9.29.2014

Public Dogs.



I wouldn't think to take Studio Dog to a downtown event with tens of thousands of people. I don't think she'd like it and I think she might be overwhelmed by the stimuli. But apparently there are many people who love to bring their dogs with them anywhere they can. I get it. I love my dog, even more than any camera. But terriers seem to have minds of their own.

At any rate I was enchanted by some of the dogs I met as I walked through the downtown festival yesterday. I was just cruising with a Samsung NX30 camera and cheap 50-200mm Samsung zoom lens but it turned out to be the perfect combo for dog watching and (photographic) dog catching.

After watching the owners and their even tempered canine friends I decided that I need to take Studio Dog with me on my adventures more often. When the temperatures moderate I'll see how she likes the Sunday "route" through the downtown area. I wonder if someone makes a small camera bag for dogs?






After the gold rush. Where is photography headed?


Almost a year ago I wrote a piece called, "The Graying of Traditional Photography." It has been one of the most read articles I have ever written and along with lots of page views came lots of comments from photographers who insisted that nothing has changed, that big, DSLR cameras would continue to sell to "serious" photographers in record numbers and that I just didn't get the market. Well, I'll admit one thing, I underestimated just how quickly the market for traditional cameras, and the penchant for making traditional photographs, would erode. 

I am convinced that the market moves like huge schools of fish. The vast majority of the market travels together in a tight pack and when the direction of the pack or school changes it does so almost instantly and dramatically. It's not like market acceptance that follows a certain curve. In embracing new products or new product categories there are early adopters who live to discover the next cool thing. Then there's the group of cool kids who start the buying process. They are followed by the bulk of the market and trailed by late adopters who are careful and good at resisting change. 

But what we're seeing in photography right now is not really the adoption of a new standard or product. People are not just moving from one type of camera to another they are moving to a new mental space about personal imaging and they have just done it en masse. 

The market for traditional, stand alone, cameras started to fall off a cliff last Fall and the evisceration of the market has just continually accelerated. I contend that this precipitous drop is NOT because the market for cameras as "one purpose" appliances is saturated but because it is being abandoned by an overwhelming number of the (non professional) buying public. They have met their phones and they are now in committed relationships with their phones. 

It's not that new cameras aren't filled with great features it's just that they only do one thing. They just take photographs. With your Samsung or Apple smartphone you can shoot stills, switch to video, send and receive images, check the weather, call your boyfriend, get a stock quote, pay for your coffee, shoot amazing slow motion videos, call your mom, group text your friends, watch a movie or read a book. Once you take a photo you can share it instantly, post process it right on the spot and directly upload it to Instagram or another of the thousands of sharing sites spread across the internet.

Here's my anecdotal evidence supporting my contention that the bulk of people are no longer interested in buying stand alone cameras or pursuing "serious" (non-social) photography anymore: Every year the City of Austin holds a festival on east Sixth Street. It's called the Pecan Street Festival. There are blocks and blocks of tents and booths selling arts, crafts and crap. More turkey legs and gorditas and assorted fried food than you can imagine.  And, of course, this section of Sixth Street is famous for it's concentration of bars and night clubs. It's the long time center of the day to day Austin music scene. It draws a huge crowd.  I drop by most years to enjoy the weird crowd vibe. 

In the last five or six years the photographers who descended on the festival nearly outnumbered the regular audience. Everyone had a Canon Rebel or a the equivalent Nikon. When Strobist flash craze hit its peak nearly every other photographer had at least one flash in their arsenal and a friend to hold it far off camera. Collectively the photographers worked the crowds like tuna fishermen with huge nets. It was not uncommon to meet up later at a favorite coffee shop to compare greatest (photo) hits from earlier in the day. Many times the same subject would come up over and over again. The musician wearing a fake wolf head, the dog in the guitar case, the enormous woman shoveling funnel cakes into her mouth, the guy with the big sombrero. 

In the two years previous to this one the video craze hit full blast and every fourth or fifth photographer was now accompanied by a "sound man" who held a microphone on a boom and they waded through the crowd looking for people to interview and performers who would perform for the cameras. Every festival downtown looked like a media event.

That brings us to yesterday. Same festival, new year. The weather was great with temperatures in the low eighties and the humidity mild. The Austin economy continues to be robust. The festival attracted a huge audience. So what was missing? Well, the traditional cameras. And the mirror less cameras. And the high end, cult, point and shoot cameras. In the two hours that I walked through the same eight or so blocks filled with people I saw, at most, five people with cameras.  Of the five four were well over fifty years old. The fifth was a father with a young family. He had the camera strapped across his chest and his focus was on his kids. 

Of course I am not making any statement to the effect that all of a sudden ALL photography dried up and went away but I will contend that the vast, overwhelming majority of images taken throughout the event were selfies or groupies taken with cellphones. The "school" of casual photographers followed the pilot fish and turned on a dime. And now they've headed in a different direction. 

Am I full of crap? You could get all scientific and ask for statistics from the camera industry. Thom Hogan posts numbers from CIPA and other industry sources all the time. What do they say? They clearly say that sales of single purpose cameras (traditional cameras of all kinds) are falling and have fallen over the edge of a steep cliff and they continue to decline. There may be a few bright spots in the numbers but mostly these bright spots are occurring at the high end of the market and not at the lower end or the middle. Leica sales are up! All point and shoot sales (with the exception of Leica) haven fallen so far that it's shocking. And it's not just that camera sales are down (or views on major photo sites have dropped) my day to day experience is that people are no longer carrying their conventional cameras with them as everyday tools. Non-phone cameras are drying up in the living urban landscape

My feeling is that photography in it's traditional form, when practiced as a hobby, has changed permanently. The emphasis is now (for the masses) on recording the experiential high points in everyday lives. The snap of your lunch. The snap of you and your bestie shopping. The snap of just about any event you happen to live through, from concerts to minor surgery. The difference between this kind of imaging and the work we did before is that it's the sharing that matters and not the actual form. Content? Yes. Rules of thirds and high dynamic ranges? Not so much. The vast majority of imaging is no longer even shared on computer screens it's consumed on phones. On small screens, in various locations. The photo is no longer an artifact or a historical residue it has now become, fully, an instant consumable. Each person seems to be creating their own personal, day by day advertising campaign----for themselves.

So where does that leave all of us who love the idea of creating a lasting visual artifact. A piece of art that can stand alone away from the commentary of its original creator? I'm going to say that your guess is probably as good as mine. 

But I will echo something I've been hearing from people who are on the business side of photography: the market for paid assignments is starting to improve and budgets are starting to improve. The overall market for imaging content seems to be regressing to its normal state. The huge success of digital imaging in popular culture in the last decade created a boom in the industry, the likes of which we hadn't seen since the easy-to-use SLR started showing up in every college student's backpack in the early 1970's. Everyone wanted to be a National Geographic photographer until they saw the movie, "Blow Up." and once they saw the movie the real desire was to be a fashion photographer. Photo programs at colleges and high schools blossomed, no ERUPTED at the time and the professionals of the day felt the press of endless new entrants to the market. But eventually the novelty wore off and the reality of the work sunk in. 

I think we have just gone through a similar period in which everyone was amazed to find that the new cameras took away a huge chunk of the technical impediments to doing sellable photography. With the ease of photography increasing at the same time the overall financial markets devastated the jobs market for a whole generation of college students many who couldn't find jobs tried to make a go of various freelance oriented professions. Since photography (on its surface) didn't seem to require a proficiency in either math or writing it was a natural for people with a low portfolio of general skills to at least try. 

At the same time beleaguered companies who could have benefitted from original, branded imagery got scared and fell back on an ever cheapening collection of stock images. At one point in the not too distant past it seemed as though photography as a career would disappear, except in the most specialized niches. 

But we seem to be in the middle of a course correction. Clients who need inventive product images that require good lighting understand the value. Clients who need great shots of their people have come back to request expertise in lighting, posing and getting the right expression. And a generation of people have found that they much prefer a steady paycheck to the wild gyrations of being self-employed in an arts field. 

I think there is a sense of some sadness amongst those of us who liked being part of a global love affair with photography in that the core audience for our images is shrinking and changing. The love fest on Flickr and other share sites is less effusive and feverish. The loss of a massive audience also means that product introductions are slowing to a crawl from our traditional camera makers (see the recent Photokina...) and that has an effect on a nascent industry built on the breathless anticipation of the next technical breakthrough. It almost feels like someone let the air out of a balloon...

Me? I'm still just working. I'm reminding clients of how much expertise my company has in providing lighting for still and video imaging. I'm reminding decades loyal clients of how at ease we help make their people feel during portrait sessions. I am reminding agencies of the skill sets we've developed to do larger production shoots with many moving parts. And I am showing new clients who are making a first time move from "good enough" cellphone imaging providers fun things like just how much difference a tripod makes on an architectural shot. How much sharper and better an image can be when you use the right lens, etc. We're also showing them that we can give them repeatable results and that a cohesive look is critical in effective branding. 

So, is the decline of popular popularity of photography a worrisome thing? No, not really. The general population now uses imaging as a kind of language. That's the nature of the kinds of working images they want and use in their personal lives. It's a living language. As professionals we do something different. We translate creative concepts into two dimensional images. In video we don't just show how things look we create visual narratives that tell a complete story. 

Where does that leave me as a hobbyist? Actually, it feels nice to have a hobby, love, appreciation, desire for a field that is undergoing diminishing popularity. The flood of endless stuff seem to have slowed down. If we speak a different language than the other 99% of image makers (mass culture) then there's more signal and less noise in the marketplace for our vision. 

It's a sea of constant change and I won't pretend that I understand it better than anyone else but so much of what's been done in the last decade was really about the creation of a new visual language that the man and woman in the street could speak fluently and own. It's been assimilated. But that doesn't mean that other art forms in photography can no longer exist. The cameras that people cut their digital teeth on were predicated on the last century idea that images would be printed, large. The reality is that they are shared, small. That's another reason for the shift in cameras and camera sales. 

It doesn't mean there is NO market for a Nikon D810 or an OMD it's just that the people who need and want those cameras are speaking a different language from the majority of users who are happy to share on a five inch screen. Nothing wrong with that. 

What happens when the "gold rush" is over? Um. We get back to living our lives and adjusting to the new realities in the market place.  



An editorial note: I've discontinued my use of Facebook and Twitter. If you've used those platforms to communicate with me in the past you might just want to e-mail me. Otherwise, leave a comment. Everything changes!  Thanks. 

9.28.2014

played with a camera yesterday that really captured my attention. I want it just for the finder....



I bought the Sony RX10 last winter and loved it. A really great concept, well executed by Sony and capable of handling a wide array of professional work. That camera has a "one inch" sensor, a Zeiss 24-200mm f2.8 lens and a fairly robust set of video features. And for a long time it had zero competitors. With no one to challenge the category it sold for the princely (but worth it) sum of $1299. 

Then along came Panasonic with a pretty compelling answer: the fz1000. It gets a lot of stuff right. But the truth is that neither camera is perfect and if someone could meld the features of both product together they'd have an amazing product to sell. 

Here are the basics of the fz1000: 

On the plus side: 

1. One of the best, clearest and most enjoyable EVFs I have ever looked though. Almost twice the resolution of the Sony RX10 (or Olympus OMD) finder and it shows.

2. Sony has a Carl Zeiss designed lens. Tit for tat, the Panasonic has Leica designed lens. Sony chose to keep the aperture constant by limiting the long end of the zoom to 200mm (equiv.) while Panasonic chose to use a lens that goes all the way out to 400mm (equiv.) but sacrifices the constant aperture. In reality, most of its range settles for f4.

4. The Panasonic camera features consumer 4K video while Sony settles for 2K but with, perhaps, a better (via a firmware update) codec in that space. (I'd call it a draw except that you can grab 8 megapixel still frames from the Panasonic...)

5. While both cameras are designed to be formidable video machines the Panasonic's one flaw is the lack of a headphone jack that would allow you to monitor audio. One clear + for the Sony RX10.

6. While the Panasonic looks and feels bigger than the Sony it's mostly mirage. Both are as large as any of the m4:3 pro-ish cameras on the market and the long, fast lenses make them appear even bigger. But when you hold each in your hands the Panasonic feels best and the extra real estate makes the control interface feel less cramped.

On the negative side: 

1. The Panasonic feels....cheaper. That shouldn't bother any of us because experience indicates that most buyers will use the camera for two seasons and then move on to a new, flashy model afterwards. The camera is probably equally resistant to wear and tear as compared to the Sony, it just feels plasticky. 

2. The lack of a headphone jack riles me because it was intuitive to include one and it seems like a cynical upsell ploy not to include it. The overt message is: "You want a pro machine?  Buy our GH4..."

3. The camera uses the same battery as the G5, G6 and GH2 and while it's not a bad battery it has a shorter useful life in the 1000. It's rated to provide about 350 shots. The bigger battery in the GH4 gets me closer to 1,000 shots. And the camera is big enough so that engineering in the larger battery should not have been an issue. 

But putting all that aside let me tell you about my half hour experience playing with the camera at Precision Camera. I was handed one at the counter and spent half an hour walking around their very well lit store, sitting on one of the big, leather couches going through the menus and controls (so close to the GH4 as to be nearly interchangeable) and shooting. 

The camera sits so well in my hands it's as though it was made for me. I switched on the five axis image stabilization and did multiple test shots. The camera was amazingly stable. If I stayed in the middle focal lengths or shorter I could (with trial and error) get exposures all the way down to 1/10th of second that were reasonably sharp. The lens is obviously being corrected in camera software because it made all the straight lines I aimed the camera at stay straight. 

In Jpeg the camera can shoot up to 15 frames per second. Yes, it locks focus and exposure but it also provides a nice, long burst. Set the camera to a smaller jpegs size and switch on the electronic shutter and the frame rate can be more than doubled. 

In all I liked the camera and I thought the lens was cool and well done. But for me the high point of the experience was to meet such an incredible finder (EVF) in a relatively inexpensive camera. It gives me hope that successive generations of finders from all the camera companies that are smart enough to implement EVFs in their cameras will use screens of this quality and better. It will go a long way toward laying to rest the debate between the EVFers and the OVFittes. 

Will I buy one? Hmmm. That's a bit tougher. I've heard recent rumors that Sony will leapfrog the Panasonic in late October (PhotoPlus East announcement?) with an RX20. It's reported (rumored) to have 4K video and a much improved finder as well. The headphone thing is the crux of my hesitation since I'd only want to own one of the two. With several Panasonic GH's in inventory I'm not in a rush to adopt more wayward cameras (especially those with yet another battery type) so I guess I'll wait and see what Sony launches. 

In all though, for a person who wants a good video camera with a lot of reach, good codecs for 1080p and a pretty darn good still feature set the fz1000 is an interesting camera to look at. 

I've always liked the idea of a single "Swiss Army Knife" of a camera that you could pack for an extended road trip or adventure instead of dragging around a couple of bodies and a small collection of lenses. If I were a "telephoto" guy and wanted a single product package for my work this would be a useful choice. 

I've used the Sony RX10 on magazine assignments and in commercial video projects and, with the exception of the headphone jack, the fz1000 would be totally interchangeable. 

I was glad to finally be able to handle one in the flesh. It's always different when you read the product reviews. It's hard to ever really now if the camera will fit your hand or if the interface will mesh with your personality. If meteors destroyed all of my cameras tomorrow I'd probably rush out and buy one of these as a stopgap while I come up with a brand new road map....



If you were waiting for the printed edition of "The Lisbon Portfolio" you are in luck. The novel is now in stock at Amazon.com


I stayed up all last night re-reading the novel. It's a different experience reading it on paper. If you were waiting for the trade paper back edition it's HERE NOW.  It looks great and it reads well.
466 pages of action and adventure in a 5.5 by 8.5 inch package. Stock up now for the holidays!

9.26.2014

Red Flowers in the Hill Country.


Stop and smell the flowers?

It was an unusual day yesterday. I got up and went to swim practice. Had breakfast with Studio Dog and did little webby things. Then I went to the noon swim practice and afterwards had lunch with one of the young star swimmers. We were talking about the direction that "enterprise" seems to be taking. We each had anecdotal stories to tell of efficiency over humanity. Plans by major companies to eliminate as many human jobs as possible, replacing, for instance, retail clerks with iPad-based ordering systems, robots, consumer self-order software and the like. The gap widens.

We also looked at his iPhone 6. Specifically at the still camera and video capabilities. Suddenly, a thought jumped into my brain. I looked down at my Olympus EM-5 and what I saw, clearly, was a typewriter. Or a Burrough's data entry console.

I went home and took a nap. It's been years since I swam a double. I was tired. But recognizing social shifts also takes it out of you.  It's clear to me at this moment that we're going through a structural change. If you are smug about it then it just hasn't hit your area of expertise or your industry yet....

Typewriter. Do they even make the ribbons anymore?