A quick report on the Olympus EPL

There is something absolutely exhilarating about shooting wonderful images with a camera that cost 1/10th the amount I paid for a Nikon D2x in 2005. 

If you look back over this blog for the past three months you find that I love shooting with the Olympus EP2 very much.  It's a very fluid camera to shoot with.  The EVF is great.  The image quality is great.  Even the industrial design makes me happy.

So there really wasn't any reason to go out and buy an EPL, was there?  Well, not so fast.  Even though these cameras aren't specifically aimed at working professionals I use them on just about every assignment that comes along which doesn't have, as a parameter somewhere, the need to impress and art director or a client.  In fact, on my recent trip to west Texas, in search of ART, I used my EP2 almost exclusively.  And when I use cameras in that fashion I really like to have a back up camera.  If something goes wrong a thousand miles from home I want to make sure the project doesn't have to end prematurely.  Reminds me of a job on a hot, dusty day in August in the desert outside Palm Springs when two Hasselblads in a row jammed up on me in the space of an hour.  Didn't I look like a boy scout when I was able to pull a third one out of the bag?!?  I really like the idea of redundancy when it comes to critical gear.

So, when Precision Camera got a new supply in I went by to play with one.  The camera is obviously the result of two previous learning curve.  Buttons are bigger and clearer.  The shutter button has a better feel.  The mode dial, while not as spiffy of a design, sits right on top of the camera and is clear and easy to read.  The flash is utilitarian and surprisingly well designed.  If I hold the erected flash back with one finger I can bounce it straight off the ceiling.  The camera looks.......utilitarian.  It just doesn't draw the eye the way the Japanese Sixties Minimalist design ethos of the EP2 does.  It's a black brick that works.  And that endears me to it.  It feels like a working tool

Three warnings so no one will come back and bitch:  1.  The mounting flange on the back of the lens is made of a composite (nice word for tough plastic).  I don't think it makes any difference in quality on the file but it's.......plastic.  There.  I said it.  2.  The rear screen is a bit smaller than the one on the EP2.  I use the big screen only for menu items so it doesn't bother me.  I use the EVF for everything else.  The one plus this might have is that it takes less battery power to light up a smaller screen.  3.  There is not a separate wheel to adjust shutter speeds or apertures independantly.  You have to use the "left/right, up/down" keys on the back to change the settings.  Sounds gruesome but in reality I mostly use the "A" mode so all I want to change is the aperture or the "+/-" compensation.  And the lack of a back mounted wheel means fewer accidental changes.

While I haven't had time to test it out myself, early adopters have mentioned that the anti-aliasing filter over the sensor is less aggressive which means that the images right out of the camera should have much better fine detail or should look sharper with less post production.  Sharper images are always welcome.

Some other features that we can't dismiss too quickly:  The flash can be set to full, 1/4, 1/16 and 1/64th power so you could actually use the in body flash as an optical trigger for your studio flashes.  It can be also be used to control Olympus "R" flashes wirelessly.  This means you don't have to choose between using your EVF and triggering your lights!!!!  Course they could have made it really simple and put a sync socket somewhere on the camera body.  They will probably save that for inclusion onto the new professional mFT body they'll announce in the Fall.  Oooops!  Did I just say that out loud?

The cost.  This cameras, which also doubles as a great HD video camera, cost me the princely sum of $599.  With a very good zoom lens.  That it outperforms my $5000 from only three and a half years ago is astounding.  If you are practiced and careful with your technique you should be able to get absolutely professional results with this piece of gear.  At that price, if you are confronted with a shoot that presents a hazardous environment for gear but comes with a good budget, you could easily consider this little system expendable.

I have a fantasy of dumping everything else and doing business with a couple Pen cameras, some adapters and some other lenses.  The business is changing so quickly.  Content is moving inexorably to the web and to electronic tablets.  I feel like putting to the test the old saw,  "It's not the tool, it's the photographer behind it."

By way of full disclosure:  I went into the local store and bought this camera with my own money. No one offered me any money or equipment to coerce me to like this camera or to say nice things about it.  All the stuff written on this blog is here because I like photography and I like to write about it.  It would be nice if you clicked on some of the product links but you sure don't have to.  I'll disclose that as well.  All those annoying links have returned something like $100 this year.  Not getting rich writing fun content.  But it's nice to know that you stopped by and took a look.

All the best, Kirk


A change of sensibilities.

Image from Eve's Organic Bed and Breakfast in Marathon, Texas.  March 2010

Back in ancient days I shot a wide range of subjects.  While portraits were always my favorite I was often pressed to shoot architecture.  One of my first big magazine projects for a national magazine was a two week trip thru Texas and Louisiana shooting historic homes and plantations.  I took the trip with an editor from Harrisburg, PA.  The magazine was/is called Early American Life Magazine and they are still going strong (niche markets work!).  I spent those two weeks mostly either driving, sleeping or shooting interiors and exteriors with an old Calumet 4x5 inch view camera.  We only shot transparency film back then.

I would walk into a room, figure out the composition, meter the ambient light and then set up a couple thousand watt second Norman strobes, bounced into big umbrellas and then work on getting a good balance between the existing light and the fill light my flashes were producing.  I'd generally use up three big, black and white Polaroid test shots to get into the ball park and to get approval from my editor.  Then we'd do a bracket of five frames in 1/3rd stop increments.  While not totally necessary the tight bracket also gave us close back up shots in case something happened to a random piece of film during processing.  Then we'd break everything down and move a hundred pounds of gear to the next location.

Back then I only had twenty film holders (two sheets to a holder) so every eight shots I'd have to stop, pull out the changing bag ( a black fabric construction that worked as a sweaty and uncomfortable mini darkroom.  Your hands would fit into sleeves with tight elastic and you would unload and reload strictly by touch.  Nasty part of the job, especially in the summer in rural Louisiana where it always seemed hot and humid.)

I describe all of this so you'll understand why I never pursued architectural photography with any rigor.  People could be reasonably well shot with quicker, lighter cameras and a lot less lighting.

When I went on a recent road trip I found myself shooting more and more architecture and I wondered why.  Here's what I think:  With the new EVF cameras (electronic viewfinder) you get to see exactly what the camera sees.  Imagine a view camera with a lens that's stopped down to show you the exact depth of field but with a bright and detailed view.  Combine that with a camera that you only have to reload after nearly 500 raw shots (on an 8 gig card) and you start to see the appeal.

Add in real time levels and customizable grids and you're on a roll.  Then throw in incredible depth of field (from the short focal lengths) and image stabilization and you have a camera with which you can shoot interiors as fast a you shoot portraits.

I had coffee with my friend, Paul, on Sunday.  We were sitting at Cafe Medici talking about stuff when he pulled out the Panasonic 7-14mm lens for the micro 4/3rds cameras.  The lens has some bragging rights.....like a perfect score of 10 on SLRgear's reviews.  It was wonderfully small.  It would be amazing to shoot architecture with.  One of those on an EP2, stopped down to 5.6 and you'd have everything sharp at 7mm or even 14mm.  The only thing you would be missing is perspective control.

I'm this close (holds fingers tightly together) to getting one and expanding my horizons.  Literally.  Doesn't hurt to plan ahead.  Now, if I can only figure out how to shift the lens......



Taking time to smell the flowers. Then getting back to work.

Eve's Organic Bed and Breakfast. Marathon, Texas.

I would bet that egos destroy more businesses than recessions or acts of war.  I say this because I nearly destroyed mine by letting my ego convince me that I could write four books in two years and that my business of taking photographs would run itself.  It almost did.  Right into the ground.  Fortunately I went on a little journey to write a fifth book only to find that there is no book there.  And then it struck me like scalding coffee thrown in my face.......it's time to get back to work doing the thing I love.  Taking photographs.  I grabbed the controls and pulled up just in the nick of time (I hope).

The lure of writing a book is the little voice that says, "Someone thinks you are smart enough to write a book." Photographer friends say, "I wish I could write 'cause then I would have a second income stream."  And publishers tell you, "If you put enough of these out there you'll finally stack up some royalty income...."  All of these things may be true (or they may not) but the bottom line is this:  Now you have TWO jobs.  One of them is seductive.  Nothing on the schedule?  You could do some marketing, pick up the phone and call some clients, or.........you could put on your jacket with the patches on the elbows, head to your favorite coffee shop and......work on your book.  The choice is too tasty.  Hot coffee and crowds of the beautiful people or the quiet desperation of the cold calling and all the rejection it implies.  I chose the coffee shop way too often.

It wouldn't have mattered if the economy hadn't tanked.  I probably could keep going along on marketing fumes and royalties for years in the old days.  But just as I was adjusting to life in multiple lanes it became very clear that cash flow is king.  The route from writing to royalty is a perilous journey that takes about a year to bear any fruit.  The best part of photography is the instant gratification on so many business levels.  The jobs come quick and they finish quick.  If you take credit cards you'll be paid quickly.  And then you are on to the next job.  If you do that marketing thing.

It finally hit me as I was thinking about a book project I'd been offered by a publisher who had stalked me since last fall.  I didn't like the terms but we negotiated those.  I was ready to leave when I hit one more stumbling block.  It was the final straw.  I balked and forfeited.  In retrospect, being a curmudgeon and refusing to compromise on the way I write saved my business because it made me realize just how many hours I would have to spend in the creation, formatting and editing of the project.  Not to mention the shooting and photo editing.  All for the promise of a small share of future profits.

I took the exploratory trip to parts west just for myself. I wanted to be sure I wasn''t missing out on a great thing.  And as I was driving back to Austin I had a coffee induced epiphany:  No matter how smart you talk yourself into believing you are you aren't smart enough to do every at once and do it well.  At some point you have to decide.  I looked out over the landscape of corporate clients and advertising agency clients and it became so clear that there are hundreds and hundreds of accounts just waiting to be harvested.  Ready for me to come along in my combine and snap, snap, snap them up.

I had to take my eyes off photography for a while to understand just how much I like taking photographs and working collaboratively with really smart designers and marketers.  I've smelled the flowers.  Now it's time to roll up my sleeves.


Bidding Jobs Requires a Big CheckList!

I recently got a phone call from an ad agency asking me to bid on a job for a multi-state  utility company.  We were being asked to do an ad campaign that would consist of five print images that would be used in direct mail, statement stuffers, newspaper and city lifestyle magazines, as well as their website.  There would be one person in each set up as well as photoshop prop additions.  

The lazy way to bid a job like this is to go all “day rate” on them and then do a rough assessment of expenses.  This would be a wonderful way to leave some fee on the table while creating a lot of accounting bad blood when you realize that you’ve left a lot of stuff out of your bid that someone has to end up paying for.

The smart way to go would be to provide an estimate that starts with a description of just how you’ll tackle each part of the job.  If you have to write out how you’ll shoot it you do two things:  you assess every step and every piece of material you’ll need to create, make or buy.  And secondly, you’ll show the client just how thorough and thoughtful you were when considering their project.  If you are bidding against other people you might well teach you client why you are more valuable that the competition.  If your competitor leaves an important and expensive article out of the bid the bad surprise hits the client when they least expect it and can least correct it.….right in the middle of the project.

By describing your methodology in a step by step method you’ll create your own master check list.

For this project we needed to cast five people in very specific demographics.  This is not something you want to do over the phone.  We called a meeting and the creative team sat together with the ad comps and a source books full of people photos.  We also brought our laptops so we could go to model agency sites and have a shared conversation about specific types and even specific models.  By the time we left the meeting we’d already reached a consensus about four of the five models.  

One of the account executives was kind enough to remind me to include meeting time in the bid.  She needn’t have mentioned it because that line item is at the top of my checklist.

Here’s a breakdown of my process and a rough checklist.  Yours will vary depending on the kind of shoots you do and how complex they are.

Creative fee:  This is what you charge to show up and actually think about the shoot, in the moment.  This is what you charge to bring to bear all you’ve learned in XX years of doing the business.

Usage fees:  This is a fee additional to the creative fee and is based on how many different media the images will be used in and for how long.  See David MacTavish’s book, Pricing Photography, or Craddock Software’s, FotoQuote, to see how to price each individual media use.  This is where your profit lies.

Casting fees:  You or a casting director will have to communicate with agents, agencies, and individuals to gather the talent you’ll want to use.  Make sure you charge for it because putting schedules together is long and frustrating.  If clients want to do a casting call with photos you’ll want to charge for the day(s) involved.  I can get a casting director for about $800 a day.  I’ll charge more if I handle it myself.

Who will pay for the models?  I’d rather have the client contract with the talents so that I don’t need to have the liability for payment if the client bonks.  If I have to include models in my bid I’ll make sure that there is a mark up of their fee to cover my exposure.

Meetings:  Ad Agencies can “meeting” you to death.  Each time the ad campaign changes direction they’ll want to meet with you.  Sometimes for hours!  Make sure you include meeting time in your fees.  They’ll respect your time and not waste it if they have to pay for it.

Locations:  Someone will have to find the five different locations we'll use, contact the owners of the locations and negotiate with them to use the spaces.  A location scout will probably have a whole catalog of locations which will be a good starting point for the selection process.  You might need to constantly remind the client that there isn't a giant resource of ready locations.  You might need to manage their expectations.  

Production scheduling is really part of bidding:  You'll need to know how you'll get from one location to the next, where your make up person will set up and who will bring props and also food and coffee to keep the production rolling….If you map it all out at the outset you'll find glitches that may cost you time and money when you get the green light to go ahead.

Assistant(s):  I've gone both ways.  I've done the one man show and I've done the entourage and I find the best way for me to do a shoot like this is to have a really, really good first assistant who can also produce.  They can help handle casting, propping in addition to the work that they do on the working set.  The best assistants are bulletproof and unflappable.  The worst are chatty, disorganized and needy.  If we're doing equipment intensive shoots outdoors it's good to build in a second assistant to help anchor scrims and keep softboxes from being blown over.  More than two assistants is more than I can generally handle.

Make up:  Be sure to budget a make-up artist for every shooting day that has human talent in it.  I work in a lot of high temperature locations and find that having someone there to powder shiny faces saves me tons of time in post processing.

Craft Service:  Craft service means food.  Everything from coffee and protein in the morning to lunch to M&M's in the afternoon.  A shoot runs on food.  If clients are there the food has to be a number of cuts above McD's or Costco snack mix.  On big shoots craft service is a full time job.  You might even consider hiring a service.

Props:  This project called for many domestic props like, a bathrobe, bath mats, towels, a washer and dryer, the right clothes, a step ladder (but just the right kind…..) and a lot more.  And here's the deal:  An art director wants choices available at the shoot.  Three different bathrobes in various shades of blue.  Just the right coffee cup for a kitchen shot.  This must be budgeted because it can be wildly time consuming.  I did a shoot recently that called for just the right set of wrenches.  Took half a day to find this $75 prop…….

Also include time for prop returns.  I don't really need three extra sets of bath mats…..

Rentals:  When you sit down and think through the job be sure to keep in mind that you might need to rent specialized pieces of gear that you don't own.  This could include foggers, giant scrims, grip trucks, generators, additional lighting, perhaps even an RV in which to do make up and wardrobe changes for clients.  Rentals should not come out of your pockets.  Understanding the availability of rentals also expands your vision for what the job could be!!!!

Archiving, editing and post-production:  Most photographers lose their collective shirts because they give away one of the most time intensive parts of the shoot process.  Everything that happens after the actually shooting!  When you get back you'll need to dump all the raw files onto your computer.  And then you'll need to put them on two different backup sources as well.  Then you'll need to edit down the images into a manageable number for the clients.  When you've narrowed down an edit you'll need to get the color and exposure into the ballpark and convert your files to jpegs for client selection.  These will either go on a web gallery you'll create or on a disk you'll deliver.  One the client has chosen their favorites you'll need to go back and do a very careful conversion for each file and then retouch and prepare them in a format the client can use.  Tiffs for print and Jpegs for electronic.

Organization:  You'll need to keep track of all the model releases, property releases, agreements and contracts.  You'll need to provide the client with a final contract that makes sense.  And this take time to.  Time that you should put in your bid somewhere.  

Always resisting the temptation to cut costs because at some point you'll end up doing parts of the project for free.  And why you'd want to provide free work and free intellectual properties to profitably multinational corporations is beyond me………You are in business.  You should be making a profit.  The more complex the shoot, the bigger the pay off for the client, the more your should take home at the end.

If you want to know more about the biz of photography you could do worse than getting my third book:  Commercial Photography Handbook

yes,   this one:  

Good luck on your next bid or estimate.