just yet.  It may be years until my skills are up to speed as a video producer for the big time.  But in the meanwhile 720 is actually many levels of overkill for the web but much less of a hassle to edit because the files sizes are so much smaller and the non-jpeg compression algorithm is much more efficient.  That means that, compared to say Canon 5Dmk2 HD files the edits will be fast as lightning.  And time is money.

Before I leave the video part of the camera I want to tell you what  a pleasure it is to work with Olympus'  really wonderful 35-100mm f2 zoom lens.  The thing is, this monster is sharp wide open and the out of focus areas have a beautiful, round quality to them.  Stop this lens down to 2.8 (which is where most of its equivalent competitors start) and you've got an optic that is as sharp as the other guy's dedicated macro lenses.  Honest.  While that lens and the EP-2 look like the marriage of a hummingbird and a python you'll undoubtably be using the pair on a rig or a fluid head tripod, using the tripod socket on the lens.  When used in that fashion it's a perfect balance.  But maybe you're not considering the EP-2 for video........

Let's talk DPreivew style performance metrics for a second to keep the IT guys and the pro's happy.  Here's where the Canon people and the Nikon people can crow about the parameter inequality.  The EP-2 has acceptable noise levels at proper exposures, right up to about ISO 800.  Maybe ISO 1000 and then you start to see color splotching.  And noise.  The Olympus people will jump up and start talking about Noise Ninja and Define but let's be frank;  the camera has noise that a D3s and a 1Dmk4 won't see until you hit 12,000 ISO or some other astronomically cool level.  Don't buy this camera if you love doing super high ISO in low light or if you have your heart set on a collection of fast primes (but don't write off the primes too quickly---more on that below).  In good light this camera is a champ.  When the light drops too far down (about where the human eye has trouble focusing a manual camera) the focusing falls apart and the noise comes along for a ride.  This is not the ultimate low light camera by a long shot.

It doesn't do fast, continuous focus either.  If you shoot sports you'll find that using this camera for fast moving stuff is like wearing cowboy boots at a track meet.  OUCH.  Gotta be honest, if I'm headed out to shoot some competitive swimming I'm going to borrow my friend's Nikon D3 or I'm going to try my luck with the Olympus E3 and a fast piece of specialty glass, like the 90-250 f2.8.  Pretty much the equivalent of a 180-500 mm f2.8.  (And yes, they are equivalent when we're talking about exposure!!!--don't even start with me about the 4:3rds lens being two stops less light.  It doesn't make any sense.)

Next on the list of things you might not want this camera for is shooting in the studio with studio flash.  Why?  Because there's no sync socket on the body.  You have to use the hot shoe to trigger flashes; either with an adapter or a radio trigger.  That means you don't get to use the wonderful EVF and if I can't use the EVF I really don't want to use the camera.  Tonight I shot portraits of Ben with the camera but I used florescent devices from Westcott, called TD-5 Spiderlights.  I put them in 30 inch Chimera lanterns for a soft, even glow.  But it made sense since I was trying to shoot wide open at f2 with the Olympus macro lens.

The other thing you don't want to attempt with the camera is shooting any wedding that requires focus in low light or flash.  Again, with the flash in the shoe there's no EVF and I don't like the camera without the EVF.  For all these reasons I would suggest the EP2 as an art camera or a second system but not as a primary camera systems for a busy professional or a photographer who wants to shoot in a wide range of conditions. Oh, and it is not waterproofed or weather proofed so don't sit in the "Splash" section at Seaworld and expect to be using the camera later at the dolphin pool......

With all these faults why do I like the camera at all?  Well, I spent 20 years getting to know big, square, medium format cameras inside and out.  They were slow to operate and required you to work at getting everything just right but they rewarded you with little squares of perfection.  Jewel like photographs that filled every square millimeter of the frame with subject matter and crucial negative space.  I use the EP-2 in just the same fashion.  My favorite way of working is with the 50mm Olympus Macro lens attached and in the manual focus mode.  When you have the camera set up this way, and you've enabled "manual focus assist" in one of the menu menus here's what happens:  1.  You look through the camera and get a general idea of your composition.  2.  You touch the focus ring of the lens and the image jumps up to seven time magnification.  3.  You focus on eyelashes or irises that fill the frame and when you let go of the focus ring the camera image snaps back to normal size. 4.  Shoot the image.

I also love to play around with my favorite old Nikon 50mm 1.1.2 lens on the front of two different adapter rings.  I try to shoot it wide open or at f2 or f2.8.  The whole reason to use that lens is the narrow depth of field.

Which brings me to a very interesting facet of the camera and one that few people will get to experience. You probably know that this camera system was/is based on the old Olympus Pen half frame cameras made from the 1950's until the early 1970's but you probably don't know much about that system if you are relatively new to photography.  Oh hell, even the old timers didn't really pay attention to that system (except for Eugene Smith.....).  But here's the deal:  Olympus made a half frame SLR with a full line of lenses.  They've always been a leading edge optics manufacturer and they had their work cut out for them with the half frame.  The lenses had to be twice as sharp as the lenses designed for 35mm work in order to equal the resolution when photographers enlarged them.  The lenses they made were really, really good.  Breathtakingly good!  You've got to remember that Olympus has always been considered second only to Leica in making world class microscope lenses.  And they brought that expertise with them when they designed the half frame lenses.

Surprise, with the right adapter you can use all of these lenses with the new EP1, EP2 and Panasonic M4:3rds cameras.   So what can you get?  How about a 60mm f1.5?  Maybe you'd rather have a (sharp wide open) 70mm f2.  Or a 25mm f2.8.  Or a 20mm.  How about a 150mm 3.5 that weighs next to nothing.  I've even got a 2X Olympus teleconverter that works with that.  Then there's the 38mm 1.8 and the 42mm 1.4 and even a 50 to 90mm zoom lens.  But the glass everyone wants are the fast lenses.  Because, in this format they'll give Leica and Zeiss a run for their money.  They really are that good.

If you aren't into 50 year old glass you'll be happy to know that you can buy an adapter to use most of the Leica M glass with the camera as well.  I ran into my friend, Paul, the other day and he was hauling around a Panasonic GF1 with a ASPH Summilux 35mm on the front.  Very sexy.  Extremely sharp.  Maybe sharp in a way that only Leica M9 shooters can only rival.

So, by all measures this camera is enigmatic.  Not a top performer.  No usable as a sole business camera. Not a sports machine.  Not a D3s rival by any stretch of the imagination.  So why do so many people love this camera and why are they rushing to use them? At the risk of sounding "new age-y" again I'll say that it's because the camera has some soul to it.  It sits right in your hand.  For me, it's about so many good usability features.  I like the accurate, bright and convenient EVF.  I like the ability to define my own favorite aspect ratio.  I like the quality of the video.  There's no mirror slap and the camera is very stable which makes it a natural for image stabilization-enabled long exposures.

But the bottom line is that it's so fun to use that you find yourself ignoring things that would bug you in other cameras.  Just like a romantic relationship you make excuses for the things you can't change and embrace the things you love.  And really, when you get right down to it so many of the images we love and have loved were made with the simplest equipment, the simple cameras of the day.  In the 1940's the images from Henri Cartier Bresson came from screw mount Leica cameras with separate windows for viewing and focusing, not the big Speed Graphics used by the pro's of that age.  In the 1950's the work of Robert Frank speaks for the decade.  Again, he used a small 35mm rangefinder because the goal was to capture the raw emotion not to map the ultimate potential sharpness of the time.  He used a small camera while the professionals used Rollei's and 4x5's.

If they built a camera that captured emotions and feelings instead of enormous numbers of sharp pixels would you buy one?  If the camera became transparent in your hands would you use one?  If your work calls for seeing things in conservative angles of view (28mm-100mm) and you don't usually print bigger than 11 by 17 do you really need to carry around something the size of a small cat to do your work with?

But again,  I have other cameras.  If I desperately need shallow depth of field I can still shove a 180mm lens on a Rollei medium format camera and show you REALLY shallow depth of field.  But it's sure nice to have something I can carry everywhere and know that, for 90% of what I like to shoot (as opposed to what clients want me to shoot) I can do it with this camera.

Now.  Where the hell is that EMA-1?

We've got a comment section below.  But before you hit it please know that if you tried an EP2 (or a Canon G11, etc.) and you didn't like it that doesn't mean I can't like it.  Also know that neither you nor I can really test lenses at our houses or studios in any meaningful way so it's kind of futile to argue about which brand of lenses "rules".  Your idea of photography may be all about shooting football games and you'll never use a camera like this but that doesn't mean that everyone shoots football games or should be in a state of constant readiness to shoot football games so let's not go into that either.

I like the camera.  The lenses are good. The ability to use everyone else's lenses is even better.  The Panasonic GH1 may  be better but I've never played with one.  Etc.

That sums up my whole thought process about the EP2 to date.  Next time we'll branch out a little bit.
Thanks for reading.



All of the images in this article were done on my EP-2 using an MMF-1 adapter and a 50mm Olympus e series Macro lens.  All of the images are ©2010 Kirk Tuck Photography.  I bought all the gear used in the shooting and production of the article and I don't get money or other consideration from Olympus or any retailer to write these articles.  They are solely my opinions.

If you have a moment, please consider writing a review for any my books you may have read over at Amazon.com.  It costs you nothing and my help me sell a few more books.  Here is the link to my author's page:



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1.09.2010

One of my favorite jobs of all time.


I was doing a little pro-bono project last wednesday when the agency doing the design work mentioned a paying job that might entail shooting at a print shop.  We chatted about it and I told them about this job that I did in New York City back in the 1990's.  An agency up there hired me to come up and do my signature available light style to document a specialty printer, step by step.


I kept it as simple as I could.  A Hasselblad and three lenses.  Three or four film backs, all filled with 400 speed Tri-X  (as opposed to the professional 320 variety).  A stout tripod and a light meter.  We might have gotten fancy and used a little pop up reflector from time to time.  The way the job work was that I'd walk around and look for interesting stuff to shoot.  Then I would set up my camera and shoot.


I think the client was nervous when I showed up with only one assistant and no entourage.  In New York in the middle of the 1990's most jobs were filled to the brim with assistants, make-up people, stylists, craft service people and other support crew.  That doesn't even begin to include art directors, account managers, product managers and production managers.  I think that's why the agency hired me and flew me up from Texas.  I had developed somewhat of a reputation for cutting through the silly stuff that had nothing to do with the way I shot and just getting my style of shooting done.


In the end the client really loved the images and used them to do a display for a trade show at the Jacob Javitts Center.  The images were used about ten by ten feet.  I sent a collection of the images to the present day account and they were pretty amazed.  Not that the photos were good or bad but that they looked so different from the homogenous digital images that they see so often on the web and in portfolios.


Having used Photoshop since the early 1990's I know that I might be able to take a digital capture and emulate the effects I got in the prints from the film negatives but there is a difference.  I've come to the conclusion (and so have several of my friends...) that film captures and digital captures are two totally different media.  I love the dimensionality of the prints and I'm not sure I can duplicate that.  And I've already written enough about the loss of potential that instant feedback creates.  So I'll just say that each media has its strengths and weaknesses and these strengths and weaknesses may be very counter intuitive.  I guess the thing I love about film is the same reason why people like to wrap presents:  It's fun to be surprised.


One of the main reasons I like shooting with both the regular 4:3rds cameras and the micro 4:3rds cameras from Olympus is the ability to set the format to a square.  I'll even admit to using a few of the "art filters" like the pinhole filter and the monochrome settings.  But they are all "looks" I could easily get in the darkroom.

Speaking of the darkroom, it's interesting to remember that there were so many steps in film jobs.  First we'd shoot, then there was a certain creative craft to developing film for the right look and the right contrast.  Then we'd try to make contact sheets that were as beautiful as the final prints.  After the client made "favorites" selections we'd make quick, 8x10 "work prints" so I could get client feedback on cropping (where appropriate), burning, dodging, contrast and other considerations.  Finally, for premium projects, I'd spend days in the darkroom, sometimes going thru a full box a paper, just to get exactly the right look and feel in each print.  The back end of the job was a very important part of the art process.   And remember, we'd work hard to get it right in the camera since there was little economic recourse for post process saving.

I love it when work from the distant past magnetically attracts future work.  I probably won't shoot the present day job on film.  The current economy and the level of fear in the advertising community probably mitigates against taking risks.  But we'll soon be back to the a heathly creative environment and hopefully ad people will have the courage to differentiate and create.

It's a new year and I'm throwing out old files and re-dedicating myself to pure photography.  I hope to stay media agnostic but you probably know that I'm fickle and mercurial.  I'm currently working with the Olympus EP2 to do a whole series of black and white portraits that I'm going to share with you in a few weeks.   Stay warm and keep shooting.  The rewards seem to go to the people who work all the time.  Might as well get into the habit.

Quick request:  I know that many of you have purchased one or more of my three books in the last year. If the spirit moves you, it would be wonderful to see a few more reviews of each book over at Amazon.com.  Just suggesting.  Helps my self-esteem.  Makes me write better blogs faster......




1.07.2010

When I think "toe freezing" cold I think of ballet in St. Petersburg


The Kirov Ballet at the Mariensky Theater. February 1995.


It's breathtakingly cold in Austin, Texas today but nothing like mid winter up in St. Petersburg,  Russia.  They know how to do a real winter.  It's odd the places that photography will take you.  Back in 1995 I found myself spending ten days in Russia with a group of architects, philanthropists and Russian art lovers.  We were working on an ambitious project.  Here's the background:

Everyone seems to know about the Catherine Palace in the city of Pushkin, just twenty miles from St. Petersburg.  But nobody seems to remember the Alexander Palace which sits just four hundred yards away.  It was the very last palace of the Czars.  The site where the royal family was alledgedly executed in the bloody revolution that marked the start of the Soviet Union.  The palace was a mix of deco, Byzantine and several other styles of architecture.  The problem we were there to solve was that the Palace had been used as the headquarters of Soviet Naval Intelligence for seven decades, it was falling apart and the Soviets didn't have a spare ruble to throw at a renovation.  That's when the World Monuments Fund stepped up to the plate and offered to help.  Funds were raised and a team was put together to do a site survey and estimate what would need to be done to restore this interesting monument to the past.

A friend asked me to join the team and it was an adventure I didn't want to pass up.  I headed to Whole Earth Provision Company to buy some winter clothes and then did my research to prepare for the trip.  Shooting in winter meant short days and low light.  I would need to do interior and exterior architectural shots, document art treasures and paintings and still be able to shoot the random human.  Since we had certain budget restraints I chose to shoot on medium format color negative and color slide film instead of 4x5 sheet film.  I packed three Hasselblad cameras.  Two 500 CM's and one SWC Superwide.  A camera with a fixed 38mm Zeiss Biogon lens on the front.  Other lenses included:  50mm, 60mm, 80mm, 100mm,  135 Macro Planar,  150mm and a 180mm.  I brought along six film backs and two Polaroid backs.  I also packed a stout Gitzo Carbon Fiber Tripod.

Since we'd be flying and going in and out of the cold I chose not to take studio strobes, instead opting for a box full of Lowell DP, Omni and Tota lights.  I changed out all the 120 V bulbs for 240V bulbs and bought plug adapters that would convert my American two blade plugs into Russian standard plugs.  I also packed a few extension cords and five or six light stands, a smattering of umbrellas and reflectors and plenty of spare lamps.  With the right filters I could mix the lights with the weak daylight.  But in most locations I was able to use the tungsten lights with no filters as the outside light was so weak.

I flew in with three cases of equipment and an associate who helped me handle all the stuff.  Now that we do digital I find that quantity of gear a bit humorous but it does serve to remind me that this used to be a professional that used to require a creative point of view and a knowledge of the right tools for the right job.  In retrospect my choices were good ones.  I also took a Contax ST SLR camera and two lenses, the 35mm 1.4 and the 85mm 1.4 for my personal use.

Most days were well below zero when we started out.  When I finally got permission to photograph the exterior of the Alexander Palace I stood with my camera and tripod hip deep in snow as I waited for them to move the T-72 battle tanks from the front of the building.  When we went out at night we dressed in layers and layers.  Nothing new if you live up north but very strange for central Texans.

I met an incredible number of nice people on the trip and saw some incredible art in the Hermitage Museum but I think the high point of the trip was an evening at the ballet.  Since we were guests of the Naval Intelligence Service, and since their stomping ground was St. Petersburg, we were treated to the best of everything.  Including seats for the ballet.  Our bodyguards and the military attache who served as our host led us down a long hall before the start of the Firebird and opened the doors to the Czar's box seat.  The balcony extended right up to the edge of the stage as you may be able to tell from the photo above.   During the intermission we were led back up the hall to the private dining room for the Czar where there were tables set with wonderful food and an assortment of wines and Champagnes.

When we returned to the ballet I wanted to take a photo or two and my body guard signaled me to follow him to an area just to the other side of the box, obscured by curtains from both the audience and the box seat.  It was the perfect spot from which to shoot.  My body guard was an avid amateur photographer and I tipped him liberally at the end of my stay with all my unused film.

When we left the theater that night we had to wait for our cars to arrive and we stood outside and watched the fattest snowflakes I've ever seen drop down in such quantity that visibility was maybe twenty feet.  I learned that the temperature dropped to around minus 25 degrees farenheit that evening. In my thick, black, dress leather shoes I could feel my toes slowly freezing and they only warmed up after twenty or so minutes in a hot shower.

There are so many stories I remember from that particular trip.  I'll look through the film files and digitize a few of my favorites and then post them in a few more segments.  But for some strange reason whenever it gets really cold I have an instant vision of the cold, crisp night at the theater in St. Petersburg.  The project was successful.

1.05.2010

Moving Thru LIfe. Graceful Moments.

Roman Couple sitting in front of the Pantheon.  1995

It's safe to have a routine that you follow.  Oatmeal and coffee for breakfast.  A day in the office.  Home to the wife and kids.  Dinner.  Television.  An hour or two looking at websites.  And then the same thing all over again.  And then you die.  And you haven't really lived a bad life.  But did you engage?

I'm as guilty as everyone else of giving in to entropy.  There's a tremendous comfort in routine and knowing with fair certainty what will happen tomorrow and the day after.   But I resist.  I want to be out watching the world happen.  I want to actually see those moments they work so hard to replicate on TV to tweak our emotional longing in the service of some product or pharmaceutical.  I want to see people in love.  People who've lost hope.  People who are trying hard to eke out some shred of happiness.

And I can't do that by staying home or showing up to the office.  I have to be where the last of the real people are.  Out in life.  In the flow.  On the street.  In restaurants and in bars.  Falling in love and then being disappointed and falling out of love.  Dressing up for someone.  Waiting. Anticipating.

I took some time off to go to Rome by myself.  I took what many would consider to be an inappropriate camera.  A Hasselblad 500 CM with an old, brassed 100mm f3.5 Zeiss Planar.  I carried a pocket full of black and white film with me in my jacket.  And I would just wander around looking at life.  The camera wasn't a tool, it was an excuse to drop into the river of life and swim along with people who'd disconnected from boredom and routine and who were living life as fully as they could.

I sat down to have a cold drink and looked forward to see this couple.  They were totally engaged in each other.  When she reached out to touch him with her right hand the gesture was so wonderfully real that I was compelled to take a photo.

When I closed down my darkroom in the late 1990's I lost the negative to this image.  I've never felt a keener loss for an object.  I don't think a week went by when I didn't think of the negative.  I have a large print of the image in my house but the thought that I'd never be able to make another print, would never be able to share this image gnawed at me.  I felt the loss so keenly.

Last year I was clearing out old negatives and throwing stuff away.  I found this in a folder of corporate images from a company that had long since gone bankrupt.  I usually throw away whole folders but some instinct pushed me to take a look through before tossing the folder in the trash.  And there was the strip of images.  A beautiful strip of four frames of this couple.  Sitting in chairs at a McDonald's in the eternal city.  And, no kidding, I found myself tearing up with joy.

For one more brief time I felt myself connected to that river of life.  And it's a reminder to leave my routine and venture out.  Even if it's just a Sunday afternoon walk across town.  Because when I'm out I know I'm watching real life and not some facsimile on TV.  The camera is just an excuse.