Every photo studio needs a good dog.

This is my studio dog. She prefers to remain anonymous....

I never understood just how wonderful a dog could be. We got this little girl from a dog rescue about five years ago and I've been in love with her ever since. She's at her happiest sitting in the middle of the family. Just sitting and taking in our conversations about the day. At dinner she waits patiently by my feet waiting for something, anything, to drop off the table. Once a piece of food goes airborne it's hers.

She used to spend a lot of time with my wife. For the first four years with us she luxuriated around the house while my wife did her graphic design business in a home office. For the last year Belinda has been working downtown at a big ad agency. So we shifted around a bit. Now, when everyone leaves the house in the morning, my dog travels the twelve steps from the front door of our house into the studio/office. She has a brown square of bathroom carpet (originally a prop for a photo assignment) that sits next to my desk and that's where she curls up and naps.

Every once in a while she'll leap up and run to the door to bark ferociously. It's usually to let me know that the UPS man is coming and bringing with him stuff she can't eat. She also barks to let the UPS man know that she's keeping track of him at every step.  

She doesn't like the look of soft boxes and moving light stands around makes her very nervous. When we need to do a lot of equipment rearranging she retreats to the house and finds a spot where sunlight comes slanting in. A good spot for a sunbathing nap. 

When she gets bored or I get bored I toss the keyboard onto the chair and we head out the door for a walk around the neighborhood. She loves the walks. And she's very friendly with nearly every dog she's ever met except for one mean-as-hell-psychotic Chihuahua that trash talks her whenever we go by its house. Every once in a while the Chihuahua gets loose and comes up to us all fierce and frothy. We do a "steady" command and walk past. If my dog can make it by without returning curse for curse with that tiny, mean excuse for a canine she gets a treat. A small dog biscuit that's just about bite sized.

No matter how late we human night owls stay up she hangs in there with us, yawning all the time. But when we finally go "lights out" she climbs up into the white chair in the corner of our bedroom and does one big, long sigh and then zonks out.

I consider my dog an invaluable member of the VSL team. Her input is never far off  the mark. And her ability to catch a tennis ball in mid-air is unmatched. Her only fault? She refuses to carry any gear. She is the Leica M3 of dogs.

Time drips on like a leaky faucet and we're watching our supply drip away drop by drop with the ever growing knowledge that we don't have a wrench that will fix this one.

Bill Clinton. December 2012

It's odd, at times, to watch the fevered pitch at which we work our photography. As though grabbing more and more images somehow makes us immune to the unknowable future. Amateur, professional, mom-with-a-camera; we're all just trying to stop time so we can understand our own little segment of the world, our own little serving of existence. And, at the time it seems valuable to us, as though by taking a photograph we'll have a special understanding, made clearer with our two dimensional representation, reinforced by the notion that we've got that slice of time in the bottle of our files; preserving it so we can drink from it to remember and re-live that portion over again. To feel the same feelings. 

But it seems that nothing really works the way we'd like. The memory reminds us of a different time. A time before the steady drip of the faucet makes us hear more clearly Time's Winged Chariot drawing near... And the memory of stronger muscles, clearer eyes and more connection laces our reminisces with a bittersweetness. As though we might have been better off to savor our memories than regard the hard evidence.

I remember so well the day I took these images. At the time photographers jostled with each other for position. I was in an area near the stage that was reserved for the few image makers and the video camera man who were working directly for the paying client. A grandstand full of editorial and other photographers were corralled on a stand half way back in the auditorium of 3,000 people. But it hardly mattered since everyone had a smart phone with a camera, or an iPad or some other capture device.

The thing I remember as I nailed my images and then made a quick exit to prepare for the next stage in the pageant was the fervor with which everyone was making images. As though capturing yet another image of Bill Clinton wasn't just desirable, it was necessary. I imagine that a lot of people were taking images in order to prove to friends or family that they were really in the room with someone whose office created this pathway in history (and no, I don't want this to turn into a discussion about whether that pathway was ultimately good or bad.....so don't fire up the word processor and get political. One side or the other). 

Some people were making images just because making images is what you do when you see or experience someone who is designated as "famous." And some, in fact many I think, were putting a bookmark in the moment so that they could come back at some future time to re-assess the day and the speech and reconstitute it in a different way. As a different mix.

But now, looking back only four months I feel a certain sadness. I can look at Mr. Clinton and see how much he's aged since he became known to me in what seems like only a few years ago. I captured his image and it became a proxy for the aging of a whole generation. Yes, the photo proves I was there and he was there. Yes, I can show my friends or clients. But I'm showing them only a random slice of visual proof with no context and no content beyond the inventory of how he looked in that moment.

I heard last night that one of my close friends passed away. It was sudden and unexpected. A person I shared life with for at least several hours a week, for well over a decade. One of my thoughts this morning as I was driving back home from dropping Ben off at school was that I had so few photographs of my friend. The ones I have are quick snapshots of him in small groups. At swim meets and parties.

And, at first, I felt upset that I'd made so few images of him. Almost dismayed that I never had him sit for a portrait. 

But the more I sat with those thoughts the clearer it became to me that the photographs would have never been able to capture what his friendship really meant. It was all about swimming together and sharing hot coffee with a small group of tired swimmers every saturday morning at 10:15, after practice. It was our shared love of good red wine. And our admission to each other that we enjoyed the old, campy James Bond movies. Our relationship had content and context. We logged thousands and thousands of laps together in lanes three and four of the pool. We pushed each other when we needed pushed and gave each other slack when we needed the pool just to be a safe place to get away to.

If I had more formal photographs of my friend would it be different for me today? I don't think so.  We had no unfinished business. Nothing left unsaid. Nothing that I would need a photograph for as an aid to rumination. We swam well. We played nicely and my memories will always be about the content and the context, not the two dimensional iconography of a single frozen moment. 

Funny, to me, how life has a way of puncturing my preconceptions. 

And so, when I look at these images of president Clinton I wonder what value they really have to me or anyone else. What are we really sharing? What do they really tell me? I have no connection to him, no context. They exist now for my client as part of their public relations and their marketing. And they exist for me as proof that I can photograph a speaker at a podium. An advertisement for my craft. In another sense his image is a resonance of an era in the American experience when we felt less vulnerable and more buoyant. 

Photographs don't plug the leak of time. They don't resurrect the past, only subjective memories of a past fiction. Their very thin-ness, the fact that they are a quantum-thin slice of a moment makes them only a marker of one of millions and millions of interconnected instances. Each with its own context and reality.

I am happy that I've learned to pull out my camera and put it between me and my family and friends less often. Far better that I actually take those times and events to be totally present in the moment and not busy translating them for future consumption. Better to be engaged as part of the memory rather than sidelined as its documenter.

Would I trade one lap swum for one more photograph? I would not. The time spent sharing the adventure is what gave our friendship meaning. As photographers our offset (buffered?) observations rob us of the whole-ness and immediacy of our experiences. We introduce our own parallax.

In the days of film and no digital the record of our lives was more circumscribed. Less ample. Now we have a surfeit of images but looser connections. The images work as placebos or placeholders for real, hands-on friendships and relationships. This is my reminder to shoot less and share more.....of my attention. Funny...I've always bought into the power of images but now I'm becoming equally aware of the power of just being present. Being fully there. 

Our cultural myths meet our personal realities.


Why I think the Sony a99 is the best camera around for documenting live theatrical performances.

All images above are from last night's dress rehearsal of Mad Hip Beat and Gone, from director, Steven Dietz, at Zach Theatre. All shot with the Sony a99 and the 70-200mm 2.8G lens.

The play started at 8pm and I expected to get to the theatre at 7pm to get my bearings (It's only four miles away from the studio) but real life got in the way. We had a very rare and dramatic meteorological event here in central Texas...it rained. And sometimes when it rains here in Austin the clouds get all urgent and overwrought and try to rain down everything at once. And that's when the fun begins. It was almost Biblical for an hour or so in the late afternoon. Thunder, lightning and seventy mile per hour winds whipped fat rain drops and sharp, spitty chunks of hail at us with no mercy.

My dog cowered in Ben's room, hiding under the covers on his bed and trembling with every thunder boom. Ben, unfazed, continued to study his calculus. I had my hands full in the studio as water started to seep in on one side. The side with the French drain. A French drain that was clearly overwhelmed.

I meant to pack up and get out earlier by there I was with a bucket and a mop wondering if I was bailing out a life boat with a thimble. But as soon as the rain slowed down the seepage stopped and the rest was just a matter of mopping up.  I hopped into the studio's racing Honda CRV and thought it would be the usual quick jaunt to the theatre until I hit the first of several blocked roads. The water had come up so quickly that the main arterial from my house was closed by local law enforcement. Drat. I headed for the secret back roads but in the day of GPS and Garmin there are no longer secret back roads and so I inched toward my destination with thousands of other frustrated drivers.

I got to the theater and blocked off five seats in the orchestra section, dead center. The crowd settle and the play started. I was there to shoot so I had my usual, ever changing collection of cameras in lap and spread over the chair next to me. Two Sony Nex-7's and a Sony a99 with a 70-200mm G Sony lens. Last night the a99 got the most use with 1198 images coming from that combination. It was glorious.

Theater photography is where the EVF (electronic viewfinder) comes into its own. Since there is no single "correct" white balance you get to chose and what better way to keep a handle on the ever changing color of light on the stage but to monitor it in real time, with your correction overlaid and presented to you as a fait accompli in the high res view finder. You get to see, at a glance, exactly how the exposure and color balance you've set will render in your final image. The only way to get that with lesser, OVF camera is to take a "chimp frame" then make some corrections and then chimp again. And again. Eventually you'll get everything into the ball park and will be able to shoot in earnest but by then, chances are, everything will have changed and the play will have moved on to its next collage of colors and light settings and tone.

It sounds like a simple thing, right? But it's anything but. When I look through the viewfinder of an OVF camera I see what my eye sees. And my eye works with my brain to neutralize everything I look at. It makes magenta skin look normal and it makes green skin look normal. I can't see the range of colors that diverge from normal because the eye is only a good comparator, not a good stand alone color checker.  And when I look through an OVF the scene always looks perfectly exposed to me. The only two ways I can tell that it's not perfectly exposed for the camera's use is by either stopping to review images on the back screen or by watching the meter. But the stage is all about pools of terrific colored light and inky black shadows. Exactly what are we metering?

That's why I love the EVF on the a99. At a glance I can tell whether a scene is over exposed for the main subjet that I want to render.  The EVF shows me what colors I'm getting instead of me having to stop, push the review button and evaluate. And if the exposure or color does need changing I can watch those changes in real time as I push a button or turn a knob. I never need to stop and start and iteratively test each parameter. It's like looking at a Polaroid versus a video feed. The feed can be live/now/immediate. The review is past/moving target/gone.

If I enable DRO (Sony's in camera dynamic range expander) I can see the effect of DRO in the review of every shot that comes up automatically in the EVF. That means I don't have to remove the camera from my eye to evaluated a "proof." If I like what I see I tap the shutter button and the camera is ready to take the next shot.

Last night I hit the focus hold button in order to lock focus on a subject. When the camera went into MF mode the focus peaking feature automatically kicked in and the red (color I chose) surrounded the subjects that were in good focus. If a subject moved out of red zone I knew it was time to refocus.

An EVF means not having to upset the people behind you that are trying to watch the show. There are plenty of times we need to make control changes on the menu. With a non-EVF camera that means bringing on the 3 inch screen on the back of the camera and that means intruding into the darkspace of the show. The people around you now have an extra, peripheral stimulant to distract them from the action on the stage. Not so with an EVF. Hit the menu button with the camera held up to your eye and you can change menu settings or review images without spilling light out of the camera and creating visual stink for your seat neighbors. Truly a camera implementation with manners...

The same viewfinder qualities that make the Sony a superb theater camera also apply for all other EVF enabled cameras, such as the Olympus OMD EM-5, the Panasonic GH3 and even my little Canon SX40 IS.

But what makes the Sony perfect for me is the wonderful sensor inside the camera. It shoot well at higher ISOs, just like the Canon and the Nikon's do but it has one more trick up the sleeve that neither of the more primitive, traditional, conservative cameras have: It can do image stabilization with every lens you stick on the front of the machine because the IS is on the imaging chip.

Now my Rokinon 85mm 1.5 and my Rokinon 35mm 1.5 are both image stabilized and with focus peaking and in-finder focus magnification it makes the totally system the most accurate and fastest to use system for taking advantage of a giant selection of manual focus lenses. Pretty amazing.

Great Sensor, Much more useful and flexible finder, IS with all lenses, Great handling.  I'm trying to think of any downside to the big Sony flagship in regards to shooting live theater on the stage and I can only think of one thing that gets trotted out with regularity: Battery Life.

The big hit on the Sony is the idea that you'll only get about 400 exposures on a freshly charged battery. All depends on how you use the camera. Last night I shot 1198 images on one battery with 32% charge remaining at the end. Not so bad. Certainly good enough for me. But just in case I do keep an extra in my pocket...

I'm not saying the a99 is the best all around camera in the world, only the best live theater camera. Now, if I only had the 300mm 2.8G....

A very interesting mix of Live Theater, Still Photography and Video. How big is big?

Image from Zach Scott Production. 

Everything changes all the time. When I first started photographing for Zachary Scott Theater we used medium format cameras and black and white film. The reason? None of the local newspapers, magazines or tabloids ran stuff in color. Color film was slow and grainy and hard to use under mixed stage lights. But with quick reflexes and some darkroom work the medium format Tri-X film could produce nice prints for the media. Last night some of dress rehearsal documentation was done with two pint sized Sony Nex 7 cameras.

While the theater has used projectors for quite some time the show, Mad Beat Hip and Gone, is the first production we've done that uses screens of this size (over 30 by 30 feet) and so ubiquitously integrates video and still photographic imagery into the DNA of the play.  The image above shows the size of the screen in relation to the actors very well. 
 This image incorporates video on the background screen. 
Apparent sharpness in motion comes from persistence of vision.
Since we've "frozen" a video frame it appears 
less sharp that it  appears in the continuity of the video....

The incorporation of moving video, some in slow motion, as well as still images post processed to mimic the look of the time (1950's), added so much visual depth to an already well written play. 

We shot the still images and the video inserts with a Sony a99 Digital camera and a Sony 70-200mm 2.8G lens. The black and white effect was done, in camera, during the initial capture (no turning back!) and the lighting for the stills and videos was done with LED panels modified with a large, one stop silk over the main light.

As more directors take advantage of new technologies (getting the images this large with a short distance behind the screen required that we use two projectors and stitch the images across both machines...) we'll definitely see more and more uses of creative stills and video to add layers of complexity, meaning, texture and nuance to performances. It's becoming a hybrid world for us out there. We might as well just call ourselves, "Creative Content Providers."

Mad Beat Hip and Gone, now at Zach Scott Theater.


Oh the things you can do with those LED lights!!!! (Apologies to Dr. Suess).

Every day I read some expert on the web who tells the unwitting and incurious that LED lights aren't ready for prime time, can't be of interest to photographers as long as we can get our hands on some sort of flash mechanism, don't hold a candle to the brilliance of XXX other lighting  equipment. But I fundamentally disagree. If you want to do interesting things it helps to use interesting tools. And I find LEDs most interesting. 

The image of Erin, above, was done for Zach Scott Theatre's (world) premier of Steven Dietz's play, Mad, Hip, Beat and Gone. The lead tech and I decided on LED lighting for the session because we were shooting for both video and a stills and, well, flash doesn't work so well for video. We were shooting black and white and we're projecting the images up to 24 by 30 feet as part of the on stage production design. The look, feel and style of the images is just what the art folks wanted. And the two hours we spent working under the cool lighting of the LEDs was pleasant. Four lights, a couple modifiers.

Of course the web experts will tell you that you can't get good color out of LEDs but that's not true either. The above shot of the cook is lit with LEDs mixed with the lighting in the kitchen. If you look at the inexpensive florescent bulbs under the hood vent you'll see a classic green spike. But that was coming from the Flos, not the LEDs. I could have used flash but why? This is the image I was looking for and the blend of light sources is part of the magic. Need more color purity? Turn off the overheads and put more LEDs in to take their places. (color pumped up but not corrected in Snapseed).
From the very first day I used a decent, modern LED that plugged into the wall I've been sold on the what you see is what you get accuracy of the way the lights track. I like the way they can mix and blend with ambient lighting and I love the quick, no hassle set ups. When I go battery powered I love the fact that I can get good color, ample output and not have cords to trip over.

In fact, I liked LEDs so much I asked my publisher at Amherst Media if I could write a book about the subject. It's still the only book out in the market for photographers that is a dedicated introduction to LED lighting. If you are curious about the future of lighting I humbly suggest you read my book. At the very least you may come away comfortable with what you already have in your light kit but with some curiosity satisfied. 

I'm loving their use as Hybrid Lights. Crossing over between video and stills. Easily. 

Here's a link to the book at Amazon:  LED LOVE

Note: Don't want the book but want to support the VSL blog? Any link you click on here will take you to Amazon and, on that particular adventure, anything you buy counts. I'll get a small commission at no extra cost to you.  Thanks very much for the support!


I have been interviewed about photography (mostly business topics). It's a podcast.


Ibarionex Perello is a photographer, writer and interviewer. His latest book is: Photoshop Master Class: Photoshop Inspiring artwork and tutorials by established and emerging artists. He works in Los Angeles and he's really fun to talk to about photography.

He took time out of his busy schedule to interview me for his blog, the Candid Frame. (hit the link at the top of the page)...

I ramble on for quite a while but Ibarionex did a good job at reining me in...

Please go and listen to the interview, if you want to hear how different I sound from Ron Perelman....

Thanks Ibarionex.

(Not an April Fool's joke).

Now available at Amazon.com 

Canon and Sony both Announce Medium Format Cameras Today.

Photo of Dirk Van Allen for Live Oak Theater. Hot Lights. Spot Lights and
other tools of lighting controlled liberally used.

In almost simultaneous press releases both Sony and Canon announced today that they would be introducing large sensor, medium format cameras in the next quarter. The announcement caught the photographic press by surprise since neither company is known for making cameras larger than those based on the 35mm film size. Both companies held press events in Tokyo early this morning.

Canon spokesman, Fol Ja Nau, elaborated on the company's plans saying, "We were not content to play in the secondary photographic market behind Phase One and Hasselblad. With declining sales in the compact camera (point and shoot) markets we wanted to find a niche with fast and sustainable growth and very good profit margins." The company plans to roll out a fully integrated camera, based on their wildly popular EOS-M camera. The sensor will be a 2.25 cm by 2.25 cm CMOS variety with 60 megapixels of resolution. "We have chosen to put the bulk of design money and development resources into the sensor so the camera itself will be very cheaply made and, well, rather difficult to actually use."

Fol Ja Nau went on to say that the camera would have a "green" "recycled" aluminum alloy frame covered with a new polymer skin that, "would be nearly as durable as conventional plastic." While the camera will feature a 3 inch twisted syster LCD screen on the back research by Canon shows that the main market for the new camera will probably be satisfied to just hold the camera at arm's length to focus and compose on rear screen so no eye level viewing options are planned at this time.

An interesting aspect of the overall design is the vast number of engineering compromises made on the sensor chip itself. In order to maximize low noise at previously impossible to achieve ISO settings Canon engineers have reduced the overall dynamic range of the camera's sensor to four "f" stops. "This allows us to offer a product that seems in line with the expectations of a whole new generation of advanced image makers." Nau adds, "At ISO 650,000 the dynamic range drops to two and a half or three stops but detail holds up very well."

The new line of medium format cameras requires new lenses which can not be used on existing, smaller sensor cameras. To date, the company has been circumspect in sharing the new lens development roadmap but are said to have a fully plastic kit lens, with polycarbonate mount, that will cover the wildly popular 18 to 55mm range equivalent (when compared to APS-C cameras). The engineers at Canon are excited to announce that they have achieved a weight neutral lens by eschewing any material made of real glass or metal in the lens. They have also patented a process for filling each lens with helium gas which, when combined with the already negligible weight of the product actually renders it gravitationally neutral. The camera will have an f-stop range of 5.6 at wide angle dropping to f11 at the telephoto focal lengths.

Already several photographers have expressed an interest in looking at whatever Canon finally produces, while the product has already been reviewed (in depth) by both Ken Rockwell and Steve Huff. A well known, Atlanta based photographer and workshop leader, has already pronounced it to be the "ultimate camera" and the only one he will ever need for the rest of his life...

Meanwhile, Sony has taken an alternate route in producing their medium format offering (available mid-summer 2013). Working with various scientific adhesives they have bound together nine of the Nex-7 sensors and have devised a way to stitch high resolution images from the grid of sensors, capable of firing at 15 fps, to generate a 200 megapixel file. Says Buckeroo Rinzai, chief development engineer for mondo-big Sony products, "We had many of these sensors sitting around the office since consumers seem to dismiss both high resolution and high color purity, much preferring high ISO performance at any costs.

"We decided to kill two cranes with one origami project and used our advanced joining materials to create a "sensor collage" capable of amazing imaging potential. Using a bonding material known as Haute Glu bolstered with an anchoring material known in the trade as Du Uct Taape we are able to hold the prototype in any orientation without fear that one or more of the individual sensor apparati will dislodge and effect the overall quality of the image."

Rinzai acknowledges that Sony would not have been able to complete this project without outside expertise in the form of their partnership with Hasselblad.  While Canon seems to have chosen a very, very utilitarian approach to both design, materials quality and usability in order to optimize high ISO chip performance, SonyBlad has taken a different approach to the design of their camera.

In a rare meeting at the middle of the geographic design world they will depend on the aesthetic nuances of the Akron Industrial Design Skool for the haptics and appearance of their new medium format product. The emphasis will be on big rubber handles embedded in rare woods and accents done with the skin of Albatrosses. For an additional premium in cost customers can also have the bodies made from a blend of glowing comet materials and minced Hermes scarves.

Asked about lenses for the upcoming camera officials at Sony played their cards very close to the chest. Sources who have been briefed say that Sony will pursue a similar course to that which they instituted for the introduction of the Nex mirrorless camera line and introduce the camera without any lenses at all.  "It will give customers time to get comfortable with the ergonomics of the camera body without introducing the confusion that can come from adding lenses too soon!!!" Stated outgoing Sony president of the week, Bradford Munchton.

Hasselblad will make an adapter, cleverly manufactured with Platinum and ground unicorn horn, which will allow the use of all their current lenses on the new HassyOny camera, upon introduction.

Asked for comments officials at Olympus were tip lipped, saying only, "We will continue to make cameras that work really, really well and which customers enjoy using. We are also committed to increasing the ample suppy of different kinds of lenses available for our cameras."

Board members at Nikon declined to be interviewed for this article but a spokesperson for their imaging divisions in EMEA did conjecture that the team is too busy to look at the medium format market right now, saying, "We've got our damn hands busy trying to make the stuff we already sell work acceptably. I think Sony sold us sensors that are thicker on one side than the other. Our customers get to chose the side on which they would like sharp focus. We are always committed to customer choice...."  Pressed for further comments the spokesperson would only add, "Now, if we can just get the shutters to stop throwing sticky rust and decomposing mirror material on those damn Sony sensors we'll be good...really good."

The guys at Pentax were taking a long weekend and not available for comment.

Phase One officials were forthcoming and candid. "We've got a big head start on all these medium format newbies. Plus, we're sitting on an enormous pile of cash. Think Apple-Style cash! We've watched this kind of attempted market cross over before. We'll crush them and increase market share into the process. Our marketing analysis shows that the majority of photographers will be shooting medium format in the near future and that we will dominate that market. We are already taking proactive steps to blunt the momentum of our rivals. We've dropped the price of our new 35mm sensor-sized camera from $67,000 to $59,000 and we're sure its new streamlined size will sell like....hot cakes."

Happy April 1st.


My most useful commercial lens. The 70-200mm 2.8.

If you are a generalist, like me, you probably do a lots of different kinds of assignments. If you go back and look at the exif information embedded in your images you might find a surprising trend. You probably assume that you need a wide range of lenses and you might assume that you use your 24-70mm equivalent more than any other lens but the math might tell you that you were wrong. I presumed that I was a single focal length user. A 50mm or 85mm guy. I presumed the reason I liked my images (for commercial assignments) was that the focal lengths I used for work mimicked or corresponded with the different focal lengths I use for my personal work and fun.

But it's not true. The math tells me that the "money maker" lens for me is easily the 70-200mm 2.8. Maybe it's because I shoot a lot of speakers on stage for corporations that tips the scale in the direction of the heavy duty longer zoom. Maybe it's the work I do every month for Zach Scott Theatre which requires me to reach out and grab images from a prescribed distance. But it's more than that.

I seem to have a telephoto vision and it colors everything I shoot. From actors on pianos to cowboy boots. While the faster 70-200mm zooms are useful for low light shots a lot of what I shoot are objects or people that I am actively lighting and the fast aperture becomes less important than having this range of lenses at my disposal.

When I set up to photograph boots for Little's Boot Company in San Antonio, I started out by putting the Sigma 70mm f2.8 macro lens on my Sony a99. And why not? It's the sharpest lens I have in the drawer. It would seem perfect for a product shoot like this. But I liked the compression of the boots and the background more than I would have liked the ultimate expression of sharpness... And really, at f8 either of the lenses would probably give the camera sensor a good run for its money...  By shooting a little longer focal length I could get focus on the front and back boot but start rolling off the sharpness on the background and the part of the canvas background that extends in front of the boots. More magical. I could also keep the camera position the same but zoom in or out to equalize the size and composition of the boots in the frame. 

When we move on to food photography most people instantly make the assumption that macro lenses would be the logical tool but even here I like the ultimate framing flexibility of the 70-200mm. In the example just above we were flirting with as little depth of field as we felt we could get away with. I was working very near the long end of the lens, near 180mm and what I gained was not just a more limited depth of field but also the compression that I talked about in regards to the boots. It's an optical process of pulling shapes together and creating a more graphic shot.

The magic comes when you use some form of continuous lighting because it becomes easier to see what you'll get in the final image. With LEDs or Tungsten or Florescent you'll be able to nimbly switch from wide open to mid range to fully stopped down and immediately compensate exposure with changes in shutter speed. I find it a much more fluid way of working that using electronic flash which would require more chimping and more complex changes to the camera and the lights. (Take a shot and review. Turn the flash up or down. Take a shot and review. Turn the flash up or down, repeat...).

In every system I've owned, from the Canon to the Nikon to the Sony system the first purchase, along with two identical camera bodies, is the 70-200mm f2.8 lens. In the Canon system I used the 70-200 f4 because I liked the lighter weight and I felt that the lens was a bit sharper at f4 that its fatter sibling. Even for the time that I shot with the Olympus 4:3 system the 35-100 f2 was my go-to lens.

In all honesty a generalist photographer could make due with a very circumscribed system. Unless you choose to do a lot of architectural documentation you could do 99% of the work that pays the bills for most pros with just two lenses and one body. I'd yell at you to get a second body on the off chance that you experience a failure but I'm pretty sure about the two lenses. One would be the  lens everyone seems to have, the 24-70mm 2.8.  And, of course, the other one is the 70-200mm (your choice when it comes to f2.8 or f4).  If you are called on to sometimes take a few interior architectural shots you might want to add a 20mm lens to the list but it's not mandatory. 

All the wider lenses are artsy and dramatic but in the end very few paying clients really like to deal with the wild forced perspective of the amply wide lenses and most photographs I know who shoot commercial soon tire of the "spectacular focal lengths.

The idea that professional artists need to have every focal length covered is a mythology promulgated by the camera companies. And why not? It's there job to sell you as many different products as they can. Just as your CFO will tell you that it's your job to resist buying extra lenses that don't add to the bottom line.

In the course of two weeks almost every job I've shot, from portraits to food to stage craft to corporate events, revolved around my reliance on the 70-200mm (or equivalent) lens. There are always exceptions. Like the guy whose job consists of shooting the interiors of airplanes and recreational vehicles. He's probably got a collection of wide and superwide glass and rarely uses anything over 50mm.  Or the woman who shoots car racing, soccer and other field sports. Her lens sweet spot probably starts at 300mm and heads north from their. They are outliers. The rest of us fall nearer to the center of the Bell Curve. But that's just workaday photographers. If we change the discussion to art then all bets are off.

Why I like this image from Uchi.

This dish was photographed with a Kodak SLR/n full frame, no anti-aliasing filter camera using a Nikon 105mm macro lens. It was lit with several flashes and the light was modified in such a way as to make the scene appear to have been captured in soft daylight from a window.

I like the image because I think it is successful on two commercial levels. First, it was a very accurate representation of the dish presented to me by the chef for inclusion into a magazine article. Second, it was done quickly enough, without the hesitation usually delivered by teamwork, and because of the immediacy of the photography the food retained it's moisture and freshness.

I like that it forms a pyramid and that the greens are such a nice counterpoint to the red tones of the beef. The crumb to the far left of the frame gives the image a nice glance of imperfection and the fact that it is going out of focus gives the  image a sense of depth.

I am happy that I included the top rim of the plate so that the food doesn't exist in some sort of oblivion. The revelation of the edge of the dish against a darker background gives me a reference for size and gives me cues about the disposition of the food on the plate.

I mostly like the delicacy of the whole image. The precarious perching of all the parts gives a temporary and ephemeral nuance to the entire idea.

The uploading of the file to Blogger makes it a tiny bit darker than it really is. Think one third of a stop brighter, overall...

I also like the fact that I got paid to play with food and sample some of Tyson Cole's art.


Just revisiting a favorite image taken with a Sony a77.

Jill in Xanadu. Zach Scott Theatre.

Stage lighting only.

And a few more from the same show.

 all images photographed with the Sony a77 and the 70-200mm f2.8 G lens. 
All lighting from the stage lights.

Going Places. Planning the trip.

Everyone has an idea of what might constitute the "perfect trip" for them. That idea might change as we gain more experience and spend more time actually traveling. When I was in college the trip I wanted to take was the classic "backpack and Eurail through Europe trip. I spent a semester doing that with a girlfriend. Now, I don't think I'd have the same enthusiasm for carrying around a big back pack, camping out in freezing weather and making fried eggs on a Blue Gaz stove in an Alpine meadow as ice melts off the tent. I've traveled enough for corporations to be a bit spoiled.

While landscape photographers might want to go into unsullied nature to find the confluence of beautiful land and perfect light people interested in music would rather haunt the music clubs and concerts of big cities ready to document that once in a lifetime performance.

Right now, 2013, I have the idea that I really want to spend ten days discovering Tokyo. Not all of Japan---that's too big a bite to chew off---really, just Tokyo. I have several friends who lived and worked in Japan and they are quick to tell me how misguided I am. That I should consider Kyoto for the gardens and the temples, etc. But that's the trip for them, not for me.

I have a lust to be in a big city, filled with people and buzzing with energy 24 hours a day. My own Lost in Translation tour. So I've been building momentum. Gearing myself up to get geared up. Planning to start planning.

I know I want to go alone. So I'm planning to go in the middle of the Fall. Ben and Belinda will have settled into the routine of work and school. Neither would really have the option of taking that much time off for an adventure that really revolved solely around me wandering the streets taking images and video of things I find quirky, exciting, whimsical, funny and abstractly definitively Japanese. Nor do I want to take time for planned lunches and formal dinners. I'm not interested in building team consensus in the morning or making a visit to a must see site just because it's in someone's guidebook. I'll go alone and then, when it's everyone else's turn I'll stay home and hang with the dog while they do their thing.

I know I'll want to use some of the massive airline miles I've accrued over the last ten years and never used. I'll investigate the best way to leverage those points from affinity programs to pay for airfare and upgrades. I've pegged the first week and a half of October as a slow season so I'm looking around to see when the black out dates are and how I can get around them if I want to get specific with my arrangements.

I need to figure out where I'll make base camp  and find a hotel that works. My biggest concerns for lodging are quiet and a place to charge batteries.

Then I need to start writing proposals to companies who might think that co-sponsoring part of the trip in exchange for a series of articles written about my experiences in their factories or engineering facilities are worth some sort of traded value. I'll start with Sony and go from there.

When I get closer to the date I'll start packing. I'll want to take two identical cameras. One reason is to have an identical back up that works exactly the same and takes the same lenses, batteries and attachments as the primary camera. Second is to have two cameras that can be set the same and use interchangeably while walking and shooting so I can use two different lenses without having to stop and change them out on a single body.

If I were packing to go tomorrow I'd take two Sony Nex-7's, two of the 18-55mm kit lenses and the 50mm 1.8 OSS lens. All of the lenses have IS and I like both choices. For me, convenience and general competence outweigh performance at the zenith of possibility. The above cameras, two chargers with six batteries and ten 16 gigabyte SD cards is an awesome imaging system for traveling and it all fits in a small and inconspicuous bag. No flash and no tripod. I've been down both of those roads before and come to the conclusion that it's not possible to be prepared for every and any eventuality. It's better to plan for an optimum part of the curve and work there.

The real gear is a good pair of comfortable walking shoes and a good attitude. That and a jumbo helping of curiosity.

I've traveled with cameras for the better part of 25 years now and I've done it every which way. I took 25 pounds of medium format Hasselblad gear with me on assignment to St. Petersburg, Russia, along with nearly 100 pounds of lighting. That was a logistical (but at the time, necessary) nightmare.

One time I went to Rome with just the right kit and I wrote in my journal about it. I said I would only want to bring a fast, auto focus camera body and a medium range, fast zoom. At the time I was thinking 28-85mm f3.5 or f4. Now, with nice ISO at 800 or so I would revise that to be a medium range zoom that ends up at f5.6 on the long end. As long as it's reasonably sharp.

If the past is a guide to this trip then it will go something like this: Arrive and sleep.  Get up every day as early as possible and walk the streets in targeted areas just absorbing the sights and shooting the things that interest me. Ten to fifteen miles a day. A card of images a day.  Every night, after supper, I'll sit in my room and write about the day in my journal. What I saw. What I ate. What I heard. What I bought. And so on.

The secret to making it all work in my head is to have a goal in mind before I step on  the plane to go. I can already envision a show of images at several of my favorite galleries. Right now I'm thinking black and white but that may be because it's the way I worked on my most successful trips in the past. And I like the way black and white prints work on the walls.

The new wrinkle will be a conscious integration of video. Snippets tied together with the intention of digging down into some interesting aspect of the trip. I'm not sure what that will be yet but it will come to me before departure.

Why am I sharing this? Because writing out loud is a good way of making it real and gaining the momentum to follow through.  But I'm also keenly interested to hear from you in the comments or offline if you've traveled to Tokyo recently, or live there now. What would you see? Where would you go? What are the new social trends? Where would you base camp? And, if you shoot or have shot in the streets there, what cameras and lenses did you find to be workable or optimal?

My long term goal is to make several trips there and to really see the city before things change again. I want to share my interpretation of the experience with my friends and a wider audience.

Final (vital) question: Can you get good coffee without too much fuss in Tokyo?



"Mad Men" window dressing in Boston.

Since most of us who write and read the VSL blog are guys I won't expect us to know about the Betty Page shop in Boston, on Newberry Street. But it was right around the corner from my hotel and when I got in to town in the early evening I took a stroll just work out the flight kinks. There was this window and in it were mannequins that looked incredibly cool. Perfect models from the 1960's. They weren't going anywhere and they weren't charging SAG/AFTRA rates so I decided to spent a minute or so making their portraits. The "models" were very cooperative but they really didn't have much range when it came to gesture and expression....

I loved this profile of the red head. I shot it with the Sony Nex 7 and the 50mm 1.8 lens at near wide open and handheld. When I got back to Austin and started looking through my files I was happy to see just how controlled the noise was and how sharp the lens is, even when shot nearly wide open. I've included a shot that's around a 1:1 crop just so you can see what to expect from the system. I'm very happy with the overall performance; especially for the size and price.

The final shot, the group shot, was photographed on a different evening using the 
Sigma 19mm 2.8. I consider it a "must get" lens for any of the mirrorless systems.