Winter swimming and today's workout.

Young Ben. Nikon 50mm f1:1.2. On a warmer day.

It was windy and cold this morning in Austin. Oh, the northerners won't think so but 34 degrees, air laden with moisture and a snapping wind all add up to the Texas version of a cold, cold day. Especially so for outside swimming. The truly hardy swimmers in our town get to Barton Springs Pool in the early morning, before the eighth mile long, spring fed pool is officially open, that way they never have to pay an entrance fee to the city. The masters swimmers who still want to push the envelope of high performance and relive the glory of their Olympic or near-Olympic years get up earlier still and head over to the UT Swim Center to be lovingly tortured with long sets, short intervals and high expectations by coach, Whitney Hedgepeth (one gold, two silvers....). 

But those of us who have transcended our need to swim so hard and so fast that the rest of the day is consumed with yawning, napping and recovery stretches head to the finest masters program in the entire world. It exists at the Western Hills Athletic Club (aka: The Rollingwood Pool), nestled in the heart of Austin's two most affluent and desirable neighborhoods, Rollingwood and Westlake Hills. The pool is the heart of the club. It's a 25 yard pool situated on a slight rise, surrounded by majestic live oaks and shielded from view by a grand hedge that fences in the property. The pool is outdoors and we swim there all 52 weeks of the year. In the summer the water is chilled and refreshing. In the winter the water is heated to a consistent 80 degrees and the pool is covered at night with insulating covers to efficiently maintain its thermal bounty.  Yeah, there are tennis courts and basketball courts but those are only there for the people who can't swim...

It's the holidays and I'm taking time off from work and obsessive exercise. I bailed on the 7:00 am practice this morning when I heard the wind slapping the branches around, and besides, it was still dark then. But some hardy band of my swimmers made it to the workout, took the covers off the pool and did their yards under the watchful eyes of coach Dale.  It was no warmer when I showed up at 8:15 and headed toward the new locker rooms to change into my Speedo Jammer. I grabbed my fins (in case we needed them for kicking drills), my hand paddles and buoy (for pulling sets; my fave) my swim cap (black with pink butterflies on the side) and my low profile goggles. I moved quickly up the stairs and across the deck, pausing to grab a kick board from the bin next to the digital time clock at the south end of the pool. No one wasted time hanging on the deck or procrastinating about getting in. It was far too cold and windy to spend time equivocating...

I jumped into lane three with two guys who are both named, Mike. One is a life long competitive swimmer (and finance professor) the other is a well regarded younger triathlete who is also an electrical engineer. Our warm up was something like this: Swim 400, Pull 400, Kick 200 yards. We put our heads down and got to work. The swimmers are distributed through the lanes by their repeat times. The fastest people are in lanes 6 and 7. The slowest in lanes 1 and 2. But every day is different and the mix changes based on who is in attendance. Some days (when I am motivated) I might swim in lane 4 or even lane 5 but no matter how groggy or tired I am I try never to drop below lane 3. Today, at the end of a string of long and hard workouts the slower pace was just right for me. Kind of a celebratory last go for a good year. The warm up was 1,000 yards.

The next set was 15 x 100 yards, freestyle. As usual there was a pattern. Go the first three on a tight-ish interval (maybe 1:25) then drop five seconds from the interval on the next three (maybe 1:20) then come back to the first interval for the next three (1:25) then drop ten seconds from the interval for the next three (maybe 1:15) and then go back to the original interval of the last set of three. There are no rest intervals between the sets, you just go straight through. It's a fun, tough way to crank about a little less than a mile and keep a brisk pace. 1500 yards.

The next set was 15 x 50 yards with a different pattern but also on a tight-ish interval like 50 seconds per 50 yards. If you swim them fast you get more rest between each one but the higher degree of effort will make you appreciate every second on the wall. The pattern was kick/stroke/freestyle. That translates to a 50 kick with a board, a 50 of a stroke other than freestyle (we alternated butterfly and backstroke) and then a 50 freestyle. You repeat that pattern five times for a total of 750 yards.

At the end of the workout we did a set that was all about breath control. The entire set was designed to discourage negative thinking about oxygen deprivation. We did 15 x 25 yard sprints on a tight (25 second) interval. What makes this set hard is that on the first 25 yard sprint you get to take three breaths, on the second 25 you get two breaths and on the third 25 yarder you get one or zero breaths (depending on your ability).  There's another 325 yards. Then we warm down; usually something like a 200 yard easy swim----gives you a chance to cool down and work on your technique and your flip turns. While not a long distance work out we sure kept moving, had little time for chatting and were pretty tired by the end. Total=  3575 yards, a bit more than two miles and change in an hour.  I like the Saturday and Sunday workout where we get to go from 1.5 hours. You just get more done.

I stuck around to get some coaching on my butterfly stroke (watch out Michael Phelps :-)). No matter how nice you think your stroke must be it's always nice to have a learned set of eyes appraise it regularly. Sure enough I was coming a bit high out of the water and not getting my head down quick enough after my breath. Something to correct in the new year. 

The hardest part of the workout on a brisk day like today is getting out and making the minute long hike back to the locker rooms and the hot showers. My feet were thoroughly cold when I stepped over the threshold into the warmth of the new bathhouse. How can life be anything but wonderful when you start each day out like this? I've got to write a note reminding myself to pay our club dues for the year before the 15th of January. Wouldn't want to mess up the delicate balance of life.

A thank you! to Fred for reminding me that I haven't written nearly enough about swimming this year.

Ben during his swim team tenure.

A work photo of a zero edge pool in Westlake Hills.

Emily at the pool.

Off season swimwear.

Masters swimmers don't use ladders. If you can't pull yourself out of the pool without 
using your knees or a ladder you might as well give it up.

Summer at Barton Springs where the water is always 68 degrees. 

Start them swimming young and they'll get fast.

Mixing Photography and swimming on assignment.

Perfect head, arm and body position for freestyle.
Don't forget the body roll! Critical for speed.

One of the most fun pools I ever swam laps in, 
The Prince Ranier Commemorative Pool in the bay 
at Monte Carlo. 50 meters of straight up fun.
Personal yacht parked just outside, optional.

You might want to consider making a New Year's resolution to stay in great 
physical shape this year. It sure helps when you are carrying heavy photo
gear around all day. Keeping the waist line in check is an asset.
This is a visual business, after all.


Nikon D610+NIkon 85mm f1.8 G at the Austin Graffiti Park and Downtown.

I like the Graffiti Park in downtown Austin. Today I finished up lots of stuff in the studio. I went to the noon swim practice. It was unsettling to exit the pool in 40 degree weather with a chill wind blowing and walk, soaking wet, to the locker rooms. I ate a wonderful left over lentil and ham soup. I had a square of dark chocolate with almonds and sea salt as a dessert. At 3pm I got in the car and drove over to my favorite parking place, near Treaty Oak, and walked over to the big walls. 

I didn't have any sort of mission in mind I just wanted to get out of the house and out of the studio. A true workaholic can only take so much holiday cheer before one's thoughts turn to taxes and marketing....

I took along the newest camera and one of the newer lenses to arrive in the studio. It was the Nikon D610 and the 85mm G f1.8 lens. I wanted to play around with depth of field and see what the real difference is in every day shooting between the larger format and the smaller formats. I also wanted to see how the 85mm lens looked when shot wide open. DXO rates it as the second best medium telephoto portrait lens in the entire Nikon Pantheon. I wanted to see what that looked like, not how it read.

It was much colder than I thought it would be and on the five minute walk to the wall the wind cut through the zipper on my hoody like a squirt gun filled with ice water in the hands of a crazed account executive. I stopped by the Goodwill store on Lamar Blvd. to see if they had any hats. They didn't. I pulled up the hood, stuck my gloved hands in my pockets and trudged on. 

The park was hopping today. It's become a stop on the out of town family tour of Austin. It was also "selfie central."

I think the focus in right on the money with this camera and lens combination.

BFFs taking a moment between making selfies to compare notes.

The Graffiti is international.

Children on adventures, mothers in distress and artist shutting it all out.

 This family brought a special stick with which to position their designated cellphone/camera
far enough in front of the group to do an extended, multi-generational selfie. 

From this angle it appears that the family is worshipping the little white box. Or they are 
all fascinated to find that "The Grinch that Stole Christmas" was playing just then
and they had all promised each other that it was a very important movie 
that they would all catch together during the holidays.

I thought the glowing red nipples made this one a PG-13 mural. 
You know, for suggestive content....

But at the other end of the walls we have the G rated section, 
home of endless selfies. 

Graffiti Tourism is so right now. I'm glad I was there to document it.

A few walks through the graffiti du jour and I was ready to head downtown to Caffe Medici to meet a friend and have a redemptive cup of milky coffee. On the way there I say this red chair in a shop on second street. They always have very cool chairs and lighting fixtures but they are very pricey. I thought it would be fun to see how the lens and camera would handle the mixed light and the narrow depth of field from using the lens at f2.8. 

In the end I learned a few things. I learned that I should bring along a hat when I get out of the car and am already cold five steps away from it. I learned that 85mm lenses can be fun and that this one is sharp and nails focus. I learned that the Graffiti Park gets old when the work is chaotic and you haven't brought along your own model. I guess that means the trend is winding down. I learned that Medici makes a very nice Latté and that the woman behind the counter making my coffee is still very beautiful. I still have her contact information in my wallet. I guess I should follow through on my suggestion that we get together for a portrait shoot. There's always next year. It's right around the corner. 

The main thing I found out is that I like the sound of the D610 shutter. It's subdued. It's not like the gun shot shutter of the D700 which is one of the reasons I fled the Nikon system five years ago or so. I'm happier with this one. 

On a final note of the year (maybe) I am reminding my daily VSL readers that the sale price on the novel of the year, "The Lisbon Portfolio" Kindle version goes back up from $3.99 to $9.99 on the first of the year. You have about eighteen hours to purchase your copy at the lower price. You'd better hurry and get an electronic copy before they run out......

Here's a blanket, end of the year, post that covers my new equipment choices, what we got done this year and what I hope to get done in 2015.

photo: Amy Smith.

First a quick housekeeping note: There were four comments awaiting moderation for me this morning and I tried to approve them on a cellphone. My clumsy fingers brushed the "delete" button instead of the "publishing" button and there is no way for me to reverse the process. If you left a comment this morning, or over the night before, I apologize for sending it off into the netherworlds. You are, of course, welcome to repost and I'll be careful to do my moderating on a real, full sized computing machine today. Sorry about that.


It's the end of the year and seems to be a clichéd and routine time for reflecting back over the year. I'll plunge right in. First of all, my most successful marketing effort of the year was a simple letter writing campaign that I did last January. I sent out letters to 30 or so handpicked clients letting them know I was looking for some fun work in the field of video. Those 30 stamps were a good investment. We got calls from a handful of clients almost immediately and quickly got to work on an assignment which had me connecting, writing, shooting (and traveling to shoot), and finally, editing. It was a good project for a good client and it is still being used in all of their trade show and web marketing. Other, smaller (but no less profitable) jobs came from other clients as well. 

The video projects helped to remind clients that they could depend on me for a range of creative content which also led to increased billings per client for regular still photography assignments. 

Given the success of the letters and the minuscule cost of generating them I'll certainly be starting off the marketing this year with a letter writing campaign (or two). I am also planning to make more use of my Vimeo membership to create projects aimed at advertising clients to sell them both content services (writing, photography, etc.) and video production services. It's a wonderful time to market and the recovering economy in the sectors I mainly serve means that opportunities exist right now.


I am so well equipped with camera equipment that I am starting to turn my eyes more and more to marketing material as equipment. Just as I have drawers filled with cameras and lenses I'd love to have drawers filled with great mailers, great video programming on memory sticks and lots of promotional stuff meant as "leave behinds" and small, visual gifts. Always remembering that the best marketing is a job well done and client who has fun in the process.

But there's always a play to add a few more pieces of gear to the treasure trove. First thing that comes to mind is the 40-150mm f2.8 Olympus lens for micro four thirds. I'd like one just for the extra reach it would give me over the existing Panasonic 35-100mm f2.8 I've been using. I don't suspect that it will be a "better" lens when it comes to sharpness, contrast, etc. but I would like the ability to get tighter on actor's faces from a stationary position in the theater. It also looks like it would be a great lens to pair with the GH4 for some exterior video shooting. Yummy. 

I'm also looking into the possibility of picking up a used Nikon 24mm tilt/shift lens for the D610. I know the Canon is supposed to be a better performing option but I'm not a heavy/habitual T/S user and just want one in the "tool box" for those times when a corporate client presses me into doing some cool wide portrait shot in an architectural wonderland. Don't worry, I'll test anything before I buy it. If the Nikon T/S isn't the right one maybe a Rokinon 24mm T/S would do. 

I am more and more interested in video production and would like to buy an outboard digital recorder. Most of the recent cameras I've bought from Nikon feature a clean HDMI signal that provides 8 bit 4:2:2 video and I'd like to see if those files, recorded in ProRes, stand up better than straight "write to card in camera 4:2:0" files in post production when color correcting and sharpening. 

Perhaps a little Atomos Ninja Star. I'll also pick up an portable, outboard monitor after conferring with video-saavy Frank, who researches these things. And tries them. 

A reader wrote asking what, to me, were the differences between the Nikon D7100 and the Nikon D610. In other words, "why did I grab a 610 when I already had a perfectly good 7100 which has the same basic body, better AF and just as many megapixels?" Since we're talking about gear I thought I'd take a stab at answering that. 

I have a range of clients. Some are practical and want images wherein the subjects evince nice rapport and where everything that should be sharp is sharp and well defined. Then I have clients who follow trends and fairly often I'm asked to do my style but with the added request to, "get that really, really narrow depth of field look!" Well, if I have room to use longer lenses and to control my camera to subject and subject to background parameters I really a have no problems getting the kind of look they are referencing with either a fast medium telephoto lens (85mm?) on an APS-C sensor camera or a really fast (50mm f1.4?) on a micro four thirds camera. It gets tricker when I work in smaller spaces where the distances between the three main factors are constrained. In those situations I may need to use wider angles of view to get what's needed but my client might still want "the look." 

I once wrote a review about the Leica 35mm f1.4 Aspherical lens that was lent to me for reviewing. I conjectured that the reason for the existence of what might be the world's best corrected semi-wide angle lens (especially when used wide open at f1.4) was the need of some photographers to show a subject in an environment with enough discretion in depth of field choices to show the subject sharply etched while pushing the background sufficiently out of focus to keep the details from competing with the main subject for visual attention. The trick is to use a wide lens that's sharp wide open... 

If I use a 50mm f1:1.2 Nikon lens at f2 (the point at which good correction sets in) to make a portrait of a person in an environment using a full frame camera I'm certain to get a reasonably sharp person in the foreground and the kind of popular mush in the background that makes clients feel like they are part of the current milieu. It's a different look than that which I can achieve at the same angle of view (getting the same amount of background at the same distance) with current (affordable) lenses in smaller formats. There are also times when I would like more isolation in the theater when shooting actors with longer lenses. 

The $1200, like new, Nikon D610 is a wonderful camera for that but it's really just a temporary fix. What I really would like is a bigger sensor. Like three or four times bigger. But I'll even settle for a 645 variant. But seriously, $1200 bucks for a camera with a sensor that kicks serious butt in all metrics? That's dirt cheap. 

So, to compare the 610 and the 7100 is pretty straightforward. The 610 has more ability to get a specific kind of look. It's also a stop better in low light. And that's it. No other magic. Since both of the cameras can be had together for less than $2,000 and both also shoot video it's just a good business decision. One is a nice shooter of stylized portraits and the other a wonderfully proficient back up camera that's rugged and reliable. This week I'm working with them to see what the video really looks like. I have a feeling we'll continue with the GH4 as would main video tool but might want to supplement with the D610 when shooting in dim, available light or at those times when we only want the narrowest slice of focus in a shot.

I like two things about the pairing of the two different Nikon cameras. Both bodies take the same batteries so there's one charger and one battery inventory. The second thing I like is the fact that the two menus are almost identical so no new learning is required. 

Someone else asked why, since I like EVFs so much, didn't I just buy a Sony A7 at around the same used price. My quick reply is that the D6210 is a better build camera that focuses quicker, has a much, much nicer sounding shutter mechanism and handles very well. For the same price it's just a better built tool and I think Nikon has done a much better job with their implementation of raw files and Jpeg artistry. When Sony fixes that awful shutter I'll be a bit more interested. And while they are adding space to the A7 series with bigger grips they might also think about putting in a real battery. 

The most used (profitable) gear of the year of 2014? That would be the Panasonic GH4s and the three really good X lenses, the 7-14mm f4, the 12-35mm f2.8 and the 100mm f2.8. Those and my Sennheiser wireless microphone set were all flawless and efficient, even if they do lack a palpable sense of excitement. The runner up was the Nikon D7100. I suspect changes in 2015.

The one big change is my focus on getting a Pentax 645z and a few portrait lenses for that camera. I'm not sure when but I'm pretty sure that camera is on the horizon. Remember, I consider the Nikon D610 to be a temporary fix....

Any other gear? Yes. Always more lights. LED, Flash, HMIs, Fluorescent. You name it, I'll find a use for it. That's the secret cool gear of photography (and video). And one can never have too many good microphones. 


The elephant in my humble hut is my writing. I have to confess that I loved the process of writing The Lisbon Portfolio (Novel about photographer, Henry White) almost as much as I'm loving having published it and having it read by friends, family and the VSL crew. Now comes the big marketing push to try and reach a bigger audience. I just got in another case of the hard copy books and I'm sending them out to bloggers, reviewers and anyone who has a power connection with Creative Artist Alliance in Hollywood (kidding? Maybe not...).

But the real question is: "What's next?" It's hard to juggle too much stuff but I think I have the bandwidth and discipline to both earn a decent living as a photographer (defined by keeping the mortgage paid, the SEP funded and the child in an exclusive private college in the northeast) and still be able to finish all the writing and coffee shop haunting required to produce the next book in the series. I have the plot and the outline and I've been writing encapsulated scenes since last Summer. 

I wish I knew whether or not I have the talent to make the novels really work but I don't think it's important. Not as important as actually having the fun of writing them. 

In the meantime the existence of the blog is pretty safe. I would love to get more reader comments and feedback but that's also a two edged sword, because, frankly, I really only want to hear fun stuff and don't want to have to deal with moderating all of the assholes.

This subject is almost certainly in the "wait and see" category so I guess we'll just take it one step, one book and one blog post at a time. 


The perennial goal is to make more portraits that I like of people that I am interested in looking at. But I do have goals beyond that. 


I'd like to be disciplined enough to make every weekday, 7 a.m. workout offered. That's Tuesday through Friday. And, barring work or family obligations, I'd like to make every Saturday and Sunday 8:30 a.m. workout offered all year long. My goals are to get my 100 freestyle time back down around one minute and my 50 butterfly time down to around 30 seconds. Kind of crazy but everyone should have some painfully aspirational goals. I've added some weight training to the mix so we'll see what happens. I'm fine with small, incremental improvements. My long term goal is to outlast everyone else so I can sweep the USMS Nationals when I'm in my 90's. With that in mind I am pacing myself...

     The Writing Goals.

I'd like to have the next Henry White novel written, edited, designed and ready to go by next October. If you read the first novel and liked it you can help by pushing me from time to time in the comments to get this project done. The story takes place and St. Petersburg, Russia and is based to some extent on work I actually did there in the mid-1990's. You will like it. 

I'd also like to write and produce photographs for a small book that I envision publishing only as an e-book, about portraits. The How and Why of taking portraits in the digital age. It's been banging around in the back of my mind for a couple years and I think we can toss this into the scheduling matrix and complete it. 

     Business Goals. 

Hmmm. Everything I said coming into last year still counts. I think we're in a good recovery period and that allows me to be more of a specialist and less of a generalist. That means a lot more corporate and editorial portrait work. It also means finding the "art way" to make better videos for the same kinds of clients. Lyrical, visual poems about the same people we photograph. The money panned out fine in 2014 so the real secret will be to get paid in the same ball park while being more selective and having more challenging fun. 

The wrap up. The kid loves college. He's making good grades, connecting well with the other students and the faculty and he's managing his money well enough so that we got no panicky calls for more cash. I'd love to see more semesters just like that one. My spouse and partner is brilliant, relaxed and manages the financial side of the business like a banker from Goldman Sachs. She's also fun and wonderful to spend time with. For 2015?  More just like that.  The Studio Dog is, of course, absolutely perfect. No changes necessary on that front. 

I think I could be a bit more disciplined and definitely spend a heck of a lot less time this year on the web and in the online forums. And I could expand my circle of non-virtual friends and contacts. I had a great time last year just getting to know new people------and a good number of them came from right here on the blog. Almost magic. More like that.

One thing I don't want to change is the amount of walking and personal shooting I do. Even if no one else likes what I come home with. 

I hope your year wrapped up nicely. Y'all come back again for more in the New Year. I'll be as happy as a pig at the trough if you do. 

No more blogs planned until the New Year (not that it's ever stopped me from piling on at least one more....). I hope you have had a great 2014 and are planning on an even better 2015.  

Happy New Year! 

No ads today.


A Sunday Morning Walk with two new applicants for space in the equipment drawer; the Nikon D610 and the Nikon 24-85mm G 3.5-4.5.

The Nikon D610 ( which, incidentally, nudges out the new D750 at DXO by a full point! ) and the 24-85mm G VR lens are a good combo. The lens is sharp and the camera is well endowed with dynamic range and low noise. But, of course, there are little things to complain about. The 24-85 has lots of distortion at the wide end which is not fully corrected in Lightroom conversions from raw. The camera is pretty much as nice as a camera can be while suffering the lack of an EVF. What a perfect world it would be if Nikon and Canon were able to take their flagship cameras tomorrow and outfit them with really, really nice EVFs without changing any of their other performance attributes. 

I am certain that it's just a matter of time and the integration of really fast processors. That being said I am happy with the performance of both. On Tues. I've booked some fun, personal portrait sessions and I'll put the 105mm f2.5 ais to the test. I've also soothed the color performance of the Fotodiox 508AS LED panel and I'll have samples to show from that light source (which I really like from a strictly operation point of view). 

Back to the lens. While I'm very satisfied with the performance of the camera body I'm a bit less so with the performance of the lens. In addition to the barrel distortion at the 24mm end and the pincushion distortion at the long end the images at certain focal lengths don't look quite as sharp as I've seen with some of the better lenses. Almost everything I shot today was shot at f5.6 but I'd hate to think that I have to stop the lens down to f8.0 to get critical sharpness. 

I was a little concerned that it might be focusing errors caused by the camera/lens combo so I came back to the studio and did my AF tune tests. The camera and lens are right on the money at the default settings so I'm chalking it up to lens performance. I am, of course, overstating this because it's the holidays and I'm a little bored. The reality is that tossing a bit more sharpening at the lens cleans stuff up nicely. I guess I am used to the D7100 which doesn't have an anti-aliasing filter and is demonically sharp with good lenses. 

Another possibility is that I've been shooting with m4:3 and APS-C cameras and lenses for so much work this year that what I may be seeing is the everyday flaw in every full frame camera---too little depth of field. I'll sort it out soon. In the meantime I'm getting back to work setting up lighting for Tues. 

I also have a blog note. I am hard at work on the sequel (prequel?) to The Lisbon Portfolio. If I miss a day or two of blog-work I hope you'll understand. Below are additional images from today's walk. 

I hope you are using the holiday break (if it exists in your country...) to undertake exciting personal projects that make you nervous and anxious and ultimately happy. A couple more days left in the year to make sure you didn't totally blow off your art side.

Give in to the force and feel the power of your fictional side....


Would you buy a specific type of camera body just to accommodate one particular lens?

It's a pretty sure bet that I would. My recent re-fascination with owning a full frame Nikon camera started innocently enough, I'd purchased a D7100 (APS-C frame) and just for fun I took a gander at the used, manual focus Nikon lens case at Precision Camera. My eyes locked onto two lenses that I wanted to add to my meager, existing collection of good Nikon vintage glassware. I own the Nikon 50mm 1:1.2 ais lens and find it to be pretty remarkable when I stop it down just a tad. I couldn't resist the pricing on two very clean brothers to that lens, the 55mm f2.8 Micro-Nikkor ais lens and the amazing and wonderful, 105mm f2.5 ais lens. These are both well made lenses that were built in the 1970's and 1980's when it was assumed that a lens would be made from metals that worked well together to reduce friction coefficients and to expand and contract, in concert, with heat and cold. Everything about the lenses is industrial strength and there are no small, electronic parts that will eventually fail and be impossible to replace. The glass on both lenses was/is immaculate and the focusing smooth through the entire focusing rack. 

I owned both of these lenses when I shot with the system in the film days and had always assumed (incorrectly) that they had been superseded by more modern designs and manufacturing methods. But the reality is that the lens companies have learned more how to fudge tolerances and assembly variances than they have learned better ways to design lenses for ultimate quality. Most companies still depend on very classic designs and  the makers use ED and aspheric elements to compensate for the necessary slop required to cost effectively mass produce products in large numbers, without hand adjustments. 

The last 105mm Nikon lens I owned was the 105mm f2.0 DC (or "defocus coupling") lens. It's outrageously good and it's the lens I used to make the three images (one above and two below) for the Austin Lyric Opera for an ad campaign years ago. I used the good camera of the time, a Kodak DCS 760 which was not full frame but it was closer than APS-C as it had a 1.3x crop factor. 

Once I bought the (under $200) 105mm 2.5 ais back a few months ago I put it on a D7100 and did a few tests. When the lens was stopped down to f4.0 it was very sharp across the frame. At f5.6 it was brilliant. But more importantly I really liked the very subtle transitions this lens made in tones and the graceful way the focus falls off. It must be one of the "bokeh lenses" that people discuss with such rapture. When I compared it to modern lenses there was a difference not in sharpness or resolution but in contrast and tonal transfers (the gradation from one tone to the next) that made this lens seem much more appropriate to me for current portrait work. The only issue was the focal length; it's a bit too long for a smaller frame and an even smaller studio. 

That was the slow motion rock slide of ideas that started pushing me toward getting some sort of full frame Nikon mount camera. I wanted badly to use this lens especially, but also the 50mm f1.1:2 at the angles of view for which they were designed. Didn't really matter to me which modern body to get as long as it used the right sized sensor to give me back those two focal lengths that I enjoyed using in "the good old days."

Well, after waiting all day for the post man to arrive the D610 I bought landed in the office. I went through and quickly adjusted all the menu items which was simple as they are largely (almost completely) identical to those of the D7100 and the D7000 before it. The first lens I put on was the 105mm f2.5. I plugged in the focal length and maximum aperture information to the camera and shot some test frames. The long focal lengths and fast aperture actually helped me achieve good focus manually and when I framed a few shots I was in my visual happy place. Two lenses make FF fun and situationally desirable: the classic 50mm and the classic 100-105. In third place is that in between focal length, the 85mm. Now I need to e-mail some of my favorite models and do some fun, studio portrait tests. Fadya, if you are reading this......

Below is a shot of the grumpy photographer/writer/editor of this site. What a serious looking guy. This must have been during the years in which he did not own a Nikon 105mm f2.5 ais lens......

Make him smile ( a little ). Buy a Kindle copy of his 

I bought some interesting cameras this year. Some are better than others. But let me tell you which one was the most FUN.

Men, guys, males seem to love measuring the horsepower, noise, teraflops per second, megapixels and degrees of weatherproofiosity more than they love actually using their cameras to make artsy stuff. Or even stuff that looks like art. When colleagues call to ask me about a camera or a lens the things they want to know all center around the overall impressions of sharpness, lines per millimeter, delta of color accuracy and other very objective measures. They rarely ask me things like: "How loud is the shutter? Does it have a nice sound or a clacky chintzy sound? Is the camera nice to hold in your hand? Does the camera feel good when you use it? Does the lens have character? Does the lens make people's faces look nice?"

For this reason most of the professional shooters I know tend to make a bee line for the cameras that check the most boxes in the categories of things that can be measured and quantified.  They tend to gravitate toward high megapixel counts and sensors that make less noise at high ISO settings. They even love battery statistics. For these shooters the number panel and lists of comparisons on DXO Mark is a godsend. They can research cameras by the numbers and buy confidently without ever having to touch a camera first. This is the primo target market for gear like the Nikon D810. Or medium format cameras with the new Sony MF chip. Yes, if they buy based on those quantified reviews or spec sheets they will indeed have a camera than can do most of the stuff they expect but I feel like buying cameras is more like dating.

You could have a checklist when dating that goes along the same lines as a spec sheet. If you are looking for a person to date you could find out how fast they run a mile, what their imputed I.Q. is, how tall they are, where they got a degree and in what, and other similar metrics but until you actually sit across the table from a prospective romantic partner you'll never really know if you click. You'll never know if spending time with them is more of a burden than a joy, an obligation rather than a treat. I contend that the same relationship exists with cameras otherwise everyone in the amateur and general professional ranks would be shooting with whichever camera clicked all the boxes with the most ("if some is good more must be better!").

But when I watch my female friends or my acutely artistic friends chose cameras the whole process is more or less turned upside down. They may ask the consummate linear thinking guy to share the results of his hundreds of hours of painstaking camera research when they go to buy a camera but all the pages of charts and graphs and numbers go right down the drain when they actually go into a store and start playing with all the stuff that's available (and they will).

The artists and most of the women photographers I know go into the selection process with a whole different mindset. They are looking for an extension of their hands and eyes. They are looking for something that will integrate into the way they move through their artistic lives and they seem unwilling, almost incapable, of being happy only with the measured "best," A camera has to be more than the sum of its numbers to make this demographic pull out the credit card and get the transaction into gear.

To this group the way the camera feels in their hands is the number one consideration. If it isn't immediately comfortable and in some way tactilely familiar they are not motivated to "give it time" and "get used to it." So, they are looking for a solution that matches what their hearts and minds tells them is the right choice. To this group design is also a major factor; in some cases the quality of the overall design might even be the most important consideration because these folks are truly visual people and they will only buy products and devices that they can enjoy looking at and handling for long periods of time. Much the way that artists and design oriented people will gladly spend hundreds more dollars to buy a beautifully design Apple iMac computer rather than a workable and efficient PC. They know that they will have to look at the product they buy for years to come, in some cases for hours every day and they have a much lower tolerance for mediocre designs. Their brains don't balance out the cost/performance/design equation the same way in which spreadsheet jockeys do.

For them there is a visceral aversion to poorly designed tools or interfaces that drives them away from using the product so that any cost savings is savaged by their aesthetic filters. And they have a point; why introduce yet another piece of visual pollution instead of producing something that adds value? Bringing anything into their domain means that the product must contribute to the overall ecosystem rather than just sitting around churning and whirring.

I am drawn to cameras that have certain characteristics. I want them to have a visual personality. I want to be comfortable looking through the finder. I am not looking for the most exact finder but the finder that is most inviting and engaging. I want shutters that thump like the closing door of a Bentley automobile rather than clacking around like unmuffled industrial machines. I want to feel an affinity for the haptics of a camera. Holding it should make me want to hold it more. So, I am often at cross purposes with what most people assume is the role of the camera in a professional business. The belief is that a pro buys the camera with the highest resolution, the highest degree of sharpness and the lowest possible electrical noise at all settings.  By general "guy" consensus I'd have a box of D810s unless I could afford the finest medium format digital cameras.

And, being a guy, I do bounce back and forth, caught between prevailing convention and personal taste. I just bought a Nikon D610 to assuage my insecurities after being pounded, day after day, by the assumption that any professional portrait photographer would absolutely want a full frame, high resolution sensor so they could create noise free, smooth skin tones images that also have the potential to create portraits with very, very narrow depth of field. One eye in focus and the other one out. Go fast, long lenses!!!

I buckled and I'm not proud of it because I absolutely know I can get the images I really want and need from APS-C cameras and even the best M4:3 cameras. But I have the money and I can buy the "safety blanket" type of cameras for those every once in a while engagements when clients presume to know about the business of making portraits and will demand gear that is au courant. In most regards it goes back to our previous blog discussions about the safety of staying in the median levels of the herd.

You might not always win but you probably won't lose.

This is all a lead up to my basic assertion that prodigiously spec'd cameras are rarely the most fun cameras to carry around and use. Especially if you carry a camera with you everywhere (and I do mean everywhere except in the swimming pool) and use it often. In fact, every full frame, high specification camera I've ever owned has been relegated to the trade-in zone within six months or so of initial acquisition. Many of the Canons and Nikons were disposed of because of their boring jelly bean designs. Some were dumped because they did everything very, very well but they felt wrong or were too bland. Some didn't put up enough fight to be challenging and provoking. But most are just too large and ponderous and obvious.

And before you call me a format snob I'll put the GH4 into the same camp as the bigger format jelly bean cameras. It does everything it should do perfectly. Its menus are clear and concise but, in the end, the GH4 is a boring camera. Why do I keep it? I keep it for the projects I do for the clients who need video and I keep it because it does all those work things perfectly. But the handling and the mind/hand/camera integration isn't exciting or captivating or inspiring. It's just good, like so many other cameras out there.

When I look back over this year of Samsung, Nikon, Panasonic, Sony and other cameras the ones that  I've consistently enjoyed working with, playing with and shooting have without a doubt been the Olympus OMD EM-5 cameras. I've paid the least money for them and I've bought the least esoteric lenses for them but they flat out get down on their hands and knees and beg me to take them out shooting. To take them out walking and out to eat. In fact, there are a number of jobs I've done for clients this year that could have been done much more efficiently and with less post processing, hands on correction than the EM-5s but the EM-5's innate appeal caused me to push the more capable cameras out of the way and chose the more interesting and engaging EM-5s in their places.

I'll go further and confess that even though the EM-1 has a much superior finder, and I love looking through it, the overall design and understated profile of the EM-5 trumps the EM-1, in my mind, every single time.  It's the camera I compare every other new camera to. It's the reason I've divested other cameras. There's something about the combination of good results (NOT the best results), good handling and sublime design that keep me coming back.

So, yes, I have a Nikon D610 on the way (Where the hell is the USPS???? I got their text that the item is "out for delivery" at 8:05 am this morning---who are all these people in front of me?) and I have GH4s and Nikon D7100s and 7000s languishing all over the office but when I get a call from a friend with an invitation to go out for coffee it's one of the EM-5s that swings over my shoulder, on a very specific strap, and comes along for the ride. If I see some scene of great beauty the camera is almost transparent to me and to the subject. It helps me remove a cognition barrier between my eye and the subject and that's the highest quality feature of any camera I can think of.

When I shoot with a big camera of the highest possible technical potential I find myself avoiding shots where the technique at hand would be detrimental to the overall performance of the camera. I would not try to handhold a D810 with a fast lens (which might have performance issues in the corners) at slow shutter speeds because I feel like it's an affront to the potential of the camera. I have no qualms about trying shots that don't always have the highest possibilities for success with the EM-5s because the camera encourages me and seems to goad me to take chances. And why not? They are agile and stealthy enough (even when used directly) to make the attempts painless. Not so with an uber-camera which subtly infects your sub-conscious with the idea that you should have brought a tripod, you should stop down to the sharpest aperture to take advantage of the amazing resolution, that you should have also brought some lighting to make sure......blah, blah, blah. Just another case of trading joy for measurement.

When we go through this exercise and talk about cameras being fun someone always writes to let me know that I am wrong about which camera I should like. Someone will recommend I try a Pentax K5sii or a Leica M240 (as through it never dawned on me to test one). They misunderstand the most important part of the whole argument that the non-technical-metric-centric camera buyer already knows: It doesn't matter which camera you like. My brain, my hands and my eyes are different from yours. We all have to find the cameras we like on our own. It's the basic reason why all technical camera reviews are mostly mindless numbers crap. All current cameras are, for the most part, more advanced and capable  than their owners. It's more important to find the fun, addictive camera than the "best" camera. The people who leave the hobby or give up the profession are generally the ones who have collected all of the best technical gear only to find that it didn't really make a difference in their visual experiences and, for the most part, just got in the way. The people in it for the long haul learn, over time, that there is a balance and that the fulcrum of that balance sits much further over to the side of handling and visual design parameters than it ever did on the technical side.  

And all this is pretty much why I am declaring the Olympus EM-5 the absolute most FUN camera I have the pleasure of using all year long.

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My Favorite online Photo Class of the Year-----Was Neil van Niekirk's Off Camera Flash Course. It's at Craftsy.com.

I've spent a lot of time watching other photographer's videos on various online channels and the one that I enjoyed best of all the stuff out there this year was Neil's Off Camera Flash Photography course at Craftsy.com.

Neil covers all the important bases and does so while showing some really good images. He demystifies daylight+flash and he will make you believe that you can do just about anything with a handful of battery powered strobes and a well chosen selection of flash modifiers.

If you are snowed in, snowed over or just over the snow you could do a heck of a lot worse, as either a professional photographer (who might need a bit of brush up or inspiration) or a happy amateur (who wants to take the uncertainty out of getting the flash off the camera and using it well), by taking this 2+ hour course. Let me put it this way, I wrote a whole book about this stuff in 2007 but the refresher I got from Neil's course made it seem fluid and fun again.

Here's a link: Neil's Course. And remember, Craftsy.com has a 100% satisfaction guarantee (which I doubt you'll be using...).  See Neil's commercial website here.  I also included Neil's images and some of his working methodology in my 2012 LED lighting book. He's good.

Nice way to combat cabin fever.


Happy Holidays to all the Visual Science Lab readers!

A special thanks to a few people here at the end of a wonderful year. Thanks to Frank for being a constant source of feedback and positive encouragement. A wise friend is an amazing gift. Thanks to Fred who made my kid's first semester in a college far, far away bearable for me and Belinda. Many thanks to Michael for volunteering to read and proofread the Lisbon Portfolio  book manuscript. If you think it has some typos now you should (not) have seen it before he got his hands on it....

A thank you to all the really great professional photographers here in Austin who provide both competition and friendship. They show me how good the business can be and are generous with their advice, guidance and support. Paul, Park, Wyatt, Matt, Tomas, Michael, Dan, Will, and too many others. Austin is distinct in that we have the most open and sharing community of pros in the country. It makes working here a bit like toiling in paradise.

I want to thank Rosemary and Jerry at Precision Camera for 32 years of kindness, generosity and support. They've been there for me during the bleakest moments of my career and during the times when we could all celebrate exhuberantly. They are the foundation and bedrock of photography in Austin, and there camera store is a great place to spend my extra cash. In the same spirit I want to thank my Precision Camera confidant and camera consigliere, Ian, who sometimes prevents me from destructive buying or selling and is quick to pluck the gems that come along for me and let me know they exist. It's good to know someone else in the camera business who has an eye for the long term relationship instead of the quick sale.

I am thankful to a list of 70 new and returning clients who made this year financially successful for me. I hope I helped and returned the favor to them with good work.

I always appreciate the Boy who hit the ground running (literally) 2,000 miles from home for his first semester in college. I'd brag about his 4.0 GPA but it might embarrass him so I guess I won't. No arrests, no calls for more money! He even arrived back home with gifts in hand. Studio Dog nearly fainted when she saw him----she'd given him up for dead. For her the boy's reappearance was a Christmas miracle.

I can never thank my partner and spouse, Belinda, enough. Without her subtle (but firm) guidance this business would have been dead in the water at least a decade ago. And I would probably long since have been in jail or else homeless.  Smart, beautiful and kind; a nice balance to my questionable "attributes."

Finally, a thank you to Studio Dog who is: Trustworthy. loyal, courteous, kind,obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave clean and reverent. She is on constant patrol against badgers, coyotes, snakes, vermin and especially cats and mailmen who sometimes attempt to cross our yard. She's a fearsome gatekeeper and a charming companion.

Thanks to all the loyal readers who share time here and comment (letting me know there is someone out there...). I hope to write better stuff for you in the year(s) to come.

A note to the camera makers: keep making cool stuff. There's a more than reasonable possibility that, over time, I will buy all of it.