Forget ISO 25,000. I'm loving what I'm seeing at ISO 50.

Note to all technical geeks:  I assume that the "native" ISO of a sensor is where it gives you the greatest dynamic range coupled with the cleanest file.  For the a77 DXO clearly shows on their graph that it is squarely at 50 ISO.  They're pretty smart so I don't really give a crap about anyone else's presumptions or conjecture.  And...I've shot at 50 and 100 and 200 and 50, by far, looks the best.  Sorry if the science fails you.

Many times over the past few years of writing about cameras I've made the statement that I'd prefer a camera with the ability to do a "real" ISO 50 over a camera that does infinitely high ISO files.  Here's the reason:  Most of the work I do is completed under controlled lighting and in commercial work the bulk of it is done on a tripod.  While 50 ISO may not work as well for moving people shots with LED panels I've still got a studio full of nice electronic flash gear I can press into service when I want it.  A "real" ISO 50 (as opposed to the "pulled" ISO 50 on the Canon cameras) can be the highest resolution and lowest noise setting on a camera with a sensor designed for detail.  And the added benefit in the case of the Sony a77 (as confirmed by DXO and this Dutch website: http://camerastuffreview.com/en/reviews-en/camera/85-testen/cameratest/sony-cameratest/275-review-sony-a77 ) is that this is also the setting for the widest dynamic range for that camera and sensor.  They were able to get over 2500 lines of resolution with a usable dynamic range of over 10 stops IN JPEG in their tests.  Absolutely amazing.  And the ISO's of 64, 80 and 100 are just tiny increments less perfect.

But I never take other people's test to heart without confirmation at my own hand.  After a week of shooting nearly 1,000 exposures with the a77 for clients (including a bunch of very nice, clean work at ISO 800, with LED panels as primary lights ) I decided to head out this afternoon, around 4:30 and run some tests of my own.  I set the camera to Super Fine Jpeg (I've flip-flopped and decided that, in the default settings, this is the ultimate Jpeg shooting machine....but I'll explain that in another post).

The idea to test at ISO 50 came from a statement I made in a post two days ago about getting the most out of your camera.  I suggested that rather than only focus on worst case shooting scenarios when breaking in your new camera, that you also try the settings on your camera where you can expect the best case scenarios to see just what you and the machine can do.  Having written it I thought it only reasonable to head out and give it a try.  I'd already spent loads of quality time on a tripod this week, some of it down around 100 ISO so I had an inkling of just how sharp and how much resolution the 24 megapixel files have.  In a word, at that setting, better than a $3,000 Canon 5DMk2.

I also wanted to do a test of my newest lens, the Sony 35mm 1.8 DT lens.  It's a lens that's made to cover only the image circle of an APS-C camera and it's made out of plastic materials but according to everyone else's test it's a really sharp optic.  Especially in the center of the frame.

Today was our "get used to Summer" day here in Austin.  The mercury hit the 95 degree mark.  A bit hotter downtown... 

I set the camera at ISO 50, turned on the Steady Shot IS, set the AF to spot, and the image file setting to Standard.  And away I went.  I even got fancy and put sunscreen on my face.  My concession to the relentless Texas sun.  I shot everything.  EVERYTHING at f4.  I figured that would be the sharpest setting.  Two stops down from wide open.

The combination of the slow ISO, the optimum aperture and the overwhelming resolution of the camera make for files that can be enlarged and enlarged without every showing grain, noise or lack of sharpness.  It's like shooting MF digital  (and yes, I have tested and reviewed three of the four major brands of MF digital cameras in the last three or four years...)  the performance at the lowest ISO is worth any of the other compromises in the camera.  I conjecture that, putting the camera on a stout tripod and adding in Multi-Frame Noise Reduction you have a fighting chance of rivaling the new D800 for ultimate, on paper print performance.  I'll test it soon and find out.

This is my new hat.  I think it's cool.  When I went to an ASMP breakfast this morning a very cool guy named, Destry, had one just like it.  Since he is nearly half my age I took that as a certification of coolness.  At any rate it came with me on my walk and sat next to me as I had a cappuccino (again, one of the finest I've ever tasted) at Medici Caffe on Congress Ave.  The shot is cool to me because it's taken at 1/13th of a second and it's incredibly sharp.  Shooting ISO 50 indoors.  How chic?  And it would give you prime glass shooters the opportunity to spend more time at the interesting side of the aperture ring....

I've often said that Austin is a wacky town.  These guys were driving around in the van with the side door open, filming who knows what.  They stopped at the traffic light and I photographed them as I walked into the cross walk.  No one else even batted an eye.  Weird stuff happens so continuously in Austin and most people are inured to it after a few months.

This is my perennial test building.  I blow it up on the screen and look at the bricks. If I can read the brick maker's logo I know I have a high resolution tool in my hands.

When I got back to the studio car I remembered that I'd left the top down.  I'm glad it didn't rain.

My final shot (above) is a person at an outdoor bar on sixth street.  She is standing in front of a fan and occasionally the fan sprays out a mist of water for that "evaporative cooling" effect.  She was gracious enough to re-pose because she was about to walk off when I found her.

Remember the days before everyone wanted their camera to be the Swiss Army Knife of cameras and to be good at everything (impossible)????  We had cameras that took big film for landscapes and images that would go up large.  We used em with slow film to maximize the effect.  We had our snicky little Leicas with impossibly fast lenses, and pushed film, for the stuff we needed to shoot in the dark.  We had the best of both words by using specialized tools.

I'm right there with the new Sony cameras.  The a57 is a low light champ with 16 nice megapixels.  The a77 is my studio, low ISO, super res camera.  And I have one more thing that none of the Canon and Nikon shooters have yet.  I have a beautiful EVF finder.  The only 21st century technology, professional camera system out there.  

It doesn't really matter what brand of camera you have.  You might try using it at it's lowest "real" ISO and using good technique.  You might be shocked at just how good your gear can be.

EDIT FOR ALL THE STRANGE PEOPLE ON FORUMS.  While you may "want" the base/real ISO of the Sony a77 to be whatever you want it to be I'm going by the material I read at DXO Mark.  The info shows the highest DR and the lowest noise at ISO50 which is NOT a menu extended ISO but a marked ISO.  This would explain the lower (by one stop) noise performance at the top ISO as well.  If 100 ISO were the real sensitivity of the sensor I think that's where you'd see the top DR.  And unlike many who would rather argue than test for themselves, I've actually shot comparisons between 50, 64, 80 and 100.  50 is better.  On all counts.

To the wag who suggested that I must be using Sony cameras now because, "Nikon Stopped Giving Free Stuff to Kirk.."  I'll reiterate what I've disclosed here time and time again:  We pay real, hot American money that I earn from writing books and shooting assignment photography for almost 100% of the cameras I write about and review.  We note all exceptions.  The one camera I received free of charge was an Olympus EPM-1 (the lower part of the product range) as part of their "GetOlympus" promotion.  While I would love for Sony and Nikon and Canon and Olympus to send me free, top of the line cameras, in reality I pay for them just like everyone else.  

Good Lighting means paying attention to the light that's already in front of you.

Elgin, Texas Sausage Maker.  4x5 Transparency.

A few years back a fellow name Mike Murphy was the photo editor for Texas Highways Magazine and he called to ask if I'd like to shoot a feature on the town of Elgin, Texas.  Elgin is known far and wide for their really good BBQ and their really great sausage.  I took the job and, even though we were in the Nikon D2X digital age at the time I asked if I could use large format film for the assignment.  Mike agreed.

While it may seem counterintuitive to shoot magazine photo-journalism with a 4x5 inch Linhof field camera (TechniKarden) it's really not and photographers have been doing it for decades.  Many of the images on our list were shots of things like historic building exteriors and interiors and I wanted to be able keep my verticals straight.  I also like the idea of slowing down and concentrating.

I shot 100 frames for the assignment.  That's all that came in the two boxes of film I had budgeted.  I shot two boxes (40 pieces of large format, black and white 100 ISO Polaroid test material) because that's all that came in the two boxes I budgeted.

I wanted a shot of a sausage maker and when this guy came walking by me with a big metal tub of sausage I thought the excess would be humorous and would make a good opener for the dining section of the story.  I asked the man if he could come back with another tub in about 10 minutes and I started setting up the camera.  I figured out my composition and, since it was dark in the area I wanted to man to stand in I knew I'd also have to set up a light.  I set up a Profoto 300 w/s monolight, firing into a 60 inch Softlighter umbrella, with its diffusion cover.  I was looking for f11 and then I dragged the shutter to bring up the background. (That means I dropped the shutter speed slower and slower until a meter reading (incident at the back wall) told me I was in the ballpark.  Only when I was nearly certain of my lighting from the flash, and from the tungsten down lights, and the overall florescent lights did I commit a Polaroid.  It was half a stop bright so I made a mental note to adjust for the film.

I did not filter the flash to match the green fluorescents in the back ground and then neutralize the whole frame with an on camera filter.  I liked the idea of the color contrast of the flash lit sausage and bright red apron against the green of the wall.

I shot three frames of film because I could see, standing next to the camera as I shot with a shutter release cord, that my subject blinked on the second exposure.  When we finished I thanked him and then took everything back down and moved on to my next shot.

It's a straightforward photograph and, like the rest of the article, was fun to do.  It was my last editorial job with 4x5.  Everything since then has been digital.

Would I do it that way again? With large film?  In a heart beat. If Polaroid was still kicking and the magazines were willing to budget for it.  


What's missing from the current practice of photography.

History is a story with no ending.  You read it from the past to the present.  
Then you make history.

Funny thing happened on the way to educating our country.  We lost track of how important history is and we lost sight of what it really means to be educated. Somewhere along the line we decided, as a culture, that the only really important thing was to have a career and get a job and make money and be comfortable.  In order to do this most efficiently we took our universities, which previously had subscribed to a mandate that good education meant well rounded education, and turned them into big trade schools. Mostly for the benefit of big business.

Each "discipline" narrowed down its focus to transmit only the rawest and coarsest base competencies.  Engineering students learned their math and physical sciences but lost the institutional mandate that required what used to be considered basics.  Things like literature and a foreign language became roadkill for the sciences.  Business majors never see the inside of a philosophy or art history classroom on their rush to riches.  Our forefathers knew that it was in our society's best interest that people understand the value of good novels and poems, become civilized by appreciating important and time tested music and also to understand the arc of art history and art in general.

It has been said that "Art tells us what it is to be human."  And I would say that any society that doesn't value it's art will soon cease to be creative, cease to produce truly creative products and will live a meaner existence. To not know history is to be doomed to endlessly repeat it.

Many people flock to photography and practice it as a hobby or a business but so few of them know anything about the history of the art.  Or the history of its technology.  Without knowing the rich past of photography we have no base line to understand its arc and its depth.  And we're left with a generation of photographers who are re-interpreting the same wheel in the same (concurrent) time period, over and over and over again.

No wonder people are fascinated with Instagrams and Hipstergrams.  It's just a recycling of Polaroid SX-70 manipulations and Polaroid transfers.  Most of the current practitioners weren't old enough to have been around for the first iteration but its aesthetic has been kept alive by advertising references and rehashes for decades.  Would the new iterations be anywhere near as popular if the people doing it now knew that their parents and grandparents did the same thing, analog style, so many years ago?  Probably not.  They would shun it and perhaps go in a new direction.  They might seek new ways to speak with their cameras instead of copying stuff that their aunt did when she was their age.  ( And, by the way, Ben Lowy's work is interesting because of the content, and context, not the trendy presentation.....)

Would the photographers who think they are being cool by taking images with their tiny cellphone cameras be surprised to see a portfolio of Helmut Newton's fashion work done on a beach with a 110 (mini-film) interchangeable lens camera from Pentax back in the 1970's?  It was primitive and the film was primitive so it was all about the talent of the photographer.  Would people be as impressed by Chase Jarvis's oh so kinetic Ninja shoot if they had already seen the work of Phillipe Halsman's Jumpology from (gulp) the early 1960's?  Would they be amazed by the Photoshop work of hundreds of thousands of worker bees if they had spent time looking at paintings by Salvatore Dali or even Brueghel's Tower of Babel ?

And who doesn't understand that our modern ideals of beauty were invented and presented by painters Botticelli and Michaelangelo and especially Leonardo Da Vinci?  And that no one has created a more beautiful three dimensional work in all of human time than Bernini's Apollo and Daphne?

Our rush to decimate all of the non-essentials of learning in exchange for training will eventually destroy our entire culture because it takes away the reasons and rationales for all of the hard work we, as a culture engage in;  to be captivated, enchanted and mesmerized by art and music and poetry, romance and all the things we do because we love them, not because they bolster some bottom line.  How do you put a financial value on falling in love with the lines of a poem?

Photography is interesting today in that we are constantly obsessed by the availability and constitution of the tools. We spend all of our time on the equipment and none of it learning the stories and legends and motivations of the guiding lights and historical figures of our own art and craft. We know nothing of the great works and the struggles against all odds that produced them.  We say "good capture" to the weekend warrior who goes on a photo walk and takes a sharp picture of a cat but we've never learned of the struggles of the Civil War photographers (Matthew Brady: Sketchbooks of the Civil War)  who had to coat glass plates in the field for film and then make sharp images with long exposures on cameras that weighed over 50 pounds and had no functional controls.  People made exposures then by uncapping a lens, counting down and estimating exposure times and then recapping the lens.  The chemicals that made the final images were often times toxic and deadly and yet, the artists were still able to make images that would shame all but the greatest photographers of our current time; if we could distill our current masters from the vast fields of chaff....

Are we so smug and spoiled and narcissistic that we can't value the history and the past glory of our own craft?  We are so busy honoring our current "teachers"  that we can't even see around them to the incredible contributions that came before.

I wrote a book on lighting with small flashes.  It sold well.  People were ready to hear the message.  David Hobby preached the same message on his website.  And the vast majority of our customers and followers wrongly give us credit for "inventing" small flash photography or, in David's case, Strobism.  But the reality is that our work, for the most part is a shallow scoop into the work done by a person who was there before us named, Jon Falk.  He wrote a book back in the 1980's called Adventures in Location Lighting and he let us in on the secrets of using radio triggers, optical triggers, external battery packs, minimalist light stands, all kinds of flash modifications and much more.  He was an amazing source of information about all this stuff. (Thanks Jon!!!).

And I have no doubt that his knowledge was built on the information and inspiration that came from the generation just ahead of him.  And then all the way back to Dr. Harold Edgerton.

The primary difference is this:  His generation invented stuff to be able to say what it was they wanted to say. They had a mission.  It was to get a certain style of image.  Now the mission is to play with the gear. When is the last time someone told you about a subject they were intent on capturing in a new way?  And when did they tell you about their new lens/camera/flash?

Let's save the creative spirit of photography by learning what's come before us and let's see how the styles we leverage were created.  The same ones we build on today.  By knowing the past we can prevent spinning our wheels by reinventing them over and over again.  By studying the history of photography and the history of art we'll all benefit by being able to create new work that inspires a new generation.  Otherwise, to use a musical analogy, we'll just be stuck in the same elevator listening to the same Muzak version of Hey Jude  by the Beatles, over and over and over again until we die or photography becomes so stale and self referential that it dies.

So, you went to school and you got the job and you're financially successful.  Now plow some of that capital back into some important continuing education:  Dig deep into art and art history and you'll be rewarded beyond your dreams.  You'll actually learn how we fit into the rich and endless swirl of history instead of just watching "what's cool right now" being recycled on the web.

If you're going to tell me that you copy all of the current stuff in your own work as some sort of learning process I'll tell you that you're copying the wrong stuff.  Go for the classics.  That's where the magic is.  And the chicks will dig you more...

So many people work so hard only to come to the realization that they didn't make time during their working lives for the things that make us part of the human continuum.  The shared joy of our art and culture.  That's why so many older people take up painting, photography and expansive learning.  Easier to do it all along.  And, like compound interest, more valuable.

This is my 1,000th Published Post.  And it was finished at 9:30 pm on Weds., May 2nd 2012.

my favorite post: http://visualsciencelab.blogspot.com/2011/11/meaning-of-life-is-to-make-life.html

A similar post, suggested by a reader:

I'm going to get geeky and talk about an actual job.

This is an image we shot years ago on an Olympus e300 and the 11-22mm lens.  It holds up fine because I shot it on a tripod at a useful ISO.

I've had two remarkable days of photography this week.  I've changed everything I do.  Everything.  Up until a few years ago everything in my universe revolved around shooting with flashes.  Big flashes. Little flashes.  Remote flashes.  Flash on a wire and flash on a radio trigger.  I wrote a book about getting the most out of small flashes.  But for the last two days everything I've shot has been done with two relatively small LED panels on very small, lightweight lightstands.  And the most elaborate light modifier I've used is a rickety old, shoot thru umbrella which has a pencil taped (splint style) onto one of the struts that got bent in an unfortunate packing accident.

The panels cost me about $160 dollars each, require no electrical cords, don't need to be triggered by anything and can change output color temperature with the twist of a knob.  But this wouldn't have worked nearly so well for me if there hadn't been huge advances in digital cameras in the last couple of years. Clean files at 800-1600 ISO mean I can integrate my LED lights with existing lights and still get exposures with enough f-stop and shutter speed to stop the slow action I usually shoot.

The next big thing that synergistically moved the ball forward for me was the introduction of high quality, electronic viewfinders.  If you still think you'll never use one then you are already becoming one of those lunatic curmudgeons who rant and rave about cellphones not being real cameras.....(Hmmmm.)

I became aware of the fluidity of lighting and shooting with the this combination of tools in mid-shoot yesterday when I found myself looking through the finder of a Sony a77 and watching the color of a light source change as I twisted the knob on the back of a light unit.  I watched the scene and the light source get closer and closer to the same color temperature and then----they merged.  No iterative testing.  No hysterics.  Just dialing in the matching color temperature as though we'd always been doing it this way.  That's an amazing transformation.

People are writing about the Nikon D800 as a game changer because it does high resolution files and good dynamic range but we've got to admit that we've had access to that in medium format digital cameras for years.  But cameras with high enough quality EVFs to judge color are real game changers in the literal sense because now we can do stuff that we never used to do before with cameras.  We can dial in exposures and color temperatures and effects in real time.

One feature I'm starting to use more and more often (though not in the candy/clown way that we think of with this technique) is in camera HDR.  I'm using it to open up shadow areas in scenes so I only have to add small amounts of fill light.  I know that this is something many cameras now feature but it's amazingly useful in commercial shoots.  And, with my eye pressed to the finder it's easy to see just what the camera has done and whether I like it or not.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.  I wanted to talk about my new workflow so that's where I'm heading.....

I packed up to shoot some "editorial/corporate PR" at a restaurant on Monday.  Had it been an advertising shoot we'd have gone there when the restaurant was closed to the public and we'd have cleaned and styled and lit and tested and gotten all sorts of advertising agency approvals.  But in PR and editorial, especially if the location is not the client, you go when it's convenient for the people at the location and you shoot around the edges so you don't run off customers or inconvenience the staff.  I knew I didn't want to run electrical cables and have flashes going off so I packed just two Fotodiox AS 312 (two tone) LED panels, some lightweight light stands and a shoot thru umbrella.  That was it for the lighting.  Except for the big Sony flash that lives/hibernates in the big black Domke camera bag...

When I got to the location I checked in with the manager who gave me carte blanche. I shot some images in each of the dining rooms to start with.  I would set my Sony a77 on a sturdy tripod, line up my shot with the built in, two axis level and then shoot with the HDR engaged at a low level.  Most times the dynamic range was perfect but once or twice I needed just a bit more fill light in the shadows so I would put an  LED panel up high on a stand and dial it up (quantity) just so I didn't cast any additional shadows and then I'd dial in color temperatures (between 3200 and 5600K) while looking thru the finder to see when the colors matched.  Once they matched I shot.  I rarely did more than two images of any one scene because......why?

Since I was working with a tripod I could do all of the shots that didn't include people at ISO's like 50, 64,80 and 100.  The files (currently embargoed) are flawlessly smooth, detailed and sharp.  I think the HDR process works somewhat like another setting called Multi Shot Noise Reduction in that it stacks the frames and kicks out the noise components (which are random).  However it works it delivers ultra-clean files.  All of these images were shot as Jpegs which meant that the camera did the processing to straighten out the barrel distortion and vignetting of the 16-50mm lens, automatically.

After I shot all the stuff without people I ventured into the kitchen to shoot the important shots for the clients.  There was light from florescent fixtures with three different kinds of tubes and some light from skylights overhead.  It didn't bother me.  I rolled up the ISO to 1600 because I'd be shooting a cook,  and set up two of my LED panels for effective fill light in the darker corners and the background.  Then I did a custom white balance in the area of the kitchen that was important for the shot.  I knew that if I blew it I could color correct areas of the outlying quadrants in Lightroom or Photoshop.  I couldn't use the HDR setting because of possible movements but I was able to use the camera's DRO or dynamic range optimiser to bring up the shadow areas, albeit with a bit more noise.

After I shot some exteriors, with and without HDR, and with or without some flash fill, I headed home to post process and recharge my batteries and the batteries in my lights and cameras for a shoot that would start the first thing, next day.

Post processing goes like this for me:  Ingest images from card to Lightroom 4.1. Before ingestion but on the import page I do a rough edit and dump anything I don't like.  If the client doesn't see it they never know it existed.  During the ingestion I add the job name to the front of each file and have the program copy the files onto two different hard drives.  Instant critical short term back up.
Once ingested and previews rendered I sit down and do a vicious, take no prisoners edit.

Then I color correct and contrast correct in small batches.  If the job is small I also use gradients, retouching tools and whatever else the image needs.  If it's large I wait until the client picks the keepers to fine tune files.  Once I've made sure they all look very acceptable I output all the files as smaller jpegs and then upload them all to a password protected gallery on Smugmug.  I've used Smugmug since 2006 and currently have over 120,000 smaller (2000 pixel wide) files on their servers.  I send the client the link and the password and then I crank out an invoice.  Some get mailed and some get e-mailed.  Clients who are prone to losing invoices get both as well as a follow up e-mail...

When they make selections I do the necessary retouching and send them an additional bill for the post-processing and any additional totals for usage of additional images.  Then I sit around on my yacht and wait for quick payment.

The day after I shot at the restaurant I was engaged to shoot for a company that has a series of medical labs sprinkled all over Austin.  They do all kinds of tests including MRI's, CT Scans, PET Scans and other kinds of imaging.  Working with a great art director from their internal marketing department we spent a full day setting up shots with doctors, technicians and mock patients.  Most of the photos incorporated a million dollar+ machine in the shot.  Since time is money when it comes to high value, high investment diagnostic machines part of our brief was to be in and out of each location pretty darn quickly.

When I first started working for this company we'd come in and do the shots using electronic flashes. Usually monolights on big stands.  A typical location would require several lights with softboxes for the main lighting and then several smaller lights to put illumination on the backgrounds.  We'd set up and break down the gear at each location because it wasn't safe for the patients and staff to have us lurching down the narrow hallways with three foot by four foot softboxes on eight pound monolights on top of big lightstands with cords and extension cables in tow.

As soon as the digital cameras got better with low light we moved to replicate what we were getting from the big lights with a set of smaller, battery powered lights like Nikon SB-800's and the like.  We switched from predominantly using soft boxes to using more umbrellas because they were so much quicker to set up and take down.  I like the ones with black backing so I can control the spill light when I need to.

Now we're almost entirely using small, battery powered LED lights for a number of reasons. (Which I'll discuss below).

Our modus operandi for yesterday was to go into a room, figure out the action, line up a good shot, figure out the prevailing light, figure out if it needed to be improved, filled or transformed and then move in our small light panels and even out the lighting landscape.  We'd shoot fifteen or twenty shots and then try another angle and then another.  Three workable angles for each set up was pretty much the norm.  Then the lights would come down and into an Airport Security Think Tank roller, camera and tripod under one arm and off to the next location.

The downside of using the LEDs is the relative inability to freeze fast action (and that means anything that can't be reasonable halted by a 1/90th of a second shutter speed.  The second downside is that if you are going to shoot into a window there's not enough power to match sunlight, even through darkened glass.  Finally, the way to use LED's is to augment existing light instead of totally nuking the ambient light and replacing it with all new light.  Flash is not always practical when you have to show screen information and what not, and match illumination levels.

But the upsides are, for me, pretty compelling.  The lights are small, light and easy to place.  The fact that they don't flash is actually a big positive thing for me.  I'm working in what we'd call "practical" locations.  Real workplaces with loads and loads of non-professional talents.  I've come to understand that the flash of a flash is like a signal that something out of the ordinary routine is happening.  The flash attracts people like moths to a flame.  Everyone sees the flashes going off and they cruise on by to see what's happening.  Very disruptive.  And even more disruptive for the amateur talents who are already nervous and had to be cajoled into being in the shot.

And flashes make every gawker into a stand up humorist.  "Don't break the camera with that face of yours!!!!"  "Action!!!"  "What are you guys doing? Making a movie?"  With continuous lighting there's no repeating signal that says, over and over again, "Action over here. Come look."  Don't discount what a powerful time savings this is.  No one is really interested in anything that doesn't flash.  The camera isn't compelling.  The set up isn't compelling and that weak light on a stick is nothing much to write home about.  Can you hear it around the dinner table?  "Someone came into the office to take a photograph today.  The lights just stood there.  They weren't very bright.  They didn't flash."  Not a compelling story.

It's a lot easier than trying to keep your talent from being self-conscious as his or her work mates walk by to thrown in their two cents worth.  Another good thing about continuous light is that lack of anticipatory blinking that seems to happen with light sensitive people in front of the camera.

The second thing that's good, not just about LEDs but about all continuous lighting is that you can see all the little reflections and "gotchas" that are so hard to find when your flash is firing at 1/1500th of a second.  Really.

So, the combination of the Sony EVF and the Fotodiox variable color temperature LED panels helped me move through two projects more quickly that I could have done in the flash days and that's better for me and the client.

The workflow is, for me, so much more efficient that shooting/chimping/fixing/shooting/chimping fixing.  I know you think EVFs aren't for you and that's okay.  This story is about my use of the EVFs.  They make photography a hell of a lot more fun for me.  And that's all I really care about.


The process of gently breaking in new cameras.

The web is absolutely ablaze with gushing demonstrations of awe concerning the Nikon D800. I feel sorry for the folks at Canon who only launched a "very nice" revision called the 5Dmk3 instead of a revolutionary new photo machine.  If you read between the lines on Dubovoy's essay at the Luminous Landscape you'll quickly realize that this is the second coming of the ultimate camera.  (the Hasselblad 500 series was the first, IMNSHO).  

I had a call from a photographer friend today who owns the latest digital Hasselblad camera, a case of incredible lenses and shift adapters for it and a complete Canon system with all the tilt/shift lenses and most of the trimmings (including a brand new 5Dmk3).  His question for me:  "The camera store called.  They have a Nikon 800e set aside for me.  Should I pick up one and some of the tilt/shift Nikons?  And the 14-24mm?  And the 24-120mm?  And maybe one or two longer lenses, just in case?

See, not everyone's business is underwater.  But as good as the Nikon 800 is I'm sure that Canon will leapfrog over it.  They always do.  

My friend shoots differently than me.  He's an architecture photographer with acres and acres of experience and he comes home from a shoot with 40 or, at the most 50 shots to process and store. For him the file sizes are not a burden.  I shot 685 files today for a large medical practice today.  Each one of the files from my Sony a77 was about 25.1 megabytes.  I'm grinding through more gigabytes in day (post processing, galleries and storage) that he does in a busy week.  Different styles.  Different subject matters.  I do people. He doesn't stuff that doesn't move around, blink or grimace.  

Would I like a camera that shoots bigger files?  Not right now, thanks.  I'm waiting for the price of 4 terabyte drives to drop under $50.  But honestly, if I were putting together a system from scratch right now it would be kind of crazy not to strongly consider the Nikon.

I'm on a different track right now.  I'm more interested in the "user interface" than the absolute performance of a camera.  And after having just used the Sony a77 camera for two very different location assignments, one day after the other, I would have to say that the EVF on that camera is a game changer for me.  Most of my work is used just like traditional advertising and marketing photos have been used for the last six or seven years.  I can check the boxes with a 24 megapixel camera.  Web pages? Check.  Ads in magazines? Check. Brochures? Check.  Projected presentations in large venues? Check.  

What kind of work do I not do?  Big landscape shots printed 30 by 40 inches or larger for acquisition by collectors and galleries.  Uncheck.  I've never done it, I don't do it now and I don't see myself rushing into that market any time soon.

So, the files size I lusted after, back when I was shooting with my favorite Nikon (the D2X) was 24 megapixels.  Back then the medium format stuff was between 22 and 28 megapixels.  Now I have two cameras that do that with relative ease.  And they are incredibly fun to use.  But they are even more fun when you practice with them and get them figured out.

Here's my handy guide to figuring out new cameras:

1.  Read the manual.  Sit with the camera in front of you and read the manual, page by page. Find the stuff you read about and figure out how to set it.

2.  Go out and shoot for a full afternoon.  Limit yourself to one lens so you don't have more variables than you can handle.  Keep a mental note of the things that stump you.

3.  If you were stumped then go back and read the manual.  Try the stuff again.

4.  Set up a tripod in your studio and try all of the ISO's, one after the other, equalizing the exposure as you go. Then look at the files really big on your monitor.  Get to know the limitations of the files at various ISO's.  

5.  Do a "best scenario" shoot with your camera so you know just how good you can expect it to be.  For me that means taking a really nice series of portraits with the camera on a good tripod and the ISO cranked down to the point where the noise is non-existent and the dynamic range is fulsome and bountiful.  Look at the resulting files on your monitor and feel good about your camera.

6.  Go out and shoot it again.  But this time try to "feel" your way through the process instead of letting your brain try to power its way through the process.  Use some automatic settings and see where you can trust the brain in the camera and where you can't.

7.  Re-read the manual.  Then go out and try it again.  If you shoot sports go shoot some sports.  If you shoot portraits, do that.  If you shoot landscapes do that. Figure out the strengths and weaknesses of the camera in your specialty and then test ways to work around the weaknesses.

Once you break your camera in you'll have respect for what it's capable of and where it falls short.  And you'll be able to leverage or compromise.

The Sony a57 is a speed demon.  That's a plus.  The EVF isn't as good as the one in the a77. That's a minus.  That means I spend some time post viewing some critical stuff on the very good back panel screen.  But as I zero it in and see the differences between what the EVF shows me and what my studio monitor shows me I can depend on the rear screen less and my experience more.

An old Leica shooter once told me that you don't become a real photographer until you can set the shutter speed, aperture and focus of an M series Leica in the dark.  And then he added that the authentic shooters could also load the camera in the dark.  Pitch dark.  Not just "too dark for the AF module.."

I would submit that by getting to know your camera and carrying it with you all the time you'll get to know, almost unconsciously, exactly where the exposure comp button is and where the review button is.  How the camera sits in your hand.  How long it will take to start up.  How to fly through the menus to get exactly where you need to be.  And a lot more.  It's all about time with your camera.

In the end, if you know how to squeeze the most out of your camera you'll find you won't need the camera to do so much.  You'll know how to get the most out of it in every situation.

I know the a77 is noisy from ISO 800 up unless I convert files in DXO or some other program.  But I also know that for anything that doesn't move I can use the multi-frame noise reduction and get astoundingly clean files.  I use that a lot.  I use ISO 50...a lot. And it looks incredible.

Would I like a new Nikon D800?  If they come out with a body that has an EVF it would be hard for me to resist.  From where I'm sitting right now the one thing it does better than the Sony (big, detailed files with clean high ISO performance) is offset by the pleasure and usefulness of the EVF.  The files I'm working with are big enough and the dynamic range I'm getting is close as well.  Everything is a compromise.

Ah well.  Right now is the time for Nikon owners to strut around.  And they should enjoy it.  I remember too well the fallow days earlier in the decade when they huddled around campfires in fifty gallon barrels and prayed for the day they'd have noiseless files at 400 and something with a full frame sensor.  They watched many good friends succumb to the lure of the Canon miracle machines.  How the wheel turns....

Rockin it nu skool. Is it just me or did I go over the top on the post processing?

I was out shooting a restaurant yesterday and I photographed the chef.  And his hands.  And when I came home I put the photo into SnapSeed and started playing with my favorite sliders.  Now I don't feel so left out.  I can do work in a modern  vernacular. If I append a magnificent manifesto then the sky is the limit.

I think it all looks perfect.  Well, maybe the blur on the sides is a bit heavy handed.  And, well, maybe the color is a little...too juicy.  And, well, maybe the clarity slider got away from me a little bit.

But...ta da!  It's my new style.  And I wrote down all the filters I used to it's repeatable. Bon Appetit.

Post #997.

Edit:  My client says "This is not your new style!  Not if you want another P.O....."

note to self:  It is possible to overdo the modern idiom.

For the gear boys:  Sony a77 with 16-50mm Zoom.  Two small LED panels.  


Monday morning observations from a (still) working photographer.

this is the 996th post.

If you've been here since the very beginning of the VSL blog you have at least as much stamina as me.  You've lived, vicariously, through my dabblings in the Olympus 4:3rds system (loved the 14-35mm and the 35-100mm;  not so much the e3), the Nikon digital camera family (nice and steady, just like a Buick---and just as sexy), the Canon EOS digital family ("can I please be like everyone else in the entire world?"), the ongoing affair with two flavors of micro four thirds (Panasonic and Olympus) and now the Sony Alpha series.  We spice it up with guest appearances by the Kodak venerable Digital Collection (SLR/n and DCS 760C), several medium format digital cameras, and I provide occasional gravitas by shooting, as God intended: With black and white film in a Hasselblad Medium Format Camera. Adventurous or compulsive?  Does it matter?

We've talked about the differences between film and digital, between phones and cameras, posturing and commitment and mostly we keep swerving back around to the idea of discipline.  The discipline to stay true to your own vision in a swirl of ever changing styles.  The discipline to master the tools that you need to use to express yourself, and the discipline you need in order to stay in shape for the ride.  Not to mention the mental discipline to stay on track and keep producing.

I bring this all up because the Visual Science Lab Blog is about to hit two milestones that seem like important markers to me.  Within the next few days we'll hit the 1,000th blog post.  More pages than a chunky novel.  One thousand forays to the keyboard in hopes of clarity.  1K thinking and writing about photography (mostly).  I've learned some stuff about writing:  the more you do it the more fluid it becomes.  The more you do it the more addictive it becomes.  The more you do it the easier it is to get started and stay focused on writing books and articles as well.  Writing a blog is also like playing scales for a pianist; it keeps the fingers warmed up...

I learned that thinking and expressing stuff is the harder part. I don't always agree with main stream thought and it creates some written work from me that gets lots and lots of push back.  I get frustrated when people don't see what I think of as the "obvious" big picture.  I don't write much about things that I know will enrage my readers and random visitors. I've learned that people are sensitive about their weight, their rationalizations about the happy mindless wonders of the cellphone camera in all of its glory.  Their ability to rationalize laziness when it comes to learning.  The puzzling and disturbing admissions of otherwise smart people that they don't enjoy, or read, fiction.  

Another hard part about thinking is warming up to empathy.  Seems that a good portion of my readers are extremely comfortable with logic and math but totally disengaged from emotion and irrational intuition.  I'll make a statement about how a camera coerces a behavior and the swell of self-righteous proclamations of mindful self-restraint and total mental isolation from any outside influence start to bubble up. "I am the uncontested master of my photographic domain!!!" (apologies to the Jerry Seinfeld show).  And I can't believe that  these people don't care about the opinions of the people around them and are so totally self-contained that their art is protected from any external dialog.  But aren't people who spend their days talking only to themselves........crazy?

But I'm learning which subjects to approach and which landmines to let alone.  Why "frag" oneself in the pursuit of a dialog?

The second, big milestone is the upcoming VAST NUMBERS event.  We will have reached 5,000,000 pageviews in the next ten days (if I haven't already pissed off the majority of my readers with a couple paragraphs above...).  I come from an age, in academia, where the publication of 2,500 books was thought to be explosive bestseller territory.  The idea that either one person clicked on my blog five million times or that a number of readers clicked a number of times makes me feel.....connected.  That so many of you come back to read again and again makes me feel like I'm connecting with like minded people and that my blog posts are NOT the random screaming of a mad man cursing the wind.

I'm not sure what kind of surprise party you all are planning for the 1,000th blog but I'm thinking it going to happen on Weds. and, as it happens I'm not booked with an assignment that day.  I'll be sitting here doing post production on this afternoon's project and tomorrow's full day of shooting and I'll just be waiting to see what you all come up with.  My favorite color is blue,  I like German Chocolate Cake and I'll probably feel like eating Mexican food.  Wednesday is a good day to visit Austin but if you are flying in from Europe, Asia or Oz you might want to get on the road  right now so you have a fighting chance of getting over your jet lag.  

At any rate, I'm happy I've done the work.  I'm happy to have posted over 3,000 photographs (mostly of coffee cups) and I think I'll keep at it for a while.  There's lots of work to be done keeping those cellphones out of your camera bags, pushing some more fiction and hawking my little collection of photo books.  Welcome to the next 1,000.

Buy yourself something nice to read:



Robin Wong's blog today. You must see it.


This is amazing, powerful and wonderful work. This is the kind of work that still gives photography relevance and meaning.  Robin is an inspiration.  I wish him and the people of Malaysia freedom, security and peace.

Film in the post film age.

Digital imaging and film photography have diverged and become two separate functions.  Digital is about endless choices and limitless resources.  Shoot til your battery dies, then recharge and shoot again. The only quantifiable downside to digital imaging is having to wade through the hundreds of thousands of image you might lay down in a year's time. Seems silly but I think digital teaches us that it's a good thing not to make up your mind and lock down a look. The endlessness of resources encourages us to believe that if we only shoot long enough and fast enough then, mathematically, one of the images will be a winner.

Film, with it's parsimonious resourcing teaches us the opposite message.  That given a paucity of frames we'd better go into a situation with something in mind and the chops to nail it down.  For this gentleman above it means getting your subject in twelve frames or less.  Twelve distinct shots, each interrupted by the need to stop and wind the crank to the next frame.

With my Sony Alpha camera I lift it to my eye and the autofocus is automatic and begins as soon as my face gets close enough for an optical sensor to read my proximity.  All I need to do is point the camera at whatever seemed interesting enough to me seconds before and then lean my finger on the shutter until.....I want to stop.  Or I get bored.  The camera will focus, expose, change ISO's to suit the prevailing conditions, all with very little involvement required on my part.

Yes.  I know.  You are a super evolved photographer.  Not only do you not care about what anyone else thinks about anything but you are also capable------no, driven, to use your camera in a  completely manual mode.  The rest of us are subtly influenced by our laziness and the ripe availability of all those modes. We hardly have to think about what we're doing.  It just happens.  Almost by magic. We get separated from the viscera of the process.

On the other hand, the owner of the above Mamiya will lock himself into a "color space" and monochrome or color choice before he even gets started.  No changes for the 12 exposures.  When he sees something he must do a mental calculation to decide how much the potential image really means to him.  When he decides to "go for it" it's assumed that the scene or subject is a "high value" target.  He must focus and compose on a fairly dark and uncompromising screen.  No green light will light up when and if he gets in the ballpark.  There's no meter in that camera either so he'll have to make a well educated guess, or consult a meter.  And then, because the "manual lag" between shots will be measured in full seconds rather than fractions of seconds, he will have to patiently but intently decide on the optimum moment to commit a frame.

Yes.  I know.  Even though you're shooting a digital camera that does 12 fps you are so well controlled; rational and self assured in your technique, that you use only one frame per object of enchantment.  The rest of us are less assured and anxious to hedge our bets.

We head home, slip the card into a reader and push the colors around on our screens.  We push a button and upload our "catch" to our online "collection" and we're done.

This guy will either need to head to a lab and drop off his film or crank up the wet darkroom and soup it himself.  Another chance to ruin 12 perfectly good shots.  And then he'll need to print or scan them.

Film is a process that thrives on slow and careful.  Digital just thrives. Like weeds in a well watered lawn.  They are totally different animals and the practitioners are practicing two different art forms.  Neither has higher moral ground.  And neither is "better."  But as a device for learning, film will go toe-to-toe with the toughest drill sargeant around.  And the lessons you learn stick harder because the film velcro costs more.  $kin in the game = retention.

I notice an increase in Austin photographers shooting film lately.  I wonder what their rationales are.  Think you're a great shooter?  Let's see you do it on some slow Ektachrome.

Photographing events. Being polite.

I'd been looking forward to Eeyore's Birthday party since......last year. It's kind of silly.  Some of my attraction is nostalgia, I've a been attending since the early days when there were fewer than six or seven dozen people in the park celebrating the arrival of Spring and the happiness of being in a wonderful little city, filled with wonderfully creative people.  No matter how the event grows or changes it's still a testimony to our city's spirit.  Our collective will to honor weirdness as a potent antidote to the relentless homogenization of world culture and, at the same time, a wonderful market differentiator for a city that attracts smart and creative people in droves.  

But honestly I love the event because I can go and immerse myself into the fun and take images to preserve what the spirit of the city was for future generations.  Or even just for my son.  The people who come to Eeyore's seem to welcome photography.  I would add that people in general welcome photography that they perceive as gentle and well intentioned and that's how I try to proceed.  But I'm only human, like the rest of you, and I slip over the ethical line from time to time.  I don't hide or try to sneak images.  I don't stand WAAAAAAY back and try to snatch photos with my 70-200mm lens or a 300mm lens.  I think it's only fair to be close enough and obvious enough to give people a fighting chance to object to being photographed, if that's their desire.  But unlike most street photography there's a hint of complicity and permission on the part of the subjects just by dint of coming out into the park in an unabashed way.  Costumed and on parade.  And anyone who has been to an event like this before understands and accepts that they'll be surrounded by our generation of new documentarians.

When I walk through areas of the park where people are in small groups I smile and ask first.  That might not work for your style but I'm less of a candid shooter and more of a photographer who is interested in a visual and social collaboration.  Conversely, if someone is making an ass of themselves in public they are abrogating the rules and become fair game for whatever your style of photography might be.  But that goes both ways.  If you, as a photographer, are in a subject's space without at least their tacit permission then you've also broken the unspoken agreement and are subject to disregard or push back.

While there are no real rules about what gear you drag along with you it would seem to make sense to me to travel as lightly as you can.  I'm a big adherent of one camera, one lens but I watched some photographers take a different approach, finding a space off to one side, setting up a background and a few slaved strobes and inviting party goers to step into the imaginary confines of their temporary "studios" to have their portraits taken.  Seems fun.  And if you don't want to be photographed you don't step into their "studios."

There are some photographers who seem like fish out of water.  They come loaded for bear.  As though they were on a once in a lifetime assignment for National Geographic.  They've got a camera criss-crossed over each shoulder on the fetishistic para-military strap of the moment (because, like their holsters for their handguns, their new straps give em western style "quick draw" capability...).  They've got the "big iron" long zoom on one body and the wide angle zoom on another body.  They've got a big, black camera bags with lots of attached lens sacks hanging like goiters off the sides.  They actually take up the "footprint" of two humans as they swing their optical baggage to and fro.  These guys (and it's always men) make the enjoyable, non-professional documentation of a happy party look like serious and painful work.

I saw my friend, Andy, there. In his usual elegant style he had one little Olympus EP3 with a 45mm lens on the front. It was all he needed.  So minimal that he didn't even include a VF2 finder.  He would just glance at the screen on the back and "use the force."

I saw my friend, John Langmore, there and he held a small Leica rangefinder cupped into one hand.  He was shooting black and white film.  Anything he needed, other than his one, handheld camera had to fit in the pockets of his pants.  No swinging, bashing bags for him.  

(I don't actually ask dogs for permission but I listen closely if they protest...)

In fact, this year most of the photographers who were working the crowd did so with gear minimalism in mind.  They mingled smoothly and seemed to be finding their decisive moments. 

I worked in a very loose stye this year.  I took one camera and one lens.  I chose the Sony a57 and the 85mm 2.8 Sony lens.  The whole package was light and mobile.  The 85 is kind of long on the APS-C sensor of the camera but it's so sharp, wide open, that I came to like it very much for its ability to push the background out of focus.  In the past I've worked in a very controlled way.  I used to shoot with manual exposure.  Last year I used a manual focus 50mm lens on an older, Canon 1DS2 body. This year I set the lens to f3.5, the camera to aperture priority and the ISO to Auto.  If the camera chose a combination that looked to dark I'd punch the exposure compensation button and dial in as much compensation as the monitor in front of my eye indicated would be enough.  It was a fast, fluid and almost unconscious (from a technical point of view) way to shoot and it appealed to me very much.

Since the camera is too new to have a raw conversion profile in any of my raw converters I chose to shoot everything as a Jpeg. If you can't nail shots outdoors without using raw you probably have some practice to undertake...

Using the full 16 megapixels and the highest  quality Jpeg settings I had the potential of cramming about 2400 images on my 16 gigabyte SD card.  No need to carry a spare.  I fudged a bit on the idea of absolute minimalism by sticking a back up battery in the pocket of my shorts.  Didn't need it.  I shoved $20 in my pocket and headed out for fun.

There were several younger people who didn't want to be photographed.  I didn't photograph them.  There were shy tourists in the crowd. Woman in smart polo shirts, Coach bags over one shoulder, beer in hand, gawking at the people in lavish costumes.  They didn't want their pictures taken either.  So I didn't photograph them.

Stylistic Camera Minimalism.

 Chimping with style.

 These guys did both unicycle jousting and unicycle football for an appreciative crowd.

I didn't realize till later that this guy's hat was a Green Lantern hat.  I wish I knew where he got it...

In the end it's really all about having fun and not being such a dick that you ruin other people's fun.  Doesn't take much to be a welcomed presence at a party.  Smile.  Engage in conversation. Don't stare.  Share.  Be open and honest.  And above all, remember that "getting the photograph" is really secondary to being a part of the whole function and helping to make it work for you and everyone else, equally.  There's something about putting a camera in some people's hands that makes them feel entitled to special privileges, to a better vantage point and to be included.  Most of us find out early on that inclusion is earned.  And access is more important than perfection.

The comments are open but....please don't argue that we have a RIGHT to do whatever we want with our cameras in public. I know that.  But sometimes manners make more sense.