The Big Picture:
None of us operate in a vacuum. If you are a commercial photographer you need financially healthy clients who are willing to spend what it takes to do great work. The rise and fall of the photographic marketplace are intimately linked to the health of both the national economy and the local econosphere. You could be the best photographer in your marketplace but unless your marketplace contains people who are spending money on photography you'll most likely be dead in the water. That's why the economy (generally in the U.S. and more specifically, in Austin, Texas) is my top choice for Best of 2014. According to numbers released this morning the annualized economic growth numbers for the third quarter were over 5%. Unemployment in Austin plunged to well under 4% this year and our client's spending patterns certainly reflected a return to strength and a willingness, across the board, to spend money on advertising, marketing and public relations; our bread and butter. The news this morning from Bloomberg is that the Dow crested 18,000 for the first time in history.
This may not be the best time to be a blue collar worker or to be entering even this robust economy without a university degree, and I understand that there are many areas that haven't seen the bounty of this economic recovery but in major metropolitan markets and especially those that have linked their fortunes to tech, finance and biomedical there is a tremendous boom afoot.
I know there will be pessimists who will tell me (correctly) that every economic cycle is like a parabola and that no matter how high we rise we'll fall by the same amount after the bubble burst. I get that economics are cyclical. But the take away message is that the overall economic numbers and my sales numbers say the same thing: 2014 was a good year to be in the creative content business. I only wish I had done more marketing more quickly...
The Used Market:
I love a bargain. I suspect almost everyone here does as well. The fast pace of camera technology from 2008 to 2013 gave me an unsuspected bonus in 2014. Used camera prices on some of the finest cameras ever produced tumbled this year. By the fourth quarter we could have picked up low mileage Nikon D800s for less than half their new price. The Fuji XE-1s plummeted at one point (with the good kit lens) to around $550 and the 2012 superstar of the market, the Olympus OMD EM-5 was selling for 1/3rd or less of its new price. I bought a number of them for less than $400 apiece, and most were festooned with ergonomic grips or battery grips. The same advantages were available in any market where a maker superseded a good product with a "tweak" product. ( A tweak product is something like the Fuji X100T where subtle handling issues are improved but the basic image producing pipeline is largely unchanged from its very capable predecessor ). People lunged for the tweakers and abandoned the same basic technology wrapped in a slightly older package. Bargain time.
This is just the tip of the iceberg. As more enthusiast bail from bigger, older DSLRs and embrace mirror-free cameras there are bargains galore in the traditional camera space. I mentioned the D800 from Nikon in the paragraph above but recent models from Pentax, Canon and Sony also keep coming on to the market at firesale prices. And the year of trade-ins also extended to lighting and studio gear. As people abandoned studios and bigger, AC lighting gear traditional power packs and head (electronic flash) prices for used gear plummeted. If you like continuous light and you don't mind the inefficiencies there's probably never been a better time to buy tungsten movie lights for ten cents on the dollar as the rest of the user market follows the call to LEDs and, to a lesser extent, fluorescent lights. As LED panels improved in color rendering the older models have also started hitting the used markets. The used market this year was more fun and more bargain worthy than any year in the digital age because, for the first time the cast offs were within a few percentage points of being as good as the products that were replacing them. In some regards they were better.
The "Best" Cameras of the year:
Across the board the camera that I saw make the most ripples in the pond of photography this year was, without a doubt, the Olympus OMD EM-1. Introduced at the October NYC camera show in 2013 it's a product that is almost universally loved by anyone who has picked one up and used it. While it validates my ideas about the used market (the EM-5 may have had a more pleasing sensor...) it's a breakthrough camera that brought unrestricted high imaging and handling performance to the micro four thirds sector. We've gone a full year with the EM-1 in the market and it still is a top seller at its original introduction price. In fact, the silver version sells at a premium.
What do you get for your $1299? A very solid body, a beautiful (I looked again last night: a very beautiful) electronic viewfinder, 16 solid megapixels of very pleasing image potential and entry into a giant number of lenses, both from Olympus and Panasonic, as well as from the treasure chest of the entire market. There are few lenses that, with the use of an inexpensive adapter, can't be used and used well on the EM-1. The focus peaking helps very much with manual, legacy lenses while a fast and sure AF system is great for everything but tricky and kinetic sports action. If I were counseling a generalist in the acquisition of a camera system I'd direct them to the EM-1 and the pro lenses available for the camera. The new 40-150mm f2.8 (wish it were f2...) is supposed to be stunning and Zack Arias describes the Panasonic/Leica 42mm f1.2 Nocticron as one of three "magical" lenses in the whole pantheon of lenses. I use a wide array of new, used, old, cranky and eccentric lenses on my bucketful of EM-5 cameras and I am rarely disappointed with the results.
Another stunningly good and subversively popular camera that hit its stride this year is the XT-1 from Fuji. If I was choosing a new system and didn't fall for the ergonomics or sensor of the EM-1 the XT-1 is the first camera from Fuji that would pull me right in. I call it subversive because at a casual glance it reminds me a lot of the Rollei lines and Fuji lines of SLR cameras from the 1970's. Small and light, with a traditional pentaprism hump and all those buttons and dials that surely appeal to everyone who handled traditional film cameras in the day. But inside, of course, the camera is very current; in many ways state-of-the-art. The EVF is widely praised as the best in the market today while the handling is sublime. If you like the Fuji sensor's color and tone rendition this one is the best they've made yet. But no camera is good without great lenses and that's where Fuji has been making inroads. The best of their lenses are constantly compared to the legendary Leica lenses and they've been smart in peppering the line up of lens with speed optics that leverage the sensor's good points while using sharp speed to compensate for the sensor size vis-a-vis full frame. In truth the XT-1 is an evolutionary step from both the Pro-1 and the XE-2 but it's a big, chasm leaping evolutionary step and it makes the camera a prime contender for "best sweet spot" camera of the entire year.
In the traditional, big DSLR space everyone right now seems a big gaga over the Nikon D750 and the D810 but the real story is the maturation and defacto acceptance of the older model, the D800, as the high end professional camera of most of 2014. While the D810 is a great "tweaker" the real story was the leap to 36 megapixels of great imaging potential and not the incremental improvement that the new product provided in the second half of the year. In 2014 if you wanted to go traditional the D800 was the elephant in the room. And it's still a pretty agile and elegant elephant, if you put the right lenses on the front. The D800 is always in the back of my mind when client starts talking about enormous tradeshow graphics.
If I were in the market for a big bruiser of a camera right now I wouldn't even consider the D810 at full price when I could snag a very low mileage (under 10,000 actuations) for under $1700. I'd pocket the difference and maybe spend it on cool lenses. Which brings me to.....
The Best New Lenses of 2014:
We all love the aspirational lenses. The Leica 90mm Apo Summicrons and various esoteric Zeiss winder-lenses so I can't write a piece on great lenses without mentioning the Zeiss Otus 55mm f1.4 Distagon. The lens is huge and priced at over $4,000 but by all accounts is the sharpest and nicest rendering standard lens in the whole pantheon of great lenses. It does amazing stuff when used on the right camera and at the right apertures and when aimed at the right subject matter and when stabilized on the right tripod. Amazing. Stunning. And way out of my price range for a lens that would see limited action for most of my work. But we need to know that it is there and that the lens can do crazy good stuff so we can use it as a measure of what is possible in the world of lens design.
In one sense Sigma wouldn't have gotten the huge bump for its 50mm f1.4 "ART" lens if the Zeiss Otus had not existed. Since the Otus does exist how wonderful was it for Sigma to have dozens of reviewers reference just how close the ART line of lenses comes to the Otus at a quarter of the price. That seems to be one of the roles of aspirational lenses----to show just how close a lens designer can come to the "gold standard." To be frank, most of use aren't limited by the performance of our lenses (or our cameras or tripods or lights) we are limited by our technical skills to a large extent but even more we are limited by our inability to always know what to shoot and how to shoot it to get the emotion and the ideas across. But taking a weakness out of the link (replacing a Nikon 50mm f1.4 G with an Otus) eliminates one controllable variable in our ability to regulate sharpness and overall image quality....
Through the course of the history of photography there have always been lenses that were "special" or that stood apart as known examples of the best of the lens maker's art. The old Nikon 300mm f2.0 was one. The Leica 50mm Summicron is another. Some of the Pentax DA lenses seem to have a special quality. The lenses for the Contax G series cameras were pretty amazing. And this year we've seen some new stuff that seems to be aiming for the rarified levels of these past gems.
Some of the lenses I mention here may have been introduced in 2013 but they hit their acceptance, stride and availability in 2014 so I'm counting them. First on my list is the Sigma 60mm f2.8 Art Lens of the micro four thirds. It's small, elegant to look at and very, very sharp----in a nice way. The capper for this product is that it's not a quarter of the price of an Otus but at around $200 would be less than the local sales tax on an Otus. It's a great studio portrait lens for the smaller sensor cameras.
There are two lenses from Rokinon (Samyang) that I either have or will have shortly. The first is the 16mm f2.0. It's wonderful. I recently posted some results I've gotten when using that lens on a dense sensor Nikon D7100 and then, with adapter, on a Panasonic GH4. It gives me the full frame equivalent of a 24mm on the Nikon and almost a 35mm on the GH4 and in both instances it is sharp, sharp, sharp at its wide open aperture of f2.0. This is a lens that is perfect for APS-C users who need fast AND sharp lenses for their chosen format sizes. The lens does not cover full frame but for the amount of money paid (>$300) it's the perfect fit for the wider end of most people's lens collections. With very little mystery distortion and just a bit of the good ole barrel distortion it makes a good lens for interior architecture as well.
The second Rokinon lens that I'm looking at is the 50mm f1.5 Cine lens. I'd actually prefer this in Rokinon's ordinary, still photographer dress with clicking apertures and a softer focusing ring but they've launched it first in its "Cine" iteration which means gearing contact points for focus follow and aperture control. I'm not as interested in that as I am in the optical performance of the lens which I have read to be very, very good. While the m4:3 version is a bargain right now at around $300 I really want to be able to use the lens on both the Nikon D7100 and (with adapters) also on the GH4 and the EM-5's and that means that unless I buy two different lenses with the different lens mounts I need to select for the Nikon mount and adapt from there. I can't go the other way around....
Why yet another 50mm? Hmmm. The short answer is that every different permutation of the 50mm lens has its own look, its own signature. I'm hoping the Rokinon 50mm t1.5 cine is one of those gems that's sharp enough wide open to work as a depth of field star on m4:3 and also on the APS-C frame of the Nikon D7100. You know, sharp wide open and a quick sprint to glowing unsharpness as the focus drops off with distance.
The lens at the top of my theoretical wish list (the one where I have no child to send through college) is the Panasonic/Leica 42.5mm f1.2 Nocticron. It's a large and heavy lens for the format and only 2/3rds of a stop faster than the Olympus 45mm f1.8 but I've handled it and shot with it and it's got extremely high performance wide open and just gets better and better all the way to f5.6. I'd have one now if I could justify the cost. But if you want the best medium telephone lens for the format this one is it, in spades. If you have the cash to do so, order it today. It's one of those lenses that will be legendary and collectible the minute it's retired from the market.
Three amazing new lenses that many users across many brands will be able to enjoy are the new(ish) Sigma 35mm, 50mm and 85mm f1.4 Art lenses. All three are big and both are in the $1,000 territory but they cover a full frame sensor and trusted reviewers consider them a big step up from the lenses of the same basic specification from all the other camera makers. If you were a traditionalist photographer from the 1950's this trio would be your "holy trinity" of lenses and you'd be set to shoot art like Robert Frank or Hank Cartier-Bresson. What a wonderful trio: Fast, sharp, nice tonal characteristics and from consensus of reviewers, good bokeh. Sure, you might need something a little wider to round out a professional collections but if you used a Nikon D8xx or a Sony A7r you'd be able to use the 85mm Sigma in a cropped mode and still get a nice, juicy file with a focal length equivalent of around 128mm.
Part of the Fuji plan to become class president revolves around giving pro and extreme enthusiast photographers the kind of lenses that most shooters dream about and salivate over. High speed primes. High speed primes with really great performance. A line of lenses without losers. What better way to sell a sensor or camera than showing it off with great lenses on the front. The two lenses I hear about the most from the shooters I admire are the 23mm f1.4 XF lens and the 56mm f.12 XF lens. They are fast wide open. They are design to yield most pleasing tones and colors and they focus quick. They look sexy and they shoot well and they are the perfect pair for a slimmed down, two lens system. A 35mm equivalent and a slightly shorter than 85mm equivalent, both of which can be shot wide open with good results. No, great results! Hey Sony!!! Listen up. That's how you sell a system. Offer people some great lenses to put in front of those quiet, high dynamic range sensors instead of just a confusing array of mediocre kit lenses....
Finally, I'm going to applaud the nutty people at Nikon for getting with the program and launching some professional lenses that are a bit slower than the big dogs. The lens that caught my attention is the Nikon 70-200mm f4G VR ED lens. With the cleanest high ISO full frame sensors on the market this is the lens that hits another sweet spot. Wide open it beats the performance of its bigger brother but loses some of the weight and size and nearly half the price. Around $1399 for the package. Canon has had two lenses (three, actually) in this range for nearly a decade. I owned the Canon non VR version and it was sharper from f4 down than its f2.8 counterpart. Shooting outside? These slower (but ultra sharp) optics are just the ticket.
Best Book of the Year For Photographer who need Fun Reading during travel and on their down time:
Yes, that would be The Lisbon Portfolio by Kirk Tuck. It's a novel with a commercial photographer as a protagonist. It's exciting, features gunplay and havoc and skewers the clichéd corporate event overseas. It features interesting uses of photographic gear and after the story is set up it moves at the speed of light. The niche of Photographic Fiction is very small. This helps add to the inventory. If you buy a Kindle copy you'll be one of the cool photographers in your MSA. Buy a paperback version and you'll instantly turn into a patron of the arts... But seriously, I'd love for you to try it out.
Best Lighting trends of the year:
It seems like everyone got over using too many lights and putting them in too many obvious places this year. What I'm seeing more and more of is the use of more available light augmented and carefully improved by little touches of light from small LED panels or extra light puffed through effective diffusion. The motif seems to be lighting stuff to render high quality files and nicely motivated light but without the low rent drama of over the top rim lights, hair lights and multiple Grimes-ean kicker lights. Also receding is gratuitous use of the clarity slider for every portrait of every athlete and every grizzled old man. Thank you! Now maybe we can work on creating images with long, luxurious tonality. Might not be as monitor aligned but in print I think it would be spectacular.
Best online educational classes for up and coming photographers:
Without a doubt it would be Chris Grey and Neil van Neikirk's classes about lighting and studio photography on Craftsy.com. The classes are much more organized and coherent than most of the stuff on Creative Live and are so much better produced than just about anything you'll see on YouTube. Sample their classes. Craftsy.com does a great job producing and editing the programming and they often run sales on the photo classes that make them as cheap as $19.99. There's a lot of good information just waiting to be sucked up. And the classes are entertaining too.
Best reason to keep taking photographs that you love:
Because the process of creating art is so enjoyable and seems to be hard-wired into the human spirit. Most of us will never become famous, never have a large audience, etc. but you have no idea how your work and your example may affect other people and the influence the next generation of photographers. Keep doing the work. The process of making art, even for yourself, makes you a better human being and keeps you in tune with the big questions of our existence. At least it does that if your work is something more than shooting test charts and lens tests.
If you're still on the fence about getting yourself something nice for the Holidays there are some classic books out there that you'll want to grab. Check out the photo section at Amazon. That's where I found this wonderful book about Guy Bourdin , master fashion photographer. I still have five photo books there you might like....
As a Holiday Bonus I'm offering my Craftsy.com Studio Portrait Lighting class for $10 bucks off. Take advantage now. Also, here's a link to my favorite, non-photographic class on Making Incredible Croissants at Home. Enjoy!