The strange saga of the Sony Nex 7...

I'm sure I didn't mean to do it. I was at Precision Camera and I must have tripped and fallen.  My credit card slipped out of my hand and shot across the sales floor just as one of my favorite store associates was walking by with a black and gray box.  The card landed on top of the box, hopping like water drops on hot oil, and the sales guy must of interpreted this wild gesture as a funny way to demand some new, fresh product.  By the time I picked myself up off the floor and dusted off my Costco five pocket blue jeans my sales associate already had a sale rung up and was busy suggesting additional product while convincing me to sign a liability waiver holding them harmless from my latest accident.  I must have been too stunned and bewildered to resist so I left the store with a nice plastic bag in one hand and yet another invoice in the other.  

Somehow I made it to the refuge of my favorite coffee shop (Caffe Medici actually makes really good decaffeinated cappuccinos)  and opened the bag to sort out what had just transpired. In the bag was a box with a Sony Nex 7 and a black 18-55mm kit lens.  Next to that box was a Sony 50mm 1.8 lens for the Nex system.  And, finally, at the bottom of the bag was a horribly expensive Sony InfoLithium battery for said camera.  Oh well, who am I to argue with the currents and whims of the universe? If the photo gods have thrust a package upon me it would be churlish to resist.   I headed home for the hoariest of rituals: the charging of the battery. Followed by the next most painful ritual: The rationalization to the spouse.

As you know I have been a long time proponent and user of products in the micro four thirds camera segment. I have owned Olympus EP2's and EP3's, EPL1's and EPL2's and I've both bought dedicated lenses for the system as well as adapting older, manual focus Pen lenses and Nikon Ais lenses to the system.  When I reviewed the EPL2 I went so far as to put a $5,000 Leica Summilux 35mm lens on the front for while.  I got interesting looks from the local high priests of Leica and humorous grins from the Olympus camp.  I've used the Panasonic G3 (much to the dismay of Olympus diehards) and even the GH2.

For a while I tried to isolate what it was about the Pens (other than their contrarian position in the market) that made me so excited about the system.  I liked the lightweight and small profile of the cameras.  Most of the lenses were quite good.  I really liked the electronic viewfinders.  It was a great system for walking around looking for fun stuff to shoot.  And for the first time since I joined this profession and hobby I found a plentiful supply of people who not only shared my interest and passion about the Pens but also loved to get together to shoot them, talk about them and compare notes.  In a sense, the feeling of belonging was a branch of social marketing that I find pretty specific to the Olympus Pen users.

So I thought it was very strange when, after three years of use, my passion for the cameras started to dwindle.  The Olympus OMD came out this year and has been an enormous and well deserved success.  Every time I pick one up and play with it I'm amazed at how cool that camera is.  But for some reason I could never bring myself to buy one. I could never get myself to go down the road of fleshing out a more complete and comprehensive system.  Or to put together a system that would take the place of larger cameras as my working system.  Or, to replace all the other systems with nothing but the Olympus cameras. I'd play with my friend's voluptuous black OMD, all tricked out with the grip and the new 75mm lens and I'd be seduced for the moment but as soon as I handed the camera back all the seduction faded away.  

Then it started to dawn on me.  I liked the Olympus Pen products (and I'm including the OMD in that mix) mostly because they were the first on the scene with a great electronic viewfinder and the whole idea of "pre-chimping" and having pre-shot control of everything you shoot was such a powerful concept that it became the strong core of my attraction for those cameras.  The VF-2 was always a better implementation of an EVF than anything Panasonic had come out with in the same product space.

But the whole time that I was buying and using the Pen cameras for my personal work I was also working my way through the larger DSLR systems, looking for the holy grail of industrial digital cameras for the way I work (which may be totally different than the way you work....). Up until this year I've mostly worked with Canon and Nikon systems but while I respect the image quality these cameras are capable of I was looking for a combination of that capability married to a system with a killer EVF.  Sony came along and they seem committed to an EVF future.  I took a chance and once I started working with their EVF everything else just faded.  

Recently a friend dropped a Nikon 800e by the studio and suggested that I keep it for a while and write a review about it.  I kept it for a day but every time I brought it up to my eye I remembered everything I didn't like about shooting without the amazing electronic preview and everything I really liked about the Sony SLT cameras.  At that moment it was clear to me that the pleasure I got from the Olympus Pen gear was,  in part,  a direct result of my working style with the EVF.  Now the Sonys were supplanting the Pen cameras by dint of having an even better EVF.  I realized that the whole issue of size was, for me, secondary to the way the camera actually functioned.

Once I started to use the a77 (Sony) on a day-in-day-out basis my appreciation for the new method of viewing my subjects continued to increase.  I started picking up the bigger Sony from my equipment tool case rather than a smaller m4:3 camera on those times I went out to shoot for myself.  I've gone into Precision Camera five or six times in the last month with the intention of buying an OMD but each time I played with the competing systems as well and I would leave uncommitted.  I rejected the Fuji X Pro 1 because of all the focusing issues (which I experienced first hand) and mostly because I was amazed to find that the hapless engineers at Fuji didn't provide an adjustable diopter.  I rejected the Leica M9 (the camera I really want) because I can never justify the price in a recession that's affected the art class so dramatically...  I'd already played with the Nikon 1 system and I was frustrated at not being able to buy any decent prime lenses for it.

I started playing with the Nex 7 when the shipments caught up to demand and at first I wasn't terribly interested.  The interface seemed wacky.  But over time I kept coming back again and again to play with the camera.  Finally something clicked and I understood the operating system and the interface.  The final sticks (that broke the camel's back) were the consistently good reviews across the web, coupled with the fact that you can add an adapter that will give you full, fast use of all the Sony Alpha lenses.  That, combined with the same capability that the m4:3 cameras have to use most other lenses in the market place, pushed me forward.

When I went to lunch with Ben today I started telling him all about the new camera.  He laughed. He thought I was making a joke.  When I insisted I was not joking he got very serious. His mother stepped in to assure him that his college savings account required two parent signatures for any withdrawals and he calmed down.  

It would be silly at this juncture for me to write a review of the camera.  I've only used it for several hundred frames.  I took it along with me today on a mid-afternoon walk and I was surprised at how quickly I learned the major points of the control. But I guess I should not have been too surprised as a lot of the menu implementation is the same as that in the SLT line.

Above.  A much more expensive hobby than photography...

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the Sony Nex 7 let me give you a brief run down:  It's a relatively small, mirror-less camera which currently (along with the Sony a77 and a65) has the highest resolution, LED illuminated EVF on the market.  It takes dedicated Nex system lenses which are larger than the corresponding m4:3 lenses.  The camera has the same video engine as the a77 which makes it the state of the art in video for consumer cameras that do both disciplines.  And the other big feature that gets most of the headlines is the 24 megapixel APS-C sensor.  It's the same one used in the a77 but as there is no need for a mirror of any kind the Nex 7 handles ISO 3200 quite a bit better than it's rotund and mirrored cousin.

self portrait into a smudgy parking garage mirror.

The Nex 7 with kit lens is lighter than the OMD with grips and kit lens. I used the camera with the 50mm 1.8 lens all afternoon today and found the combo really nice.  If I had already made the step to the Olympus OMD I probably would not have been tempted, but there it is.

A 100% enlargement from the frame one above...

I've found a few of the downsides to the camera. Most have to do with the menu system.  Certain features only work in certain modes.  The dials are TOO configurable.  Stuff like that, mostly.  The one area in which the Olympus cameras trounce the Sony Nex 7 is in fast focus acquisition; the Sony is a slower camera to focus.  The battery life is pretty short as well. I expect I'll get right about 350-400 shots per charge once the battery has been through several more charge cycles.

The upside is that the files are incredibly sharp and detailed. And that includes all the stuff I shot today at ISO 800 (see images below in grocery store).  The image stabilization works quite well and I even channeled my friend, ATMTX, and shot some of the photographs below using the LCD finder on the back of the camera to sight and focus with. Horrors.  The camera handled everything I tried today but I really didn't push it much.  I'll know more about the camera when I've shot some studio portraits and also have done a few road trips with it.  

Are there any recent cameras on the market that can't do a great imaging job at ISO 100?

(tongue in cheek) Ahhh.  It's got those great Sony blues!

 Shot with modified "stinky baby diaper" hold.  Amazing auto ISO and IS.

Is there any modern camera that cake can't make look good?

 One of the features of the Sony Nex 7 is that it looks like a very nicely done hipster doofus point and shoot camera. I was able to shoot images inside several stores and no one batted an eye.  I loved walking around the chic grocery store/glamor bar on Sixth and Lamar snapping images of whatever caught my eye without the least hesitation.

I do think it's funny that I chose to buy the camera yesterday as it seems that Michael Johnston also handled one yesterday and mentioned it on his site today (the Online Photographer). I also think it's funny that my friend, ATMTX, wrote recently that he uses his Sony Nex 5 less and less these days in deference to his growing collection of Olympus cameras and lenses.  And one of my really good friends, Frank, seems to have found personal nirvana with his acquisition of the OMD.  We're all wired a bit differently I guess, and that's what makes this photography thing so much fun.

I put this building shot in for two reasons:  1. It shows off the  wonderfully sharp system and when blown up larger gives a good example of how well the camera and lens work.  But also, #2. A person from the UK wrote to tell me that he hates my building shots and that I live in a tiny, fly-speck of a town and I need to get out more.  This one (above) is just for him.

When I decided to move to the smaller Sony camera I made up my mind to "prune my optical equipment garden."  To that end I sold my Pen gear (all cameras with the older 12 megapixel sensors---not that earth shattering of an idea) and I am also contemplating selling off my collection of the original Pen manual focus lenses.  There was more inventory in the drawer than I remembered...  

Edit: quick on his feet, reader Corwin rescues my Pen lens collection by letting me know that there's actually a Pen FT to Sony Nex lens adapter.  I ordered one and I'll keep using the Pen lenses.  Only now I'll be able to use them with focus peaking. Major score.

Finally, the menus are much more similar between the two different Sony models I use in my work, the a77 and now the Nex7.  It's already much less confusing to go back and forth.  And I don't need to carry the manual around with me in my back pocket.  Well, I guess I'm off on a new imaging adventure. Thanks again for joining me in yet another Quixotic Quest...

I wonder if Cervantes would have been a camera collector?


Forget cameras for a few days. It's time to talk about lighting equipment.

In 2008 I wrote what many people thought was a pretty good book about lighting with little, battery powered electronic flashes.  The book is called Minimalist Lighting: Professional Techniques for Location Photography.  The entire book revolves around using small, inexpensive lights to do 90% of what we used to do with big power packs and flash heads.  If you read my book and David Hobby's website: Strobist.com you'd be forgiven for thinking that pretty much anything under the sun could be shot well with a couple of speed lights and couple handfuls of double "A" batteries.

Until you actually get "under the sun" and decide that you don't want just a complacent little burst of fill light, you want a big ass pop of bring on the photons that at least matches the sun and in some cases you want it to go one better.  Now you're into a whole different universe of lighting equipment.  You can still use all the techniques from my book, they are relevant and most of the information about "how" to light never gets obsolete but I should add a new chapter called, "When a box of speedlights isn't enough."

We love to watch Joe McNally assemble six or seven thousand dollars worth of Nikon Speedlights, clamps and weird fitting modifiers to do what he could much more easily and inexpensively do with, well, a single bigger battery powered flash.

If you stack little flashes to increase power the progression of need goes something like this: 1 flash = 100 w/s,  to get another stop of light you'll need to double the power to two flashes. To add another stop requires four more flashes.  To get another stop you'll need to add sixteen flashes.  Etc.  At $500 for a top of the line Nikon, Canon or Sony flah you'll probably need about eight to twelve flashes  ($4000 to $6000) and lots of batteries, plus clamps with hot shoe mounts and lots and lots of radio slaves to do what you could much more easily do with something like the Profoto Acute B 600 power pack.  Really.  And a Profoto system with a head and box will cost you something like.... $2400 for the box and $900 for the head.  Pricey but maybe a lot more efficient, powerful and long lasting than a Think Tank case crammed full of shoe mounters and their batteries.

I bought a Profoto Acute B 600 system about five years ago when Profoto had a sale and kicked in the head if you bought the box.  I also have added three new batteries in the last two years in order to have enough ready power to get through a long day of shooting on location.  When the Profoto Acute B 600 first came out it shipped with sealed lead acid batteries.  They worked well.  In the past two years they've upgraded the system by adding lithium ion battery technology.  It makes the box lighter, lasts longer and keeps a stored charge much longer for people whose work on a more sporadic schedule.  The nice thing is the Li batteries are backwardly compatible with older boxes. Hurrah. Battery compatibility! Maybe camera manufacturers will take note. You can order the system with either type of battery.  The Li battery version is pricier.

I have two different high powered battery powered systems, the Profoto Acute B and the bigger and more complex Elinchrom Ranger RX AS.  In this blog I'd like to just concentrate on the Profoto and give it my complete attention.  It's the box that made me a convert to the idea of going mano-a-mano with the Texas sun.  What follows are my general thoughts about what the strengths and weaknesses of the Profoto are and how to use it to your best advantage. Let's get started.

The beginning. I bought the Acute B 600 because I had a corporate client who wanted me to shoot portraits of their key executives on exterior locations all over central Texas. They wanted the old, Annie Leibovitz--Rolling Stone Magazine look from the 1980's where the subject is standing outside and the light on him/her is about half a stop to a full stop brighter than the sun on the surrounding scene.  There are two ways to do that.  One is to use whatever flash you have at hand, and, presuming it is a low powered flash, you wait until the sun sets and you can match the ambient illumination with the output of your flash unit.  As the sun continues to fade your light becomes a comparatively stronger and stronger source light.  At some point your light becomes more powerful than the (already set) sun and you have maybe five minutes to catch the sweet spot combination before the sun's afterglow vanishes and you've got basically nothing but a flash or the option to mix your flash with a really long exposure. Which always results in subject movement that the paying client doesn't want.  Even if we call it "art" and meant to do it...

Your other option is to have the tools you need to step up no matter what time of the day it is and shoot on demand. Why is this important to commercial photographers? Because scheduling executives is tough and no matter what you'd like to have happen, nine times out of ten you'll be asked to shoot at 2pm on a nasty hot, bright day and you'll have the option of delivering what you promised or changing careers. Enter the self contained studio light ( cannon, light bomb, big guns) high powered battery unit.

I chose to go with the second option. At the time pretty much all of my lighting, from flash to tungsten, monolights to power packs, was Profoto brand so the choice of which battery powered system to buy was pretty easy. Profoto makes great modifiers and attachments and the stuff just flat out works. That's why their products are the top choice of rental facilities nearly everywhere. The other grown up choice in the market is Elinchrom and we'll get to that system on Monday. Or earlier.

The Acute B comes in two parts: you've got a stout little box that weighs around 9 pounds.  Most of the weight comes from the battery in my unit as my batteries are mostly still the older (but very reliable...) sealed lead acid batteries.  The second part is the flash head which attaches to the box with a fairly short but really thick cable.  The over-engineered cable is purposely oversized to reduce resistive power loss between the head and the box to give higher output and longer battery life.  I have a Domke canvas cargo bag that I can throw the whole system into and take "off road."  At about fifteen pounds including head, box, and a few accessories it's the only way for me, really, to get to rough, isolated areas and still be able to do studio quality lighting.

The box has one outlet for one flash head.  The plug is rock solid and has a breech lock mechanism to prevent accidental detachment.  The top of the box has six switches and three "ports."  The far left switch, labelled, "energy", is a rocker switch that gives large changes in output power.  There's "max", "-2", and "-4".  (I translate it to mean: full power, half power, quarter power).  Just to the right of that switch is a rotary control with click stops.  It goes from "max" to "min" and it's a 2/10ths per adjustment click power fine tuning switch.  With the leftmost switch set to max and the trim control set to max you have the box at full power which is 600w/s. If you go to the minimum settings on both you have 9 w/s, which translates into a 7 stop range.

People talk about the "stopping power" of electronic flash but I don't think a lot of people understand that the duration of the flash, the parameter that determines just how frozen you can get a subject, changes with the power settings on most flash systems.  At full power the Acute B's flash duration is about 1/1,000th of a second.  Not as short as a smaller, shoe mount unit but much faster than many bigger studio A/C powered flashes.  When you head toward the other end of the scale the flash duration drops down to a minimum of 1/6,800th of a second.

The next switch over controls the modeling light that comes installed in the flash head.  You have the options of "off", "ext", and "batt".  As you can imagine a tungsten modeling light with an effective output of around 90 watts will suck a battery dry in short order. It's hard to see the effect of any modeling light in full sun so we mostly use the system (when we're outside) without the modeling light on.  In the studio it's a whole different matter (and if you substitute the "studio" with "the abandoned saloon in the abandoned town next to the desert" this all makes good sense...).  The modeling light might be your dominant light source for focusing and understanding the play of light across a beautiful face.  And at the end of a long, night time shoot in the desert it might be a useful light to use while packing your car...

Sometimes I use the Acute B system in the studio because I like the way the light looks in the big Magnum reflector or the white Profoto beauty dish.  I know I'll burn through batteries over the course of a two hour or three hour session running the modeling lamp so I just line up three extra batteries and change as needed.  Without using the modeling light, shooting in mild weather, I count on getting between 150 and 160 full power flashes as long as I'm not pushing the recycle times.  Using the modeling light doesn't slow down the recycling time but it does reduce the number of shots you'll be able to take.  Given that this light unit is fairly expensive compared to "plug in the wall" units from both Profoto and other makers they do acknowledge that a photographer might want to use the unit in both studio settings and locations so they offer an adapter that plugs into the box and it does nothing but power the modeling light from an A/C circuit.  Once you've plugged in the adapter and set the rocker switch to "ext" all the current being drawn by the modeling light is coming from the wall socket and the battery (which still solely powers the flash circuitry) is left untouched.

I've used flash for so long I generally just turn on the modeling light for a few minutes while I'm dialing in a shot to make sure that the shadows are falling where I want them.  Modeling lights were a much bigger deal in the film days where you didn't have the constant feedback loop of an LCD monitor on the back of every camera.  You had to take a few extra minutes to make sure you got stuff right before you started shooting....

There is another switch right under the carrying handle and it turns a sound alert feature on or off.  The alert beeps every time the flash recycles completely (a very handy thing) and also beeps an alert when the unit is battery exhausted and about to shut down.  I leave the sound on.  It's hard to be stealthy when you're belting out big pops of white light over and over again....

The next switch is an on/off switch.  It's a switch always freaks out my assistants because you have to hold the switch in position for three or four seconds to affect a change in either direction.  That's a safety feature so that when the unit is packed for travel the switch isn't accidentally actuated and the battery drained in transit.  Nice to have.  Just remember to hold it down until it actually does what you want it to do.

The final switch enables the built in optical slave.  Nice to have when you are using multiple boxes in interior locations as the flash can "see" other flashes and trigger right along at the speed of light.  With all the newer units you also have the option of getting your box with a Pocket Wizard radio receiver built in.  I'm always opposed to this because I don't want to get locked into one supplier's radio trigger system.  I'm using much smaller and equally reliable Flash Waves triggers and happy doing so.  Just thought I'd let you know the option existed in case you are a die hard Pocket Wizard adherent.

The three ports on the top of the box are: A standard 1/4 inch synchronization socket, the plug-in for the external power to the modeling light, and the plug-in for the unit's battery charger.  The charger is boring and straightforward and recharges a spent battery completely in about five hours.  If you need more charging performance there is also a quick charger as an available option.  The quick charger reduces charge time to about 90 minutes.  I'm sure there must be a car charger available as well but I've never looked into it.  I rarely need to charge more than the four batteries I have while out and about.

The Head. The flash head is set up just like all other Profoto flash heads.  The reflectors fit on with a sliding collar that is tightened with a spring clamp.  The fitting (when used on speed rings) is strong enough to hold my heavy, five foot diameter octabox securely.  The head uses a bright 65 watt modeling light set in the middle of a ring shaped, UV coated flash tube to provide accurate visual tracking. The head is not fan cooled but is small and as lightweight as it can be given the strong metal construction.

Umbrella Warning. The one caveat to using most Elinchrom and Profoto flash heads is the fact that they require a thinner, 7mm umbrella shaft if you want to slide an umbrella into the receptacle provided.  If you try to put a thicker, U.S. standard umbrella into the hole you'll have a hell of a time ever getting it out.  You can order 7mm shafted umbrellas from all the usual sources. Even Photek's incredibly popular 60 inch Softlighter Two is available in both configurations.

But Why?  Yes, why would you want to spend upwards of three thousand dollars for one light?  Granted, if you are a studio only photographer or a location photographer who only works in air conditioned, power strip rich environments you are probably not the target market for this kind of light.  Likewise, if you do events and use your hand held, dedicated speed light you're probably not in the market either.  The person who wants one of these is routinely in situations where not much else will work well to fullfill the vision he or she might have for a photograph.

The first and most obvious situation would be the need to have a lot of power and also have that power available in a place that doesn't have electricity on tap.  I mentioned shooting executives on remote locations which have included the roof tops of thirty story buildings, on the top of Mount Bonnell with the sun high in the sky and the lakes in the background. (Dragging a gasoline generator up the steep and rocky foot paths of Mt. Bonnell would be a silly exercise in self torture and you'd probably need a folder full of permits to fire one up in the city park..).  Shooting a beautiful portrait on an isolated beach and shooting a weathered rancher out along the fence line.  Sure, there's generally a plug somewhere in the vicinity but do you routinely pack a thousand feet of fat gauge extension cable with you?  And do you know how much that would weigh?

What I want (and get) from this system is something light enough for me to carry around on locations by myself but something that retains the capability to get enough light on a subject to give me f11 at 1/250th of a second at 100 ISO from five to seven feet away AND with a large modifier in between the flash tube and the subject.  You could do it with a ton of speed lights but that's never pretty, efficient, convenient, etc.  And the thing that makes the one big light the winner? You can recycle at full power every 2.8 seconds and know that every frame will be consistent.  And you can do that about 150 times in a row.

There are less expensive ways of doing the same thing.  The most popular low cost option is to use a Paul Buff Mini Lithium battery/inverter and his biggest model Alien Bees or Einstein flashes.  They are not as rugged and industrial grade as the Profotos but they will do the job.  I've owned both and after using them side by side I got rid of the Buff gear and kept the "high price" spread.  When you work outside in the elements you need strong everything.  And while you might not think about it when shooting in the studio the weak link of the Alien Bees flashes is the "hardware" that mounts those monolights to light  stands.  On the AB's it's plastic, it cracks if you over tighten and if you don't overtighten it moves around.  I've also cracked a couple of the unit cases and I much prefer the repeatability of controls with detents over very, very cheap control sliders.

The biggest difference though is in the mounting hardware for softboxes, octabanks and other big, diffusion modifiers.  The Profoto stuff is stout enough to hold a big box in low wind.  The Balcar style clamps on the Buff gear were never made to be used outdoors and I've had my own series of mishaps with sudden mechanical "let go's" of big modifiers. Once or twice the escaping speedring caught a modeling light bulb and broke it apart.  I never lost a flash tube but I was always nervous about the possibility.  When I put a 28 inch beauty dish on the Profoto head I know it's going to stay there no matter what. That has real value when you are on location juggling chaos.

(above photo):  This is a classic use of the system for me. I start by "flying" a 72 by 72 inch diffuser up over my subject to block direct sun.  In this instance I let a little light come over the top as a quick and relevant hair light. Then I bring in the Profoto as a front light, in this case with a 60 inch Softlighter II umbrella and diffuser just in front of my subject. Before we start shooting I'll fill up my location sand bags with water (they come to the location empty and light and can be filled with sand or water) and put them on the diffuser light stands and on the flash light stand.  I've added gaffer's tape to the clamps holding the big diffuser to make sure it doesn't sail away. The next image down is a shot from the set up.

Lighting is a fun subject and I believe that a good working knowledge of artificial light is one of the many differentiators that separates professionals from everyone else in their photographic work.  Lots of people can "see" good available light and leverage it to make nice photographs but it's a far smaller part of the ven diagram when it comes to people who can make the lighting happen reliably on a gloomy or bald day.

If you want to learn more about lighting equipment, modifiers, the nuts and bolts of lighting gear I wrote a book about that.  It's right here:  Lighting Equipment

The Profoto B 600  is a great little (relative) lighting system.  Two of them make a versatile system for any hard working corporate photographer who might be called on to make a wide range of images in a wide range of locations.  Until you've spent years running extension cords from far off plugs and then taping them down so that people don't trip over them you don't really know just how freeing it is to: set up, power up and shoot without slowing down to do things the old ways.  Conversely, if you've always shot with speed lights you'll be amazed at how much flexibility in light placement, modifier size and other options a professional system like this gives you.  We talk about overpowering the sun with lights.  Once you've done it with a professional system like this going backwards into the "Rube Goldberg" constructions of the small flash set ups seems silly.

Next up: The Elinchrom Ranger RX AS system.  When you need more power or two heads....

The LED Lighting book finally arrives in the Kindle format. Thank Goodness!!!

After months of waiting my fifth book, LED Lighting: Professional Techniques for Digital Photographers, is now available as a Kindle Book on Amazon. The price of the Kindle Edition is around $15. I don't know what took Amazon so long to get this one out but I wanted the large group of people who've e-mailed, asking me to hurry up the process, to know that it's here, available now.  I'm just in the process of downloading it myself. 

FYI:  Some of my readers who use iPads were unaware that you can download a Kindle app from the App Store for free and it will allow you to buy Kindle books and read them on your iPad.  It works just as well as reading them on the new color Kindles with the added advantage of a bigger screen and a much faster system and processor.

Please buy a copy of the LED book and help support the Visual Science Lab blog!  


Giving the "old" stuff time to deliver.

I was feeling all jangly this morning. I've been writing articles this week that speak to the idea that there will always be technical progress but that learning to use your equipment wisely is so much more important to your work than having the latest lens or camera.  What if I was wrong?  What if every new permutation of camera moves your game forward?  How silly I would feel. 

When I left the house this morning I had the idea that I should just give in to the pressure of the market place and buy one of the new cameras. I should get an OMD or a Fuji Pro1 or a one of the new and wildly popular Canikons.  Ben and I left the house around 6:45 am this morning.  I drove him to cross country practice (don't know how he can run 7-10 miles on a glass of water and a spoonful of honey...) and then I headed to swim practice, visions of Michael Phelp's performances dancing in my head.  On the way out of the house I slipped into the studio to grab a camera and a lens or two. I grabbed the Pen EP3 (predecessor to the OMD) and I made a conscious decision to grab my absolute favorite Pen lens, the 60mm 1.5, to see how it stacked up to the new 75mm lens I played with earlier.  I didn't do any side by side comparisons but by now I've developed a retinal memory of how lenses perform and that's how I was gauging the relative performance of the 40 year old lens.

When Ben's team runs they finish at the Austin landmark, Barton Springs Pool.  I was waiting there for him at 9:30 am (wow, that's a long workout...).  I was a bit early so I snapped a few shots of the big pool and the spillway at the end of the pool.  Then we headed home.  I ate a breakfast taco and had a cup of tea while Ben made a monumental smoothie, a cheeseburger and a half a cantaloup. I guess running fast for a couple hours helps one build an appetite.

The spillway into Lady Bird Lake.

A construction made for spending afternoons in the cool water.

The temperatures soared up past 100 this afternoon so around 5pm I decided to take the same camera and lens combo and head back over to Barton Springs to show you how real Austinites cool off on these Summer days.  The water that flows into the one eighth mile long pool is a constant 68 degrees (f).  It was also a chance to continue testing the camera and lens combo.  Was I missing out entirely by not having the latest and greatest? I'm going to say no.  The stamina required to walk around in the blazing sun and actually have energy to shoot certainly trumped the  advantages of the new bodies.  At least I think so since no other photographers were out braving the weather with their cameras....

I think that the bottom line is this:  There is a point at which cameras really don't have to be any better.  If you check out the 100% crops on the leaves in the images further down I think you'll agree that sharp is sharp and sharper becomes less real, less believable. The EP 3 is fun to use in manual.  Hit the magnifying glass button twice and you enter high magnification for great manual focusing.  At f5.6 the lens is as good as anything on the market.  To my eye it's as good as the new 75mm.  While the 75mm might outperform it at wide open apertures I continue to be amazed at the performance of a lens that's been around for such a long time.

Even though I've had the EP3 for almost a year I feel like I'm just now coming to grips with what that camera is capable of doing. Part of that is my fault. I made a mental demarcation between my "professional" work cameras (Canons and Sonys) and my fun, "art" cameras (Olympus and Panasonic) and I spread myself too thin to master everything. 

The strengths of the EP3 are the traditional things people like about the Olympus cameras:  The in body stabilization, the incredible Jpeg files and the small, discrete design.  If the camera has weaknesses they are the performance at high ISO's and the lower resolution.

In the moment, while I'm rational and thinking about it, I think I should declare a moratorium for myself on buying or selling cameras.  I think it takes a long time to learn how to get the best out of every camera.  At least 18 months.  I'm almost there with the EP3 and I'm resisting the lure of upgrading to a new art camera at least until I've mastered the one in my hand.  Nothing is sadder than selling off a camera only to later stumble across a frame that's incredible. I've had too many incredible frames already out of the Pen cameras to think about abandoning them yet.

The EP2 and the EP3 are incredibly good shooting cameras.  I'm sure the OMD is better but I'm equally sure that, right now, I am the weak link not the cameras I'm shooting with.

If I'm the weak link it's because I'm not pointing my camera at the right stuff.  I know how to do all the technical steps to take accurate photos, now I need the courage to point them in a new direction and take chances with failure in order to pull out images that are more about me than about the process.  Honestly, it's not the camera...

Edit:  I just stumbled across this blog post from two years ago. It's still relevant. Maybe more so than ever....


Medical Images: A fun and challenging advertising photography niche.

Way back in my advertising agency days we serviced a handful of medical clients.  A big hospital and a couple of medical device manufacturers. They weren't very much fun but they were reliable and straightforward. But in the "old days" medical practices in general didn't do much advertising and doctors did none at all because of various laws and "codes of ethics."  All of that has changed. Doctors, especially in specialties, are competing head-to-head with other practices and, in some cases, even against luxury goods.  Think: Elective plastic surgery.

But the genie is out of the bottle for most hospitals, radiology practices and other specialties like oral surgery and dermatology. The more affluent the market the more competitive the marketplace. While the referral is still a major part of the mix brand advertising to the general consumer is the growing trend.  The profession, in general, is not going to go back to an era when it was considered unseemly to do direct advertising and brand marketing.

Back in 2002, long into my current career as a photographer,  we did a campaign for a local hospital that specializes exclusively in cardiology. The image above is one from that campaign and was shot with a Nikon DH2.  The graininess comes from a SnapSeed post processing effect ("structure").  We set up and lit a number of shots of people at work over two days of principal photography but the majority of shots were done with available light and fast lenses.

During the same shoot we did a few outdoor shots and, as in the case below, we used a Kodak DCS 760 C which is a six megapixel camera and, at the time, the highest res digital camera we could buy for less than $8,000. I looked at the file as I reduced it for this blog insertion and it stands up remarkably well across a big screen.  No noise at ISO 100, just good, crisp, saturated files.

In the shot above we used a model for our "patient" but the rest of  the team was legit. We were up on the roof with a loaned helicopter when the call came in that another medical helicopter was inbound with a real emergency.  We were rushed off the roof with all of our gear and we waited in the elevator lobby while the first crew revved up the helicopter we'd been shooting and took off to make space for the one incoming. We watched a group of emergency medicine people charge through to the roof to receive the patient and get him into the hospital ER. We never found out what the final resolution was because the HIPA laws protecting patient privacy were already in place at the time.

One of my favorite medical shots in the one just above. We were photographing a radiologist in an office little bigger than a closet in the basement of a local hospital. I added portable flashes (SB-800's outfitted with radio slaves) at very low power to light the walls behind the monitors and to backlight the (real) radiologist but the main light came from the glow of the screen she's facing. It was shot with a Fuji S5 and an old, used Sigma 24-70mm f2.8.  I used the lens at f4.  It's really sharp.  And the camera (advertising to the contrary) was really only a six megapixel camera.

Consumers have a choice now and we're seeing practices evolve and upgrade their clinics and consumer facing spaces. If for no other reason than the nicer waiting rooms, exam rooms and front desks lessen the angst of going in to a strange office for a series of tests that may result in unhappy tidings for the "customer/patient." We shot the lobby above with a Nikon D2X and whatever cool Nikon lens we had that did wide angle at the time. I'm gong to guess it was my 12-24mm zoom.

Earlier this year we also shot extensively in a San Antonio hospital. When working in busy ER's and around expensive diagnostic equipment you need to practice working fast and staying well out of everyone's way. Shoot no faces that aren't model released and you can't really, legally get a release that will stand up to a legal challenge from someone under physical and mental duress; meaning: no real patients. Shot with a Canon 5Dmk2 and a 20mm Canon lens.  Nice, smooth and color rich.  

I like medical gear and I like close up stuff. Several diagnostic tests require the injections of radioactive materials into the bloodstream. This syringe (above) is largely encased in a lead protector to minimize radiation exposure.  I'd love to say I used some very impressive camera and lens but on that day I was shooting with an Olympus e300 and a 14-54 mm lens.  A couple of flashes bounced off the ceiling. Art directors still like this one years later. At some point all the gear is good enough. 

The image above relies on a clean, high ISO to work.  You've got to use high shutter speeds to freeze action and you have to have the action so the poses and gestures are authentic.  We have some that we did with motion blur but I think this one works best in the application we had in mind.  Canon 5D mk2 with 24-105mm L lens.  One nemesis of photography in hospitals is the ubiquity of white sheets and white blankets and white coats. They demand good exposure technique and/or really, really good sensor latitude. The newest rev of Lightroom 4.0 helps a great deal with highlight recovery but I think a real photographer should learn how to do good exposure in the camera, just in case you have to shoot fast and send the image directly to a customer or a magazine.  Isn't that why they invented Raw+jpeg?

The nurse and baby were photographed in a section of the hospital that works with premature babies. We didn't add light we added f-stop. I opted to shoot a series in this area with a Canon 1DSmk2 and the Zeiss 85mm 1.4 ZE.  Made sense to me.  ISO 400. You have to get the written permission of the parent and you have to be a good, no pressure salesman because the nurses are busy, they are not paid to be there for you, and if they agree to be part of the shot they do so because you were able to communicate your empathy and gratitude. No other way to do it right.  

Surgery. The makers of medical instruments, artificial knees, hips, pace makers, and much more really seem to like photographs of surgery. I'm not comfortable with blood and exposed guts and all the other stuff that goes with possible mortality and operating rooms.  When we shoot "surgery" we find a willing volunteer from the surgical staff or from our own entourage to be a surgical model.  It's important to make sure that the scene looks authentic because people who work in these environments can also be an audience for the final use of the images. 

In both the image above and below we used no other lighting but the surgical lamps and the standard lighting in the room.  We could have made it more dramatic by turning off everything but the surgical spots and plunging the background into darkness but it's not really authentic and people are getting smarter and smarter about phony shots.  One exception is in a Cath Lab (catheter lab) where the room lights are turned down so doctors can "read" the video images on the flat screen monitors which give them the real time view they need of a patient's veins and arteries.

The image just above was done recently for a radiology practice. We used a Sony a77 and the 16-50mm kit lens (which is wonderfully sharp and corrects perfectly in Lightroom 4.0). The scene was lit with a combination of existing room light and two of the small, battery powered Fotodiox 312AS LED panels.  These are the panels with controls for changing color temperatures.

I like making images for this industry.  The majority of the people I meet are highly skilled and very committed to what they do. If you are affluent in America, and live in the right cities, you really do have access to the very best medical care on the face of the earth. And the interaction of patients and professionals along with state of the art imaging technology means that there's lots of great material to photograph.  

The best working methodology of photographers working in the medical world:  "Go in smart, work fast, be discreet, be honest, stay out of the way, show people in the best light."  Bottom line? The patient is always more important than the guy who showed up to do advertising images.

I would add that these situations call for minimalism with gear.  Recently I've been shooting with fast lenses and small LED panels that can be quickly and effectively repositioned, the brightness is controlled by one dial and the color temperature by another dial.  All without power cords or extension cords.  Tailor made for moving quick.

It's fun for me to look at the images over time. To see what difference (if any) the changing equipment makes a difference in the way I work and the images I get.