Monday Morning Portrait. It's 50% lighting. It's 50 % engagement. And it's 100% collaboration.


I loved photographing Heidi. She came to my studio at the suggestion of my assistant, Amy. We were doing a book project and we needed a beautiful person to photograph so we could illustrate what I was writing about lighting. I lit her in what I've come to know as "my style" of lighting. It's a really big umbrella (could be a softbox if you prefer) used over to one side and fairly close. The other side gets a black blocking card to control the depth of the shadows. The little glimmer of backlit hits the top of Heidi's check and adds and inference of shaping to that side of her face. The grid spot on the background creates a vignette effect on the background.

We were using an Leaf/Rollei Aptus 7 back in the studio at the time but I found that I preferred a regular Nikon DSLR and a medium telephoto zoom lens instead. The files on the bigger camera might have been easier to work with but the smaller camera was 95% there on the quality and much more fluid with which to work. A variation of the image above appeared in the second book; the one about studio lighting.

I came across this image because I'm preparing to give three day, concentrated workshop on portrait lighting and portrait creation for a private company. I've looked through over 900 digital portraits I've made in the last decade with nearly 40 different digital cameras. My take away? All the files look nearly the same as artifacts because lighting and aesthetic attention trump the somewhat benign differences in cameras. Shop all you want but whatever you shoot with you shoot with your own brain first. Hard to overcome that hurdle, if you consider it to be a hurdle. On the other hand it certainly speaks to a triumph of purpose. Go with your flow and you'll drag whatever camera along with you....

Happy monday. Hope the week treats us all well.

The Return of the "Hot" Walk. Burning up with a camera in your hands.

 Ben reading "Old Path, White Clouds" in the reading room.

After a fairly mild Spring and a calm Summer yesterday felt like a reprise from the Summer of 2011 when we suffered through 105 straight days of over 100 degrees. Many of the days pegged out over 110. Although we don't hit the desert temperatures we're more like the Houston ship canal in the Summer where the high temperatures are leavened with ample humidity. Yesterday we heard the weather forecast telling us that the high temperature for the day would be around 109 (f) while in the heat sink of downtown we could expect a few degrees more. What a perfect afternoon to take a compact camera out for a walk and see how it would handle outside of its stated operating parameters...

I baselined the test with a shot of Ben sitting, motionless, in a comfortable chair with the ambient interior temperature hoving around 78 degrees. Even at 640 ISO there's little discernible noise. In a nod to the heat I found a light colored and thin ball cap and drank a glass of water before I walked out the door and steered the sprightly studio vehicle toward downtown. I had my trusty NX300, a Hoodman Loupe (I don't care how great your eyes are none of those rear screens is in its element at EV 21...). Ever the Boy Scout I tossed an extra battery in the pocket and tossed on a pair of non-polarized sunglasses. 

A moment to discuss sunglasses: Anyone who works outside and anyone who wants to keep their vision intact to their old age should wear good, optically rigorous sunglasses which block both UV and IR energy. Keep those retinas and corneas happy. But....don't go out for your photo walk with a pair of polarized sunglasses because the random interference patterns will obscure parts of the screen, which is also polarized. Also, polarized glasses greatly increased the dark tones in the skies making the clouds stand out dramatically. Unfortunately you won't see the same effect in your camera files unless you put a polarizer on the front of the camera too. I like polarized sunglasses when I drive but not when I shoot. Too much disparity between my human perception and the camera perception.
The Barton Springs Spillway.

I presumed that the general population of Austin would wither and hide from the heat in cool, little caves, in malls and theaters. Naw. The soccer fields were jammed with people kicking the balls around in the direct sun. Barton Springs and Lady Bird Lake were both filled with splashers and paddle boarders and kayakers and swimmers. No different than a mild day.

Mercedes. Buy a raffle ticket. At Zach Scott.

I recently received a 30mm f2, pancake lens for my Samsung NX 300. Their public relations agency sent it out to me and I decided that it would be my only lens for the heat walk. It is nice not to have to make decisions in the heat or to change lenses with sweaty hands.  I put the lens at f7.1  and left it there for the rest of the day. It worked well with one exception: I got a tiny bit of magenta discoloration on one side of the frame. I've had the same problem with wider and legacy lenses on the Sony NEX 7. I saw it mostly on side lit images and it may be the very beginning of flare just jumping in there.

When I walked from Barton Springs to Zachary Scott Theatre and I found this Mercedes sedan parked out on the "quad" in front of the new Topfer theater. Kinda bizarre, like a commercial that doesn't move. Or have sound. I put my knee down on the concrete in anticipation of kneeling to make a low angle shot and I quickly stood up because the surface was burning me. Instead I flipped the screen out, popped the loupe on and shot low that way. No weird magenta cast on this one. When I look at this shot bigger the detail is wonderful, deep and compelling. Even better than the detail I see in files from my 20 megapixel Sony a58.

I was amazed at the number of Austin cyclists tooling around in 
the downtown heat wave. The heat didn't seem to faze them...

I'm very happy with the focal length of the pancake lens. It's like a 45 or 47mm lens on a full frame camera and that's what I cut my teeth on back when I bought my first cameras. My Canon Canonet sported a 40mm 1.7, my Canon TX came with a 50mm 1.8 lens and my Rolleiflex TLR was in the same ballpark. 

This giant pit in front of the old power plant will be the home of Austin's new downtown library. We're collectively going to spend several hundred million dollars to build it and I wonder if someone missed the memo about books becoming digital and almost instantly available... 

As I walked from the pedestrian bridge, through the construction alley of new buildings, and over the railroad tracks I turned east toward downtown and wandered past Garrido's and the W Hotel before coming to temporary rest at Caffe Medici. Once refreshed I headed up the street and photographed several buildings, including the Littlefield Building, which, because of the heat, I envisioned in black and white. Or, as my trendy art friends say, "monochrome."

The corner of 6th and Congress Ave.

I've become very agile in using the eyelevel-finderless camera with a big Hoodman Loupe. It makes my process of photography more controlled and more easily reviewed. But I did have an epiphany yesterday ( or heat stroke ). I thought that young people and hipsters used the screens on the backs of their cameras and phones because they didn't understand the advantages of an eye level finder and a diopter optical system for framing and reviewing.  I kinda thought they were... stupid. But I've finally realized that the generation in question are early adopters of what I've been preaching all along: They are choosing live view. They want to see how the image will look as they implement changes, etc. and, since most cut their teeth on cellphone cameras, the back screen was the only option and they became habituated to it.

Not a reason to get rid of the EVF but a defense of that group's disregard for the better method. They were foiled and truncated early on by the dumb optical finders. Funny how heat changes your mind.

Sub Bridge Concert.

After walking through downtown and dousing my hat from time to time with cool water from one resource or another I set my internal GPS to Whole Foods and spent a few minutes wandering through the meat, seafood and dairy sections of the store where the temperature felt almost arctic. Re-refreshed I took the last lap and headed back over the bridge to regain my car. I intentionally took the hike and bike trail to photograph the reflections of the lake's water on the underside of the old Lamar bridge. It was here that I bumped into the violinist, above. He was playing for a small group of people who'd gathered under the bridge to temporarily escape the heat. It was wonderful and seemed somehow organic in the sense that this is how people lived before the age of air conditioning made us soft and prone to collapsing under even the slightest duress....

It was a fine walk. It was a long and happy walk. And at the end I felt cool and satisfied and somehow more integrated into the energy of Austin. Home for a lentil, apple and spinach salad and two glasses of a very nice, Argentinian Cabernet Savignon. And a couple glasses of water...

As you can see, the camera performed perfectly. No extra noise from heat. Not like my Kodak DCS 760 which starts to make happy colored sparkles the relative size of marbles whenever the temperature exceeds 104f. Works for me.


I thought I had it all figured out until I added an image from the Sony a850 and....

....the ultra cheap, totally plastic 85mm f2.8 Sony lens...now all bets are off....

flash exposure.

I used three different cameras for my portrait session with Dani on Weds. Interesting to see the differences...

Photographed with Sony a99 and 85mm Rokinon 1.5 Cine Lens.

I was adjusting a side panel and I looked over at Dani and realized that I really liked the light at that angle so I had her turn a bit and we shot some images. All the out of focus stuff in the background is just my desk and my chair and miscellaneous junk.  But the junk always looks nice when it's out of focus in the background. 

The images I showed previously were all done with a Samsung NX300 but my original intention was to shoot most of the images with the Sony a99 and the Rokinon 85mm lens (which I like very, very much) and to just toss in the little camera to see how it performed. In the end I shot about half and half with these two cameras, along with a smattering of shots done with the Sony a850 and the Sony 85mm 2.8.

I'm not prepared to say that one machine is better than the other but the differences are more nuanced than newsworthy. The a99 images are noticeable by the way the focus falls quickly off which is a result of the bigger sensor and the wider aperture lens (though the angle of view for both the small and large cameras is very similar).  The actual "drawing" of her face is much the same between both cameras and the skin tones are similar. But there is a difference that makes me stop and really dig down to understand what it is I'm seeing. It's just hard to put into words.

While the Sony has a bigger frame and the focus falls off much quicker the files seem more like transparency films from the film days. The contrasts between tones seem sharper and quicker while the tonality of the NX 300 seems smoother and less dramatic. In one sense the more dramatic tonality of the a99 is satisfying by it's realism while the smoother skin tone and less dramatic tonalities between lights and darks on my subject's face make an image that's ultimately more flattering.  But is my intention always to flatter or is it to make an image that has some alternate resonance to me? I think most times I'll pick the later over the former.

And while I have not yet process the a850 files my past experiences tell me that they will have an even more heightened drama that's a result of a tighter (harder?) inherent contrast curve vis-a-vis the other two cameras. While we can change the characteristic curves in post the embedded ones carry with them a negative inertia that inhibits me from making large changes or swings. And like any changes you make to an existing file there is always a compromise and a loss involved.

While post processing can my files from many cameras almost to close to differentiate I still believe that different digital cameras each have their own fingerprint and it's harder to erase than we think without whole scale post processing trickery.

For now my money is marginally on the Samsung where flattering skin tone is involved and wholly on the Sony where my impression of reality is involved. Hard to explain to people who are more motivated by metrics but easily understandable by anyone who stops and just looks...

The image above was lit by one six tube, Fotodiox Day Flo Max fluorescent unit bounced into an 84 inch Fotodiox White Umbrella. There's a little light bouncing around the back of the room from my Fiilex LED unit which is illuminating the background...


New Toys Seem to Be Arriving Weekly.

Samsung 30mm f2 for NX. Nice.

I got a lens in the Fed Ex delivery today. It kinda makes up for having to miss my first big photography junket. A bit. The folks at Samsung invited me to San Francisco for the roll out of the new super wi-fi camera in July. Four days of fun and rubbing shoulders with photographers from all over the world, and all expenses paid, but I had to decline. My kid is getting his wisdom teeth out right in the middle of the event dates and I promised I'd be here to help out. You can never make promises to your kid(s) and not honor them when absolutely possible. It's a firm rule in our house.


The whole month of July is a scheduling nightmare anyway since I'll need to be in Denver, CO. from the 10th through the 15th to do a video taping for a series of courses I'm presenting. I'm always nervous being away from the studio for too long because I want to be accessible to clients but I should get over that and realize that with a smartphone and a laptop I can be accessible anywhere these days.

At any rate getting a cool, little lens feels great on a hot, sleepy day. The lens they sent along is a 30mm f2 lens for the Samsung NX camera. I pulled it out of the box and took it with me when I went to photograph a radiologist on location this afternoon. I used a Sony a57 to photograph him, along with several flashes and a big, old Balcar Zebra umbrella but on the way home I dropped by Barton Springs Pool to take a few snaps with the little combo. I haven't pulled them out of the camera and put them on the computer yet but just to prove I could do so I figured out how to transfer files from the camera to my iPhone. Not sure it's something I need but I felt good getting it figured out.

It's up in the hundreds here now and the heat feels like it's sinking into everything. Hope you are staying cool wherever you are. One note, don't complain to me again about there being too many posts. That's just B.S. and I don't want to read it. If you read slowly or only have extremely limited access to the web you might want to marshall your resources and spend your time somewhere else. You should know the ground rules by now. I write what I want to write and I post it when I want to post it. It's up to you to keep up or ignore it.

The process of selecting and working with portrait subjects.

I think everyone who takes portraits as part of their art has strong feelings about the look and energy of the people they want to photograph. In my commercial work I have to be open to all types and temperaments. When I make portraits to please myself I'm looking for not just a catalog of physical attributes but also an aura of good energy and a unique personality in the sitter.

I first met Dani a couple of years ago at Caffe Medici on Congress Ave. I was playing around with an Olympus Pen digital camera and an Olympus original Pen lens and I asked her if I could take a few quick snaps. I posted them on the blog and talked about the lens. Dani and I got each other's Facebook info and stayed in touch. Recently I've been asked to be part of an online education project that will require me to go to Denver for a week and deliver a learning seminar in a video production studio. My first glancing attempt at being on the other side of the camera. The producers want to have a healthy selection of my work to show as examples during my programming so I decided to update some of the materials and I started thinking about what I wanted to show and who I wanted to use as an example.

Dani immediately came to mind. Why? I guess it's a combination of her fabulous eyes and that indefinable thing we call energy. Instead of being a passive participant she seems hard-wired to become a collaborator. She has strong opinions (which I like) and she's also a devoted, film-based, art photographer so she gets the idea that I'm not always trying to make portraits that fulfill the requirements of a consumer driven check list. I like that she's fit and lean and angular. That fitness allows the light to play across her face and create a wonderful impression of three dimensions.

Yesterday was our first session together and we spent most of it talking and getting to know each other. I started out shooting with an electronic flash firing into an 84 inch, white umbrella counterbalanced by a grid spot on the seamless paper background. I ended up bouncing a big fluorescent lighting instrument into the same umbrella and using a Fiilex P360 LED light on the background. The image above was shot with the flashes. The image on the previous blog post (which is the most satisfying image I've taken this year) was done with the combination of fluorescent and LED. In a sense the lights are all interchangeable as are the cameras.

We spent our time going back and forth between talking and shooting. I would see an expression or a gesture that I'd like during conversation and I'd ask her to go back and do the same thing again. Sometimes I'd see a combination of hand gestures and excitement in her face and I'd shoot "blind"; not looking at the screen, just taking for granted that my composition hadn't changed. I'd suggest a pose and we'd explore it with a dozen or so frames. I'd give little suggestions and ask for small movements. I don't like poses to change with each press of the shutter, my method is to work slowly and build into visual situations, changing only one small parameter at a time.

When the shooting cycle started to repeat I knew we were done and we moved on to our exterior locations. The things that tie a style together are a clear intention, the selection of subject and an idea for the design and application of the light. Everything else is really extraneous.

Technical Stuff: Elinchrom Monolight used at 1/3 power into a white, 84 inch umbrella with black backing to control spill. Elinchrom Monolight used at minimum power with a 30 degree grid for a light on a Thunder Gray background. Two 4x6 foot black Lightforms panels on the opposite side of the main light and about six feet away from Dani to control spill light. Samsung NX 300 with 18-55mm kit lens used at 55mm, wide open aperture (f5.6). ISO 160. Shot in Jpeg Fine mode. Color temperature set at daylight. 


This blog post under construction. I like the image but I'm not sure what I want to say...

Playing with portraits.

Dani. In Studio. Samsung NX300. 

Careful !!! You can only do studio portraits with big, professional cameras. It's in the rules.

Dani was in the studio today and we were drinking coffee, sharing stories and making portraits. I had my big camera all fired up and my fast, long lens was holding court. And as I made a bunch of images I started wondering if I could make the same kind of work with a (gulp!) "amateur" camera. You know, one of those mirrorless cameras. Something so primitive that it doesn't even have an eye level viewfinder finder. I made sure the guardians of the professional way weren't looking and I pulled out the little, bitty Samsung NX 300 with it's (supposedly) pedestrian kit lens mounted on the front and I......well I just started shooting. I was expecting to have a humbling experience in which the bigger, better and brawnier camera, with the coveted lens, spanked the crap out of the small system and my experiment proven to be a waste of time. But I was chagrined to find that I liked the color, skin tone and contrast of the smaller camera at least as much as the big one and maybe just a notch or two better. Yes, the bigger camera focuses faster and might be a better choice in Stygian darkness but the little camera focused quite well in what is my usual working modality and since I can afford to use lights I didn't have to worry about shooting at 12,000 ISO at all.

Your evaluation of my portrait of Dani may be different. This isn't a science. It's just the messy intersection of physics and art. 


I love this review of my fourth book. The book has been out for a while but the review got posted ten days ago. Grateful writer!

5.0 out of 5 stars THE Book to learn all about photographic lighting equipment........June 14, 2013
Nancy Lemon (Forney, Texas) - See all my reviews
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I have long been a fan and once again, Kirk Tuck NEVER disappoints ....... if you're a newbie and 
want to learn all about the various photographic lighting equipment available, then this book is for 
you ........ if you're a seasoned photog and are in need of a bit of a refresher on lighting to get the 
creative juices flowing again this book is also for you....... Kirk style of writing is informal and very 
down to earth, one gets the feeling that he is talking to you like he would talk to a friend. 
He never seems to get bogged down with equipment rather he is teaching from his past experiences 
about the vast choices of lighting available today...... I especially love how he shows by example that 
one doesn't have to go out & spend allot of money on equipment...... in one section he shows how 
he is able to shoot portraits using portable construction lights & a shower curtain! I have always 
found his insight enlightening and entertaining....... This is a comprehensive book about all manner of 
lighting equipment with the exception the newest lighting option of LED...... fortunately, he's just 
released a book devoted to LED so if you want to learn about lighting equipment, buy this book & his 
newest on LED and you'll have a very rounded knowledge of the subject.
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This is my least talked about book. Nothing controversial, just an overview of lots of different devices to make light or make light better. And probably my favorite.

A few little unnerving observations from yesterday. The first one is that cheap gear works well.

The old Lamar Bridge via the Samsung NX300 camera and kit lens.

While in Houston yesterday I photographed with both the a99 and a58 cameras. What's the difference between them? Not much. One (the a99) costs $2799 and the other costs $550. The a99  features a full frame sensor while the a58 makes good use of a new 20 megapixel APS-C sensor. But when it comes right down to how the images look on the big screen it's mostly a toss up. Of course the trés literal readers will foam up at the mouth and start yanking my chain about the imaging performance at 6400 ISO but that only works if you have nice looking light to begin with, not fluorescent lite office interiors that need to be lit to work aesthetically. At the point where you introduce lighting design you essentially cancel your desperate need for religiously pure, high ISO performance.

My point? If you light what you shoot or you shoot in nice light you'll find just about every body out there on the market today is nothing more than an appliance on which to hang your chosen lenses. We've reached a point that is analogous to where film equipment was in decades past; the camera is now the interchangeable box and it's the quality of the lenses that drives the bus. That, and being able to really see fun stuff with your unadorned eye and mind. Will a better camera make you a better photographer? If you are shooting a contemporary DSLR? Probably not. Except at the technical fringes. Oh, you shoot sports? Professionally? Well then, you already know what you need to be using.

Second lesson learned. In the future most lens improvements will be in the lens profile software. I shot with an inexpensive wide angle zoom for all my wide shots yesterday. It's a Sigma 10-20mm f4.5-5.6 lens. Believe me, it's nothing fancy but it sure is wide and it doesn't misbehave. The only flies on this piece of cake have been a strange, moustache distortion on the outer edges of the lens and a whole heapin' helpin' of vignetting at just about any aperture south of f11. But I had the confidence to use the lens because the latest raw conversion update for Lightroom 4.4 includes a well done profile just for this lens. Touch an on screen button and watch the exciting transformation from sharp and saturated but distorted with dark edges into "Wow! That looks great." I like to think that Adobe has a facility somewhere with lots of donuts and pizza and Mountain Dew where software writers sit around testing lenses and writing profiles for them and that they will eventually get to every lens I ever wanted to own.

This profile makes my lens a heavy hitting production lens. Now I'm happier shooting wide and wider.

I learned to cancel my four days of driving to Denver and back to Austin for later this Summer. I drove to Houston and back, a mere 6 hours behind the wheel and I'm tired of driving for at least the rest of the quarter. I need to be in Denver on the tenth. Now I'm flying. I'll ship all the crap I wanted to take (the original rationale for driving insane distances....).

I learned that one needn't go far from home to get great BBQ. If you read yesterday's blog you read about my disappointment with the brisket and ribs at Smitty's. Well, I sampled the brisket (just a taste, not a lunch) at Whole Foods today and I stand by my assertion that state of the art Que can be had just a bit more than three miles from my home. The rest is just scene-sters posturing.

That's enough learning for one day. Now it's back to work. Must clean studio before session with alarmingly beautiful person tomorrow morning. Yes, you'll see the images.


Oh, the glamorous life of big time pro photographers...

 I must be blogging and doing my promotional stuff all wrong because all the other guys are palling it up in Dubai, shooting images of each other with Fuji X100s cameras and I'm doing work near the Houston shipyards. Hardly the glamorous and jet-setty life I was counting on when I plunked down my hard earned cash for that first Canon TX oh so many years ago. But I'm not really complaining, I just want to tell you, via a brief essay concerning my last 24 hours, about the submerged part of the iceberg we call commercial photography...

I got an assignment on late Friday to head to Houston, Texas to photograph on monday some equipment and the space in which it is used. A very straightforward sort of assignment. Photograph a reception area, a waiting area, a consumer interface, some new scanning equipment in use, some corporate lifestyle shots in which a fake interview is conducted, etc. Nothing breakthrough but after the lean years of the recession I am always happy to have the work.

Once the assignment was confirmed I turned my mind to packing. It was the kind of job that's tailor made for portable strobes and I'd just solved a rudimentary Sony flash+sync with radio slave conundrum so I figured I'd give the Sonys a whirl. Packing is one of those things many people take for granted but I agonize over every piece of inventory. I hate to carry too much but I can't stand leaving behind the one piece of gear that I'll desperately need. I always pack with an eye toward redundant back up so I can complete the job with a number of lens, camera and light variations. This job would be no different.

I packed, in my Airport Security roller case, the Sony a99 camera and the Sony a58 camera. They take the same batteries and that's a blessing. I packed the 10-20mm Sigma lens for wide room shots and I packed the 16-50mm Sony lens to make that camera an all around working system.
I rounded up five extra batteries for the two cameras and put them all on chargers. I packed a Minolta 20mm lens, the Tamrom 28-75mm 2.8 lens, and both the Rokinon 35mm 1.5 and the 85mm 1.5 lenses for the a99. Just for good measure I tossed in the Samsung NX 300 and its extra battery. Then I turned my attention to portable flashes.

Even though I am less than happy with certain interface parameters of the Sony HVL 60 I took it and the HVL 58 as my main lighting units. I brought two sets of Eneloop rechargeable batteries and a handful of double "A" alkalines along just in case (all unnecessary). I started to pack the Flash Waves radio triggers that have been flawless for me but as always I ran a test and when working with the "sender" realized that I had no more back-up batteries for the unit. I put everything down and headed out the door to get four more back-ups. I've used the unit for at least a year with the current A23S battery and I could have made due with one extra but I feel better knowing that there are now four already aging batteries in my micro Pelican case which is dedicated to radio slaves and interface couplings for such.

When I assembled my "work around" connections for the Sony flashes and the triggers I was a bit unsettled by the ungainly and less than mil spec structural integrity of my constructions. They were a bit wobbly in action. This led me to also pack two Sunpack 383 (non-dedicated) speedlights....just in case. Ah, the case grows heavier as the paranoia grows more pervasive...

I also brought along three light stands with hot shoe flash adapters on top, along with three different photographic umbrellas which would mollify and modify the light in three different ways. It is vital to be prepared for any size environment and any sort of light modification task. I know that I've read that somewhere in a book.

Finally I worked on selecting a tripod from the ungainly pile. I rejected my Gitzo Studex 5 series as being comically too heavy. The wooden tripods stayed home because I didn't need to shoot outside and I knew it would be humid everywhere. Why add unneeded moisture to the whole situation? I settled on a cheap as dirt Leitz Tiltall tripod because it uses a traditional two control pan head which is easier to deal with than a ballhead when leveling the camera to the scene. I added my iPad to the load because I have an app on it that makes me truly paperless. It's called Easy Release. It's a highly configurable model release program that allows subjects to enter their data and then sign with a finger on the screen. It prompts me to take a photo of them which it sticks into the file. Finally, if you have connection you can immediately send your release into your Apple Cloud storage and send an e-mail copy to your subject. Nice. Cheap. Handy.

I packed one set of "doing business in corporate America" clothing as well as a razor, toothbrush and two books to read. I'm currently re-reading Vladimir Nabokov's book, Strong Opinions, which is an edited compilation of interviews with the writer. It's a fascinating book for any artist. And should be required reading for any writer or lover of lyrical, languorous, language. I am also reading, with great diligence and focus, How to Train a Wild Elephant, which is a comfortable and accessible books about mindfulness and day to day awareness. No book in the camera bag? Shame.

The most important part of the preproduction is sitting down with Google Maps and mapping out a route to the destination and back again. I generally print out two different routes to, and two different routes from, wherever I'm going. For example, on Sunday I felt the need for some scenery and a less frantic driving experience so I went down HWY 71 through Bastrop and enjoyed the big hills and leisurely tempo of the traffic. But today I knew I might want to return via Luling and then Lockhart where I might have wanted to stop at Smitty's for some BBQ. (Which I did). Having the alternate route maps works well for me and the printed sheets are more accessible than the menus on my iPad when I'm going 110 mph.

I kissed the dog on the nose and waved goodbye to the rest of the family around four in the afternoon and headed out into the modern world. Things were fine until I hit Sealy, which is a little oil spot of a town about 50 miles from Houston proper. I was on the industrial ribbon of road referred to as Highway IH-10 trying to dodge great wedges and chunks of rubber and wires that were the last remnants of giant truck tires when break lights started blinking like paparazzi flashes at a Beyoncé Knowles half time show. Since Texans generally drive 80 mph and about six feet from each other's bumpers it's always fun to be part of the kinetic show in which BMW and Audi owners proudly and quickly decelerate and show off the prowess of their Brembo brakes until they realize that the 1970's era Econoliner, nine passenger van with vintage, balding tires tucked in right behind them won't be matching their teutonic skid pad performance. There's a lot of veering, to the left or right, onto the broad shoulders in order to either miss the little cars in front of the bigger vans or to give the behemoths behind the trophy carriages a bit more run room to roam and gently slow down.

Traffic immediately went from fast to crawl and we continued to crawl at one gear bicycle speed for the next 20 miles. No accident in evidence. Perhaps it was a sadistic experiment in group think while driving.

My destination was NOT the trendy Montrose area or the elite, effete and wholly pretentious River Oaks oasis of Houston. Not even the fine area around Rice University. No, I was headed for the intersection of IH-10 and IH 610 South over by the ship yards, railroad intersections and other industrial entertainment. Resolutely the blue collar corner of the vast and pulsing metropolis. Houston traffic in the rush hours would give nightmares nightmares and my strategy was to plant myself close by my final destination and make a frantic rush over in the morning, giving myself plenty of time for overturned and burning eighteen wheelers strewn around the tight curves of the negatively banked overpasses, as well as for all the people whose tires were on their last lasts and ready to fly apart as the temperature of the asphalt crested 90 degrees (f) in the juicy gulf coast sun.

To that end I found a reasonably close Comfort Inn surrounded by reassuring (?) concertina wire fencing, festooned with arc lights at either end of the enclosed parking lot which seemed to be home to two police cars, idling, driver's window to driver's window, in that classic cop, motorized huddle. The implication being that they were just marking time until something happened. And they seemed to think it was a real possibility that something would...

The young and round woman at the motor lodge desk had a vicious scar across her forehead and all the snap of  wet laundry and when she asked me what kind of business I was in I can't really say why but I answered, in a somewhat vague tone: "Law enforcement." I know I probably should have stayed at one of the squeaky clean and hyper officious hotels like the Westin or the Four Seasons and just braved the traffic but I seemed drawn to something different and vaguely foreign yesterday. The room had the smell of every cheap, non-smoking hotel/motel room I've ever been in; musky masking air spray. But the bed was clean, there were no bugs of any kind in the room and the lamps all worked.

I ventured out to find a restaurant so I could play the part one of the those vaguely middle-aged guys with gray hair that have dinner alone while on some vague business on the road. You see them at the one step up restaurants.  You know, the Outback Steakhouses, Chili's, Logan's Roadhouse, Cracker Barrel kind of places. The ones just next to, or down the road from, the part of the highway that has all the cheap, chain motels. The one's like Holiday Inn Express, Motel 6, La Quinta and, of course, my own Comfort Inn.

I passed on Chili's, couldn't find an Outback (fake Australian food) Steakhouse so I tried a place called Saltgrass Steakhouse. I knew when I entered that I'd be leaving again quickly. The customers were as if from a Brueghel or Heironymus Bosch apocalyptic plague painting...and not in a good way. The hostess, her ample bulk offset by a stretched black t-shirt and a bevy of tattoos that could only be described as "prison-esque" pretty much insisted that I sit at the bar. I "would be most comfortable there.." After six or seven minutes of being willfully ignored by the sweating bartender and having to listen to the most plaintive and affected country and western music (as is now playing in all nine circles of hell...). I walked out unnoticed.

I ended up at Luby's Cafeteria which happened to be fifty yards from my start point at the motel. I was joined in cozy proximity by circus freaks, tattoo'd grandmothers and small quiet family of Hispanic people who prayed anxiously and for many moments before tucking into their trayed selections. I played out the archetype of the over the hill drifter and had the Luanne Platter. The mashed potatoes were delicious, the half portion of fried fish acceptable but the spinach was saltier than a 55 gallon barrel of movie popcorn. All told the food and atmosphere was still several notches above the Saltgrass circle of Hell.

I spent the rest of the evening trying to conquer the rheumy and energetic window style air conditioner which was noisy and cold or off and hot. My final compromise was to take a pharmaceutical sedative, crank the air conditioner as cold and gusty as machine-ly possible and, when the room started to show signs of frost and condensation on both sides of the windows, I shut it off and then let the previously imbibed chemicals work their somnolent magic on my overly active amygdala or hippocampus. When I woke up to the blaring submarine alarm ring tone of my iPhone the room was still stippled with ersatz hoarfrost.

I partook of the free breakfast and still wonder how coffee could be made to be so bad. So painfully and willfully bad.  While the hotels I usually frequent are generally filled, at breakfast time, with corpulent business men in ill fitting suits which all appear to be from the same men's suit discount store this motel featured people who were proud to wear Dickie's work clothes, complete with cellphone in carved leather case on one side of their tooled belts and a Leatherman omni-knife tool in a leather case on the other side for balance. Where the first group tends to affect a pose at table with a copy of the Wall Street Journal or (horrors!!!!!) USA Today, my cohort this bright morning made due watching people get "punked" on Entertainment TV. I did not know any of the "celebrities" involved in the TV programs so I've either totally lost touch with my own culture or the market has become so stretched that the reality TV shows are now harvesting the "D" list people. But I actually thought they'd done that years ago...

Not to make out Austin as some sort of preppy/hipster clean nirvana but I was immediately struck by the mountains of consumer refuse strewn all along the edges of the highway in my temporarily adopted section of Houston. Bright red Big Gulp cups waved with contrast from their grassy green perches while parts of couches and other upholstered furniture heaved up in waves just near the bottom of the drainage ditches. I'm sure you could have reconstructed some months of inventory for Phillip Morris just from the discarded butts that covered the near sides of the road like bad, white, shag carpet (is there good white shag carpet?).

I made it to the job site and loaded up a small dolly. A two wheeled affair of gleaming metal that promises to be all you'd ever need until you take it on your first job. It was a portent of something or other when I reached the front of the multistoried office building only to find that it might be the only non-ADA compliant building in America. No ramp. No architectural nod to the differently abled.  Just a hoist and drag exercise routine for previously spoiled photographers. I made it up several flights of concrete steps and into the building and walked into a hallway lined on either side with large, heavy, sweaty people waiting for the eight o'clock opening of an office. The same office to which I was headed. As I walked down the hall several people who seemed to have been waiting there since the early hours of the morning, told me sternly (almost threateningly), "NO CUTS!" Which, of course I ignored.  After all, I am a glamorous and successful photographer....

I got into the office and did the job I was sent to do. Every one I worked with was nice and cooperative and congenial. I even remembered to shoot a few shots of the exterior on my way out. And before lunch time I was heading back in the opposite direction toward Austin. I was just about in the middle of downtown, well out of the implied range of "rush hour", when the traffic again mysteriously stopped. It was almost like an old Star Trek episode when a bell rings and all the natives on some semi-utopian planet stop in their tracks (that's usually the point at which James T. Kirk picks out his intended amore from the planetary herd). Eventually we all started moving again and as the bigger trucks turned off onto the octopus of connected highways; about at the outskirts of the town of Katy, Texas we all started to speed up again.

I drove until I got to Smitty's BBQ in Lockhart. The place is a legend but it's charm was lost on me. The "fatty" or "wet" brisket I requested was as overcooked and as dry as the worst I've had and the ribs weren't much better. Call me a reverse snob but for my money none of these "legendary" Texas cookery shops is any better (and usually worse) than the BBQ store in the middle of the downtown branch of Whole Foods. I drove 84 mph on the road coming from Lockhart to Austin and still felt like I was getting away with something.

When I came into Austin around 3:30 pm there was the usual 18 wheeler capsized and on fire on IH-35 (the main highway through downtown) which stuck me in traffic for an extra forty minutes and then it was home to unload all the little pieces of work luggage from the car on the exciting first day of 100+  degree heat of this Summer. I am writing this all in detail because I am waiting for my files to load into Lightroom and for the previews to render. I've got four or five hours of file prep left and then I'll nurse an FTP upload after which I'll gab on the phone with the client and then send a bill. A very typical and as you can see very glamorous lifestyle, the likes of which are, of course, legendary. Dubai? Why fly so far when we've got the wonderful fragrances of the ship channel and the insouciant charms of the oil refineries only a few hundred miles away?  How was your day?


I made a critical error in judgement today. Only my relative poverty is preventing a stumble into the German fantasy world of cameras.

Cigarettes are totally addictive and the best way to avoid addiction is to never pick up the habit in the first place.....and now the Leica story.

A few days ago I wrote a blog about the new Leica X vario. While I waffled a bit and admitted that the camera may have some appeal to a tiny demographic I was, for the most part, dismissive of the value proposition. The camera looked pretty cool but the slow lens wasn't sexy and the lack of a built in EVF gave me pause (as it always seems to do..). I could have spent the rest of my life never thinking about it again and the impact of the void would never even amounted to a blip on my gear lust radar.

But that was before I went searching for a ten dollar part with which to fix a six hundred dollar flash. I hadn't been in my favorite camera store in a while so I did a fearsome amount of looking around and self-directed tire kicking. I considered a new monopod and rejected it. I considered a really enormous and rock solid $1800 video tripod but in the end its lack of portability kept my credit card in cold storage. So after a hard target search of the entire inventory I headed toward a friendly and professional sales person to make my meager purchase. As I stood on one side of the glass case and, Ron, my sales guide and camera crack dealer stood on the other side and worked the controls on the cash register, my eyes wandered behind him and came to rest on the Leica display. 

Now, the new Leica X Vario was just announced a little more than a week ago so I thought that accessible inventory would be months away, but there on the shelf was the latest toy in its dark, dark gray finish. I should have turned my head and looked at cheap video sliders instead but in the moment that I hesitated Ron could sense my weakness and he pounced like a mongoose on a dizzy cobra. Yes. He handed me the camera.  And that was all it really took. Now I am in love.

I won't go into details. I haven't bought one yet. I haven't even committed to buying one, but on the way home I was looking for refundable soda bottles beside the road and when I got home I started looking behind the couch and chair cushions on the outside chance that someone's $2700 pocket change had fallen out of their pockets and come to rest, sub-cushion. The camera is that seductive.

It's much more beautiful than these photographs might indicate. The body style is right in line with the "M" tradition and the heft and balance of the body are remarkably seductive. I didn't want to let it go back on the shelf. I started snapping images and the shutter had the old Leica snicking authority combined with enough body mass to dampen any kinetic effect of shutter travel or acceleration/deceleration. 

Do you remember the movie, "Wayne's World"? In it Wayne (played by a younger and more talented Mike Meyers) is smitten by a Stratocaster guitar at a local music shop. Each week he stops by to look it over and play it. His mantra is, "It will be mine. Oh yes, it will be mine."  Substitute the Leica for the Stratocaster and I'm right there with Wayne Campbell. "It will be mine. Oh yes, it will be mine." It's so nice I'm not even sure I care if the files are great. Really good will be enough.  The flesh is weak. My only question is whether or not the Olympus VF-4 will work in the EVF plug.....

Warning: If you love beautifully crafted cameras (way beyond the Fujis, Nikons and Canons) and you don't want to impoverish yourself, don't ever handle the camera. It must be coated with heroin, dusted with nicotine, and finished off with a bit of Xanax. Addictive and dangerous.

A small victory against the engineering stupidity of the new Sony flash system. Dammit.

Some proprietary designs are just chicken poop.

Hey there! Do you own a Canon or Nikon camera and use it, along with the same brand's flash units to make lots and lots of flash lit images? Are you happy with the way your flash and camera work together? Can you use all the different radio triggers out there with a minimum of cussing and pulling your hair out??? If you answered "yes" then do yourself a big favor and don't switch to Sony's new a99, a58 or Nex 6, especially if you were also planning to buy the Sony HVL 60 flash unit. Uh Oh! is Kirk getting ready to dump his Sony cameras and look elsewhere?

Well, no. I think the a99 is the best camera I've shot with in the entire realm of digital but I think that whoever is in charge of the product category of Sony flashes should be required to come to the house of every system owner of cameras using the new flash interface (the one that should have a trigger contact right in the same place every other flash in the universe does) and personally retrofit their flashes with either a new shoe that makes the cameras work with my Flash Waves triggers or your Pocket Wizard triggers.  Now.

Here's my short list of Sony screw ups with flash: 1. I liked the old Minolta shoe and people made converters for them. It's bad marketing to have two concurrent shoe standards. Especially when neither one of them is "standard." 2. The new flashes (HVL 60) have put the firing pin for the flash at some random position where it fires almost no third party radio trigger. Work arounds include taking a hacksaw to your flash trigger. 3. I've tried to figure out the flash menu to be able to use the HVL 60 as a master (on camera) to trigger an HVL 58, and vice versa, with no luck whatsoever even though I've read every tutorial on the world wide web.  4. Sony doesn't make an off camera cord for their new flashes and cameras. And guess what? Neither does anyone else. It's simple, simple, simple engineering. Dear God, someone please step up and make a connection cord. And yes, I've finally found out that the newest $600 flash will shut down if you shoot it more than once or twice a minute.

My biggest desire was to be able either use my HVL 58 flash or my (new non-standard connection) HVL 60 on my very nice and tiny Flash Waves radio triggers. The trigger fits on the a99, the a58 etc. just fine, and it sees trigger current and triggers the sender. The problem is that the HVL 60 doesn't sit far enough in to the shoe on the receiver to make contact with the center pin. The problem with the HVL 58 is the none standard foot with NO center pin. I despaired. 

Now, most of the time I'm using the camera with the studio flashes and have no problem using the triggers for that. When I'm not using the studio flashes I'm probably using a fluorescent or an LED panel and those are so wonderful that no sync connection is even needed. But I'm doing a job out of town on Monday and I wanted to travel light, light like I did in the Nikon days when I'd stuff a bunch of SB-800's in a Airport Security case and pop a Nikon flash controller in the hot shoe and shoot all day. Four flashes, in umbrellas and never a misfire. Later I used Canon and I used them all in ratio'd manual with radio triggers and I was fine with that. I wanted to do the same thing here with the Sony gear. 

So, I sat in my studio with Gary Friedman's e-book and two $600 flashes and every adapter known to man except the ones I'd need to make my flashes work. But, ever optimistic, I saddled up and went up the road to Precision-Camera.com and started looking around. And then I found my work around. It's a small adapter that interfaces with the old Minolta style flash shoe on one side and gives you a dumb (but live and centered) center pin/standard flash foot on the other side. I bought two. One goes straight on the HVL 58's Minolta foot and when I attach it to the radio slave everything is jake. The "marvelous" new HVL 60 requires me to use two adapters. One converts the new non-standard standard shoe to the older totally non-standard Minolta foot type. The second one is the same adapter I talked about above which interfaces with the Minolta-type shoe interface and then gives me a standard flash foot with a centered firing contact on the other end. Now, with two cheap adapters cobbled together I can get fully manual flash out of my $600 flash. Amazingly droll. I could have done this much more elegantly 30 years ago with a Vivitar 283 flash. And those babies never shut down for heat unless they smoked and gave up the ghost permanently. 

I guess this kind of stupidity is what happens when a hapless giant blunders into the world of photography without a second thought for the professional who might want to use their stuff. Thank goodness for whatever enterprising manufacturer who decided to make and market a $10 device to save a $600 marketing nightmare. 

Now forgive me for my tantrum but I'm off to immerse myself in Gary's instructions with both cameras and flashes in front of me on my desk. I'm practicing my boxing in case I ever see the day when I meet the Sony "flash team." But I'm sure, given the feedback Sony has no doubt gotten on these issues that the whole team is probably busy practicing to be more successful at their new jobs, which probably entails learning to ask, "Do you want fries with that?"

Final point: Every flash maker with a unit that retails for more than $400 should be required to put a standard PC socket somewhere on the flash unit. That would have solved half the problem right out of the box.... 

Taking the Medicine.

I have to confess something a little embarrassing.  I only showed a real portfolio a couple of times last year and now I'm paying for it.

Can you really blame me?  I mean I had one really cool client who sent me to cool places like West Palm Beach for week long shoots.  I did lot of work on a continuing basis for a great industrial giant and also for several top designers and ad agencies.  
How was I to know everyone I worked with would fold their cards and leave the table when slapped in the face by the nastiest economic downturn since 1929?  Like everyone else I figured it would get ugly for a few months and then everything would get all better like last time.  Boy was I wrong.  It's like people dived underwater to look at something interesting in the stream and the monster from the black lagoon ate em.  So here I am doing what I should have been doing all along instead of being rather smug and self involved about writing books.  I've actually put together a new portfolio and headed out into the world to show it.

But since I am a contrarian I am doing it all "wrong".  Instead of presenting a titanium skeleton portfolio case, inlaid with adamantium and  covered with rare gemstones and finger painting, along with branded leather trim, I'm putting a bunch of loose prints in an anonymous, black clamshell case.  And, horrors, the prints are NOT painfully extracted from a giant ink sucking desktop "giclee  (ha. ha. how pretensious) inkjet printer, they all came from Costco.

But my biggest contrarian contribution comes in quantity (and alliteration....).  The old screed commanded photographers to only show no more than 20 of your best images.  Bound.  Under Swiss plastic covers. But I shoved about 50 big prints (12x18 inches) into the case and, if my first two portfolio showings are any indicator, the audience is hungry for depth.  I showed 20. They devoured them and asked for more.  I showed another 20 and that only made the room full of art directors and creative people more desperate.  I tossed out the last ten and felt like the host of a ripping party who'd just opened his last bottle of wine  as more beautiful people sauntered thru the front door, thirsty.

So my portfolio show lasted 45 minutes.  And in those 45 minutes I made two more mistakes.  I showed medical images, portraits and food.  And I almost skipped showing the food because I'd read one of those "all knowing" books from the 1990's that insisted clients are only smart enough to peg you to one subject matter.  Well, nobody at the agency got the memo because, guess what?  They do healthcare and food.  And they liked both.

Long version short.  I booked a few jobs from the first three showings (I'm batting 66%) and got some nice, vague promises for future stuff.  I'm out taking my medicine and my own advice and pretty gratified that it's working.  I guess I do need to leave the comfortable confines of my house and the neighborhood coffee house from time to time.

The economy is bad but you'll make it worse if you buy into the idea that a website takes the place of a face to face meeting.  You'll make it stink if you think a Facebook page replaces the real social networking of lunch.  And you're business will probably be on life support if you think that everything revolves around how fast you can type on your blackberry.  I've just found out for the millionth time the power of human interaction.  And it really only happens face to face.  Take your medicine and get out there.