According to all the test reports my (fill in the blank) lens is not sharp in the corners.

Hmm. I'm a portrait photographer.  Do I really need ultra-sharp corners?

I love manufactured conundrums.  How could I not? I was in the ad business for years before becoming a full time photographer.  We thrived on finding the "pain" for consumers and then giving them a "solution".  "The Malls are too crowded?  We've got acres of free parking!!!"

I was thinking about this after I caught myself mindlessly reading a lens review of the Sony Nex 18-55mm lens on SLRgear.com. They have a nifty-charty thing that shows the performance of the lens you might be considering. It uses colors to show you how sharp a lens is at different apertures and different focal lengths and in different areas of the frame. But here's the issue for me:  I think that the only lenses that test really well on flat charts are macro lenses meant to do well when photographing flat charts because they are made to photograph flat charts.  The rest of the lenses that I'm interested in don't really need to do that, do they?

But the test sites need us to be fearful about picking lenses so they can get eyeballs.  The information can be useful but only if you apply it to your ways of working...

When I looked at the performance of the kit lens for the Nex system I at first was excited to see that, even wide open, it was very sharp and performed very well in the center of the lens.  The air was let out of my balloon when I read on and did all the interactive stuff with the cool graphic sliders. Seems the lens is not as sharp on the corners.  In fact, you've got to stop it down to f8 to get really good corner performance.  Most reviewers tell me that the kit lens won't come close to providing enough performance (across the full frame of the sensor) to work well with the 24 megapixel sensor in the Nex7.  And then there's all the fringing I might find when I do high contrast photographs of little, naked tree branches against the stark sky.  Oh my.

I let my sometimes rational brain take all the information and put it into my mental processing blender and it came out giving the lens a big C+. A snob like me would never consider shooting with it.  Never mind that I actually love lenses that have a high core of sharpness wide open and then gracefully devolve on the edges and corners.  And that includes most of the portrait lenses I have used to best effect, as well as nearly every 50mm lens on the market.

Oh the damage we do to ourselves when we have too much information and not enough theoretical depth to process the information optimally for our own individual needs.

All lenses have curvature of field.  Some are corrected for this and they make really good optics for people who need to photograph stuff that has straight lines.  These might be architectural photographers, still life photographers or technical photographers.  The overwhelming majority of the lenses we buy are used to document life around us.  And the majority of the lenses I buy are pressed into the service of photographing people.  We generally don't need stringent edge to edge sharpness and total lack of optical faults when we use lenses wide open.  We need optics that are crispy enough to do the job.

Many years ago Leica made lenses that the best photographers in the world absolutely swore by.  They still do. But strangely enough, when the lenses from Leica were tested in conventional, flat target ways, they never seemed to put up numbers that matched what we saw on film (or now on our monitors).  Then I read a white paper on optimum design for lenses based on their intended use and I got it. To make a fast, high aperture lens you need to make some compromises.  To make a zoom that's consistent across the zoom range you've got to make some different  compromises and if you want a flat field lens that does good single planes of focus and even illumination you've got to make still other compromises.  The trick is to test the different kinds of lenses and find the ones that work for your style of shooting.  There a few perfect lenses that I can actually afford.  The designers can correct for a lot but would you be willing to pay $10,000 for a 10 pound f4 prime lens to hang on the front of your tiny camera?

And you have to know what compromises are involved.  For example, the 85mm Zeiss 1.4 lens is a super duper optic but in order to make it fast and sharp Zeiss sacrificed corner sharpness wide open and also the design of the lens means that you'll get appreciable focus shift as you stop down from f1.4 to f4.0.  Especially at closer (portrait) distances.  The work arounds are to only focus and shoot at f4 and smaller or to do all of your fine focusing for close up work with a magnified live view image and with the lens stopped down to the actual shooting aperture.  And Zeiss and Lloyd Chambers will tell you that.  You can't have it every which way.

So what am I getting at?  Only that the two lenses I bought for the Sony Nex 7, the 18-55 and the 50mm 1.8 are both more than sharp enough to make wonderful portraits in my style.  Even when used wide open.  The "nifty 50" that everyone loves for the Canon has pretty atrocious performance on the test charts as do most of the 50mm 1.4 lenses from the major makers.  The thing that makes them popular though is the sharp center core and the ability to use them at faster apertures than most zoom-only users ever dream of.  You can't have everything in a lens.  That's why I have separate Macro lenses for those special moments when I find myself longing to shoot test charts.

Measurements are great but interpreting correctly is the part that counts.

Yes, I've gone crazy with the Lightroom presets today.  I'm sure I'll recover.


I think I'm getting the hang of this Sony Nex-7 stuff. Need more practice.

My friend, Noellia the actor, just wrapped up a six month project for Disney and came home to Austin to visit friends and family. She called me up to see if we could get together and spend a little time shooting some photos.  I first met Noellia when I cast her for an ad campaign nearly nine years ago.  She had just turned eighteen and answered a casting call.  We've done many projects together since then and she was a consistent and wonderfully patient model for me during the production of four of my five books on photography.

I thought our "around the town" photo session would be the perfect chance to try out the the little Sony Nex7 and see of what it was capable.  My first intention was to shoot a bunch of images with the bigger a77 camera and to kind of toss the Nex7 into the mix from time to time. But I started out with the 50mm 1.8 lens on the front of the Nex7 and, after a few minutes going back and forth between the two cameras I tossed the a77 into my camera bag and leaned on the little camera for the rest of the day.  Nearly all of the images in this particular blog were shot wide open at f 1.8. I thought the lens performed very well when used wide open.  I also like the focal length and, when used at the right distance from my subject, it was good at throwing backgrounds out of focus. 

I'd read so many articles and reviews that mention two "faults" in this camera.  The first one being battery life that's limited to about 350 to 400 exposures.  I was careful to bring two fully charged batteries along with me but surprised to find that I shot nearly 1,000 frames and still had over 50% power remaining on my first battery at the end. (I don't post-chimp much and never use the built in flash...) The second fault was said to be the rather logically opaque and chaotic menu interface and dial set-up.  It didn't seem very daunting to me.  If you shoot in aperture priority your left control dial takes care of selecting apertures while the right side dial gives you immediate exposure compensation control.  Easy as pie.  Once you figure out that a couple touches on the navigation button gets you to the white balance menu you're pretty much done messing with stuff. I don't change ISO frequently and I tend to find modes I like and to stay with them.  

We started our photo spree at the Barton Springs spillway and then walked down to the bridge that brings Barton Springs road over the miniature train bridge and pedestrian bridge on the east side of Zilker Park.  (The image above was shot under the bridge).  The day was steamy and hot but we didn't pay much attention to the heat.  We were busy having fun photographing and catching up.  Noellia, being the consumate NYC professional actor brought her own make-up and hair pro along with her...

After playing around in the park we headed downtown to make some fun images in the open shade of the buildings on the south side of Second Street.  Of course we ended up at Caffe Medici where we shot with abandon.  (The owner, Michael, is very photo friendly).

I had heard from misguided reviews on the web that the Jpegs out of this camera were mediocre compared to other cameras so, of course, I chose to shoot everything as a large, fine Jpeg.  In fact, I thought the jpegs were highly detailed and well mannered.  At a certain point I tossed everything but the Nex 7 and the 50mm 1.8 back in the bag and stuck the bag in the car.  Intellectually I like the idea of having other lens options.  Aesthetically, I like the black finished 18-55mm lens because it matches the body so well, but the reality is that the 50mm, on that cropped sensor is a pretty compelling match for the way I like to see stuff so I don't see it coming off the front of the camera any time soon.

The only thing I had problems with out in the field was setting the DRO (dynamic range optimizer).  I could get to it in the menu I just couldn't figure out how to change it.  Every thing else seemed pretty straightforward to me.

Noellia and I had a fun afternoon.  She got to see Ben.  Ben got to see her.  She reminded me of why I like to shoot professional actors.... it's the talent.  Tomorrow I'll go out and shoot more stuff with the new camera.  Me liking the Sony Nex 7 camera right now doesn't mean I think all other cameras are bad.  I just think this one is really good.


When you're shooting outside, fighting the sun, using a big modifier and you still need fast recycling and lots of righteous power with each pop. Then you need an Elinchrom Ranger RX.

Late last week, before all the Sony excitement, I wrote a piece about the Profoto Acute B 600 flash system. It's an elegant 600 w/s electronic flash system that provides the user with about 150 flashes. Recycles at full power in about three seconds and is simple and straightforward to use. The interesting feature is that the system does all this while running off its own internal battery. Go back and read that review here.  

So, electronic flash units aren't the same kind of bling that makes forum dwellers salivate, like a cool new camera body or a Zeiss or Leica lens.  You can't wear one around your neck (comfortably) and no one ever asks about them at meet-ups so why would any serious  photographer drop serious cash on something like that? And who in his right mind would own two different battery powered high output electronic flash systems?

Apparently most people in their right minds don't. But I do.  When I'm out shooting by myself and we're going fast from location to location I usually default to my Profoto Acute B system but when I get really serious I turn to the big daddy of photon thrashing, the Elinchrom Ranger RX Speed AS.  What does it do that the Profoto can't?  How about 250 full power, 1100 watt second flashes with short durations and a fast recycle time from shot to shot? How about pushing power through two heads?  And for all the people who drool over the idea of weather sealing...how about....weather sealing?

The Elinchrom Ranger RX series is Elinchrom's big entry into the world of self-contained electronic flash units. It's built to industrial standards and it's made to take a lot of crap and keep flashing. But since it's also Swiss made it's built to do all of this without accidents, like frying photographers who do stupid things with high voltage lights. 

The main unit weighs about 18 pounds and is, in fact, weather sealed. Every port and socket on the top has the flash equivalent of screw down crowns to keep water and dirt out of the sockets.  Notice also that every cap has its own "minder cable" so they never get lost.

Before I go any further I wanted to show you a fairly typical use (for me) of the flash.  We were basically in a mud pit the day we took this image. It was a hot, humid summer day in a week that saw sun and then torrential rains and then sun again.  We were shooting on a highway project north of Austin. The Elinchrom pack was overpowering direct sun and shooting through a softbox type modifier that was placed six or eight feet away.  If you look at the soft transition to shadows and the smooth tonality you'll see that the modifier was pretty big.  The head was on a stout Lowell stand with a leveling leg and the stand was sandbagged with forty pounds of weight.  We stuck the end of each leg on a bit of board so they wouldn't sink into the soft ground.  The Elinchrom box sat on wet ground and just flat out worked. We probably shot 60 or so shots before I got exactly what I wanted. And every one of those frames was absolutely consistent when it came to flash output.  After we got this shot we nailed five or six more, in different locations, using the same basic set up.  I didn't worry about running out of power. I had an extra, fully charge replacement battery ready to go.  Could I do this with a bunch of speedlights? Sure, give me a long enough lever and a place to stand and I can move the world.  But is it efficient, effective and smart to do it that way? Probably not.  Would clients be impressed if I spent precious time rigging up eight or ten or twenty speedlights, setting them all up with radio slaves, rigging them so they all could fire into the same diffuser? Definitely not.   It's classic: Hobby vs. Work.

Disclosure: This is not "borrowed" equipment. I'm not reviewing a weekend loaner.  I bought this unit and the accessories with my US dollars about three years ago. I am writing from the perspective of having used it over and over again for paying work and for producing images for books. I am writing to praise and demystify the tools rather than to convince you to rush out and buy them for your child's piano recital or to use to augment the light in your quest to capture birds in flight.....  I am not being paid by Elinchrom or any other entity to write this! End disclosure.

The only thing that is less than elegant about the Elinchrom set up is their use of a proprietary sync cord plug.  It's a screw in affair that is hard to find in a quick pinch.  The box has a built in optical slave and you can also get a "Skyport" radio trigger that will offer a lot of controls beyond just triggering the flash.  But I tend to be old school so I've bought five or six of the Elinchrom cords, just in case, and an adapter (shown below) that will allow the pack to be triggered by a conventional quarter inch plug sync cord. This and the use of the 7mm diameter for umbrella shafts are the only two problems with buying state of the art Swiss and Swedish lighting equipment. That and the price....

The top panel is sexy and utilitarian at the same time.  The entire control system is touch activated and the entire top panel with the touch buttons is one sealed interface. You could leave it in the rain but I don't recommend using it that way because you'll have to figure out how to waterproof the heads and that is problematic.  Note also the black lug on the right side of the unit just under the sync adapter. It's there so you can attach a carrying strap.  The strap is for your assistant when you find just the right location about a half mile from any navigable roadway...

The Ranger RX has a seven stop power range and it's shown on the LED panel on the top of the box so you can always go back to a fixed output setting.  There's an audible alert signal, a fast/slow recycle control (more shots per battery at the reduced recycle speed setting), an optical slave on/off button and an "auto off" button that powers down the unit after five minutes so you don't waste your battery in case the unit is accidentally activated during shipping.  The smaller port to the right of the flash head sockets is the charger socket. But batteries can also be charged outside the box. 

The batteries are substantial. They weigh around ten pounds each. They are sealed lead acid batteries which is great. They don't have a memory effect and can be charged and re-charged without having to be totally drained first. Batteries have two natural enemies, freezing temperatures and high temperatures.  I store them in my studio and they've lasted and kept their potency for three year's now. If you look at the image just above you'll see a round, black circle on the lower part of the box.  There's one on either side.  These are actually release buttons for the battery packs.  The releases are covered with a rubberized substance that maintains weather-proofing.  You push on both buttons simultaneously and lift the body of the box straight up.  Replacing the battery is as easy as putting the box back down on a fresh battery and making sure the release locks click in.

Shown with a shoe mount flash for scale.

The Ranger RX system comes in two flavors. One version, the AS, is asymmetrical.  With one head plugged in the range of power options runs from the minimum right up to 1100 watt seconds. With a second head plugged in the power is divided asymmetrically between the two heads.  One head gets 66.7 percent of available power while the other head gets 33.3 percent of the power.  If you  power the system up or down the ratio between the heads doesn't change.

A second version of the pack is just the plain vanilla RX pack. It features two flash head capability but the power with two head plugged in is equally divided between the two heads.  I prefer the asymmetrical arrangement because I often use a gridded, direct light on backgrounds and it always needs less power than my main head which is nearly always in a light-hungry modifier.

There are also two different flash heads available for the system.  The "A" heads are distinguished by their fast duration and the "S" heads are the standard duration heads.  If you want to freeze action then the "A" heads will get you there....quicker.  With an "A" head plugged into the lower powered socket on an AS pack you can get flash durations of 1/5000th of a second with a fast attack time and a short "burn" time.  If you don't need that capability (for ballet leaps, freezing champagne cork splashes, etc.) then you can get by just fine with the "S" heads.

All Elinchrom flash heads and monolights come with the same retainer ring collar which snaps into place and then locks with a bayonet ring. The unit above is a Creative Lighting speed ring made out of heavy, cast aluminum and capable of holding up my favorite extra large Octabank.

All of the heads come with a 100 watt, peanut style, tungsten modeling light.  Unlike the Profoto units there's no additional power source to run the modeling lights.  They are engaged by pushing the modeling light touch switch on the control interface.  Push once and you get fifteen seconds of illumination followed by automatic shut off. Push twice in rapid succession and you get thirty seconds of guiding light.

The bottom line is that professionals see advantages in using professional tools. The heads are robust and well designed. For people with special lighting requirements the ability to choose a head designed for fast flash durations is rare and valuable.  The ability to use this pack in bright light, close in, at half power and fast recycle means being able to shoot hundreds of flashes with short recycling times.  Almost a must for fashion work.  The ability to change out relatively inexpensive battery packs in the field means being able to work through long days without ever having to look for a plug.  The weather-sealed pack design means not fearing splashes or puddles.

People ask if there is a difference in the quality of the light output between expensive and finely designed systems like the Elinchroms and the Profotos.  The engineers would tell you "of course." It's really all about precision.  Bigger and more expensive capacitors means better power filtering. That means more duration and color temperature consistency.  Shorter flash durations yield crisper results.  Faster T.01 and T.05 times means less color variation over the burn time of the exposure.  

I spent a few years convinced that I could do my work with a set of Alien Bees units and a couple of Vagabond batteries but it's just not the same.  The work I do with the Elinchroms has fewer color shifts as I reduce or increase power.  The flash tubes seem less prone to causing UV excitation and the general quality of the hardware means I never have a broken stand adapter or detached speedring at an inopportune time.

Am I suggesting that everyone rush out and buy a set?  If you want to spend years shooting ads and portraits on sun drenched locations then you should really consider the advantages.  If you do this for a hobby and your aren't in the 1% you'd probably be considered crazier than me for buying them.  It all depends on what you have in your mind when it comes to lighting stuff up.

I do know this, in situations where you need f11 or f16 at 1/250th of second at ISO 100 shooting into a 4 foot by 6 foot Chimera softbox from about eight feet away you can't do much better without a good extension cord.  You'll certainly spend more trying to do it with many multiples of shoe mounted speed lights and handfulls of radio triggers.  You'll outperform the Speedlighters and DIY'ers on the number of flashes and the frequency of flashed every step of the way.  And you'll have a better quality of light into the bargain.

I find myself using the Profoto Acute B and the Elinchrom Ranger as studio lights too.  They are so familiar to me know that I barely need to think about them while I'm setting up and shooting.

Final interesting note:  The quality of the light between the Profoto and the Elinchrom is very, very close.  That means on really big shoots I can use the Elinchrom for my main light and the Profoto for a background light.  It's good to have reliable tools when your livelihood depends on getting everything just right... miles from nowhere.  And each, packed into the Honda, can serve as a ready back-up for the other. Buy once, use often.

A short follow up about the nature of blogging my purchase of the Sony Nex7.

Taken with a Sony R1 that I bought in 2005.  Still works just right.  Has an EVF. 

I'd like to get one point right out in front:  I don't blog in order to sell you cameras. If I did I'd have ads all up and down the sides of the blog.  I blog to tell you how I operate as a photographer and as a person. I like buying and using different cameras and, if you read this blog and many other popular photography blogs on the web, chances are that you like new cameras as well.  One thing I think you'll notice over time is that it's rare for me to request a "review" camera from a manufacturer which I then write about for no other reason than to boost affiliate or "click thru" sales. Generally I write about cameras that I've researched and then gone out and purchased with my own funds because I like the camera.  I then use the camera to take images and I write about my use of the camera. When I've wrung all the enjoyment out of a camera I release it back into the wild and re-bait the hook and try again. No one goes fly fishing just to catch fish...if you need to catch fish dynamite and a big net will always be more efficient...

In the past six months we've had lots of new cameras come to market that are very, very popular.  If my sole intention was to maximize sales to Amazon you would have seen "in depth" reviews of the Fuji XPro-1, the Canon 5Dmk3, the Nikon D800 and D800e (lots of fodder there for an extended collection of blogs with links...), the Sony RX100 and, of course, the Olympus OMD.
In fact, if I'd purchased an OMD I could probably have wrung twenty or thirty long blogs about it by now. All with links galore. I could probably make a meager living just selecting the most popular camera on the Amazon sales chart and gushing wildly about it until the next popular camera overtakes it. All sales all the time.

If I wanted to differentiate myself from other reviewers I could go after the cameras from companies with smaller market shares like Pentax, Samsung and Ricoh.  But the reality is that when you come here and read stuff you can be pretty certain that, when it comes to cameras and lenses, I've bought it (skin in the game), I am beholden to no camera company for any income or free product and, at the time, I probably thought the camera or lens was interesting. I'm certainly not seeing much affiliate cash for my many essays on old Pen lenses or the ethics of photographing on the streets....

Some photographers seem to think that once you've  committed by buying into a system that you are locked to that brand for the foreseeable future.  Most blog readers who come here to my site are not in the photographic profession full time.  For them camera purchases are just one of many things they buy from their family's discretionary income. They can't expense and depreciate their creative tools.  And in their business life most things are provided for them by their employers. They don't wake up one day and say, "Oh crap, Windows really does suck so hard. I'm going out today and have my IT department replace my machine with a new Apple MacBook Pro Retina machine!"  Most people either don't have the power to do that or they have become complacent about what they use because it's almost as good.  And it works for the ranges of tasks that are part of their employment.

As several of our fellow VSL members who live in India have pointed out to me more than once there is also an income disparity between the U.S. and a number of other countries such that the purchase of a new camera constitutes scrimping and saving for a good long while before diving in and making a purchase. This is another way of being "locked."

I am lucky to be part of a group of photographers who still actually work in their field, doing photography.  I don't intend to quit. I'm not trying to become wealthy or famous by blogging. I am not selling a DVD or an endless series of workshops. I'm doing the work.  I'm trying to reach out to like minded people and share the process, sometimes logical and sometimes misguided, that drives my decisions, colors my art and moves my excitement of being involved in the media forward. Part of that is trying new stuff and incorporating what I learn into the not inconsiderable store of stuff I've found out along the way to middle age.  And it's nice to have a certain sense of community...

Someone commented on a forum after I wrote about buying the Sony Nex7 that they "didn't get the whole Kirk Tuck brand."  Well who could? I am not a product. I am not a mission statement and I'm certainly not a cult leader issuing orders about which "holy" camera to buy. Branding is for products and multinational corporations.  I have a reputation instead of a brand.  To clients I am a reliable supplier of content. I work to supply images for their marketing needs.  To my vendors I am a source of income but also a good referral source.  To my readers I hope I am believable as a normal, average, flawed human being, plagued with the same indecisions and foibles as they are when it comes to dealing with the tidal change in the overall application of photography.  If I had all the answers I would be selling them to the highest bidder.  What I am trying to do here at the VSL is share what I feel and what I see in the market place.  I have the opportunity to shift gear around to suit my needs.  I have a great local store that does fair trade-ins and consignments.  The value of recent gear that I elect to shed doesn't drop in value to zero just because I'm no longer interested in it.

I've been playing with the micro four thirds cameras and lenses long before most of the rank and file forum rats discovered them.  I've plumbed the depths and done some nice work with the cameras and lenses. Call it gear ADHD or whatever but I wanted to try something new.  My gear allegiance right now is to the company that makes the best EVF. In my mind that's the change that M4:3 brought to the table (with the Olympus VF-2) and that's what is driving the market.  Sony's EVF's in the a65, a77 and Nex 7 are the best in the industry right now.  That's where my interest lies.

I'm not asking anyone to follow me into the store and do what I do, or like what I like.  That's crazy.  If I gave a crap about high ISO performance, if that was my primary metric, I'd be shooting with a Fuji X Pro-1, and trying to figure out how to make it focus consistently...  If I wanted the best IS in the world I'd join the long line and snap up an Olympus OMD.  If I wanted the ultimate in pixels there's a Nikon D800 at the local camera shop that could be mine within the half hour.  No.  I like the idea of bringing a finder up to my eye and seeing all the parameters of imagemaking beautifully and instantly resolved in the viewfinder BEFORE I snap the shutter.  The ultrafast electronic first curtain shutter. It's an imaging paradigm shift.

You don't need to like the same thing.  I probably won't care about the Sony brand when the other two "majors" finally get dragged into the current century and implement real EVF's in their top tier shooting cameras either.  But I don't think that qualifies me for permanent, online psychoanalysis.  The blog is a form of entertainment, for me and for you. It also keeps my books (which I worked really hard and long to produce) in the public eye.  I love it when they actually get sold.  But I don't flog them in every other blog post, nor do I flog products I don't use in every other blog post.  So, brand addicted gear nuts:  Get over it.

This is a blog, not a buying guide for people who are too something to do their own research and trust their own tastes.

Something interesting about our out of control acquisition: http://www.pixiq.com/article/the-ugly-truth-behind-our-beautiful-cameras

(Full disclosure about affiliate advertising.  I take advantage of Amazon's affiliate program by putting links to products I blog about in the VSL blog. When a reader clicks on a link and buys something from Amazon I get a small commission which does not effect the price a reader pays on Amazon. My total of commissions so far for the first week of August is.......drumroll.......$40 US.  Some weeks are a bit better and some are a little worse.

I am not currently accepting any placed advertising on the blog and have turned down requests from one of the biggest camera stores in the world to join their program.  I am not currently promoting workshops or collateral items.  I am not heading to Creative Live and, as a result, I am not flogging their programming either.

As an income generating venue I hope you'll agree with me that this has been a total loss.  A time sink hole. Financial quicksand. Just thought I'd be really upfront about it. I have one great hope: When I bring out the e-book of my first novel I hope people will read about it here and then buy it.  That's it.  All done.)


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....