11.30.2012

A repeat: One of my favorite "technical" blogs of 2012...

Celebrity Baby Photo.

Mamiya 6 camera. 75mm lens.

An interesting lens. Not sexy, just useful and apparently very sharp.


For quite a while the web-o-sphere has been shaping our desires when it comes to the gear we lust after. The Shelby Cobras of the lens world are the fast glass crowd. If you are looking for an 85mm portrait lens chances are you're lusting for an f1.4 or even an f1.2, even though you know that the f1.8 or the f2.8 will all function very well at the aperture of f4 you'll need to keep someone's face in sharp focus....  In the 50mm's we've been locked in a love hate relationship with the ultra fast fifties since, well....the 50's.

Even in micro four thirds and the Nex family the underlying rythme of the drums is a hope for more and more fast glass to come to market. So in the midst of all this Sigma goes all counterintuitive? What the heck are they thinking?

They've introduced two optics that are very interesting by dint of not being obviously interesting at all. They are a 19mm and a 30mm set of prime focal lengths with the plebeian maximum aperture of.....2.8.  But before you dismiss them out of hand I have two cogent things to say that may push you to consider adding one or both to your selection/collection of optics for your mirrorless camera. 1.  According to all accounts and every review site I've stumbled across in my Quixotic research, these lenses are both very sharp wide open and maintain that sharpness as they are stopped down.  And, 2. They are tiny and dirt cheap. (That's actually three points altogether).

Each lens is available for around $199. They are plain matte black (think very discrete) and don't come with image stabilization. No big deal for Olympus shooters who have world class IS built in to their cameras but a possible non-starter for our shakier brethren shooting Sony Nex.  What they do have is new configurations complete with aspheric elements and small, sharp elements.

Here's what Erwin Puts, the world's leading expert on Leica optics (with the exception of Leica engineers, of course) about slower lenses: (to paraphrase) Every time you increase the diameter of a lens element (essential in the design of fast glass) you increase the complexity of grinding and finishing that glass by a factor of 8X. It is far, far easier to design a high performance (meaning great image quality) lens with a slower (smaller) aperture than to make one with a large aperture.

And this is why most fast 50mm lenses, for example, are soft and of low contrast when used wide open, with atrocious corner performance, and only get better when stopped down a couple of stops. It is also why fast lenses that can  be used at their maximum f-stops cost thousands of dollars.  

I am putting down my keyboard in about 60 seconds to walk out the door, get in my car and drive over to Precision Camera to pick up a 30mm Sigma for the Nex that they have on hold for me. I haven't decided if I will also pick up the 19 mm but I sure am considering it. I'll have my first report on your desk in the morning.  Bye.



Making Movies. What's more important than the gear?


As a commercial photographer I see people rush to embrace video all the time. They figure that all their cameras come equipped with HD video and stereo sound so how hard can it be. If you trawl the web for information you'll find lots and lots and lots of technical information about the gear, how to use the gear, where to buy the gear and how to measure the gear but you'll find very, very little about how to make a visually compelling video that tells a story without losing the audience.

If you need to read about which camera to choose or how to make a slider work you can go to Phillip Bloom's site or peek in at Vincent Laforet's blog. They'll tell you about bit depth and codexes and focus following rings made out of titanium and unicorn horn. And don't get them started on fluid head tripods or you'll be there all day.

But, just as in still photography, the technical stuff is just the top layer. The congealed fat on the top of the p├ąte in the mould. You need to dig down under the top layer to really make a useful and watchable project because so much of film making is about how to shoot scenes for continuity of action, so that the time line makes sense, so that they are believable.

I'm always looking for books that teach me how to see rather than how to capture and it's no different in making movies and videos. I ordered this book, Cinematography: Theory and Practice, by Blain Brown, about six months ago and I've just recently had time to sit down and start thoroughly digesting the information.

Brown discusses lighting but only in as much as how it affects mood and action. His real job in this book is to teach you why a film makes sense to viewers and how you can maximize good story telling practice to make better projects. At nearly 400 pages and an accompanying DVD it dives into good detail.

Chapters include: Writing with motion.  Shooting methods. Visual language. Language of the lens.  Visual storytelling.  Cinematic Continuity, Lighting basics. HD Cinematography. Camera Movement. Image Control and much, much more. It is complete with good illustrations and has zero body fat = no fluff.

If you've plowed through workshops and DVD's and endless blogs and you now know which camera has the lowest signal to noise ratio at ISO650 and which slider has the lowest coefficient of friction and how a jib arm works but you understanding of visual storytelling hasn't improved one lick then this is a great book for you (and for me).  It's dense, informative, well written and a tier above all the meaningless crap that the technogeeks love to spew.

You will learn more than you thought possible if you read this thing cover to cover. And it will improve your videos and your still photography. I can almost guarantee it.

It's a different way to come at learning more about imaging. And it may just resonate with your brain in a different and better way than the prototypical stuff from yet another stills only photographer.  I'm re-reading it as soon as I finish it. It's really that good.




11.29.2012

I took the day off and wandered around with this lens to see how it would work with my Sony Nex 7.

Being able to use legacy lenses is a wonderful reason to own one of the mirrorless cameras. Any one of the mirrorless cameras.  But don't do a search for lens company called, "Legacy." That's just what everyone calls older lenses that, against all logic, can be made to fit on new cameras. 
Mirrorless cameras.  

Right of the bat I've got to tell you that I love the Sony Nex 7 and the files it produces. But I'm tired of continually buying lenses for this camera and that so I decided to try the self-reliant, after all civilization collapses approach to putting lenses on the front of the camera. I reached into the Olympus Pen FT drawer and pulled out some of my favorites. They came to my camera pre-bought. That's the nice thing about leaving old stuff in the drawers long enough: sometimes it becomes new stuff all over again.

I thought about this lens when I looked at the price for the Zeiss 24mm lens that's made for the Nex cameras. Now, I've sure that the Zeiss optic is stunning to use and rests in the hand in such a perfect way that once you pick it up you'll never want to put it down. But it's also not a focal length ( about 37mm on a FF) that I rush to pick up when I make photographs. A great 50mm eq. gets my attention every time but 35-37 is really nothing special or particularly inviting for me and the thought of spending $1000 on a lens I'll use sparingly was too much.

The 25mm Olympus G. Zuiko Auto-W f2.8 is a lens I picked up in 1985 for $65. It's absolutely solid and the focusing ring is as smooth as the day it came into the studio. The glass is clean and the aperture ring still turns and click stops with authority. I didn't use this lens much on my original Pen cameras because I was more captivated by the fast 40, 42 and 60mm lenses. I had no idea how it would work on a very modern digital camera with a very high resolution sensor but with nothing to lose but time and shoe leather I was game.

I packed a very small bag with the 60mm 1.5 and an extra battery for the Nex 7. I stuck in my iPhone and a couple bucks as well as my car key and parked the car in front of Barton Springs Pool. The whole park was empty today. Thursdays the pool is closed for cleaning and the rest of the park is being decorated for the annual Trail of Lights.  I set the camera to manual exposure, big jpegs, fine, landscape creative setting, etc.

I've shared with you all recently that I am not particularly gifted with the use of wide angle and even moderately wide angle lenses but someone left a shred of advice in one of the comments. That was to use the near/far relationships for drama and depth. So that's where I started. The image above is the spill way at the end of the Barton Springs Pool. Those are the lunar rocks in the foreground. Well, not really lunar rocks but if you lit them just right and waited until it was dark outside and....

The lens is lower in contrast than current lens designs so I added some contrast and a little saturation in post. Good lesson. More contrast. Easy to do.

I use the Sony Nex 7 in the bottom of a leather never ready case as it adds some more grip-able surface to the camera and protects at least part of the camera from my episodes of not paying attention and then walking into doors or repeatedly dropping the camera down concrete stairs.  (Is that covered under warranty?). I was looking for purple fringe around the leaves in the image above but I was disappointed. No fringe. No purple.

This is what I'm talking about when I think about wide angle chaos. I like the brightly color trees but look at all that crap in the foreground. Never happens to me with a 50mm or longer lens... (Is that an Olympus blue sky or a Sony blue sky?).

So, I'm walking along the south shore of Lady Bird Lake (yes, really. They re-named it after Mrs. Johnson) and I'm about to pass under the Lamar bridge and I actually thought,  "Someone is going to take me to task for shooting nothing but distant shots and they'll complain that it's hard to see if the lens is sharp, or whatever. I should find something I can shoot at the near focusing limit of the lens." And just then I notice that someone has systematically stacked dozens and dozens of flat river rocks on top of each other in little pyramids. Almost like a wild, impromtu Zen garden. (What did the Zen Buddhist say to the hot dog vendor? "Make me one with everything."  Bazinga.)

So I crouched down and put my elbows on a little wall of rocks and carefully focused using the focusing magnification and I put the focus on the stack of rocks on the left hand side of the frame.  Thought perhaps we could do a bokeh test at the same time.  To make everything more obvious I included a close up section of the foreground rock construction in the frame below. It is a crop from the image above.

In my seat of the pants analysis the lens is adequately sharp. Wonderfully sharp compared to some I have used... If you click on the image above it will open bigger in it's own window but the brilliantly programmed Blogger software will probably throw you back to the beginning of the article when you dismiss the window. (21st century? Right...)

Gotcha's? You bet. This lens wasn't designed to work with sensors. Film works differently. For the most part everything is hunky dory but I found out the hard way that once you stop down past f8 you will start to get a magenta color shift around the edge of the frame. Go to f16 and it's absolutely pronounced. About 26 points of magenta.  Very apparent in the sky areas. The image above was shot at f16 and it was gruesome. I tried to neutralize it with the adjustment brush in Lightroom but was stymied by sheer laziness. That's why there's still some magenta in the top left and on the far right of the frame. Oh, I meant to leave it in there to illustrate the copy.....That's the ticket.

I stumbled around the downtown area for a while being drawn in by clementines and appalled by all the relentless building. Everywhere you turn in Austin companies are digging GIANT pits that will become parking structures which will sit at the bottom of high rise resident towers.  It's like we're playing trust funder musical chairs. They're moving here in droves because of our city's reputation as one of the coolest places to live on the planet. And here I do have to take some blame for being a living example.....(meant as a joke. Notation for the humor challenged.)... of my city's coolness...But at some point it will be like bacteria on a petri dish and they'll realize that by sheer numbers they've sucked all the coolness out of the city and everyone will start moving somewhere else. I'm already looking.  Desert? Patagonia? San Angelo?

But the clementines were attractive and useful and if you hit the image above and blow it up a bit you'll see lots of good detail and great color.






This image is my bold attempt to be a landscape guy. I like the image but I think the sky is blah. I guess I could drag the image into Portrait Professional and see if I could enhance it with some pouty lips and bold irises.

Somewhere along the course of the walk I lost a couple of dollars to a coffee shop and eighty nine cents to Whole Foods for a vegan chocolate donut. It tasted pretty good and it gives you a small dose of inner smugness knowing that most of the people around you didn't have a vegan chocolate donut.  Sorry dudes.  But eventually all walks lead back to my pool and I made it over to the Western Hills Athletic Club early enough to take calming photos of the water and lane lines.  Don't the black lines on the bottom of the pool remind you of the declining curves in the DXO tests charts for signal-to-noise over increasing ISO? That means we've been reading too many camera reviews.

At ten minutes of noon I put up the camera and got my bag of swim goodies out of the car. Hand paddles, a gaggle of Speedo Endurance Jammers, my own special goggles with the green straps and my training fins----which failed utterly today.  It was seventy degrees and sunny when I hit the pool. The water was clean and clear. We had a good group at practice today. 

I goofed around too much and got the stink eye from the coach. But that's what happens when you skip out on work and take the day off. Youthful exuberance.  I spent the rest of the day laying on the floor of the studio alternately napping and re-reading the Hobbit with my dog. I'd read her the exciting passages and she'd just look at me and shake her head. Every once and a while I'd give her a dog treat, just to keep her interested.  Like trying a new lens.  It works.

When in doubt about the artistic integrity of one of your images just 
dunk it into Snapseed and pound it with the grunge filter. Then everyone 
will know it's art.

Funniest thing I saw on the web today: My first book, Minimalist Lighting, which usually sells at Amazon at a discount (like all the other books on Amazon.com) was on NOT SALE today for its actual printed list price of $34.95.  I have no clue.

If you're feeling perky go do some shopping on Amazon and use one of the links below to get there. Your purchase of ANYTHING on Amazon will support my blog and it won't cost you a pfennig. Such a deal. Buy a car...please.











11.28.2012

The right lens for the job.


This is a portrait of my friend, Jennifer.  We were kidding around in the studio and she ducked into her ski clothes. I thought it was a fun look for an August day in central Texas so I asked her to step in front of a big chocolaty brown and beige canvas backdrop that we used to keep set up at the very back of the old studio on San Marcos St. and I snapped away with my favorite camera and my favorite tight portrait lens.

The camera was a Hasselblad. You can tell by the two little indentions on the left side of the frame in the black surround. Each back has notches on the left side so you can quickly tell which back your film from. Helped if one of your backs developed a light leak...

The lens was/is one of my all time favorites, the Carl Zeiss 180mm f4 for Hasselblad. It's wickedly sharp and has no weaknesses I know of. The 150mm Sonnars flared if you had direct light hitting the front element. The 180 also focused tight enough to get an uncropped headshot like the one above.  

If you do the mumbo-jumbo math of equivalence then this lens is the same angle of view as a 90 on a full frame 35mm camera and a 60mm on an APS-C camera. I tend to linger around this focal length for most of my work but with the APS-C I've settled into two different portrait lenses.

One my Alpha cameras (Sony a77 and a57) I like using the 70mm Sigma Macro 2.8. It's one of the sharpest lenses I've found for the cropped frame camera and the more I use it the more I love it. I'd use it on my Nex-7 if the size discrepancy wasn't so enormous....

On the Nex-7 I turn to the wonderful and elegant 60mm 1.5 Pen FT lens which covers the format with no corner darkening and, stopped down one or two stops, is sharp in a kind way. Three stops down and it becomes a dermatological pore discovery tool. Too sharp to keep friends posing on a regular basis. 

I'd like to think I'm the master of all focal lengths but to be honest really wide angles just baffle me. I don't get it. Who would want to include so much stuff in a shot? Really.  And the long stuff is fun to play with but in the end, monotonous. I'm right at home from the normal 50mm focal length to just about 135mm (all focal lengths based on 35mm FF). Go outside this range and I'm outside my comfort zone.  Interesting to think that one's choice of subject and then focal length are so important in setting a personal style. But there it is...











An Amazing Video of Steve McCurry Making the Pirelli Calendar in Rio

And watch how he uses hand held LED panels and larger LED panels on stands as his light sources. It's a great video and a beautifully done project:

http://videos.tf1.fr/auto-moto/calendrier-pirelli-2013-le-making-of-7692871.html

Warning!!!! great images of fully clothed women.

Note: Steve McCurry is an extremely well known National Geographic photographer whose work in Afghanistan (inlcuding the iconic woman against the green wall) made him world famous.

Hit this link for an interview. When you see the top photo you'll know exactly which image I was referring to: http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/ngm/100best/multi1_interview.html

Lots of amazingly talented people out there. He's one.

Thanks to ultra observant VSL reader, Gerald, for the heads-up on this one. Well done.

11.27.2012

The One Camera that has me Salivating Today. And the one that's still prodding my acquisition gland....


I've got a short list of cameras and lights I want for Christmas. It's a really short list. There are only three objects of desire on it as of right now. And with bountiful rationalizations all three of them could (just barely) be considered practical purchases. The top of my list is pretty obvious. I've been buying up Sony and Minolta lenses over the course of the year and I seem to have jettisoned all my other non-historic cameras in favor of Sony a57, a77, and Nex 7 cameras. All of which have evolutionarily cool electronic viewfinders. So it's only logical that I should rush out and buy a Sony a99.  It's got all the stuff I like and adds in what may be the best all around, full frame sensor sitting in a camera today. Yeah, I know that people are losing a lot of saliva playing around with the Nikon D800 but while its specs seem drool inspiring I think the reality is that 24 megapixels is the current hyper-sweet spot for most workflows and for most subject matter.

The 36 megapixel chip in the Nikon feels kind of like an after market hood scoop and super charger slapped onto a Honda Accord. Not the most practical everyday car. And, at a zillion megabytes per file the D800 might not be the most practical daily driver for a working photographer either.

I want the Sony a99 but I'm trying to be disciplined and wait until I've saved up the cash to pay for one. I turned over a new leaf this year and decided to go easy on the credit cards where non-essential camera purchases are involved. But to quote Wayne Campbell in the movie, Wayne's World: "It will be mine.  Oh yes, it will be mine...." It just seems to be taking me longer than usual.

The more I read about the Fuji X-E1 the more I think that this camera might just leapfrog over the Sony a99 and cut in line, priority-wise. The truth is that I was ready to buy the Fuji Pro-1 when it first came out and I rushed to the store with a checkbook in hand when my personal sales consultant called to tell me the store was holding one for me.  I went and played with the demo and I was even willing to overlook the slow focusing but the one thing I was not willing to overlook on a modern camera (and at my eyes' age) was the absence of an adjustable diopter adjustment. Yes, at sometime in the not exact future I might be able to special order an eyepiece that would make the camera workable but in its raw form....no. And I'm not really a special order kind of guy.

I'm glad I waited because it appears like the X-E1 is everything the Pro 1 offered but more by having less. In getting rid of the vestigial optical finder Fuji was able to provide the same sensor and guts for about 1/3 less scarce American dollars. I like the X-E1 because it's simple and the body is elegantly spare.  I've owned Fuji S2's and S3's and even an S5 and while the bodies (largely Frankenstein adaptations of cheesier Nikon bodies) were operationally ragged the sensors were really, really good. The skin tones remarkable.  All reports so far (both the Pro-1 and the X-E1) point to the same gorgeous skin tones and color palette but this time around bundled with ample pixels and very low noise.  My Nex 7's will get jealous, no doubt, but I'm not in this to make friends with my cameras. They need to serve me and not the other way around.  I'm heading into town tomorrow to look at the X-E1 and the kit zoom lens, which is also supposed to be a cut above the competitors. I'm sure, if I pull the trigger, my VSL readers will be among the first to hear about it.

The final thing on my short list is just more and more of the small Fotodiox 312AS LED panels and more of the generic (cheap) Sony camcorder batteries that work with them.  At some point I'd live to build a frame and make a free standing LED softbox that's about four feet by four feet and usable anywhere. I just need about eight or ten more panels...... I'll add them one at a time. I've already put them on the Christmas list for my family and friends.  Thinking about getting me something really nice of the holidays??????? I'm sure there's another Fotodiox 312AS out there with my name on it........

What do you guys have on your always ready short list? 











Great stocking stuffer for almost every photographer on your list, a good, solid 16 gb SDHC card for the price of 3 lattes:






My absolute favorite photography purchase of the year is a cheap LED panel.


I want to start by saying that the commercial image above is one of my absolute favorites from the entire year of 2012. We shot it on the run during a long day of image making for an enormous radiology practice. I like the very authentic interplay between the two people in the image and I like the way the round structure of the machine intersects the frame diagonally; both from side to side and from front to back. I like the tonalities of the white machine finish both in the shadow areas to the left of the frame and the bright but detailed highlights on the top right of the machine. I like that we were able to achieve a perfect light balance between my lights on the two human subjects, the diagnostic machine and also the computer screen in the far right background.

The white, translucent curtains in the background plane frame the technician in a wonderful way; dark against light. But most of all I like the captured gesture of the technician's hand.

Although we have sunlight outside the window, florescent lights overhead and three LED panels in the room the white of the "patient's" robe and the white of the machine are very neutral and there are no rogue areas of color shift.  

With enough time I could do this well with flash. It would take some trial and error and a lot more time than I spent doing it my way. This image was shot with LED panels and that made my job easier, the image hold together better and our set up faster and much more fluid. It's not an "over the top" or adrenaline drenched shot by any means but I think it has a balance and feel of reality that makes it a good image for the world of medical commerce.

Fast forward from the summer (when the above shot was done) to yesterday. I spent all morning photographing in a pet hospital. We did portraits, animals, treatments, procedures and interior wide shots and we lit everything with the same three panels. I was able to shoot non-stop for almost four hours with the lights on most of the time. The light are battery powered so they don't need power cords or extension cords. No flash and no noise means no skittish dogs and no cringing cats. The lights can be made to blend seamlessly with the light I find in most interior locations.  And when we're done they go back into a small Tenba case that rides on top of my Think Tank rolling case.

I own a lot of lights and I've used many more lights of just about every type over the 20+ years I've been working as a professional photographer.  These particular LED panels are the most amazing lights I've played with so far. And pretty much among the cheapest, considering what they do.

I have an image of them below. They are the Fotodiox 312AS LED panels and they run about $150 in the Fotodiox storefront at Amazon. Why do I think they are so amazing? Well, they put out enough light to do many of the fill in tasks we mostly need. In a darkened room they make great main lights when used with modifiers and either higher ISOs or lower shutter speeds (use your tripods, they are magic).

They have two controls. And they have two sets of LEDs. One control is a stepless dial that takes the light from a minimum power setting to full power in a smooth twist of the control. The other dial allows you to balance between an equal number of tungsten balanced LEDs and daylight balanced LEDs. Twisting the knob on the back takes you from daylight to tungsten and anywhere in between. I've found that a setting near the middle of the rotation gets me right into the ball park to balance with most popular florescent lighting.

The fixtures come with a diffusion panel that attaches to the front of the unit with magnets. Very cool. Three or four of these in a small case gives me enough flexibility, when combined with the recent slew of cameras that perform well at 800 and 1600 ISO, to do just about any interior lighting (for one or two people) that I need. Your mileage may vary. I wouldn't choose these small panels to light a large group. And I wouldn't choose any continuous light to try recording sports or fast action.  But when I pack these are the first lights into the cases and they generally get used on every shoot. Even when I'm shooting mostly flash there always seems to be the need for just a little fill somewhere. The need to bring up the levels in a dark corner. 

I have used all three, crowded together on a couple of stands, and set behind a diffusion panel, to do some fun portrait lighting with both film and digital. The panels don't have the big green spikes of their predecessors so the AWB on most digital cameras makes short work of providing you with neutral files. 

I recommend these panels. Come to think of it they are the only new studio lights I've purchased all year long. That I am not hungry for something different speaks volumes about their value to me. I suggest you try one if you are curious about LED lighting


If you want to trim the learning curve where LEDs are involved you might want to pick up a copy of my LED book. One of the Fotodiox 312AS Panels combined with my LED book might make a thoughtful gift for someone you know who is working as a photographer. It might also make a great, self-indulgent indulgence. Just a thought.











11.26.2012

Why choosing a subject is more important than choosing a camera.


I have two friends who both read VSL (and take me to task regularly :-) ) and they both suffer the same affliction. They are both convinced that there is a holy grail in the camera world. They are of the intellectual opinion that all that matters is the final image but they are of the emotional opinion that there is one perfect camera for them and the creation of their ultimate images is dependent upon them finding and mastering the one camera fate has put into their path, somewhere in the labyrinth of photography.

How do I know this? Because I sat down with each of them, individually, this week and listened to them. One friend switched systems (sort of) this year and bought the redoubtable Olympus OMD camera (actually two...) and all the really juicy m4:3 lenses. He hoped that they would kick start his enthusiasm and inspiration to create more and better photographs. But the thrill of that purchase is wearing off and now (six months later) he's considering buying into the Sony system in the form of the a99 full frame body and "just a few of the better lenses."

My other friend bought a Hasselblad digital system (many lenses!) this year to upgrade his photography business. He wanted to differentiate himself by offering his clients the best possible image quality that can be purchased on the market right now. After the initial excitement wore off he orbited back to doing most of his work with a very practical (and very well performing) Canon 5Dmk3 and assorted premium and esoteric optics. This week he's been buying up Leica M gear and a little bit of Leica R gear. The buying high wears off quickly. And the ebb time frame seems to accelerate with each subsequent purchase.

I watch my hobbyist friends and a lot of my pro friends and the cycle they go through looks like this: Identify new camera that may bring inspiration and spark to photography through research and the reading of forum tea leaves. > Purchase new miracle camera and begin the process of learning all of its tricks and getting a sense of mastery over the machine. > Find some things that are not optimal about the miracle camera and/or the miracle lenses. > See greener grass in another company's new catalog. > Begin the research process again. And again. And again.

There is a fear that leads one to believe that no good photographs can be taken until and unless one has selected and mastered a tool that one superstitiously believes they have been ordained by photographic fate to use. But it really is cover for the fear of getting started.  And the fear of getting started comes, usually, from the fear of having to come to grips with not really knowing the thing you really want to say with your photographs. Because at some point, if you want to make art, you have to come to grips with what it is you really want to say with your images (subject) and how you want to say it (style).

(none of this particular blog is aimed at casual photographers who just want an enjoyable pass time or professionals who just want to make a few bucks with their cameras. It's aimed at people who've studied the work of current and past masters and have been intrigued and engaged by that work. Now they want to make their own work and have it be really good.  It's written for artists waiting to blossom.  Yes, you can just go have fun with your camera but you really don't need me to tell you how to do that...).


The fear that paralyzes most practitioners is the fear that they'll waste time and resources using a camera that isn't up to the task of their specific creation and that they'll spin their wheels until they find out that their inadequate tools have sabotaged their best intentions. There's also a subconscious fear that by not choosing cameras vetted by the herd they will not be taken seriously by people who know and they may not even take themselves seriously. Heavy stuff to lay on someone. Even heavier to lay upon yourself. The over riding fear is that no matter what kind of gear one ends up with you still might not be able to perform and you'll have to deal with your own sense of failure. But the failure is always an inability to connect. It's almost never a breakdown of the technical steps...

The secret of artists (good or bad artists) is to ignore the tools as best you can and figure out what your subject matter is. For me it's portraits. I love the process. I love the give and take. I love finding out just a little bit more about an interesting person. But most of all I love translating what I learn about my portrait subject into something that is a representation of my photographic voice. My point of view. My original way of showing someone.

I like my Hasselblads because I feel safe with them. But if there's an interesting, alluring, provocative, prickly, sensual, sinister or beatific person that triggers that part of my brain that wants to make a portrait then the cameras became totally secondary and my focus is on working with them to get the images.

What both of my friends are looking for, each in his own way, is the subject matter that gets them excited, that makes them need to use any camera instead of just wanting to use a new camera.

Both of my friends are pretty smart. Pretty soon they'll realize that there's no pot of gold at the end of the gear rainbow and they'll find the stuff that makes them rediscover the all encompassing addiction of having to make images because the subject in front of them is something they care about and need to share. When that realization clicks in the camera lust will fade into memory and they will both get on with the work of making a different sort of work.

If you are planning on researching new cameras on the web after stopping by here for a dose of my curmudgeonly and primitive philosophy please try a new tack. Sit or lie down on the floor in a comfortable spot. Turn off your phone. Breath in and out slowly and deeply and just let your non-gear brain tell you what it is you love to see and shoot.  Then hit the sleep button on  your computer, and go out in search of that subject. When you find the subject matter that causes a visceral reaction for you just look for a while instead of jumping right in and photographing the crap out of it. Really look. And then decide how you'll use your visual voice.

Then come back with any old camera and an overwhelming dose of intention. It may be harder than shopping but long term it may be a lot more satisfying.


My 500px portfolios now have huge, dynamically resizing image...thanks to ATMTX.

http://kirktuck.500px.com/beauty/

May be all the website I ever really need...  We'll see.

edit: Don't blame ATMTX for my bad editing (duplicate images) he just let me know what could be done with the tools at hand. To see a really great implementation you need to see what he's done with his new membership at 500px: http://portfolio.atmtxphoto.com/

Pretty damn nice, I'd say.










11.25.2012

Visual Science Lab posts 1300th blog and this week we'll hit ten million pageviews. Wow. Lotta work. Lotta eyes.

Scrabble game at the in-laws house. I love the simple solution in the front right corner. "Io" in two directions and "oi" in two directions. That's fun. Taken with the Kodak DCS SLR/n and a Nikon 50mm 1.8 AFD lens. Handheld after turkey, stuffing and pie. Lots of pie.

Putting words together is like swimming or photographing. It gets easier or better or both the more you practice.  You learn what to keep and you learn what to throw out and it all makes better sense. If you've been a long time reader, thank you very much for hanging in there. If you are new to the blog don't worry; we only do these self-congratulatory missives at big milestones. For me, anything with the number "ten milliion" is a big deal.  

A banal photo of the table topper at P. Terry's Hamburger restaurant in Westlake Hills, Tx. I just like the way the 70-210mm Nikon lens looks on the Kodak digital camera. In a short phrase: Sharply mellow.

Out for a walk with an old friend. Raiding the camera orphanage and a lens from the far past.

Waiting for the bus on S. Lamar.

I've been mulling over the purchase of a Sony a99. I'm reasonably sure that it's a wonderful camera and would work well in my business and in my new hobby of making short movies. But for some reason I just haven't been able to snow myself with enough rationalizations to pull the trigger. Maybe it's the imminent cost of paying for Ben's college education that's slowing me down but maybe it's also a process of trying to figure out what the camera will really buy me in terms of improved performance. The first a99 rationale that perked up was the need for the full frame. And I pondered that after having owned, used and subsequently sold off both Canon and Nikon full frame cameras in the last couple of years. 

The devilish lure of the full frame argument came wafting through like the Sirens' song and for a while I felt an unnerving desire to get into my car and drive closer to Precision Camera. But I slowed down and decided to do a few experiments before my usual frantic lunge for whatever is new and shiny. I actually started going back and looking at the work I'd done with the Sony a77 and the Nex 7 and I really liked what I was seeing. No big, glaring hole in the fabric of my imaging universe that needed to be filled lest we trip and fall into a different and dangerous dimension. In fact, my little foray into recent files made me long for yet another Nex 7 just to keep on the shelf, in its box, in case it disappears from the market and I'm never able to get another new one..... (down that path lies madness).

As part of my exploration into the vagaries of desire I started looking through the equipment cabinets, affectionately named, the camera orphanage, and started thinking about how we got down the road to this point.  That's when I saw my old friend. A scion of the second full frame camera family to hit the market. The Kodak DCS SLR/n. (The first being the Contax 6 megapixel full frame camera. Legend has it that only four hundred were made). 

The Kodak SLR/n is enigmatic and wrongly maligned. It came onto the market at a critical time in the evolution of professional digital cameras and was killed by unskilled marketing at its worst.




The DCS SLR/n was proceeded to market by the Kodak DCS 14n. That was a challenging camera. It had no real power management which meant short battery life. The sensor was noisy and prone to color shifts from magenta to green from side to side but at it's nominal ISO it was very sharp and could make very nice images. The Kodak SLR/n was a vastly improved camera with a new sensor, good noise characteristics at 160 to 400 and no real issues. But it was not a sport or event camera. It should have been marketed at studio photographers, fine art photographers and portrait photographers. It excelled at portrait work in the right hands.

At any rate it was a victim of the march of materialism. When a better camera came to market in the full frame sensor catalog at Nikon I jumped and bought a D700. But what is better? The D700 was good but the Kodak was sharper. The D700 handled better and was much, much faster but I never liked the color palette. The D700 was much, much, much better at making files at high ISOs and combatting the intrusion of noise but most of the portrait work I did with both cameras was created with the aid of powerful strobes. I could have worked at just about any ISO.


In the end it was really all about the screen on the back of each camera and the annoying propensity of the Kodak to stop in the middle of a shoot and recalibrate itself for 10 seconds or so that convinced me to put it into a bottom drawer, along with its battery charger and four batteries and let it rest next to the Kodak DSC 760 which it had all but replaced. Until the day before Thanksgiving 2012.

This is what a digital camera file looks like when it gets corrupted writing to a memory card. In the old days (around the time of the DCS SLR/n) this used to happen to many camera and card combinations and was random enough to drive photographers crazy.

Mired in my indecision about whether or not to throw more resources into the ongoing battle for good images (when I and my clients are already very satisfied with my current imaging production) I decided to revisit the Kodak and see whether full frame shooting is what's missing from my quiver of imaging arrows.  I didn't remember the camera being so big! It's rock solid and substantial. For those unfamiliar with the SLR/n it is a full frame camera with a 14 megapixel sensor. It was the first digital camera made with no option to use and anti-aliasing filter of the the sensor. Because of this exclusion it is much sharper than its 14 megapixels would imply, in the same way that the sensor in the Leica M9 is sharper than its 18 megapixels would lead one to believe.

The SLR/n was made to take Nikon lenses. Sadly, I've sold off all of mine save for a nifty fifty, some older, manual focus lenses and a macro lens. I made my way over to Precision Camera and went straight to the used cases. I was directly attracted to an ancient zoom lens, the 70 to 210 AF-D f4-5.6.  Even though the lens is an early D lens from the early 1990's it looked as though it just came out of a box, brand new. I paid $115 for it and headed back out into the world of potential iamges. I did a little research when I got back to the studio and discovered that I'd done well. The lens has a cult following and is widely reviewed as "wicked sharp." It is the first zoom lens I've seen in a long time with a push/pull zoom instead of having a ring to turn. Very cool. Very different.



So, yesterday I ventured out to better understand the lure of full frame and, more importantly, why I had originally abandoned the Kodak DCS SLR/n for cameras whose color, contrast and rendering I liked less. And these are the images I took.

I've come to understand that many of my images will never be used larger than the screen so I've been shooting and processing smaller. The Kodak camera has the ability to write RAW files as either fourteen, six or three megapixel files. I chose to shoot all of these as six megapixel files.

The camera is quirky. It likes to recalibrate itself when the temperature changes. It's finicky about memory cards and sometimes hesitates to write files until prodded. Sometimes it just stops and calls the cards, "defective!" But turning the camera off and turning it on generally makes the problem go away; at least temporarily.  The screen is a scant two inches and not very visible in any sort of strong, ambient light. But the buffer is fairly deep (offset by painfully slow processing and write times) and the meter is dead accurate nearly all the time. The RAW files are 12 bit instead of 14 bit. But none of that really matters.

The bottom line is that the files are more film like (in a good way) than any other digital camera I have used. And in my mind that's the ultimate plus.



The 70-210 Nikon was wonderful to use. Its small size and high sharpness makes me wonder why the majority of shooters punish themselves with the enormous, and enormously expensive, 2.8 zoom lenses.  Yes, I understand the need to shoot wide open in dark conditions but so much imaging is done on nice days, in bright sun. If you shoot Nikon and you like the idea of a 70-210mm that's bite sized and around $100-$150 you might want to search one of these out. It's pretty delicious.


I moved through Austin in the late afternoon unaided by niceties like image stabilization and sensor shaking dust defeaters and I was able to muddle through. In most images with blue sky I thought the images even trumped the famous Olympus blues. I'm confident that the camera is sharper (but not as detailed) than the Canon 5D mk2 that I used for a year. In short, it's competitive in the fields for which I use cameras. And then some.


Ultimately I could of course see the aesthetic advantage of the full frame in the way the image's fields of focus are rendered. That's a given. But in all other regards it's the more subtle aspects that make the Kodak different from what's in the market today.  And maybe those differences are what I like very much about it.



The camera seemed to sense that this day in downtown was a re-audition because it was so well behaved. I worked with only one battery for the entire afternoon though I had two in my pocket, just in case. The card mishaps were fleeting and the focus, exposure and other operations of the camera came back to me quickly. In fact, other than file size and few other parameters there are very few things to set. The selection menus are quite limited with the presumption that you'll do your heavy lifting in the raw conversions.  And make no mistake, because of the slow speed at which the camera writes Jpeg files, this is a raw-only device. The camera is relatively quiet and has a very effectively dampened shutter. I'm pulling some friends into the studio to see if the camera is as good as I remember it to be.  Here's a portrait sample from years ago:

This image was done with a tungsten light source and an older, one hundred and thirty-five millimeter, manual focus lens.

The convenience and modern touches of the Sony cameras I currently use will probably overwhelm the aesthetic preference I seem to have for the Kodak in my everyday work but the camera is most tempting for images that I want to look different from the mainstream. Essentially the Kodak has what I can only describe as an authentically American palette of tones and colors. And it's one I'm acculturated to like because of my years and years of shooting Kodak film. People raised in photography after the uprising of digital probably won't have the same prejudices about color and tonal presentation. I see it especially in portraits and images with various skin tones.


Now I really want to see how the camera works with LED lighting. Will its auto white balance live up to the challenge or will I toil away in RAW trying to make it all work? We'll know soon.


Are modern digital cameras better? The answer is "yes" if what is important to you in an "all terrain" device that's easy to use. Faster to focus, more adaptable to low light levels and so on. The answer is not so obvious if your parameters are less about operation and more about the actual look of the files. It's almost the same argument I would make in regards to shooting medium format film versus shooting state of the art (affordable) digital. While a Nikon D800 might resolve more details and give one a much wider technical dynamic range is there something missing from the recipe that makes it different and in some ways inferior to an image done on the best kinds of color negative films? I'd say yes. And I would argue that it's about non-linear characteristic curves, the unpredictable action of chemicals and silver particles and the random distribution of grain. I'd also say that it just looks different.

Most digital cameras now seem to be designed to measure well and be accurate as opposed to be pleasing or mellow or to have any flavor at all. I would say that one of the big advantages of the Olympus cameras is now and has been (since their first foray into digital) the almost romantic color palette and tonal rendering of the images. The engineers have found a tweak for the blue rendering that resonates with users. The highlights always seem to be more "protected" than other digital cameras. In the same way the Kodaks have always seemed much more film-like than anything else on the market. And why not? Kodak always understood that "pleasing" is easier to sell and more important to most end users than "accurate." It's just human nature.


Many (most) audiophiles will tell you that analog recordings and very high bit digital recordings always sound better than MP3 files. Everything works but everything works differently. I wish we had more choices in digital photography. The measurability of sensor output seems to be moving every company closer and closer to a monopoly color rendering in which all cameras have the same thumbprint. Yes, we can change the surface attributes in post processing but the underlying DNA has its own influence and momentum. Just my opinion. God knows I've owned enough different cameras to form one..


In the end all of the camera we use to do our work function pretty well. It's a luxury to dissect the nuances. 

Look at the aliasing in the bottom windows. Exacerbated by the smaller file size...


But the thing I come away with from all this is that the last eight years of technology in digital cameras has been aimed more at convenience and technical extension that in sheer, unalloyed pursuit of beautiful files. And that should be a comfort to those immune from being dashed on the rocks of materialism and peer pressure. You can do good work with a good camera = even if it was made 8 years ago. And some lenses from twenty years ago can still hold their own in the age of plastic craziness. Don't write off the old tech too quickly, everything is a trade-off.




What did I finally decide about the a99? Will I rush out and spend yet another $2700? Where will it stop?  What I found out was that of all my cameras the one that can make sharp and contrasty files with color I like, after the Kodak, is the Nex 7. I'm thinking I'll just slowly transition the bulk of my shooting gear in that direction and keep the a77's around for the telephoto heavy lifting. Makes sense. Find a camera you love and stay with it....



And, as the sun sunk over the hill country I walked back across the river and rejoined the studio car. I walked into the house as the last glow of twilight ebbed away.

If you are up for some holiday shopping please consider using the link to Amazon here on the VSL site. It helps keep me in coffee and by extension, in front of the word processor. If you like what you read here every little purchase helps. Or, you can save up and buy the novel. Coming soon.

Also, take a look at the LED book. I think it's a technology that's here to stay and I think the book is a great primer.  See the link below.  Thanks. 
 Kirk