Does your insistence on using the same camera for years at a time hamper your artistic growth? How do you know?

I'm reading a book called, Letting Go of The Camera, by Brooks Jensen. The book is a series of essays by the editor of LensWorks. One of the many great essays in the book talks about the time that Jensen, who had used a 4x5 inch, film, view camera exclusively for over 20 years, finally bought a 35mm type digital camera. He describes the incredible sense of freedom and visual agility he instantly gained because he no longer was constrained to shooting carefully constructed images, on a tripod, requiring long set up times and motionless subjects. The transition helped him to realize that we all tend to be limited by the boundaries imposed by our habits. It's an example of the old saw that goes, "If all you have is a hammer everything starts to look like a nail." 

The main point of his essay is that working with the same tools all the time trains you to find subjects and ways of shooting that convenience or leverage the strengths of the camera and not your unique vision. Another essay talks about the difference between reprising your greatest hits over and over again or finishing with a creative vein of work and moving on to another, different way of seeing. There are photographers who have early "hits" and the approval of their fans, coupled with their basic insecurities, conspire to manipulate the photographer into basically doing the same kind of (popular) images over and over again. It's what their current audience expects and the act of disappointing the people who validate their vision is too frightening to consider for some. Their growth as artists comes to a halt.

But the great artists need to keep moving forward---like sharks---or they stop being creative and become greatest hit xerox machines. I think it's instructive for people to move outside their creative comfort zones as often as possible. Jensen mentions Joni Mitchell and John Paul Caponigro as examples of two artists who are constantly re-inventing their art and their subject matter. And he writes about their constant artistic growth.  The very act of looking at something through different frames may unleash a wonderful new way of seeing and sharing. And the very act of casting your vision onto a totally new subject matter can change everything.

In my career I've experimented with everything from 8x10 inch view cameras to Pen F half frame film cameras. Every time I pick up a new camera it seems to change the way I approach my photography. The acceptance of new boundaries keeps my eye and my art fresher. 

 I was perplexed recently when a very good friend who is also a very good photographer told me that my work looks the same to him no matter what camera I use. We discussed it and what we came up with is that when your work resonates across formats you've hit your innate style. Style seems separate from curiosity or vision or creativity. Style feels more like how you put your pants on in the morning or how you tie your shoes.  It only speaks to how your mind and eyes see ingest the subjects that interest you, not in the way that the a particular camera helps to shape the way you share them.  

I suggest changing cameras. I like to change cameras.  Actually, that's an understatement. Most VSL readers would say I change cameras as often as most people change air conditioning filters. That may be so but it keeps me interested because it makes me work in different ways. And then I can always brag about my real achievement as a photographer===I've figured out the nuances of the Olympus menu.

Chaotic Frame. Fun Frame.

 no clue what it all means. It just looked so layered and at the same time menacing through the camera that I wanted to have the image. Olympus EM-5 and Olympus Pen F 150.  From: Tommy, at Zach Theatre.

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Another set of images from the Olympus EM-5+Olympus PenF 150. Acid Queen.

 l love the energy this actor puts into her role. Amazing. 

Guilty admission: I posted the bottom image even though I know I missed focus by just a bit. If you look at the mesh near her ear you'll see that the lens is "satisfyingly" sharp but I missed the eyes by an inch or so. Goes along with the long lens-low accutance viewfinder-manual focus-f4 aperture and moving actors on stage....   Why would I post a shot that just missed being perfect? Because I think the energy and the overall emotional power of the shot trumps the technical miss. 

I know how to make the sharpest photos in the world. Given time, a medium format camera, some really fast duration Broncolor or Profoto studio electronic flash, a model in a fixed position, a $10,000 lens stopped down to f11, etc. etc. etc. But if you aren't going to do that (and who's going to wait for you to get it all assembled and ready?) and you are shooting on the fly shouldn't the "look" trump having all the boxes checked?

Techno stuff: Olympus EM-5, Olympus PenF 150mm f4, stage lighting. Wide open, ISO 1600. From a raw file.

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Testing, testing. How good is that old 150mm f4 Olympus Pen F lens?

Meredith as Tommy's Mom in the Zach Theatre Production of Tommy (The Who). 

I know it's not just me. I think a lot of photographers have boundless curiosity when it comes to the way different lenses look on cameras. We talk about sensors a lot but so much of the look and feel in an image comes from the lens on the front of the camera. While we have the general belief that newer, computer designed and computer controlled manufacturing has led, inexorably, to the creation of lenses that are much, much better than those from decades ago the reality is that precision manufacturing, tight adherence to tolerances and the right supporting materials are at least as important as the latest designs. A great lens design in a plastic barrel with lots of tolerance for geometric slop may be light years behind a classically designed and produced lens system ensconced in a metal assembly and hand calibrated for best performance.

At some point the whole discussion about old versus new devolves under its own weight but there's an aesthetic component that has more value. The real question what is the end result of the interplay between a given lens and film or sensors. One of my favorite lenses is the Nikon 105mm defocus coupling lens. It introduces spherical aberrations to create a system allowing the curved plane of projection on the sides of an image to be in front or behind the actual plane of sharp focus. The sides can be out of focus in front or behind the center for aesthetic reasons. How strange that must seem to all  the people's whose shallow view of lens quality is just how uniform sharpness is across the entire frame....

But that's just my digression for today. The reason I brought it all up is that last night I was shooting some images of a rehearsal. I'm shooting the actual rehearsal on Tues. so last night was more like a scouting visit to the theater. I wanted to see what the lighting was all about and how frenetic the production of Tommy would be. Since I didn't have to guarantee a perfect set of images, or any images at all, it freed me up to test an old lens I've been circling around to every once in a while. It's the 150mm f4.0 Olympus PenF lens from the late 1960's and early 1970's.  I used it on the little Olympus EM-5 with an inexpensive Fotodiox branded adapter. 

When I shoot theater I tend to use the cameras in the manual exposure mode. I set the ISO at 1600 and tried to maintain a minimum shutter speed above 1/200th of a second. These two shots are from the same frame. The one above is the full frame while the shot just below is a 100% crop. I did apply just a tad of noise reduction in Lightroom 5.0 to take the edge off. I accounts for the smoother skin tone in the bottom image. 

I was pretty impressed by the performance of this ancient lens, especially so since I was using it at it's maximum aperture. I can only think that if I had enough light to go to f5.6 or f8.0 the results would be even more impressive. When I look at the sharp eyelashes I marvel at the camera's ability to stabilize this long lens as well as my own ability to handhold it and to sharply focus it on a moving target, on a dark stage. 

The EM-5 is pretty darn good, noise and tonality-wise at ISO 1600. It's just about exactly as good as the GH4 under the same conditions. How do I know? Well, I shot them side by side last night. The GH4 got the easier job because it was coupled to the Panasonic 35-100mm f2.8 which is very sharp even wide open and it one stop faster than its 30 year old cousin. 

I have used adapters to try a range of different brands of lenses on the m4:3rds cameras but for some reason the hand selected Pen F lenses do the best job of any of the legacy lenses I've tried. Better than the Nikon manual focus lenses and better than my motley selection of aging Leica lenses. I think it's because the Pen F lenses were originally designed for very high resolution because their target was a half frame piece of film. The lens developers at Olympus knew they would have to give the smaller pieces of film every advantage they could and that meant optimizing the lens performance to render tiny detail well. It's probably the same thing the designers at Panasonic and Olympus do with m4:3 designs today. 

I am always interested in how a particular lens imparts a certain "feel" or look to an image. I just thought I'd share this little test....

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For a guy who yammers on about "practice" I sure am out of practice...

an image from an annual report shoot several years ago. we used to go out more often with tons of gear poised over both shoulders and a cart in tow. do it every day and it becomes routine. hoist the bags too rarely and when you do get a job that involves portage you suffer.

WORK IS A CRUEL BITCH. It robs you of the time you deserve to spend shopping for fun, new cameras, taking naps and having coffee with friends who are as indolent as yourself.

I've been doing a lot of work lately that goes like this: Assistant (Ben) shows up and helps pack gear into cases and then into the car. We arrive at some high technology company headquarters or advertising location and Assistant helps load all the junk onto a stout cart and helps navigate to the elevators and onward to the final location. Assistant and photographer set up and usually spend a fun, happy, coffee filled and engaging morning or afternoon making portraits, or shooting products, or making photographs of people using their products. Then Assistant and I load everything back into the cases, return to the studio and I head to the computer while Assistant unloads car, then cases.

In previous times the business was more heavily weighted to two kinds of imaging that required more "big bag on shoulder" work. The image above was just one of six taken on six locations throughout a long day. Most of the locations were not the kinds that you could drive a car right up next to, hop out and work out of the hatchback. A job like the one above might require a quarter mile trek through some gravel and some mud (which always precluded the use of a cart). I'd put the camera bag, laden with all those too heavy, full frame or APS-C cameras and their huge lenses and assorted battery powered flashes, over one shoulder put the 18 pound Elinchrom Ranger RX AS pack over the other shoulder and grab a stand with a flash head and modifier to carry in my hands. Then we'd traipse off into the heat and find a great spot to in which to shoot.

The other type of carry it all around with you job is the corporate showcase or event. Imagine a sprawling convention center with half a million square feet of space, a client break out room or demo area or main tent speaker session at every end of the building and on every floor of the space---and events happening continually. I used to do these with a big Domke camera bag over one shoulder that held multiple, big, fat cameras, the usual holy trinity  of lenses (wide zoom, normal zoom, telephoto zoom), several flashes and lots of batteries. Most of the time you never put the bag down. You were shooting and then moving on to the next spectacle continually from the time you arrived (before dawn) till the last of the proscribed and required social functions; well past 10  pm.

If you were wise at all you'd switch the bag from shoulder to shoulder to try to even out the abuse.

But, as I wrote above, the work I'm doing these days requires more carting (too much studio type gear) and much less camera bagging. So I was rudely surprised at the end of the day yesterday when my left shoulder hurt, my left forearm was sore and my lower back was flashing the "if you do much more I'm going to punish you!!" symptoms.  I'd spent all day shooting. And for five hours of it I walked around with the heavy camera bag and too much stuff hanging over my left shoulder.

Here's the sneaky thing about all those super small and lightweight micro four thirds cameras: They take up less space so you can take more. I knew I'd be shooting with the Panasonic GH cameras because part of one shoot was video. But I also wanted to drag along the EM-5 with me to do some comparison shooting for an upcoming GH4 review. But of course any time my brain is in the testing mode you know that additional boutique-y, prime lenses and legacy mania optics are also coming along for the ride. Ben and I shot at the museum (he carried the bag full of flashes and LED panels as well as the light stands, the tripod and the clipboard with model releases) from 11:00 am till about 5 pm and then we headed home. I dropped him off, picked up different gear and more batteries and headed to Zach Theatre for an evening of rehearsal shooting, also with the comparative camera combos.

One of the things I was testing is Oly Jpeg files versus GH4 Jpegs. Not really a gnat's whisker difference in overall quality if you know how to set up the menus. The real fun part of the evening was working with the IBIS in the EM-5 along with an ancient Pen F 150mm f4 lens from the early 1970's. Amazing what you could do with that stuff if you actually got it in focus and stabilized.

At any rate, when I woke up this morning I was sore. Some of that could be three days in a row of 1.5 hour, holiday swim practices but the left shoulder and lower back can only be credited to being out of shape with the bag.

Other than reconstituting the type of jobs I'm searching for (and accepting the painful ones)  I don't know how to maintain that kind of conditioning. It would be too goofy to go for long walks with big camera bags. But there it is.

I know enough now to at least pawn off half the load to my Assistant. As I become less excited about dragging bags around maybe I'll just have to start surrounding myself with an entire assistant entourage. Naw...who am I kidding? I'm too cheap to feed more than one assistant per job...

At some point I guess every photographer has to come to grips with the fact that what you could carry through the day in your thirties changes when you hit your fifties. Doesn't make it any more palatable.

Need some action and adventure in your Summer? Try the photo novel of the Summer: 

We'll both be happy you did!