Kirk Tuck. American. Working photograher. Videographer. Lighting trainer. Fiction writer. Photo blogger, GAS sufferer extraordinaire and gear wonk.
Kirk hopes being interviewed on DearSusan will make him famous. It most likely won’t, but his views make interesting reading, as do his almost daily blog post(s).
Kirk, you’re becoming something of a rarity these days; a photographer that still makes a living shooting pictures. Have your clients been down the “I can shoot this with my phone” route and returned to you when they discovered they can’t?
I don’t really think I’m that much of a rarity. While it’s true that many, many people who came into the general field of photography have failed or burned out; or they’ve found that a general, retail oriented photo business is not as lucrative as the “pros” on gear oriented websites have described it to be, I think there has always been an equilibrium between the people and companies that need the services of trained professional photographers and the photographers in each market. The photographers whose jobs have been displaced by iPhone-tographers, for the most part, are the ones who came to the market with the most shallow skill sets and the least amount of aesthetic training. It’s true that iPhones have made more areas of photography very accessible to clients but the ability to identify the areas of photography that still require specialized skills and tools is what keeps some photographers successfully engaged.
Even in the field of headshots and environmental portraits there is a huge difference in working with commercial (business) clients versus working with the moms and dads, and brides that constitute the retail sector of the overall market. I’ve not marketed to retail customers for decades. The marketing professionals who understand the cost of ad placement and understand the benefits of superior content will be among the last to turn to using their iPhones to create images themselves so we market to them.
I am often called on to make environmental portraits of CEOs and other officers in big companies, law firms and medical practices. Few marketing team members are brave enough to take the chance of showing up with an iPhone when that would be completely outside the expectation of the executive being photographed.
While many “photographers” have not taken the time to master lighting we bring and use lights to nearly every shoot. Sometimes all that’s required it a little puff of light to softly fill in shadows, other times we end up lighting the entire background of a large space to keep the tonal range we want in the shot. We also use artificial light to sculpt faces in order to enhance the look of the person in the final shot. Good lighting requires experience along with a healthy dose of trial and error. It also requires knowing which tools are correct for the assignment at hand. While many writers on the web concentrate on the cameras being used in a particular job I think most pros I know would agree that great lighting is one of the major parameters that separates the people working on lucrative projects from the people who are just getting by.
But it’s more than just the equipment; I think many marketers and ad agencies are hiring the promise of proficiency and the guarantee that they’ll walk away from an engagement with a good photographer with content that works well for them. In the end the marketers who hire photographers are mostly hiring the most competent people they can because they value their jobs. In most cases, in advertising, the cost of placement (either on the web or in print) is multiples higher than the photographers fee and the people who buy the ads are keenly aware that the ads won’t pull in viewers without great content. They just won’t take the risk of going with less if hiring a photographer is (usually) a small percentage of the budget.
Sometimes the iPhone is the right tool. Especially in the hands of someone with a sophisticated viewpoint and enough skill to work around the limitations. But really, if you are going to go to the trouble of scouting locations, hiring models and make-up people and bringing the whole crew out onto a set then why in the world would you pinch pennies and shoot it yourself? A real camera can give you options. You can work in low light with less noise. You can drop backgrounds out of focus much more easily. And you have the advantage of so much clean resolution. If I were a client who was inclined to shoot my own stuff (and some do) I’d want to get my company to spring for some good gear. After all, I would want to do everything possible to ensure my own success.
As to whether my clients have turned to phones and then, disgruntled, returned to my business, I can’t really say. I know some who have stopped having us do basic portraits against plain backgrounds for some web work but that was a small part of their business with us. Most still see the value of working with us for most of the “client-facing” materials that will constitute the face of their business.
How did you feel when they told you a cell phone could replace decades of experience and lots of new photographic technology?
I try never to take client preferences personally. If they want to try their hand with an iPhone there’s nothing I can do to stop them. While we photographers love the idea of selling our services based on our decades of experience what that really translates to with a younger client audience is generally, “I’m stuck in a rut from the past and want to go on doing photography the way I’ve always done it.”
It’s a dangerous spot to put yourself in if most of your present clients are half your age. Better, I think, to stay current and let your actual work do the promoting. Clients want to decide on a photographer based on their current output, not something shot decades ago when it was technically harder to make images. We love older images because we remember how tough they were to make. But the experience of working with a 4×5 view camera or souping one’s own black and white film are not relevant or interesting to current clients.
I tend to agree with younger art directors who are pissed off at older photographers who are resting on their laurels. I remember being a creative director in my late 20’s and early 30’s and bristling every time I heard one of the older creative directors go on about how they did it in the good old days. In fact, I think the worst marketing you can do is to reminisce in front of a younger client about the “Golden Age” of anything. So, if they feel a phone shot is all that’s needed they may be right and I won’t argue the point with them because I’d like the part of their budget that’s dedicated to the work that can’t be done with a phone and must be outsourced.
Look, we had to learn a lot of technical stuff to do this business in the 1980’s and 1990’s and much of it has been simplified. When I go into the theater to take marketing images for upcoming productions I often share the shooting space with an in-house member of the theater’s marketing team and they are often trying to get shots with a Canon Rebel with a kit lens. A step up from a phone but…. They may have specific stuff they need detail images for. They may be shooting something for a quick reference photograph. If I do my job well they love the images because I make certain artistic decisions. Shallower depth of field, a different angle of view, different compositions, a proclivity for a specific kind of timing on stage, but in all honesty the taking of images with modern cameras is easier and more accessible than ever before. They may not need your experience as much as they need your point of view; your taste.
They might still pay me even if I were to shoot it with an iPhone…
Those same clients probably always wanted head and shoulders PR images, pack shots and in situ shoots for brochures, annual reports and Web sites. Has that changed in recent times, or have the requirements changed to keep up with the times?
Most clients that I service are in the tech, medical or software industries. All of them still require PR images or “headshots” but we’ve moved away from heads against seamless background paper or, even more dated, heads against canvas backgrounds. We still make the PR photos but they are more environmental and less formally posed. We are trying hard to make lighting seem natural but at the same time controlling it enough to make it work aesthetically. We might still shoot 10 or 15 portraits in a day but we vary the location while trying to make the style consistent. This is not a place where I’ve seen a lot of intrusion from phones. People will use the images for several years in the marketing and so understand the cost as an investment over time.
No one I know uses a phone camera for “pack shots” but I’ve helped some of my clients train their staff in warehouses to be able to use a camera like a Canon Rebel along with an LED Light powered pop-up lighting tent to make documentation shots of small products and parts. These are shots that pop up frequently, need to be shot quickly and only need to be sufficiently good to help differentiate between similar parts. This is not the kind of work I got into the business to do so I’m happy to let them do it better, remain the “expert from outside” and continue to access the kinds of work I want to put into my portfolio. I want to shoot the kind of stuff that makes me happy to go to work in the morning.
The material I love shooting are the lifestyle portraits, working portraits of people engaged in their tasks, heroic shots of people working in tough situations and imaging content that tries to convey authentic situations. None of these have, in my markets, been replaced by cellphone photography. Most of the situations require either lighting or specialty lenses and most require the most important differentiator in the business = an ability to create good rapport with the subjects you shoot.
The one thing that has changed is client demand for videos of all kinds. In this regard I think most pros have a stark choice to make. You an either provide what the clients needs or watch that work go to another provider. You’ll quickly find photograph and video, in the commercial world, to be much more of a two way street than most imagine. If you have a client who needs both photography and video but you don’t want to learn how to deliver good video you’ll end up rationalizing either sending the client to a videographer (who will also, invariably, turn out to be a good still photographer) or turning down the work. And I think, more and more, you’ll see that the work is becoming more and more connected in the requests. Our motto is to Light Once and Shoot Twice. Followed by: Bill Twice.
Nothing says “photographer behind the curve” better than the statement: “I just want to be a photographer.” Fine statement for the fine arts crowd; career suicide for the commercial image maker. The more stuff you master the more options you can offer to your clients.
One thing that does keep changing are the targets for our images. In the recent past most images made in commercial venues were destined for print. If you shot architecture or products the use was generally first an 11×17 inch, four color brochure, direct mailers and magazine ads. Over time the balance has shifted dramatically and now the target aimed at most often is social media. But rather than requiring ever better standards of quality and resolution social media and other web products actually demand far less quality than printed media. Whereas people might have waited for ultimate quality today’s mantra is all about speed of delivery into the online pipeline.
A recent corporate event parameter required me to shoot and send images and video snippets nearly continuously to the on site art directors. Many times they were posting images of a speaker on stage onto Instagram and Twitter while the speaker was still on stage. Speed trumps quality now for most applications but clients are happy to have both.
What this all tells me is that I have more or less wasted my money chasing after higher and higher megapixel cameras. My reckoning is that the sweet spot for camera quality performance is about 20-24 megapixels, and most work can be done very well with a good 12 megapixel camera. I can almost guarantee that the files will still be downsized before they are used.
Do you get the opportunity to be creative while shooting for clients, or do new equipment and honing your lighting set-ups have to fill that need?
Not all clients offer amazingly creative shooting opportunities. We have one client that has me shooting circuit boards. They like oblique angles so we get to play around with focus stacking but I don’t think that really counts as “creative.” But I will say that most of our portrait clients look to me to create and set a style, or to make adaptations to the style while keeping common threads. I count those as creative opportunities. And then I have clients who send me off to shoot annual reports (yes, that still happens in 2018) unencumbered by an art director or a set of comprehensive layouts. In those situations I am given broad license to shoot what I find interesting —- as long as I shoot enough of it to provide ample choices in final production.
With video I am often concepting and writing scripts and so I am the creative source for everything in the frame. Clients are remarkably pliant about video shoot, thus far. I imagine when they develop their own expertise they’ll become a bit more controlling but it can be a nicely collaborative field for creative people.
I would counsel artists who are photographers, and who want a looser set of creative boundaries, to do more work with other creative industries. I’ve been the more or less official photographer for a successful regional theater which is also a non-profit, but what they lack in budget they make up for in the creative latitude they offer me as an image maker. Some of my favorite portfolio pieces were shot for various productions at the theater and were done both in rehearsals and in the moments in between. The theater has also been a rich source of talent and I find that good actors are excited to help get a great look in a project, self-assigned or otherwise, as long as you provide them files they can use for their own self-promotion. You are almost always welcome to try new things with just about any client as long as you’ve covered their needs in a convincing way. If you come up with something better while on set they’ll probably be thrilled to use it in place of their original concept. You just have to keep working at it.
Shooting for an income; what new technologies would you like to see in your camera bag?
While I feel like I can shoot with almost anything I’d really like to see a tighter and tighter integration in cameras between video and still photography. While the Panasonic GH5 is a great video camera it’s sometimes not my first choice for stills because one of my styles is dependent on very narrow depth of field. While I can get good background blur with my GH5 and a medium to long telephoto there’s little hope of it with wide angles. A Nikon D800e, on the other hand, will blur a background at the drop of a hat with anything 50mm or longer.
I’d love to see a Nikon D850 variant that comes with an EVF, a set of really good production codecs for video and a better audio implementation. I would also love to see a bullet proof product that would allow you to put in an SD or CF+ memory card and then send all the files on the card to my computer in my office at very high rates of speed and from just about anywhere in the world.
As to lenses and general camera performance I can’t think of much else I can use.
Occasionally, you post pictures from overseas trips. They all seem to be at least a decade old. Are you in stay home mode, too busy to travel any more, or has something else stopped your wandering?
I was fortunate to be working in the film days, pre-pervasive web tech. Even in the 1990s there was very little broadband infrastructure in lots of places in which clients wanted to shoot. American corporations wanted to send photographers to shows, events, installations or factories overseas to make images and then bring them back to process and share locally with the companies’ Austin based marketing staff. It was costly and unreliable to send scanned images via phone or sat phone.
Styles were also not as “universal”; not as homogenous as they are now. If you wanted a specific style you sent your guy. Now, with the web as our mentor an AD at a big company can easily source a Paris, Lisbon, Istanbul-based photographer, have a conversation with them over the web, share images as “look books” and generally get everyone on the same page quickly and inexpensively. This means that it’s more effective, where possible, to assign a week long event to a “local” rather than flying someone over and paying all their expenses.
We had a bustling business in the 1990’s in flying around with our clients to capitol cities all over Europe for big trade shows. I’d come back with thousands of images that the companies would use to promote future shows and use in general marketing. After the digital revolution it was easier not to do that. At the same time new technologies arrived that made video production much easier and we also saw a reduction in those kinds of event productions as clients began to show a preference for quick video snippets instead of photographs.
The saddest thing is that in the 1990’s and early this century when we did shoot abroad our schedules were loose enough to allow me to add a couple days to the front of a shoot and a couple of days to the end of the shoot in which to explore and shoot my own stuff; often with the client springing for the hotels. I did four days in Toronto last year, shooting video and stills and never had an unscheduled moment in which to explore the city. The client’s schedule was tight, our deliver schedule was tight and my own production schedule back home was tight. A more efficient economy has squeezed a lot of the fun out and it’s exemplified by my truncated scheduling to fun places.
Here’s one more thing to consider; when I traveled in the 1970’s, 1980’s and 1990’s all around Europe and the Caribbean the cultural differences between places were more profound. And more importantly, more visually different. Everything from fashion to toilet paper, food to furniture was interesting because it was different from what we’ve had at home. Just looking at my passport I’ve been to Paris 12 times since 1978 and each time it’s seemed more and more like a homogenized experience in which the visual differences between culture in Austin and Paris comes down mostly to the cut of a business suit. The croissants are the same, the wine is the same, the furniture is largely the same, the traffic jams are the same. When I travel now it’s the sameness that strikes me and not the differences. It’s just harder (for me) to get excited about shooting in the streets as I once did.
And I’ll make a similar argument about photographing people here in the USA. Everyone has gotten hugely fat, every women wears horrible, black spandex tights as their day to day uniform and most men dress like slobs in cargo shorts and in promotional t-shirts. It’s a lot harder to make beautiful and engaging portraits when so many are struggling with double chins and triple bellies.
Yes, flame me for “body shaming” but our cultural icons of beauty don’t currently include morbid obesity or Walmart fashion. Sorry.
In the USA we have to pay through the nose if we want to our children to go to college. Even more if we want them to go to an elite, private college or university. As a working, commercial photographer I’ve had to make some personal sacrifices to give opportunities to our son. I’m going to let you in on a closely guarded secret: the current cost of a private college education at an elite school is current about $65,000 per year, not counting airfare back and forth between school and home. I made a conscious choice to stay away from the Grand Casino in Monte Carlo and skiing at St. Moritz for the last few years so the kid could take his shot at school. After the four years I still think it was the right thing to do.
I have a job in Mexico in May, I’ll be teaching workshops in Iceland and England in the fourth quarter this year and if business is good I’ll take ten days to go to Tokyo this year. Might not ever come back with photos like my old work because age and experience has made many of these experiences less shiny and new.
My son did a four month study in Seoul, S. Korea last Spring. He’s anxious to have me go and see that city. I have it on my list.
As you get older, busier and more responsible life tends to intrude more. Now I’m overseeing my dad’s care and am administering my mother’s estate after her passing. Emotionally, it’s hard to think of getting away when you have so much to take care of within 100 miles of home. Lesson? Travel a lot when you can.
I read your blog regularly. Photography, a studio to run, a seemingly bad dose of GAS, swimming, a family, food and coffee and even a dog. What do you do for relaxation?
It’s funny, I was interviewed by a writer for a newspaper this afternoon and he asked me the same question. This all presupposes that swimming isn’t relaxing but, in a way, it is. Meeting friends in the film, photography or video industries for coffee or or a beer is relaxing. My spouse constantly creates a haven of quiet and relaxation at home so evenings are luxurious in their slow pace and high comfort. My dog follows me around looking exactly as though I am the most important thing in her life and goads me into taking a nap at the drop of a hat. Photography in nearly every guise is fun. but if you are looking for pure relaxation nothing really beats reading a good novel by Ian Rankin with a nice glass of wine in easy reach.
Most guys have a weakness for hardware stores and can spend hours browsing and buying odds and sods that will probably never be used. Some play golf, but for you, your camera store is the Aladdin’s cave. Half your time there, you’re buying new kit, the rest is spent firmly in the past. Is this a hobby, or a plan to re-visit and re-use yesterday’s tech and prove it’s ongoing value, despite the sticker price(s)?
If I had all the money in the world I’d just have an automatic draft on a checking account and every time a cool new camera or lens came out the camera store could charge my account and hand deliver the items to me. But I do have to make choices.
Many times I get tricked, as most gear happy photographers do, by client claims and promises. I’m on a retro kick right now because I think that the 12 megapixel cameras we used ten years ago were pretty great and at least up to making wonderful images to post on the web. I keep finding old images from those cameras that were really great. Then I stumble across the cameras in person and they are priced about the same as dinner for two at a moderate restaurant. How can I not consider re-trying them?
On a more serious note though I am always trying to stay ahead of the curve and try new stuff. I don’t ever want to be the grizzled old pro whose still hanging on to the Canon 30D he bought in 2001 and swears he’ll never replace.
To that end I tend to also buy recent cameras that were or still are close to state-of-the-art. The Nikon D810 and D800e are examples. Both are very high res. The D810 has very good 1080p video, the 800e is almost unequalled for high ISO performance. But yesterday, for hot and dusty ground breaking ceremony for a corporate super power I took two Nikon D700 cameras and two zoom lenses. All the material we generated will be used on websites and on social media. There’s an off chance the images might get picked up on newswire and defy anyone to argue that the cameras don’t have the chops for those uses. The bonus though is that if the cameras had been compromised by the clouds of dust and rendered inoperable I would not have to shed tears at the cost.
At some level, as far as older cameras like the Nikon D2XS and the D300S go I think it’s always interesting to see if it’s your own talent that drives the bus or if you are totally dependent on the latest technology to bolster you up —— or save your bacon. The jury is always still out.
One of the things I learned from growing up in a boom city like Austin is that one is not restricted to owning just one car, one horse, one oil well or one camera. You can have, and play with, as many as you can afford. As long as you keep the family fed and the tax man at bay. As my wife has often said, buying various old cameras is far cheaper a hobby than collection Ferraris or mistresses.
Like you, I have a D700. Aside from its obvious photographic capabilities, it seems to have a personality of its own, entirely different from those of my D2x and D800. Do you sense different personas in your cameras, or is that just me?
It’s funny. When I first owned the D700, in the year of its launch, I did not appreciate its subtle personality. I said, in a review, that I sold it off because it had no soul. Now I understand that it was my own inability to appreciate the camera that was at work. When I finally re-bought one recently I was struck with just how rich and capable the camera feels. I find myself continually shopping for other clean versions. But I have to say that I feel this way about other cameras as well. In the Panasonic line I absolutely love the hand feel of the GH5 but find the G9 a bit cold and lifeless. In the Olympus line I am a big fan of the EM5-ii but am so-so about the EM-1ii. In the Leica film rangefinder family I love the M3, the M4 and the M5 but feel like the M6 is a lesser camera. I think most craftsmen build an awareness of their tools that goes far beyond rote utility. If anyone were to wheel me into a hospital on a gurney I’d want to be clutching my M3 with my 50mm Summicron for comfort and succor.
Like most of us, you often seem to shoot for pleasure and post many of those images at VSL. We’ve recently had a discussion at DearSusan about what might happen to our work when we head off to the Great Darkroom in the Sky. Do you have any plans? Do you regard any kind of legacy as necessary, or will it all end up in a dumpster – like most of ours?
The idea of “leaving a legacy” is a powerful construct of our ego. it’s our desire to live beyond the span of our own lives. When I was younger I thought it would be tragic for my work to not survive me, but then I realized that much of the value I derive from working and doing photography, either for pleasure, art or business, is because I enjoy the process of doing it. I love handling the tools. I like problem solving and I like looking at the finished “puzzle.”
At the start of each recent year I toss out all the commercial material that’s at least seven years old and hasn’t been reused or even seen again. It goes straight into the garbage. I’ll accelerate the process because I never want to be a hostage to my own possessions. I keep images that make me happy when I see them. There are only a couple hundred that really fall into that category. They include photos of my long deceased cats, photos of family, photos of trips and photos of experiences.
I did learn a valuable lesson raising my kid, Ben. I started out parenting thinking I would document every great moment, every award, every run and every swim. All the soccer games, school plays, anything.
But one Saturday I watched him swim a race and I cheered for him the entire time, watched every turn, followed every stroke, watched his strong finish; and it dawned on me that I never pulled the camera up to my eye to try and record this race. And seeing it so directly was enchanting. Magical. Thrilling. To have experienced it through a camera would have diminished the experience for me.
From that moment on, about twelve years ago, I stopped thinking I had to shoot everything or save everything and felt freed to directly experience the most important things in my own life.
When I am near death I’ll be happy to have just a few things at hand; photos of Ben and Belinda, photos of Studio Dog, and a nicely broken in Leica M3. You can do what you want with all the rest….
The last thing I would ever want to do to my son and wife would be to leave behind a huge archive of mostly useless and unimportant images which they might feel duty bound to deal with. That process would rob them of their time and reward them with nothing more than a real understanding that about 98% of the stuff we do for work or art is crap and the the 2% has generally already been enjoyed.
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