Long-time commercial photographer, avid blogger, lighting master and multiple-book author, Kirk Tuck has certainly been around the block in the photography world. He got his start by assistant teaching at the University of Texas working under three commercial photographers. He went on to teach a commercial studio photography class while occasionally filling in for a fine art instructor.
A man of many talents, Tuck was a creative director for a regional advertising agency until eventually opening his own studio in the late 1980s. From photographing high profile politicians and celebrities, writing several books on the subject of lighting, commercial photography and videography, and traveling around the world for shoots, Tuck has had a jam-packed career doing what he loves. I had the pleasure of emailing back and forth with Tuck to get to know his work and photographic process.
What constitutes a good portrait?
Kirk Tuck: A good portrait has nothing to do with sharpness, zany lighting or unusual wardrobe and everything to do with establishing a genuine rapport with the subject. The further you get from a fast hit, formulaic portrait formula and the more time you spend getting to know the person in front of the camera the more authentic the portrait usually is. People aren’t looking for style in portraits as much as they are looking for a feeling of engagement. Our best sessions can last an hour or two and it’s generally spent chatting, shooting, sharing the images and then trying different expressions and poses. If you are doing your portrait work to a formula and trying to knock something out in a very short time frame—good luck. Also, shooting more frames is better… For me, a direct connection is best and that means the sitter is looking directly into the camera, is engaged, and has dropped all pretense and fake posing. The most authentic [portraits] are created when the photographer and subject are deep into conversation and pause from time to time to click the shutter.
If you could pass along one piece of advice regarding lighting photos, what would it be?
KT: If you look at the very top photographers and the directors of photography who make beautiful movies you will quickly decide that most photo portrait shoots are horribly overlit and the lights and modifiers are too small and crammed into too tight a space. I love the look of one giant, enormous, huge main light that’s made by pushing light through a huge sheet of diffusion. Think of modifiers that are at least a six foot by six foot sheet of diffusion. The light is as far back as you can get it (10-20 feet) and illuminates the entire diffusion panel. The light coming off the subject’s side of the diffusion will be incredibly soft on one side and nicely contrasty and believable on the shadow side of the subject’s face. Fewer lights coming from different directions is better than more lights. Bigger diffusers, used close in, are better than smaller diffusers. Pick up a copy of American Cinematographer magazine and research how $200 million dollar movies are lit and you’ll start to change away from small flashes used with tiny modifiers.
What inspired you to start blogging? What are your favorite things to post about?
KT: I started blogging in 2009 in order to promote my first book, published by Amherst Media. In the current publishing era writers/photographers are expected to take a very active role in marketing their own books even if a large publishing house is producing the book. I’ve used the blog to market five different books I did for Amherst Media and each has been very successful financially. Once the book sales started to drop off I had built enough of a community at the blog that it just felt right to continue. After a while, I no longer really needed to monetize the blog, and the process of monetizing seems to corrupt honest equipment reviewing, so I made the decision to drop all affiliate links and advertising and just write honestly about my experiences as a working, commercial photographer. Even though we don’t angle to make money from the blog, it’s been a source of invitations to do courses for online learning giant, Craftsy, lead workshops in Europe, and make friends with avid photographers all over the world. It keeps opening doors for me. My favorite topic is generally about lighting portraits. And making portraits. I like to demystify the process.
What challenges have you faced doing commercial photography in Austin?
KT: I’ve been photographing in Austin for such a long time that I really don’t find many obstacles to my commercial work anymore. I’ve established enough of a reputation so that a couple of e-mail blasts, a few phone calls and a couple mailing of actual postcards over the course of a year delivers all the work I want. If I were any busier it would start to interfere with my swimming, and I’d rather prioritize my workouts with my USMS Masters Swim Team over work. Any day of the week. I often decline work that interferes with morning swim practice. Nine times out of ten the client ends up willing to reschedule to a better time...for me. I guess, if I had to think of a challenge it would be the same one every person working in Austin faces: getting through the ever-worsening traffic.
What advice would you give to photographers just getting started in Austin?
KT: My advice to photographers just getting started (anywhere) is to forget everything you think you’ve learned about the business of photography from YouTube. Your actual work doesn’t always have to be “amazing” “awesome” “innovative” or “break through.” The clients with the money to pay you well are the biggest corporations and they want reliability and professionalism in the execution of the work. They don’t care about gear, or awards or much other than the guarantee that you’ll show up, do work that meets their professional standards, comport yourself in a professional manner and deliver what you promise, on time. Marketing is far, far more important than super trendy technique (as long as your technical skills are up to a basic standard. What every client fears is putting an untested photographer into a situation that’s clearly over their heads and having them fail on a time critical assignment. Especially one that can’t be re-shot. You have to make the clients believe that you are going to deliver. Every time.
If you could only photograph one general thing (landscapes, portraits, etc) for the rest of your life, what would it be and why?
KT: If I could only photograph one thing it would be people. People on location. Environmental portraits. Casual portraits on the street. More formal portraits in my studio. But always people. Nothing but people. I’m easily bored by landscape photos, have no affinity for sports photography (except swimming…) and find most product work absolutely boring. But people are timeless and always fun to work with.
What locations or subjects are on your photography bucket list, or have you just about done it all?!
KT: Ah, the bucket list… There are a number of cities that I’m ready to revisit and spend more time photographing in. I’ve been in and out of Rome, Paris and Madrid many times over the years but would love to spend months at a time in each city instead of a week here and a week there. I’ve never been to S. Korea and want to visit Seoul for at least a month. I’d like to find interesting models or everyday people in each city and work with them to make interesting portraits with the flavor of the cities represented. I spent a nice week in Iceland back in 2018 but would love to do a late fall (after the drunken tourist depart) trip around the Ring Road that circles the entire island. Just a Leica SL2 and a 50mm SL Apo Summicron lens and a pocket full of batteries. I’m always looking for a muse that makes the photographs wonderful.
And finally, I’d love to spend a couple of weeks at the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia just soaking in all the great art they’ve collected. I spent a couple of days in the museum back in 1995, but you could spend a year in the Hermitage and still not see the entire collection.
A big thanks to Kirk for taking the time to chat with us about his extensive career in photography. Interested in being featured in our Local Spotlight series? Send us an email of your work!