Zeroing in a new (to me) camera. You have to get your hands around it.

One of the sentinels of Barton Springs.

In a previous blog I wrote about buying a used Nikon D7000 and returning it because the back focus was sooooo bad it couldn't be fixed with the in camera focus correction tools. plus or minus twenty were both equally ineffective. But I really did want a back up camera for the D7100 for those time when I want to use that body commercially. You see, I am incapable of leaving the studio for a paying job without a backup camera that will take the same set of lenses and generate images of the same basic image quality. The best case scenario is two identical bodies (or, if prices fall low enough, four---as in my collection of EM-5s) but the next best scenario is the previous model having most of the same control interface and (importantly) the same batteries.

I'd read a lot since 2010 about the Sony sensor that found its way into the Nikon D7000, the Pentax K5s and various other cameras that shifted the way we thought about high ISO performance and dynamic range. I'd made a mental note to try another used one if it became available for and advantageous price. I found my next one for under $500 in very, very nice condition with about 14,000 cycles on the shutter.

The first thing I did was test the focus accuracy by shooting various Nikon lenses nearly wide open (which, coincidentally) is the way I like to shoot most of the time. I'm not really an "f8" kind of guy.
The camera absolutely nailed focus with everything and I was happy. But I wanted to see what kind of operational differences there were between the 7000 and the 7100 so I took the older body out for a walk around the lake.

Most of the buttons are in the same place and the finder is very, very similar. As Ken Rockwell would say (paraphrasing) "One shows information in green the other in white. That and the different density sensors are the only real differences."  I think I have to agree with him except for one thing. At the sizes I use the files the older camera has a greater impression of sharpness in the files.

But none of this has anything to do with the core message of this post and that is that cameras need to get, for want of a better phrase, zero'd in. I find nearly every body I shoot with has tiny differences to identical models. Little things like the way the shutters sound or the way the shutter button feels. When you accept a new camera you need to "wear it" for a while and shoot it until it becomes second nature. Only then are you ready to take it out and shoot commercially with it. If you don't shoot for money then the goal is to feel comfortable enough to use it for a "once in a lifetime" experience.

It may sound funny but the previous (defective) D7000 felt off. That's one of the reasons I checked it right away. The new one felt almost immediately comfortable. Again. It's just a hand, brain, feel kind of thing and not a series of magic metrics that I can measure on an instrument here in the studio. But it seems as obvious to me as f11.

Into the Nikon bag this one goes. Ready to leap out and soldier on should the D7100 falter or fall.

Interestingly, of the four EM-5s I have from three different sources, all with lower shutter counts, each one feels a bit different in action from the others...shutters sounds, hand feel and even the finders. I guess even in this age of ultimate automation there's still enough variance to notice.

Yes. I still like this rehearsal image from "Tommy" at Zach Theatre earlier this year.

GH4. 35-100mm. 

Yes. The Novel is still available.  You are not too late!

here's a link -v-

What are the most cost effective pieces of photo gear I've bought in the last 30 years?

I love to play with cameras, dissect them, push them and coddle them. They are the bling of photography. Especially the digital ones because they come out with new ones at about the same rate that the fashion industry changes direction. Surprisingly, the cost of keeping up in both camps is pretty much the same....all of your paycheck. The lenses are like fine watches. If you know a watch collector who is into a certain niche, like automatics (non-electric, self-winding) chances are they have just about as many different watches as we might have lenses. And they've got a great rationale for each watch, just as I have for each jewel-like lens we buy.

If all it took to be a commercial photographer was a sick love for camera bling and lens jewelry I would be in the hallowed ranks of the superstars by now having plundered just about every camera line except for the new Fujis and Pentaxes.

But as I was setting up my studio just now to do a portrait this evening I took a good hard look at all the stuff we use every day to do our work and started to realize that cameras have always been a net money losing proposition for me while the gear that keeps the business alive is the stuff that can't be worn around my neck on a fancy strap.

So let's break it down by what we paid the least for, used the most and for the longest amount of time. Face it, it's the infrastructure that makes the whole deal work. A building without plumbing and electrical is just going to wind up being a mess!

Last or first on my list, depending on how you look at it, is my motley collection of light stands. I use light stands for everything from holding up lights (duh!) to holding up the suits and dresses of my subjects when they need a place to hang alternate wardrobe. They hold up light blockers, light reflectors, nets, and various umbrellas (with and without lights attached---nice to have an umbrella on a bracket on a sun baked outdoor shoot in the Summer. Instant shade). The sexiest thing my light stands do it hold expensive strobe heads with expensive soft boxes while they pal around with the sandbags draped over their "feet."

I have twelve or fifteen light stands. The least I've paid for a light stand is zero. Someone exiting the photo business in 1978 gave my first two for free. The most I've ever paid for a light stand would be the $139 I spent a few years ago for a heavy duty, high rising Kupo Century Stand. Big C-Stands are something you'll only need to replace if they are unlucky enough to be hit by a meteor the size of a bus. Nothing else I can think of would break them. So, if I total up the cost of every light stand in the studio I still can't scrape a thousand dollars. Less than a grand for tools that I've used on almost every shooting day for decades. Damn. What a deal!

And when I become an available light only shooter (hmmmm.) I'll still keep them around for hanging stuff over windows and using angled shiny boards in the sun to make interior available light----more available. I have a warning for you though. My friend, Frank, showed up for coffee last night with a box in hand. It seems that with all the profit wrung out of everything else in photography light stands might be the newest innovation. Frank showed me a ProMaster ultra light, carbon fiber light stand that has multiple leg positions and weighs about 2 pounds. It's about eighty dollars. To me what it means is that the lowly light stand is about to be decked out and tech'd out and that means once they add the hood scoops, the fins and the shreddingly cool heat sinks the big manufacturers should be able to propel the lowly light stand into the fashion arena and attach price tags to match.

Next on my list is the lowly photographic umbrella which is already undergoing a gentrification process at the hands of Profoto, Elinchrom and several others. I've bought a fair amount of umbrellas but again I'd say in all the years of buying them I'm still under the $2,000 threshold. And you've got to consider that I've been doing location assignments for nearly three decades. That's a lot of wear and tear.

Umbrellas aren't as tough as light stands though. Sometimes they blow over and the metal ribs get crimped and the umbrella is never the same again. I have one favorite 46 inch Softlighter umbrella that I liked so much I tried to fix it when the metal ribs got damaged. I taped pencils as splints around the weak areas of the ribs with white gaffer's tape ( on the theory that it would be inconspicuous ) and I still use that umbrella. I try not to use it too much in front of new clients because I don't want them to get the wrong idea. But then maybe saving money by rescuing injured umbrellas is the right idea. I can't figure it out.

I've lost a few to mortal injuries. One 60 inch softlighter kissed the tarmac of a windy little airport when I was in north Texas photographing the private jet collection of a law firm a few years back. It had to be thrown out and I did so with incredible sadness. It had done years of good service for me. I almost felt as though I should have brought it back to Austin and buried it in the back yard.

I've found a source of Westcott collapsible umbrellas that will fit just about anywhere and I've got matched sets in silver interior/black exterior, shoot through, white interior/black exterior and also silver matt interior. They collapse down to about 16 inches but they spread open to 45 inches. Miracle modifiers---and cheap as dirt.

Yes, I've bought many an expensive soft box and I do understand the mild light quality differences between the boxes and the umbrellas but for my money you can get 95% the way there with a good umbrella equipped with a front diffuser for a lot less money and you won't get stung in the wallet for good speed rings or stung on the hand by one of the sprung, high tension rods that hold the boxes together.

Every single soft box I've ever owned does three things: 1. They all start to rip at the seams sooner or later. 2. Every box will meet a temporarily unsupervised assistant who will take it upon themselves to "quickly" assemble the box and the fiberglas or metal rod you need most will be snapped in half or bent out of shape in a way that is unrecoverable. And, 3. They will each, in turn, become unevenly yellowed and stretched out of shape.

Now that the Chinese have entered the soft box race the penalty for melt down and yellowing is less severe but I remember too many times when Chimera was the only game in town and a big box could set you back six or seven hundred pre-inflated dollars. I'll gladly take five or six (or ten ) umbrellas instead. Learn the theory, save the bucks. Go umbrellas! If you pay over $100 these days for an umbrella, even a 60 or 72 inched, you've been had. My current favorite? A huge Fotodiox (chinese made) 72 inch white on the inside opaque black on the outside, deep umbrella that I think I paid $69 for. And that includes a white, nylon diffusion sheet for the front. Light modifier nirvana.

You already know how I feel about soft boxes and I am still stinging from the Profoto days when each speed ring (and we had a half a dozen) was about $120 each. And I may be remembering that price too optimistically..... Get em if you need em but be sure you really need them and it's not a question of just not learning how to feather an umbrella or "barn door" it with a piece of foamcore.

Moving up the list and down the overall value chain we come to an equivocal part of the inventory, the mighty tripod. Now, most of my wounds here, as with cameras and lenses, are self-inflicted. But a good tripod isn't all things to all shooting situations. I think you need at least two and one of those is bound to be frightfully expensive. In fact, I'll go so far as to say that if you don't feel nervous guilt while buying one (especially if you are a parent and your kids need things like shoes and lunch money) then you probably got one that just isn't good enough or won't last long enough.

It's crazy but the tripod that has stood the test of time and vibration the longest in this studio is an ancient (and I mean early day of film ancient) Gitzo 500 series Studex. The thing cost a fortune and weighs so much that assistants cry when they see it on the location gear inventory. But it's been run over by tanks, set on fire, used to hold the garbage crusher on an imperial cruiser open (which saved our lives) and it still works smoothly and with a benign grace. I have stood on it, used it with 8x10 and 4x5 inch view cameras, super long lenses and so much more. It is immovable during an exposure and I will never let it go. But it did cost me a fortune. And, of course, over the next thirty years I've bought lots of other tripods in the constant but ultimately frustrating search for anything both better and lighter. I've wasted money on carbon fiber and basalt and titanium and except for nicely and primly filling a corner of the studio they have all been for naught. They are all overshadowed by the 500 Series Studex.

But that doesn't prevent tripod flirtation which raises the over price of owning that class of good. My advice to you? Vibration reduction. But if you drink coffee or have a need for prints bigger than 4x6 inches with high sharpness just do yourself a favor and buy a big, bruising, heavy Gitzo and be done with it. Not nearly as cost effective as light stands, I'll tell you that right now.

I mentioned two. The big tripod is most important but there will be times when you will be weak and unmotivated and ultimately unwilling to carry the weight of perfection around with you. For these times you will need a smaller tripod. Not a mini-tripod, just a smaller one. I can't advise you on the mid-range as I am lost in the same thicket. Just grab one that goes up high and feels as stable as it can. Try to stay away from plastic leg logs----they'll come back to bite you.

Now we're moving up near the part of the list that causes most of us to hemorrhage money. But we're not at the camera and lens part years. First we have to go through the valley of the shadow of file life and death known as computers.  Yes, if you are under 40 you'll shake your head and think, "Oh, I can just get a crappy Dell machine for $700 and be done with it." And for the most part, if you are willing to do endless self help-desk you are correct. You can get a prettier machine with a better operating system elsewhere but in terms of just cranking through PhotoShop a decent (basic?) computer will work for the price of a decent sports coat.

But if you were around when they were first inventing this stuff you would have already spent at least as much as you would have on a nice car, over time. And to really do it right (optimally? Comfortably?) you'll still need to spend a hell of a lot more than the price of a couple of exemplary tripods or a couple hundred workable light stands (which you will use just as often).

I've owned and used computers in the business since the days when a 10 megabyte hard drive (not gigs or terabytes. Just megabytes) was about $2700. That doesn't include the computer to run it. Over the years I'll guess we've dropped about as much as a nicely equipped Honda Accord V6 but it never stops with the price of acquisition. There's all the software and, as our camera files get bigger and bigger there's the open door to nearly monthly hard drive replacement/augmentation and RAID care and feeding. Oh the joy of it. Tell me again how film and processing was so expensive? I bet even in this day and age it really would be a wash.

That brings us back to square one. The bling. The cameras and the lenses. The fashion and the fantasy. I know why it appeals. You can wear it. You can wear more than one.  You can take them out to show your friends. They go with anything. It's the portability and the show. Just ask anyone in Manolo Blahnik boots why they paid what they did to wear uncomfortable footwear for a few months. It's the same investment class. Really.  Here's a pair you might like CRAZY SHOES!!! So tell me again why getting the Panasonic LX100 or the Sony RX111 isn't exactly the same thing....

Which brings me back to light stands. I'll be sad when they succeed in coming out with designers light stands. And even sadder when the photo cognoscenti change out stands with the season...Someone on a web forum will pedantically explain that clients won't hire people who don't have the latest gear. And, after all, don't they deserve it?

Wanna save money in photography? When buying any gear always remember the value proposition of the light stand. The only real, long term investment in all of photography.

Best gear ever? My typewriter....    

Balance, Counterbalance. Going overboard and then getting back into the boat.


It was such a wildly excessive portrait week last week. All portraits all the time. Exterior portraits in the wind. Fluorescent lit portraits. Flash lit portraits. HMI lit portraits. Even little flash portraits. So, after additional time in the post processing/retouching trenches I emerged this morning ready to shoot just about anything else.

One of the problems with doing lots of portraits for group medical practices or high tech companies is that even after you've carefully explained all the steps to your direct contact you still end up administering more than you should. For example, I make it really clear that when it comes to portrait selections for retouching I'd like to have everyone's selection on one list before we get started. If you've done a job with 10 or 20 different people for one company you know that they are looking for consistency. After all, these portraits are generally going to sit right next to each other on the website. And the best way to ensure consistency in a project is to sit down and edit all the images at once in one long, clean session.

When too much time elapses between edits you start to go "off the ranch" (at least I do) and toss in the results of experiments in processing that you might have done in between batches of erratically delivered file numbers. You might think to automate the process so all the retouching looks the same but you'd be barking up a strange tree as almost every face needs its own combination of fixes and enhancements. The major things to get right when you're looking for consistency are getting the color and density of the background right, hitting a pleasing and reproducible skin tone, and keeping the contrast and sharpening/noise reduction all in the same ballpark. Toss in cropping as well because you really should be matching head sizes. If you leave that up to some web designers you run the risk of getting a really rocky checkerboard of images in the final layouts.

Another issue we come across on a lot of shoots (and something I hear from other photographers) is that clients just can't make up their minds. I had one client recently who was supposed to select one image that would be used in an ad. His admin sent me a list that included selections from: His wife, his two daughters, his business partner and, of course, his admin.  In all there were nine different image files selected, and on one his admin wanted to know if I could change the color of the man's tie...

So, how do you pare it down and make it manageable? We lay a lot of stuff out in advance of the job. If we're doing a directly commissioned portrait; and by that I mean the person we're photographing is hiring me and paying my bill, I'll offer three to five variations which are included in the price of a session. If it's part of a larger set of people and images or it's part of an advertising project I'll cap the included file retouching at two images per person and then charge a set fee per additional file retouch. In the new year I'm moving to a stricter policy of doing one great selection retouch and then charging $25 per image for each additional file selection. When I say "basic retouching" I'm talking about doing basic color correction and tonal correction, making sure the skin is right color and hue, that we have taken out normal pimples and blemishes, dealt with normally bloodshot eyes and soften rough skin. If we need to do more stuff or more complicated stuff then I'll hand it to an outside retoucher and mark up their fees or do it in house on an hourly rate.

If you've been working with PhotoShop for a long time and you've been shooting portraits for a long time you should be able to do a "standard or basic" retouch on a file in five minutes, ten minutes tops. This does not include clipping paths, masking out backgrounds or any other graphics/production work.

With the rules firmly in place when a direct client comes back with a laundry list of files they "might" want it's easy to add the number of files all up and present a price before you begin the retouch process. If that list of ten means adding $250 to their final bill, and they are okay with that, then you win---kind of.  I think it's better to help your client narrow the list down a bit and keep the charges in a comfortable ballpark but at the same time you have to be wearing your business hat right under your artist hat so you don't give away your time. It's pretty much all we've got...

So last week I just went overboard on portraits. Like a customer in a Mississippi buffet line. Earlier in the fall we (assistant: Amy Smith) did a giant shoot with 100 portraits done over two days. This past week was a bit more difficult because of the daily change of landscape, usage, locations and style expectations. On several jobs we were trying to match previous work (which I hate because I dislike doing anything the same way twice) and sometimes I no longer have access to a distinct background or a quirky lens that I thought I hated and sold only to realize I liked and couldn't replace it.

The counterbalance to spending full days with people right in front of your face is to go out for a long walk with a different camera and no people anywhere near your face. I did that this morning. I was dragging around a Nikon APS-C camera with a 50mm lens and just banging away whenever I saw anything I liked. Nothing moved, blinked, squinted, flinched or frowned. Everything just sat there begging me to photograph it. I spent a couple hours in the brisk morning air having a great time with a mundane and unimpressive camera. But it did a nice job.

The final part of the walk took me past the original Chuy's Restaurant. The chain is pure Austin Tex-Mex food but the owners have a flare for crazy decor. There's an assortment of drive in intercoms and reflective balls out front. All of these images are from a space of about ten square feet in front of the restaurant. Sometimes shooting stuff in Austin is like shooting fish in a barrel.

I've polished the reflectors and light stands in the studio and wrapped cords with an unusually graceful touch. I've sent invoices and thank you notes. I've been on the non-portrait cleansing walk and now I'm ready to jump back into making portraits. Good think I've recharged, we've got one coming up tonight and three more before the end of the week. It's nice to be back in balance. Now I'm waiting for chance, luck and destiny to send me a really great annual report....  That should keep the fates (and the studio) busy for a while.