A VSL reader named, Chuck, asked me to write about monitor selection and calibration. Ready to open a can of worms?

Let's start with a huge and monumental disclaimer: I'm not Scott Kelby. I've never claimed to be a Photoshop or Post Production expert or guru. I'm just as happy working on my laptop as I am working at the desk.  And, finally, I've drunk the Apple Kool-Aide continuously since 1985.

So, how would I select a monitor if I needed one today? I would go into the Apple store and say, "What's the latest 27 inch monitor that runs off Thunderbolt?" At which point the clerk/genius/guy in a black t-shirt points to the 27 inch monitor and says, "This is the only 27 inch monitor Apple current makes." I would ask how much they cost, flinch a little bit and then plop down the cash. That's about as simple as I can make it. But I'm equally happy with the matte screen on my older MacBook Pro 15 inch laptop.

There are people who like the idea of finding the "ultimate" combination of performance, price and features and I'm sure they are getting a better price on whatever they buy than I am on an Apple branded monitor but I like being able to pull it out of the box, turn it on and have it work perfectly. Just as with cameras some people like to do intensive research before buying. I don't care enough about monitors to spend that amount of time and effort just to save a few bucks. I've got a lot scheduled and I like to do things I can either bill or things that thrill.

What am I currently using? I'm using the last permutation of the Apple Cinema Display 23 inch monitor with a matte screen surface. It just keeps humming along and I see no reason, right now, to replace it.  If I used a Windows/PC machine I would try to find any other good photographer in my network who used non-Apple machines and ask their opinion. Some would talk about an enormously expensive Eizo monitor but most of them would probably steer me to some sort of Dell Ultra-Sharp monitor.  But I wouldn't over buy a monitor unless I was providing materials that were intended to go straight to a printer. And there's the big disconnection.

Let me explain. In the olden days of digital, when it was all new and scary for the ad agencies, someone had to have a calibrated monitor and produce files converted to CMYK (correctly) for the four color offset printers. After a while Apple monitors (which are the current standard for every ad agency I've ever walked into) came pretty nicely calibrated and profiled right out of the box. Most people, even using the little hockey pucks manage to do more harm than good when they jump in and try to brainiac their way through a calibration process. 

Oddly enough, stock photography severed the cords of responsibility for most photographers. Most stock is delivered as large Jpegs, profiled for either sRGB or Adobe 1998. Since photographers are routinely out of the loop agencies who used a preponderance of stock photography had to come up with a method that was reasonably fool proof for supplying files to be printed. In most agencies there is a print production staff who (with presumably well calibrated monitors) actually do the needed retouching, color correction and profiling of images intended for various print uses.

While it may seem hard to believe if you've spent several thousand dollars on a high end hockey puck calibration system, Apple monitors come with a monitor profile and in the monitor preferences is a calibration panel that walks users through step by step in the calibration process, for free. Thing is the eye is a great comparator and that's the essence of this kind of calibration.

I've done calibrations both ways and I prefer (and can more accurately match print output) with a monitor I've set up by eye, using comparative calibration.

So, now we go into PhotoShop or Lightroom and make our tonal and color corrections (and I still use an eye dropper and measure between 0 and 255 for some settings) and we get "pleasing" color. If we know our clients are going to send the files to the web we convert the profile to sRGB. If they are an ad agency or well informed graphic designer who specified the output for print we'll convert to Adobe 1998. They are responsible for final tweaks. And they'll do it whether you want them to or not.

But just as in the actual process of photography where attention to details can make an enormous difference so too can all the things that cost nothing but make a big impact on the look and accuracy of a monitor.

I once got a call from a print shop asking me to come and look at some files that a sub-contracting designer sent over for an advertising client of mine. The printer claimed they were at least 15 points too magenta. I did the original files on my monitor and they were (numerically) right on the money. The agency had gotten too busy and turned over final production on our project to a "bright" young designer. At some point in the chain the files got changed to match a monitor at the bright young designer's office. I called said "bright" young designer and asked if I could come over and look at the files on his monitor. 

When I walked into his office I knew at once exactly what the problem was. The designer's (uncalibrated PC) monitor faced the wall behind "bright" young designer's desk that had been painted, floor to ceiling, in a bright, Kelly green. In fact, the whole room had been painted Kelly green. The green reflected off his monitor and color everything he evaluated on the monitor. He didn't believe that this could be the problem until we took his system out into the white interior of his garage and opened up his "corrected file" next to the orignal file. Then you could see the horror of the situation spread across his face.

You may love having big windows or bright colors in your working space but you're doing more to sabotage yourself than the guy using an uncalibrated monitor. My studio is painted white with a gray back wall. I try to always work under the same lighting conditions. No bright light one day and dim light the next. I usually wear a black shirt when I'm deep into the post production marathon---one less variable to worry about.

Wanna check your calibration? Download a high quality printer profile from a high quality photo lab, convert your image to that profile and send it. Pick up the print and compare it to the image on your monitor. Too dark? You need to change the screen brightness and recalibrate. Color off? Correct the environment and then recalibrate.

Also, sadly, all the monitors we bought that had florescent tubes lighting up the screens get old and get dark. Eventually they will not be linear enough across the color spectrum to be properly calibrated and they will have to be replaced. Most good monitors now use LEDs for illumination (see, we can't get away from talking about LEDs here....) and this kind of drift and decay shouldn't be as quick or as severe.

I'll never forget the day I delivered some images to one of the three largest computer makers in the world. They were portraits that were going to be used for web and PR. Since there were part of a big job for me I checked my work on several different laptops and my wife's carefully calibrated 27 inch screen. Everything looked great so I sent over a DVD to the requesting client who was in administration NOT marketing.

I got a phone call a couple hours later and I could hear the panic in her voice. "The images you gave me are very, very dark on my screen and the colors are all washed out. Kind of flat looking. Help."  

When you get a show stopping phone call like that you jump into customer super service mode and get moving. I grabbed a very recent and well calibrated laptop, a hockey puck calibration system and a new set of DVDs and hightailed it through rush hour traffic to the opposite side of town. The client met me with arms crossed in the lobby and guided me to her cubicle. Sitting smack in the middle of her desk was a 17 inch cathode ray tube monitor that had been out of production for at least fifteen years. You could barely read type on it. I tried to fix her monitor but it was like fixing an engine that's missing all the cylinders. Didn't work.

I tried to explain calibration to her and I ran into a brick wall. Finally I suggested that we walk down a floor to the marketing department and see if anyone had a calibrated monitor. We found the print graphic people had begged and pleaded with the budget gatekeepers and had several nice monitors. The difference in image quality was amazing. But, guess what?

Most of your clients who aren't in the graphic design or photo businesses don't ever calibrate their monitors as long as they are somewhere within a huge ballpark. The stuff you put out on the web looks different to everyone who has never calibrated a monitor. And that cheap monitor you got as part of a package at Costco or Sams? Probably not perfect either.

All you can do is make sure your stuff looks good when it leaves your office. There's no way to keep crazy people from trying to change it and "fix" it and then muck it up. There just isn't.

So, to recap: I buy Apple because while it may be more expensive on the front end it tends to be easier to use, easier to calibrate and plays well with my other stuff. I make sure my workspace is consistent and neutral. I calibrate (depending on my mood) with either the calibration app in the preferences menu (monitors) or with a Spyder hockey puck. My target is sRGB 95% of the time. The other 5% is when I'm sending out a file to a source with a known and published calibration or when I'm sending out a file to print CMYK.

In my experience, if your lab doesn't offer you a profile to convert to for prints you might as well convert to sRGB because that's the space they're going to use.  If you do this for money you need to run tests. And you need to have a buddy who's a good graphic designer whose system is also calibrated so you can drop by with some beer and double check your calibrations by looking at a known file on his system. If you are doing this for fun make sure you do all the detail stuff first. No sense spending big bucks if you sabotage yourself (and your clients) with Kelly green walls and a sun drenched gloss screen.

My next computer purchase will be a 27 inch iMac. It's already planned and in the budget. Such a deal for a great screen. It's almost like getting the computer for free.  

Fun test: grab all the laptops you can. In this family I can put my hands on eight right now. Put them on either side of your calibrated monitor and then call up the same image on all the screens. How close are they to each other? Bigger samples means more data points. At some point, if they all look good then you are in the ballpark and ready to play.

If you want a smarter and more research-y point of view then go ask a real expert like Scott Kelby. But make sure you get it as close to right as you can before the image even leaves your camera. Custom WB anybody?


Re-reading an article about EVFs on theOnlinePhotographer...


From time to time I get e-mail from people who aren't understanding the appeal the EVFs (electronic viewfinders). I wrote the article above for Michael Johnton's the online photographer. I think the fun thing about the article is all the commentary following it.

If you don't know Michael's blog.....you should.

Crazy Day at the Studio with Some Jeckyll and Hyde Self-Portraits....

Or....What do hyperactive photographers do when they catch a cold, can't swim and don't want to infect their clients? Mostly find silly crap to do around the studio.

I felt it coming on yesterday, late afternoon, as I was leaving from an assignment location in the executive suite of a multinational, high technology firm. I sneezed as I got into my car. My nose stopped working right on the drive home. And then...BAM. I woke up with a head cold. Yuck. 

I decided that doing the outside, 7:00am, master's swim in sub-30 degree weather was contraindicated. (My GP will be so proud). So I've been stuck in my studio since 7am cleaning, filing and drinking way too much coffee.  Way too much. Client called this morning to tell me they'd gotten the files I sent them via Drop Box and that everything looked good.  I cancelled a lunch appointment and wished someone beautiful would come over so I could make portraits. But with a meaty cough and a drippy nose I decided I'd have to look for talent closer by. I elected myself.

In the process I've decided that self-portraits can be as revealing as a visit to a psychiatrist. You have to reconcile the self image (24 years old, perfect skin, handsome, with thick curly dark brown hair, athletic to a fault) with the reality that everyone else experiences when they interact with  you....(57 years old, too much sun, too much skin under the chin and grizzly grey hair). It's almost like a fresh brush with mortality.  Here's my sinister and nordic rendition:

The serious face that goads VSL readers into writing, "Don't you ever smile?" But I like the way the light works on the shadow side. Good cheek definition, for sure. Notice the engineer style adaptation of the glasses, just above my right eye. The screw in the hinge fell out nine years ago and I've been meaning to get the glasses fixed but the smallest size paper clip seems to work fine....a fix straight out of electrical engineering school. I also like the way that the hair swooping up makes me look almost as though I've got little satanic horns on my head. All the better to scare the people in account payables. In truth I had just coughed was attempting to re-arrange my face when I accidentally trigger the wired remote... really....

But I did include a softer look just in case.

If you haven't tried a self portrait lately you might want to save the money you've been spending on your therapist and come face to face with your own reality. It's actually kind of fun. I didn't think about doing this until I saw some really cool self-portraits that my friend, Frank, did. 

While my model is not up to the standards (by any measure) I usually set I do like the lighting in both images very much. Neither is lit with anything other than the natural light (indirect) that's coming through my studio windows. I have a ten foot by ten foot square set of windows that faces northwest. They start about four feet off the ground and go up to fourteen feet. If you position people in just the right spots you can use the windows as a flattering source all day long.

Gear.  I put my Sony a99 camera with a Tamron 28-75mm SP lens on the biggest, meanest, oldest and stoutest Gitzo tripod I own. It's an ancient, three section, five series. It weighs a ton but once you clamp something on it there's NO movement. I plugged in a cheap, generic, wired remote, flipped the LCD screen around to the front so I could compose easily and then banged away. The light isn't strong so I used ISO 200 at 1/4 second, f8. The wall behind me was painted gray 16 years ago. Maybe time for a new coat of paint.

That's all I've got. I get over colds pretty quickly but I sure hate living through them. Color me grouchy...

But animated...

What am I re-reading today?

I bought Vision Mongers, by David DuChemin, a couple of years ago but I was initially put off by his slightly patronizing writing style and (my bad) the fact that he was a poor enough money manager that he had to declare bankruptcy at one point in his career (pre-great recession). I read some of the book then, skimmed the rest and put it aside meaning to donate it to the library.

I don't know what, exactly, pushed me to pull it back off the shelf and give it another read. I guess I was heading out to pick up my kid from school and needed something to read as I sat in the car and waited for the dismissal, surrounded by the cars of the vast contingent of soccer moms. 

I know that the book hadn't changed in the interim so I can only guess that my brain changed since I last picked up the book. This time I had a different experience. While I still found a few things to critique (and what book doesn't have a few?) I thoroughly enjoyed my new read.

The parts I zoomed in on  were mostly about marketing and I'll admit that it was probably my own hubris that kept me from soaking in the information before. David is spot on whenever he talks about marketing. I've been running a photo business for a long time and even wrote a book about the business of photography but I was able to absorb and really learn several valuable ideas that will help me be more efficient and effective in the way I run my business from here on out.

Bottom line for me was his explanation of why we can't waste time being jealous because on of our competitors got a great job or a great account. He explained it in a way that just reached in and turned a switch in my brain.

Essentially he said that you and your competitor are like apples and oranges. If a client wants an orange and you are an apple, painting yourself orange isn't going to work. If the client chose the orange they were never going to choose the apple so you never would have gotten the job in the first place. The underlying message is also that if you are an apple, sell apples.

I wish I'd read the book with a more open mind in 2009. I could have used the information well over the last three years. It might have changed the way I market what I do. Maybe not but now I'll never know.

The book is full of success stories and interviews with people like Joe McNally and Zach Arias; two masters of social media marketing. But the real guts of the book are about being true to your photographic vision and your business vision.  And the golden core is the marketing.

If you work in a field where you must market stuff, services or yourself the book is well worth the twenty five or thirty bucks you'll spend. It's kind of fun when a book I've put aside comes back into my orbit with new life. But what I guess it really means is that I've changed over the last few years. Less pompous? Maybe. Open to new information? Definitely. All in all the book gets a "thumbs up" from me. I'm going to look for another one by David and see what he has to say in the present.


Settling in for a new year. The market continues to shift around.

Mint Julep for Liberty Tavern at the Hilton Hotel.

At heart I am a very optimistic cynic. I am watching the news about Dell, Inc. and the talk about a group of investors taking the company private. Their company lost 1/3 of its value last year and their shrinking piece of the PC pie, and the shrinking of the total PC market, has Dell looking for a new business focus. They are saying that by going private they'll be more nimble and less constrained by shareholder When I hear about going private I remember watching Freescale Semiconductor to the same thing. And for the last three years they have been operating with a $12 billion debt load while sales in the semiconductor industry have remained constant or shrunk.

The cynic in me tells me that the majority stockholders in any company going private are using this sort of transaction partially as a way to cash out at a temporary, artificially boosted stock price while saddling the new owners with the debt. The optimist in me sees that if you already own the stock and the rumors become truth you will see the typical spike up in the asking price of the stock which will at least get you back to parity. I wish the people at Dell very good luck because they have been a very good corporate citizen here in Austin.

But what this really shows me is that all markets are always in flux and even the best and the brightest have trouble predicting the future. What chance do we, as single person, freelance businesses, have?  Well, for one thing, if we've been frugal we don't have anywhere near the burn rate of a big company with the attendant need to always be feeding that cash flow monster. And, hopefully, if we don't let ourselves become constrained by aping what everyone else is doing, we have a shot at creating new niches and new ways forward to profit.

I'm like a broken record when it comes to talking about changing every parameter of the way we do business. From the cameras we use and the lights we bring to the jobs doing it the same way we've always done is kind of like driving while fixated on the rear view mirror. I hear from photographers who are locked in a print mentality. They still see the print as the gold standard. But from my point of view (at least as a commercial photographer) the print is long dead and it's now five years since I tried to fire up an expensive inkjet print and do any sort of printed product for a client. In advertising and corporate work it's all about the digital file. If a client needs a trade show graphic they'll have an in-house or agency procurement manager working with a high end output house in order to get what they need. Our responsibility ends at the point where we deliver the image. (No, it's not practical to become a middleman for this work---the files go through a design shop which is a subset of the ad agency or a design shop hired directly  by the company to do apply their branding to the images (type, logos, etc.) and they are just as specialized as we are).

I've finally come to grips with the idea that Dell, Freescale, IBM and any other big company out there is no longer going to be sending photographers around the world for weeks at a time to do annual reports and other high profile projects. That train has already sailed....

What it means to me as a small business owner is that I have to find new markets and new ways to deliver to the same markets and to the newer disruptive players in markets. You wanna know what one of my differentiators in my markets is? I'll tell you anyway:  I know how to light stuff. And light it well. That alone eliminates a large swath of my competitors. People have become so invested in the idea that their cameras do incredible, crazy high ISOs that they've forgotten that most of the reason to use lights is to create a lighting design that makes the image different and better than it would have been without additional lights. We use lights to create a direction in the light, to emphasize some things while diminishing the prominence of other things in a scene. We use light to create three dimensions in a two dimensional space. We use light as a retouching tool. 

Back when we competed against other well educated professional photographers we could never have sold lighting as a nearly exclusive feature but in the day and age when a speed light is considered a Cadillac coming in with multiple, specialized lighting tools and modifiers makes it seem like we're using the Aston Martins.

Traditional, healthy businesses have generally learned one set of lessons well and this is something everyone needs to revisit from time to time. The lessons are: Learn to serve your clients, not just take orders. Teach them how to leverage your product.  Under-promise and over-deliver.  Wow them with your creativity but be sure to also give them something they'll be comfortable using. Be honest when you fall short. Then fix it.

Finally, a differentiator missing from the younger market.....learn how to sincerely say, "Thank You" to your clients. Believe me, in their day-to-day lives they don't hear this enough.

Market changes? Going back and forth between stills and video demands new lighting skills and new lights for traditional photographers. Cameras with built-in EVFs also have an advantage when shooting video.   The days of many assistants flitting around the set now only exists on the set of Creative Live: Learn how to be self sufficient. Travel light but light well. Improve your cameras not by buying new cameras but by learning best camera practices: Use a tripod. Use your optimum ISO's (hint, even if your files have no noise at higher ISOs they lose dynamic range linearly every step up from their base ISO). Use the optimum aperture on your lens. Work on your focusing technique. Do more with less by doing it better. 

Finally, what do all the major client's gyrations, shifts and paradigm changes hold for my business?  Growth. They need to re-brand and re-engage their customers along every step of the way. And we're here to serve them. Change is neither good nor bad. 

A quote I read recently:  When God closes a window a Navy Seal kicks open a new door.

Start kicking those doors open.


Old Tech in Optimal Conditions = New Tech.

Shooting with old tech makes me feel confident that my vision is the driver, not the technology.

It's tempting to look outside yourself for your power but you'll feel like less of a photographic wimp if you don't depend on your gear for your sense of value.

In the end it's the image that matters, not how you got there.

Camera: Nasty old Kodak SLR/n. Lens: Ancient Nikon 70-200mm f4.5-5.6. 

PIcture Stories in Austin.

What is it about the Olympus OM-D that makes it such a game changer?

The Olympus OM-D. Everyone's Camera of the Year in the 2012 Round-ups.

It's nearly unanimous across the web. Everyone's choice for camera of the year in 2012 was the elfen pro, the OMD. But why? It's not the most comfortable to hold (in its native configuration) nor is it invested with the highest image quality on the market. It's not part of the biggest contiguous system of lenses or accessories on the market nor is it the cheapest high performance camera on the market. So why all the gushing and glorification?

I postulate that the market was ready for three critical technologies to come together in one nearly perfect package at a price that was almost universally acceptable to working photographers and artists.

What are the three critical technologies:  At the top of the list I would place equivalent performance to established DSLRs at a fraction of the size and bulk, made possible by the maturing of the mirrorless technology and attendant advances in the autofocus capabilities of this class.  

Secondly, I would state that this camera, even more that Sony's (on paper) technically superior versions, made real world use of electronic viewfinders acceptable. And as soon as they were accepted and put into widespread use an enormous swath of the market came, almost instantaneously, to understand the real value of seeing the image as the camera would record it instead of being steps removed and requiring a level of pre-visualization that comes with only years of practice; as with a conventional optical finder.

The third critical technology or product feature was, without a doubt, the fast growing number of lenses optimized and created for this format. From the Leica/Panasonic 25mm Summilux to the cost effective and brilliant 45mm Olympus 1.8 lens to the 12mm f2 lens, everything in the system started to gel in a way that directly appeared to experienced users.  This third category will only accelerate with the two new professional zoom lenses introduced by Panasonic which cover both the 24-70mm and 70-200mm focal lengths with f2.8 constant aperture lenses. I've had the pleasure to handle and shoot with both and they are really great.

On top of all these features is the idea of interchangeability between brands a la open standards. One can now buy marvelous optics from Olympus, Leica, Panasonic, Sigma and a growing number of suppliers and use them interchangeably on any m4:3 standard camera, across any system.  If you are an OMD user and discover your love for video you can acquire the GH3 from Panasonic as a second camera for back up and video with the assurance that all your investment in glass is protected. Imagine how powerful it would have been, when Canon introduced the 5Dmk2 if all Nikon glass also fit and worked on that camera. If you had been able to cherry pick cameras between systems without worrying about obsoleting a big and costly selection of lenses.

The thing that tipped the point was the fact that Olympus produced the camera perfectly. It exudes precision, good materials and great workmanship.  That it currently has the best, in body, image stabilization system in the world is the cherry on top of the whipped creme.

When I played with one VSL member's OMD last week I was once again impressed by the system. More so after putting the Panasonic lenses on the camera. I went back to the studio and looked up the current price. It is now an insanely good value in addition to being the top of the 2012 pile. Well done Olympus!

A Bumper Crop for Traditionalists. Canon v. Nikon. Where's Sony?

Nikon's new D600. A few teething problems but a good entry into the market.

The Canon 6D. Future Standard Equipment of Canon Wedding and Portrait Shooters.

It's been a bountiful season for traditionalist camera buyers. There are two new, lower priced full frame cameras (35mm sized imaging sensors) on the market and both of them hover around the $2000 price point. Let's put this into perspective: The first full frame camera to market was a much plagued and much maligned Kodak DCS 14 which boasted 14 megapixels, a lot of weird color anomalies across the frame, an eight second start up time and more digital noise over ISO 200 than most newbies to the digital horde would even believe in this day and age. Oh, and it came with a sticker price of over $5,000.  Yikes. That was only eight years ago!  It was quickly followed by a more nuanced machine from Canon; the 1DS, a whopping 11.8 megapixels and an even more whopping $8,000 price tag. Was it great? For its moment in time? Yes. By today's standards? Not hardly. 

So you can imagine how excited the people who were there at the birth of truly professional digital photography feel this year at being about to buy very mature, high image quality descendants for half to a quarter of those prices. And these are cameras with batteries that last ten times as long, ISO's that are truly usable at settings at least four times higher than those we thought to be "okay" just a few years ago and with a number of capabilities we never imagined.  Things like usable live view and nearly professional video.

It's not my intention today to do a review of either of these two cameras. I've read what's been written at DP Review and at DXO about the cameras and I'm pretty confident that either one of these cameras will provide good service for the vast majority of both professional photographers and ardent hobbyists (although there is a hardly a demarcation between those categories any more...).  What I want to discuss is the rationalization of the overall camera market as it exists going into 2013.

I'm going to ignore the tiny section of the market that's keeping medium format digital cameras on life support. There will probably always be a contingent of practitioners who will demand whatever benefits they see to the larger and "more perfect" cameras but over the entire industry their numbers are far smaller than one percent. They may even be smaller than one tenth of a percent, based on observation. If you need a medium format camera for your work you already know what you need and I can't really be of much service. It's my view that Nikon, Canon and Sony could sweep into those rarified markets at any time and absolutely desolate the current producers.  And they would if they could see the promise of good margins and healthy markets. One only needs to look at what happened in the professional video market after the Red cameras pushed the doors open a crack.  After the bleeding edge swept by Canon and Sony rushed in to grab ripe fruit from the fast growing bottom half of the new markets. And they are making good progress toward dominating the rest of the market as well.

What I see in the still camera market is a wholesale shift.  

The high res Nikon D800 and D800e is actively displacing most of the demand for lower end (under $20,000) medium format cameras. Their time is up. The D800's output performance is, sensor to sensor, competitive and the range and relative economy of the Nikon lens line is a powerful adjunct to the camera itself.  In my assessment the Nikon D800 is the new medium format/professional tool for the vast majority of photographers. And I'm certain that Canon will fill the gap that currently exists in their product line ASAP. I think Canon was taken off guard. I think they presumed that Nikon would put their 36 megapixel sensor into a variant of their professional D3X body and sell the combination for somewhere above $5.000. I'm equally sure that Canon is scrambling to find the value proposition for an equally spec'd processor without a wholesale demolition of their 5Dmk3 market segment. In a short time they'll either bite the bullet and go for price and performance parity with Nikon or they'll establish a rationale for a equal-to-or-better product in a slightly different category. No doubt in my mind that they'll come back with a strategy that works. 

However that segment falls out the bar has been set. For the enormous segment of shooters who aren't interested in high speed sports or bullet proof cameras, new products like the Nikon D800 have become the defacto top of the line imaging tools for a whole new generation.

So, where to the new kids on the block like the Canon 6D and the Nikon D600 fit in? Well, they get a photographer 90% of the way to the new "professional arena" at 50% less cost. In the case of the Canon there is no appreciable difference in imaging quality for stills. The only points at which which the 6D fails to live up to the performance of the 5Dmk3 are autofocus, frame rate and (according to a growing number of video sites) video image quality. In the case of Nikon buyers of the 600D give up mostly-----pixels. And many users might not find that much of a detriment in daily camera use. Yes, the D800 will always be preferred for enormous prints and nearly infinite detail but those attributes aren't front and center in the working methods (you thought I was going to say workflow, didn't you?) of most photographers; whether they are shooting for money or not.

Over 20 megapixels on a low noise, full frame digital camera at a reasonable cost is pretty much the Holy Grail that most, if not the majority, of photographers have been chasing since the dawn of digital. Well, according to the pundits, we've arrived. 

I've shot with both the Nikon and Canon systems in recent years and if I were contemplating choosing one of these two systems I would be hard pressed. In fact, I almost consider them interchangeable. Frankly, looking at what I think the future holds, I would shy away from either. Not because they aren't good cameras or good, solid systems but because they are solutions squarely aimed at what imaging needs used to be and not what I presume they will be going forward.

What do I mean? Well, as a portrait shooter I really like the whole look and feel of full frame images; the ability to achieve really narrow depth of field, even with normal and slightly wide focal lengths. And I take an increase in noise abatement as an extra. But I'm convinced that in order to stay in business and provide the services my clients need I'll be called upon to provide more and more video services. While I might eventually buy dedicated video cameras (if the need is persistent) I want cameras that are easy to use for video right now.  I've been shooting video with my Sony a77's and with the Sony Nex 6 and find it easy and straightforward. The Sony a99 is even better. I can't overemphasize the power of an EVF for video production, unencumbered by crew and lots of expensive camera add-ons like Zacuto Hoods and external monitors.

The a99 is well set up for video production. The ability to use full on phase detection auto focus in conjunction with full time live view video is enormous. And it's something that's not offered, at the same level, by Nikon or Canon. 

At the same time, I'd like the option to back up my a99 with a cheaper full frame camera just like Nikon and Canon users can now. That's one thing that's missing from my current system. I'm predicting that Sony will fill that slot this year. Not because they want to but because the market will demand it. And they are here to play for the long haul.

So, these three full frame systems represent our current version (compared with film days categories) of medium format tools.  If that's the case what's our version of the 35mm SLR? What's the digital counterpart?

I think it's the vast selection of cropped frame cameras. And I don't make an artificial boundary between APS-C cameras and micro 4:3rds cameras. I look at them as all of one category sub-divided by whether or not they have a moving mirror. When I survey this part of the market, which I think it analogous to the professional 35mm market of the late film days, I think of everything from the Olympus OMD EM5 and the Panasonic GH3 to the Nikon 7000 and the Canon 7Ds as being comparable in terms of imaging quality. No differences. At least no differences that most people will notice.  

This category of cameras meets the needs of most camera users very, very well. Including professionals in most fields. The range of lenses and the range of options are incredible. In fact, in terms of video performance I think several of the residents of this category are, in terms of sound and output performance, better for video production use than their full frame competitors. Reviews of the Panasonic GH3 are consistently affirming the very, very high quality of that camera's video files, and the codecs used to produce them. Coupled with the excellent wide open quality of many of the lenses available for the system and that camera may be all you need right now for state of the art video in most prosumer and standard business applications.

So, even though the size of some of entrants makes this statement seem counterintuitive, I think this category of cameras is now the heir to what was once the kingdom of motor driven Nikon F5's and Canon EOS 1 variant cameras from the last glorious days of film. Tools that worked for a huge proportion of both professional and non-professional (but not less demanding) users.

The shift downward, sizewise, is only detrimental to users' egos, not their image quality potential.

If I were a working photojournalist I could not imagine a better tool that the Olympus OMD EM5 or, perhaps a brace of Sony Nex6's with some saucy primes. And for the kind of introspective street photography that appeals to so many people this size of camera is just right.  Either tool provides a level of imaging quality every bit the equal to any other APS-C camera. (There will always be outliers and new tech like the Fuji X series and the Sigma DP2 and 3 that challenge the category for top performance but they are still a small and expensive segment).

And that leaves us with a relatively new category that sits just below the APS-C and M4:3 machines which is growing and equally interesting. That's the category filled with cameras like the pocketable Sony RX100, the Nikon 1 series, and a raft of 2/3 inch sensor cameras like the Fuji X10 and X20.  All these cameras are capable of performance that would challenge the overall quality of the cameras I started out talking about, the over $5000 cameras of only eight years ago. In fact, this new, smaller category can, for most applications, provide images that are competitive with the output from the next class up. You'll only start to see the differences as you push the parameters to the edges or in cases where you need access to more interesting lenses and more able accessories (prime lenses with high speeds, more complete and complex flash systems, the nosebleed area of high ISOs.).

These cameras will push out the bottom end of the next category up as that category becomes bifurcated between convenience and price versus performance and accessories.  

Where will we go? The affluent don't really have to make hard choices. They can buy at the top and be assured of ultimate quality. But money isn't always the primary factor and many with ready cash will probably prefer the smaller foot print of the middle or smaller category.

Most aging hobbyist have proven highly resistent to video but the generation actively moving into the market is flipped and values both, with video a sought after feature. 

It all boils to down to what you want, what you need and what you expect.

If you really do strive to make large, flawless prints you'll migrate to the top segment. Likewise, if you are an advertising photographer supplying the higher end of the market you'll also head to the top. But if you are go working wedding or event photographer you might just find that a  less well specified camera will do just as well.  Hence the introduction of the 6D and 600D to the market. 

If your markets or your hobby are well served with moderate prints sizes (say up to 20 by 30 inches) you may be well served with the middle way, the APS-C and M4:3 products.  And if you travel frequently and lightly you are right in the middle of the sweet spot with the mirrorless (and more compact) Sony, Olympus and Panasonic cameras. (Keeping an eye out for the Samsungs but not seeing the market penetration just yet).

I'm seeing the tier of full frame cameras in the $2000 tier as the new aspirational cameras. Many photographers have come to grips with the idea that the 5Dmk3 doesn't provide much more value for the money and that the files from the D800 are currently overkill, giant computer choking disk fillers...

If I were a traditionalist professional I'd have my sights set squarely on one of the two cameras pictured at the top of this blog. As a non-traditionalist with future longings I'll make due with my a99 from Sony while waiting with partially closed check book for their down market FF entry.

If I walk away from the profession of photography to concentrate on my writing career or my career as a ruthless corporate raider I'd ditch all that heavy stuff and carry around a couple Nex or Olympus OMD cameras and a handful of lenses. 

What amazed me is that people still look at the tools in a way that was codified years ago. Back when relatively small differences between sensors made bigger differences.  I'm also mystified by the intention versus reality usage of all these different cameras. The intention seems to be to buy for maximum effect while most usage is clustered at the minimum technique end. Many super high res cameras used with cheap-ass lenses, handheld with nasty cheap protection filters on the front. In poor light. In an ISO range that uniformly decimates dynamic range.  Most people (pros included) seem to over buy and under effort. But I guess that's what makes this all so interesting.

My big prediction is that, just like the U.S. economy, you're going to see the market move toward the opposite ends of an inverted curve. More and more companies are going to jump on the full frame band wagon.  Canon and Nikon are just the first feelers. At the other end of the spectrum mirrorless system cameras (both APS-C and M4:3) will eat away at more and more traditional mirrored systems as consumers become more aware of the benefits of WYSIWYG viewfinders that allow pre-chimping. The fallout will be the decline of traditional cropped from mirrored cameras, across the board.  And that means a whole lot of homeless cropped sensor-only lenses will be flooding the market. I think the decline started the minute that Olympus launched its OMD EM5 camera and will accelerate as people understand the value proposition.

All the traditionalists will see greater value in full frame as it moves down the cost scale toward the province of APS-C sensors. It seems both obvious and relentless.

And, of course, you know that the next big shift (presaged in part by Sony) will be the shift toward making all but a fraction of the tools, across the consumer and pro-lite sectors, to mirrorless EVF cameras. At that point the race will be on to find a new way to differentiate and sell product. It's all interesting and, to my mind, inevitable.

Amazing to me that you could do 90% of what needs to get done now in a professional photography business with a small camera like the OMD and its 12-50mm kit lens for an investment of less than $1,100. Just amazing.


Angles and Color.

These aren't the kind of images I make to generate money or business. I like them because they are quiet and fun for me to look at. It's easier for me to imagine them as art on the wall than portraits, which in most cases are too personal or two direct to be good, long term art for display.
I think portraits work best in book and magazine form. The exception is family portraits displayed in the context of the family home. But even there a portrait that is as much about art as it is about paying homage to the family member doesn't wear well. We can look past mediocre technique to the naive display of a cute expression and of happy moments but when we attempt to elevate the portrait of a family member to fine art the weight of the exercise seems to embue the presentation with a level of pretention that cripples the enjoyment of the representation.

In this regard I believe that we want our portraits to fall into a set of boundaries that includes lighting formulas and variations on basic poses. This allow the portrait created for posterity to gain a timelessness that attempting to overlay fashion or current editorial styles of portraiture rarely achieves.

While none of the work above passes muster to go up on the walls each of the images engages me for reasons having to do more with design, color and forced angles than timeless contextual value.  These are all things which we find engaging in and of themselves. Many of the images we take are never intended as fine art or even survivable art. Like a pianist or guitarist who practices scales we are practicing our own visual scales and doing our exercises in spatial and tonal problem solving under relaxed conditions. If we practice well we can bring the understanding of design and color to our more serious work.

I included the final image because the building somehow makes me nostalgia for a time in the past when buildings were built on a very human scale in Austin, in particular, and Texas in general. This building, which now houses an ad agency, represents the accessible style of the late 1950's and 1960's. Even the scale of the windows and offices seems more welcoming than the sterile and efficient architecture I see in so many of the newer buildings. That alone makes the image interesting to me.

Abstract Reality.

Walking downtown always looks different but the same. I like the neutral look of a 50mm lens on 35mm frame. It's not passionate or showy. It just....is.

The start of a new year always paralyzes me. I never know what to expect. Are we supposed to just do the same thing we did last year but with different dates? Do we jump into the river of change or sit on the banks and watch the people frolic as they get swept downstream?

I don't know how to get started. Eventually the phone will ring and the e-mail will chime and I'll get pushed along. There's something disquieting about being grown up and not knowing what it is you really want to do when you grow up. When you are young you have all the answers. As you progress through your life you have fewer and fewer answers but even more vague is any idea of what it is you really want.

The cameras are a fun distraction. The photography is a pleasant disconnection. The family anchors one to the here and now. Friends keep you from flying off the edges. But at some point is there a juncture at which you are supposed to say, "This is it. This is the thing I know I should be doing." ???

How do you do it? How do you continue to put on your pants, shave your face, brush your teeth, and go out for more of the stuff of which you've already had heady doses? Is there a lure of some treasure hidden in the near future that keeps you moving or is it just your monumental faith that all of this (life, work, love, death) is part of some great master plan that will reward you with purpose in some distant or alternate reality?

What is it that keeps you engaged? Not a rhetorical question. I really want to know...

The Shots Between Shots.

Taking a portrait is a process of trying and rejecting many things until you arrive at the recipe you had in mind but didn't know when you started. The shot above is not a final shot. It's part of the process. But erasing the building blocks means erasing the description of your process. And many times you will wish you were able to go back to the abandoned frames and look for the attributes that might have become clearer to you on your return to the image through the passage of time.

One of the crimes of the digital age is the cavalier way we toss away all but the "keepers." But what constitutes a "keeper" changes with our experiences, our evolving point of view and our changing perceptions. I like the fact that the out takes from my film days are still there. Still available for me.  I go back and find new things to like and new sources of inspiration.

What seemed like mistakes to me ten years ago seem like intended silence between frames now. I like the insouciance of an "in between" frame when I rediscover it. You might too.

It helps me to be mindful not to overshoot. But the act of rediscovery also helps me to be mindful about not throwing to much away. Not to edit too permanently, in the moment.

Photo Above: Renee Zellweger in the old studio. Camera: Pentax 645n. Lens: 150mm 3.5. Film: Tri-X.


It's not "what you took with you" it's "where you've been."

A ceiling detail from the Alexander Palace in Pushkin, Russia. 1995

Dead of winter. Blizzard conditions outside. The one thing Russia had plenty of in 1995 was petroleum and the one thing they shared all over the country was heat. I've never been  hotter than in a Russian public building in the dead of winter. I was part of a survey team from the World's Monuments Fund. We were analyzing the very last palace of the Czars. This is shot with a Hasselblad SWC/M.  It was a specialized, wide angle medium format camera that had a permanently attached 38mm Zeiss Biogon lens on the front, a bright-line optical viewfinder in the accessory shoe and an A-12 film back on the read end. There was also a bubble level on the camera.  The system was sharp and distortion free.

All we had back then was film and film cameras. All the camera info is in a little notebook that I kept while I was in the St. Petersburg area in February of 1995. I brought home so many better memories than of what was at the end of my camera strap. It was the people I met and the sights I saw that stick with me. Curators and guards, translators and professors. 

In the end it may be what you take with you on assignment, but I certainly am not referring to cameras and lenses and power packs. I am referring to all the experience and vision you have already packed in your head. Just a thought.  And actually, that's the most valuable commodity today-----just a thought.

Spa Shoot. Fun Shoot. More Like These, Please

Cured Greek Olives on Flaky Pastry Crust with Carmellized Onions and Herbs.
50mm 1.4 Sony. Handheld.

I tend to write about the big, exciting event shoots because I perceive that it's what you want to read about, but my favorite shoots are the kind where I drop into a business or a project and try to capture the essence of the people, the space and the products in a less frantic and more measured pace. So today I thought I'd write about one of my favorite shoots from the last quarter, my website project for the Spa at The Lake, here in Austin, Texas.

I did this job before I acquired the a99 and, in looking back I am almost surprised a what a proficient and transparent tool the a77 cameras have turned out to be. For this job I packed simply. A bag of cameras and a bag of small, LED panels that run off batteries. I packed two Sony a77's, the Sigma 10-20mm lens, the 16-50mm Sony lens, the 50mm 1.4 Sony lens and the 85mm 2.8 Sony lens. Three small Manfrotto micro light stands and my wooden, Berlebach tripod.

We worked on a cold Sunday. We choose that day as one on which the Spa was least busy.  I worked without an assistant but with a very bright art director. We did the whole shoot as a stream of conscious exercise. We knew we'd need a frame work of shots, the "must haves" but we kept our eyes constantly moving; looking for nuance and new angles.  Because in projects about beauty and brands every detail tells part of the story.

Cucumber Infused Mineral Water. 85mm 

A great example is something as simple as the jug of water above. I saw it and immediately cleared clutter out from behind it. The jug is lit solely by direct sun. No reflectors or diffusers. And it's one of my favorite shots. I like it even more since I tasted the water. The infusion of cucumber is subtle but so refreshing. I can taste it now whenever I see this image.

Dressing Rooms. 16-50mm

Part of the assignment was to document all of the facilities. Interior architecture with and without people. The dressing room shot is simple. I like the inclusion of the blue towels on the orange stool. We used all three of the LED panels to make the shot. The setup took just a few minutes because we could gauge light placement so quickly with the continuous light sources. The lights were the Fotodiox 312AS panels that I've written about so often.

Olive Pastry from the Artisanal Bistro. 50mm 1.4

The Spa at the Lake is located in a shopping center just off the entrance to the Lakeway community that sits next to Lake Travis. In the same shopping center is one of my favorite recent restaurant finds, The Artisanal Bistro (and bakery). The restaurant is run by and cooked for by a chef was professionally trained in France. The Spa's owner had our snacks and lunch catered by The Artisanal Bistro and it's probably the best food I've ever had in a shoot that wasn't directly engaged by a restaurant! I drove back out a few weeks later to have dinner there with Belinda and we are now officially addicted. Funny how the message of comfort and luxury ends up being reflected by all the little touches, like wonderful food or fresh flowers in all the treatment rooms.

Sony a77, 16-50mm 

When I work with locations that have good natural light coming through the windows or really good interior lighting design and implementation I try to use the LED panels just to fill and reinforce the intention of the existing light. My goal in most advertising shots is to show off the product or the person and to make the lighting look as though it's all natural; even when I have two or three fixtures on at once. Having lights with changeable color temperatures and infinitely adjustable output levels makes it easy to use your eyes to carefully supplement what is already there.

Bread, Dates, Preserves and Cheeses. Craft Service Snack.

Yes, they did serve a very nice red wine with our afternoon snack. As the day went on we photographed women getting manicures, couples getting massages, people having their hair done and a number of spa treatments. In all I delivered about 24 set ups with people in the spaces and about 10 nice details that we just grabbed as we went along during the day.

A Bit of Hair Craft Before the Final Photographs.


The image above was done in one of the massage rooms and we were able to mix LED panels with the existing incandescent lights almost seamlessly. The image was shot at ISO 160 with the 16-50mm lens at f4. The shutter speed was down around and 1/8th of a second but it didn't matter, this was hardly and "action" shot.

A Post-Massage Glass of White Wine overlooking the Hill Country.

The Spa has a beautiful deck with a sweeping view of one of Austin's nicest golf courses so we wanted to include exterior shots as well. I built a small softbox from the three LED panels and balanced the color temperature in order to add a bit of fill even outdoors in open sun.  If we needed to control contrast even more I was ready to put up a large one stop diffuser between our model and the sunlight.

An Alternate Use for Cukes.

The Sony a77 gets a bad rap for having too much noise in high ISO situations. But it's not entirely true. The image just above, with the model and her cucumber eyes was shot at ISO 1600 but the LED panels, set at a color temperature of around 4400K seems to help keep noise out of the blue channel and decrease the overall appearance of chromatic noise. I wrote a blog many years ago talking about how little of the blue spectrum exists in incandescent light and how it causes cameras to over amplify the blue color channels to compensate for the deficiency. It's the amplification of the blue channel signals that causes the appearance of noise in digital files. That's why shooting a digital camera at high ISO's in bright daylight doesn't illicit the same noise effects as shooting in low light situations that are lit mostly by orangey-red light bulbs. In the old days we used to add corrective blue filters to our higher ISO shots. We'd lose a stop but gain back maybe two stops in noise control. When you did the math we were generally one stop better off than with an unfiltered light (82C).

Professional Photographers and Art Directors do break for lunch.

My most used tools in this project were the 16-50mm lens, the LED panels and the tripod. Everything else could have largely been interchanged with Canon or Nikon product and done just as well. But it wouldn't have been nearly as much fun. I just can't go back to the optical finders. Not enough feedback. Not enough information.

On another note my friend, Frank, met me for coffee yesterday and surprised me by pulling two really cool lenses out of his camera bag.  He shoots with Olympus OMD EM-5 cameras and has all the cool prime lenses. Well, now he also has the two, new Panasonic zoom lenses that I consider the first truly professional zooms for mirrorless cameras, the 12-35 2.8 and the 35-100mm 2.8. He was indulgent and let me play with them for a while. I can only say that I wish it were possible to use these on the Sony Nex cameras. They cover the 24-70 and the 70-200 focal lengths that are the standard gear for most working photographers. But they do it in a fraction of the size and far less than half the weight of their full size competitors.

These lenses, coupled with the soft thump of the OMD shutter have me sitting on the fence. We'll see how my will power holds out. And we'll see if Sony ramps up production on some useful, professional lenses for the system. I'll give it a little while.

Have fun out there and don't forget to stop for a nice lunch.