The Rectangle Period. And general thoughts about photography.

There was a period, back in the early 1990's, when I veered from the true path of the square format and flirted with several medium format cameras that "featured" different aspect ratios. Of the handful that I tried I think my most successful affair de camera was with the Pentax 6x7. The value proposition over the traditional Hasselblad and Rollei squares was twofold: The extra centimeter of film, printed on a rectangular piece of paper gave one XX% more resolution and, the camera and its lenses sold for much less than its European counterparts.

If you haven't used a Pentax 67 let me describe it for you.  The 6x7 centimeter format writes to film that runs horizontally through the camera like 35mm film. The camera is set up like a 35mm DSLR on super steriods. It's bigger, by far, in every dimension. And it's painfully heavy.

The camera usually came with an eye level prism finder which was available as a metered or non-metered prism. My biggest gripe with the Pentax 67 was the fact that the viewfinder covers less than 88% of the actual frame.  Since the mirror was huge and the shutter curtains equally enormous every frame required lots of mass to go flying around inside the camera. The noise would make digital-only camera users gasp and the recoil of the mirror slap was enough to cause a concussion if held to tightly against one's head.

The way most people I know used the camera was to put it on a tripod, compose, focus and then hit the mirror lock up button, wait for the internal chaos to calm down and then trip the shutter. In many ways this made the Pentax 67 more like a view camera than a handheld camera. And it was equally slow to load. 

A roll of 120 film would give you 10 exposures. To load the camera you opened the huge back and swung it to the right. Then you pushed a button to release the empty film spindle on the left and moved it into the spindle holder on the right. Next you would insert a new roll of film into the left chamber, lock it into place and then pull the paper leader over to the empty, right hand spindle and insert the leading edge of the paper into the slot on the plastic spindle on the right hand side.

In my experience the paper would slip out two out of every three times I tried to wind it on prior to closing the back.  Once I got the film to "lock on" and wind properly I could close the back and wind the film advance lever until the camera stopped itself--ready at frame one.  Ten frames later you'd go through the whole process again. This made the camera a really piss poor tool for high frame rate studio portraiture....but it sure trained you to be frugal with your frames...

The usual solution for studio shooters was to buy two or three additional bodies, since they were relatively cheap, and then interchange cameras while shooting fast. Assistants hated working with these cameras because of how fiddly they were to load and how quickly their photographers could go through ten frames.

The camera was a decent studio performer since the lenses were pretty uniformly sharp and contrasty. The big negative with its plethora of surface area silver was also a big plus; clients loved seeing the bigger images on light boxes. The biggest downside of the camera was the slow sync speed. The camera was limited to a 1/30th of a second sync speed. You really had to be careful when shooting flash in brightly lit environments because you ran the risk of color contamination from sources other than your primary light source.

So, why did we use them? Because they were optically good and a whole set up with a good lens cost less than a bare Hasselblad body at the time.

For a working photographer some of the cost savings was offset by the fact that Pentax offered no Polaroid back for the camera. Camera repair wiz, Marty Forscher, made an after market back for the camera but it required the back to be replaced with the Polaroid back = Permanently.  So one dedicated one body just for proofing.  And that meant that the Polaroid back couldn't be used as a way of testing all your different backs for technical issues when out in the world shooting.

Eventually I got tired and bored carrying around a bag with three shooting bodies and one proofing body and all the assorted hardware that goes with them. I switched to the Hasselblad system and bought a bunch of film backs instead. The silver lining to my short tenure with the big rectangle was the fact that prices rose quickly during my time of ownership and I was able to move the whole system on to the next brave photographer for about what I paid in the first place.

What does this have to do with today's world of digital photography? Nothing. But I do have to think that we were willing to go much further in our pursuit of a good image in those days. Not out of some superiority of character but out of sheer necessity.

On a personal note:  I feel oddly unmoved by any of the new cameras that have come onto the market so far this year. Not sure why. I was sitting in the orchestra seats shooting Pagliacci for the Austin Lyric Opera when I came to the conclusion that I had all the camera and lens I needed right there in my hands. If I had used full frame sensor I would have needed a fast 300mm lens with all the cost and handling considerations that would come with it. When I shot portraits yesterday I realized that using ISO 50 or 64 was giving me an amazing dynamic range that yielded great skin tones and good detail with lots and lots of dynamic range and no noise. 

My local camera store called to let me know they had reserved a Sony a99 camera for me but rather than jump up from my computer and rush to the store I yawned and took a nap. The camera will be in stock if I need it. The panic buying of newly introduced camera gear seems to have abated or the makers have become better at filling the inventories on first launch. In the past we rushed to buy the new cameras because we felt that we were keenly aware of some real shortcoming in our current cameras that desperately needed fixing. Now we're just looking with mild curiosity at some outlier specs.

If you were working with a Nikon D2X when the Nikon D700 came out you couldn't get to the store quick enough because, for the first time in Nikon digital history you'd be able to shoot both full frame and high ISO. It was heady to go from shooting at ISO 200 and under to being able to crank up the ISO to 1600 or even 3200 without undo anxiety.  

If you worked with a Canon EOS 5D the introduction of the 5D mk2 bought you a doubling of resolution and a much more solid platform. Of course you'd rush to get that!

But the difference between the 5D2 and the 5d3 for most of us? Not so much.

In fact, all the cameras introduced in the pro, semi-pro and advanced amateur segments of the market in the last year or three are more than adequate for almost any kind of commercial photography. Buying more camera is an exercise in buying into a small percentage of improvement that may be more about bragging rights and working at the bleeding edge than any real need to deliver work that pleases clients.

Some of my peers are upgrading from 5d2s to 5d3s but not because they need some incremental improvement in image quality; most of them are just refreshing. Getting rid of bodies that have 80 or 90 thousand clicks on shutters that are rated to 150,000 actuations. Turning over inventory before they reach the troublesome zone. Reloading the tax break for depreciation.  But none of them have come back and gushed over any sort of performance improvements.  A few people mention better autofocus but that usually leads to a rejoinder from my friends who shoot architecture and still life: "You mean these cameras have autofocus???"

In the Nikon camp there are probably not many who were unhappy with the performance of their Nikon D3X cameras. If they buy D800's it's probably because of the price point.

There will always be new people coming into the market and they'll be excited about the new offerings. There will always be techno-amateurs and they will always wait with cortisol-laden-adrenaline-laced breath for the latest and greatest technical achievements. But in the realm of diligent image makers and people who charge for their work, it seems like we're entering a period of calming equalibrium. Cameras that work well and exceed need. The prices will drop, the AF will get faster and more flexible, but the IQ is already so usable.

If you buy a new camera to replace a pro camera bought in the last year you are buying it because it has more fur-lined cup holders or built-in grip warmers or some such thing. How do I know this? Because I'm as big a new camera freak as you'll meet and I feel a sense of camera buying calm I haven't felt since the days of mature film cameras.

What am I buying these days? More great photo books. I just bought a hardback edition of Josef Koudelka's Gypsies, and I have a whole list of similar classics for my collection of 20th century masters. Funny thing, while most of our miracle digital cameras depreciate in value the minute we unbox them most of the photo books I've bought in the last twenty years have sky-rocketed in value while consistently delivering real value to me in terms of joy and inspiration.  Long after the gleam and white hot desire for the turboflex 2013 wears off I'll still be sitting down in a comfy chair browsing through a book of Elliott Erwitt images or Diane Arbus one frame dramas. And I'll find some new resonance in them every time I return to them.

What else am I buying these days? Experiences. For every day that I ignore the march of progress  in the consumer camera space I wind up with more energy to go out and look. And by looking distill down what it is I want to see and then what I want to make into my own art.

As the camera itself recedes the subjects come into clearer focus. And isn't that what we really wanted when we started this journey?

Hope you're having a fab week. We're trying to wrap our brains around all this Formula One stuff here in the center of the universe....


And then there's Irving Penn...

Still Life : Irving Penn Photographs, 1938-2000

Irving Penn and Richard Avedon are two of the five monolithic and critical photographers of the 20th century. Both were masters of portraiture and fashion but while Richard Avedon focused like a laser beam on making images of people Irving Penn was also a dominating presence in the world of still life photography.

This book contains a comprehensive look at some of the best still life work in each stage of his life as a photographic artist. It'll cost you eleven venti lattes at Starbucks (or the equivalent) but if you have not seen his still life studio work before it will change your perception of studio photography, design and creativity. I collect Penn books like other people collect parking tickets and I am happy to have a book about Penn that is so tightly focused on one important aspect of his work.

That guy you're following on (fill in the blank website)? Chances are most of his work is somehow informed by Penn. So skip all the imitations and "homages" and go to the source. You will not be disappointed.

Still Life: Irving Penn Photographs, 1938-2000

Another Look at Richard Avedon.

©Richard Avedon

We can argue all day long about this but I think Richard Avedon was one of the five greatest photographer/artists in the entire 20th century and I think, in an almost subversive way, his intellectual and visual impact is still being felt by, and inspiring, enormous numbers of photographers around the world. So I was delighted to see this new book on a friend's desk last week.

Like most of the Avedon books this one is big, well designed and well produced. It features performers and performances (in the studio) that cover over 50 years of work.  The book is called, simply: Performance: Richard Avedon.

In addition to the great images of instantly recognizable (by any one over say, forty) stars and performers, there are several great essays including one that talks about being invited to dinner at Richard Avedon's place. He served very simple baked potatoes but then he brought out some garnishes for the baked potatoes including "about a pound of Beluga caviar..." 

If you don't have a Richard Avedon book/portfolio in your collection this is a fun place to start. At only around 12 Starbucks venti lattes (my preferred exchange rate. Almost as universal as the dollar but corrected for inflation....)  I consider this book to be a bargain.  It's a well printed and wonderfully entertaining volume that is also a small and tangential slice of what the cooler parts of the last century looked like through the eyes of one of the century's pre-eminent artists.

©Richard Avedon


So, who are the other four?  More to come.


Dialing in your camera at the opera. The Sony a77 does Pagliacci.

"The Jpeg engine! The Jpeg engine! Nothing good can ever come from the Jpeg engine!" Hmmm. I always wonder when I hear people trash or praise the Jpeg performance of their digital cameras whether or not they ever took the time to do a little fine tuning. While manufacturers work hard to make their Jpeg files one size fits all it's dawned on me over the years that the same manufacturers would not have gone to all the trouble to wedge in parameter fine tuning controls and different color palettes if they didn't understand that everyone wants something different and they can actually get it with a little metaphorical elbow grease.

I'll admit that the Sony a77 Jpeg files were giving me some issues in the early days. The contrast was a bit wonky, the noise reduction too severe and the saturation was a bit much. Mostly my fault, I can see in hindsight, for slavishly setting the camera in Jpeg beginner mode: Standard, and just hoping things would turn out the way I wanted them to. The reality is that using a digital camera in the Jpeg file mode is a lot like shooting slide film. You're locking in settings while you are shooting.  If the color is a little off you'll need to correct it in post but you'll find that you degrade the files a bit every time you make a change.

My thinking on working with Jpeg files got changed when I started shooting more video in DSLRs and when I started trying to color corrected the video I'd shot in Final Cut Pro X. If you set the sharpening in your files too high (because it looks nice on the LCD screen) you'll regret it in editing because there's no way to turn it back down again and bad sharpening looks worse and worse as you go along.  Same thing with contrast.  And same thing in spades with saturation.

From everything I've read on video production sites, in conversations with DP's and directors who work with digital video files, everyone has the same suggestions: Turn down the contrast, the saturation and the sharpening and add them back, to taste, in post processing. To this I would also add: Get your color balance as close as you can. Since these guys can only do limited global corrections in video post production it make sense and I've been zeroing in my working methodology for using Jpegs using this idea of turning everything down for a while now. It works.

At this point someone with way too much time on their hands will chime in and tell me that everyone should just shoot RAW. While it's a nice option it does take a lot of unnecessary resources (most importantly, time) and it's not always necessary. Figure it like this. I shot 1500 files at the Austin Lyric Opera dress rehearsal of the opera, Pagliacci, last night. The newspapers and arts websites are anxious to get some pictures in their hands.....today.

If I'd shot RAW files with my Sony a77's each file would be around 25 megabytes. That works out to about 37.5 gigabytes of information that needs to be ingested into Lightroom from multiple cards, Lightroom needs time to render standard previews and then, after a much slower process of file cleaning and enhancement, it will take hours to output one or two megabyte Jpegs that the media will want to use. Honestly, newspapers and web masters aren't looking forward to getting 16 bit, 70 megabyte tiff files. Probably would not even take the time to open them....

If I shoot large/fine jpegs I'm looking at around 6 to 7  megapixels per file or around 10 gigabytes of images to work with. I was able to do all of my post production and outputting in a couple hours this morning. And the files look great. They all have been downsized from 24 megapixels to  a little bit bigger than 12 megapixels. I applied a bit of sharpening to the files which they accepted very gracefully. In fact, I am so much happier with my flesh tones and noise reproduction that I'll try to shoot most of my fast breaking projects this way.  So, how did I shoot last night?

I set up my cameras to work in Jpeg using the largest files size and "fine" quality. There is one step above fine called, "extra fine" and I'm sure that if you run the files through a thorough diagnostic test you'll see a difference on the charts and graphs. Will you see a difference on the web or in newsprint? Highly unlikely.  This setting gives me almost 1,000 potential shots on an 8 gig memory card. It also saves on battery power since it requires more electrical juice to write the large raw files.

I set the Jpeg "creative" setting to standard and then I go into the menu and dial the contrast and saturation both to minus one. While I used to shoot my Jpegs with a +1 sharpening setting I've dialed back to zero and I add a bit of sharpening in Lightroom. The next thing I do is to make sure I'm in the right ballpark vis-a-vis color balance. Not necessarily for accuracy but for pleasing colors in the output. The lighting designer used a very blue palette for several parts of the opera and I wanted to keep that psychological effect but I wanted the scenes to render a bit warmer so I set a custom K temperature while looking at the scene in the EVF. Using the EVF instead of analyzing stuff on the rear LCD means I can block out the ambient light that will effect my take on the color. I worked mostly in the range of 4200K to 4400k to make the colors more neutral. While I liked the cool blue washes in the actual show I would hesitate to send files that were as blue to editors since they would see very monochromatic in print.

I've also started to always use the high ISO NR in its lowest setting. At anything under 1000 ISO it looks great and doesn't give me the plastic look that too much noise reduction generally imparts. This makes the a77 an ISO 800 camera for me. I'll go to ISO 1600 in a pinch but 800 is perfect. And perfectly usable. With good stage lighting my spot lit principals were usually in the f3.5 at 1/160th range. Seems just right for shooting a stage show.

Getting your Jpegs into a good flow helps you be a bit more disciplined in shooting RAW as well. Recent Jpeg images we've provided to another client in town recently were used highly cropped on large posters and I was amazed at just how well they worked. There's so much we see on 27 inch screens that's just not relevant to the way images are routinely used.

Finally, if you have the ability to do a micro focus adjust on your lenses by all means, take advantage of that and do it right. My 70-200mm f2.8 G series lens has become a brand new optic for me after half an hour of adjustment and testing. All in all I'm happy with my new Jpeg shooting routine, my lenses and my a77 bodies.  Good to have stuff dialed in.

Finally, if you are willing to go into each color setting and do some manipulation with the color controls it's very likely that you can get close to the overall color palette of most camera families. The tend to put all these controls on the cameras so you can have your images pretty much the way you want them. Might as well use em.

Did I enjoy this rendition of Pagliacci?  Yes, very much. The people at the Austin Lyric Opera did a fabulous job. This is a great opera for beginners. It's very much fun and very accessible. If you are in Austin pony up for some tickets and give it a shot. I can pretty much assure you that you won't be disappointed. Culture. Have some.

In other breaking news of vital importance to our Canadian readers: You now OWN the copyright to the images you create, commissioned or not!!! Read more: http://www.petapixel.com/2012/11/07/canadian-photogs-now-officially-own-the-copyright-to-all-of-their-photos/


Just in time for Thanksgiving. The Nex-6, body only, is now in stock and shipping!

I'm pretty happy that Sony and Nikon are announcing product and then getting it out the door quickly. I've got several friends who are trying to decide whether to get the Nex7 or the Nex6 as upgrades from their Nex5n's. It's an interesting trade off. The Nex 6 sensor seems to be a better performer in low light and the on sensor phase detection should help speed up auto focusing, a lot. The only other positive I can see with the newer camera, for some people, is the inclusion of wi-fi for quick sharing. But God help you if you're trying to upload RAW files on a wi-fi connection....

In the plus column for the Nex7 is the robust construction, the Tri-Navi operational controls and the world's best low ISO 24 megapixel APS-C sensor (yes, I am biased).  

I'm happy to see the simultaneous release of both the camera with kit lens and the camera as a body only product. A lot of people have Nex-7's and may want a back up. It would be a shame to have to buy another kit lens in that case. Too many other mirrorless camera companies seem to want to force their customers into buying kits if they want the opportunity to buy their cameras in the first few months after the introduction. Points to Sony for letting us go both ways.

My recommendation? Get the Nex6 body only, add the 19mm Sigma and the 30mm Sigma along with the Sony Nex 50mm 1.8 and you have yourself a lightweight, high performance kit with all primes. Expand from there.

If I were starting my Nex system from scratch right now I'd probably go with the Nex6. As I'm already half a year into using my Nex 7 I'm more inclined to have a second one as a back up so I can set them identically and go back and forth, using each with a different lens. Sometimes it's great not to have to stop and change lenses in a fast moving event or on a dusty day...

Reaching back thirty three years with my Epson V500 Scanner.

I don't know if everyone else thinks the same way but I find that I like to go back to stuff I did a long time ago and see how it compares to the stuff I'm doing now. In many instances I'm disappointed with what I'm doing now when I see the images I made when I was just 24 and very new to the field of photography.

This image shouldn't look as good as it does. I shot it in my first, tiny studio using just the light coming in from a smallish window. I used color negative film in a very old and beaten to shit Mamiya 220 that I bought already quite used. The lens on the front was a 135mm f5.6 of questionable repair. Sometimes the shutter would stick.  I had the camera stuck on the world's rickety-est tripod. It was the only one I could afford at the time and I found it on the "bargain" table of an ancient photography store on Congress Ave. that was in the process of going out of business.  As bad as it was that tripod made my hand me down meter look good.

Finally, I was given to believe two things that have turned out not to be true. One is that C-41 color negative film from the late 1970's would not keep. The pundits of the day estimated that it would fade over time and become thin and unusable. This negative is still lively and effulgent. The other thing I had been led to believe, throughout the last decade, is that decent film scans just could not (for many arcane, technical reasons) be created on cheap, consumer flatbed scanners.

In spite of, or perhaps because of, all these things I never expected to like the final image as much as I do. Of course, part of that appreciation of the image is just the habit of being in love and the critical blindness that ensues.

With no doubt, my favorite portrait. Would I have done better with the latest digital wunder-kamera? How would you measure "better"?

Post Swim Photo. Yes, this one is on film too.

Sarah is an amazing painter who is also a distance swimmer. Her paintings revolve around water. After we swam together at Deep Eddy Pool one day I asked her if she would mind coming over to the studio, getting spritzed in the face with warm water and getting repeatedly flashed with bright lights while standing around in her swim suit. Of course she said she'd be happy to.

My cataloging of technical information is starting to sound like a broken record but here it is:
Camera: Hasselblad 500 series. Lens: 150mm Carl Zeiss Planar. Film: Kodak PMC 5069 color negative stock. Scanned on the reliable Epson V500 flatbed scanner. Lit like most of my images with a big softbox on one side and a weak fill card on the other.  A second light with a medium sized softbox down near Sarah's feet is lighting the background

Part of being an interesting portrait photographer is going out to meet people and convince them to come back to your studio to collaborate with you. A little portfolio you can carry with you is a very good ice breaker. If you can show people kind of what you want to do with them it's a lot quicker to get them to buy in.

on an unrelated note: I'm going to see Pagliacci tonight at the Austin Lyric Opera. I'm photographing tonight's production for advertising and public relations uses. I can hardly wait.