About Watson Art Studio

I am a professional photographer in the Chicago area that specializes in location portraiture and fine art images. Most of the portrait work is done digitally and all of my fine art photography is shot on medium or large format film.

Lastolite Ezybox II Switch and Cactus and Magmod

I have been using Cactus flashes and their remotes with my Fuji system for a couple of years now. They have been quite reliable and their portability make them my go to lighting system. As I get older, smaller and lighter gear becomes a necessity. I am a location photographer and I don’t have an assistant to help lug everything around. Hence the speed light flash system being used the majority of the time.

Now there is no denying the quality of light that one can get from a much larger studio light is gorgeous. I just can’t be lugging that crap around all of the time. I have tried multiple flash brackets, multiple types of modifiers and other various doohickies to help make my small lights act bigger to various degrees of success but never really matching studio lighting. That is until now!

I feel like I am going to be giving up my secret sauce recipe here but here goes. Keep in mind I want the big light feel with the portability of small lights. I don’t want to be like Joe McNally and hauling twenty of these small lights around, but then again, he has an assistant to do that for him. Last year I came across the Magmod system. In of itself it is a great system for photographers on the move. It does give a decent quality of light that for a lot of instances would be just fine. The magnet attachment is superb and once you have used it you become addicted to the system. No more velcro or tape etc. Terrific! But it doesn’t give that big soft light feel that a large light with modifier can give.

Now one problem with using speed lights like the Cactus lights or any other light is the fresnel front doesn’t offer the spread of say a bare bulb studio light. Yes you can buy some that do now, such as the Godox AD200 but for now I wanted to stick with what is working for me and what I already have remotes for.  Now Cactus lights aren’t small as far as speed lights are concerned. One has a pretty good amount of power and two has a really nice punch of power. I have used them doubled up through a Photek Softlighter and it does make for a really nice light. But for a guy that is on the move all of the time, the Softlighter is a bit on the fragile side and hard to carry on a train with stands etc. What to do what to do?

Enter Lastolite. I use their reflectors and sometimes one of their original soft boxes. In fact that is how I came up with this recipe. I love how their equipment folds up small which makes it easy to transport. The original Ezybox is ok but never thrilled me. Neither did it’s original bracket. Well now they have come out with the EzyboxII system and a new two light bracket. I ordered up the EzyboxII Switch soft box and the two light bracket. The Switch soft box can be modified to be a strip light or a large soft box all from the same unit. Very cool! I got the big one and it is a large modifier but thankfully not too deep. All materials are of high quality and the new two light bracket is much nicer and sturdier than the original one light bracket. Yes it is plastic but that means less weight for me to carry so I am good with that. It is a very robust plastic so no real worries there.

Yeah yeah so what is the recipe you ask? Well you take two Cactus RF60 flashes, put them in the Lastolite two light mount. Attach the EzyboxII to the bracket and add the final seasoning which is…two Magmod magspheres and two maggels to the flashes. The magspheres make the Cactus units more like bare bulb flashes by spreading the light around inside the modifier. The other beauty of the spheres is they don’t cost you in light power…at least not much. The gels are just 1/4 cto gels to warm the light a little. The soft box has a double diffuser system so all of this combined creates one really nice soft light setup that is portable.

That attached photos won’t win any prizes. Teenage boys never smile for photos especially when it’s your kid and you twist their arm to be a light tester. But they do show that quality of light that came out of this setup. I was on 1/35th power at ISO 200 @f2. Yes F2 is wide open but I had lots of power left if I wanted to narrow the aperture for more depth of field. I will continue to play with this setup and try to update this post at a later time. Until then, try the secret sauce, you might like it!

Seeing through large format!

Life is too short! It’s as simple as that! This last year my family has been dealing with the loss of loved ones. Most recently I lost my father to ALS, a terrible disease that robbed him of everything at a very rapid speed. This loss gets one to thinking about all those things that you have put off doing or trying. I am now in the mental mode of not waiting for later down the road if you can possibly do it now. Especially since you don’t know how long your road is going to be. So with that in mind I was able to purchase a proper large format camera.

I had always dreamed of getting one of those pretty wooden ones but a deal came up on eBay for an all metal Toyo 45a, 4×5 camera with three lenses and other assorted goodies for a very reasonable price. I jumped on it and anxiously waited for it’s arrival. It was like Christmas morning when it arrived and I rapidly dug through all of the packaging to see what all was in the box of magic! There she was, a real beauty…a heavy beauty but a real looker! Everything looked good and seemed to work as it should so off I went with some loaded film holders.

Unfortunately I found out the bellows leaked badly, apparently from too much time in storage. I purchased one of those eBay bellows and installed it myself. It was actually a very nice bellows but a little tricky to install. That as they say was it and it was off to the races. I have been putting both color and black and white film through it and refining my film metering techniques. I have had more successes than failures and I love the whole process of using this very slow method of photography. This camera will be a keeper until I can’t lug it around anymore and I hope that is way down my road of life.

Happy wanderings!Image a1241 Image 1 4 8 3 2 2 1 Image 1 4 8 3 2 2 3 Image 1 4 8 3 2 2 2 2 1 Image 1 2 1 Image 1 2 2 Image 1 2 2 Image 1 2 2 3

Mamiya RB67 Portraits

You have seen from some of my previous posts that I do a lot of portrait work. It can range from family to corporate types of portraiture. A frequent request has been the corporate headshot for people’s Linkedin page. A friend of mine who has been forced into a freelance type of life, like so many of us, needed some professional headshots done. I was more than happy to help with one condition, I get to shoot a roll of film with him and his wife as my subjects.

So the photos you see here are the results of that roll of film. All shot on a Mamiya RB67 Pro S camera with the 137mm lens, on Ilford HP5 film. All lighting is provided by diffused window light. I almost discarded the shot where the dog moved but I liked the expressions going on it so I kept it. It ended up being my friend’s wife’s favorite.

Enjoy and happy wanderings!

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Rolleicord in the rain

DSCF8699The end of 2016 was not good for our household, between deaths in the family and other issues going on it was getting quite overwhelming. 2017 wasn’t starting out any better so it was time to get off this runaway train and take a good friend out for a walk. My trusted friend is my Rolleicord VB. I also have a VA that steps in as needed.

For me there is something very peaceful and stress relieving walking around with this little box of a camera. It’s a very unassuming camera that people don’t see as a threat like a big DSLR, in fact if anything, it is the most asked about camera that I use. It’s uniqueness in todays digital world intrigues the passerby. It’s quiet, just a slight click from the shutter is all you hear and it’s oh so light to carry. I have the leather case for it which also carries a couple of pouches for filters. This camera and a couple roles of film is all you need to take a breather from a much too fast paced life.

Happy wanderings!

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Executive portraiture with Fuji XT1 and Cactus RF60s


The executive portrait is one of the most important portrait sessions that a company can hire you for and yet for some reason you quite often get the least amount of time to accomplish them. Actually I know the reason, corporate executives are generally very busy people juggling a lot of things at once. Having a photographer show up to take their portrait is like reminding them their six month dental check up is today. They go because they have to but it’s painful for them. In fact they probably enjoy the dentist visit more than the photo session!

So with that cheerful reality in mind you show up with all of your gear, ready to create the next great executive portrait! Then you are informed you will only have five minutes of the executive’s time because…well as stated above they are busy people and they like you as much as a root canal. What is a photographer to do? First, don’t take it personally. Second be prepared to only have five minutes of time and if you get more than that, give them more options photographically.

Case in point. I was hired by a corporation to drive from Chicago to Des Moines Iowa to shoot a head and shoulders portrait of one of their head executives. They wanted the usual studio lighting with backdrop. In one of my previous blogs I talked about how I shoot these types of portraits and went prepared to do just that. I was also prepared to only have five minutes of the executive’s time. I did however suggest to both the executive and the person whom hired me that if they were paying me to drive all of that way to take his portrait, they might as well take advantage of me being there and let me give them some extra portrait options. Happily both agreed to to it. Hot damn I thought! Than I get the text message from the executive that he had some critical meetings that day so that might clip into our time. Crap! Back to the five minute shot!

My usual mode of operation is to request a room to set up the gear for the head and shoulders shot. I get it all set up and then and only then do I call the executive in so as not to waste their time. Inevitably they walk in and say, “I hate getting my picture taken.” Yep, you and the rest of corporate America! I always try to relax them with some cheerful banter while I am taking their photo. If I am adjusting the lights or camera settings I always tell them that they are doing great but photography is like cooking and you need to season to taste. I am making adjustments/seasoning to taste! Then I try to get a couple of shots in the bag and show them a nice one right away. They will start to relax when they see that they really look pretty good in the photos. During this time I am always open to their input and what might be bothering them in a certain pose or photo and make adjustments to their liking. Once I get the must have head and shoulders shot than I start to play with other types of portrait options if the time is available.

What about my Iowa executive? He was awesome and gave me the time needed to get some great portraits done. He even started to get into it and was coming up with ideas of his own on how we might photograph him. Now this is very rare but when it happens you had better be ready to deliver and deliver in spades.

We ended up doing some environmental portraits of him in his office using a variety of lighting styles. One version was lit with a soft box as a main light and then a gridded flash as a rim light. Another option we turned off the soft box and used the window light as the main light and kept the rim light albeit turned way down. Then we went outside and found some open shade to get some naturally lit portraits. So we ended up going from full studio style lighting to a mixed lighting and finally to natural lighting. I went prepared for all of it and we did all of it. I had a great and willing subject which makes all the difference in the world but you still need to deliver and deliver in spades!

A little technical side note. The main lighting for all of the non naturally lit shots was Cactus RF60 speed lights. The camera used was my trusty Fuji XT1 with mostly the 56mm lens and 35mm lens being used.

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Fuji XT1 and Yellowstone

Utah-43I just got back from a once of a lifetime trip out to Yellowstone National Park. I was actually in Utah visiting my son and his wife and their new baby girl. They decided to take me on the Yellowstone trip and I am so grateful for that gift. I had debated on what cameras to bring on this trip, my film or my digital. In the end I decided smaller and lighter would be better, especially since I am coming from flatland Illinois and would need to adjust to the thinner mountain air. The convenience of a smaller bag for airline rules wasn’t missed out on this decision either.

What did I bring? In a small Lowepro backpack, I was able to bring two Fuji XT1s, 50-140mm, 16mm, 10-24mm, 56mm and 35mm. A small Nissin I40 flash was also added along with the required memory cards, extra batteries, neutral density filters and chargers. In a small laptop bag I had my newly acquired 13 inch Macbook Pro with it’s chargers, a Wacom tablet, a portable hard drive for backup and some reading material. All of this was a breeze to carry on the plane and get through security. If needed I could have stuffed both bags under the seat in front of me but I tended to put the backpack in the overhead bin and the laptop under the seat. The whole kit gave me a wonderful, portable, fully functional studio for the road. I couldn’t have been more pleased.

So how did the XT1 perform? In a word, “fantastic.” I know the Fuji XT2 has just come out and yes I want one but the XT1 is no slouch and never will be. I tended to use the 10-24 and the 50-140mm the most. The 16mm was used third but mostly for shots of my beautiful new granddaughter. The only thing I may have wished that I had was a teleconverter but I was able to get plenty close to the wildlife with the 50-140mm.

The 10-24mm is a wonderful landscape lens. It allows for dramatic compositions and can really bring out the detail in your photographs. This lens combined with the tilting screen was used a ton! I feel that I was able to get some of my best landscapes yet with this combination.

One trick I utilized a few times was the use of a 10 stop neutral density filter for a couple of mountain stream shots. I had brought a small travel tripod in my check on luggage which worked well albeit a little short on occasion. Using this combination allowed me to smooth out the moving water even in the middle of the day with bright sun hitting the landscape. I did have an oh shit moment when I dropped the filter, which is glass, and heard the “chink” noise as it hit the ground. Luckily the Lee filter holder took most of the impact and the filter only got chipped in an area that is out of the frame. Whew! Now it has character I guess.

Would I use this kit again? Oh hell yeah! Did I miss not having film? Yes but mostly large format. It would have been fun to spend a day with that, but I don’t feel I was shortchanged in any way by using my Fuji’s. In fact I got shots I wouldn’t have gotten otherwise.

Happy wanderings!Utah-77 Utah-68 Utah-53Utah-83 Utah-82 Utah-45Utah-81 Utah-80 Utah-158 Utah-156 Utah-150 Utah-147 Utah-123

Introducing ‘BAC’

BACOver a year ago I switched from a Nikon DSLR to the Fuji mirrorless system. One of the reasons besides the form factor was the decrease in weight that this fifty something body would have to carry around on assignment. So with that in mind what do I go and do, I buy one of the heaviest beasts of a film camera on the planet. Yep the Mamiya RB67! Hokey smokes it’s huge but so is the size of that negative!

I have drooled over these for sometime and my last wanderings on eBay showed a lot less of them showing up on the used market than even a year ago. A bunch of them are coming from Japan but not so many from the U.S.. My favorite used camera gear site KEH was out of stock of good ones and actually running low on a lot of used film gear. I am not sure what the reason is for this, maybe the resurgance in film usage but I don’t know. In any event I did find one on eBay from an actual photographer. It didn’t look as beat up as a lot of these get so I took the chance. Boy was I lucky! The beast is a beauty and everything works as it is supposed too. It took several visits to eBay to complete the kit but now I have three working lenses and four film backs. (Don’t get me started on how fun it is to replace the seals on those film backs.)

In my infinite wisdom I bought this studio camera to take out on hikes for landscape photography. Ouch! The camera and lens weighs in at six pounds and if you start adding different prisms and such the weight keeps climbing. They say due to the size of the camera it’s impossible to shoot handheld. Well it’s not impossible but you will need to keep those shutter speeds towards the higher side and using the optional hand grip helps greatly. For the most part though mine sits on a tripod.

If you are wondering, yes I do get quite the workout carrying this and a backpack full of it’s gear around. Yes I do feel it in my muscles the next day. So why do I do it? As stated earlier, that size of a negative. It’s the next best thing to 4×5. The details are amazing and it is just what I was looking for in image quality for my film fine art photographs.

The camera itself is kind of an odd combination of SLR and large format camera. You have removable lenses but the shutters are in the lenses instead of the camera, much like a large format camera. Well except the lenses are huge! You also need to remove a dark slide i/e like a large format camera before taking a picture. You have multiple levers, buttons and settings you have to set up before you ever make the camera go click. Oh and it’s not a click but a wonderful combination of shutter and mirror movement noise that is as sexy as hell! I love it!

I have affectionately named her ‘BAC.’ which stands for “Big Ass Camera.” So welcome to my summer workout program as I team up with my partner BAC to make sore muscles and beautiful photos.

Happy wanderings!



Corporate Headshots


It seems that corporations are starting to realize that those headshots that they took with their I-Phones really do look crummy and not professional. In the last year I have had numerous requests for professionally taken headshots. Now I am a fan of environmental portraiture but for these types of portraits, most companies are going for the traditional image with lighting and a backdrop. They are all wanting them for their social media pages in whatever flavors they are participating in.

Now understand I am a one man shop and my shop is my quite small house. It really isn’t conducive to having clients over for portraits. So as always, I need to bring the studio to them and that studio needs to be portable. Sometimes I have the luxury of being able to drive to the location but often times I have to take public transportations such as a train followed by a cab ride. Everything is literally either being pulled or carried on my back!

With that in mind, planning was needed to come up with a small enough kit to carry but yet big enough to give professional results. First off, what couldn’t I bring. Cloth backdrop with stands was not an option and the studio lights were a big no, no! Big light stands? Nope. After some research I ended up getting one of those pop-up backdrops from Savage along with their lightweight stand. I knew I had to keep my lighting to a minimum so what I am showing you here is basically a two light set-up with reflectors picking up the heavy lifting of opening up the shadows.

Since I didn’t want to be bothered with a backdrop light I either use an umbrella or a Photek soft-lighter as my main light so that I get some spill on the backdrop. When I have the room and time I will also add a rim/hair light. My lights are currenty Cactus RF60 flashes being fired off from a Cactus V6 transceiver. When I use the Photek, I put two RF60 flashes inside of it. When I use an umbrella I only use one RF60. The hair light  RF60 gets gelled with a grid added to it.

With this set-up I find I can get a decent portrait no matter which direction the subject may turn. The reflectors really kill any harsh shadows and help minimize what I might have to retouch later. It is a very face friendly set-up that accommodates all shapes and sizes of faces. It also lights all but the most deep set eyes and normally kills eyeglass reflection issues.

So that is basically it! I tweak the set-up per job requirement. In fact the other day I had to shoot over 100 portraits in less than an hour and a half at a hotel. The space allotted for me was the hallway by the ballrooms. I needed to leave room for traffic to be able to move by which required me to hug one of the walls. I only had room to use one light and I had to shoot that through an umbrella. I had just enough room to set up the reflectors but no room for the hair light. I was able to pull it off but I still wish I could have used the rim/hair light. Such is life as a freelancer!SCN_0003

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Fuji XT1 Wedding Bells

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I have been using the Fuji XT1 professionally for about a year now. For me it has been the most enjoyable digital camera system that I have shot in years. The type of assignments that I have covered with it have ranged from editorial to corporate to portraiture. It has met all of my expectations and then some. Yes there are some quirks that need to be worked around, especially since the Fuji X system is relatively young compared to the likes of Nikon or Canon. However if you are willing to put up with those quirks the rewards are great.

One type of photography that I had not tried the system on yet was wedding photography.  Wedding photography is not my main income stream by any means but I do shoot the occasional wedding, usually obtained by knowing someone involved in the actual event. This was such the case with a wedding that was to happen the weekend after Thanksgiving. I will be honest weddings always make me more nervous than regular gigs. There always seems to be much more riding on it to get it right. I would never dream of trying new gear on a wedding but I had been shooting events with my Fuji system a lot lately and was pretty comfortable that I could get the desired results that I was looking for with it.

As always everything gear wise was packed and ready to go the night before the event. It was the smallest kit I had ever taken to a wedding. I had two medium size shoulder bags with gear and two small compact light stands to carry and that was it. Inside one shoulder bag was two Cactus RF60 flashes, one Nikon SB28 flash, two Cactus V6 transceivers, two compact shoot through umbrellas, extra batteries and some small light modifiers. In the other shoulder bag was my Fuji system which consisted of two Fuji XT1’s, one with battery grip and one without, a 50-140mm, 56mm, 18-55mm, and the 35mm:1.4. There were also spare batteries, memory cards and a Nissin I-40 flash for TTL work.

As always the first thing I do when I get to any assignment is to scope out the place and look for visual possibilities. This event was being held at an old manufacturing plant that had been turned into event spaces and artist studios. I knew that the family formals were to be shot before the event started. I found a spot to set this up where the lighting was decent and I had just enough room to squeeze a decent size group into a shot. The Fuji 18-55, which is the kit lens, was going to pick up the heavy lifting for these shots. One might ask why I used the kit lens instead of one of Fuji’s more professional lenses? Well the kit lens is pretty damn good, it has stabilization built in for handheld work and there isn’t much in the way of distortion when you have to shoot that really wide group. It performed excellently! I set up a mini studio in about five minutes using the two Cactus flashes and the two shoot through umbrellas. We worked through the shot list of the formals and then I took down the mini studio and packed it back in it’s bag, not to be brought out again for the rest of the event. For those who are curious, the Cactus flash system has been 100% reliable and a joy to use.

For the rest of the wedding I utilized the 50-140mm, the 56mm (older version) and the 18-55mm. When flash was needed I put the Nissin on top of the XT1 that was carrying the 18-55. The other XT1 always had one of the other two lenses mounted to it. I carry the two camera setup using Holdfast Gear’s Money Maker camera strap. It’s pricey but keeps my back from complaining by the end of the day and it looks way cool!

To say I was thrilled with the results would be an understatement. The image stabilization in the 50-140 works superbly. The 56mm allows me to isolate individual subjects during candid shooting and the 18-55 does great for the wide angle shots. The colors I got from the Fuji files were gorgeous and the latitude to adjust and play with the raw files is huge! This was the first time I used the High Performance mode and there was a noticeable improvement in response and focusing abilities with the cameras. Yes it ate through battery juice a lot faster but I brought plenty of back up batteries so that was a non issue. I shoot 100% manually. The auto setting that is turned on is the white balance which is amazingly good. With the WYSIWYG viewfinder my post processing time has been reduced dramatically which allows me to go out and shoot more. Perfect! For those of you who like to shoot rapid fire with your cameras, I cannot comment on how the Fuji would have done. I didn’t use it. I prefer anticipating the moment and shooting a couple of shots  to get my keeper instead of twenty shots to only pick one good one. I’m knocking those of you who do shoot that way, in fact I used to but I don’t with this system. The other change in the way I shoot is I am using a lot less flash lately. The fast Fuji lenses and the high ISO performance of the XT1’s allow me to photograph with natural light a lot longer before having to pull out the flash gun.

So in the end my marriage to the Fuji system looks like it is going to last for quite a long time. I can only imagine how the relationship will grow in the next few years.

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Is it fall already?

Sorry for my absence the last couple of months. Since going freelance full-time I have been busy drumming up work and thankfully it seems to be “working.” This where they always say it’s all in who you know and it really is. From friends, to relatives to past business associates it has been amazing at the help that has come across my desk. It has either been in the source of direct work or names of people that may have work. It is a reality check in seeing that how you have handled yourself in the past with others can dictate what you may receive in return later. I am humbled.

I am learning how to schedule my day to day calendar and create this new way of working/living. I must say I do like the flexibility that freelancing can provide in your daily routine but I do try to at least have a plan for each week. If I deviate from it, that is fine but at least I have a roadmap to guide me through the week. One thing that I have been trying to do is make sure I leave some down time available. If you work all of the time you will quickly burn out. My downtime has turned into a mixture of photography and woodworking lately. Both bring me great gratification. With this post I bring you just some down time photography. Fall is my favorite time of year and I gifted myself with a couple hour walk in one of my favorite fall spots.

Enjoy!DSCF4642 DSCF4643DSCF4648DSCF4664DSCF4666DSCF4668DSCF4673DSCF4678