Taking career advice from the graffiti on a bridge.

Do you ever find yourself pulled in too many directions at once? I've got so many balls in the air I feel like I'm juggling while I'm asleep.  Sometimes it's good to just go for a walk.  As I walked over the Pfluger Pedestrian bridge that unites south and north Austin I looked east to the old railroad bridge for the thousandth time.  This time it made sense to me.  Focus on one point and BREATHE.

As if to underline the advice I looked out over the expanse of Lady Bird Lake (which is also the Colorado River running through the middle of Austin) I saw literally hundreds and hundreds of people out paddle boarding or kayaking.  They weren't in a rush.  They weren't worried about market share or ROI they were just soaking up the sun, watching the other beautiful people around them and ....relaxing.

Sometimes you need a reminder that there might be more things under the sky than compulsively working or even compulsively photographing.  I need to put my work life on a diet.

A quick test of the a57 in use at 3200 ISO/ 3200K

I love shooting in the theater when the light is sweet and the plays are interesting.  I bought a Sony a57 just for shooting in low light.  When I shoot it at 3200 the files look great at normal sizes.  When I look at 100% I see some noise reduction smoothing at play.  I had the camera set to "standard" noise reduction and shot Jpeg last Tuesday, at a dress rehearsal of Dividing the Estate.

I was using the Sony 70-200mm 2.8 G lens and I liked what I got.  I might shoot raw the next time around just so I can try some other styles of noise reduction.  The new version of Lightroom (4.1) seems to have well thought out noise reduction.  I never seem to mind fine, monochromatic noise, it's only the splotchy color noise that I don't like.  I noticed that the ISO 1600 shots I'd done with the a77 camera on the same evening cleaned up well.  I shot them in raw.

I'm getting more and more comfortable with the EVF in the a57.  I know it will nail the exposures and I'm getting a handle on the qualitative differences between the contrast on screen and the contrast in real life.  While the EVF is not as good as the one in the a77 it's acceptable.  And the nice part of the compromise is that even the raw files from the a57 are easier to handle than those from the a77.  Post processing 1,000 images from three cameras shows you just how much more time nearly doubling the shooting file size takes on the backend.

Panasonic G3 meets a lens from another time.

I was pleasantly surprised by the file above.  It's nothing special.  The subject matter is banal.  The composition is boring and the lighting is nothing special.  But....

I shot it with an odd combination of gear that most would hardly expect to render anything technically decent.  Let's start with the lens.  I'd brought along a 150mm f4 Pen F lens that was built around 1970.  It works on the micro four thirds cameras with an adapter.  The lens is all metal, the focusing is smoother than marbles in Vaseline and the aperture ring is so well damped it suggests clicks instead of pronouncing them.  But it's over forty years old.  We've all been subjected to marketing messages that try to tell us that only with the latest supercomputers have any lenses been designed that have value....  Tell that to Zeiss and Leica and Olympus.  They've been making keepers for a long, long time.

On a micro four thirds camera this lens gives one the same field of view as a 300mm lens on a 24 by 36mm framed camera.  That means there's a lot of magnification going on.  I'm not the steadiest shooter; I presume that most habitual coffee drinkers aren't either.  So I'm not sure why I ended up shooting with this lens handheld.

I brought it along with me when I met my friend, Frank, for coffee at Trianon Coffee House last Tuesday.  He's a big fan of the new OM-D and I wanted to show this relic to him because Olympus's first small frame camera system was an ancestor of his new camera system.  I'd been thinking about the excitement concerning the announcement introducing the new Olympus 75mm 1.8 lens and I have owned and used the older 70mm lens, designed for the Pen f system for many years.  My 70mm lens is a f2.0 and it's slightly shorter so I question why Olympus had to make their new lens so much bigger.  I think their roadmap forward is largely a reflection of the previous lens line.  I can feel a 60mm 1.4 coming up soon, as well as a 100mm f3.5 macro and maybe a few 38mm f1.4's.

But the whine on the forums is about the lack of longer lenses.  And I wanted to show Frank the 150mm because I'm sure that we'll soon get an upgraded version for the m4:3 cameras.  I had no real intention of shooting anything.

I brought the lens along glomped onto front of my Lumix G3.  It's a from a camera family that seems stained by the idea that their jpeg files are substandard.  Color impaired.  Bad DR.  

At some point I turned around and handheld the camera and lens and shot the image above while seated at the table.  The camera was set at ISO 1600.  Standard Jpeg.  The lens was wide open at f4.0.  There's no image stabilization anywhere in the system or, for that matter, anywhere in my system either.  But I was able to hold this long lens (the same magnification as a 300mm lens on a Canon 5Dmk3) and lens steady enough to get an image in which I can see small type clearly rendered from 30 feet away.  Amazing.  

There's only one reasonable explanation:  Clean living.  Because it can't possibly be the gear...

Panasonic G3.  150mm E. Zuiko Pen lens.


Dividing the Estate. A play directed by Stephen Dietz

I went to Zachary Scott Theater last night to see a new play directed by Stephen Dietz.  The play, Dividing the Estate, written by Texas playwright, Horton Foote,  is set in rural Texas and concerns a family hell bent on dividing up the family estate to save each member of the family from his own, self-inflicted, economic demise.  Stephen Dietz was masterfully directing the play and even though it was an early dress rehearsal the cast pulled off a great performance.  I really enjoyed it.  Some parts had me laughing out loud while others reminded me of more or less universal family dynamics.

But I was there to get some work done. We started right at 8 pm. I used three cameras:  an Olympus EP3 (with VF2 finder) and both the 45mm 1.8 Olympus lens and the 25mm Lumix Leica Summilux 1.4.  The combinations worked well.  I kept that camera at ISO 800 and the files were well behaved.  My one modification to the EP3, for this evening's work, was to cover the blue "on" light with a piece of black gaffer's tape.  It was too bright for my taste.  The camera locked focus quickly and I shot mostly in the range of f2.8 @ 1/125th.

I used a Sony a57 camera with the 70 to 200mm f2.8 G lens.  I used the lens at f3.2 and generally, with the camera set at ISO 3200 I was able to shoot without any problems at shutter speeds of 1/250th to 1/500th of a second.  I was happy with the camera's ability to lock focus quickly and I was happy with the shallow depth of field and uncluttered feel to the out of focus areas.  The files at 3200 ISO were just fine (shot Jpeg fine at 16 megapixels).

My final camera/lens combination was the Sony a77 couple with the 16-50mm lens.  I shot this combo at f4, 1/125 to 1/250th of a second @ ISO 1600.  I shot these files in the raw format.  Not for any brilliant reason but because I forgot to switch the camera to Jpeg after my last project...
The noise at 1600 was easy to handle and the files looked the best of all three cameras.  But not by much.  I would have been happy shooting with any of the three.  

All of the cameras were shot handheld and the image stabilization was turned on for all three.  Not that it matters but I was using Transcend class 10 SDHC cards, 16 gigs, in each camera.  I've been using them since I switched to cameras that take SD's with no issues.

I have become much more used to the layout of the buttons and controls on the Sony cameras and I was much more comfortable using the cameras in the dark at the rehearsal.  I credited that to having already clicked through about 30,000 exposures between my three Sony cameras since I bought them several months ago...

I really enjoy shooting dress rehearsals for plays.  Not just plays I would enjoy as an audience member (like this one...) but also work that is challenging to me as an audience member.  When I'm shooting I'm following the basic story but I'm mostly looking for things that are more engaging to me like an actor's pose or gesture.  From the commanding stance of the actor in the image just above to the engagement of the actor below.

What the marketing people really want to see is different than what I want to see as a photographer.  Their interest is in groupings like the one below that, with the addition of a good caption, go a long way to giving a short hand glimpse at what the play is all about.

In between dramatic moments and groupings I like to take images that are more akin to portraits.  The lighting on this production was especially good for photography with well filled shadows and not too many lighting cues with over the top color casts that might not succumb even to good post processing...

I love the juxtaposition of the forward actor and the out of focus actor in the middle plane.  The light coming through the side window and the plane of the back wall add so much dimension.

Austin acting legend, Barbara Chisholm, had me laughing out loud in her role as a Houston woman of means who's, "NEVER WORKED A DAY IN MY LIFE !!!"  She played the role so well.  I know.  I've been to Houston...

I'm sitting in the studio now.  I've post processed all of the files and I'm waiting for Lightroom to convert everything to manageable Jpegs.  It's taking a while to crunch through the large raw files I shot with the a77.  Once we've converted everything I'll stick the files on DVD's for the marketing director.

We are transitioning to Summer here.  I've ordered a new air conditioner to replace the dying one in the studio.  It should be here tomorrow.  We don't mess around with dying air conditioners in Texas.  Not after last Summer.  

I'm busy putting together a book of essays for my e-book project.  More about that to come.

Hope everyone is staying cool and having fun.


Bringing "outside" into the studio.

Showing off heat shrink cable insulators for 3M.  In studio.  
4x5 inch Linhof Technikarden view camera.
240mm Symmar lens.
Studio Electronic flash.
Key feature:  Dirt Styling.


Phun with Photons. An assignment in NYC.

Some images from a job at Primary Packaging in New York. Spend a couple days photographing pack printing.  Medium format camera with 50mm, 80mm and 150mm lenses.  Tri-X film.  Leitz Tiltall Tripod.  No lights.  The images are scans from prints.  The prints are not direct copies of what is on the negatives.  They were "interpreted."  The art director was not looking for "literal".


An experimental afternoon with a Sony camera and a Hasselblad lens....

On the bridge.

I'd read a lot of stuff on the web recently by people who think the only way to control depth of field is by using full frame cameras.  I can't understand why these people, who are so emotionally attached to the visual effect of very narrow depth of field don't just shoot large format but who can understand another person's mind?

I went out this afternoon with my cropped Sony a77 camera and a Hasselblad lens to make some images while thinking about depth of field.  The lens I chose was a venerable Hasselblad 150mm f4.  At first I was nervous to use the lens wide open because it's very old, not even a "CF" lens and so I imagined that it would not be sharp or contrasty when used at its maximum aperture.  I was, of course, quite wrong.

The photo at the top of the blog is a quick portrait of a person passing by.  I asked him if he would stop to be photographed and he readily agreed.  He was in magnificent physical shape and I loved the look of his sunglasses.  Looks to me as though the background is nicely out of focus even though we're in bright sun....  We could have increased the effect by using a faster lens, like the Hasselblad 150mm F series f2.8 but I like what I've got here. There are limits to the effectiveness of every style or technique....

We took four frames and then my "model" got on with his walk. The best narrow depth of focus I ever saw, as an effect was by a photographer who used Nikon's legendary (and no longer available) 300mm f2.0 lens.  It was enormous and awkward but if you wanted razor thin DOF you couldn't go wrong...  They retailed for $29,000 when they were introduced... 

This is not a crop.  It's the full frame.  When I grabbed this lens out of the drawer I thought I'd be getting something interesting but I didn't know that, wide open, it would be this sharp.  You see, it's not my main 150mm Hasselblad lens which I've owned since new but a back-up lens I bought used from Precision Camera here in Austin for around $249.  The Hasselblad to Sony adapter I bought from Fotodiox for another $69.  The lens is a black paint, late C lens with T-star coatings.

I also stopped in at Whole foods to shoot some produce.  I was interested in how the lens would work at its closest focusing distance and I was interested in how the Sony would perform under the low, mixed lighting.

Interestingly, they both seem to do pretty well...

I couldn't pass up the bakery.  The cakes make wonderful subjects for photography.  Sadly, no free samples were forthcoming...

Back on the bridge I ran into this joyous couple.  A photographer and his vivacious model.  I was happy with the performance of the both the Sony's rapid focus peaking and the easy focusing of the Hasselblad optical system. 

And finally,  I was reminded of why I love living in Austin.  A laid back, adventurous and fun town with lots of little nooks and crannies to surprise us.  That's the old Lamar Bridge over Town Lake.  I love its design.

Lesson for today?  Old stuff is good stuff.  New stuff is good stuff.  It's all meaningless unless you go out and use it.

Mr. A.M.,  Thanks for the glass of wine and the fun conversation at the Whole Foods bar.  Nice way to spend time.  

Will the DSLR die? Will small cameras rule the world?

   (edit: for people who don't know the basic history of digital cameras:  The camera above is not a film camera, it is a digital camera from Kodak that was marketed in 2001-2002 and was one of the first "affordable" interchangeable lens digital SLR's to offer a whopping 6 megapixels. About $7,000 on introduction.)

I've just read several blogs wherein the writers pose this very question and then take the middle of the road argument that, "there's room in the camera cosmos for everyone..."  Which is a nice way of side-stepping the intellectual honesty of actually taking a stand, but might just be the wrong answer.

Not to enrage the creationists of photography who feel that all cameras are locked into whatever form they exist in now by some edict,  I'd like to make the case that, in order to survive, today's big, hungry and macho DSLRs will evolve by co-opting the best features of their current predators and keeping the goofy and lovable features that marketers think we all want...

I think that much of what we accept as necessary in a "professional digital single lens reflex camera" is there via precedent, vestigialism and ritual.  Most of the voodoo of bigger SLR's is based on what we needed in the early days of digital.

Consider this, in 2002 if you wanted a camera to shoot with professionally at six megapixels (or thereabouts), with the capability of changing lenses (itself partially a conceit from the primitive film days...) and the throughput or frame rate to follow even rudimentary action (buffer), you had very, very few choices.  In fact, you had the Nikon D1x and the Kodak DCS760.  Both were large body styles.  You had to be happy with a large body style because no one had anything else on offer with the same features.  Really.  So, marketers presumed in their "looking forward calculus" that, since the big bodies were selling well (remember, they were the only form factor widely available with the feature sets needed) consumers must like the big bodies and therefore it was good marketing to offer more big bodies in the future.  No matter that the cameras were widely considered to be too heavy and too unwieldy to be comfortable...especially for most woman and men with smaller hands...

It's kind of like being GM in the 1960's and presuming that everyone needed a big, V8 motor because you built lots of big V8 motors and put them in most of your cars and people bought the cars, ergo they must want big V8 motors.  And would never change.

I look at the Kodak DCS 760 as one of the seminal, professional, digital cameras because, well, Kodak (using big Nikon bodies and making them even bigger) was there first.  And since some of them sold well their competitors, not wanting to take chances, followed suit.  I think the first few generations of Kodak digital behemoth cameras were big not because the engineers wanted them to be but because nearly every part, including the electronics, was made by hand and breadboarded circuits take up a lot more space than VLSIs.  I also think the engineers were constrained to use a certain body size in order to accomodate the enormous (relative to today's technology) primitive batteries and the large sized industry standard connectors of the day.  Not to mention the big, dual slots required for PCMCIA memory constructs.

So, in early big camera engineering form indeed followed function.  Now form follows convention.  Form is following history.  Form is part of marketing that plays on a nostalgia for the past in the field of cameras, to the detriment of your pocket book.

My Kodak DCS760 batteries weigh more than my entire Panasonic G3.  One PCMCIA hard drive is bigger than the biggest LCD screen on my best camera. And yet those cameras didn't shoot faster than my current consumer cameras, didn't have as big buffers, don't have the same resolutions and on and on.

I fully believe that Canon and Nikon could both make a camera with the same capabilities as their D3's, D4's and 1DX's, etc. that are much smaller than the ones they currently make, without making any engineering sacrifices.  Same waterproofing, same basic handling and the same performance but they choose to make them big to connote their level of professionalism.  Size is now analogous to the fins on a sedan or raw horsepower.  Making the cameras bigger and heavier adds to the weight and the cost but not to the usability for most buyers.

In the ten years since the introduction of the big professional digital cameras the top models have remained the same size and weight even as technology has advanced considerably in every metric.  The batteries have ten times the capacity of the early ones (measuring in shutter actuations).  They weigh less than half of their predecessors.  SD cards hold hundreds of times more files and write them thousands of times more quickly than their predecessors. And the engineers have had a decade to leverage the efficiencies of scale for processors, shutter mechanisms, etc.  So why do people still think they need to tote a brick to be taken seriously?

Well, as I said above, I think we're about to see the big dinosaurs evolve instead of just capitulating and becoming instantaneously extinct.  If the camera makers are smart they'll make "smaller" a new luxury feature (as Pentax did with their LX system back in the days of film...).  You're already seeing that in coveted cameras like the Fuji X1-Pro.

The next step (look to Sony)  will be for Canon and Nikon to "reinvent" the finder.  They'll move to EVFs but they'll rename the EVF and make it a professional feature.  A "must have" for pros who need to see all the information.  How will they sell it?  With fear and uncertainty.  You'll hear over and over again that all still photography is  nearly dead (and it might nearly be for commercial applications) and that you MUST be shooting video and "we're putting this EVF here to help  you be successful!!!!!"  And, they'll create (make up) some new feature set that can be construed to be even better than seeing stuff through an "outdated" OVF.  You watch them.  When they tip the point for sports shooters the marketing will go into overdrive and no one will ever want to go back to the "bad old days" of glass pentaprisms ever again.  Not because 99% of buyers need what sports photographers profess to need but because halo advertising works...

The next thing to go will be the mirror.  No need for a mirror if you're looking at the image directly as it appears to the sensor.  Right?  But again, it will be couched as an advantage because of "high speed performance" metrics.  Faster and more reliable.  Who doesn't want that?  Nikon has already mastered the focusing issues in their lowly V system.  They'll roll it up (as they always do) into their pro-sumer and then pro cameras just as quickly as they think you're ready for it....from a marketing point of view.

In a short time we'll have a professional, weather-sealed, mirrorless, EVF'd live view camera with a full frame sensor and a whole raft of new marketing "miracles."  How about this information that lens designers have known for decades? :  The shorter the flange to film plane distance the easier it is to design higher performance lenses.   And it's true.  The moving mirror made/makes for many optical and mechanical compromises.  Another linchpin for marketing.

Think it will never, never happen?  Look to the moving picture industry where real money changes hands.  Real directors and their directors of photography (DP's)  have abandoned the moving shutter, moving film cameras of just a decade ago to embrace (now 50% or more of all new movie production) digital video cameras with EVF's and direct-to-sensor technology.

So, the process will look more like evolution.  It might start with a lowly Canon Rebel Eyeview.  That camera will use an EVF because it's cheaper to build and looks bigger and better than the current tunnel vision optical finders on entry level cameras.  The consumer sees a bigger image.  And it's brighter!  And the camera is lighter! And it's a little smaller so it fits in a purse or a man bag.  And the marketing...

A giant campaign.  NOW YOU DON'T NEED  SEPARATE CAMERAS FOR VIDEO AND PHOTOS.  THIS ONE CAN DO IT ALL!!!!! Make a movie, shot an ad.  And the ads will extol being able to see what you get, before you even get it.  Once the great mass of the market speaks with their Visa cards the prosumer market will follow.  And when people embrace the new products the pro stuff will come out at the next big sports event (Formula One?  World Cup? The Superbowl?) with tremendous and heartfelt testimonials from a whole new generation of content creators, who will gush about being able to follow action at 15fps with no vibration, while seeing a perfect image and never loosing an opportunity because of the ability to pre-chimp!

Blogging photographers are just as susceptible to nostalgia and tradition as everyone else.  We grew up with a certain form factor and we're well acculturated to believe it's the holy grail of camera designs.  But we actually exist in a giant swirling cosmos of alternate designs that are presaged on the evolution of technology as well as consumer taste.  When the vast majority of buyers used point and shoot cameras as their daily recorders of events and milestones the DSLR was seen as the "step up" to professional quality.  Working photographers knew that the medium format cameras were the magic beans.  Now the vast, vast majority of people who snap photographs do so with cellphones. Even for rudimentary business use.  Their perception of stepping up, big time, in quality is to step up to a 16 megapixel camera with interchangeable lenses. (the interchange of lenses being the driving metric...).  And now the momentum goes to the mirrorless sector.

And, ultimately, we have to look at our societal shift for every image's final destination.  The prevailing use is also fundamental in determining the form.  (Form still follows function).  If the end destination is a screen, even a high res screen, then ultimate image quality is no longer the marketing driver.  If photography is becoming relentlessly homogenized then sophistication of the instruments takes a back seat to convenience and functionality.  That means using equipment that's easier to handle and easier to shoot with.  It also means that fast access to the web trumps ultimates in image size and resolution.s

As the number of full time professional photographers relentlessly shrinks more and more photography will be that of opportunity.  And I think you'll agree that opportunity favors those who have A camera with them over those who own incredible stuff that requires multiple sherpas for transport.

Finally, there really is a melding of video and still photography in the image making of generations under us. My readers and I represent generations that straddled the shift between film and digital.  Most of us (not all, I get that) had opened up the back of a film camera and dropped in a roll of something and made sure the film was progressing through our cameras as we shot.  But we also were there for the birth of widespread digital and if we are honest with ourselves we can see the thread of yet another change that is all about the rejection of a useful but used up paradigm of "Big, Expensive, Complex" that is being replaced by a new paradigm of "Small, Agile, Useful, Egalitarian."  Especially if the quality is maintained at a constant.

If you really think that we'll never de-embrace from big, OVF, professional DSLRs try a bit of introspection and after some painful probing you might find that it's the mastery of past camera and photography traditions and the growing irrelevance of those mastered traditions that causes us to emotionally reject the inevitable evolution.

Finally,  I don't want to get side tracked by sensor arguments. I've written a lot here but I am NOT making the argument that we all will be using smaller sensor cameras.  Not at all.  Sensor size is a whole other issue and one that still speaks to aesthetic elements of the differentials.  I won't deny that a larger sensor camera has different "drawing" characteristics (based on object distance and depth of field, combined).  I'm presuming that Nikon and Canon and Sony and Pentax will also come out with evolutionary, EVF, mirrorless cameras that use all three of the major, consumer sensor sizes just as I am certain that medium format digital will continue to sell to service the tiny subset of user for whom perfection and ultimate control trump issues of size, cost and usability.

No one is trying to pry your hands off a full frame (e35mm) sensor.  We're just gently suggesting that form factor changes, driven by technology, are inevitable.  Just as cellphones shrank from big ugly boxes in cars to slender, pocketable products while expanding their power at the same time.

It's fun to be in the middle of a swirling set of changes.  Never fun when your own "ox" gets gored but change is amoral and nothing if not anti-nostalgic.  We'll get over it if we have the intellectual strength to change with our culture.


Shooting casually with my favorite normal lens..

Note:  I don't own an OM-D.  But I do own a 25mm Summilux 1.4 and I love it.

If you are shooting micro four thirds, and you have a preference for "normal" focal lengths you'll find this lens to be an absolute treasure.  After I shot with this lens I gleefully sold my Panasonic 20mm 1.7 to a friend and haven't had even a glimmer of remorse.  The images below 
are from a casual afternoon out and around with the 25mm Panasonic/Leica 1.4 Summilux attached to the front of a Panasonic G3.  Set (as the Photo Gods intended) to shoot in a square format....  I think the images are also a testament to the G3.  Which is adorable.


Everyone's hyperventilating about the Olympus 75mm 1.8 but me. I've got something even better.....

This image was taken with a priceless and rare Olympus Pen 60mm 1.5 lens.  @f 2.0.  I've blown it up from the original file and taken a good look.  Even close to wide open it gives the best Canon and Nikon lenses a run for their money and it's over forty years old.  Don't tell me Olympus can't make lenses.  Watch out Leica.

I needed an image of my Hasselblad to go with a column I wrote for theOnlinePhotographer.  I could choose from Nikon macro lenses on Kodak full frame bodies, Sony macros on 24 megapixel bodies and 120mm Makro Planars on Hasselblad bodies but I decided to use the right tool for the job and make the image with my Olympus Pen 60mm 1.5 lens on my Panasonic GH2 body.  The file is immaculate. Couldn't do better with anything else.  The background was filled with barbed wire and op art and all kinds of nasty detail but look at that depth of field control...  Okay, the wall in the background is painted gray but it does have some imperfections that aren't showing up because of the DOF.

You can't find the 60mm's anymore.  I'd gladly sell mine for $5,000 if you really need one.  But the 75mm  1.5 is probably just as good.  And a lot cheaper than combing through the collector market.

Part of getting really good lenses at good prices is being able to see the future.  I bought mine in 1982.

My advice today?  Run out and buy some film Hasselblad stuff. Get mint condition stuff.  Not to shoot (you could if you felt moved to...) but to collect.  They're not making it anymore and it really was the soul of film photography...

Thanks for reading.  No ads today.

Bill Beebe sent me this link: http://thetrichordist.wordpress.com/2012/04/15/meet-the-new-boss-worse-than-the-old-boss-full-post/

Read it and think about how artists are increasingly (not) compensated.  I don't want to get into a thing with anybody but it's an well argued POV.

Thanks, Bill.

El Naranjo Restaurant Website is up. Go take a look.


A new restaurant.  I shot the food images and portraits for the website.

All shot with a Sony a77 camera and a 30mm f2.8 macro lens.

This is the restaurant I shot for last month.  Here's the blog post:



What I learned when I dragged a Hasselblad on vacation. The myth of perfection.


It was 1991 and most of my assignments were being done on medium format film with one or another camera from Sweden.  There's a myth that floats around the web like a party guest who's drunk and won't leave, that all the pros back in the film days used 35mm cameras.  Well, I know the four or five hundred sports shooters did but the other 200,000 professionals mostly used medium format...except for the ones that used 4x5 inch film.  With the exception of documentary photographers and event photographers very few pros used much 35mm for real work until the late 1990's and, even then, would quickly scurry back to medium format, given a choice.

Anyway, the dollar was strong and Belinda and I decided to take a real vacation, not just a quick jaunt to the coast or a long weekend in San Francisco or New York.  A real vacation.  Two weeks or so and out of the country.  We headed to Italy.  I packed light.  I brought a Hasselblad 500 C/M with two lenses:  a 50mm f4.5 and a 100mm Planar f3.5.  I also brought along about 100 rolls of Kodak Tri-X (magic film).  The camera was rudimentary.  Just a waist level finder and a couple of 120mm film backs. No meter. No autofocus. No motors.  Just my eyes, my brain and as much cool industrial art as Hasselblad could cram into a body.  My back-up plan?  Buy another camera on site if this one failed.  But I was using Hasselblads in the studio, shooting 20 or 30 rolls a day for years and I hadn't had one fail on me yet...

So, what did I learn hauling that around?  Well, to start with I like medium focal length lenses and I could have just left the 50mm at home.  The 100 was about the equivilant of a 60-65 mm lens on a full frame, 35mm style camera and it always seemed just right.  I learned to judge exposure by using the little slip of paper that came packed from Kodak with each roll of film.  They had printed pictograms of the most common exposure situations and the accuracy was better that anything we get using a meter.

I learned, with 12 exposures on a roll to be discerning about what I shot.  I also learned to be patient.  If I shot too much too quickly I'd be out of film just about the time something really cool was happening.  I learned that old, waist level cameras were invisible and anonymous.  And I learned for the 10,000th time that the square beats the crap out of all other photographic formats.

When I got back home I learned that a big negative trumps all the technology in the world for image quality.  I learned that 120 mm film made contact sheets where each individual image was big enough to judge with the naked eye.

Belinda in Siena.

Belinda in Verona

And I've learned over the years that the pursuit of perfection in photography is great if you are trying to exactly replicate a box of laundry detergent or a stereo receiver for an advertising project but that perfection tends to suck the life out of images that are meant to be savored and enjoyed.  

I'm happy if something is in focus.  I'm happy if the image reminds me of an experience and I'm happiest when I can see the grain.  When I can see the grain I know it's art.

Finally, if you are shooting art for yourself you really only need one lens.  Not an all purpose lens but a lens you can believe in.  A lens that, when you look through it, makes everything look more exciting and more real.  A lens that matches the vision in your heart.  All the other lenses are bullshit.  They make them so professional photographers can do stuff the way clients want it.  Really.  If you don't get paid to do this stuff just narrow down and narrow down until you find a lens that makes your vision sing and then sell the rest.  You'll argue and you won't believe me but if you do it you'll be so much happier with your work five years from now.  Honestly.  It's the one thing I've learned chasing business and clients.  You compromise your vision.  One lens is all you need.  In fact more lenses just cloud everything up.

The best fashion shooter I ever met just had one lens.  It was a Hasselblad 150.  The front element looked as though someone had put a cigarette out on it.  She didn't own any other lens so she never had to think about which lens she would use or how she would work.  She just did her work and it was stellar.  No choices, just the right choice.  No confusion just vision.  Amazing.  But now we're all so fearful we feel like we need to have "all of our bases covered" even when we're just doing this for fun.  That's why it's not as much fun.  

Zooms are for sissies.  I have a collection. I'm just a sissy.  Show me the guy with one 50mm lens and no bag and I'll show you an artist.  Or at least a guy without a back problem.....

You won't listen anyway.  Go ahead and buy whatever you like.

Ahhh. The sweet smell of desire.

The shopping gene is irresistible. It's fun and entertaining. And it never stops. The image above was shot on the Via Condotti in Rome. Shopping central. In the spirit of a week spent doing commerce and making money I thought I'd go on a virtual shopping spree and also let you know what stuff I've already bought that I really liked.  Shall we?

So everyone has either ordered or already gotten their brand new, Olympus OM-D cameras and they are delighted.  But have you thought of an extremely cost effective back up body for those times when you want to sport two primes at a time????  You might want to consider the sturdy and reliable little EPL1.  You can pick them up right now on Amazon, brand new, for less than $150.  Why would you?  Have you ever wanted to take your camera somewhere......dangerous?  But you were reticent to do so because, well, it's an expensive tool?  Stick your kit lens on an EPL1 and go forth courageously.  The files are just as good as those that come squirting out of a current EP3.  And you can add the VF2 or VF3 finder for the ultimate in usability.  At $150 it's disposable cheap.  

But you may want something a bit more upscale and a bit more flexible as your cheap as free back up body to your new, gleaming masterpiece.  I strongly suggest snapping up one of my favorite cameras of all time:  The Olympus Pen EP2.  You can snag one right now, new with warranty, for only $269.  You get a second control dial and really nice styling on the body.  Of all the cameras I own it's got to be the most fluid and enjoyable to use.  I'm adding another one at this price because I think cameras like to hunt in pairs, I always like having more batteries and I'd love to walk around and shoot with the 45mm on one body and the 25mm on the other.  VF-2's on both, please.

Included just for show.  Snap up a clean one if you can find one.  It will be the ultimate photo collector's item in five years, or so.....

The next thing on my list is an adapter to use different lenses on my micro four thirds cameras.  I already have an adapter that lets me use the older, Olympus Pen lenses on the bodies but lately I've been thinking about sticking Sony Alpha lenses on the front of the EP2.  I didn't think it would be possible since the Sony Alpha's have electronic aperture settings but apparently Fotodiox makes one.  It's right here.  So, for a whopping $39 I'll have access to even more lenses.  Most interested in plugging the 30mm macro onto the EP's and seeing how that works.  (I haven't tested this one yet so caveat emptor...).

Speaking of Sony Alpha's I've been thinking about the two extremes represented in the lens line.  At one end you have dirt cheap plastic lenses that have great performance in a mediocre container and, at the other end you've got "no holds barred" performance in great tubes of alluring metal and white paint.  Here's my favorite cheapster:  The Sony 35mm 1.8 dirt cheap lens.  $219.  This is my "normal" lens for the APS-C Sony bodies.  It's extremely light weight and very nicely sharp at nearly all of the aperture settings I'm interested in.  If I break it or lose it I won't think it's the end of the world.   At the other extreme though sits my Sony 70-200mm f2.8 G lens.  And if I lost this one I'd be plenty pissed because it would cost me two thousand dollars to replace it.  But it does what I bought it for:  It's fast, it's sharp and clients get all woozy when I pull it out of the bag.  It actually gets about 10% of the use I get from the 35 but when I do need it (for swim meets, cross country meets and fancy portraiture) I'm glad I bought one of the best.

Circling back to cameras for just a minute.  I live in fear of being somewhere far from the studio and being caught with a dead battery in my camera.  But every time I head to the camera store to buy spares I'm stunned by the prices that Olympus and Sony (and Nikon and Canon) want for their camera batteries.  In desperation I tried some no name batteries I found on Amazon in my EP2 and EP3 and I was pleasantly surprised.  The brand I've been buying is called, Maximal Power, and, at $10 a wack they are wonderful.  No failures in two years....

As you know, I've written some books about lighting.  I try to be neutral and stick to the facts and that works well in a book about, say, LEDs.  I'm loving the LED Lighting for Digital Photographers because it's the first book about LED light for photographers in the entire book industry.  I actually have a MONOPOLY!!!!!!! Yeah for me.  If you haven't bought a copy yet please follow the link and at least read some of the reviews. You might not realize how badly you actually need this book. Almost as badly as I need you to buy it..... (kidding, of course.)

But if you poked me, or watched me work, you'd realize that my real love in lighting is the use of big, soft sources.  I've used Photek Softlighters for years but I've been on the look out for something bigger (72 inches) and sturdier (thick, fiberglass rods instead of crimp-able metal rods) and just as cost effective.  I've finally found my ultimate umbrella system.  It's from Fotodiox and it's a 72 inch umbrella with a white (or silver, if you need a bit more contrast) interior, a black backing to control spill, and (super bonus) a white diffusion cover to make it the ultimate umbrella/softbox combination.  I bought one and I'm thrilled with it.  Well made and, when used well, soft but directional.  It may be the perfect Kirk Tuck Lighting Modifier (KTLM).  I have the product bookmarked and I need to go back and get two more as back up.  When I find something I really like I want to get a few more in case the product changes or the distributor gives up....

Also available in Silver....  You'll probably want to use this one with a nice monolight or flash head instead of an LED....

If you are overwhelmed with technical product and lighting tools I can change course here for second and recommend a book.  It's by superstar photo documentarian, SebastiĆ„o Salgado, and it's a decade long photographic study of Work in the industrial Age.  It's an amazing book.  If you are into photo journalism and black and white photography you'll be delighted by the work of a master in both...

Finally, after having worked with my favorite tripod for a year I can whole heartedly recommend it for just about everyone.  It's handmade in Germany.  It's constructed of wood and metal.  It doesn't absorb heat or transfer vibration and chicks really dig the organic nature of it.  It's the Berlebach tripod.  You'll need to buy a tripod head separately.  That's your call.  Just don't put a cheap tripod head on a work of art.....  There are bigger and techier tripods out there but none with more useful personality.  An older post on the Berlebach's: http://visualsciencelab.blogspot.com/2010/07/tripods-love-em-or-hate-em-sometimes.html

I'm heading out to lunch with a new dining companion.  My dog.  She and I are going to P.Terry's for burgers.  She'll love the adventure and she never minds when I sit there and talk to her about camera gear.  In fact, I think she likes it.  She's always sniffing around the rangefinders.....