Conventional Wisdom Says That Current Digital Cameras Are Much Better Than the 35mm Film Cameras They Replaced. Hmmm.

The roofing project is over but I learned something interesting in the process that has nothing to do with roofing a house or a studio. I was taking large photos off the walls of our house to that the vibrations from workers dropping bundles of shingles on the roof wouldn't knock them off. The image above is a quick cellphone shot of a photograph that usually hangs in our bedroom. It's a photograph from a long time ago of our son, Ben, when he was only four years old and taking gymnastics.

I shot it in a dimly lit gym on Kodak's Ektapress 400 color negative film. It was shot under a mixed lighting stew of vaporous daylight, sodium vapor and some fluorescent thrown in for good measure. Flash? Not allowed in the gymnastics area; it's too distracting for the athletes.

I had my favorite lab take the 35mm negative and make their best quality 20x30 inch print of the image on a glossy, Kodak paper. When I took the image down on Sunday night I took a closer look at it. It's amazing that one gets used to seeing an image everyday and its qualities (beyond the emotional attachment) become invisible from familiarity. I hadn't really taken a good, technically cognizant look at the print in years.

And in the decade+ since it was taken we've all bought into the idea that digital's capabilities have far exceeded what we were capable of doing with film so long ago. But my observation told me that the differences are not nearly as cut and dry as we might imagine.

The print is very big. In it you can see every strand of Ben's fine hair clearly delineated. The flesh tone is perfect; even with all the mixed lighting. The background almost neutral. There is grain but it is diffuse and only really obvious in large areas of solid color. In short, I'd be happy with a print this good from my D750 or my D810 ---- but it would probably take me a lot longer to do the extensive post processing that would be required to match the tonality and character of the old print!

Part of the quality of the image came from the way it was shot. It was the old days when "good enough" was not the reigning metric of our working methodology. I used a Leica R8 camera body coupled with a 180mm f2.8 Apo Elmarit Leica lens. It was shot wide open. I stabilized the camera and lens on an old, Leica monopod. I (manually) focused as carefully as I could and held the shutter button down for a three stop burst, thinking the the first shot would suffer from my initial finger motion but the second or third shot would be stable.

When I cleaned the glass on the frame and took a really good, close view at the image what I realized is that what we've gained in the process of switching technologies is speed and convenience and very little more. We could say that we've gained "free" frames but the reality is that we've spent so much in our upgrade processes that we could still be buying film and processing and coming out ahead.

For the working professional the days of photographer ended when clients got a taste of the speed, convenience and workflow. Why everyone else gave up film sometimes mystifies me....

I'm not saying we can go back but I am saying we did a lot of rationalizing to get to the point where we are today with digital imaging.... And we've paid a lot to get there. Where did we get to? About on par with ISO 400 negative film from 1998-99. Hmmmm. 


A Portrait of Sarah on Agfa's long discontinued Portrait film. A negative film stock that made for beautiful scans and prints.

©1996 Kirk Tuck.

Hasselblad 180mm f4.0 at f5.6

Lighting trumps cameras. Try it for yourself.

I was shooting demos for Samsung back in October of 2013. I was in a crowded trade show booth at the Photo Expo in NYC. We were using the Samsung Galaxy NX camera system in one of its many firmware iterations. The camera is already gone from the retail channels but I still have the images I made with it.

I shared the small shooting area with photographer, Nick Kelsh, and we had at our disposal about 100 square feet of shooting space, very inexpensive studio flashes and a very cheap, small softbox and a scoop reflector for the second light. Not the kind of gear I was used to shooting with and certainly not the kind of shooting space I usually take for granted. Add to that the fact that we were surrounded by a flowing sea of photographers, including some who loved to just shout out, "Hey. What the hell are you doing???"

At that particular moment in its development the 20 megapixel, APS-C camera had some firmware issues that made for some operational shortcomings. Sometimes the camera would freeze up and need to be ministered to by a technician. But the flip side is that some of the new technology in the camera allowed Nick and I to shoot and send the images directly to a large, 4K television set, positioned directly above our shooting area. This allowed audiences to see the final results of our lens selections, posing choices and the quality of the camera and lenses.

I shot almost everything with a 60mm macro lens and it was a very nice (but slow focusing---as most macros are) lens. The FF equivalent of 90mm worked well for me. The camera's EVF was lower resolution that current models and not nearly as well color balanced as the screens in other cameras I was using at the time (Sony a77, a99) but it was usable.

But when Nick and I put our heads together and used the soft box at the right distance (about the same distance from the front surface to the model as the measured diagonal of the soft box) and feathered the light correctly (aimed so the center of the light was in front of Naomi) we started getting the kinds of results we wanted. In almost every instance nothing we shot was anything that couldn't be duplicated and, in some instances bettered, by lots of other cameras on the market I was still quite happy with the images because of the light and the collaboration and rapport we had with our models. 

I'll re-state this more simply: If we got our lighting right and the models got their expressions right we could have gotten equally good shots out of just about any camera on the market.

But the weird thing I notice all the time is that all the people who say they are shooting for "ultimate image quality" shy away from using lights --- or from using their lights in an intelligent way. I guess the reality is that lights aren't as sexy as cameras and it's harder to wear them to photo walks and meet ups. They also don't go out of style as quickly as cameras and have fewer sexy specs to converse about.

Of course, many people are only interested in shooting in available light and this post certainly isn't aimed at them. But I am consistently amazed at the power we give to cameras and the indifference we give to lights, technique and the skillful blend of the two. A bit of a disconnection?

Would my image above have been materially better if I'd shot it with a Nikon D810 or something along those lines. Not to my way of thinking as I believe there is a point at which things can be too sharp or too etched. I think I have decided that some things about cameras really don't matter at all.

I mention this because I have a friend who has been on the search for the holy grail of video cameras. No matter which one he tries he finds that the noise in the shadow areas bothers him. He describes himself as an available light shooter. On a recent assignment I challenged him to take along good lights, modifiers, etc. and really practice good lighting. Of course this also enabled him to use ISOs like 400 and 800 instead of 1600 and 3200. Interesting observation? The files were largely free of the shadow area noise that de detests...

It's Monday morning and life is as crazy as ever around the Visual Science Lab compound.

it's Monday morning and Studio Dog is NOT HAPPY!

Studio Dog and I woke up to a 7 a.m. doorbell. It was someone from the construction company we hired. They were ready to start working on our roof and needed me to move the cars out of the driveway. Studio Dog did her territorial barking and then she and Belinda and I went out for our morning walk through the neighborhood. I think she assumed that all the noisy people in her yard would be gone by the time we got back...

Belinda went off to work at the advertising agency and studio dog and I went out to the studio to get the day started. Of course, if you've had your roof replaced you probably know that it's a loud process. People are walking all over your roof and ripping up old shingles, dropping bundles of new shingles into place and making little earthquakes here and there. I understand the process but Studio Dog is mystified, terrified and a bit miffed. Mostly terrified by ever new acoustic affront. 

There's some construction to be done and then there's more painting and we'll even have some screens replaced on the porch but all in all the heavy stuff shouldn't last more than two or three days. Unlike our neighbor's McMansion project which is now about to enter its third year of stop and go construction.

Studio Dog is currently sitting under my desk as I type. Occasionally she reaches over and pokes me on the calf with her paw as if to say, "WTF?" Progress moves ever onward.

The Olympus Wrap-Up. I spent a lot of time last month with two different systems in my hands. Nikon and Olympus. Both have their charms and it was instructive for me to work back and forth with both systems in tightly scheduled shoots. When I shot portraits with the Nikon system I found myself almost always reaching for the D750 over the D810. The camera is smaller and lighter and a bit simpler, and I trust its focusing system maybe a little more than the system in the D810 when it comes to using longer lenses near wide open. I don't trust either enough to manually focus important work without resorting to live view and punching in (increasing magnification) to confirm sharp focus. I understand that the D750 and D810, when used correctly, give me files that have more detail and perhaps better dynamic range than the Olympus EM-5.2 but I think that the qualitative differences are more or less academics, for the most part. 

While the specifications would lead one to believe that the differences should be obvious to anyone with good eyes the real answers are far more nuanced and have to do with the way you light, the size you use the images and what part of the range of aesthetics is important to you. To my mind there are few reasons for me to shoot bigger formats other than the times when I want the different look (in terms of how quickly focus falls off) of the larger format sensor combined with fast, medium telephoto lenses, and times when clients need highly detailed files that can be enlarged beyond the scope of cameras with less resolution. The arguments about dynamic range and high ISO performance seem to be of less importance in my work. I light for dynamic range instead of solely depending on the camera and I've found few instances where the dynamic range of the Olympus camera is a challenge compared to the Nikon cameras.

There are times when I like the extra margin of quality I can get shooting the bigger sensors in low light but those times are something like once a month; usually when shooting at the theatre. It's something I would notice and you would notice but when the image is shrunken down to quickly sharable, web size the advantages seem to shrink with the file size. The reality, and I don't know why this isn't talked about more, is that both the Olympus cameras and Nikon cameras are using the same basic Sony technology sensors. My thought (and I may be wrong) is that the Olympus sensor is the same, exact science but just a smaller chunk of the overall package. With that logic it would stand to reason that if you used both sensors to make prints that equalled the maximum native resolution of the smaller sensor (equalizing by focal length) that the resulting images would be technically identical before undergoing whatever custom processing each maker then overlays. That would make the sensors equal except for overall size (geometry). 

While we've been on a junkie-like spree in the pursuit of high ISO performance and high resolution it seems more logical that most people making photographs would be more interested in how well the color works and how nice the tonality of the files works TO THE EYE of the audience. In this regard the metrics of camera superiority are also not so easily defined. 

If I shoot both cameras in the Raw file mode I can pretty much equalize the look of the two cameras in post production. The Olympus starts out to be easier and is nicer to use directly from the camera. The Nikon files are in no way bad, they just don't look as organic and polished as the Olympus files. Regardless of the idea that they possess more "groovy, magic" stuff and numbers, the files from Nikon cameras seem more mechanical and machine-like. In many regards these differences boil down to differences in taste more so than acute differences in measurably technical parameters. 

There are power users and there are pleasure users of cameras. Sometimes the Venn circles cross a bit. But there's no substitute for using cameras day in and day out to understand what is important to you (for you, NOT that guy who shoots football or the woman who only shoots weddings and babies...) in the operation and output of a camera. 

Many years ago, when I first started using EVFs it was a happy epiphany for me. The EVF is such a better feedback loop than the traditional finder coupled with an LCD screen on the back of a camera. While a Nikon camera will outperform an EVF camera for continuous AF and AF tracking, and the OVF is pretty eye candy, from a real world usability point of view the EVF smashes the OVF every time. It's what makes the Olympus cameras a significant tool for me. I found, time and time again, in conferences, when shooting theatre, and in day to day situations in which I am shooting available light portraits, that the contemporaneous and constant feedback of the image in the finder, complete with an indication of how the color and exposure will turn out in post production just trumps the crap out of most of the advantages of the larger, mirrored cameras.

At this juncture I generally start to get reader comments about how when shooting tethered none of these advantages are exclusive. Well, guess what? I don't shoot tethered. Not my style and not something most people do at events, etc. You shoot tethered? Congratulations, shoot with any camera you like.  We also get the sports guys coming in to scream about continuous AF focus tracking with lock-on at 10 fps. Well, congratulations! I guess you already know which camera works for those very specific needs. I won't talk about BIF shooters because I just don't get it. And that's okay. 

Everyone from the experts on DPReview to Thom Hogan and Ming Thien think they are experts when it comes to explaining to camera makers what to do to reverse the slide in sales of medium to high end cameras. Distressingly to me they tend to concentrate on stuff like Wi-Fi (the Devil's camera feature), or a different lens line up, or moving some buttons around. The hard core reality from my point of view is simple = get rid of the traditional OVF and put EVFs in all but the specialty cameras. 

Once people had a taste for automatic transmissions you didn't see a ground swell of support for maintaining or bringing back manual transmissions (except for Europeans trying to squeeze a tiny bit more performance out of each liter of gas/petrol). Most of us are thrilled that we now have on hand free to hold our cup of coffee while we drive. We end up at the same locations and at the same time but we've had one less thing to worry about. 

It's a flawed analogy and I know it but it works for part of the argument. Once most photographers have used a system with a great EVF (Panasonic GH4, Olympus EM-1, EM5.2, Sony A7Rii, Fuji XT-1 and even the Sony RX 10ii and the Panasonic Fz1000) and have experienced the instantaneous, eye level feedback while shoot, they never willingly want to go back. Ever. It's just a better way to work. Much better. And it's a plus for camera makers who can eliminate some of the most expensive and fault-prone parts of their cameras. That includes the silvered prism, the moving mirror (the system of which also affects the focusing accuracy of cameras) and the attendant linkages. I know that if given a choice, with all other parameters being equal, I would always choose the EVF. 

So, if I were presumptuous enough to give Nikon (for example) some marketing advice to move their pro and prosumer markets into the second decade of the 21st century it would be to make the same basic cameras but to eliminate the moving parts and make the jump to state of the art EVFs with all their attendant advantages. 

I keep the big Nikons around and use them for stylized portraits with very narrow depth of field. I could get a similar effect with the fastest m4:3 lenses but it's not exactly the same. And having the depth of field "ramping" argument at hand it makes sense to also keep the bigger, full frame cameras for those high paying clients who are still interested in the absolute highest level of quality as it relates to the resolution and, well, resolution. It's nice that the D810 is soon sharp and so detailed. It's nice to be able to offer those attributes to clients. But when you know that giant print size, 4-C printing for magazine double trucks and things of that nature are off the table the easy, joy and increased agility of the smaller cameras is addictive. 

I split last month almost evenly between the two opposite style systems. I came away with good images from both. But when I finished up with everything I still couldn't decide which way was the single way forward. I still found myself wanting both sets of cameras to use in the appropriate fashions. But one thing I did discover was the all the boats have been lifted  in the camera industry. By that I mean it was easy to shoot really good images with the smaller sensor cameras and long lenses and still get remarkable images at ISO 1600-3200. 

It made me start to reconsider something I toyed with several years ago and that is the category of cameras with one inch sensors. I had the first generation of Nikon 1 cameras and really liked them. The lens line was far too sparse then and the 10 megapixel sensor not quite competitive enough for most assignments. I also had the Sony RX10 camera with its one inch sensor and it was quite good. With 20 megapixels it could do really good work and the color and features were nice. Mine developed a mechanical issue over time and I returned it to my dealer. 

Now, after having done a show that benefited from the long reach of the 50-200mm on the EM-5.2 my attention has turned to one of the one inch cameras that has always interested me but never got me excited enough to click on the "buy" button. That would be the Panasonic Fz-1000. Its price has dropped to $750 from most dealers and it's now low enough for me to take a more focused look. It's got the reach that the 50-200mm afforded me, a really good sensor (same as the original RX10) and the bonus is a pretty well implemented range of video features, including 4K. 

I think mirrorless cameras got off to a slow start for a number of reasons. The EVFs weren't nearly as good in the early years. The first target markets seemed to be families and amateurs. There were a lot of good, fast lenses available (and there are still a few dead spots between the Olympus and Panasonic lines = where is a good, fast 24-120mm equivalent???). But things have changed. The GH4 is a thoroughly professional camera as is the EM-1 and the EM5.2. The last prejudice is about files size but I think all but the slowest photographers have figured out that we've plateau'ed into a sweet spot in the 16-24 megapixel space and that the differences between the contenders are marginal at best. Especially when used at the sizes most images are  used. 

My long month of going back and forth has convinced me that I still need both systems, but it's also convinced me that the addition of a few faster lenses might make up the difference handily. There's an evolution happening in cameras and software. Not everything has to be done the old way. But it's an individual choice. I can hardly wait to see what Olympus and Panasonic come out with next. 

I'll keep you posted on the Panasonic fZ-1000 but for now I better go see what's got Studio Dog vexed now. Poor girl.

I basically took the month of September off from swimming. My work schedule interfered with my exercise. I ended up having to grab solo swims where possible. I am back to the daily 
swim schedule and the two long weekend workouts just kicked my ass this week
I was in bed by 10pm last night feeling hammered. I'm still sore today. 
The high price of staying in shape....


A gallery of "EVITA" images from the dress rehearsal. Shot with the Olympus EM5.2

EVITA at Zach Theatre is amazing. From a photographer's point of view the lighting was a nightmare. Lots and lots of range and scenes where the follow spot seems twenty stops brighter than the wonderful scenery in the background. It's the kind of light that makes photographers and cameras have to work harder to capture the magic but at the same time the lighting is much more dramatic and emotionally immersive for the audiences. And the human eye can see into the shadows and savor the highlights without the slightest problem. 

I was focused on focusing and getting a good compromise between the shadows and highlights, all while trying to follow the action but I want to go back and see EVITA again, unencumbered by a camera, so I can really enjoy the power of this set, the bold and nuanced lighting and the great choreography. Here are my favorite 20 or so images from my work. I wish we had the chance to photograph each show three or four times. Then the photographer could get everything figured out and be ready to catch the best moments with the highest degree of awareness. 

This is a big, dramatic production with really inspired choreography and lighting. I think photographers and filmmakers would benefit from experiencing it. So would most other people. 

I used an Olympus EM5.2 and the Olympus 50-200mm f2.8-3.5 lens to make the majority of the shots at the rehearsal and all but one of the shots here on the blog. Zach Theatre. Very cool.