8.20.2017

Behind the scenes at the Theatre. Using an Olympus EM5-2 camera and two Panasonic Lenses. The 25mm Summilux and the 42.5mm f1.7.


Back in 2015 I was using the Olympus EM-5.2 cameras and a bevy of lenses from Panasonic and Olympus as second system alongside my full frame Nikons. Needless to say I enjoyed the process of shooting with the Olympus cameras much more. It was the combination of a great EVF along with state-of-the-art image stabilization that made that format so much fun. 

I was sorting and deleting old files and folders in Lightroom when I unexpected came across these images. I'd almost forgotten that I'd taken them. We did it for a project that never found its footing but it's alway instructive for me to look back and see what we were doing two or three years ago. We build mythologies about cameras and lenses but it's alway nice to be able to go back and sort fact from fiction. Fact: Those two little lenses were very, very good and the files from the Olympus cameras were so easy to work with. 

Now I find myself doing the same thing with Sony and Panasonic (with an Olympus lens tossed in for good measure). I hope to look back in two or three years and be happily surprised at what we were able to accomplish. 








Part of Austin's Downtown Skyline.


Channeling my inner "Walker Evans" to study "surban" life in Austin.

 "Surban" is suburban living in the midst of an urban environment. I thought it sounded cool so I went with it. I'll try to think up some sort of artistic manifesto later; if I need to...

Camera: Sony A7Rii

Lens: Zeiss / Sony 24/70mm f4.0





A nod to one of my favorite, high performance, camera and lens combinations for just walking around and looking at stuff.


Trying to escape from the political news, the dreaded heat, the August doldrums. My Sonys were on the chopping block on Friday but a last minute pardon kept them from  becoming trade-in fodder. The Panasonic GH5 was in ascendancy and my computational faculties were in retrograde. At some point, over the course of the weekend I'm back to the sort of stasis I'd created a couple of weeks ago: Panasonic for the heavy lifting of deep, rich 4K video and the two Sony full framers for the art of the still shot. 

Many years ago a friend of mine bought a crappy used car from a car rental company. He thought he was getting a great deal but it turned out he was getting a car that could only get itself sold as part of a highly discounted fleet purchase. But, after procrastinating too long he was stuck with it. He bitched and moaned about his "Walmart" car. My advice to him, if he planned to keep the car, was this: Take it to a car wash and wash it thoroughly. Then, dry it off and wax it till it gleams. He did this and was able to bond to the car well enough to keep it around for the next two years. The car met its demise when my friend braked hard, from Texas Highway speed, to avoid hitting an armadillo crossing the road in the middle of the night... The car flipped twice, left the highway and came to a stand still, upside down, in the middle of a cactus-y field. My friend unbuckled his seat belt and walked away without a scratch. 

He was thrilled. Now he would be able to buy the car he really wanted. 

When I find myself ready to sell a camera and my friends point out to me all the reasons why I should not, I think of my advice to my friend. The analogy in the camera world is to join the unappreciated camera to a favorite lens and then go out and shoot with the combo until you like it again. 

That's what I did today with the Sony A7R2. It's a camera I've used sporadically for video and for photo assignments that benefit from big, big, big raw files. But for the past year and a half in which I've owned this camera I've found myself reaching for its less detailed sibling, the A7ii nearly every time I shoot a portrait and I've spent much more time shooting video with the RX10s, the a6300 and the fz2500. Even in the theater I've come to appreciate the features of smaller cameras with bigger lenses more. 

Part of my reticence always revolved around the awkward price-to-usability ratio that existed when I dropped $3200 on it, new. I didn't want to "use it up" on smaller projects or in circumstances where any other camera would do just as well. I kept "saving" it for those sporadic projects that needed all the gusto a digital camera could muster. It's just that the projects were sparser and more widely paced than I anticipated at the time of purchase.

In retrospect, I should have been using it for everything; every project in which it was even remotely called for. The sensor is great, the format is great and, when used in concert with three hand picked lenses, the performance is stunning. The heck with trying to prove to the world the efficacy of using smaller, less specified cameras all the time...

So, that was my mindset today as I headed out the door. 

I've changed my routine to compensate for the wicked hot Summer we're having. While we won't break any records (hope springs eternals) for actual temperature readings the combination of high temperatures (over 100 each day) and the high humidity this season makes for a deadly combination; if you aren't careful.

I used to just grab camera and lens, my good hat and my car keys and head out the door. I carry a credit card with me for coffee or some unforeseen purchase but that's it. Today was different. I grabbed a small, brown leather backpack I'd picked up in the Geneva, Switzerland airport back in 1995 and I put some newly considered essentials in. The main reason for the backpack addition (it's small, really...) was to make carrying my 16 ounce, double-walled, stainless steel water bottle easy and convenient. I loaded the water bottle up with ice, water and a hydration tablet (Nuuns; lemon lime) so I could hydrate if I felt the need. I tossed in a notebook and a pen in case I had a fleeting inspirational idea (none to report) and I tossed in the house keys, a couple of extra camera batteries, a cloth handkerchief, some sunscreen and a couple hundred dollars in small denominations. 

I joined the Sony A7Rii to the Zeiss 24-70mm f4.0 and headed downtown. I think it takes some training to discipline your mind to pay attention to camera work when it's uncomfortable outside. Direct sun and high temperatures drains one's energy quickly and it takes some work to stay on task and to ignore the discomfort. I guess the trick is to be able to gauge dangerous discomfort from just basic wimpiness. 

It's one thing to be hot and tired but a whole other thing to be disoriented, slightly nauseous, light-headed, dizzy or worse. You want to make sure you plan to stay out of the bracket in which these symptoms exist. Nothing on a casual walk is worth heat exhaustion or sunstroke. 

I parked the car in the old Whole Foods parking garage where I know I can leave the car for three hours without having to pay or worry about being towed. I love having the car inside a parking garage because when I return after a long, hot walk I know the car will be hospitable.  I pulled the leather straps on the backpack over my shoulders and headed down Lamar Blvd. to see what was happening at the graffiti wall.

I pulled out all the stops with my camera and lens. I set the camera to shoot uncompressed (enormous) raw files and set the lens to somewhere between f5.6 and f8.0 where I knew it was superbly sharp and vignette free. I worked on my stance and my camera hold. I worked on my slow release of breath when actuating the shutter and I worked without too much regard for the heat and glare to find compositions I liked. I kept the zebras engaged even though I was shooting in aperture priority just so I could see where the highlights started screaming. I notice when shooting in big raw that the EVF will show me a review image quickly and then, if I continue to watch it, the review image gets a bit sharper and more saturated a second or two later. It's as though the camera is taking time to process the file and write the embedded Jpeg that it will present. 

As I write this I'm sitting in my office and the air conditioning is cranking. I'm slowly draining a big glass of iced tea while I'm playing with the eighteen files I edited down to from today's walk. You don't have the benefit of seeing them the way I am right now so I'll write a bit of observational description so you can see beyond the compressed files I'm presenting here and understand the value of the A7Rii. 

When I look at a file on my monitor I am already happy enough with what I see but then I click into 100% and realize just how much detail is resident in the files. In the photograph above I can zoom in to 100% and see every hair on the young woman's head clearly defined. I can see the woven texture of her companion's t-shirt. In frames were I've under exposed to preserve all highlights (no blinking zebras anywhere) I can pull up the shadow areas as much as I want without any appearance of noise or color shift. Even in frames with the zebras blinking at 105% I can pull the exposure slider down and recover all the detail in the highlight areas. 

After nearly two hours of shooting the Wall, the Capitol, Congress Ave. etc. I finally got really comfortable with the camera and realized that I wasn't going to break it or use it up all at once. I could concentrate on little tactile features I found I liked. I found my fingers feeling the gentle curve of the body on the left side of the body. I got comfortable using the front dial to move the exposure compensation up or down. It became a transparent operation. 

Left to its own devices the camera will usually underexposure contrasty scenes by a third to two thirds of a stop so most of my compensation was to the plus side. That might bug me on another camera but with the wide latitude of this camera's files, especially at the lowest end of the ISO range, I saw it as part of a comprehensive tool set that works together to maximize the strong points of the system. Being able to accurately reproduce the brightest highlights along with capacity for almost unlimited shadow recovery. It's a pretty amazing thing. It reminded me of the freedom I used to have when I was shooting events with ISO 400 color negative films like Kodak's Pro line of color negative films make for press work. The lab could do miraculous things with those frames....

I finished off the water in the bottle in four separate stops. Near the end of the walk I went into the Royal Blue Grocery at the Austin 360 tower for coffee and one of their scrumptious walnut and chocolate chip cookies. Why coffee on a 100+ degree day? Because (par for central Texas) when the temperatures rise outside Texans seem to love dropping the temperatures inside. It must have been 60 degrees in the Royal Blue Grocery today. With the rapidly evaporating sweat from my clothes it's kind of a miracle I didn't get hypothermia. When I got back to the car it was perfect inside.

I'd accomplished what I set out to do. I took the final mystique and hesitancy out of the A7Rii and figured out its place in my hierarchy of cameras. It's fabulous and perfect for narrow depth of field, for times when I need technical perfection (not as frequently as you might think) and when I want to shoot in the same fashion and with the same disregard for operational awareness that I could get away with when shooting the old film cameras loaded with color negative films. 

I love the lens. Anyone who has every written a review dissing this lens (Sony / Zeiss 24-70mm f4.0) is just plain wrong. It's superb. Perfect. Balanced. Neutral. And there's nothing wrong with the corners if you are coupling it with a 42 megapixel sensor. 

Nice to bond with a lens over some fun photos and a disciplined approach to working in the heat of the day. I'm happy it's still here. 






8.18.2017

I'm bored with Summer. That's dangerous. Too much time means bad equipment decisions.


Self portrait.

I think everyone has a few screws loose, if you look hard enough, or long enough. I know what one of my main hiccups is; I love change. Even if it doesn't make sense I still love change. Every once in a while I catch myself. About a week and a half ago I bought a Panasonic GH5 and the Olympus 12-100mm f4.0 Pro lens. I immediately used the combo for a paying gig and loved it. The camera feels pretty perfect in my hands and those crafty engineers seem to have put all the buttons exactly where they thought I'd go looking for them. But the real shot of espresso shot in my experience with the camera and lens combo was just how nearly perfect the lens turned out to be. This of course whetted my appetite for more Olympus Pro lenses. Many more Olympus lenses. 

I wasn't nearly busy enough last week to stave off boredom of the most pernicious kind. Sure, I had another Philip Kerr novel languishing next to my reading chair, and I had a few lunches with clients lined up but it's August in Austin and that means everyone is doing everything in their power to avoid dealing with the relentless heat. Everything slows down. Business slows down. Socializing slows down. Naps get longer....

Like many of you I gravitate toward a path of least resistance. For me, last week, it meant cruising all over the web looking for anecdotal evidence to support my contention that owning as many of the Pro series Olympus lenses as I could gather up would irrevocably result in me becoming the world's greatest photographer and videographer. Then yesterday I went to the Blanton Museum and saw an amazing three screen, video/multi-media exhibit called, "GIANT" by Teresa Hubbard and Alexander Birchler. The video presentation and the accompanying audio was amazing (if you're in Austin you MUST go). I walked out of the museum after seeing the presentation three times, newly convinced that I would spend the rest of my life trying to do video art like the work I'd just seen. 

By the time I got home I (and boredom) had convinced myself that the way forward, at least for now, would be to buy a second GH5 (the two camera angle set-up) along with the 7-14mm 2.8 Pro lens, the 25mm f1.2 Pro lens and maybe also the 42.5 Nocticron --- just for good measure. An easy way to finesse the whole deal in less than 24 hours would be to take my Sony gear to my local camera store and trade it in on the whole ball of Panasonic/Olympus wax. 

After swim practice this morning I came home and packed every vestige of Sony product up in a big hold all and headed to the camera store. I had previously arranged to meet my friend and video mentor, Frank, for coffee on the way to my own private Shop-A-maggedon. So I joined him and filled him in on my new plan for personal photo and video domination. He asked a few pointed questions and then smiled and laughed and said something along the lines that this would be the 8th big system switch I'd undertaken since he's known me and it hasn't changed my style much at all, anywhere along the line....

In my gear-addled state I took that all to mean that he massively approved of my basic camera logic and wished me godspeed to the camera shop. But a funny thing happened as I drove away and the coffee kicked in; I started thinking with some basic logic for the first time this week, about the whole idea of yet another massive equipment turnover.

If I thought about it rationally my reason for buying the GH5 and the 12-100mm was to make better video. When I drilled down into the lode of logic so recently surfaced I realized that the 12-100mm was enticing specifically because it held the promise of being an "everything" lens (and a damn good one). From the widest focal length I am normally comfortable using to the longest. All in one package. With great performance at every stop and every focal length. All the other "Pro" lenses I was considering were desires motivated by that hoary hold over from the film days: covering all the focal lengths. They weren't lenses that would necessarily get much use...

When I looked into the bag full of Sony stuff I started matching up memories of past successful jobs and stellar shots done with the individual cameras and lenses and I realized I'd be decreasing my shooting and creative options, not increasing usefulness. 

The two lenses that punched me in the face and stopped me in my tracks were the Sony 70-200mm f4.0 (which ends up being my default headshot lens) and my very recently added 85mm f1.8 FE lens which has quickly endeared itself to me as one of the fabulous portrait lenses whose eloquent performance I've had the pleasure of knowing. I had less regard for the 28mm f2.0 FE but mostly because I'm indifferent to the actual focal length. I'm stone cold neutral about the 24-70mm f4.0 Zeiss lens but mostly because I see it a very utilitarian tool. Not a glamorous formulation. A workhorse but not a diva.

I was halfway to the store by the time I realized that my impulsiveness had nearly cost me one really good and useful system while trying to hypnotize me into believing (once again) that new gear would yield entirely new outcomes for my engagement with my craft. I took a deep breath and realized that I liked my Sony stuff. A lot. And I've had two years in which to get used to it. That's almost a record for me in the realm of digital camera systems and I thought to extend the record instead of crashing and burning. 

So, Frank, if you are out there reading this: I got halfway there and turned around. I might add a few bits and pieces to the Panasonic stuff I've recently acquired but you were right when you (pointedly) asked if I might not miss having the full frame stuff. I know my rationale was glib but, HEY! I used to be an advertising copywriter. If I can't figure out a sellable rationale for buying something then I will have totally lost my advertising touch.

So, this afternoon I pulled out the Sony A7Rii, pried the battery grip off the bottom and stuck in a freshly charged battery. I put the 28mm f2.0 on the front and tasked myself with the responsibility of getting to at least know that much maligned and ignored focal length. It was hot and humid in Austin this afternoon but the camera and lens were balanced, trim and almost dainty. Much less of a burden than the GH5 and the 12/100mm lens. 

I didn't shoot much but I did come to understand (yet again) that it's okay not to do everything in an "all or nothing" manner. 

Now I have the luxury of two groovy systems. What a nice problem.


Not a literal self portrait.