4.18.2015

Saturday afternoon walk with an ancient (but interesting) lens on an Olympus EM5.2. Walking through downtown Austin, Texas

Is this bokeh or is the background just out of focus?

There's something about older lenses that I find appealing. I could describe various attributes but it would sound like I'm criticizing the lens instead of explaining why I actually like it. I have a very old Olympus Pen FT lens that's a 150mm f4.0. It was made either in the late 1960's or early 1970's. It was originally made for Olympus's line of half frame Pen cameras with their zany vertical format and the generous 72 exposures on a roll of normal 36 exposure film. But to my great joy all of these lenses will fit on (with an adapter) and cover the frame of the current micro four thirds cameras. 

While I go back and forth about lens sharpness and contrast there was something very different about lenses back in the days when black and white was the dominant film stock for a lot of pros and even more amateurs. I could conjecture that the lenses were made to be a bit less contrasty in order to capture more tonal range with the idea that you could compress the range to your liking in the development of the film and if not there then in the selection of your printing paper. The Pen lenses have a softer character to them but the detail is hidden within and can be coaxed out with a bit of post processing. 

I hadn't done a fun walk for a while so I grabbed this old lens and put it on the front of one of the EM5.2s languishing around the studio. I needed to drop by Zach Theatre and take five minutes of video for an upcoming event so I brought the second body with a modern, 12-35mm f2.8 lens for that purpose. The shoot was unguided by third parties and as a result was over in a flash...

Zach Theatre sits right on the south shore of the lake that runs through downtown so when I finished my job I walked across the street, over the bridge and into downtown proper. The modern lens went back into my bag and I pulled out the long, skinny optic from yesteryear. The EM5.2 is the best camera I've ever shot with when it comes to using manual focus lenses that have no electronic communication with the bodies whatsoever. The combination of image stabilization (yes, I manually set the focal length for 150mm....) and well designed focus peaking makes getting good images with longer, wackier, lenses a breeze. 

Every image in this post was done with that camera and lens combination. The camera was set to aperture priority and ISO 200. Every once in a while I'd nudge the exposure compensation dial but the camera meter mostly agreed with me. 

Is this glorious bokeh or ---- is the background just out of focus? (intentionally).


With focus peaking engaged hitting sharp focus is quick and accurate. When you use focus peaking the peaking outlines show against a slightly darkened frame as you are focusing but the minute you touch the shutter button the screen goes back to normal brightness and the peaking indicators disappear. The only thing that could be better would be if I.S. remained on even without having to touch the button. A 150mm lens on the smaller format means a lot of magnification and that means a lot of bouncing around of the finder image as you focus. Not a big deal and I got used to it quickly. 

I think the lens is too soft to use wide open for general photography. It might be a really nice effect for backlit portraits or romantic shots but the lens sharpens up a bit at f5.6 and that's where I chose to park the aperture of the duration of my shooting extravaganza. I think it's just right. Not too much depth of field and just enough sharpness to make my brain believe that we're doing stuff just right. 

I'm not at all used to shooting with such a long lens. The dogs just above were shot from across three lanes of traffic! That means I had to scan much further ahead as I walked down the street looking for interesting things to photograph. 


There is a pedestrian bridge that spans the lake that runs thru downtown. On the way back to south Austin I crossed the bridge and found not one but two wedding parties who were celebrating and being photographed on the bridge. I stopped to watch the two photographers and two videographers tackle the bigger of the two wedding parties. I presumed that the group of people in tuxedos and magenta dresses had come from a hotel ballroom or other venue and were just getting the group images done. I conjecture that because there wasn't any family around, just the wedding party. 

The second wedding party was a smaller group and it appeared that I'd stumbled into their section of the bridge just as they were exchanging vows. The longer focal length gave me a discreet amount of distance in which to shoot.  I loved being out of their attention. The image below is so much more fun because of the compression that I think it would have been had I been closer with a wider lens. Funny how my brain starts looking for scenes that match the focal length on the camera....



Sometimes the things I love about certain photographs are really just fragments of the photograph. For example, in the image just above I love the out of focus bicyclist in the foreground. It's just so out of place and unintentional.

Wedding documentation crew. "We don't need no stinkin' suits or ties!!!"

From one bridge to another one hundreds of yards away.

At the moment I was shooting for the expression on the face of the girl in the middle of the frame but in retrospect what I really like is the look of all those glasses on the table, nicely but subtly backlit. 

A nice urban scene just waiting for something interesting to be dropped in...





There is one thing that I found to be very, very nice in both the original EM5 and the EM5.2 and that's the monotone setting in the camera. I use it a lot and usually I choose the green filter setting when I am shooting outdoors. It seems to render tonal values correctly. As of this moment these cameras are my choice (over the Nikons) for black and whites that start their lives as Jpegs. 

YMMV. 

Work Note: The printed annual report is not dead. We are starting an annual report project in the middle of this coming week. Numerous locations in Texas and lots of expansive landscape style photos. There will be a mix of people shots but the wide, graphic shots dominate this one. 
I can hardly wait to drive around, maybe there will be BBQ. 

4.15.2015

Interesting video re: street cinematography. What do you think?

MOMENTS // NEW YORK CITY from Tim Sessler on Vimeo.
This is a collaborative cinematography film by Tim Sessler and Cameron Michael, using the FREEFLY MIMIC.

Shot over the course of 3 days on the RED Epic Dragon with a 50mm KOWA Prominar and stabilized with the MōVI M15.

Check out our blog post to read more about our process and the Freefly Mimic: http://www.brooklynaerials.com/blog

________________________________________________________

Production: Brooklyn Aerials / http://brooklynaerials.com/

Cinematography and Edit: Cameron Michael / https://vimeo.com/cameronmichael and Tim Sessler / http://timsessler.com

Music: Michael Marantz / http://michaelmarantz.com/

Assistant Camera: Drew English / http://drewenglish.com and Joe Victorine / http://joevictorine.com/

Behind The Scenes: Ryan Emanuel, Drew English

________________________________________________________

Special thanks goes out to NYC for being such an awesome and inspirational city and to all the people featured in this video!

Also huge thanks to Already Alive, Michael Marantz, TCS Rentals, Zak Mulligan, Sean Donnelly, Michael Burke and Ryan Emanuel for supporting us with gear - without you guys this wouldn't have been possible.



This is very interesting to me... Kirk

Just a reminder to U.S. readers.... Today is Tax Day. Start your engines.


Just scrambling to finish up the last details. 

4.14.2015

The closer you get that big softbox the faster the shadows fall to black.... But what do we do next?


I think a lot of us in the profession are facing a quandary. The whole market is changing again and it seems that commercial photographers, as a group, are good at getting left behind. It's not that the need for talented lighting, good composition and effortless rapport has diminished but that the target market for the goods has shifted. And audiences have different expectations...

We lost a big segment of working stiffs who couldn't make the transition from traditional film work to digital. We saw a similar shift when the whole advertising market transitioned from print to web based advertising as the premium part of the overall ad buy. Now I'm watching people dig in their heels and resist the transition from doing all stills to embracing video+stills and I'm pretty sure the same thing will happen. Those who don't expand their knowledge and craft will exit the market and not on their own volition. But it goes beyond just mastering the gear, there's is a necessary shift in the thought processes that goes along with the shift to new offerings aimed at new audiences.

Photographers traditionally thought of video (motion?) and still photography as two mostly unrelated disciplines. Each requiring divergent skill sets. We could point to the dominance of stills in web advertising for the first decade of this century instead of video but the reality is that the slow adaptation of massive video story telling among brands was slowed down by technology. Bandwidth used to be expensive and limited. Consumers' connections were too slow to handle higher quality video in quantity but now that's all changed and sites like Facebook are seeing massive and accelerating uploads of video. It's growing much faster than stills in the same online environments.

At the same time clients are cognizant that they can now create and show high quality video programming right on their websites which can tell the story of their businesses, make sales insinuations, demonstrate their products and powerfully engage two senses (sight and sound) instead of just one. The final step was to make video truly portable across mobile devices. And that's done.

The big disconnection for traditionalists is that they want to overlay their past aesthetics on new or different technologies because they misunderstand that the targets and the ways of telling stories have also changed. Every day I meet videographers and photographers who profess to be engaged in learning how to create the highest possible production value in their new field. They covet the best cameras, the best lights, all the bling that they see attached to Hollywood production cameras along with a rack full of cylindrical Power Macs to buzz it all along. It's an expensive way to go and while it's great for making features with rich budgets it may be antithetical to the way their growing markets absorb information and marketing stories.

In previous generations getting the quality right was a big hurdle. The tools were difficult to learn and there were intertwined processes that had to be carefully handled. It's not that way now. Getting decent images and video is getting easier every new product cycle.

While I fight the same preferences all the time I try to be open to the idea that soaring opening sequences and establishing introductions in most video/TV programming are anathema to a generation truly raised in the digital age. They seem to resist the embellishment that was a style of TV shows and movies aimed at previous generations and want to go straight to the information. I might want to "follow the rules" but not if they rules only create projects that appeal to a market of viewers over 50 years old and actually cause cognitive dissonance in the rest of our markets.

What am I talking about? Newcomers to any field are always obsessed by the idea of technical mastery. Gentle, smooth slider shots, endless dynamic range, perfect color grading, soaring camera movements and almost robotically predictable editing. But showing off their chops with displays of mastery can get in the way of the immediacy of a program. And it's all just a copy of traditional movie making that has a different sort of relevance for us than creative video materials that are viewed on laptops, pads and phones.

I am not immune to the kneejerk and reflexive idea of mastering the technical at the expense of relevance. I recently wrote about the image quality of files I was getting from the Olympus EM5.2 in a less than flattering way and it's true that by the traditional metrics of high end video that a comparison of the output from the EM5.2 is less "perfect" than the output from a GH4 or even a Nikon D810. My last century, linear process brain immediately wanted to grade the cameras, almost numerically, from best to worst with the idea that a real pro would only use the best. 

But the reality is that the EM5.2 might be the "best" of all the cameras I own if you use it for hand held video which is much more in keeping with current cultural trends in video. You might also label it best if you constantly need a combination of stills and video and all of it needs to be handheld.

I started thinking about this as I was looking around the web at blogs and sites that are all about "new video." By new video I mean all the people who came to video via cameras like the Canon 5D2 and the Panasonic GH2 and have discovered more and better equipment and have moved on to things like the Sony A7s, the Sony FS-7 and the various Black Magic cameras and other machines that shoot big, uncompressed and even raw files. What I saw everywhere were long, lingering shots that showed off some aspect of the camera or the technique. Here's a long slider shot that shows off the dynamic range of the camera. Here's a long shot that shows how well the camera handles unlit street scenes in the middle of a moonless night. Here's shot that shows amazingly lush color and another shot that's so desaturated that you can only discern a whiff of color.  Here's a shot from 4K that's so sharp you can visually dive into a model's pores.

But here's the deal: None of these many, many sites have created interesting and compelling programming that is engaging and glues your eyes and ears to the screen. They are just collages of techniques meant to tout the superiority of the gear and the superiority of the taste of the acquirer of that gear. Lots of pretty pictures unrelated to a story and accompanied by this generation's version of New Age music with tinkly minor key pianos intermixed with electronic fluff.

But if you head over to YouTube or Vimeo it's possible to see fun stuff. Stuff with a message, a purpose a storyline and a big dose of humor. Even the sites that basically sell cameras like DigitalRevTV or the theCameraStoreTV are all about the basic narrative. "Why are we here today? Oh yes, to talk about this camera and how well it works!" But instead of standing still and lecturing to you they move and interact and intercut still examples and use humor and a fluid and comfortable casualness to get across their information to you.

The best storytelling I've seen lately (as far as video on the web goes) has been stuff from younger people using the most basic tools. I work with several schools and I meet kids who pick up iPads and make incredible stuff with them because the obsession with the knobs and specs of the gear never gets in the way of the project. If it looks good on the screen it's good. If the story works and the premise works it's good. When a piece is fun or sad or interesting no one ever stops to ask, "Hey! How many stops of dynamic range did that shot have???" Or, "Did you shoot that in raw?"

I'm not saying that good technique in and of itself is a bad thing. But when it becomes the sole determiner of quality in a medium that's about following a thought or an idea then it becomes the biggest roadblock you can imagine.

Photographers aren't the only ones who will have to change their perspectives to keep their audiences interested in their work. A whole generation of videographers seems to worship mastery as well. I think it's time to roll out the workshops in which each person is given a Fischer Price My First Video Camera and is shown how to use its most basic capabilities to make real visual tales that are something beyond codec obsession.

My idea of current visual education? Sit down and watch the 20 most popular videos on YouTube and see what the common thread is. It won't be production quality. It won't be about precision technique. I bet you'll find that the messages are powerful (or hilarious) and presented in an unadorned and straightforward way.

If I had to predict the future I'd say that companies will want more and shorter video programming. That everyday media consumers will want 15 minute shows and 30 minute movies. That personality and acting ability will trump getting all the gizmos set just right. That next year one of the Academy Award nominations will be a movie made on an iPad or Surface Tablet.

But it's the same thing in the photo world. There are guys who can tell you the blend of metals in the alloy that makes up the sub frames of their cameras but even though they have infinite pixels at their disposal and understand technique forward and backward they are ill prepared for making wonderful images because they don't understand the new culture in which they exist. Their vision is about perfection and not about emotional engagement. Or pure design. Or gesture. Just about getting it "right."

I'm afraid that the secret of success in the visual arts as it relates to video and still photography is to understand the power of both. When to use them, not just how to use them. But the most important thing of all is the need to create images that are really, truly interesting to the audiences. Story, story, story. Style, style, style. Gear? Not so much...




4.13.2015

My Weekly Cultural Treasure Hunt Begins After Lunch on Thursday Afternoons at the Blanton Museum. Drop by.


Blanton Museum. Right on the edge of the University of Texas at Austin. A wonderful place to be on a Thursday afternoon. The admission fee is just right; free. It's never too crowded in the middle of the afternoon, and there's always something fun to see. It's nice just to hang out in a place where the whole point of its existence is to... value art. 

The big new show on the first floor is an exhibit that shows arts from the 1960's that reflects the civil rights movement. Lots of painting and photographs, some sculpture. One image I loved was a gorgeous Richard Avedon image, beautifully printed. of Julian Bond surrounded by young people in Mississippi. He's the only one in focus in the entire crowd. It's beautifully seen and the print is sublime. I stood transfixed in front of it for a long time. There's great photographs from Gordon Parks and there's an image I'd never seen before from Danny Lyons of a very young Bob Dylan. The show is powerful and, in the Austin community, a bit topical since the play, "All the Way" at Zach Theatre also revolves around President Johnson and the Civil Rights movement. Good stuff. 

I wandered through that gallery twice because I was pretty sure I'd seen all of the work in the upstairs gallery but I'd already paid for parking so I thought I'd hit the stairs and just make sure I wasn't missing anything. Thank God I'm not terminally lazy otherwise I would have missed a wonderful, quirky and interesting show of Ralph Eugene Meatyard's photographs. Wonderful, whimsical and somewhat surreal black and white prints that were so much fun to browse through. Meatyard's work is so not of this century in that he didn't need to print enormous prints to communicate and translate his vision. Most of the images were no larger than 8x8 inches but the tonalities and the content made for some rich visual consumption. I'll probably head back there to take another look at the show this week as well. If you don't live in Austin take a second to look up Meatyard's work here: http://www.mocp.org/detail.php?t=people&type=related&kv=7440


The rest of the time I just spent looking at old favorites and occasionally turning on the little black EM5.2 I had nestled in my hands along with a very quirky and imperfect lens---which I now really like, mostly because of its imperfections but also because of its conflicting high sharpness and low contrast. It's a lens I barely ever use. It's the 25mm f2.8 Olympus Pen FT lens. One of those enigmatic lenses that was designed and produced in the late 1960's and early 1970's for the company's half frame cameras. It was an age of lens design that combined optical intuition and computer aided design but it was mostly successful because of the rigorous, almost custom production and testing of better lenses at the time...

This lens has its faults. On the m4:3 sensors the outer third of the image gets pretty soft pretty quickly, especially when used wide open. It sharpens up okay at f5.6 to f8.0 but that's probably where the sharpness robbing effects of diffraction start to take their inevitable toll. It also has a fair amount of what appears to be barrel distortion even in the very center. That doesn't really change much as I stop down. 

Why do I like the lens? Maybe because it has a look that reminds me of my earlier days in photography. It combines a high central sharpness with a lower contrast. But it's almost like the modern thought process of video codecs; flatten everything out to capture more steps and more tones and then fix stuff in PhotoShop. You can't fix everything but the files from the EM5.2 sharpen up nicely and you can add back in a lot of saturation and contrast before things start to look --- unreal. 

I like shooting this lens (and many of the other Pen lenses) because the manual focus ring is silky smooth, the lens feels dense and precise and, when combined with focus peaking, it's fast to use and the focus stays "locked" where you leave it. I'm excited to see how this one works with black and white.


I've got to remind you not to take your art museums for granted. If they don't get used they might disappear just like cameras stores did and then we'd have to get all of our art culture on the web and that's not the same as seeing eight foot by ten foot paintings with bouncy impasto up close and in person. The reproductions of Avedon and Lyonn's and Park's photos on the web are never as rich and detailed as they are when you experience the real thing and the there's so much chatter on the web you'll get distracted and start drifting off to look at the celebrity news or the weather reports instead of soaking in the ideas of people who dedicated a lot of time and effort to show us new stuff in new ways. Use them or lose them!


The 25mm f2.8 Pen lens is looking pretty good in the shot of the colored pencils.
It's pretty much on par with my more modern lenses. And the quality of the 
out-of-focus-area-rendering is smooth and organic.


Ditto for the black pencils. 


you can really see the wonky distortion in the frame above but....



this image ^ shows the most egregious distortion but I like the sharpness and the 
way the camera is handling the noise at ISO 1600.



My feeling is that lenses like this one (and many of the early Leica lenses) were never made for flat targets or for accurate geometric rendering but to capture people in photographs where it was fine for the edges to go A.W.O.L.





There's more to photography than "sharp and straight."

Support your local museum and go to the local galleries. You'll nearly always find
something fun or surprising. And it's better than TV. 
Even "Breaking Bad" or "House of Cards."