10.28.2013

The graying of traditional photography and why everything is getting re-invented in a form we don't understand.

Gloria. Cropped image from Samsung Galaxy NX camera. 60mm macro lens.

On the last day of the PhotoPlus Expo I finally got why the camera industry has hit the wall and may never come back again in the same way. The folks who love cameras for the sake of cameras, and all the nostalgic feelings they evoke of Life Magazine, National Geographic, 1980's fashion, and 1990's celebrity portraiture, and other iconic showcases that made us sit up and really look at photography, are graying, getting old, and steadily shrinking in numbers.

I can profile the average camera buyer in the U.S. right now without looking at the numbers. The people driving the market are predominately over 50 years old and at least 90% of them are men. We're the ones who are driving the romantic re-entanglement with faux rangefinder styles. We're the ones at whom the retro design of the OMD series camera are aimed. We're the ones who remember when battleship Nikons and Canons were actually needed to get great shots and we're the ones who believe in the primacy of the still image as a wonderful means of communication and even art. But we're a small part of the consumer economy now and we're walking one path while the generations that are coming behind us are walking another path. And it's one we're willfully trying not to understand because we never want to admit that what we thought of as the "golden age of photography" is coming to an end as surely as the kingdom of Middle Earth fades away in the last book of the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

This is not to say that photography is dying. Or that the generations coming behind us are doomed to failure and despair; far from it. They are living the golden age of photography from their perspective, and their heroes in the field are names we don't even know. This is a generation that values a personal vision that arrives as quickly as a phone call and has a much shorter half life than the one we experienced for our work, but then again, what doesn't move faster these days?

As I photographed in the booth for Samsung I looked out at the waves of people who were exploring the various products on the showroom floor and I became aware that most of them were well over 50 years old and the elders were carrying their big Nikons and Canons as badges of honor and with a smug attitude that their equipment choice was the one that would persevere through the ages.

But the very thing that makes a ruling party or a ruling generation is the same thing that will kill its paradigm. Our version of the market is almost a completely closed loop. At this Expo we worshipped at the altar of the same basic roster of speakers and presenters who've been speaking and presenting for the last ten years. We've closed the loop and the choice offered to younger photographers is to sit and listen to people old enough to be their grandmothers or grandfathers wax on about how we used to do it in the old days or to not come at all.

Sony swings for the fences and ends up a little short. The hands on mini-evaluation of the new A7's.


Gloria. One light. Samsung Galaxy NX camera. 60mm Macro.

Man, those product shots that show up on the web from Sony always look so great. When I saw the first salvo of PR photos of the A7 and the A7r my drool response was nearly simultaneous. And if they'd been in stock at the time I would probably be $2200 poorer right now. But it didn't turn out that way and chances are it probably won't turn out that way although Sony will still make a sale if the RX 10 is as good in person as the specs lead me to believe it might be.

On my way to the PhotoPlus Expo I found myself musing about heading straight to the big Sony display and getting my hands on one of the cameras. I thought for sure I'd be fondling my future path in the Sony system. But instead of walking away in love I walked away wondering about the idea of manufacturing en charrett. En charrett is a phrase made up by 19th century French architecture students who would work on projects while being pushed on a cart to the place where the designs would be judged. They would work on their projects right up to the deadline (and one imagines that there was always a lot left undone before the bell rang.....).

The Sony booth had a square table in the middle and A7 variants tethered to the top on all four sides. Here you could fondle both of the models to your heart's desire. So, I pick up the A7r, set the diopter for my eyesight and click the shutter. And in that moment it was like finding out that your beautiful date is also convinced she's been abducted by aliens and that the entire world is less than five thousand years old. The loud, high pitched click of the shutter was stunning. Absolutely stunning. At least I was stunned.

Here you have a camera with no flapping mirror and it generates more disagreeable decibels than a moving mirrored Pentax K5-2 and at a more hysterical pitch. Ahhh. I thought to myself. I just need to enable the electronic first shutter and all will be well. Then the second of many shoes dropped. The denser sensor of the A7r (the high res version) doesn't support quiet.  I mean electronic first curtain shutter. Oh well. I thought, and I moved on to the regular A7 and looked for the EFC in the menu. Even after I enabled that setting the shutter was still irresponsibly loud. And that's when I  started making a more critical survey of the entire package.

The camera is just about the right size for my hands but it is less well finished than the a99's I'm used to using. The design of the exterior just feels more primitive as though it came from a more primitive facility, from an earlier time. The squared off prism is an acquired taste I suppose, but it's one I'm having trouble acquiring... Then I moved on to the AF speed which will be of more interest to other than to me. It's not as fast as the a99. While the really good contrast detection AF systems are pretty darn good they aren't up to fast action. While the a99 is not stellar in this regard it is quite a bit better than the A7r I handled and modestly but obviously better than the AF in the A7 (which is supposed to incorporate PD-AF elements on its sensor.

Finally, even though the body is sized to fit into one's hands in a nice way (and especially with a small prime lens mounted on the front) the new, smaller size means the camera is a considerable handling mis-match for lenses made for the original Sony FF cameras. The large Zeiss zooms and the big 70-200mm G lens are totally out of step with the more compact body size. In fact, if you are using legacy glass from Sony along with one of the adapters your shooting profile (where the lenses are concerned) is bulkier than with the larger a99 body. And that just doesn't make sense.

While the body is smaller than the a99 once the lenses and adapters are mounted the difference between body sizes is trivial in the overall profile. So, in fact, nothing is gained except for the ability to use a wide range of older lenses with appropriate adapters.


The A7 with the 35mm f2.8 prime is a nice sized package.  But the camera itself just doesn't shake the feeling that it's still a work in progress. At some point they will have 8 or 10 good, dedicated lenses and the system will probably come together. I get what the guys at Sony are trying to do but I'm not sure they tossed it into the market in the exactly the right way. Don't get me wrong, I'm sure it will sell and sell well. After all, it's a full frame camera with a great sensor at a very reasonable price. If most of my use for the camera were in the studio I'd commit to the 36 meg version and get an adapter right now. The noise wouldn't keep me up nights. But......


There's one more thing that irks me on this camera and on the Samsung Galaxy NX camera (which is in the same price range) and that's the fact that the menus include an "Airplane Mode" to turn off the connectivity features. That connotes to me that otherwise the camera is on and trying to connect all the time. I think cameras should only connect then I ask them to. But I am part of the graying of photography and my disconnection always hits right around the spot where someone tries to tell me how advantageous it is to stay connected all the time. Screw that. Sometimes I want to be in charge.

If only Sony had gotten the shutter right.....I could live with just about everything else. 


in other news: Belinda and I finished working on, The Lisbon Portfolio. The photo/action novel I started back in 2002. I humbly think it is the perfect Summer vacation read. And the perfect, "oh crap, I have to fly across the country" read. It's in a Kindle version right now at Amazon. The Lisbon Portfolio. Action. Adventure. Photography.  See how our hero, Henry White, blows up a Range Rover with a Leica rangefinder.....


Remember, you can download the free Kindle Reader app for just about any table or OS out there....

Which cameras have caught my interest right now.

This is Naomi. I photographed her while surrounded by lots and lots of people holding Nikon promotional bags. I used one little Photogenic strobe ensconced is a small strip light, aimed at a big, white diffuser. It was done with the Samsung Galaxy NX camera and the 60mm macro lens. 

As you know if you read the blog I spent three days in NYC at the PhotoPlus Expo. Part of the time I was working; showing off the new Samsung camera and playing around with light. The rest of the time I was walking around the exhibit space trying out new stuff and exploring the what's new aspect of the show. I saw lots of the same old things but I also saw some fun new inventions and got to handle some recently launched cameras....some of which made me smile in a good way.

Let's start with the interesting stuff. I think Nikon finally launched a product that's hard not to like. It's their new little underwater system camera, the AW1. It's waterproof, freeze proof (down to 14f) and shock proof. It's part of the Nikon 1 system so you've got a very good 14+ megapixel, one inch chip and the system includes two waterproof lenses. It's about time someone created a replacement for the Nikonos! The camera will use all the Nikon 1 series lenses (but is only waterproof with the two specialty lenses. It generally comes bundled with the all purpose zoom lens. I'll buy one for the times I want to get in the pool and photograph or videotape (1080p) from underwater. I handled the camera and found it to be nice and solid. I kinda like the silver finish because it will be easier to find at the bottom of a camera bag.  Good for Nikon for a well thought out specialty product. One that many of us need and at a price most will be able to afford. To find out more or order yours click this link.


 I just want to give Nikon another thumbs up for their fun 
display of the AW1 camera. They basically built a terrarium 
and partially submerged the camera and lens in water. Nice. 
And the display was well crafted.

The next camera that caught my attention was one that's been out since last Spring and it's one that I had overlooked entirely. It's the Panasonic G6. It's a smaller. lighter, cheaper version of the Panasonic GH3. I recently had occasion to see some really wonderful video from the GH3 and immediately rushed over to Precision Camera and bought one, along with the standard zoom and a perennial fave of mine, the Leica 25mm f1.4.  My intention is to make the Panasonic system my primary video system. While the Sony a99 has much to commend it for video the Panasonic files just flat out look better. They are more detailed, sharper and have a less "compressed" feel about them. 

I walked over to the Panasonic booth just to see what they had in lenses when I came across the G6. It's beautifully designed and breaks with the new enthusiasm for making everything look like a rangefinder camera from the 1950's. I understand that the image quality of the G6 is no better than its predecessor, the G5 but I like the implementation of focus peaking which comes in very handy for use with legacy lenses and I love the body style. The final tipper for me was the beautifully done EVF. A really well done one for a camera that's currently selling for about $638 with the (well regarded, new version) kit lens. I'll take one. If the color in video is a good match with the GH3 I'll use it as a "B-roll" camera on smaller, guerrilla style video projects. But of course this now puts me right back into the lens buying situation that I've largely avoided by sticking with the Sony SLT system for such a long (relative to my previous buying patterns) time.

By the way, while everyone in the film world keeps getting elated and then burned by Black Magic 4K video camera announcements and then endless delays, there's a solid rumor that Panasonic will be introducing a 4k version of the GH3. People are tentatively calling it a GH4. If the rumors pan out then it may be a camera that will drive sales for Panasonic in both the video and the still markets to a much greater degree. Especially if they keep the pricing relatively the same.

I was also impressed with the direction Panasonic took in doing their booth at this year's show. They set up an interview setting and did multiple camera interviews with GH3's on big, fluid head tripods. There was a console set up with multiple monitors and an editor/switcher. They were making the point (well) that they really get the whole hybrid: video+still market that's quickly growing into the next hot thing in imaging. Well done. Now if only the representative who came over to answer my questions had been up on his product knowledge....the first thing I asked about the G6 was about the ability to use a external microphone. He claimed that the G6 didn't have that capability. Further exploration revealed the port on the front, under a flap. Even further inspection revealed complete manual control of audio levels and level meters on screen. Send that sales guy back to market presentation school....

So yes, I am currently buying up some additional Panasonic stuff but I know that when I talk about video it bores the bejeezus out of a lot of people here so I'll just leave it at that....

Moving on to the next pretty, shiny object I played with.....The Fuji Xe-2. It looks killer in black. The EVF is great and it's still being bundled (as was the Xe-1) with the really terrific 18-55mm f2.8 to f4.0 zoom lens instead of the cheaper 3.5-5.6. The camera felt really nice and made me wonder for the hundredth time why anyone would buy a x100s when they could have a camera with equally good sensor performance that also allow the use of different lenses. Sure, I would have fun with a x100s but I'd spend nearly every day bemoaning the fact that the focal length bolted permanently on the front of the camera is not at least a 50mm equivalent... The smaller cameras without EVFs from Fuji make no sense to me but then I'm not in the demographic for them so I've given up trying to figure out the rationalization. All the Fuji stuff looked really nice but that Xe-2 is the one that hits the sweet spot for me. Will I get one? Naw. I'm fooling around with some of the m4:3 stuff again and having fun.

While I was attending the show I also had occasion to have a nice dinner with the new president of Imaging for Olympus USA, Mr. Harry Matsushita. We were joined by five other photographers and a handful of public relations folks. During dinner we were passing around a couple of the new OMD eM1 cameras fitted with 12-40mm f2.8 lenses. It was the first time I had handled the new camera and I can see what all the excitement is about. The camera feels remarkably solid in my hands and the focusing, even in our dark dining room, was snappy. Actually impressively snappy. 

Most of the photographers at the dinner were Olympus faithful and it was fun to share stories about launching digital imaging careers with Olympus products like the classic E-10 and then the legendary E-1.  My involvement with Olympus digital cameras goes all the way back to the Camera DL-500 (I think that's the model...it actually had an EVF and it was a whopping 1.5 megapixels. Circa 1998).
If Olympus keeps knocking it out of the ballpark with solid cameras and genuinely wonderful single focal length lenses I predict they will eventually steal profound industry market share from Canon and Nikon. You can already see the approaching tipping point if you look carefully.

What was I looking for that I didn't see? I would have loved for Samsung to come out with an EVF equipped version of their very good NX300 or a step up model from the NX20 with a better EVF.  I was also looking for Nikon or Canon to break out something new and splendid that's different than the same old DSLR construct. Didn't see it.

What about Sony?  I'll save my take on Sony's A7 and A7r for the next blog. It's a subject that WILL step on toes so I don't want to muddy up the positive stuff I talked about here. 

Did I have fun at the show? You bet.