What is the real secret behind the success of the new wave of mirrorless cameras? And the OMD in particular?

Everywhere I look, here in Austin and on the web, I see people snapping up micro four thirds cameras or writing about them and discussing them.  It started out quietly a couple of years ago with the Olympus EP1, EP2 and the Panasonic cameras and now, with the Olympus OMD it seems to be building at a feverish pace.

The OMD and the GH2 have gone a long way toward establishing the technical legitimacy of the format and its place in the modern pantheon of attractive cameras but what is it that really got the ball rolling, long before Olympus launched their 16 megapixel DSLR killer?  

I know that people like smaller and lighter cameras but various form factors have come and gone.  The G series from Canon was/is popular, but not like this.  It can't be the overall performance because while the chip in the new camera is great it's still not as good as the chips in a number of APS-C cameras and it's not about to challenge the overall technical prowess of the newer full 35mm frame cameras like the D800 or the Canon 5D mk3.  But the popularity was building quickly even before the OMD was announced.

I found an old Leica screwmount body (I think it's a 2f or 3f) sitting around the studio the other day and I moved it over to the case that holds the Pen stuff.  I pulled out a Pen EP3 body and put them side by side and gosh golly!!! The dimensions were too close for coincidence.  So here's my theory:  Just a Steve Jobs had a singular vision for Apple Products (the design of which turbo charges sales)  Oscar Barnack, the inventor of the Leica, had a singular vision for his first series of cameras.  His vision revolved around the idea that you could make a small camera that would be comfortable to carry and comfortable to shoot and you could, through careful technique, come close to the image quality that you would get with the larger film format cameras of the day.

Barnack's drive to make a small but potent camera came from necessity.  He was asthmatic and tired of trying to carry a large compendium bellows view camera and tripod with him on walks through the forests near his home.  Since he worked alone, unencumbered by committees and focus groups and the input from marketing hacks he hewed to his own vision and made a camera that fit his hand perfectly.  And by extension, the hands of millions of other users.  

Cameras got bigger when people (and committees and ad hacks) started demanding more attachments, more geegaws and more convenience items. More ways to sell you something new.  As we moved away from pure picture popping prowess we moved away from optimum haptics.  Optimum ergonomics.  Perfect designs for human use.  Yes, we got motor drives and we could use longer lenses and all that but the purity of the design slowly became more and more compromised and generations of photographers and consumers put up with it because they got silly stuff they never knew they needed  in return.

Once the camera companies hit their stride in the digital arena a curious thing happened.  When we hit a picture quality that was good enough for the masses lots of people started demanding less.  They/we were willing to give up a lot of stuff we'd been sold as part of the holy grail of photography.  A lot of people started to consider 12 megapixels good enough for most of the stuff they routinely used cameras for.  Once the camera hit this point Olympus realized that a new differentiator could be size. And design.  I suspect someone high up in their product development dept. had one of the old Leicas on the shelf and, having shot with probably every other conceivable camera in the market he came back to a nice, cherry Leica 111f and held it and decided it was absolutely perfect in conception and told/ordered his staff to shamelessly steal as much of the size and shape of the original Leicas as they could.  Not for nostalgia's sake but in deference to the genius of its original, human centric design.

In the next round of product development I think you'll see more concentration on rounding the corners of the bodies than in upgrading sensors.  When people looked at the new OMD in illustrations on the web or on the shelf many were put off by the apparent size or the design touches.  The selling of the camera has been a process of putting the camera into the hands of the customer and letting them feel the "just-right-ness" of the design.  What I hear from everyone is this, "I was on the fence till I held one in my hands...."

Another aspect of the OMD that makes me think that the Olympus powers that be ruthlessly and shamelessly have been copying from the original Leica rangefinder family is the noise that the shutter of the OMD makes when it goes off.  It's quiet, subdued and contains no piercing high frequency resonances.  If you shoot a screw mount Leica shutter and compare it you'll hear an uncanny similarity.  

Even the use of the VF-2 finder in the accessory shoes of the EP2's and EP3's harkens back to a day in cameras when you needed a separate finder to use any but the normal 50mm focal length with the cameras.  When you bought a wide angle or a telephoto lens for your screw mount Leica you also bought a separate viewfinder that sat in the accessory shoe and showed you your angle of view.  The Pen series, preceding the OMD, is a modern day adaptation of that concept.

Many otherwise rational adults are buying cameras now based on how they feel and sound.  But is that irrational?  There is always a mind/body/camera connection that artists take into consideration when they adapt and embrace certain tools with which to give birth to their singular vision.  They can't turn off the feelings of attraction or repulsion of their tools just because someone tells them some aspect of performance is better or worse.  Only disengaged or casual shooters can do that.  And it's different for everyone.  The feel of a camera in the hand is unique to each person.You generally know you've found the feel in one day.  

I'm sure some people think I'm making the connection between the old screwmount Leicas and the new Olympus (and other m4:3) cameras to damn Olympus for brazen design theft but nothing could be further from the truth.  What I really want to say is that Oscar Barnack had it just right, everybody fucked things up and now Olympus is reaching back to that original genius to give people what they really wanted all along:  A comfortable companion for mobile shooting.  An almost instinctual tool for capturing what you see.

I played with another OMD this week.  They are pretty darn amazing.  Not a breakthrough like the original fathers of all 35mm style cameras (Leica SM)  but a beautiful and very useful homage.

Hello Camera Designers:  No more "jellybean" cameras please.  Now that we can miniaturize nearly everything can we get some more cameras that feel just right?  Even if they don't have the biggest whatevers?

Now, if Olympus could only fix their menu.  Of course Leica shooters never had to worry about that...


Did I mention that I really like 50mm Lenses? Really?

Sometimes I think buildings are just something to offset beautiful skies. I was out shooting the sky around Austin the other day and this building was near my starting and ending point. I'm not sure I like the architecture especially well but I don't dislike it. I keep coming back and shooting it because it seems to attract those beautiful cloud swirling blue skies that seem like something out of an old western movie done in Technicolor.

I was shooting with one of the cameras that keeps me from buying esoteric new toys like the Olympus OMDEM5 or the Fuji Pro 1.  It was the Sony a57 and it was sporting a 50mm 1.8 DT lens.  If you've read the blog for any amount of time you probably know that I really have an affinity for the classic 50mm lens in any of its permutations. And it's no different now that I'm shooting primarily with the Sony crop cams.

When I use a 50mm lens on a full 35mm format camera it's pleasant and neutral.  When I used it on an APS-C crop frame it's burrowing into the "nice portrait length" territory.  When I use it on a Sony a57 or a77 camera it becomes something even more flexible and special and I'd like to explain why.

There's a Jpeg-only option on these cameras called smart telecon.  It's a digital teleconverter.  On the a77 it gives you a choice of 1.4x and 2.0x magnification. The effect in the finder is seamless and there's no additional light lost as there would be with an optical teleconverter. The camera essentially just zooms in on a crop but the finder shows the crop as a full frame in the finder.  We wouldn't have used something like this in the 6 megapixel days but with the a77 I've got pixels to burn. When you set the camera to use the 1.4x setting on the smart telecon it drops the overall resolution to "M" which is still a big, healthy file.

One touch of the smart telecon switch makes my 50mm into an 84mm which is the angle of view equivalent (on APS-C sensors) of my all time favorite portrait lens, the Nikon 105mm 2.5.  If there's a drop in quality I sure can't see it.

On the a57 the control works as a digital zoom and allows a continuous range of magnifications, from the existing focal length up to 2x.  

I didn't use the telecon settings on the photos above.  I changed size and perspective in a very old fashioned way.  I moved my feet and brought myself and the camera closer to the building.  It worked well.  I'll have to teach a workshop about it someday to all the people who were raised on zooms.

Why do these cameras keep me from buying other cameras? Well, there seems to always be another setting or feature I have yet to discover and I find the files to be really nice.  The way we used to think about the colors in Olympus Jpegs. All the stuff works well but the real reason is that I am curious to see what their next full frame camera will be.

My most trusted source in the camera industry (hasn't been wrong in over 20 years...) tells me that the full 35mm frame Sony is a "done deal" and should arrive this Fall.  If they do a great job with the sensor I'm ready to snap the 70-200mm 2.8 G lens on the front and get cooking.

Reading the freakin manual is a great way to unlock the astounding secrets of your camera.  Any camera. I knew that this feature was there but I thought, "amateur."  It was only when I explained the feature to Ben that I got, in a flash, why it was so cool for me.

Mixing old and new technologies. Creative Soup.

This image started life as a frame of medium format black and white film.  I walked into the house one afternoon and Ben was sitting at the dining room table working on something. I had a Hasselblad 501CM over one shoulder with an 80mm Planar lens on it.  I opened the lens up, set the shutter speed at 1/60th of a second and snapped a few frames.

When I got the developed film back from the lab I stuck this frame into the desktop scanner and did a fairly neutral and flat scan at 10 by 10 inches @300 dpi.  I scan images a little flat in order to get the longest range possible and to preserve detail in the highlights and shadows which can be more finely controlled in PhotoShop and other programs.

I "spotted" the file using the healing tool in PS before I resized the file and dragged it into SnapSeed where I banged on it for a little while. I wanted soft skin tones but I wanted good, inky shadows and most of all I wanted a nice patina of grain. I played with the slider controls till I got what I wanted and then I saved a few versions.

The conceit on the web is that everything right out of the cameras of professionals is absolutely perfect and ready to run across two pages in a glossy magazine.  Of course, nothing could be further from the truth.

Here's what the file looked like right out of the scan with no PP work:

This is exactly how I would expect an enlarger print of the negative to look on #2 graded paper from a well exposed negative.  Like a negative a good digital file is the starting point for a photographer's interpretation. I like deep shadows more than I like high key presentations so the first thing I reach for is the curves control, or in Snapseed, a combination of brightness and contrast controls.

Once I have the tonal scale right I work on sharpening.  Then I work on adding grain and vignettes to drive viewers' eyes to the right quandrants.  When it seems a bit edgy and handmade I let go and save a version.

It helps sometimes to go over the top.  I played around with a more colorful "vintage" look and saved a few versions of that as well.

While I would have denounced such experimentation just a few years ago I'm working hard to understand and implement relevant modifications to my images that may, in fact, enhance them.  When we stop experimenting with our personal point of view and denounce every new invention and shift of cultural fashion we might as well hang it up and go somewhere to teach "how we used to do it in the old days."

Why did I start with film? The ability to hold good highlights and the wonderful fall off of focus from a sharp core here to a soft and diffused, shadowy rendition of a chair in the right side and edge of the frame.  The larger format adds a sense of increased dimensionality that I find gives the image more weight and a sense of complexity.

Can I do this with digital? Sure, but I'm privileged in that I don't have to.

A quick blog note on Ben:  He's going to start working for the rest of the Summer at Zachary Scott Theatre.  He presented a demo reel of video work that was well received and he handled himself very professionally as my grip and sound man for a recent TV commercial shoot we did together. They've asked him to come on board to shoot behind the scenes videos for the shows, construction documentation and to help edit in Final Cut Pro X for the theater's extensive online showcases.

He'll be using one of the VSL's Sony a57's (good video, great phase detection AF during video and focus peaking for decisive manual focusing- where appropriate.) He'll be using the 18-55mm kit lens, a 50mm 1.4, and he'll have access to the studio inventory if he needs something in a specialty lens. He's got his own Gitzo tripod with a fluid head that he picked up last year and he'll be recording sound with a Rode shotgun microphone. With FCPX on a recent 15 inch i7 MacBook Pro he's pretty much set to go as a one person ENG team.  We should start seeing his work online shortly.

I'll keep you posted and, if you are interested in video adventures, I might even persuade him to write a brief blog about his experiences as a 16 year old media producer. 

Proud father but quick to remind him that the graphic arts are not what I have in mind for a good career.....

Fun Summer Moment:  We discussed various video formats and some sound recording techniques after my swim practice and his cross country run this morning at a favorite breakfast dive. The family that nerds out together..........


Image of Michelle with enlarger post processing.

I write a lot about portraits here.  I mention the lenses and cameras and even the lights being used but I find it more difficult to convey what rapport is and how to work at establishing rapport with your portrait subjects.

When I was younger I used to think you had to have all kinds of lines and jokes to use in a session. I thought you needed to sound incredibly smart and look like you have it together every second of the shoot.  The typical stereotype of a professional photographer by aspiring photographers.

The reality is that connecting on a human level is much more important than getting every mechanical part of the shoot right.  People will forgive a lot if the expression and the engagement between the model and the moment are just right.  People are unforgiving of a technically excellent photograph of a despondent and disengaged subject.

In television people will forgive crappy video by they won't tolerate bad sound even for  a minute.  It's the same thing with portraits.  A real expression is more valuable than a Profoto Air 8 power pack and a box full of heads.

I know you've heard it before but I always sit down with my subject and talk for a bit to get to know them before we shoot.  I talk about how I work, ask them what they like.  We do small talk and we share.  How long?  Could be ten minutes, could be an hour.  Depends on what they have to say.

I work slowly.  I talk people into poses over time.  I shoot slowly.  I never use continuous shutter settings.  We stop and I give them (positive) feedback about how our session is going.  It's always "our" session, never "my" session.  If the lights are not working right I stop and tell them what's going on and how I'm going to fix it.  I tell them when they look beautiful and I talk them into another pose if I see something I don't like.

I always stop to fix things that I think are important.  I never presume I can fix something in post.

The session lasts as long as it needs to last. Sometimes for hours and sometimes for as little as thirty minutes...if we both know we got something great.

No phones or cellphones in the shoot.  We turn them off, not down.  I ask models and crew to leave theirs in the cars.  I turn off the studio phone.  If I have crew I like for them to be quiet and discreet during the shoot.  I am trying to build a rapport and a momentary relationship between me and the subject.  It's not a communal Koffee Klatch.

My goal by the end of the shoot is to have made another close friend and to have both of us want to shoot together again, soon.  That all sounds so easy.  It's the only hard part.

The Walk-Around Camera.

Ben.  September 1997. On the move in Austin.

"The dollar doesn't go as far today because people won't go as far for a dollar... " -old folk saying.

Could it be that photographs are being devalued, in part, because we don't put as much of ourselves in them as we used to? I was trying to figure out why I have such an instinctive dislike for the idea of pocket cameras and phone cameras. I understand that technology has gotten better and better and the images from iPhones are pretty good, technically.  And I know from experience that the 10 megapixel wonder cameras that are pocketable are also pretty good picture takers.  So what is it that's going on in my head that keeps me thinking that defaulting to the tired old saw, "The best camera is the one you have with you." Which implies that you, as a photographer, are too damn lazy to carry around the right tools with you to do the job so you're happy to default to  whatever is most convenient; if even you know it compromises your vision and your style.

For casual amateur photographers I get it. They aren't interpreting a scene they are documenting it and in their minds as long as the content is conveyed they've accomplished their mission.  And usually their mission isn't to go out and get great images it's to do something totally unrelated to photography but with the potential to create an image that speaks to the reality of their experience to all their friends on Facebook or Pinterest. 

Where does that leave the artists?  Where does that leave real photographers? Trapped between convenience and intention.  For years now I've spent Sunday afternoons walking around with a camera.  It's a nice change of pace from the studio and the pool and it gives me a chance to practice with whatever camera I've chosen to carry along.  

I go through phases. For nearly a year after the Olympus EP-2 came out it was rare for me to go out with anything else.  I carried it because it was small and light and because the VF-2 finder let me configure the camera as a square shooter.  That spoke (in a slightly diminished way) to the style I've been working on for nearly 25 years.  Shooting big square images with a Hasselblad film camera and a normal or slightly long lens.

The EP2 kept me happy enough but somewhere deep inside I had the gnawing realization that many times the final image was a compromise from the way I see things.  I had chosen small, light and free over the exacting parameters of my real vision.  With an equivalent angle of view the backgrounds didn't look the same as they did with my bigger camera.  The meatiness of the black and white negative was missing.  The rounded shoulder of my Tri-X film had been replaced with a snappy curve that clipped highlights quick in order to make the files fit into a color space.  

That all started me thinking about the difference between carrying a camera as a diletante as opposed to carrying a camera with a sense of my own real intention.  If you pack a camera in your pocket in order to be ready for the unexpected you are, on some level, like the guy who carries a condom around in his wallet on the off chance he might get lucky.  You're out on a beer run or buying something at the hardware store or drinking with your friends and you have your phone--with built-in camera--- in case Chuck drinks too much and hurls, or you see a power saw and need a price comparison photo. Or you and Chuck and Joe want a photo of yourself bracketing some poor girl who works at the car show.  Your primary intentions are to leave the house to do whatever normal people do in normal life. The camera is an afterthought.  The iPhone is a substitute. It's the Power Bar instead of the nice lunch. It's the instant coffee instead of the stuff they brew at Caffe Medici.  

So lately I've been trying to match my cameras to my intention.  Really.  I'm trying to match up the cameras with the reasons I bought them in the first place.  More and more my Sony a77's come out when I'm going to work for a client.  We have images in mind and we use the right tools to get them into file form.  Long and short lenses. Big files. Tripods and lights.  But it's rarer and rare that they go out on walks with me.

My Olympus EP2 and EP3 cameras come out when I'm shooting personal projects that are all about color, shape and textures and abstraction.  I really like them when it's my conscious intention to go out and look for patterns and symbols embedded in the urban landscape. The smaller cameras are like the Moleskine notebooks full of inferences and descriptions instead of the finished novel.

But now, when I take images of family, friends and interesting people I'm most likely to bring along my Hasselblad because it makes the kind of images of people that I know I'm going to like most.  Even with the 80mm Planar there's something very different about the way the lenses and the system differentiate my subjects and "remove" them one step from their environments.  To go one step further I usually use the medium format cameras with black and white film.  Not because that's some requirement from the art cult but because, when I started out shooting, color film was too expensive for me to use for personal work and too finnicky for people who did their own darkroom work.  But I learned to love it and look for tones and graphic separation of things and that love hasn't diminished.

It would be much easier to go out with the Pen EP2 and bang away with the aspect ratio set to 6:6 (1:1 in reality; Olympus was just riffing off the fact that square medium format is also known as 6x6...) and then take the raw frames, massage them and then run them through Silver EFX.  But the range of tones would be different and the ability to grab tenuous and precariously balanced highlights would be gone and the optical magic that happens when shooting to a bigger frame would also be gone.  Could I replicate the look and feel with lots of little PhotoShop tricks?  Sure but it won't be the same.  It will be a diluted fascimile of something that can still be done first hand. 

So now, even if it looks dorky, when I leave the studio and my intention is to photograph people I put the Hasselblad strap over my shoulder because that system is closest to my intention.  And life it too short to continue down the avenues of half measures and recitations about how something is "almost as good."  It never is.

Am I making some sort of statement to the effect that everyone should rush out and buy a Hasselblad even if your very first camera was a Canon G2?  Nope. I'm saying that if you work as an artist you will have some perfectly formed aesthetic that bangs around in your mind day in and day out.  That aesthetic is served by a unique set of tools and when you know and feel which tools are the ones that can best recreate your vision you have an obligation to yourself to match your aesthetic intention and your tools, even if they don't fit in your trouser pockets or allow you to tell everyone on Twitter that you are now at Denny's and will be ordering a Grand Slam.  (For my European readers: Denny's is a down market chain restaurant that specializes in packaging traditional American trash cuisine with maximum fat calories.  The Grand Slam is a breakfast special for four people, served to one...).

We have a vision in our minds of something we collectively call a "walk around" camera or a "street shooting" camera and we judge it to be something that will focus quickly, not be heavy or bulky and also be somewhat discreet.  We love the idea that Henri Cartier Bresson and his confederates roamed the streets of the world with small Leica rangefinder cameras, swathed in black tape to diminish their profiles, almost invisible to the world.  But those were their only cameras! Hank didn't have a Leica in his hand and a bag full of Rolleiflexes over his shoulder or a view camera waiting in the car.  All of his work was done with the same camera. (He changed models as improvements came along but the ethos was always the same: small, light, simple.)

His camera perfectly matched his intention. It was perfectly chosen to match his vision. As were William Klein's cameras and Robert Frank's cameras.  But my vision is not a "middle distance" vision of a scene unfolding so my choice of cameras shouldn't be the same. Even if it's in the nature of a walk around camera.

Many of my friends and associates have been drawn into the lure of the new walkaround cameras. They are currently flitting between the Olympus OMD EM-5's and the Fuji Pro 1's. The more financially robust are sticking with the Leica M9.  But they also have Hasselblad digital systems and Nikon D800's or Canon 5Dmk3 and their day-in-day-out vision is more accurately described and ascribed to their integration with interpreting through those systems.  Most of the folks I know honed their vision looking through the finders of 35mm SLRs.  A smaller sub-group gravitated early on to either medium format or, in the case of landscape and still life shooters, even bigger cameras.

Their training, their vision and their technical demands all scream "No!" to the cameras they feel compelled to acquire for their "leisure" work.  In my mind there is no difference between the leisure work and the heartfelt work.  An innate style is hard to change and even harder to translate to new and varied tools.  Few make the transition successfully.  

So I've moved back to shooting with what the little voice in my head keeps telling me I should have been shooting with all along, the big square.  And it's hard to "go backwards" on some fronts.  We've trained ourselves that everything we shoot is free.  Needs to be without cost. (financially and emotionally).  No more film purchases, no more lab costs.  If we go back to our big black and white square we're back to paying to shoot.  Client or not.  We're back to scanning our work.  I'm putting up one or two scanned frames at a time to share instead of glops of twenty or thirty similar but not quite identical digital frames.

But as I look through notebooks full of old school negatives and contact sheets I remind myself that we figured out how to pay for our own personal work back in the day, why can we not figure out similar budgeting compromises today?  Film, for my family, may mean that we don't go out to eat as much or that I keep my car a year or two longer than I intended.  Since all the work I'm doing with film is personal (for me first) I don't have to rush to develop it.  I can put it in a light tight box in the file cabinet and dribble it out when budgets are plumb, delay the processing when times are lean.  Opening the box and taking five or ten mystery rolls to the lab will have the same celebratory feeling we used to get when we'd pop the cork on a nice bottle of Champagne (Louis Roderer Brut, SVP) at the end of a lucrative project.  Film processing and celebration for doing well in your occupational art.

The bottom line here is that I'm not making any impassioned plea that you return to film or arrive at film as a virgin but that you choose your vision camera  and be true to that camera and that vision when you have the intention to go out and do your art.  Even if it's a tight squeeze to get that Hasselblad in the pocket of your pair of tight designer jeans.  But don't kid yourself that you somehow have  secondary vision and that it's being well taken care of with popular but inappropriate tools.  Whether or not a tool is appropriate depends solely on where you are in the process.

I wish my vision were all about the Fuji Pro 1 today. They look really cool.  But what's the use for me when I'll just end up cropping it square and trying to make the background go away in a very distinct fashion?  I'm looking for a digital back for my Hasselblad film camera.  I want one that has a big square.  When I find one I can afford I'll see if it can replace film.  Maybe.  Maybe not.  Only me shooting it for me will tell.

One thing I am sure of is that buying all the different cameras is a great way to move you further and further from what it is you really know you want to shoot.  Happy is the man or woman who has found his subject, his format and his camera and who can now settle down and just use them over and over again.

When we are willing to go all the way to make photographs that fit our vision they will have more power and more draw. They will be truer art.  When we choose a tool for convenience it's hard to push past "pretty" to "wonderful".  People talk about using the right tool for the right job but maybe we've been confusing ourselves as to what the real job is......

Steven Pressfield has a new book out that will be of much interest to many of the VSL readers.  It's called Turning Pro and it's a follow on to his great book, The War of Art. I recommend both of them highly.  I am thinking of writing a rejoinder called, "Turning Amateur: Making Photography Fun Again."  But that might be too much.


Love the Theater, Love the Postcards.

I shoot a lot of plays and images to market plays for Zachary Scott Theatre. My favorite piece of marketing for the shows is the post card.  The theatre creates one for nearly every show we've done in the past decade.  They go out to season ticket holders and targeted, high income households in certain zip codes. Each one is designed to reflect the feeling of the play and each one has its own logo treatment and design touches. At the same time the look and feel are consistent and professional.

I often make the mistake of believing that all print is dead and that may actually be a result of working in the advertising business, tangentially.  We always see the stuff heading to television and the web and sometimes we think of print as the bastard child. The afterthought. But the marketing director tells me time and again that there's a particular appeal of getting something physical and well designed in the mailbox. It's a nice respite from the sea of bills.  But most of those are going online as well.

While I enjoy the documentation shots we do at the dress rehearsals my favorite types of assignments are the set up shots done well in advance of the openings.  The set up or studio shots all seem to happen about six weeks ahead of a show opening and get sent out to their target markets at least a week in advance of the debut.

I took a fun group of friends to see Fully Committed on Friday evening. We started out at a close by restaurant for drinks and appetizers before the show and then walked over in time to be seated. It's an amazing one man show.  My favorite actor, Martin Burke, does all 39 parts in the play.  He got yet another well deserved standing ovation.  Amazing.  Live theater is like nothing else.

Have you ever tried to finish writing a book?

We've talked here about the idea of resistance. The resistance to finishing projects. The resistance to getting important work done. I've recommended a great book on the subject called, The War of Art, by Steven Pressfield.  That book has helped me get over the anxiety that comes with trying to finish something for the first time.

I re-read that book every time I get a new contract from my publisher to complete a book on photography. It really helps. I can identify the things I'm doing, unconsciously, to sabotage my writing efforts and I can work harder to get past those pernicious road blocks.

But golly.  I sure am having problems finishing what is to me one of my most important projects. And reading the Pressfield book again just doesn't seem to help me budge this one.

You see, I started writing a novel in 2002. It was a dark time for me.  The events of 9/11 temporarily destroyed my business and a profound health issue almost made everything else irrelevant.  I couldn't really work as a location photographer for months. And we topped it all off with a king sized dose of unrelenting anxiety.  But the one thing that made it all bearable was a book I started writing.  In fact, I finished all the principal writing in that year.  I spent a lot of time squatting at a table at the local Starbucks and I finished up in december at a table at the Caffe Medici on West Lynn.

The book is a novel. It's a fun, quirky story about a photographer who gets an assignment to go to Lisbon to cover a big, week long trade show. But he is quickly drawn into a dangerous adventure as someone else's bout of attempted corporate espionage goes south. A past job as an intelligence researcher, and a U.S. government without many resources on the ground, propels my hapless photographer/character into unwanted action and narrow escapes.  And all the while he tries to do a good job on the corporate assignment because....he desperately needs the money.

I had a blast writing it. I'd been on a similar assignment several years earlier in Lisbon so I knew the general lay of the land. I've read a zillion spy and detective novels and I was ready to try my hand at story telling.  Especially with a character who is a working (but aging) photographer, in over his head.

But here's the downside:  A novel takes a lot of time to polish.  And at the end of my convalescence and the end of the year we got really busy again in the photo business and I was determined to make up for lost time.  Then the book contracts for the non-fiction books started arriving one after the other and the novel was mothballed.  But I couldn't give it up.  My friends who'd read it loved it. They kept pushing me.

When things slowed down in the business again this year I decided it was now or never and started taking a run at re-writing and polishing again.  But the resistance to finishing gets harder and harder as I get closer and closer.  There always seems to be some pressing thing I have to attend to.  A short term opportunity that clouds the long term potential of getting the book out the door. A need to lock down money and resources that takes precedence over a personal project.

Why am I telling you this?  Because, in a way I feel like the readers of the blog are like friends. We share a lot of similarities and we've shared a lot of virtual ink together.  And I'm telling you so you'll understand if my blogging gets a little sporadic in the coming month.  I've given myself a deadline.  It's the one thing this project has never really had.  I'm giving myself till the end of July to make the timeline flow, to flesh out the characters a bit and to convert some of my plot shorthanding into flowing narrative.

At the end of the month my designer and I are planning to put this work up on Amazon.com as my first piece of long form fiction. I love the character and I have plot lines for subsequent books ready to go that riff off my experiences in Russia, Mexico, Monte Carlo and Rome....all as a working photographer. The mix of real, everyday photography and the fictional co-story of spies, terrorists, random evil and professional pratfalls seems fun to me.

It's my hope that every single one of the thousands of daily readers of the blog will rush out and buy a copy as soon as the book goes live.  I'm also planning to make the book available in paper.

A long winded explanation but I wanted you to know.  And to push me back to work if you see me meandering around the web adding my opinions to various dead end forums instead of shackling myself to the desk in the basement of the Visual Science Lab and getting some damn work done.

I want to make Steve Pressfield proud and actually finish this.  Save up your $9.99 and get ready.


Is the age of "professional photographer" over? A popular re-run from earlier this year.


More people are taking more photos than ever before and it's a wonderful time to be a photographer.  It may even be a wonderful time to sell pictures occasionally and to make a little side money but I think we're seeing the passing of the "Professional Photographer" (in caps) as a profession in the same way typesetters vanished from the face of the earth within ten years of desktop publishing hitting the marketplace.  Same with traditional labs.  In the old days typesetting required skill and taste and equipment.  But it cost money to do it right.  We paid the money (in the ad agency days) because that was the way it was done and that was the cost of doing business.

But when Pagemaker and QuarkExpress hit the market it became possible (mandatory, from a cost point of view...) for art directors and graphic designers to do their own typesetting.  While early versions of the desktop graphic design programs lacked the ultra fine control, and the massive number of fonts traditional typesetters offered, the programs offered something that accountants couldn't resist:  The Idea of Free,  and they offered something a generation becoming fascinated with computers couldn't resist:  The Idea of Personal Control over the whole process.  While there are tiny exceptions the vast majority of professional typesetters and typesetting services are gone.  Not transformed, just gone.  We don't have a group who "upped their game" and made a viable argument for the value proposition of the very best typesetting in the world we just don't have any typesetters.

While more and more photos are being taken, as a percentage, far fewer are being taken by professional photographers than ever before.  And that includes images being used in ad campaigns and in  the general course of commerce.  Wedding photographers have seen a radical decline just in the last two years in total sales and revenue.  And it's not a question of not seeing the future.  Professional photographers don't know how to make money doing what they have done in the past in the future they do see.  Everyone who needs a photo for one use or another is stepping up with their own camera (or phone) and taking their best shot.  PhotoShop and it's lite cousins are the Pagemakers and Quarkexpresses that are driving the total market adaptation.  Time and budget are relentlessly driving the market for images.

Why did I start thinking about this?  It was the news that Kodak might be filing bankruptcy that started me down this tortured thought trail.  If the company that invented digital photography can't figure out how to survive in the age of digital photography what hope can there be for the professional photographers?  Yes, we're more agile and able to change quickly, but we're doing what all the devolving industries have done when confronted with their decline,  we move into other related fields, each of which is probably also in decline.  A great example is video production.  

When the 5D mk2 hit the market, and Vincent Laforet did his video Reverie, it struck a match of hope in the hearts of photographers looking for a secondary income stream.  How simple.  We would all become video artists.  But in the last two years so much programming has moved to YouTube and the numbers in the professional side of that industry are, if anything, worse than those confronting the majority of working photographers.  Some photographers have starting offering web design but that market is flooded as well.  

I've heard the chorus before.  It goes like this:  "Up your game and the world is your oyster."  But the reality is that, for most, even the perfect game isn't going to compete against free, or almost free. And it's not enough to compete against the concept of "good enough."  With tens of billions of images available at the fingertips of people who used to have to assign work, and pay real money for it, the odds are that perfect isn't going to be in the budget again for a long, long time.

Kodak was, for me, the symbol of photography as I knew it.  And the guys at Kodak weren't and aren't dumb.  They are/were some of the best and brightest.  They just didn't plan on the market shifting at the speed of light.  They didn't anticipate that disruption would occur faster than T-Max 3200.  And we, as professional photographers, are now standing where Kodak stood before the Toons dropped the safe or the grand piano on their heads  (Who Killed Rodger Rabbitreference).  Will we be able to do a better job of creating an alternative universe for ourselves?  It remains to be seen. 

I think the markets will continue as they progressively wind their way away from traditional assignment work.  Photographers will transition as designers have.  In order to stay in the middle class they'll need to diversify into video, digital presentation, writing, web publishing and more stuff that we haven't even invented yet. We'll likely become "content providers" working in concert with designers and agencies. Designers work with type, work with graphic elements, shoot their own source materials when necessary, design for the web and print and outdoor and for mobile apps.  Would they prefer to concentrate on pure design?  Sure.  But they also like to eat, pay the rent and buy stuff.  

Our industry will make a similar transition.  We just haven't figured out the whole roadmap yet.  And the people who don't want to learn to swim (all four strokes)  will be left behind, clinging to a fragment of the battered haul from a ship that's sinking quickly into the deep, cold waters of incessant progress.

Ian Summers summed it all up best with his motto:  "Grow or Die."

The only reality check I can offer is that Professional Photography is a much, much bigger and more diverse industry than Typesetting ever was.  And there are, of course, segments that will keep holding on even as most of the formerly profitable market is destroyed.  To make an analogy to video, while people are shooting their own webcasts with small digital cameras, or the cameras in their laptops, they don't want to give up the quality of professional camera and video work they see on broadcast NFL football games.  That level of work still takes a lot of skill and experience.  But a quick training video or "how to" video for in-house use?  Forget it.  Parts of the industry will go on.  But large swaths of what we always considered "the bread and butter" will not.  Not in the same way.  And without foundational work there's no real chance the majority will make it being photographers, exclusively.

Do I write this because I am angry or cranky?  No, I write this as an honest opinion.  It's as inevitable as the waves on the beach.  How can we battle  it?  We can't.  We can sort through our options and figure out our futures but we have to recognize that things changed quicker than anyone thought and, that old models are breaking down.  My business used to be completely devoted to assignment photography.  Last year a large percentage of our income was from publishing royalties.  Another segment came from several video projects.   Another part of the pie came from web marketing.  And some money even flew into the coffers as a result of teaching at workshops and seminars.  I may be a curmudgeon but I'm embracing change as quickly as I can.  Wanna buy a Visual Science Lab T-shirt?  

I hope Kodak makes it. Not because I believe they must for nostalgic reasons but because it would validate my thoughts that we can, as an industry,  retool and we can re-engage our markets (and new markets) in different ways.  

This essay is aimed solely at the people in the audience who make a living from taking photographs.  If you don't fall in this category you are either luckier or less lucky than we are.  If you get beyond the idea that the people at Kodak are not intelligent and you can understand that they were at the mercy of the data they had at hand you'll likely do a better job with your re-invention.  It starts now.  

Could there be a better time to buy used digital cameras and lenses?

Martin Burke in "Fully Committed" at Zachary Scott Theatre.

I shot the image above with a Panasonic GH2 and an old Olympus Pen lens, the 60mm 1.5. Last year the GH2 was a stand out camera. It had arguably the best video/movie mode and video controls of any camera on the market and it's resolution is still top of the class for m4:3rd cameras but now prices of used ones are dropping like rocks.    Along with the recently obsoleted models from Canon, Olympus, Sony and Nikon. (That's because of the rapidly solidifying rumors of an imminent, new model, the GH3). It's part of the natural process of the market, there will always be people who want or need the very latest stuff and are willing to take a loss on recently purchased equipment in order to have what they would consider to be the best available in the moment.

I just came back from my favorite camera store, Precision Camera.  They take trade-ins on popular cameras and, for special customers, they will accept consignments. They are literally awash in recent model used cameras.  The very cameras we salivated over last year and a few years ago.  In some cases just a few months ago.

I found a shelf filled with Canon 5D mk2 cameras. They've been rendered useless by the Mark 3. ( sarcasm alert for the differently configured: Kirk is being facetious. The cameras are still very, very good performers ).  Likewise, the arrival of the Nikon D800 has led to a deluge of D300s, D700, D3 and even D3x cameras.  And if you are willing to go down market or down years the range of cameras on offer is incredible.  All at bargain prices.  Many used only by amateurs and sitting there in mint condition with fewer actuations on the shutters than you might believe.

The "on again/off again" rumors of the Olympus 4:3 E system's demise means that there are ample recent e cameras and lenses at fire sale prices as well.

Everywhere I look the Olympus OMD EM5 camera has radically displaced the EP2.  You can buy new EP2's for around $275 and only 18 months ago they were scratching $1,000.  Will it take long for the EP3's to follow?

What does this really mean to you? Say you are a young photographer who is just starting out in this business.  You have the opportunity, during this almost unprecedented surge cycle to put together a really decent system for less cash. If you can do without 36 megapixels and you want to shoot Nikon it's time to snap up something like a used D700 or a D7000 and some of the lenses that have been cast out by the newer G series versions.  The new lenses might have some small advantages over the previous models but remember that the old models were capable of making images for professionals that sold and sold well just a few months ago.  We may crave the new but  your clients won't see the difference.  And you probably won't either.

If you shoot Canon you can walk into bigger stores and look through a sea of bodies and lenses. The 1DX is pushing used prices of the 1Dmk4 down and the prices on 1DS2's has never been lower.

Can you imagine if the car market was like the camera market?  We'd be changing cars every eighteen months!  The average length of ownership, in the United States, of new cars is now 71 months.  Just a month shy of six years. Thing is that the cars last that long and deliver good service, for the most part, during that time frame.  But then so do cameras. 

I would venture to say that you could go out for most jobs equipped with the original Canon 5D or the Nikon D2X and a few older generation lenses and do most of the jobs that fall to photojournalists (are there any left?) and most local commercial photographers. Especially if the images are heading to the world wide web.

If you separate the business side of photography from the pleasure side of photography there's not a lot more we can do with the latest raft of cameras and lenses that we could not have done with the previous generation of same for most of our work.  Especially if the new stuff is seeing most of its action handheld and bumpy.

Just a suggestion, if there was a camera or lens that you really liked but which has been discontinued you might find that it's still a really good shooting camera and it's probably available on the used market at a great savings. Check out the good, local camera stores and see what you can find.  And if the price seems to be a bit high don't be afraid to offer less.  Most of the cameras that come in on trade have a pretty healthy margin and a shelf life like milk.  Shoot a little bolder and older and keep some money in your pockets for the adventure.

Silly me.  I'm still buying up $125 Nikon F2's and $500 Hasselblads.  Do you know what these cost new???