Travel Broadens the mind?

Kirk with toys. Photo: Amy Smith

Travel. I love arriving but I hate the process. Travel is different than a journey. A journey carries with it the idea of adventure, an open ended itinerary and leisure. Business travel means long lines, tight deadlines and cramped seating.

I am heading to Denver, CO. this afternoon and I will be there until late Sunday. While there I'll be working, diligently, on educational programming having to do with photography. We'll see how I do on the other side of the camera...or more precisely, the video cameras...

I am not taking a laptop but I am taking my iPad. I'll check e-mail and do basic stuff but I have no intention of trying to write blogs or otherwise keep up with the Visual Science Lab until I return. I think my producers have me booked far too tightly for that. If possible I'll jump in and moderate comments each day. 

I'm reticent to talk about the project I'm working on until it launches but I think it has lots of potential and I feel lucky to be involved at the level I am.

I hope everyone has maximum fun during my hiatus. There are nearly 1500 blog posts to wade through if you are new to the site. Some are fun.

Thank you for reading what I write here every day and thanks for you patience when we make (hopefully temporary) changes to sand off the rough edges of the human interface. 

One more note: I'm playing with the idea of doing a "hang out" on Google+ just to meet VSL readers and talk about photography. If you are interested please start adding me and each other to your circles so we can invite each other. Also, if you are a daily reader please consider becoming a "follower" of the blog. It's nice to see that number grow. We're at 1193 right now. My rather symmetrical mental construction pines to see an even number. Maybe 1200. Or, fancifully, 2,000.
Speaking of metrics VSL is averaging 20,000+ pageviews a day.  On particularly contentious days we peak up near 35,000 pageviews. When I write reviews of micro four thirds gear it spikes even higher. 

My friend, Frank, got his EP-5 with VF-4 finder last week and has generously offered to loan it to me for evaluation on my return. Here's my first blush with the camera: Oh My God! The shutter sounds incredible. Really incredible. (as in: I'd buy it just for the shutter). The body feels much better than the OMD EM-5 and the finder rivals the EVF in my big Sony. I'm already falling for it...stay tuned.


Walking and shooting as a form of meditation.

Not "what's my favorite lens????" But: "Which lens consistently brings home the bacon???"

Tiffany Mann in "One Night With Janis."
(click on the image to englarge).

I'm so guilty of loving on esoteric lenses like fast 85's and quirky high speed 50's. The more specialized the lens the more I seem drawn to it and to carry it around with the expectation that I'll find cool stuff to use it on. In the film days I went crazy with lenses in different systems. I owned the 80mm 1.4 Summilux for the Leica R cameras and the 85mm 1:1.2 Canon L lens for the original EOS-1 camera. I even carried around the hulking and flawed 50mm 1.0 Canon L lens until my back started to hurt and my schedule fell behind while waiting for the behemoth to focus. And while I'd love to say that all my favorite work consistently came from these lenses the truth is that there's always some sort of time, access, weight or depth of field compromise that drives me back to more sane camera lenses.

I have a Rokinon 85mm 1.5 lens and it's a focal length I really like. It's fast too. But when I'm setting up to do a portrait in the studio it's not always the lens I reach for. I've had several Zeiss 85mm 1.4 lenses (all manual focus) but I don't think of them first either. Even though I have the best of intentions when I buy the bling glass I always seem to default to one of two more pedestrian lenses with which to make money and make day to day photographs.

My can't live without lens is the venerable 70-200mm f2.8. Every system has one (or in m4:3rds, an equivalent) and for the most part they are universally good. There are certainly single focal length lenses that cover various parts of the 70-200mm's focal lengths and are considered to be wonderful lenses but, on the whole, the 70-200mm 2.8's (and the Canon f4's) are the lenses that do most of the heavy lifting around here. 

If you pitch your tent in the Sony camp you'll probably end up with the Sony 70-200mm 2.8 G lens. The "G" is their version of Canon's "L" lens. It means that it's made to a high standard and offers really good performance. I bought mine a couple of years ago when I bought the first two Sony Alpha cameras, the A77's. But the lens really came into its own for me when I bought a couple of the full frame Sony bodies. At first I had some focus issues with the a99 but I did a very thorough micro adjust and now it's just amazing. 

I was motivated to write about the premium, long zooms when I edited my "Janis" take yesterday morning. The image above jumped out at me for two or three reasons.  First of all it was taken as a "fine" jpeg, not a raw file, and that's the standard sharpening out of the camera. Considering that the lens was handheld and nearly wide open (f3.5?) I'm impressed by the sharpness and detail. Next up, the file was shot at 3200 ISO with no noise reduction beyond whatever is applied by the camera. And what is applied by the camera doesn't seem to have smudged the fine details. Next, given that the file was shot a 3200 ISO I find the color saturation to be very good as well. Finally, the out of focus areas in the background are very nicely soft and happy which is nice for lens that is pretty much all about making non-essential stuff go out of focus.

When I look over the mountains of metadata I have from files since the dawn of digital time I am always surprised (but shouldn't be...) that the images that consistently sell my photographic services have come from Nikon, Canon, and Sony's 70-200mm 2.8 brotherhood. It's a combination of convenience, relatively high performance and focal length flexibility all in one package. 

I did mention that there are two lenses I turn to these days. The other lens is the Sony 85mm 2.8. Not a glamorous lens at all. At less than $300 brand new, it's hardly a status buy. And with it's small, unimpressive front element and obvious plastic construction it won't turn any photographer heads. But...it's performance is very, very good; even wide open. And it is feather light. It's the lens that goes on the camera after the job is done and I want to walk around shooting for myself. 

It's my newest esoteric lens. And it is one I use all the time. I'd like to think that new (to me) Sigma 50mm 1.4 is the lens I'll be using the most but I know it will always to the 70-200mm. It's just too close to perfectly structured to ignore.

Curious to hear which lenses are your "money makers." And I mean that metaphorically so I'm not just looking for other mercenary professionals....


Having Retro Fun In Austin. Janis Dress Rehearsal.

Kacee Clanton plays Janis.

If you like the music of Janis Joplin and you dug the whole popular music scene in the late 1960's and early 1970's I think you'll really trip out on the new Janis show that's opening at Zach Theatre this week. The stage set is vintage cool and the music is really great. It will make older Austinites reminisce about the days of yore when Janis Joplin played clubs like the Vulcan Gas Company and Threadgills. Back when gas was a quarter a gallon and rent was almost free. Back in the days before condos and parking meters. Back when a great meal in Austin was the chicken fried steak at the Stallion on Lamar. But enough digression...

My client, Zach Theatre, kindly moved up my dress rehearsal shoot to last night. We usually shoot on Tues. and post process on Weds. morning but I leave town for a project on Weds. and I didn't want to cut things too closely. The show is well set. The costumes were done and the stage design complete. The part of Janis is sung and played by Kacee Clanton. The part of "The Blues Singer" is sung and played by Tiffany Mann. They both have more energy on stage than you can imagine.

I brought along two cameras and two lenses. The cameras were the Sony a99 and the Sony a850. I used the Tamron 28-75mm 2.8 for my wide shots and medium stage shots and the venerable 70-200mm 2.8 G lens for the tighter shots. I set the a850 at ISO 1250 and the a99 at ISO 3200 and I was happy with the noise performance of both cameras when shot this way. I recently re-calibrated the AF on the long zoom (with the a99)  and I am now officially impressed by the sharpness of that lens, even when used wide open.

There were only two challenges in shooting this rock and roll music production and those were the same challenges that people who shoot bands face. First of all the lighting is constantly changing, both in intensity and color. For manual exposure shooters (all that black in the background tends to throw off even the best in camera meters) that means paying careful attention to shutter speeds and f stops. While the EVF in the a99 makes it all a bit easier I did have to do some quick chimping to stay in the groove with the a850. The second challenge is the constant movement of the actors when they perform. They just flat out rock.  Janis was constantly moving and when shooting at f2.8 at the long end of a long lens you find that you've got very narrow depth of field, and that you pretty much have to nail focus for the shots to work. I used the focus hold buttons around the end of the long zoom almost constantly to quickly lock in focus.

The evening was very successful and the Theater will have images a bit earlier than usual. The show is fabulous and once again I am very happy with the results I got from my cameras. Any deficiency in the images is down to me.

The entire event was quite groovy. I'm looking forward to sitting in the audience, unencumbered with cameras, when I get back into town.

Co-Star, Tiffany Mann, as "The Blues Singer"

Co-Star, Tiffany Mann, as "The Blues Singer"

Co-Star, Tiffany Mann, as "The Blues Singer"

Sad Monday Post.

The blog has been under assault by one disgruntled reader who hates post processing, doesn't understand photographic art, thinks of himself as an expert critic and has way, way too much time on his hands. Rather than spend my mornings being trashed by a totally anonymous commenter and then having to go post by post and excise his nonsense I've decided that I'll have to start having the comments moderated.

What does this mean for all my nice, happy, well adjusted readers? It means you'll have to sign in to comment and you'll have to do the little word verification thingy. It's a pain in the ass but so is the anonymous commenter. I'm sorry that there's not another way to handle this but I don't have the time or inclination to become a filter for someone's else's venal incompetence.

As always, thanks to the thousands of nice, civilized and well informed readers of the Visual Science Lab. We'll try unfettered comments again in a couple of weeks.


The Sony Nex 7's go out for a July 4th Walk.

New Tree at Zilker Park. Austin, Texas
Sony Nex 7 with Sony 50mm 1.8

 Barton Springs Pool.  Austin, Texas
Sony Nex 7 with Sony 50mm 1.8

The Barton Springs Pool Spillway. 
Sony Nex 7 with Sony 50mm 1.8

The Barton Springs Pool Spillway. 
Sony Nex 7 with Sony 50mm 1.8

The Barton Springs Pool Spillway. 
Sony Nex 7 with Sony 50mm 1.8

The Barton Springs Pool Spillway. 
Sony Nex 7 with Sigma 30mm 2.8

Whole Foods Watermelons. Austin, Texas
Sony Nex 7 with Sigma 30mm 2.8

A Lobby Bar at the W Hotel. Austin, Texas
Sony Nex 7 with Sigma 30mm 2.8

An Olympus Photographer at Caffe Medici. Austin, Texas
Sony Nex 7 with Sigma 30mm 2.8

Austin Park Rangers Cut Down a Rope Swing on Independence Day.
Sony Nex 7 with Sigma 30mm 2.8

"Take the steps up to the utility pole and then....."
Sony Nex 7 with Sigma 30mm 2.8

Zilker Park. Across from Downtown Austin, Texas.
The modern accompaniment to any mass gathering...really bad food served by carnies.
Sony Nex 7 with Sigma 19mm 2.8

Zilker Park. Across from Downtown Austin, Texas.
The modern accompaniment to any mass gathering...really bad food served by carnies.
Sony Nex 7 with Sigma 19mm 2.8
Faux Texana as imagined by new people from out of town....

Zilker Park. Across from Downtown Austin, Texas.
The modern accompaniment to any mass gathering...really bad food served by carnies.
Sony Nex 7 with Sigma 19mm 2.8

Zilker Park. Across from Downtown Austin, Texas.
The modern accompaniment to any mass gathering...really bad food served by carnies.
Sony Nex 7 with Sigma 19mm 2.8

Downtown Austin as seen from the manmade hill on the south side of the river.
Sony Nex 7 with Sigma 19mm 2.8

Fourth of July is a dog holiday.
Sony Nex 7 and 50mm 1.8

Earlier in the week I thought about selling off my Nex 7's and my Nex 6 and all the lenses. I had my head down in projects that required stills and videos for most of June and the Sony a99 is such a naturally good camera for that kind of work. I've come to like the Rokinon lenses (fast 35 and 85mms) very much and it's very useful to have both a headphone jack and control over audio levels for external microphones right on the camera. In my quest to simplify I was trying to minimize my inventory, figuring that I'd use less brainpower switching between multiple menu systems and keeping all the lenses straight.

Almost as a test of my practicality versus my well documented and somewhat irrational equipment nostalgia I packed a small camera bag with two of the Nex 7 bodies and three lenses. The lenses consisted of the two, cheap Sigma lenses (the 30mm and 19mm) as well as the tried and true, 50mm 1.8 OSS. One stabilized and the twins just hanging out there on the end of the camera, going traditional.

As I walked around and shot I remembered that these have to be among the most fun cameras I've ever shot. They are ultimately stealthy and unprovocative and they weigh next to nothing. The controls, once mastered, are fluid and extremely logical (referring to the tri-navi set up) and once I'd been through the menus a few hundred times I made my peace with them as well.

My intention was to take a medium distance walk because our masters swim team ground through an intense workout from 7:30 am till 9:00 am covering around 5,000 yards (for those who keep track in a different way that's around 200 fast 25 yard lengths strung together...). For the masters swimmers among you here's what our main set (after warm-up) looked like:

800 swim freestyle = hard pace
4x100 swim freestyle (descend by 100's on a fast interval, my lane tries to hold 1:40)
600 swim freestyle = hard pace
6x100 swim freestyle (descend and shorten intervals by 5 seconds)
400 swim freestyle = pick up pace
8x100 swim freestyle (hold above freestyle pace...)
200 swim fast
2x100 swim with shortest interval (basically touch and go). Sprint the last 100.

When we left the pool most of us were well hammered. Sore and exhausted.

So I waited a bit and drank a bunch of water and headed out for my walk around one in the afternoon. I parked at the club pool with the intention of walking to Zilker Park and back which is less than three miles, roundtrip. But I became so beguiled by the great feel of the Nex 7's in my hands that I photographed at the Springs and then kept going. Over to Whole Foods (where I paused to taste a nice Cabernet Sauvignon) and then off to Congress Ave. to grab a cappuccino at Caffe Medici and then over to IH 35. Usually I return via the same path but this being a holiday I decided to amble across the river and come through the south side of the park instead. At some point the heat started to get to me and I stopped into a restaurant to get a very large iced tea to go. That sustained me on my journey back through the park and up the gruesome series of hills to the club pool in Rollingwood. When I got back to my car around 6:15 pm I estimated that I had walked about eight miles and shot about 450 frames.

The Nex 7's performed very well and I've renounced any intention of moving them along. If anything I'll flesh out the selection of lenses a bit and try to press the system into service more often. If I can operate them with ease after a brutal workout and a tromp in 100 degree heat for an afternoon just think what I might be able to do with them in rare moments of pure rationality...

I loved the image quality I got in Jpeg. The recent improvements in firmware make this camera a moving target for evaluation. It just gets better and better.

Images from the Sigma 50mm 1.4 lens on the Sony Alpha 850.

Spring Condominium.

I like to photograph the Spring Condo building. My friends, Perry Lorenz and Robert Barnstone, developed the property and I like the way it works from many angles in the Austin skyline. I also like this view from the corner of 5th St. and Lamar Blvd. because of the bizarre maze of power cables and telephone lines that run through the intersection. Mostly though I like the building as a foil for the clouds...

You may remember from yesterday's post that I picked up a new copy of the Sigma 50mm 1.4 lens. I did it because the lens is currently being rebated (verb invention) and the price of $399 seems just right for a good, fast 50mm. If it delivers. After I picked up the lens at Precision Camera I headed downtown to pick up a couple bottles of wine and some razor blades at Whole Foods Market. Razor blades at Whole Foods Market? I wanted to experience organic shaving at least once in my life...

I shot a couple images of the Spring building and later I did some pixel peeping to see how the lens was at near infinity, f5.6. I think it's pretty nice but I've also attached an enlarged section to show how it handles detail. So far I'm happy. Now I'm waiting for some low light opportunities to shoot some available light portraits at the more adventurous apertures. I'll probably have some opportunities at a dress rehearsal at the theatre tonight around 8:30. I'm documenting the performance of a new Janis Joplin production. Of course, most of the capture glory will end up going to the 70-200mm but that's just because of its reach.

Section from Spring shot above.

This final shot is a display on the walk outside Whole Foods. I like the way they do their folksy, handmade-esque signage. It's so well done you'd almost believe that they had someone back in produce paint the sign by hand, out on the loading dock. Too bad I didn't bring an on camera flash, I could have nuked the hell out of those shadows and really opened them up. (sarcasm alert).

I'm happy I got the new lens. It's big and stout. So far it's proven to be very sharp and well behaved. I'll post more when I've had a chance to use it closer to the extremes. The 50mm 1.4 Sigma is also available in Canon and Nikon mounts. With the Sony cameras it can take advantage of the in body image stabilization. But sometimes I turn it off, drink three espressos and see what I can get away with......

Testing the limits of overexposed RAW Sony files. Unintentionally.

 Accidentally overexposed by about a stop and a half in the camera.

Two stops of "pull" in Aperture.

I'm always curious to see how various cameras handle over and underexposure. In digital we probably fear overexposure more because when there's no detail there's nothing left to recover in post production. I don't do tests where I intentionally screw up files. I screw up enough on my own. So when I came across this file instead of trashing it I saved it in my "bloopers" folder and just today decided to take a look at what could be done to save it. Well, I moved the exposure slider to the left. And there you go.

File taken with a Sony Alpha 850 camera and the cute, little Sony 85mm 2.8 lens. Very nice lens, and dirt cheap. I know the file wasn't totally blown but a couple of generations ago I wouldn't have even considered the file to be salvageable but now I guess I'll look at anything that doesn't appear pure white on the screen.