12.05.2021

For some odd reason I like photographing buildings and sky with a 50mm lens. Must be a glitch in the programming...


I often find a new building I want to photograph when I'm out and about. If there's one thing downtown Austin is not short on it's new buildings. And construction cranes. Sometimes walking half a block will reveal a totally different look and feel to the same building, as in the examples above and just below. The more interesting thing to me is that though I own too many lenses, and have at my fingertips good ones that go  to very wide the angles of view,  I seem to like best when photographing "urban landscapes" to use a standard 50mm focal length on a full frame camera. The scenes done that way just correspond so nicely with the way I actually see things when I'm looking at them directly. It's not that there's anything wrong with my peripheral vision; I've had it checked, it's just that funneling in too much visual information into a frame tends to be overwhelming for me. Is it any wonder I never became a traditional architectural photographer?

All of the images here come from one casual walk last week. You know how people talk about comfort food? That there are things they eat out of nostalgia or because the bio-chemical reaction makes them feel good and calm in the moment? Well, I think there are "comfort camera systems." These would be combinations of cameras and lenses that just feel so right when you are holding them up to your eye and composing a shot. Everything falls into place and seems balanced. 

For me the "comfort" gear at this point in time, for me, would be the Leica SL (original) with the finder set to show a 5x7 aspect ratio, coupled with a 50mm lens. In this case it was the 50mm f1.4 TTArtisan lens which I found to be very sharp when used at the apertures needed to provide a good depth of focus for longer range shots. I came to use the 5x7 aspect ratio because lately I've been feeling that, for me, the 3:2 frame was just too long (or tall) and the square format wasn't conforming to the subjects I was photographing outside of my practice of portraiture. Portraits NEED to be shot square but everything else? Maybe not so much...

Somehow, with that slight adjustment to the aspect ratio of the frame, each of these frames felt more organic and balanced than they might have been with excessive, random information at each edge. Just trimming a small percentage from either side of the frame seems to anchor the subject. And I have to say that the manually focusing lens is really great for me with this sort of work for no other reason than that fine focusing with a magnified view of the exact spot I want to use to target focus slows me down and makes me consider the frame more than for the fleeting seconds I generally give a frame when shooting with an auto focus system. 

I think my camaraderie with the "normal" lens stems largely from my need to distill stuff down. I was raised with copies of Life Magazine around our home and it seems that a majority of the images I paged through in my early years were done with normal lenses or, if not exactly 50mms, close enough. I can tolerate 35mm focal lengths and am always happy but unsatisfied with 90mm lenses but with a 50mm all things are pleasantly possible. Still, I constantly try to like other focal lengths. It's been a career long struggle. I hope to master multi-focal-length-ability before I exit the darkroom of life...

When I write about my love for the "standard" focal length I usually get responses from people who abhor that view and want to tell me how wrong I am and then also what their favorite focal lengths are. And that's okay. It's good to have variety. Then there are the zoom people. They mean well but what they are really saying when they make their impassioned pleas for flexibility is that they are...indecisive.


How do you know when an angle of view is just right for you? Well, with the right lens you can get everything into the frame that you want and you can exclude everything from the frame that you don't want. And you'll never have to crop in post. Sounds just about right.



 

I saw this yesterday afternoon. I took a photograph so other people could see it too.


 There's no meaning attached. 

I don't really photograph buildings. They are just in the frame as counterpoints to the sky behind and around them.

Many years ago, long before the pandemic lockdowns and long before the rise of the full frame sensors, a blog tourist complained that my images in the blog were incredibly boring and that all the architecture in my town was mundane and without merit. He suggested I immediately decamp, fly to a city in Europe that featured ancient architecture, and the create imagery that might please him. I suggested that he go and f#ck himself because he clearly misunderstood the reason I make photos of my city's downtown. It's certainly not to please drop-in blog consumers and it's not to create a compelling catalog of the "great" architecture we have on display in downtown, because a young child with a box of blunt crayons and some blank newsprint could do a better job of architectural design that we get here, mostly. 

Nope, what I really like is photographing the sky and the way the colors in the sky imprint themselves, in endless variation, on the sides of so many reflective buildings. Every time I walk there the buildings are largely the same but the sky is never the same twice. It changes through the days and through the day. In many ways my photography of the sky, and frames for the sky created by the buildings, is an active meditation on the nature of modern life. The prize for my time in downtown is the walk itself. It's the happy chance to absorb a sense of unvarnished reality from the culture in which I live. There is a process of looking and seeing that is enjoyable and important to me because the art of embedding myself in a certain external rhythm of life helps me feel...connected. 

Yesterday was a great example of what I mean. I loved the soft look of the sky. It's much different than the jewel-like saturation of a clear sky on a sun-rich day. I saw the sky in the late afternoon yesterday as something akin to a sky in a painting, gently faded with time. As I walked along I saw a couple in love stop and kiss. I saw small children playing with happy dogs on an expanse of Astroturf, outside, in a downtown retail space, their parents happily ensconced in colorful, plastic Adirondack chairs, with coffee in their hands and relaxed faces. 

I saw the very small homeless woman with strawberry hair sitting on a bench, deep in conversation with herself, surrounded by bags and backpacks, smoking a cigarette as the light in the sky fell quickly. 

In the middle of downtown I passed by an older, white haired, homeless man who demanded I give him money. I walked on as he screamed and swore at me. He screamed that he was hungry and here I was trooping around with an expensive camera and he just couldn't take it anymore. His rant followed me for the next block or so as part of the score for the early evening. Then he turned his anger and frustration on someone else. 

Across the broad Congress Avenue that leads up to the state capitol building is an Italian restaurant that takes over their swath of the sidewalk to allow outdoor dining for their customers. Even through they are blocking nearly the entire sidewalk the staff casts suspicious looks at pedestrians who must either thread their way through the tables or take their chances with traffic on the street. The diners are illuminated by small and desperately flickering candles on each table as well as by threads of tiny, white bulbs on strands of Christmas lights strung up on lonely trees, planted in open square spaces, surrounded by dead sidewalks. 

And on a warm December evening groups of people, likely extended families, stroll. Couples consult their phones for direction and then walk off with purpose and all the while the sky changes colors and cloudscapes and changes again. 

In the end the camera is just a weak excuse for the walk. We live in a time and culture that usually demands we do things with purpose. With a goal in mind. I can ably lie and say that my photos will be part of a big project documenting urban life but that's not the case. The camera in my hand is like a hat or my bifocals. They are along for the ride. They are accessories to the walk and not much more. And I guess that's why the camera I currently hold in my hands is irrelevant. It's largely just a prop. Something to focus the walk around. But it's the walk itself that's important because the walk is an invitation to experience the sky as it is now. Today. Through my eyes. 
 





Lately I've been wondering how the high ISO performance of the ancient Leica SL stands up. I now have a "real world" sample.


Because of my history with digital cameras, early on, I've always had the prejudice that shooting at the base ISO is the only way to fly. Unless you desperately need more light. When everything I shot was for a commercial client and the light was low I would do the logical thing...add more light. But for the last year or so most of what I've photographed is stuff for myself. Odd moments. Street scenes and the like. And mostly photographed during the day when light was more or less plentiful. Sure, as cameras have improved I've ventured into what used to be dangerous territory; getting more and more comfortable shooting anything at ISO 800 to even 3200 without hesitation. 

Over the course of the last six months I've purchased two gently used Leica SL camera bodies. I love the industrial design (see rationalization: extra credit: here) and really, really like the way the solid, dense bodies feel in my hands when I use them. But since they were designed prior to 2015 and released in that year we are talking about cameras that are almost seven years old. My copies could have been made more recently (and looking at the serial numbers I'd peg them as 2018 vintage...) but the facts are stationary; the sensors inside were from at least two previous generations of 24 megapixel sensor technology. While I love the way they render color (and YES! even in Jpegs) I've often wondered what I'm giving up in terms of image quality at higher ISO settings. According to the ever Leica-Knowledgeable Sean Reid I'm giving up a stop of image quality under 3200 and the gap grows progressively worse, when compared to the newest SL2-S, as you go up the ISO range toward 50,000. It makes sense as the newest camera is using the coolest new sensor know how.

I'm still in awe of being able to shoot at 6400 without too much of a penalty and I had no agenda to do a camera test last night, but I was walking through downtown after dusk when I came across the beginning phases of a Beto O'Rourke for Governor rally at Republic Park. I hung around hoping to get a glimpse of Beto and, from time to time, I clicked off a random frame as we all waited for his tardy arrival. I thought the security guy (in the two frames) who was watching the crowd looked like he was out of a Jason Bourne movie so I clicked off a few frames. I should have been using something like my Sigma 85mm f1.4 Art lens with the aperture wide open since I was giving up 2 and 2/3rds stops with my Panasonic 24-105mm zoom lens. But, since digital files are mostly no cost, I shot anyway. 

I'd set the camera for auto-ISO and when I came home and looked at the files on my computer I noted that the camera had reached all the way to ISO 12,000 to grab the shot at a shutter speed of 1/125th of a second (my usual lowest shutter speed setting in auto-ISO...). Both of these images are cropped down to about half the frame I started with, and I pulled up the exposure by half a stop in post,  but I'm mostly impressed with the camera's performance. There's certainly noise but it's not color speckle noise and it more uniformly looks like film grain to my eyes. Since content mostly trumps technical perfection I'm now finding ISO 12,000 to be totally acceptable for my uses. Still, it's not something I'd necessarily put in front of a commercial client but happily satisfactory for an editorial usage. Or my own brand of eccentric Fine Art (manifesto coming shortly). 


These two images are mostly random shots taken while bored and waiting for a low priority event to start. I eventually got tipping-point-bored waiting around, packed it in and walked the next mile onward to my waiting, elitist sports car. That would be the super high performance, base model, Subaru Forester. A car that will go zero to sixty. And has adequate cup holders. And a net in the rear hatchback compartment for storing damp swim suits and goggles. It's a head turner in basic white. And I upgraded the seats from leather to cloth... Big spender...

To sum up, I'm surprised at how well the older Leica SL cameras handle higher ISOs. I wouldn't go above 12,000 unless I happened upon vicious aliens from outer space casting illegal ballots in a remote Texas county for their evil spawn, Ted Cruz, and needed more exposure, but I can certainly live with the results at 12K for the kinds of weird images I usually like to shoot after the lights go down. 

When I left the house I carried only the camera and the Panasonic 24-105mm lens. It's clever to say that I should have taken along a 135mm f 0.95, just in case, but that lens actually doesn't exist and if it did I'd hate to have to carry it around. Sometimes just have to dance with the partner you brought along. Brace yourself and exhale slowly while you gently squeeze (not press!) the shutter button. May the photography force be with you.

12.04.2021

Zoom Lens Paradise. An overabundance of multi-focal happiness.

dusk. Leica CL. Sigma 18-50mm. Hand held. 

It's Saturday morning. I've just gotten back from a lovely swim practice and ate a delicious breakfast. I had a nice week of photography and I'm not even that angry concerning Charlie Martini's dreadful post about the Leica CL. We'll send him back for additional therapy and I'm sure it will all work out just fine. As punishment though the VSL disciplinary committee has mandated that he spend the rest of 2021 having to shoot with nothing but a Sony camera and mid-brow zoom lens. We can already feel his pain...

I had an interesting assignment on Thursday and it started me thinking about one of the real bright spots in the photography industry. That would be the maturation and perfecting of what we usually called "standard" zoom lenses. These include lenses that start as wide as 24mm and go to as long as 120mm. Some are available with focal lengths of 24-70mm, some are 24-105mm, and Nikon set an early bar with their really nice 24-120mm lens. The weirdo combination of focal lengths comes from Leica with their 24-90mm lens. But what makes this overall category both fun and useful is that the ranges cover the most used focal lengths for most photographers. And the latest generations of normal zooms, nearly across the board, deliver really good optical results. 

The reason I starting thinking about standard zoom lenses grew out of my recent packing up for Thursday's assignment. I was hired to photograph unique looking, high tech, electric motors. The client was a company I've worked with several times before and this time I'd be photographing on the floor of their assembly facility. The advertising agency was looking for good documentation shots wherein the entire product (bigger than a toaster oven) would benefit from being in sharp focus. The final use of these images is for very large trade show graphics and so I thought it prudent to use my highest resolution camera and my best performing lens.

When I really pondered the requirements of the job I realized that I've come to depend on the flexibility of standard zoom lenses. With past generations of lenses the idea was always to bring a range of single focal length lenses and change between them to change the needed angles of view. Before zooms grew up the prime lenses delivered a higher degree of sharpness than their zoom counterparts. And in almost every case, in decades past, the zooms had more distortion. Not a big deal for most portraits but an important point for industrial product photographs which should be as close to geometrically neutral as possible. I know we can thank in-camera and in-post processing automatic corrections for the distortion corrections (and I'm okay with that) but the increase in sharpness is a result of continuing evolution in zoom lens optical designs and it's real. Along with better manufacturing consistency...

I had three zooms to choose from. The one that's been in the equipment case the longest is the Panasonic 24-105mm f4.0 for the S series cameras. I've got a lot of respect for this lens and its wide range of focal lengths gets me (at the long end) into a very useful portrait space. 105mm is just about perfect for people in general. I use it on cameras like the Sigma fp because the lens has very good, built-in image stabilization for cameras that are part of the L mount alliance but which lack real in-body I.S. The barrel of the lens feels a bit plasticky but the optical performance is so good I'm happy to overlook cosmetics. If I never tried another zoom lens I'd be happy shooting with it all the time. But... I sabotage myself by looking around at other stuff....

The next choice in the gear nest is the newest Sigma 24-70mm f2.8 Art lens. It's a full stop faster and I take it with me when shooting events and such just for that reason. I'm not sure it's any sharper than the Panasonic lens but it does render images with more contrast. It's got a snappy rendition and works well at 2.8 and f4.0. So it's a good choice when you're thinking you want to shoot around 50mm but want to have in reserve the ability to zoom out or crop in a bit to get just the right composition. It's good for wide stuff, great for normal lens shooting but, for me, a bit too short for portraits. Yes, I keep it around for the extra stop and the fact that's it's still nicely sharp at it's widest aperture. 

And that brings me to the lens that I really enjoy using for the kinds of product work I was doing on Thursday. That would be the Leica 24-90mm Vario Elmarit. It's the only lens of the three zooms that doesn't have a fixed maximum aperture; it's f2.8 at the widest focal length setting and progressively becomes slower at you stop down, ending up at f4.0 at the long end of the zoom range. I've used it for a lot of jobs and it's very good at the wider apertures but the reason I use it for product work has nothing to do with fast apertures. Rather, it's the sharpest of the lenses I currently own when I'm working at the other end of the aperture ring. 

To keep product photos acceptably sharp from the front edge to the furthest corner I need to be able to work with my lens stopped down to f11 or f16 and not lose too much sharpness and contrast from diffraction. I've tested all three of the zooms and the Leica is hands down better than the other two at smaller apertures. Like the Panasonic it also adds image stabilization to my camera bodies that lack stabilization. That's a plus. But the reason to pay for it, keep it and use it is what the lens can do when stopped down. 

I shot the bright red electric motors using a tripod and electronic flash with the Leica SL2 and the 24-90mm. The camera's resolution is 47.x megapixels and when using ISO 100-400 there's very little noise floor to consider. When I open the raw files in Photoshop I use the "Enhance" option/feature to double the resolution of the files. The Enhance feature also applies some A.I. enhancement to the structure of the files, which, for product work, is very welcome. 

I've been shooting the camera in the 5x7 format and when post processed with "enhance" the files come out to 15,648 pixels by 11,168 pixels, or about 175 megapixels. This gives me 16 bit files that are 600+ megabytes in size. When I start retouching in layers the files can blossom up to several gigabytes. 

When I work this way it's really amazing at the sheer amount of detail I can see when working at 1:1 or 100%. If you want to judge diffraction in an image taken at smaller apertures I can't think of a better test than this. And I've run a few tests between these lenses and few primes that I use a lot. The one lens I have that's a bit better than the Leica zoom for small aperture/low diffraction work is the Sigma 70mm f2.8 Art Macro lens. I like that one a lot but few of my jobs work out the way I want them to if I'm limited to one focal length. And, in truth, the Leica lens is not far behind.

I've toyed with getting rid of the other two zooms but I have situations in which each one brings something unique to the table. The Leica is the performance champ but it comes at the high cost of very large size and ponderous weight. When I want to travel light but still have a full frame camera and a great zoom range I always reach for the Panasonic. It's by far the lightest of the three. If I'm in that available light/normal lens mode I switch to the Sigma Art zoom and shoot wide open. But when there's money on the table and the clients tell me in advance that they'll be making very large trade show prints I always reach for the Leica 24-90mm Vario Elmarit. 

The differences between the lenses represent small percentages of increased performance. If I was limited by budget I could make any of the three work. In fact, it's hard to see much difference between them with 24 megapixel cameras and medium apertures. And that's the space within which we work most of the time. It's really when you start to push the limits more that you see the interface between tonalities sharpen up a bit and you start to more clearly see on screen details in texture that you would never see when just looking directly at the object you might be photographing. 

It's nice to have a choice but just as nice to realize that you don't really need to choose. Any of the products will work well. Even the limited range of the Sigma 24-70mm. In the days when camera res was much lower we approached cropping with much trepidation but with 47 or 61 megapixels of sensor resolution I can shoot at the long end of the Sigma, at 70mm, for a portrait and then crop it down to exactly what I wanted when I conceived of the photograph in the first place. That's nice because it gives me more flexibility. 

As to the other end of the zoom range... if you need something wider than 24mm I'd suggest that you are heading into a specialty range and might want to add a different piece of gear. Wishing for a 16-120mm lens with a fast aperture with today's current costs and technology makes something like that a pipe dream. I carry around a 21mm but rarely, rarely, rarely even feel the slightest compulsion to use it. Just doesn't fit with my way of seeing and composing. I don't seem to have "wide angle" eyes. 

I'm coming around to considering my Leica SL2 as a specialty tool. It's great for all the shots that need to be technically excellent and of very high resolution. But, for me, it's just not a day-to-day camera in the way that the original, lower resolution, SL is. The raw files I end up with from the SL2 are too big to deal with when I'm just fooling around and trying to have fun with the camera. Also, there is no real high ISO advantage to the SL2 even when downsampling to the resolution of the 24 megapixel SL size. So, I guess it's all arrows for horses

On another work note: I'm having good, clean fun working with the Godox AD200 Pro flashes as my primary flash equipment. As you know if you've read the last 5400 blog posts, I've worked with Profoto, Elinchrom, Norman, Speedotron and even Alien Bees studio flashes but, with the exception of power, the Godox flashes leave nothing to be desired, image-wise. The ease of portage and the ease of control are wonderful...especially for old dogs who've spent years hauling around heavy systems and even heavier runs of extension cords and power cables. And the low cost of the Godoxes is another big plus.

I was able to carry a small backpack with my cameras, drag a rolling case with three lights and all sorts of modifiers, and carry in a freehand a stand case with three light stands, two umbrellas and one tripod without needing to hire an assistant or even breaking a sweat. That's nice. And a far cry from the days of yore. To which I am loathe to ever return. 

I'd be curious to read which standard zooms are your favorites...

Quick Health Note: I took my doctor's advice (and everyone else who has gone before me...) and got my first dose of the Shingles vaccine (Shingrex?) on Thursday morning. It was kind of a dumb move, logistically, but it worked out. It was the only time I could get by and I was worried that I'd have side effects that would impact my afternoon photo shoot at the motor company.

When I got the last two doses of Covid-19 vaccine I ended up being fatigued each time for a full day. The last thing I wanted to do was fall asleep in the middle of an assignment... I'm happy to report that the dreaded side effects didn't hit me until after dinner. I went through all the yucky stages but mostly dealt with a very annoying headache, a medium grade (but transient) fever, and lots of body aches. It was all over in 24 hours and I'm told that compared to actually coming down with shingles any sort of side effects are like free money by comparison. 

I will say that I skipped swim practice on Friday morning, which is unusual for me, but it seemed more pleasant to just sit quietly in my office, sipping hot coffee and working on various clipping paths for the product photos. Sometimes you just have to listen to your body. 

That's it for now.