Soft side of photography...

I normally don't photograph babies. I like babies just fine but the whole business side of dealing with moms and the mercurial rhythms of babies crying and fedding schedules seems too uncontrollable to me. But I'm an avid amateur photographer of cute babies who are attached to my friends.

Renae and her second daughter came to visit on Sunday this week and I thought they were both adorable. I'd worked with Renae back in the 1990's and we've tried our best to keep in touch. She was a brilliant business partner and a fun person to be around. She hasn't changed, she just has a new, super (baby) model in tow.

We were all sitting around the dining room, catching up, when Maisy stood up on her mom's lap and smiled and stared at me. I flailed around for a convenient camera and found a Sony a850 with a 50mm lens on the table, right next to the plate of deviled eggs and the bowl of hummus. I picked up the camera and started shooting.  I'm looking at the image now, as I type, and I understand the power in a photograph. The potential to catch so much happiness and store it for the future.

Good thing I always keep a few extra cameras on the dining room table...

Studio Portrait Lighting


The absolute worst branding: photographs that "look" professional.

How do I know when my work is in trouble? When it starts to look "very professional." When I look at headshots and all kinds of commercial and retail portraits out in the marketplace I see an endless reworking of older styles, not just from the ages of film but from the times when film was a tough medium to work in and it took real lighting and shooting skills to overcome limited dynamic ranges and a masterful touch to finesse tones and colors into an unforgiving print medium. Some of the lighting ratios that we use in the portraits weren't a reflection of us wanting a "flat" print as much as needing to compensate for the tendency of printing papers to block up shadow tones. And we've carried over these fixes and compromises as part of a codified visual style into recent and even current work. Well, not everyone has. If you work for yourself you are free to create whatever you want. And if you set the style then the details are yours to control and present. There are a number of conventions, the reasons for which I understand, that still drive me a little nuts because they are not honest reactions to the subjects in front of the camera but fulfillments of group think and cultural expectations set back in a different time and a different technical milleau.

A lot of the "rules" are protected by organizations that have outlived their aesthetic reasons to exist. While the PPofA might be a good place to discuss how much to charge for a wedding or how to maximize prints sales from a family portrait shoot, their influence on professional portrait photograph as regards aesthetics is corrosive and manipulates scores of people into preserving a status quo that may, at the same time, be killing the very businesses of the people who follow the intonations and teachings of that particular priesthood. I could cherry pick images off  the web to show you what I mean but that would be cruel. I'm referring to the same kinds of portraits that I've taken a thousand times. Parameters like the four light set up with a main light, a fill light, a hair light and a background light.  The overly perfect pose. The obsessive attention to grooming. The meticulous matching of colors. The perfect gradations--from safe highlights to detail larded shadows. The banal, textured canvas background or the solidly tired solid colored background. Just the right focal length. Just the right distances from the camera to the subject to the background. The ultra smooth skin retouching and sharp lips and eyes.  And always the cloying social correctness of the whole presentation with last century mat boards and thick backings. 

But in my own work, my personal work, I love to see inky shadows that drown detail, and highlights ready to bust out of their relegated area of the histogram. The light I love usually comes from one big source that seems to have a brain of its own and spills around the edges and sneakily pushes just enough juice onto the background to say "hello" in an entirely natural way. And when I say "natural" I mean:  That's a kind of light I see all the time in the real world. It's soft like that when I open my garage door and look back over my shoulder at the face of someone who is following me out into daylight...only they aren't out of the open shade yet. Soft yet directional. Defined but not surgical.

Tastes change and over the last ten years there's been a changing of the guard in the world of portraits. The old school stuff is just about dead and those of us who practiced it; either cynically, knowing it was no longer moving people's marketing or branding or self image forward---or in ignorance of a tidal change away from obvious visual constructions to much more natural and less codified styles-- will go down with the ship unless they take a good, hard look at what's in our portfolios and in our promotional materials and change quickly and sincerely. 

And therein lies the rub. If we knew better all along do we have the balls to be honest now and show stuff to sell now in that personal style which we really liked all along. Do we even get the new way of doing portraits? Are we doomed by our ages and the shackles of long experience to keep doing styles that no one really wants for a market of fellow traditionalist clients which is shrinking every day? I would go further and ask if our acceptance, as consumers, of photo dreck in our own lives means that we're giving a tacit approval to something that looks like it came from the Brady Bunch era. By that I mean to ask, do you buy the package of school prints your kid brings home even though you hate the style and your kid's one stab at expression is.....not up to snuff? You figure it's not that much money and you'll probably send the prints along to grandparents and great uncles who may, in fact, be the last truly appreciative market for those styles. Do you settle for good enough when you know that what you've bought is as dated as the Twinkies you found in that drawer in the tool box in your workshop?

I think the time is long overdue for anyone who wants to create portraits for money to make a hard examination of the kind of work they love to look at and make sure it matches the work they do for money. In fact, I think I'm calling for a wholesale re-imagining of the portrait as a sellable product and re-align it to be a sellable work of art. But to do that we'll have to stop aping the styles of the neighborhood studios from days gone past and start producing work that we really adore. Work that makes us excited. Work that you can hardly wait to post on your social networks.....just to show off what you've done. My personal work is quirky. At least I think it is.... But it's more honest than the main light / hair light / back light / rim light / fill light structure with added amounts of barbie-esque retouching that I sometimes default to out of fear or indecision or in the face of ambiguous direction from clients.

How can I break the bad habits I've amassed because I made the serial mistake of making my work safe over the last decade by making it indistinguishable from the hive mind? And why did I make it safe (homogenous) in the first place? Oh, I remember. The economy collapsed a few times and I wanted to embrace the safety of the herd. So I adapted the kind of looks that I saw in other people's work when I should have been an out-of-touch but stubborn artist instead.

I figured clients had been trained to accept flash photography as the lingua franca of our business so I started lighting with speedy lights even though I knew I liked the languorous effects of soft, continuous lights. I took the coward's way out and conformed to best practices which is code for "don't blame me, that's how everyone else does it..." I'm trying to get back to the garden, my garden, which means getting back to the way I lit people when I didn't care about jobs or purchase orders or what clients might think. 

To that end I've been dragging along an assortment of continuous lights with me on all of my assignments. I did ten portraits at a hospital this morning and all of them were done with large fluorescent banks as my lighting tools. Big banks covered with custom layers of diffusion cloth. I did a personal portrait yesterday (in black and white) and it was lit with a mix of daylight and the cool, soft light of my little open faced LED fixture. These are the ones I like and the ones that my family and friends say they like.

I think when we hit the digital age a lot of us got confused. There were teething problems with the early cameras, especially when it came to color rendering and profiling. We were also trying to get calibrated and it seemed like our job was to master all the technical shit. Stuff like making sure that what we saw on the back screens of cameras would match our monitors.  And then, since we were one foot in and one foot out of prints being deliverables we were locked into the battle of trying to figure out how to get good prints out of our labs or out of donkey like ink jet printers. We forgot that we needed to be in as much charge of a changing visual style as we were in charge of making sure our Epson printers didn't clog up the night before a big deadline. We technocratically mastered the process by overlaying the new instruction set over an older idea of what constituted "deliverables" while a new generation took all the tech stuff in stride, ignored it, flubbed it or (MOST IMPORTANTLY) made it into the bedrock of a new (deconstructed) style.

We ignore giant shifts of style at our own peril and sometimes in our paid work we are supporting something that (if we look at our personal work as our compass) we don't even believe in.

When I find myself grousing about the younger generation not "getting quality" when it comes to imaging I immediately stop myself and think of someone whose work I personally can't stand but who represents, in a way, everything I'm talking about. I think of Terry Richardson, the bicycle seat sniffing misogynist who made over $40 million in three years doing his snapshot style aesthetic for magazines, fashion designers and publishers. Small cameras, grainy, noisy files, a lot of direct flash, etc. But it's his style and he's become the mirror for a big swath of his generation because his work is NOT about perfection. It's about intimacy and risk and perilous connection.

Let's face it. When we all know how to achieve perfection in a craft the craft becomes boring and there's a period of time in which we sit, like a car in idle, and do this boring perfection craft until someone comes along and blows the whole thing up. Because if we all practice the same parameters of perfection the one person who zigs in the opposite direction and shows the market something new is nearly always the person who's chosen to do his own style in a vacuum made by our own resistance to change. Or our abdication of our personal style for something we imagined might be easier to sell....

I'm not recommending any course of action and this isn't a manifesto for anyone to follow. But I've been coming to grips with the fact that visually everything I did before I learned to be "perfect" is much better (emotionally, visually, connected-wise) than anything I've done since I made enough money to buy my way into the best practices of equipment and since I've had access to the internet to learn all the details I didn't even know I needed to know but which everyone now knows equally. My first year of shooting was my favorite year. And the next ten were great. But when I started to analyze and manipulate the work for an audience which I assumed wanted something with a common inflection and finish I unintentionally killed the very things I liked about the work and I've regretted it ever since.

So what am I doing? I'm making the act of shooting portraits less of a big deal technically and more of an exploration of what I like in a person. What I find interesting. Or what I hate in that person. But I'm not dishonoring them with template lighting. I'm not doing the equivalent of putting marks on the floor to follow for the lighting. I don't care how good the camera is, or how Annie Leibovitz lit something, or which light Chase Jarvis used on his Ninja Bankers Skiing shots.  I want to go back and connect with people like I used to. I want to worship the beauty of the fascinating women in front of my camera and I want to look at the men in front of my camera with the same interest and curiosity with which I approach my closest friends. I want to find things that are peculiar and interesting about the people in front of my camera and not hobble their representation by cloaking them in an unguent blanket of syrupy visual goo that makes everyone more of a metaphor for their image than an interesting and unique artifact of our mutual collaboration.

Way too verbose. I guess I just wanted to say I'm tired of photos that look like all the other photos. I liked the way mine looked thirty years ago. I want to go back to a naiveté that subverted mechanical details in the service of falling in love with the people in the frames. I want to celebrate the look and the energy, not my ability to solve problems.

In the old days when someone said, "Your work looks so professional." what they meant was that you had done a good job mastering all the hard technical stuff so that your subject could shine through. What people mean now when they say, "Your work looks so professional." is that your work is done in a style that matches the vast center of the Bell Curve of working imagers and meets all the basic technical criteria in the space. But the subtext is that your work is contrived, stilted, robbed of authenticity and uniform to a fault. Interesting when you find yourself on the wrong side of the divide and you always imagined yourself as a risk taker and a forward thinker. 

The day that you wake up hating the work you do for a living is the day you need to quit or start over in a more genuine way. There really is no middle ground for artists.


Having fun with little cameras. Making an image of my swimmer friend, Amy.

So.... a little while ago the folks at Samsung sent me a cool little camera and asked me to shoot with it over the Summer and I said, "yes, I'd love to." And at first I was apprehensive because it didn't have a viewfinder and I fear change. But pretty soon I discovered a few things. One is that I really like the NX300 and I really like its menus and the way it handles. Another thing is that adding a Hoodman Loupe to the back screen when I'm shooting in bright light is no big deal. And it works well for composition and color evaluation.

Well, there are a group of us evaluating the camera and sharing images on our blogs and in social networks and the 28 or us got invited to participate in a tiny, little contest. It was a perfect excuse to go out and self assign. The general idea was to photograph something you see everyday in a new and unique way. I mulled it over and thought I'd pass on the contest thing until I went to swim practice this morning and ran into my fierce and amazingly competitive friend, Amy. I decided, on the spur of the moment that I wanted my entry to be a photograph of Amy.

I see her at the pool almost every day, and most days we share a lane along with a rotating roster of other early morning swimmers. We get to the pool at 7:00 am and we're usually out by 8:30 am and the sun in central Texas is generally hidden behind clouds that get burned off later. So I see her in the flat light of early morning, mostly in the water with our heads down, our hearts pounding and our lungs burning. If she's feeling fast all I see of Amy most mornings is the splash of her kick as she pulls away and prepares to lap me. If I'm feeling fast I see Amy on my toes when I'm flip turning and we see each other briefly at the wall as she tells me (forcefully) to stop playing around and go NOW.

I thought it would be different and cool to make an image of Amy that was totally different for me so I asked her to meet me at the pool in the late afternoon when the lanes are nearly empty, the light is lush and luminous and the heat has ramped up and burned away the diffusing cloud cover.

I asked her to jump in the water and look as mean as she seems during workout. I laid on two kick boards on the deck and pointed my NX 300 at her  with the 18-55mm kit lens on the front. I added a polarizing filter to deepen the rich blue of the water and to remove whatever reflections I might not like.  I set the camera to manual exposure and then, laying on my belly, I directed my subject into place and started shooting. The screen on the back, when used with the Hoodman Loupe was perfect. I could see exactly what I was getting and access all the menu items I needed as well.

I shot a bunch of different images. I didn't use any fill cards or flashes. I set the Picture Wizard to "vivid" and the file setting to super fine Jpeg and knew what I'd add in post processing. I opened the files in Aperture and did general corrections and then I opened the keepers in Snapseed and added fun amounts of post processing, leaning on the structure filters and the "dramatic" filters. I wanted the image to look different from the whole film aesthetic. I had a hard time choosing which image I really wanted to use but in the end this one seemed very three dimensional to me.

We celebrated the shoot with pistachio cannoli and sparkling wine at Whole Food Market at Sixth and Lamar. I hope I win because the prize is a new lens. And all my friends know just how much I need a new lens........ but really, it's the competition and the self-assignment that's so much fun.

I'm also happy to know that I have good friends who are willing to jump in and help me out on short notice. It makes the art better.

And the combination of the Samsung NX300 and the big Loupe make shooting in full sun easy.  


What a nice day...

My day feels like this looks. Cool, sweet, refreshing and laid back. No complaints. I think I'll take a camera out for a walk and see how the day looks from a different point of view.

The Sony Rumors are starting to fly...Mirrorless comes to big cameras.

A quick snap of Victoria on set. Taken with the Samsung NX300 and the kit lens at ISO 1000 or higher. 

I've been reading stuff around the web and it seems like the rumor mill is firing up about the upcoming Sony replacements to their SLT product line. Cameras like the a77, a99, a58 and a57 all use stationary mirrors to split the light coming through the lens to both the image sensor and up into the finder to goad a phase detection AF module to leap into action and provide quick continuous AF. It's a system that works well, for the most part, but it's not technically elegant.  There is a 33% light loss which seems to limit sensor performance in the all important DXO sensor tests. And there is always the possibility of dirt on the mirror.

The basic technology to make these cameras truly mirror less, ala the Olympus Pens and the Panasonic line already exists in Sony's very good NEX line and in a number of their VG series camcorders. The bug in the sunscreen has always been that mirrorless cameras tend to slow down and get stupid when called on to focus continuously moving action. I won't go into the technical reasons that make phase detection AF faster (but less accurate) and contrast detection AF more accurate (but not nearly as fast) but regular practice with both kinds of cameras informs me that this is so.

If Sony (and Canon in their 70D, and Nikon in their V2) can produce good, solid phase detection AF points on their new lines of sensors then I'm pretty confident they'll match what we've come to expect from moving mirror cameras but with the additional speed benefit of not having mechanical moving parts to limit the imaging throughput. The rumors are that Sony will be converting their whole line to this new technology and I'm pretty sure they wouldn't take the chance if they hadn't proven the tech.

The one bugaboo that seems to stand in the way for the generation of unyieldingly recalcitrant photographers from the film era is the idea  of the optical viewfinder's necessity in the whole imaging chain. There is an emotional attachment to the glass periscope that, to me, defies logic. The idea is that you are seeing reality through the finder with an optical viewfinder and, the higher the quality and size of the viewfinder the higher and better the quality of reality. Of course most people don't make the thoughtful leap to the realization that their imaging reality isn't accurate unless they stop down to view the image at the taking aperture and that any mismatch between color temperatures isn't factored in, nor are the effects of in camera filters, settings or even movement.

The EVF (electronic viewfinder) view is a much more convincing simulacrum of the final photographic  artifact than the OVF could ever be and yet the argument goes on. If you've read the VSL blog for any amount of time you know what my passionately dispassionate opinion is: By the end of 2015 we'll ALL be buying cameras with EVFs, they will be better for most (if not all) applications and they will become so good that they'll be a fully transparent replacement for the older technology.

At any rate the rumor over on http://www.sonyalpharumors.com/sr3-specs-of-the-new-a79-prototype-camera/ point to an a79 with over 30 megapixels on the sensor, 480 focusing points on that sensor with full on PD AF, a 4 million pixel viewfinder, 8-14 fps, and no mirror anywhere in sight. I'm onboard with all of that. The two Sony a77's I owned were great production cameras and great studio cameras. If the newest chip tech is as amazing as the last generation of Sony sensors was the camera, sans mirror, should be remarkable. Whether the line does well against Nikon and Canon hinges on two things: Will they do the right marketing to get over the psychological hurdle of irrational finder love? and, secondly, will they put out enough and the right sort of lens choices for photographers? I think they will.

The NEX line continues unabated and the rumors there point to an introduction of a 50-150 or 180mm constant aperature, f2.8 zoom for those cameras coming in the fall. Now, if they'll give us a 16-50mm f2.8 for the NEX line as well I think we'll have a fully functional second system up and running.

What do I think of all this? As a guy transitioning from a still intensive content creation business to a mixed or hybrid still-and-motion business I welcome every tool that can cross over and do both jobs well. I played with a Panasonic GH3 yesterday. My friend showed me some beautiful video footage he'd just shot from the camera and I was amazed at the quality. Then I started looking through the video menus and that was cool. Amazing throughput. Good controls. Real time code. And a really great EVF. I was ready to switch systems again but I think I'll wait and see what Sony has up their sleeve before I go through all that mess again.

An interesting time to be in the creative content field. We are definitely going through another transition and we're leaving a lot of old and established paradigms in the wake. I'll miss the idea  of traditional camera designs but I'm certainly embracing the quantum leap forward in imaging potential of all kinds with the newest tech. Are you ready for 4K everything?  That's up next. I'm waiting for Apple to revolutionize the viewing space (once again....). 

And here's my interpretation of the image in black and white. I must admit that, out of habit, I prefer the black and white rendition. I know, it's nostalgia...


A new portrait. An old technique. A fresh model.

This is Victoria. We worked together on the project in Denver.  I lit her with a six foot by six foot diffusion panel and a 600 Watt Arri spot light. There's a little glow on the background from a Fiilex P360 LED light (balanced to match the main light.  The small, second catch light in her eyes is from a Kino-Flo fixture we were using to light our video.

The camera was a Sony a99 and the lens was the 85mm 1.5 Rokinon, cine version. This is one of the last many portraits done over two days.  I like everything about it so I wanted to share it with you, my VSL readers.

What I learned on the job yesterday.

I've been talking about the growing likelihood that traditional photography and video would collide and change the nature of the creative content market profoundly and permanently for photographers and, for me, it seems to be happening this year. I worked on a project yesterday and when we started talking about the parameters and fleshing out the brief with the client a few weeks ago the project was centered around the idea that we'd be shooting lots of stills for a rotating banner on their website. They tentatively asked about video and we said that we could do interviews and additional content called, "b-roll" that we could use to edit into the interviews to make them more dramatic. Over time the project changed from one that was still image intensive to one that is more video intensive.

Instead of spending most of the day looking for great still shots the time ended up being almost evenly divided between shooting stills and setting up and shooting video interviews and b-roll.

On the day of the shoot I made sure we packed a case with sound equipment which included a little Beachtek mixer that also matches the impedance of balanced, XLR connected microphones to the input impedance of my a99 camera. The little box is passive, meaning no battery power, but it does a good job managing the interconnection of professional, powered condenser microphones to what is basically a consumer level interface on the camera.

I debated a bit about which microphone to use to record my interviewees. A nice lavalier solves a lot of problems but, in the end, I didn't want any mike showing in the scene so I opted for a shotgun microphone at the end of a pole and used a Rode NTG-2 as my first choice. (Please don't write and tell me to take the microphone off the camera. As I said, we used it on a pole. The image above is just a quick way to show the "moving parts.") I packed extra cables and batteries as well as several back up microphones, just in case. The sound we got was good and detailed and Ben got it in nice and close which minimized the usual, office background noise. 

We were shooting broad spaces for the photography so lighting was very secondary in that regard but it was critical for the video. That being the case we knew we'd rely on continuous lighting so we brought two choices. We packed two large, florescent panels along with some nice diffusion cloths and we brought along four of the Fotodiox AS 312 LED panels with adjustable color temperatures. Ben and I used the LEDs, handheld, to pop a little light across glass or into dark spaces while we shot. We used the two, big, four tube per fixture florescent panels for our video set ups. They actually kicked out enough soft light so we could shoot with the (highly tinted) windows behind our subjects and show downtown in the background.  I thought we needed to travel light so I took intermediate sized light stands. They aren't really stable enough when the florescent panels need to go high. Next time I'll pack heavy duty stands for the fluorescent lights. We didn't have any issues but it sure made me nervous to see the lights sway a little bit next to floor to ceiling window, sixteen stories up.... This falls under: Sturdy stands trump lightweight travel. 

We packed one fluid head tripod and one tripod with a three way pan head. In retrospect, since everything we shot may end up as a 16:9 banner on a website and everything will be emphatically horizontal, we should have packed two fluid head tripods so that both of us could shoot various video footage separately. Even in the locked down shots of interior architecture (and there were many) we could have shot our stills and then unlocked the pan control and done a slow, controlled pan to use as a cutaway in our video editing. 

I don't shoot a lot of architecture anymore but at one time in my career I used a couple of Linhof TechniKarden 4x5 view cameras and a couple of wide lenses (75mm and 90mm) and shot tons and tons of interiors and exteriors for a magazine called, Early American Life. For a span of ten years or so I shot a lot of transparencies for them. If we needed to see a window in the scene and we wanted detail outside (we always did) we had to raise the ambient light level in the interior with strobes to balance. We'd always let the light go one stop hotter outside than inside. You could do that back then because film didn't just default to 255 and go white. It gracefully gave in to over exposure....

On this job I shot about fifteen shots that featured floor to ceiling windows with views of downtown Austin. Our working method now is to shoot a perfect frame for the exterior followed by a perfectly exposed frame for the interior and then we stack them in photoshop and paint in the window detail. I like working in layers this way because it makes it easier to control apparent depth of field by being able to blur the outdoor layer to tone down distance details and return emphasis onto the interior space. So far, in post production, this method is quick, easy and kind of fun. 

I learned to use my grid lines and the bubble level on my fluid head. If you have to pick one it's good to be consistent and depend on just one reference so that all your post production corrections are done with one angle change or one lens correction parameter. If you go back and forth between checking the internal levels and checking the tripod level one or the other will be off and you'll be zigging and zagging all over PhotoShop to correct them.

If you are transitioning to offering video it's cool to shoot ten seconds of video once you've got your still shot. The frames come in handy when you are editing and you know people are tired of seeing a talking head on camera. Intercutting related images breaks up the visual boredom. We roll ten seconds of video at the end of every still set up. Just to have it in the can. 

I did a stupid thing on Tues. (the day of the shoot).  I wore a white shirt. It was a really nice white shirt with collar stays and it was well tailored but....it was white and as I mentioned we spent a lot of time shooting into floor to ceiling windows...which reflect a lot of bright stuff from the interior space. Bright things like white shirts. I hate cloning out my shiny, shimmering white torso...Save yourself some time and wear you BLACK shirt when you shoot in shiny spaces. You'll have a lot less to mess with in post.

I learned that no matter how organized you are that by the end of the day you'll get tired and forget something. For video I keep a check list next to the camera and I've become manic about making sure the little red light on the camera is flashing to indicate that the camera is recording. It's hard to always remember when you stopped and when you started and it's embarrassing to get a really good take and then reach over to turn off the movie mode on the camera only to discover that you never pushed to start. 

We were organized but we forgot one thing. There's a great client logo/sign as you step off the elevator into their lobby. The client and I talked about the sign and Ben and I talked about the sign and we walked past it at least ten times on the shooting day. But we never shot it. After I do the post on about 120 shots I'm heading back downtown to shoot the darn lobby sign. Can't believe I didn't spend five minutes doing it on Tues. and now will spend more travel time and what not to grab the shot after the fact....In the future we'll write up and official shot list and check off stuff as we go. I've done so many shoots in my career they all blend together and it's hard to remember what  you did and didn't get. A list is helpful.

Finally, I learned that I still love the problem solving, people directing and general sense of discovery that comes with every shoot we do these days. I learned about a new industry. I had fun solving the interior/exterior set ups. I enjoyed directing people in their interviews and I had a blast having lunch at a downtown coffee shop with the kid.  Photography is still a wonderful and engaging career. And work keeps coming in. I'm loving it.

Bottom line? When you keep learning you stay engaged and attracted to projects. When you think you know it all you should stop and change careers. 



I worked with a perfect assistant today.

Imagine a photo assistant who is calm, collected and quiet. Imagine he knows your camera menus as well as you do, in fact uses the same cameras you do for his own projects. Now imagine that your assistant has taken several years of cinematography classes, done sixty or seventy video projects and won cash awards for his Public Service Announcement video projects. Imagine an assistant that can do better audio and better microphone booming than anyone else you've met. Imagine you could hand him an extra camera and tripod and trust him to cruise around on three floors of a class "A" office building in downtown Austin, autonomously shooting great "B-roll" for the project and that he remembers all the responses from the video interviews you are currently shooting and can translate them into visual opportunities without having to be told or prompted.

Then imagine that he showed up early, wore just the right shirt, pants and shoes for the client at hand and he was polite, engaging and endearing to the clients (and to the photographer). Then imagine he does all this just four days after having all of his wisdom teeth extracted. You might call him a "miracle assistant". Around the house we call him "Ben."

I worked with the guy for a full day today. We were shooting stills and videos for a new client and I wanted everything to go smoothly. Really smoothly. So I took Ben. Later he told me, "You didn't really need an assistant you just wanted someone there to assure you that you were doing the video correctly.  And you were." I don't agree with his assessment but so what?

It's fun when you realize that your kid is much better than you are at stuff. Not everything, but a lot of the stuff that really matters. Everything he suggested was right on the money.  And the beautiful thing is that he only suggested if I asked. That's a great assistant.


Why architects put reflective glass in the windows of big buildings...

Self portrait.

I thought we'd get right down to best practices and stunning technique in this particular post. As you may know I've been auditioning the Samsung NX300 at the request of their U.S. public relations agency and while this is certainly not intended as a review or even mini-review of the camera itself I will say that the jpegs files I get from the camera are exemplary. Sharpest in their class and also very good (though understated) in contrast and overall tonality. When I add contrast in post the files smile, and when I add a little saturation to the same files I smile even more.

But what I'd like to call attention to today is my stance and the way I am holding the camera. I have tried ATMTX's suggestion to "Use the Force.." and just stick my arms out in front of me with the camera at the end of a long set of shaky levers but it's really a non-starting solution; an attempt to make a bad ergonomic situation just a little better. I'm talking about the fact that the camera has no EVF nor any potential to add an EVF and one finds oneself falling back on what we call, "The Stinky Baby Diaper Hold" and all of the missteps that entails....from a physics point of view. Why the arm extension? Chalk that up to being over 40 and needing the almost universal reading glasses...

Classic "stinky baby diaper hold" but without the little hipster hat...

But I am using the camera with, for me, great success. I basically take along my Hoodman Loupe and press it against the back of the camera in order to compose. The loupe blocks out extraneous light which means that I can really evaluate an image or preview under bright sun, in the field. And more importantly it allows me to press the whole package to my face with my arms in a much more physiologically stable posture which presumably gives me more consistent and controlled compositions with much less camera movement.

Here's how I do it....

Unless you have the eyes of a fifteen year old and have never known the sybaritic pleasures of well made coffee there is no way that the SBDH can hold a candle (or much of anything else) to the correct hold on your camera.

But if you must do the stinky baby diaper hold, or the radioactive cellphone offset hold, you might want to complete the ruse by adding another prop/accessory, the SBDH utility gloves. Available in most sizes and ready to hold steady any non-EVF imaging toy or tool. Or use in the changing of stinky diapers.  (See below).

Seriously, I like the NX300. I really do. But why Samsung chose to go with a camera that doesn't have the option of an Electronic Viewfinder mystifies me.  Thank goodness for the Hoodman Loupe. I guess since the camera is mine I could super glue the loupe to the back but that would defeat the whole idea of the touch screen. Another first world concern...

Don't get too used to all those new "convenience" features in our new cameras....

See what happens when you get used to using the in-camera level indicators and then you accidentally push the display button and they vanish at the wrong moment? Tragic. I was trying to get everything lined up on the screen and they were gone....the little lines in the center that turn green when you've got your camera held level. And it couldn't have come at a worse time. It was mid-composition. Now I live in terror. What if the auto-composition controls go on strike? Will everything I shoot seem subtly out of whack? Better to not become addicted in the first place but now I sound like one of those guys who wanted to smash the machines. I guess there has to be some balance somewhere...

Speaking of weird stuff. My Samsung NX300 and my Sony NEX 6 both have some sort of built in wi-fi and I finally figured it all out. So, you have to be near your phone and you have to download an app and you have to configure your camera to send the app to your phone which you can then use to relay your image into the interwebs with fumbling alacrity. It takes ten or fifteen seconds, over the most nimble connection, to transfer a 20 megapixel file so it's not exactly a speedy proposition for a guy who likes to hold down the magic shutter button....

Strangely, it does work. But equally strange to me is the idea that anyone would want to do that unless this is your idea of the new paradigm of breaking new photography. For art? I think we can all wait until we get home, snuggle up with our laptops and a nice glass of wine and push all the big boy buttons. But that's just my opinion. I am sure that in just days I'll be back telling you that immediacy is the new black, and that I could no more live without camera wi-fi than I can now live without in camera levels or in camera auto composition. Stay tuned. Literally.

Real Street Photography. Right?

 I decided that my street photography had gotten boring. It had turned into a habit. I decided that a really committed street photographer should embrace the whole idea of the "street" and not the safety of the sidewalk. To that end I've started randomly walking out into traffic, turning to face the oncoming cars and then shooting with reckless abandon. The image above was taken Saturday afternoon. It had just rained which gave me some nice street reflections to work with. It also made the roads slicker and made the whole adventure much more riveting for me and the drivers.

After a number of near misses a peace officer dropped by to counsel me on my artistic undertaking and to suggest that the middle of a four way intersection on a busy street might pose overwhelming challenges to my project. I pulled out my double spaced, multiple page artist's statement  (AKA: The Street Shooter's Manifesto) and after he read, with interest, every single word he just shook his head and drove off.

I will say that, at times, the abject fear of death wreaks havoc on my usually nimble photographic skills... There was one candy apple red Mustang that was heading straight for me and I noticed that the driver was looking absently at a text instead of me. The car was heading toward me at forty miles per hour and it's a good thing I zone focused because I'm not sure the contrast detection autofocus is that good at objects coming straight for the camera. Fortunately it must have been a very short text because the driver looked up and then locked up the brakes. Unfortunately the buffer on my camera was full and I couldn't capture the passenger side of the car as it whipped around me into an adjacent lane, nudging, just barely, a cute little powder blue Prius.

Part of the subtle texture of this sort of in your face street photography is the colorful language the drivers hurl my way. It makes the whole process of doing this kind of art seem very, very interactive. I've been recording clips on a digital audio recorder but carrying the extra gear, and having to minister to it, reduces my agility and ability to gain the sidewalk in those many moments (especially during rush hour) when people are either oblivious to obstacles on the road or not at all into the whole idea of kinetic and challenging art forms.

I am hoping this new kind of street photography catches on. Especially with iPhone-o-graphers. It's so immediate and the risk makes it so much hipper than just trawling for static images of slow moving life.  You'll never feel the same sort of rush if you're just documenting your lunch...  The thing I think is most fun, if you have a driver's license, is that one can plumb both sides of the process: from workflow to traffic flow. Whichever side of the wheel you find yourself the newest idea in street photography may mean that soon we are ALL part of the art process.

I'm thinking of specializing in a certain esoteric form of this new street photography. There's a little known niche that deals with just left turn lanes. Might need a different selection of cameras to really master that one.

( Don't try this at home! Because most homes don't have streets running through them.)

#NX300 This was inspired by my tests with the Samsung NX300. With only an LCD finder you really have to work hard on street-o-graphy, especially in bright sun.


Some Kirk Tuck, Visual Science Lab News.

first up: The Visual Science Lab has just published its 1600th blog post.
That's one thousand, six hundred. That's a lot of words and pictures.
We hope that you've enjoyed it.
Please stick around.

Second up: Those who know me personally know that I'm an overly 
protective and involved father. So, I just wanted to share that 
Ben has survived having all four of his wisdom teeth removed 
and is doing well but tiring of a diet of smoothies, yogurt, 
ice cream and mashed potatoes. 
I am thrilled he's doing well.

Third up: I am anxious to share what I've been up to with my trip to 
Denver, CO. and am waiting to discuss with my corporate 
partners just how to handle any announcements. I'll be 
conferencing on Thurs. and hope to announce some 
fun news, in depth, on Friday.

Fourth up: I hope you saw my announcement that another image of ours
has been published by the New York Times. This is our fifth image for 
Zach to grace their pages (or website) and we're proud to have 
been part of Zach's national stature. We've been the 
production photography resource for the Theatre for
nearly 20 years and have seen so much growth.
It's one of Austin's unsung resources.

Finally: While I am writing reviews of the Olympus EP-5 and 
also covering the Samsung NX 300 I wanted to remind everyone 
that the cameras are always secondary to the thrill of just being  
in the mix of life and taking wonderful images.
If it's daytime outside your window and you happen to 
have a browser window open to Amazon or B&H
you might consider just putting that computer to sleep and 
heading outside with whatever camera you have at 
hand and having yourself an adventure.

My solution is always to find a beautiful friend and make some 
pictures. You'll end up liking the experience better 
than shopping.....

 One last announcement for today: In order to increase traffic to the blog I am changing my name to Kirk "Kardashian" Tuck and subtly insinuating/flat out stating that I'm in a relationship with Madonna but may be cheating on her with Beyoncé Knowles. Also, I am switching camera systems to Holga.

Nighty night.

Kirk Tuck image for Zachary Theatre runs on today's New York Time U.S. Section!


I like it when my work for the Theatre is well used. Texas Monthly sent one of my images along to the NewYork Times. Which I think is very cool. It ran at the top of the U.S. Section. The image just above is another version... 

I keep hearing about the demise of our industry. What's the deal?

Victoria chides me for adding devil horns to her image on the Cintiq. 
I can't help it if I have maturity deficiency disorder.

When I started working as a photographer most of the things that made all of us successful had to do with mastering certain techniques. If you worked in a smaller market in the 1980's you needed to be able to provide your commercial clients with transparencies shot on 4x5 inch sheet film. Which meant that you had to know how to use rises and falls and tilts and swings. While it sounds like no big deal you also had to be able to load sheet film into holders, meter very accurately and also manage larger Polaroids. In order to make ISO 64 sheet film work well for you at f16-22 you had to know how to light because you couldn't just hit the menu and get more sensitivity out of your film. That meant a typical commercial photographer needed to own and maintain about 4,000 watt seconds (minimum) of electronic flash equipment and all kinds of modifiers.

 You had to know how to shoot black and white sheet film, load it and unload it, process it, contact print it in your own darkroom (a famous era for rush projects) and you had to know how to make beautiful black and white prints from your negatives as well. It pretty much goes without saying that the 4x5 was the standard format requested by clients for product shots. And the clients were happy when the shots were well lit and in focus. But you also had to have a medium format system for shooting advertising photographs in the studio and on location and, if you also covered events and public relations you had to have a complete 35mm SLR system with lots of backup stuff. (Cameras actually broke back then...).

Shooting 35mm with finicky films was especially trying because you couldn't really preview with Polaroid (and there were no LCD  screens on the backs) so you had to be able to read a meter and nail an exposure in just about every condition. Including those conditions in which you supplemented the existing light with flash. In those years the meter was a mandatory part of the kit. It had to be.

Many photographers could stay busy just supplying these basics because there was a steep learning curve and often no time opportunity to do a re-shoot. Clients paid for technical expertise and reliability. The better people in the fields also added good tasted and a point of view. But I'd guess that the vast majority just covered the basics and delivered well exposed and well focused shots and clients generally were happy.

In the consumer/retail market customers went to portrait studios and wedding photographers for much the same reasons. A wedding shooter had to have their technique down cold and practiced. Most used color negative films so there was some wiggle room to save a file in a custom darkroom with an experienced printer, but for the most part the portrait guy needed to sell a well lit, reasonably sharp image with the subject projecting a pleasant expression and an overall good look. The good ones knew how to light to make faces look their best. In that day and age there were accepted styles of portrait lighting which mostly revolved around the ideas of short light and broad light, high key and low key light. There was a lot of talk about lighting ratios....not as an aesthetic consideration as much as a nod to the limited contrast range of the photographic paper upon which they would be printed.

The reality of the portrait business is that people didn't innovate year by year. There were codified styles that photographers worked to emulate, the idea being that there were certain "optimum" lighting styles and posing configurations that were tried and true and could scarcely be improved on. That allowed portrait photographers to essentially abdicate responsibility for aesthetic innovation and still work to be the best technicians they could be. All the way to the retouching.

Things were good in the 1980's and 1990's for working pros. Many of my friends in the commercial side of the business routinely billed $200,000 or more out of one person businesses, supplemented by freelance assistants, producers and stylists (whose fees could also be marked up for additional profit. But, essentially, what we were selling, even if we wouldn't admit it and still won't admit it, was a good level of technical expertise and an understanding of the aesthetic underpinnings of our industry.  We emulated a lot of good lighting and good ideas from a small percentage of photographers who pushed the envelopes in New York, LA, Paris and Milan. Burrow down to the core and most of us were technicians who also dabbled in the creative side of the art form. Really. We learned the basics of composition and incorporated ideas that were popular at the time. But it was our grasp of the fine points in the owner's manuals that drove the bus.

The massive shift to digital would not have made much of a difference to the industry if it was still hard to get a great image. But the reality is that most of the work done in the last 10 years by cameras makers and software companies has been aimed at simplifying technical processes and automating technical tasks that used to require a step by step knowledge. It's also been aimed a allowing a mindless replication of some styles with software driven solutions.

When the technical gobbledygook no longer mattered and the LCD's on the backs of cameras and phones provided instant feedback, fast learning through quick iteration became the trend of the day. And why not? The educated public at large is open and exposed to the same samples, examples and visual resources as the previous "elite" visual cadre was. We look at the same TV shows, study the same movies and read the same magazines. The technicians had NO lock on the visual language of our culture except in the times when an intermediate (and complex) device was required to create an artifact.

It's widely acknowledged that the old school part of photography as a commercial industry and product generator is quickly dying off. Much to the chagrin of one dimensional suppliers whose only trick was that basic skill set of technical fulfillment. In many instances, especially in the wedding and portrait markets, the vast majority of previously paying customers zigged while the practitioners zagged. People liked the more casual and unconstructed images they were seeing all over the media of popular cultural, and anti-technical photographers with edgy points of view, such as Terry Richardson (now a millionaire many times over from his point and shoot camera ethos) have driven a wave of imaging that is valued for it's authenticity and in-your-face point of view much more so than because of any technical consideration. But the same was true in the art history of photography when Robert Frank's The Americans and Robert Klein's iconic books, New York, Tokyo, and Rome hit the bookstores in the both the 1950's and 1960's. In their time they were a clarion call to cast off the status quo of commercially inflected imaging and to embrace the immediacy of a new media....the small camera. The hand camera. With its grain, noise and fluid mobility that promised unconstructed glimpses of some reality.

While the kinetic intensity and imagery of Frank and Klein was unencumbered by too much precious technique it didn't effect the vast majority of practitioners because the technical constraints of the new photography didn't change much, only the aesthetic foundations shifted. It's also important to note that, in a society whose cultural news came to them predominantly filtered through weekly lifestyle magazines and monthly photography magazines (with long lead times) it would have been impossible for the culture at large in that time frame to absorb, mull over and integrate the changes from the avant garde whereas in our current milieu our absorption rate is over night, the adaptation rate is measured in cycles of days and an avant garde technique becomes: mainstream, practiced, shared, disseminated and ultimately discarded by avid hobbyists, enthusiasts and culturati as fast as the web can spread the word. Or instantaneously....whichever is faster.  

Finally, the first two waves of photographers to realize the eminent collapse of their industry have created a secondary teaching industry that effectively marks an end to the tenure of photographers based on technical skills. There are literally millions and millions of videos and sharing sites dedicated to deciphering the nuance of skill based shooting. You can learn just about anything you want on the web, the only difference between paid and unpaid resources being the value of curating, bundling and aggregating of the information and, to some extent, vetting the information.

How can one dimensional visual handymen survive? The mantra three to five years ago was the we should all up our game and create better or more complicated to duplicate work. But really, the commercial field is client driven and they only care about fulfilling their marketing needs which, out of messaging necessity, need to be part of a homogenized and referenced popular cultural idiom. Too much of too good falls outside what the audience expects and is used to and, in fact, diminishes the ad messaging by making the audience think too much about ideas outside the selling proposition. Why are the shadows so dark? Why are the colors all funky? How did they distort the frame?

So, in fact, the traditional markets are only looking for work that hews to the sweet spot of the Bell Curve of execution and taste because that's where research implies it will have the most power.

For now the people that are hanging on are finding ways to deliver images that the rubes still can't, en masse. Complex lighting takes more advanced skills and creating a rapport with other humans in front of your camera takes people skills. Advanced compositing and post processing skills also count. But these are speed bumps along the road to ultimately completely democratizing the business into irrelevance.

In the end it will all come down to luck (being in the right place at the right time), a stylistic point of view that's an uncopy-able amalgam of tech and taste (some fashion work and some high end portrait work) or work that creates a new category (the intersection of video and still imagery) or the re-invention of older photographic analogies (the substitution of massive megapixel cameras as a metaphoric representation of work from 8x10 view cameras with the infinite detail and silkiness of tones). 

We, the rank and file of professional photography, are like the family dog. We think of professional photography like our territory. We see our local markets like a dog sees his family's yard. We are on guard for intrusions and bark and posture when we see people eyeing our St. Augustine grass. We bark loud and even chase the cars of progress with our snapping and snarling. But the progression in many parts of the field are inevitable. 

I've seen the writing on the wall since the introduction of the iPhone and now the melding of phone and camera as represented by the Samsung NX Galaxy running on Android. We're all image creators now and even if 1% of us are by some degree exceptionally good ( which I doubt----we've just had more times at bat) that means there are still hundreds of millions of us competing for mindshare with editors and advertisers around the world. How many thousands of portfolios a week can an art buyer see before they shut down and just grab the most convenient resource from an infinite stack of infinitely similar work?

I'm as guilty as the next guy when it comes to girding myself against change but it's here and it's now and it's not going to roll back when the economy completes its recovery. Everything is mutating. My goal is to find the apex of the new paradigm that fits my temperament and skill sets and make that the new locus of my commercial work. That probably means more hybrid work. Still portraits that flow gracefully and naturally into video interviews. Narrative products that combine words, stills and motion. And it certainly means teaching more and more. We old schoolers are bad teachers when it comes to style and aesthetics because we have a set point which mentally restricts what we consider "appropriate" looks and styles. It's almost hard wired. It's tied rigidly to our successes in the past. But we're good teachers when it comes to understanding the fine points of technique and the interface between image maker and real people. And that's what we should be teaching and leveraging.

I am not opposed to teaching as a side profession for image makers. Until the industry gets its new sea legs it's a good way to supplement income in uncertain times. But I'm also convinced that art teachers and photographers who run workshops do their students a disservice when they try to teach style and substance in addition to good technique. So many students come to parrot the work of their instructors and become hampered by visions limited by long practice.  Instead we should be saying: "Here's how to shoot, but don't shoot like me...."

The market will sort itself out. And most of the sturm und drang has to do with the preservation or destruction of traditional markets. We hear the pain of photojournalists working ( or no longer working) for print outlets. We hear the gnashing of teeth by wedding photographers who are dealing with the  dying demand for traditional leather albums with individual prints tucked into ornate matted sleeves, and we are hearing the unhappiness of portrait photographers whose markets for traditional color display prints are quickly drying up in an age of electronic display and relentless sharing.

While large swaths of the markets in both commercial and retail are being rendered obsolete by consumer taste and almost foolproof, simple tools the entire market is not melting away. There is still a market for well done portraits but they must be in a contemporary style and in a medium that matters in order to be a sellable commodity. There's still a need for quality product shots and interior architectural shots but they too must reflect a more nuanced and sophisticated style and "look", not just because everyone has magically become more sophisticated and nuanced but because the style started with effete/elite tastemakers and is quickly absorbed and processed into mass style by the grinding machine of social interconnectedness. We may not understand the intellectual underpinnings of the latest style but we sure as heck are hellbent on emulating it, if only not to be left out of the current communal brain waves of our own tribes.

For every portrait photographer who uses "fine, painted, artisanal canvas backgrounds" and who is mystified by why his market has left him there is a corresponding Peter Hurley who has created a modern headshot style which is currently bubbling through the geologic layers of awareness to become the new status quo. And when his style is totally subsumed the market will turn to the next version and the next in a relentless pursuit of now, driven by the almost frictionless access to the latest thing. Twitter as a cultural driver. Instagram as this generation's Vogue Magazine.

For every architectural photographer who is setting up crossed umbrellas and sticking the vase of perfect, red flowers onto the table in the corner and making sure everything is just right there are younger photographers who are introducing models that move through spaces and add blur and substance and humanity to human designed spaces in a way that never happened with long exposures on view cameras or the analogy in the digital age.

The problem most established pros (and hobbyists and amateurs) will have is to throw off the yoke of the past and balance the new styles and their immediacy with the photographers' own visions. It's no good just to follow the pack. To be successful one must absorb the message of the pack and add an inflection and a framework of personal vision to make a unique and differentiated vision and product to sell.

The important thing to understand about what I'm saying is that this embrace and re-imagining of current cultural style and current taste are only important in so much as you need to earn a living from your work. If you are an artist then the only thing that's compelling is your separate and sustained vision, unsullied by the marketplace or by imitation. If you shoot for fun then your best course is to follow your nose. If a style smells bad to you then avoid it. If a style feels natural and right to you then enjoy it.

But if your livelihood depends on the visual products you create you serve no one with a desire to defend the past, and past styles. You serve a market, for better or worse, and your choices are to reflect back to the market, create a new direction for the market or to surrender and leave the field of the business battle. It's stark but it's an honest reflection of every market shift in the past 100 years. Just ask GM. Just ask Apple. And now, just ask Dell.

No one gets huge margin customers by making commodities and no one gets rich missing cultural shifts. Apple was almost bankrupt twelve years ago but they started breaking from the pack and launching products consumers wanted but had not yet been served. They prospered. Dell mastered the art of making a low price, low margin commodity, preserved the past and have been injured and ebbing ever since. Apple saw the move from desk computing to mobile computing and made iPhones and iPads, their ability to intuit and confirm the direction of the market led to their success. Their ability to abandon whole technologies to embrace the next generation of technologies will ensure their market position and success. Dell focused like a laser on what they knew best. And what they knew best was the past. In looking and planning only for what had already occurred they missed the whole mobile phone market with it's ecosphere fences and it's reverse halo effect.

Traditional photographers seem to be looking for a return to big studios and the sale of Leather Craftsman wedding albums and big corporate junkets and lavish, big studio advertising shoots. But they are looking into the rear view mirror of our industry instead of embracing the fast moving, fluid and discipline-crossing reality of the moment. Not everyone is affected but enough people are watching their businesses erode to make a trend. People scoff at the idea of "Change or Die" but I'm softened it by saying "expand the product net" and at the same time "expand the net that brings in mind changes." Be willing to move from an older delivery system to a newer delivery system.

Do you remember a time when studios took only cash or checks? I do. I remember when people rolled over and let ad agencies string them along on payment for 60 to 90 days. I remember images of wedding couples floating (via double exposures) in brandy snifters looking down from the heavens at their own ceremony, all in one godawful eight by ten inch color print.  Could you sell one of those now???? I didn't think so.

Change is inevitable. Learn what is unchanging and what needs to change and then implement. Survival is more fun. Embrace it. There's still money to be made. It's now on a different aisle...

The recent site of my introduction to being on the other side of the camera. 
Denver, CO.


Kirk Tuck Writes a Short and Happy Review of the Olympus EP-5.

A good, straightforward picture taking machine. The Olympus Pen EP-5.

I have mixed feelings about writing this review. On one hand, this is the camera that I wish Olympus had introduced last year instead of the OMD EM-5, it's a nicer handling camera, on the other hand I no longer use the Pens for my work and the chance to review this camera reminded me of how much I liked the Pens. Which may lead to a new bout of new camera desire... So, let me get my distilled opinion out up front: The Olympus EP-5 (when used with the mandatory VF-4) is the best handling and best shooting micro four thirds camera I have played with yet. Had I gone ahead and bought the OMD EM cameras last year I would want to sell them this year and move to the EP-5. It's the camera I wanted from that system all along. I'm also reticent to review Olympus cameras these days because the hard core fans can get downright nasty when they disagree with reviewers. But that's a risk I guess we'll have to take. (Thank God we're moderating comments now).

Before I dive into the camera itself I feel like I have to talk about the electronic viewfinder. I struggle with the idea of using any camera just by interfacing with the screen on the back. It's a struggle for everyone when out in bright sunlight and it's a nuisance all the time for people who need to wear reading glasses to see the screen and its content correctly. I've been using EVFs in nearly all of my cameras since switching to Sony Alpha cameras and Sony's Nex 6's and Nex 7's. The finder on the Sony Alpha a99 is my basis for comparison with everything else out there. It's a great EVF and works for me in all kinds of lights and shooting conditions. It's not perfect but it's sharp and detailed. I can also adjust the brightness and color balance of the finder screen, easily.

The new VF-4 EVF is bigger than its predecessor but it doubles the resolution and also offers a better viewing set up.
I love the massive and accessible diopter adjustment on the side. Hey Fuji! Did you really launch the Pro-1X without a diopter feature???? Really???

Olympus fixes another common problem that plagued previous finders. This one locks on so it's harder to accidentally lose. That's a big plus for our clumsier or less mindful colleagues...

While Olympus made a good finder available (the VF-2) when they launched the Pen EP-2 people had a few reservations. The 1.44 megapixel resolution bothered some users and almost universally people found the finder slipped off their cameras too easily. The rear eyepiece and magnification also presented problems. People wanted a bigger exit pupil that would work better while wearing glasses.

With the VF-4 Olympus have upgraded their offering a couple big notches. The VF-4, while bigger, nearly doubles the resolution and the way the finder is set up it's much easier to work with for people who wear glasses. My comparisons between the Sony a99 EVF and the VF-4 point to a tie for viewing experience. And basically that means they both share the title, "Best in Class."  I cannot fathom anyone not buying the VF-4 along with the Pen EP-5. The camera is a high performance imaging instrument and the finder adds so much capability for composing AND reviewing images in harsh light, strong light, mixed light and color contaminated light. That alone makes its inclusion mandatory in my book.

The VF-4 is much more eyeglass friendly but it retains the quick switch button to get you from the menu on the rear screen to the proper shooting configuration (usually through the finder) at the touch of a button.

The add-on EVF is a small price if it keeps you from looking all "hipsterish" holding your wonderful picture taking machine way out in front of you in defiance of the laws of physics and good camera craft.

To use a camera of this caliber with the stinky baby diaper hold (camera held straight out in front of you....) is just negligence, laziness or ignorance. If I were a store clerk in a camera shop I would refuse to sell this camera without the EVF. It would be like sending a new car buyer out of a dealership without tires. Just riding along on the rims.... 

There will, of course, be two complaints. One will be that the combination of the finder and EP-5 body raises the price of the package to the point where it exceeds the purchase price of the OMD (which has an EVF built in). Yes. That's true. But the camera is a better product. It has all the imaging capability of the older product but offers better handling and a much, much better finder experience (when used with the VF-4). The second complaint will be about the additional bulk the finder adds to the camera. I don't mind it aesthetically and it reminds me of using the bright line finders on my Leica M's with the 21mm lenses we shot with. The total package is still less than half the size (volume) of a Nikon D800 and it's still lightweight and agile to use.  Get the finder.

The range of lenses made for the Olympus m4:3 cameras is large and growing all the time. The nice thing is that, with the exception of the kit lenses all of the primes and most of the zooms are really very, very good.

I wrote recently about the "money maker" lenses and my article concluded that for most commercial and portrait photographers the standard, high speed, 70 to 200mm lenses from the majors were the lenses that did most of the heavy lifting in photography businesses. So it's fun to see that Panasonic got with the program and made the equivalent for this format. It works perfectly with the EP-5, which is a benefit of system standard. I've just shot it in the studio but it's sharp and very well behaved. Coupled with their 12-35mm f2.8 normal zoom the combo gives a working photographer 95% of the focal lengths he or she would need for nearly any assignment. And together they weigh far less than either range zoom in the full frame camp. A couple bodies, the two Panasonic zooms and a flash would all fit in my smaller Domke bag and wouldn't make much of a dent on my shoulder...

I saved the best for last. The shutter is a metaphor for the rest of the camera. It's sound is solid, low key and confidence inspiring. You've heard all the clichés: Like the door of our Bentley studio car closing. Like a Swiss watch, etc. etc. It just sounds good. It's very similar in sound to the OMD EM-5 shutter so grab one of those and click it a few times and you're there. But keep in mind that the EP-5 shutter sounds at least as good AND gives you one stop faster shutter speed. Progress.

In the hand:  I worked with the Pen EP-2 and the Pen EP-3 for nearly two years and came to grips with them in a short time frame. While I think the bodies would be more comfortable to hold if they were just a bit taller (or extended further down...) they feel good in my hand once I retrain the two bottom fingers to curl under and support the baseplate of the body. If you are something like 6+ feet tall and have big hands these might not be the cameras for you no matter how much you may want to like them. Not enough space to put all that mass of fingers comfortably. 

I like to work in manual exposure with this camera and with most EVF cameras since you can see directly exactly how your exposure settings effect the final image. It's easy to turn the aperture or shutter speed dial and watch the amount and direction of change. It's such an intuitive way to work. I generally set the AF to single AF, center sensor, bring the camera to my eye, lock focus, add any exposure correction I might need and then fire away.

So, everything I said in the past about the handling of the older Pens holds true for this one as well and in that regard the only changes I had to get used to were the placement of the new dials and the relocation of a button or two.

But as long as we're talking about not changing too much let's talk about the ultimate downside of the Olympus camera experience......the menus. I'm not too stupid but it took me a long time to really feel comfortable with the EP2 menu. A long time. In fact, there are parts I'm still not sure about. Well, the EP-5 continues the tradition of being the king among highly user configurable cameras. And that means the menu is long, tediuous, opaque and confusing. Confusing because there's no uniformity in how manufacturers label certain features or settings. If you want a camera you can just pick up and shoot with a minimum of leafing (virtually) through an owner's manual you probably aren't a candidate for this one. Maybe a Samsung is more your speed. Their menus are short, clear and concise. But....if you are a real camera aficionado (read: gear nerd) and you quickly reconfigure all the buttons on your camera to do five different things with four different options then you and the Oly menu might just have been separated at birth. While I can fire the camera up and use it I'd much rather have fewer choices in configuration and a more direct path to efficient usage. A menu with five settings: Color balance, File Type, Focus Mode, Shooting mode, Drive Speed. That would make shooting direct and simple and the camera maker would not even need to provide a user manual.

So, what's my final word on this camera? Well I don't have one final word I have a bunch of them. I'll start here: If this camera had been introduced in time and before the OMD EM-5 (which I liked in theory, and appreciated the IQ, but never warmed up to the feel) I would have stuck with the Olympus system and never stuck my toes (and then my whole self) into the Sony system. The camera and the EVF are really well matched. The sensor is great, as all the OMD owners already know. The EP-5 is fast enough for the kind of work I do, shooting portraits and food and corporate lifestyle. The lenses have been fleshed out into a full fledged, professional line and any gaps are amply made up by the folks from Panasonic. 

It is, without any doubt, the finest digital camera Olympus has ever produced. While I like the feel of the original E1 a bit better the EP-5 runs circles around it in terms of overall imaging performance and the EVF makes it such an intuitive camera that it's almost invisibly fluid in practice. It's truly the flagship of the brand. 

There is one thing that bothers me, but less so than before.  Once you stick the EVF into the hot shoe you lose the use of the hot shoe for anything else. In the past it pissed me off because we shot most of our portraits in the studio and on location with radio slaved flashes. And I needed a place for that radio trigger. It really was an issue. I still wish they had a PC port on the left end of the camera just like the old Pen film cameras. Then I could have my cake and my champagne and eat it and drink it too. 
But now we shoot almost everything with some sort of continuous light and the triggers have become less important to me. It's almost like the moment at which Apple Computer decided to do away with the floppy drive. And recently when they've started to do away with CD/DVD drives entirely. The market changes. If I were a studio flash guy who wanted to use a camera correctly (at eye level) I'd sure think twice about getting into this system. But for everything else it's sweet.

Will I give up my Sony Nexes and Alphas to stumble back into the Olympus system at this point? Probably not....but that pretty much has more to do with my needs for video production tools and audio inputs, etc than actual considerations about still photography.

If I were starting with a clean slate? I'd give real consideration to a couple of the EP-5's in black, the two Panasonic lenses, a couple of the juicy fast primes and a pocket full of batteries. It would be a close decision. But if I did it I'd probably save my shoulder and lower back for at least five more years of service....

A word about this "review."  I'm not trying to compete with DPreview or DXO here. We don't have massive testing rigs and we don't have big graphs or pages and pages of comparison photos. If you want some idea of how this camera will work in a coal bin at night at 6400 ISO you can head over to DPreview.com and scroll through the OMD EM-5 review to your heart's content. And I'm sure they'll have a technical review of the EP-5 up in no time.  I'm also not interested in infinite file detail.  A finished photograph is generally more than the sum of its tiny, tiny (pixel) parts. My intention is to discuss the camera as it is relevant to me.

I shoot most of my cameras at ISO 100, 200, 400, and 800. Most are really good at those ISOs (except the Sony a850 at 800 ISO...) and I know how to add some photons to a scene if it's darker than that.

Even the most expensive fast lenses are sharper in the center than on the edges, wide open, and I'm okay with that.  The only time I need a lens that's sharp wide open from corner to corner is when I'm shooting flat objects and I stopped doing that because it wasn't very interesting. 

I am as interested in how the cameras feel in my hand and how welcoming the menus are as I am interested in a camera's ultimate image quality. With that in mind I've stopped including "samples" from digital cameras under review because they would be smaller than the camera is capable of, compressed for the web and meaningless unless I was shooting test targets. And life is far too short to shoot test targets. 

If you have a beef with the way I write about cameras then you need to get your own blog and fire up your word processor...then you can write whatever you believe, or want to believe, about anything in the universe.

Thanks for reading all the way through. I give the EP-5 a 92%. It's an "A" with room for improvement (built-in radio trigger? PC terminal? Nicer menus? Faster Continuous AF?). But it's a solid "A" because the images that flow out of the camera and the right lenses are as good as they need to be to make good art.

in other news: Belinda and I finished working on, The Lisbon Portfolio. The photo/action novel I started back in 2002. I humbly think it is the perfect Summer vacation read. And the perfect, "oh crap, I have to fly across the country" read. It's in a Kindle version right now at Amazon. The Lisbon Portfolio. Action. Adventure. Photography.  See how our hero, Henry White, blows up a Range Rover with a Leica rangefinder.....

Remember, you can download the free Kindle Reader app for just about any table or OS out there....

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