Everything has changed. Including the way we interface with our gear.

Sony a57.  85mm 2.8.  ISO 100 Jpeg. AWB

(warning: content may be too long for some readers).

As unbelievable as it may seem to readers of my blog and my friends here in Austin, there was a time when I would buy a camera system and hold on to it for years and years.  I’d squeeze every ounce of value from every body and lens and the only time we’d upgrade is when a camera or lens had given its all.  Or paid the “ultimate price” in the pursuit of getting an elusive image.  I still remember losing a Leica M lens in the first intake tank of a wastewater treatment plant.  We were on a gantry, high above the swirling tank and something jiggled the gantry just a bit re-triggering my thinly managed fear of heights.  I made the unconscious decision to grab a railing and the lens, caught mid lens change, flew out of my shaking hands and hit the “water” fifty feet below with a plop.  I grudgingly replaced the lens.  My assistant had been unwilling to dive in after it...

When it came to medium format cameras we might dip a toe in the rangefinder waters by getting a Mamiya Six or one of the Fuji “Texas Rangefinders”  but we wouldn’t think of getting rid of the standard,  our Hasselblad system.  That was the system that formed the imaging infrastructure of our business.  The 35mm cameras were for events.  The big ticket items were done with the top grade stuff.  After all, that gear was time tested and proven. We’d mastered it.

From an accounting point of view we’d always depreciated the gear because our accountants had a realistic expectation that we’d keep it and use it for five to seven years.  Getting it “on the schedule” was absolutely routine.  If we had free time to think about the nuts and bolts of photography that was generally a sign that we needed to get busy marketing or get into the darkroom to print up more candy for the portfolio.

What I’m getting at is understanding the historic mindset of trying to find the “ultimate” equipment for our photography and then working within the paradigm of using that carefully selected gear for a long time.  We anticipated many happy years of companionship.  And most gear did seem to have a useful life as long as that of a well cared for dog.

But the entropy of digital has shifted the way we think about every tool and workflow methodology now.  Accomplished artists move (by necessity)  from dye transfer to inkjet prints.  From big camera film to micro four thirds.  Adobe upends the production universe by pricing “to own” software, resident on your machine, sky high while offering to rent it to you at a lower price, in the “cloud.”

We’re moving from the 19th century concept that owning the tools of production is paramount to creating value and wealth.  We’re moving from a craft mentality which demanded a long and detailed mastery of all areas of a discipline into a post-craft world where the latest apps and styles take cultural precedence over perfectionism.  Witness “Instagram and be there!”

“You do not have to depend on any material possessions, they depend on you, you create them, you own the one and only tool of production.” — Dagny Taggart  (Atlas Shrugged).

When we first embraced digital cameras and digital processing we kept our ideas of long term ownership of our tools, and meticulous mastery of our craft as defined by the tools, because that was the paradigm we knew.  When Nikon came out with the first really useful professional digital camera, the D1X, we had no way of knowing that we’d be moving from a ten year or five year product cycle into and 18 to 24 month product cycle.  But we’ve made that transition.

Marketing pushed us to revere professional tools like Canon’s One Series of Cameras or Nikon’s “Single Digit D’s.”  The argument being that these tools were physically sturdy enough to stand the test of time.  But why should we care now if the shutter will click a quarter of a million times?  We’ll be on to the next great camera long before the little rivets shear loose and bang around inside those hallowed alloy interiors...

Instead, consciously or unconsciously, we’ve progressed to the point where I think each of us, hobbyist or professional, has come to grips with the idea that we’re on a continuous upgrade path.  It’s a path that looks a lot like ownership of computers.  To some extent we have to “keep up” or we’ll be shut out of the game entirely.  And it’s all interrelated. 
The willingness to upgrade almost certainly follows some sort of curve.  There are artists who crave more and more performance and who are chomping at the bit to buy the next piece of gear because they think it will move their art forward.  I think of my friends who shoot landscape.  Last year they were happy with their Nikon D3x’s.  This year they can’t wait to get their hands on a D800.  The extra pixels and the increased dynamic range are the lure.

Somewhere on that end of the curve are people like me who work for the fickle advertising markets.  Whether it’s driven by our clients or our own imaginations we’re always interested in the “next great thing.” Because, in part, we can use that in our marketing to our clients.  We can show them samples with higher resolution and better color.  If the awarding of a job comes down to a “flip of a coin” we might rationalize that having the more recent, and more able gear will give us some sort of advantage.  Even if it is realistically just the psychological advantage we accrue knowing we have at least one quantifiable base covered.

At the other end of the rampant acquisition curve you have the practical, rational, linear people who are still using Windows XP on a machine with a Pentium  microprocessor hooked up to a cathode ray tube monitor who are happy to use their original Nikon D100 because it “does what they want it to do.”  And who can logically argue with that?

I’m on a tangent of the curve.  I’ve given up caring much about raw performance.  I don’t have my name on a waiting list for a Nikon D800.  I’m not waiting for the Canon 1DX or wringing my hands because the D800 seems to pound on the Canon 5Dmk3 in all the “important” metrics.  I’m embracing the idea that all of this stuff is changing all the time and that there is no “ultimate” right or wrong choice among the 35mm style cameras.  The right choice is “whatever is really cool right now.”
We’ve often made allusion to our camera’s “just being tools.”  But I think we were looking at them like power saws or dremels.  I think they are more like paint brushes.  Where you might have one power saw for slicing through boards, and you would use different blades for different kinds of materials, the camera is getting to be more like the blades or paint brushes.  Each job really requires a different choice.

This has given rise to the multiple system ownership syndrome wherein a photographer, hobbyist, pro or dilettante now owns his “Serious Camera System” (SCS) which might be a big Canon or Nikon and a carefully selected collection of premium optics, as well as a smaller system and, at the third tier,  a compact, all purpose, small camera.

The smaller system will probably be one of the new mirrorless systems from Sony, Panasonic or Olympus, along with a secondary collection of fun new optics.  The rationale is that these cameras are for use where the bigger cameras might be too heavy or cumbersome; say when you are out for coffee and you’d like to carry a camera.  Almost every shooter I know, pro or not, is building two systems as fast as their credit cards will let them.  And overall sales numbers point to these cameras as the fastest growing niche of cameras outside of the cellphone camera world.

And finally, there’s the mini-mini’s.  The Canon S95 and S100.  The Panasonic LX-5 and  an ample sample of similar offerings.  The rationale here is that all of these (with some shoving and wrestling) will fit in a pocket and therefore be available for near instantaneous use at any time.  
But no matter which cameras we get we’re still trying to work in that paradigm of owning and mastering the tools for the long term.  I’m done with that.  I think our society is done with that.  Our willingness to work with apps in the cloud instead of applications on a hot rod machine is helping to fracture the paradigm.

I am accepting that all digital cameras are a nasty melange of processing chips and confusing technologies that seem at odds with anything lasting.  Three years ago the quality engineering logic was that fewer pixels on a given slab of sensor space would yield the least amount of noise and give us the most visual pleasure.  That’s now been turned on its head and DXO, and other experts, tell us that everything we thought was wrong and now the pursuit is maximum pixel density in order to get low noise.  But weren’t we just decrying how the marketers were duping the masses by selling cameras based on how many megapixels they had?  What will be next?  The admission that the chips haven’t really gotten much better but that the microprocessors and the software has gotten fast enough so that good processing in camera is no longer highly compromised by image/data throughput?

If you can process an image four times faster you could also process it four times better instead.  At least in theory.

It’s my assessment that we have moved from being imaging owners to becoming imaging renters.  We still buy  the cameras and lenses but, in the back of our minds we are at least entertaining the idea that the new camera in our hands will be transitory.  There’s a good chance that we’ll be attracted to something prettier and with more promise within a year.  And, we’ll push our old camera into a maturing reselling/recycling  pipeline and use the proceeds to welcome the new camera into our stash.

We’re in the middle of a very interesting sales cycle for cameras.  Canon, Olympus, Nikon and Sony have all launched new cameras very recently.  And now more than ever I hear the fever to migrate and “upgrade.”  People who told me just a few months ago that the D3x would last them, happily, for many years are now eager to tell me how wretched is was to have a camera with no sensor cleaner!  They are trying to move them out quickly, before the values drop.  Canon users have been given just about everything they asked in the refresh of the Canon 5Dmk3.  A more solid body.  Much, much better autofocusing.  Better and easier video.  A more robust construction.  And yet they seem unhappy because the grass looks greener, today, on the Nikon side of the fence.  Now they’re starting to grouse about not having enough megapixels.
The many, many micro four thirds fans seemed almost rabid to get their hands on an OM-D (EM-5), even though the EP3 is still fresh and fun.

And I had the Sony a77’s in my hands for less than a month before I started craving a new model that would deliver less noisy high ISO files.

And I’m hearing the same stuff I heard at the last round of camera purchasing, “The D800 will keep my happy for years!”  “The OM-D is finally everything I ever wanted in a m4:3 camera.
Given that we are never quite happy with our purchases how can we ever effectively sift through the calculus of defining our “ultimate” camera?

I wish we could just head down to the neighborhood camera store and rent the camera we want in the moment, and use it until the spirit moves us to try something else.  Wouldn’t it be great to be able to walk into a store and say, “I’d like a Leica S2 and the following lenses for the weekend.”  And have the clerk bring up a box with your requested camera gear, complete with batteries and charger. You’d use it and bring it back when you finished.  The next weekend you might be feeling sporty and you might want to rent a Nikon D4 and a few long, fast lenses to shoot Formula One from your Sky Box seat.  And so on.

We’d still have our every day cameras for our everyday photos but maybe we wouldn’t be so focused on finding the ultimate camera, capable of  doing everything, because we know rationally that such a beast doesn’t really exist.

I am now shooting with Sony SLT cameras.  You know, the funny looking ones with the pellicle mirrors inside.  Why?  Just for something different.  You’ve heard the saying, “Evolve or die.” ? I’m not so binary.  I like to say “Try new stuff.  You might find something you like better.”  I’m resigned to the fact that we’ll never be happy with our cameras for any length of time.  We’ll be anxiously wondering when that D900 or OM-Dx will hit the markets, just a few months from now.
Then again, maybe all the crazy people are right.  Maybe all we need is an iPhone and an internet full of filters.


Preliminary Tests of the Sony a57. A walk through downtown Austin.

I finished up a day that saw all of my will bent toward marketing my services as a photographer.  Wow.  That sounded dedicated and diligent.  Actually, I did a swim practice first, from 8:30 to 9:30.  Then I dropped by Starbucks to drink coffee and check my e-mail.  I worked for a couple of hours doing marketing and thinking about cold calling before I headed out to eat some really good Tex-Mex food for lunch.  After lunch I headed to a medical client's office to make sure my LED panels could be corrected to match their florescent fixtures.  Then I can home and did a bit more marketing and by 6;00pm I was all wound up.  So I grabbed the newbie a57 camera from Sony, wrenched an 85mm 2.8 Sony lens on the front and headed through the random chaos theory of traffic and went for a walk through downtown.

I walked through Whole Foods, tasted some wine and shot all of these food shots with the camera set to ISO 3200.  Click on them.  Look for noise.  It's really wonderful.  When I looked at the rounds of cheese somewhere below I almost cried because the files were so clean.  The lemon tarts are marred by the reflection.  Or,  I intended the diagonal reflections to be there as an indictment of expensive tarts........Can't quite decide on the right manifesto.  So I ate one instead.

Also 3200 ISO.  Jpeg.  Fine.

The three images above are also 3200 ISO, f2.8 with the 85mm.

These are Jpegs I can be proud of.  The colors are great and the sharpness is high.  Very high. The Auto ISO kept the camera around 100.


This is Todd Williams.  He is a very well known fine arts photographer.  And a workshop instructor at the Sante Fe. Workshops, among other places.  He is not homeless.
Like a venal paparazzi I captured him outside the entrance of his tony, downtown gym.
Click on the images and look at the skin tone.  Everything automatic.  Right down to the ISO.

When I started shooting the a57 any reservations I had about the quality of the EVF image or the low noise attributes of the sensor just slinked away and ceased to even be relevant.  This camera is the perfect adjunct to the a77. One is the finest low ISO/Super resolution camera (the a77) and the other is the high ISO camera Sony's been looking for.  And a damn good "all-arounder" for just about any kind of shooting I can think of.  And, oh.  Yes.  The 85mm 2.8 is amazing.  More so when you consider that up until two weeks ago it could be had new for only $249.  I should have bought more.

That's my first full day of shooting with the camera.  I had my doubts.  When I saw the files I was sold.  End of story.


How many ways to rationalize a camera purchase?

Behold !  It's the latest camera from Sony.  It's called the Alpha 57 and it's biggest claim to fame (from my point of view) is that it uses the same sensor that's been making the rounds in the Nikon D7000 and the Pentax K5.  Both those cameras are known for two things: Very clean high ISO performance and very wide dynamic ranges.  By extension, using the same sensor, the Sony a57 should do well in both of those areas.  And I think this will be important for Sony going forward because as much as Sony shooters love the dense, detailed and dynamically well disposed digital files they've been getting out of the a77 and a65 cameras the feedback about high ISO is less than sterling.  I've written about the a77's difficulties with noise in previous columns.  I really like that camera and, for 90% of the stuff I shoot, I find the files quite good.  

When I shoot raw (a77) and use DXO Optics Pro or the supplied Sony software to abate noise I am happy with the output with no caveats up to 1600 and, at 3200, it's very workable with a little elbow grease and the right subjects.  At ISO 50 the camera just squirts out beautiful, long tone files with oceans of detail.  A little small detail sharpening and I'm happy.

But I'm also lazy and able to rationalize new purchases at the drop of a hat. I wanted to find an inexpensive addition to my Sony "work" system that would give me drop dead gorgeous high ISO files right out of camera.  Maybe even in Jpeg.  So I've been following the roll out of the Sony a57 and reading all the reviews I can get my hands on.  But nothing is as accurate ( to answer to your own point of view ) as getting a camera and writing your own review.  Amazon.com is backordered on the camera and the website last night indicated a wait of two to four weeks.  That doesn't work for me.  Once I decide on something I want that instant gratification.  I called Precision Camera here in Austin and spoke to one of the owners.  Wonder of wonders!  I had a camera in my hands the next afternoon.  And.... it's a mixed bag. But what it doesn't do as well as its bigger brother is mostly "cosmetic" to me so I think I'll keep the camera because it does what I asked for when I first rationalized its purchase. (Damn, that sentence doesn't make any sense at all but it's exactly true to my thoughts....).

I paid right at $700 and I headed straight home with the box, excavated the camera, tossed in a battery from my stash of "500" series Sony batteries, carefully inserted a 32 gig card and got to experimenting.  Here's what I found:

First issue.  Only one dial (on the front of the camera ) to control both shutter speed and aperture.  Yikes.  I know there's a way to switch between them.  Oh yes.  Hit the AEL button on the back. Disaster averted.

Second issue.  A bit thornier.  I started with the OLED finders of the a77 and find them quite good. Nearly as convincing as a big ass optical finder even if they get a bit noisy in low light.  But the finder in the a57 is not as good.  It's as big it's just not as crisp and clean.  It almost seems to have a little flare in the system.  Usable out of the box but not great.  I've played with it extensively now and have one tip for new users:  Set the EVF screen to the "minus one" setting.  The contrast on the screen looks better and it seems to be a good match for most situations.

The body is smaller and lighter than the a77 and the battery is supposed to give maybe 100 more exposures per charge than the bigger cameras.  The handling is great and the focusing is equally snappy and assured.

That leaves me with the pressing question:  How is the high ISO performance of the camera?  We'll have to do more extensive shooting but I spent all evening yesterday walking around the house shooting at 6400 ISO and I found it to be much cleaner than the untreated (jpeg default settings) of the a77 at 1600.  I would guess that it's on par with the Nikon D7000 or perhaps just a smidge worse, given the light loss at the mirror.  But, it's a big improvement and adds what I needed to the system for those times when I'm sitting in the front row at Zach Scott Theater trying to line up a shot of moving actors under dramatic, low light and I'm already at f2.8 on my big zoom and wishing for 1/60th of a second.  That makes up for a little loss of "EVF happiness" and banality of only one dial.

I've had the camera now for only a day.  Less than 24 hours.  I'll carry it with me all week long and shoot everything from the parades in San Antonio to Eeyore's (countercultural) Birthday Party here in Austin.  And every shred of life in between.  In a week or so I expect I'll have a fleshed out report on the camera.  Right now it feels like Sony needed sorely to get a camera into the SLT system that could go toe-to-toe with other brand APS-C cameras at ISO 3200 and 6400 and my preliminary tests show that they've largely succeeded.

Now, the process of rationalization.  Here we go:  As you know, if you read the blog regularly,  I dumped a two and a half year accumulation of Canon EOS equipment after using it for two and a half years because I like the whole idea of the EVF's (electronic viewfinders) and I find Sony's implementation works well for me.  I assessed the system and decided it would be a good fit for most of what I do:  Portraits and set up (lit) advertising images.  I also shoot video and find the Sony video to be very good. 

The disconnect in the whole house of cards is this:  I shoot theatrical dress rehearsals once or twice a month and I needed a bit more low light performance.  I'd also like to shoot more evening work without lights and better ISO performance would help that as well.  For only $700 I get to plug a hole in the system.

The camera has a nearly identical menu and overall operational workflow as the a77 so there was no learning curve when it came to picking up the camera and engaging directly.

The camera is smaller and lighter which makes it a nice "carry around" camera to have with me.  I put the 50mm 1.4 Sony lens on it yesterday and can't think of a good reason to take it off...

I could also write a long review about the camera, post it on my blog and then link the product to its product page on Amazon.com and hope that legions of readers, seduced by my clever words, would rush there and buy the camera thereby helping to claw back some of my purchase price through referral fees (which have no impact on the final price of the product to you, the customer).
The fly in the ointment is obvious, though.  Here I am writing about the one product  that is currently out of stock for maybe the next full month.  By the time it's back in stock this missive will long since be forgotten and relegated to the bottom of the blog pile.

Final rationalization:  Well, at least I'm running a photo business and will be able to depreciate my camera purchase at tax time.....

Say, that's a good rationalization.  I wonder if they have any other expensive lenses I might need to "review."


An observation about the increasing importance of raw conversion software in critical photography.

I loved the way the light looked as it wrapped around handle of this white dish.
Shot at 6,000 by 4,000 pixels.

When I looked at the file at 100% (ISO 400) I could see colorful speckles of grain.

I ran the file through DXO Optics Pro and it handled the noise very nicely. 

I have a confession to make.  I thought cameras had gotten so good that I could just shoot Jpegs and be done with the whole mess of post processing. I know some photographers relish the butt time in front of the computer as much as the rest of us dislike it but, given a choice I’d rather work on a book or  talk a walk my city around and look at the real world.

I recently bought two Sony a77 cameras and, for the most part, I’m happy with the system I bought into.  There’s one thing that bugs me, though; the files have some noise in them, even at ISO’s as low as 400.  Now I’ve read Michael Riechman’s  comments about the noise and the cameras and I know he’s probably right.  We’re too busy looking at this stuff at 100%.  The images at 100% on our screens would represent huge prints and there’s no way we’d be standing so close to them that we’d even be able to see the grain.  But it’s like knowing how they make sausage.  Once you’ve looked at your files at 100% you’ve always got that queasy feeling when you think about big prints and fussy clients.  

And that’s kind of nuts because part of the lure of a 24 megapixel camera is the idea that you’ll be able to print large.  Really large.  In normal sized files I thought the images looked fine and to my clients there was really no difference between what I’d given them, file-wise, from last year’s cameras or the cameras I owned a few years before that.  But the tragic thing was that I would know. Compulsive behavior rears its ugly head.

Here’s what I think is happening.  I think most sensors are noisy little devils on their own and manufacturers pull the images off the sensors and then progressively slather on noise reduction as the sensitivity goes up.  At a certain point you reach a hinge point where you can either have nice detail, peppered with noise, or you can choose a smoother look and sacrifice the impression of finely delineated hair on striking blonde goddesses. 

The most egregious manipulation happens to Jpeg files and it’s horrible because once the camera spits them out they are well nye impossible to fix.  Once they are slurped and greased you can’t un-grease them even with the best software.  Why do manufacturers do this?  I think it’s really a question of how much per camera they want to spend on real time image processing in the camera pipelines.  The finer the control and the tighter the quality integration the more processing speed and buffering you’ll need.  And there’s always a calculus of intersecting value curves that yields the most effective, “I’ll buy it - curve” in the world of marketing.

Sony builds great sensor semiconductors and they are in use in many great cameras. Including famously noise free cameras like the Pentax KR5 and the Nikon D7000.  But they don’t seem to get where the tipping point is on noise and noise artifacts, or what constitutes excessive blurring of the files.  For most people it really doesn’t matter.  It isn’t a life or death issue.  It seems that Sony wants to build in super fast frame rates and big files with skinny buffers and the way they make it all work is with rudimentary “on the fly” noise treatment. Strictly mid-tier.  Nikon and Canon are either putting more effective processors and more complex noise reduction algorithms in their cameras or they have a vat of fairy dust somewhere with which they sprinkle their outbound cameras.  Either way, they leave Sony product in the dust.  Or so I thought...

After reading around the web and revisiting some of the product essays at Luminous Landscape I decided to make an all out effort to make my Sony a77 raw files the very best they could be and to pit them against the high ISO files I’ve accumulated from the Canon 5Dmk2 camera which I owned.  This might seem to be a “Sony-only” blog post but nothing could be further from the truth.  What I’m writing here pertains to a number  of cameras that have gotten a bad rap for high noise (although nothing will save a Kodak DCS 760C at ISO’s over 160....).

I’m going to boil it all down for you.  The way to creamy, dreamy files with good bite and low noise, even at ISO’s like 1600 and maybe even 3200 is to do this:  Turn off the high ISO noise reduction entirely.  All off.  Shoot in raw.  Yes, big, fat raw.  Then bring your files into a conversion program like DXO Optics Pro and handle your noise there.  Or in Capture One.  Even the Sony Image Data Converter program.  You’ll have much more control over the noise reduction protocols and you can offset the reduction in micro fine acutance with adjustments to all the parameters in unsharp masking menu.

I like DXO Optics Pro because, with my Sony a77, shooting in raw, the program will correct for the most common lens distortions, vignetting, chromatic aberrations, known sensor anomalies and other issues all at the same time.  I can override the noise recipes in the program and fine tune each file if I like.  It takes more time and the program is much slower than Lightroom.  I’m upgrading Lightroom as my next step so I can play with the same kinds of controls there and see who have the best combination of speed, convenience and image quality.

What I’m seeing now is that my a77 files are a pretty good match against the Canon 5D2 files up to and including ISO 1600.  The process of running files through DXO is more time consuming up to a point.  But in truth we’re keeping to our basic workflow and only optimizing files in DXO after the client has made a final selection.
We may shoot a thousand images in a day or two and after an edit we may be sharing several hundred with our clients.  We ingest the files in LIghtroom 3.6 (currently) and do quick global and “regional” corrections of the images before resizing them and batching them into web res images for online gallery display.  Once the client selects their images I run them through the DXO process and then send the files as Tiffs to PhotoShop for anything that requires selections, layers, or spot color corrections.  And of course, the obvious cloning, healing and retouching.  Starting with a higher quality file that’s geometrically “mended” is a load off my mind.  And it adds a lot of value to my new cameras.  At lower ISO’s they are more than competitive with cameras like the 5D mk3.  

While they probably will never come close to yielding a low noise file at ISO 6400 I rarely shoot at those settings anyway.  It’s a lot more routine to try and shoot at lower ISO’s in order to get the maximum dynamic range. That's why we own various lights.  And at ISO 50-200 the Sony’s are as good as anything but a Nikon D800 for total dynamic range and endless detail.  And at less than half the cost.

The whole point of my blog post today is to point out how critical software can be in grinding out the very best potential images you can get from any camera.  Some camera makers actually make software that shows off the best of their cameras.  Nikon is one that comes to mind.  And some make kludgy software that barely passes muster (like Sony).  If you know where the issues are you can experiment with the best solutions for their resolution.  Whether inside the camera or inside the computer the changes all come down to different software and processing choices.  Sony is betting that most people will find their fast throughput, lower quality solution adequate.  Thank goodness you can choose to take their raw data and make it much better.  If you couldn’t improve on the pictures then no one would bother making and selling the aftermarket processing software.  
In the next few weeks I’ll try to shoot some images that clearly show what I’m talking about here but in the meantime don’t take the limitations for your camera for granted.  The internal software of your camera might be like the cheap tires on an otherwise high performance car.  They’re relatively cheap to replace and you may be in for a much better ride.

Now I’m happy with my cameras.  With the right processing software they do exactly what I want them to do.  


Saturday is restaurant day. Photographing food. Celebrating new beginnings.

Saturday was a fun day for me as a photographer.  I'm a real "foodie" and I love it when I hear about great, new Austin restaurants that are poised to open.  So at the behest of one of my favorite restaurant marketing companies I headed down to the vibrant Rainey St. neighborhood to meet Iliana and Ernesto and to make some photographs of their incredible cuisine that is defined by their time in Oaxaca, Mexico.  The art director I worked with wanted to keep the images light and simple.  We had a short window of time and a lot to do.  I packed light.  We moved fast.

These are the owners of El Naranjo, Iliana and Ernesto.  They are joined in their newest venture by their daughter who trained at the Culinary Institute of America.  

As you can imagine, with only two weeks to go till the opening the restaurant is still a work in progress.  Tables and chairs are arriving in patches.  The floors are still being finished and the paint on the walls is still fresh.  I brought along several LED lights in case I needed to construct a lighting design but as I walked through the restaurant I noticed how the light came billowing in through the windows of one of the dining rooms.  I brought a small table close to a convenient, southfacing window and used a big, white diffusion panel to soften and direct the sunlight.  I could tilt the top of the panel toward or away from the food if I needed control of highlights and bright spots.  It's really a wonderful way to work with food.

This is the complete lighting set up. There was sunlight bouncing around the room, reverberating from the white walls and providing a nice, natural fill.  While the light changed direction over the course of the two hours in which we shot the diffuser helped us maintain a continuity that will be important on a website.

Of course, I could have brought along ten or fifteen thousand dollars of electronic flash equipment and a car full of assistants in order to duplicate the natural light and ensure consistency forever.  But to what end?

I started out shooting from a tripod with a Sony a77 camera and a Hasselblad 120mm Makro lens but I wanted to work quicker, with less restraint and I wanted to get even closer that that big lens would allow so I took the camera off the tripod, set the ISO at 400 and started working, handheld, with the Sony 30mm macro lens.  The shot just above was just what my art director was looking for and then we were off and running, looking for variations.

As each dish came out of the kitchen we'd wipe it down with small towels to make sure there were no fingerprints or unintended drops or spots on the white dishes.  We knew we wanted the close, angled point of view for each dish but I also wanted to shoot from directly over the top of each dish so that whoever ended up designing the website would have choices.

None of the food is in any way adulterated, oiled or treated.  To do so is really a misrepresentation.  Good food that looks good should photograph well without the kind of tricks that led the FTC to mandate certain rules about food advertising.  The primary rule is that the "hero" of the ad (the product you are selling) is representative of product that the consumer could find on the shelves of a store or in a restaurant.  No oil or shoe polish allowed.

I bring this up because there's a myth that the food in a food shoot is inedible.  Not so.  I gorged myself on this incredible avocado-rich ceviche.  I could make it the mainstay of my diet....

My wife loves good soups and the caldos at El Naranjo will bring a smile to her face.  My intent was not to bring the whole bowl and all of the ingredients into sharp focus but to create my impression of the soup.  It is somewhat maddening to try focusing in close to a warm bowl of soup and being able to smell the delicious and intoxicating vapors without tossing the camera aside and grabbing for a spoon.  

The specialties of El Naranjo include many traditional molés from Oaxaca.  The dish above is a medley of vegetables sprinkled with a white cheese and paired with a bright red molé sauce.  A delicious vegetarian treat.  To photograph this plate I planted my elbows firmly on the table and leaned right into the food.  I exhaled slowly and release the shutter three or four times in a row.  I was testing the "Ken-Rockwell-Slow-Speed" methodology which advises getting steady and then releasing a bunch of frames.  The idea being that your body will settle somewhere in the process and yield some sharp frames.  I'm not sure if it's Ken's methodology or the in body stabilization but I didn't lose too many frames to movement.  I worked with shutter speeds ranging from 1/30th to 1/160th.  But higher magnification has a way of amplifying movement...

I love the optimism of a new restaurant and I love the freshness of a restaurant space before the first smudge appears or the first scratch of a chair puts a scar across the wooden floors.  The bar stool were just arriving.  Interesting to shoot and then look at the exposure setting.  I was working at 1/13th of second for that shot.

Not having my camera locked down on the tripod gave me a freedom to wander around between shots and snap interesting little vignettes.  I like the view from my side of the pass window into the kitchen.  I love to see the new stoves and machines out of focus in the background.

This is a fish  that is wrapped in leaves that have a taste like licorice or anise.  The poached fish was perfect.  It's interesting to me just how good the small and cheap Sony 30mm DT macro lens is.  For around $200 I had an optic that was sharp and color neutral.  And capable of focusing down to lifesize on an APS-C camera.  The combination of the a77 and the 30mm macro equals a lightweight but powerful shooting package.

All of these images were shot yesterday afternoon.  We went through about 450 frames and lots of dishes.  Our lighting stayed the same from shot to shot.  The only variations consisted of moving a plate closer or further away from the diffusion panel to get a softer or harder lighting contrast.  None of the files have been enhanced for final use.  Some need a bit of contrast correction and some will be happier with a little bit of retouching around the edges.  That's a project for the coming week.

All of the images were shot in the full 24 megapixel raw mode.  All the images shown here were done with the 30mm Sony macro and the a77 camera.  The EVF was instrumental in being able to move quickly and with great accuracy as the images could be dialed in for focus, comp and color and shot instead of the more iterative process required when using flash or cameras with optical finders.

I am happily anticipating the opening of El Naranjo. One of the advantages of photographing food for Austin's best restaurants is knowing, in advance, which restaurants will bring a big smile to your face.  This is one of them.

edit:  Image by ©2012 Lane Orsak added below.  

A photo of my eccentric shooting technique while grappling with the tiramisu....

That about sums it up.

Thank Lane!


Which one will you end up with? And what will you want in six months?

The Canon 5D mk 3 and the Nikon D800 are both incredible cameras.  Absolutely incredible cameras.  Each is a wonderful machine with which to make digital images.  But if you were working with a clean slate and a big, fat credit card, which one do you think you'd plump down for?  Which system calls to you with the ultimate siren song?  Or is it like the choice between two great Bordeaux wines?  Both are incredible but you can only open one...

There are some among our numbers who will own both.  A few contemporaneously and most, serially.  If I didn't have a stitch of Canon or Nikon glass and no other legacy bodies what the heck would I do?

I've played with both and I'm stumped.  The Nikon has image quality galore (especially if you are a DXO true believer) while the Canon 5D mk3 shoots much faster and whips through its buffered images quicker. Some people think the Canon has a better auto white balance while others prefer the Nikon.

The bottom line, really, is that both camera are great photo machines and for most people the choice will be simple.  If you have a bag full of L glass the increase in ultimate resolution is probably not enough to push you to change.  You know logically that if the Nikon breaks all kinds of sales records Canon will have a camera to match it in a matter of months.  In the meantime you can walk around pontificating about how 21 megapixels is really "the sweet spot for pro's..."  and you can talk about how much quicker your post processing is and how few hard drives you are filling up by comparison.  Now, there is that pesky light leak thing....  I'm sure someone who used to design LCD panel systems for Canon has been banished to Sigma or some other level of industrial hell for his most grievous errors.

On the other hand, if you shoot Nikon cameras you'll lunge, without a doubt, to embrace the Nikon D800 and won't even cast a curious glance across the fence because, for all intents and purposes, the grass (for once) is greener right in the middle of your currently occupied field.  Enjoy the camera right now.  If you can get your hands on one...

But, if you have neither system, and you were contemplating buying into one, which way should you go.  As you might expect I have opinions about that.

I've been on both sides of the fence.  Most recently I owned a bunch of Canon stuff.  I owned Nikon stuff right up to and including the D700.  I'm pretty familiar with the lens selections in both camps and I think I can make some good judgements.

If you are involved in video production and you think or know that you'll want to use your camera as a primary shooting tool I'd have to give the nod to the Canon.  Not because I think the images will be better or the sound will be better but because it's so easy to use legacy manual focus lenses from so many sources on the Canon.  With the Nikon it's just not as simple.  Leica R lenses, old Nikon lenses (usable on both) and a slew of other stuff.  Zeiss cinema lenses are a good argument in favor of Canon, for the moment.

But if that's not your concern I'd steer you to the Nikon D800.  Why? Because they seem to have figured out (after the devastatingly dismal DX years) what consumers want and how to deliver it.  They want great files, total in camera lens corrections in Jpeg and raw, and they want low noise at high ISO's.  With the D800 you get most of that and you buy into a system in which a backup body such as the D3s gives you all the high ISO performance you can ask for in the market today.
Easy choice.

Which one will I buy? Now that's a bit more difficult.  See, I think all these cameras should have really cool EVF's instead of last century prism finders.  For the moment I'll be content sitting here with my Sony SLT a77's and waiting (patiently?) for the introduction of the much anticipated Sony a99 full frame SLT camera.  If you can believe the pervasive rumors we'll be looking at a body with this century's viewing mechanism coupled with the same chip as the one in the Nikon D800, weatherproofing and lotsa of super cool extras.

For most people in the market for a new camera right now I'd say, "Wait a month or two and just get the new Panasonic GH3.  It will be smaller, lighter, cheaper and for all intents and purposes, as good as anyone will need for any medium or practical use we're looking at today."  If you can't wait for the GH3 then get an Olympus EP3 or OMD.  Heck, they're more fun to shoot than all the bigger cameras I've played with. But if you go with the Olympus cameras don't forget to bundle in the miracle lenses.  Those are the 12mm, the 24mm Leica Summilux and the 45mm.  And don't you dare buy an EP 3 without a VF-2 finder.

Finally, all these cameras have one thing in common.  They'll shoot better video with LED light panels than they ever will with flash.  Pick up one of the Fotodiox 312AS two color LED panels.  Then, at least you'll be able to see what you're focusing on.....

For current Canon and Nikon users the pathways seem fairly clear cut.

Will Crockett always makes me think in new ways. I follow him because he understands customers.

Admiration for a simple approach.  Most photographers I know love to complicate a process.  We have all kinds of slogans like, "K.I.S.S. Keep it simple, stupid" but in the end we always look for the process that has, at least, the promise of perfection...if only we can grind down into the details and master it.  But that isn't always what our clients are looking for.  And, truth be told, it's not always what suits us best.

I've always been interested in creating slideshows and kinetic presentations that blend images and video but I've always been put off by the "official" methods of creating them "at the highest levels."  There are times when having to have the best or coolest of everything just makes a process a lot less fun. And if it's too much drudgery you reconcile yourself to waiting until a paying client pokes you with a sharp stick until your actually learn a new technique.

But then, out of the blue, my old friend, Will Crockett, sent me a copy of a DVD he'd just done.  That's a scan of it, above.  The program is aimed at amateurs and even beginner pros.  A lot of the DVD deals with what you can do with smaller cameras and micro four thirds system cameras.  And, guess what???  Will also thinks that because clients ARE demanding "blended" products (video and still images ) the lighting of the future seems to be...LED's.  Wow.  How about that?  (I know, I know, you just love your strobes to death and you have absolutely no interest in video.....)

The video shows, from simple to "better," how to put your images into a moving video program, complete with music and effects = for free.  And then it takes you through the ways you can share the video or use it in your business.  It's really an eye opener for me.  I've been struggling to master Final Cut Pro X but I tossed together eight or ten images in the space of five minutes and, with a website called, Animoto, I made and uploaded a fun little video.  The video costs around $40 and you might know lots of stuff that's on there already but it's a pretty good overview of what you need to know to get started if you are trying to create fun products for yourself or your clients without committing to the major time sink of full bore video production.

Here's my first attempt with some downtown Austin photos.  All videos  under 30 seconds are free on Animoto.


Will this revolutionize my world? Naw.  But it opened my eyes to all the free and low cost services out there that can help me share video and still images with friends and clients.  And I have to thank Will for that.  He does a great job explaining technical stuff and his websites are a treasure trove of common sense stuff.  If you want esoteric, look somewhere else.