6.09.2010

Does everything really need to be sharp?

Paris 1978.

I've taken lots of photographs since I did this one in 1978.  And I've used some of the best equipment in the world in the process.  But even though the resulting images are far sharper, much higher resolution and in many instances nearly grainless, this one image remains one of my very favorite.  I was in Paris for the first time as an adult.  I'd bought a Canon QL17 camera just a month or so before I arrived.  I knew next to nothing about photography.  I didn't know how to read and exposure meter and didn't own one.  My friend, Alan Pogue, lent me some Ansel Adams books and told me to shoot Tri-X film.  He suggested that I shoot it all at ASA 200 and that he would show me how to develop it when I returned to Austin.

It was early on a September weekday morning and my girlfriend and I were out walking, headed for Printemps to have breakfast in the rooftop cafe.  I had the little camera in my hand and a very tattered backpack over my shoulder.  I looked ahead and saw this woman coming toward us.  I lifted the camera tried to quickly line up the rangefinder in the viewfinder and I snapped one frame and she hustled past.

It was months later that I developed that roll of Tri-X and weeks after that when I made my first feeble prints.  The negative was underexposed, grainy and out of focus.  I must have tried reprinting it 50 times over the last 32 years.  I finally decided that I liked the image enough to ignore the negative's negatives.  And now I have a print of the image over my desk.

I've never bothered to ask anyone else if they like the image and I'll never be able to separate the amalgam of my feelings that come to the surface when I try to evaluate it's objective value.  But I've come to understand that the day I made a print of this image is the day I decided to become a photographer. 

We think of audiences and influences when we create our careers but mine started with a slice of time captured on a loud city street on a brisk autumn morning.  

And I've spent the last 32 years looking for more images like this.  Do I care if this image is sharp?  

A few announcements. No major rants.

Swimmer makes perfect triangle with arm and lane line.  ©2010 kirk tuck


Open Invitation:  Book Signing Event: On Saturday, June 19th, my friends at Precision Camera have invited me to do a two hour book signing event, at the store, from noon til 2pm.  I'm presuming that we'll have all four books available.  It will be very informal and I'll be happy to talk about photography with anyone who drops by.  I'd love to see some familiar faces even if you have no interest in getting a book...
Precision Camera in Austin is located at 3810 North Lamar Boulevard Austin, TX 78756.  If you've got questions, call them at:  (512) 467-7676.  I won't be competing with UT football this time.....

I'm working on a book about portraits and I need some help from people in and around Austin:  The book is about alternatives to traditional portraits.  I'll be exploring a more modern portrait ethos, new, minimalist lighting for portraits and more of a lifestyle approach to posing and venue.  I'll mostly be using non-tranditional light sources and small battery units.  This is where you come in.  I need lots and lots of cooperative models.  I'm looking for all kinds of people with interesting faces who could join me for an hour at a time in coffee shops, on the street in down town and around town and for short stints in the studio.  Anyone who participates will get a 12 by 18 inch original C print (signed on the back) of one of the photos we make together.  I'll be shooting in Austin mostly but would also welcome the chance to shoot people in San Antonio.  If you are interested you can e-mail me at kirktuck@kirktuck.com.  If you know someone with a beautiful or intriguing face will you pass my offer along?  If you send me someone who is very, very photogenic I may offer to use them for step by step photos.  In that case I'll be able to pay them for the time we do that together.  Thanks for the help.

Surveying:  Is there anyone out there who would like me to be doing video blogs on lighting topics or techniques having to do with portraits?  A few of my friends think this would be cool.  For me it would scary as they want me on the other side of the camera doing the explaining and stuff.  Just thought I'd ask around and see if anyone is interested in this kind of stuff.  If you have an opinion one way or another would you toss it into the comments?  

That's it for the announcements and stuff.  Catch you on the next read.

Getting outside the studio and shooting mid-day in the heat and wind.....

This is Mike.  He's an executive at a tech company.  And that's some of Austin in the background.

Sometimes I think I get too philosophical about photography.  Today I'm just talking "nuts and bolts".  

I've spent decades shooting in the studio and inside the (air conditioned) corporate buildings of major clients.  Recently a new company asked me to shoot their corporate officers in a different way.  We talked a bit and decided that shooting outside, with the city of Austin in the background, would be a cool way to go.

Scheduling is always a concern.  Executives seem to have busier schedules than most and, with packed schedules, we sometimes have to shoot right in the middle of the day or in the heat of the afternoon.  So we learn to deal with the sun.

My shoot with Mike was scheduled for 4pm.  My morning shoot was a technology shoot in the studio.  Tiny cities on top of tiny slices of silicon.  I packed for Mike's shoot the night before and when the clock ticked 3:15 pm I started turning off hot lights, covering products so dust wouldn't cover everything, and I headed out the door.  We shot on the pedestrian bridge just to the south of downtown Austin.  I was able to park a couple hundred yards away and push my stuff over onto the bridge on a small cart.  The bridge is about forty feet wide and it's a wonderful place to shoot.   In the early mornings and early evenings it's covered with runners and walkers but at 4pm we pretty much had the whole span over Lady Bird Lake to ourselves.

I packed a Canon 5d mark 2 with a 24-105 zoom lens.  Hoodman loupe (really need this for sunny locations and just about any camera...).  Profoto 600b, battery powered electronic flash with one head and a speed ring.  Two light stands.  One collapsible, two stop, white 42 inch Westcott diffuser panel and an arm to hold it.  Most important pieces of equipment? Two 20 pound sandbags.

This is the kind of shoot that an assistant is very helpful on.  Watching the gear while you go and look for lost subjects (for the record, Mike was right on time and NOT lost), holding light stands in a brisk breeze and helping to drag the cart back to the car on remote locations.  Unfortunately, I did not have an assist with me on Mike's shoot.  That's just the way the scheduling goes.  But we go thru without incident.

First step is to put up the two stop diffuser above Mike's head so he didn't have to stand in the sun.  Once we had that up I grabbed the camera and started looking for the right angles.  I'd worked with his marketing director on three other similar shoots so we had a good idea of what the composition should be like. I also knew that we didn't want to be too tight.

I sandbagged the light stand that had the diffuser and its holding arm and then set up a second light stand with a 24 by 36 inch softbox on it.  That stand got a sand bag as well.  The diffuser is as close to the top of Mike's head as I can get it and still keep it out of the frame.  The more light I can block the better. The light blocker keeps Mike from being hit by the hard, direct rays of the sun and drops the exposure on his face around two stops.  I fill back in with my own, controlled, more flattering light.  I walked the softbox in as close as I could and set the power on the strobe box to 1/4 power.  Our exposures were in the 1/160th of a second f8.5 range.  I was trying to balance the image so that the background read about 1/2 a stop darker than Mike.  I also wanted to be sure to get shadow detail even on Mike's black shirt.

We shot about 60 images but the very first one was the keeper and the one unanimously chosen.  

I processed the image in CS5, taking advantage of the new, content aware, masking tools to do different treatments to Mike and to the background.  Gotta love layers...

Here's some advice on lighting like this outside:

1.  Gotta take sand bags.  Even light breezes can get a hold of a panel or a collapsible diffuser and make it into a sail.  And wind on the bridge is always amplified compared with wind on the ground.  

2.  If you can swing it bring an assistant.  Not to haul stuff but to hold onto the light stand with the softbox and the light head.  With Profoto heads heading toward $1,000 each the last thing you want is one heading toward the ground.  The added benefit of the assistant is this highly complex mathematical equation:  Big assistant+sandbag= bigger softbox.  Where y equals the velocity of wind and x equals the softness of light....  I love big softboxes but if I'm by myself I think the 24 by 26 is just about the limit.  And that's with the 12 pound strobe pack and the 20 pound sand bag hooked onto the stand.

3.  If it's over 90 and the sun is shining get your shade up for the client first thing.  You don't want them frying and sweating before you've shot the first frame.  Being able to make shade is almost as fun as being able to make light.  You might also want to bring the client a cold bottle of water.

4.  Get the whole thing,  from the firm, welcome handshake to the warm farewell,  done in ten minutes or less.  If you need to fiddle, get there early and do it on your own time.

5.  If you have the resources (additional sandbags and an assistant) consider bringing along a second panel.  Make this one black and put it up right behind the camera.  This will give the talent/subject something dark to look at so they aren't squinting from the bright ambient light.  This could be really important in a location with lots of bright building reflections and concrete.

6.  Don't depend on the rear screen of the camera for total imaging confirmation unless you've brought the loupe and disable the automatic brightness setting that now seems to be a standard feature on new cameras.

7.  Dress for the heat.  Nice to make that good impression and I'm all for the random suit and tie in the boardroom or the chic hotel ballroom but out on the pedestrian bridge you'll be fine in some nice shorts and a polo shirt.  Or even better, a UV resistant shirt from Ex Officio  (the offical provider of hot weather shirts for Kirk Tuck Photography :-)  ).

I've got no advice for post processing because everyone does that differently.  The most important part to remember is to make your own shade. It will separate you from the yahoos out banging around with direct flash and hot hightlights.  Nobody looks great with razor sharp shadows and too much detail.  

I hit the bridge at 3:45pm.  I had everything roughed in and set up when Mike hit the bridge at 4:00pm.  I had Mike walking away at 4:08pm.  He was happy to get out of the heat.  I needed to finish the tech job that was already taking a lot more time than I budgeted for.  

Just eight minutes?  Yes.  And that's a feature/benefit.  Because we don't charge by the hour we charge by the image that gets licensed.  Efficiency works for you and the client unless you are dumb enough to charge strictly by the hour.  

So, that's my afternoon a few weeks ago.  Hope all is well.  

Best, Kirk