1.18.2015

The Saga of the proliferating Nikons. Some thoughts about cameras and camera systems.

Nikon D610

It all started with a comfortable combination. When I picked up an ultra-cheap Nikon D610 I rediscovered my much loved 105mm f2.5 ais lens. Having rediscovered the 105mm I immediately rekindled my love affair with the 50mm f1.2 lens and felt the rush of familiarity in using that lens at its intended angle of view. The experience was nostalgic, sentimental and, well, it reminded me that there's a lot to like about the 3rd best (35mm sized) sensor in the world. Especially when packaged in a good camera body for not a lot of money. 

I probably should have stopped there but I started pressing the D610 into commercial service and that's when I fell down a different rabbit hole. You see, all during my career I've tended to buy and use camera bodies in tandem. One as a main shooting platform and the second as an identical back-up when doing advertising projects. For public relations and event work (math conferences, banking conferences, tech conferences) I usually put a wide to normal zoom on one body and a long zoom on a second body and carry them over each shoulder rather than toting a camera bag around. 

When selecting a second body I want something that is the same format. That way, in a pinch I can use either lens on either body to good effect. No extra thinking required. I would also want to have two bodies from the same maker and the same era; that way I would have a reasonable expectation that the menus would be very, very similar, the nomenclature identical and the operation most rational. And it's always better if each body has an additional strength you can count on. 

I looked at a second, identical D610 body but I decided that I wanted to choose a second body with some additional benefits. While the D610 has one of the best high ISO ratings on DXO and the same high dynamic range as both the D750 and the Nikon D810 what it doesn't have is a complete set of video features. The D610 requires you to exit video to change apertures on non-manual lenses, it also lacks 60 fps in 1080p. Finally, video people in the know tell me that the codecs on the D750 and D810 are vastly improved. All three cameras can output uncompressed files in 4:2:2 so adding a Ninja Star digital recorder gets you into the realm of really, really great video quality at a very low additional cost.

When I weighed the pluses and minuses between the 750 and 810 the 810's higher resolution was a selling point, but so were the higher top shutter speed (1/8000th) and the higher flash sync speed (1/250th). The D810 also added 1.5 and 1.2 crop modes and because of the very high pixel density it is still able to deliver 16 megapixels into 1.5 (DX) and 20-something pixels into the 1.2 crop. 

Any combination of the three cameras would do a great job getting me good, high resolution files for still work but the D810 would add the ability to do really good video with a wide assortment of fast lenses. It also provides an "ultimate" marketing tool when I come across techie clients who are interested in getting the highest resolution files for their work.

I am also interested to see what kind of look the combination of the "flat profile" and high resolution sensor of the D810 will create when making portraits. I am hoping for the endless and subtle cascade of tones I used to be able to get from medium format film files. 

Once I made up my mind in favor of the the D810 I headed up to Precision Camera where I got the camera (as can anyone else) for the exact same price as I would have paid at Amazon.com or B&H Photo and Video.  I love to keep my money as local as I can and I certainly owed the sale to Ian (my regular sales guy) since he spent much time with me going over the assortment of cameras over the last few months. It's always wonderful to have a bricks and mortar resource where I can go in and actually handle the cameras and put them through their paces. Had I not handled the D810 and heard the vast improvement in the sound and feel of its shutter I might have just defaulted to the D750 just to save some money. But I would have missed out on owning the 35mm style camera that currently boasts the best sensor specs and overall image quality in that market. 

It was sunny and warm in Austin today. I grabbed the new camera and a 24-85mm G f 3.5 to 4.5 lens and walked around shooting. It was a blast to shoot in the sunlight with a (native) ISO of 64. Even though the camera's main failing is its lack of an EVF the view through the optical finder was pretty nice. But the real joy was the well behaved shutter mechanism. When I got back to the studio I tossed the uncompressed, 14 bit raw files into Lightroom and took a good, long look. The color in the files is wonderful and no matter how hard I tried it was impossible to find even a trace of noise.

Next week I'll be shooting a dress rehearsal for Zach Theatre. I am looking forward to having one body with a fast 80-200mm ED f2.8 on it and a second body with the 24-85 on it. Each body with a killer sensor. It should be fun. 

Why did I buy the new bodies and attendant lenses? For fun. For the tax deductions. As a differentiator in the market. For the resolution. Just to see if the grass is greener on the other side of the fence. Finally, perhaps just to be able to use that old Nikon 105 f2.5 as I remember it from the days when it sat on the front of F2s, F3s, F4s and F5s. Nostalgia pure and simple...

I'll write a review of each camera as I accrue more experience with them both. We've got some low light projects just on the horizon.

Final note: The boy has arrived at his dorm, safe and sound. I can hardly wait for Spring Break...

Quiet Sunday around here.

Ben and Studio Dog.

It's a quiet Sunday morning around here. Ben and his entourage of video game playing, snack food chomping, tea swilling, chinese food and pizza eating friends have all headed back to their respective colleges, scattered all over the United States. I got him up this morning around six and handed him a cup of coffee and some more money. He likes both.

We got him to the airport early, which he likes. He is a lot like me when traveling; he wants to get through check-in and security with lots and lots of time to spare. Once inside the secure area he can have a leisurely breakfast and catch up on the news and the blogs.

He's flying from Austin to Albany and going from day time temperatures in the low 70's to day time temperatures in the high teens. I bought him more ski mittens. He probably didn't need them but the idea of them keeps me warm. He's heading to Saratoga Springs and Skidmore College to finish out his first year. 

For the first time in a month we're largely socially unscheduled. I guess that means it's time to get back to work on some projects. 

First up, in the next blog, we'll be discussing new gear for the year. Did I just buy some? You bet!

Hope everyone with kids away at college is handling it at least as well as me. And to all those people whose kids are on that track but aren't there yet-----save up money!!! 


1.17.2015

Another chance to take my Craftsy.com Studio Photography Course at half price.


There's lots of great stuff on Craftsy. com
Photo Courses from a bunch of good people and a heck of a lot more.

I'm actually planning on take an unrelated course. It's called 
and it's by: Deborah Schneider.

But the class I'd really like to see my readers and friends take is

But whatever you end up taking it's fun to head over to the site and see what's available.

Use this link for any class and you'll help me support this site

Thanks!

edited Sunday morning: we're back on Twitter. Follow at your own risk: www.twitter.com/kirktuck

1.16.2015

Putting together personal projects for a number of different reasons.

I don't care if you are one of my keen competitors, a retired CEO who likes to take pictures or a tortured artist whose camera is the nexus of his identity. I think you need to have a personal project through which to better enjoy your personal art of photography. Let me tell you why from a couple different perspectives.

From a personal perspective, as a commercial photographer, one needs some sort of device or construction as an antidote to the cycle of collaborating with (compromising for) your clients in the creation of marketing images that are aimed at wide audiences and which have, as their sole intention, the focus on selling a product, a service or a concept. I have a number of personal projects that I pursue when I am not working or marketing to get more work. One personal project is the creation and constant gardening of this blog. To date I've published about 2200 posts. Some are good and some are mediocre and some (I am truly sorry) are just bad. But as a personal project the blog does two important things for me: 1. It keeps me practicing and fine tuning my writing (along with a writing feedback chain of my readers...). And, 2. It keeps me out shooting photographs all the time. Which is a good thing since I think fluency comes with quantity of effort. 

The ongoing, personal project of making the blog gives me a reason to try new techniques and to try new subject matter. It cures the pervasive laziness of existence by pushing me to go out and make images that either bolster some positive point I am making about gear or to even push out a bit or social or aesthetic commentary. In about 6,800 more blog posts I should just about have enough practice so I'll be able to turn out one perfect post. A post with a breathtaking and life changing photograph coupled with writing the would make Nabokov and Hemmingway both cry with jealously, if they were still around to experience this 10,000th blog...

I have other personal projects that get my attention as well. One is making black and white portraits of friends and then making beautiful prints. Another is my seemingly endless documentation of two seemingly constant changing city downtowns. One in Austin and the other in my home town of San Antonio. These projects all provide a balance and a happy extension of the work that pays the bills. 

Recently I've been pondering a project in the area of motion pictures. I'm toying with making a series of scripted interviews of fictitious characters who can say outrageous things and tell outrageous stories. It's nice way to lower myself slowly into the water of video. (I am normally the sort who jumps in quickly to get the immersion part of the entry over as quickly as possible and to save myself the discomfort of the slow torture of sliding in, inch by inch). In a longer time frame I would actually like to make a movie out of the Novel: The Lisbon Portolio.  Any of these projects provides practice writing scripts and figure out how to solve all of the technical and aesthetic problems of video so I can provide better services to my clients and in return learn even more stuff to apply to my projects.

To an ardent hobbyist the personal project, executed with discipline, is the best way to move both the skills sets and the rigor of good seeing forward. Not only that but a personal project with deadlines and a goal at the end (A show? A book?) keeps providing a sense of direction and even meaning to their practice. Projects that require one to ask for collaborations and shared work build networks of people who can help each other succeed with their good work. You might need someone to help by holding a light in a kinetic and complex shooting situation. That person might need someone to sit for a narrative portrait. Everyone might need a volunteer crew for their video project and everyone learns more by being part of the crew for someone else's video project. 

Having a show of work at a gallery or your favorite coffee shop or restaurant is a great way to get focused on what needs to get done and always informs me of just what the current state of my imaging inventory is. I have a rule that also keeps me shooting personal work: If I show at a gallery or the bakery or even in a social slide show I always want to show work that I've never shown before. It's exciting to see what other people think. If you have time to prepare you usually find that you need to fill in a bit around the edges and it's a great way of narrowing down your field of view and getting you out shooting to fill in the missing blanks. 

Finally, a personal project helps you develop a style because, if you do it right, you've set some formal boundaries for the kinds of images that will all fit comfortably into the same presentation. That's a quick way to encourage a shooting style to emerge.

If you have a subject you are interested in, say beer, you can create something really interesting and beautiful by walking us through the whole process. And you'll learn more about that subject, not just photography. 

All the images above are part of my "Austin Downtown Project." Over time I'll have a twenty year record of what's been added and what's been demolished and begun to fade from out collective memory. If I do a good enough job I'll donate a set of prints to the Austin History Center. If I do a bad job I'll be disappointed-----but I will still have a body of work to share.

The key is to define the project, define the parameters and the end goal and then get to work on it starting now. The pre-planning should not be the project. The image making and sharing is the project. 

I have a friend who is just about to start a video on the Graffiti Wall here in Austin. He's a gifted film maker. I hope he starts on it this weekend, the weather is supposed to be beautiful.....


Swimming pool at 14mm on the Nikon D7100.


Everywhere I went on Weds. the people I talked to were already bored and tired with the low temperatures and the seemingly endless overcast skies. Cold, wet and gray. The novelty of making fires in the fireplaces had quickly worn thin. And the windy 34 degree early morning swim on Tues. had certainly notched down my tolerance for this sort of weather nonsense. 

Yesterday and today have been nearly as perfect as the weather gets in Austin, in January. I hit the noon workouts for maximum real vitamin D absorption. When I crossed the deck this morning with my goggles in hand it was about 55 degrees farenheit. The water was a less cool 80 degrees and the pool was filled to the brim with sun worshippers. 

I decided that I needed a few images of the pool to post on my bulletin board to bolster my swimming enthusiasm in case the weather takes another nose dive. I got to the pool half an hour early and walked around the periphery with the Nikon D7100 I keep in the car along with the 14mm Cine Rokinon lens. Nice combination. Lots of pixels and still decently wide at a 21mm equivalent.

I've given up trying to visually focus ultra wide lenses on optical viewfinder cameras. I'm spoiled by being able to quickly punch in magnification on EVF cameras and being able to see the images, protected from sun contamination, in the EVF. What I've been doing with this particular lens is to stop it down to f8 and then setting the focusing ring to ten or so feet and blazing away. Sure seems to work well and it turns the whole rig into a quick snapshot camera.

This is the pool I spend so much time in. During all but the late Spring and Summer months it is vacant for the greater part of every day. Our masters team uses it from about 6:30 in the morning till 9:30 a.m and then again from noon to 1:00 p.m. The local high school practices there from 3:30 till 5:00 p.m. And then we have a youth swim programs that uses it from 5:30 till 7:00 a.m. The pool is open until 9:00 p.m. to accommodate any evening lap swimmers who choose to swim after dark. 

While we call it "The Rollingwood Pool" it's really part of the Western Hills Athletic Club which is a private club about two miles west of Downtown Austin. The club sits on a handful of acres in the middle of a beautiful neighborhood and (excepting the Summer months) is quiet, secure and peaceful. When the weather is in the 60's and higher I often go there with a laptop and write stuff. Just beyond the pool in the image above is an open air basketball court and beyond that, through tree studded lawn, is a sand volley ball court. There are also two sets of tennis courts. I think that if I ever retire I'll just plan on getting my mail delivered there and arrange somehow to have hot coffee delivered by Starbucks. It's that refreshing of a spot in an otherwise frenetic and jangly city.

We've done much renovation this year to the club. We now have brand new locker rooms, each with four showers fed by a duo of tankless water heaters, and each locker room is complete with central air conditioning and heating. We even invested in a swim suit spinner! Put your suit in after workout and it spins at a million miles an hour dragging all of the water out of the fabric. No more stinky, mildewed suits in the trunk of the car....and no more trying to get into a wet suit that's been freezing overnight.

We get an interesting mix of swimmers in the pool. We have at least a half dozen recent Olympians who are here because it's so nice to be able to swim outside year round. We seem to have a surplus of driven electrical and computing engineers who are swimming to improve their triathlon performances and we have a huge component of people like me who swam in high school and college and just want to stay in shape. We also have a large contingent of attorneys who mostly seem to be diligent distance swimmers.  Our holiday parties are legend and our workouts are tough and fun. 

As a working photographer it's nice to have a place to go where no one really talks about work, everyone likes everyone else and the only competition is in the pool. It's a nice respite from the inanity that sometimes surrounds pods of photographers when they gather together. Amazingly, there is not a single other photographer who swims in our program. I'm happy to have a place to go to sample something beyond the feedback loop of photography and imaging.

I'd be curious to know what the VSL readers in various other cities do for exercise and camaraderie when they need to shut off photography for a while and just have mainstream fun. Especially the folks who live in the great white north. Anybody care to share?


Stationary Mindset. Moving Target.


Let's see... This week I've been taken to task for not still using the 12 megapixel Olympus EP-2 in my regular, commercial workflow, for buying cameras with optical viewfinders, for buying a full frame camera and for writing too much about video. I don't know what to say except that times change, progress slithers onward and people in changing situations can make different choices.

I suspect everyone in my age cohort would have been much happier overall if everyone was still shooting medium format black and white film and making delicious prints, in happy solitude, in the darkroom. But I suspect a lot of that longing is misplaced and the delirious pleasures mis-remembered.

Culture and society, and culture and society's tastes are moving targets and so is technical advancement. I'm more and more interested in video from a commercial sense out of an instinct for commercial survival. Last year video sharing increased on Facebook by nearly 80% over the year before. Of the four bigger websites I shot images for last year three have video components in them while two have huge video across their splash pages. Here's an example: http://www.aurea.com/index.html

And here's the page where they used our portrait images: http://www.aurea.com/about-aurea/leadership  If you mouse over any of the portraits they transform to color (I think it's neato and someone had to program that as well).

And here's a typical use where a client has embedded a video I produced for them into a website that we have also provided extensive still images for: http://www.salientsys.com/products/pos-transaction-tracker/

I guess the point I'm trying to make is that we content creators who used to call ourselves photographers are no longer in a binary world where a wall exists between still imaging and motion products. Our clients more and more want both and the learning curves are about equal on either side of the process divide. I can learn to do and sell video well and then I get to keep both sides of the content product creation. It's easier for a client to deal with one supplier, one lighting style and one creative vision than a mix. Having both halves of a project is a greater overall incentive for the artist than having just one or the other. And it is inarguably better for the bottom line.

I've said it many times, there are no longer any barriers. I can go after web video and video production companies can and are going after the total package, including photography, as well. It's a contest of making the best overall selling proposition to the final client rather than futilely sticking to your guns and remaining (still photographically) pure. 

I'm guessing that the pushback I am getting from some readers is due to the heterogenous nature of my audience. Many here are long term photo enthusiasts who have no interest in video while a good number here are working professional photographers; some who have embraced the idea that motion will become part of their mix and some who are still locked in an emotional battle with themselves over whether or not to accept it and whether or not the transition is really even inevitable.

I can't really answer that for anyone except myself. I have the luxury and the burden of having a number of technology clients. They are good clients but the nature of their businesses drives them to demand a different mix of media and engagement with their clients. And to be technologically au courant.  It seems that 2015 is the year that all of them embrace richly mixed multi-media content in all of their various outreaches and communications with clients, customers and prospective markets. I am learning quickly to understand and satisfy the needs of the clients as they relate to video and I think failing to do so will change the landscape of my business.

For better or worse you are along for the ride here because I can only write about what I know.

And I know that the next ten years of imaging will be driven by a mix of still images and video and that for most clients the bulk of both will come from single points of supply. It's part of our job (and our responsibility to our imaginary stockholders) to make sure that we get a decent slice of that pie.

I re-evaluate the tools I use all the time. If they work I use them, regardless of whether they have EVFs (which I much prefer) or OVFs (which I have good experience using well for over 27 years...). What I'm looking for are the production tools that get the jobs I anticipate doing in the next few month done well, and the ones that make me happy to use them. Sometimes the two curves don't always line up.

Side note. The image above was shot with a Rokinon 14mm Cine lens on a Nikon D7100 making it, effectively, a 21mm lens on the DX sensor. It required a +11 setting for the lens's inherent distortion. I like the intersecting diagonals and the color palette in the image.

1.14.2015

I'm always curious to see things with my own eyes instead of taking everything I hear or read as objective truth. There's a lot open to taste and interpretation. Like the noise in a GH4...

A Twilight, Handheld Test Run of The GH4. Shot in 4K, edited in 2k. from Kirk Tuck on Vimeo.

If you want to see this in HD you'll have to click through the link to Vimeo (above). And if you hate gratuitous sound effects you should turn off your speakers....

I bought a GH4 last January and I really like the camera, especially when I am using it as a video camera. I did a hand full of major (for me) video projects last year where we used the GH4 as the primary shooting camera and then used one or two GH3s as b-roll or secondary angle cameras. I mixed lenses between the Panasonic X series and my older, manual focus, high speed Pen FT lenses and in every situation I was very happy with the performance. But I'll be the second one (after my wife) to tell you that I am more of a big picture guy and not so focused on the details.

Most of my use of the cameras was in conjunction with decent lighting. If there's one thing I can do pretty well in video or in regular photography it's to light stuff. So I rarely used the cameras at ISOs higher than 640 (except for some of the restaurant footage for Asti Trattoria which was done at ISO 1600...). All of our paid projects last year were also done in 1080p.

So recently when a good and experienced video shooting friend of mine sat down with me over coffee and exclaimed, "I'm over small sensor video!" I paid attention. I'd lent him the GH4 for several commercial projects and while his clients were always happy with the final footage he frequently alluded to the noise in the mid-tones and shadows. And I'm pretty darn sure that my friend knows his stuff, his resumé includes many projects for large, picky corporations and ad agencies. He was also one of the first people in town to throw down for a Red camera...

But here's the deal; some people really care about shadow and mid tone noise and some don't. It's like a sensitivity to wool sweaters or cheap sunglasses. I'm sure you know two groups of photographers: one group that thinks grain adds a lot to images and another group that sees grain as a major failure. It's the same thing. Given my perspective that a certain intolerance or over-tolerance for noise might be highly subjective I felt duty bound to shoot the camera in a dark set of situations and just see for myself.

I grabbed the GH4 with a Leica 25mm f1.4, a fat memory card and an extra battery and went downtown to shoot some minute's worth and check out the noise for myself. And I set up the camera just the way I thought it should be set up by a typical user. I shot at cinematic 4K which is 24 fps. I set the exposure to manual and set the shutter speed to 1/50th while leaving the aperture wide open (it's not a lens performance test, after all).  I used AWB and I varied the ISO sensitivity from somewhere around 640 all the way up to 3200 over the course of my little experiment. I used the "cine-like D" color profile and just to make it real  I hand held that little sucker (also an experiment to see the effects of coffee on small camera holding technique).

I shot with camera movement and with subject movement. Every scene is a veritable symphony of mixed light. I brought everything back into Final Cut Pro X and did not do any grading or noise reduction or color correction at all. As I cut it together I put in some annoying sound effects so you'll probably want to turn your sound off...

So, what did I find? Hmmm. I can see the noise in the deep blue sky areas and in some of the mid tones but it doesn't bother me at all. The highlights seem clean and clear. I'd use the footage as long as the content was good. If the content isn't there the cleanest file in the universe is pretty much a non-started. My overall thoughts?

If you do good lighting and you get enough level to work at ISO 200-800 you can pretty much use the footage for just about anything. Yes, you might hit the noise reduction a bit and you will want to sharpen but at the lower end of the ISO scale you shouldn't have any issues whatsoever. It may be the downsampling from 4K to 2k that helps but the times I've shot these situations originally in 2K yield pretty much the same results. The camera is quite good and the focus peaking, zebras, potential to use a 200 mbs codec are all nice extras. I won't disagree with my pro video friend, I'll chalk it up to different sensibilities.

I know this is not about still photography but the test was, in fact, part of my overall decision making matrix about gear for the year. The Panasonic wins again---at least in the video category. I'm keeping it!

Photographic Tools and Toys that have my rapt attention in 2015. For better or worse.

I want one more of these at the same price I paid in December. $1249.

Every once in a while I get into the mood to go shopping. It usually happens during the slow periods for the business. Like right after major holidays when the business world is trying to get some traction and rev back up into action. I start looking at what I've been shooting with and I look over the fence to see if the grass is greener in the other yards. Sometimes I think it is and sometimes I wonder why we don't just all xeriscape and get it over with. But shopping doesn't mean looking. It means touching, fondling and usually rejecting the final purchase of new stuff because: a. We don't need it. b. We can't afford it. or c. The merchandise is not as pretty and magical in person as we thought it was when we read the breathy reviews on the web. So, here is a list of stuff that I'm ogling in 2015. It doesn't mean some or all of it will end up in some corporate board room, pressed into the service of commerce and it doesn't even mean it will end up in my bag. But it's stuff that's whetted my appetite for sure.

First off, every store in the USA is selling the Nikon D610 for about $1499. When you consider that the sensor inside this camera is one of the top three or four sensors for the 35mm and smaller format cameras at DXO and that the body is pretty utilitarian and straight forward it really is a good deal. Well, it's a good deal if you have a drawer full of Nikon lenses and a few older DX (APS-C) cameras and you want to be shooting with full frame cameras. If you don't mind the size and weight of the body and lenses it's a pretty convincing argument. I bought one on December 27th and, as I believe that cameras are always happiest (and jobs safest) when they travel in pairs I would like to add a second one before the rebates expire at the end of January.
But to be honest, if I weren't cheap, hadn't just bought a really nice couch and paid for another semester of college at a nice school, and put money into my "pay the IRS" account the camera that I am really interested in is the Nikon D810. What can I say? Even though I know that in most of my hand-held shooting there will be no discernible imaging advantage between the 36 megapixels of the D810 and the 24 megapixels of the D610 my irrational mind is trying to convince me that I will spend more time with my cameras on the big, stout Gitzo tripod this year, carefully fine focusing miraculous lenses in live view and using some sort of esoteric remote to trigger it all with. I know this is a fantasy and that I'll continue to hand hold, use cheap lenses and generally have more fun then technical virtuosity will allow. But, it is an aspirational camera for someone who has grown up with every generation of digital, professional camera. I keep dropping by the dealership and test driving. We'll see, we'll see.
But every time I buy a new camera body from one of the big makers there's always the lens penalty. I may have a treasure trove of interesting lenses for a system but when I make bigger moves there's always one that's missing. One that really works well for my type of photography business. While I have enough wide, semi-wide and somewhat wide lenses for Nikon bodies the one lens I don't have anymore is the fast telephoto zoom. I've owned several variations of Nikon 80-200mm zooms and I've shot a lot with the 70-200mm f2.8 zoom but every time I play with those lenses I have three complaints. The first is that they are never as sharp as I'd like wide open, at the long end. Getting f 2.8 and 200mm and sharp at the same time always seems like too much to ask. Then, the lenses are heavy. Really heavy to carry around all day in concert with a big camera body. I'm in good shape but I'm not into photo-masochism. Finally, the long, fast glass is too expensive. When did every good, fast zoom spring up into the $2500 price point? Who do these manufacturers think they are? Leica?

No, the lens I'd pair with the newer generation of full frame Nikons would be the 70-200mm f4.0 G lens. Sharp wide open, half the weight and almost half the price. Given the sharper performance (f4 v f2.8) and the amazingly good high ISO performance of the newest, biggest cameras I think the f4.0 is the perfect compromise. I made the same choices when shooting full frame with Canon cameras and I  always felt it was the right combination of features, performance and price for me.
It's interesting when one system gets under your skin again (I have good nostalgia for Nikon's flash system and general performance from the old days...) but it's more complicated when several types of cameras capture your attention. For me, and for a lot of other long time shooters, Pentax creating a tipping point medium format camera in the 645Z. All of a sudden the sensor performance leapfrogged everything in the MF arena (soon fixed by Phase One but not at a similar price point) and did so at what passes for a bargain price in the medium format realm. Now, for around $12,000 we can have a monster good sensor in a very well designed and constructed body, with lots of modern bells and whistles. along with two good lenses. Pretty amazing. 

Lots will argue that the D810 is so close as to be interchangeable in performance but they miss the point. The overriding reason to own a camera with a bigger sensor is to get the benefit of the way longer lenses draw at the same angle of view as their smaller brethren. The 150mm f2.8 on a bigger sensor achieves a focus fall off that gives portraits a different signature. Is that different signature worth $5,000 more? For some, yes. For others, definitely not. But for an eternal optimist? I'm thinking probably so. Will I buy one? Well..... that's hitting a price point at which my business partner definitely gets a strong say and a veto vote. I'd have to convince here (with a signed contract in hand) that a client job would effectively cover the cost. Do I want one? What red-blooded photographer doesn't?  But I'll be frank, I don't have any clients clamoring for more than current 35mm sensor sized cameras can deliver. Just no demand in my niche.....yet.
It always makes me nervous to even think about dropping close to $10K on a camera and then more on lenses so let's look in the other direction at some of the more sensible cameras that have caught my attention and require more pondering and testing this year. First off, the mirror less stuff. If I dropped down onto the planet with no cameras to my name and I wanted to buy just one and a small handful of lenses, and I wanted that camera to make very good images while not physically impacting my travels much I'd immediately look at the Fuji XT-1. Great finder, great body and great controls, and even the sensor is fun and makes nice files. With a fast 35mm equivalent and a faster 85mm equivalent I'd be happy and ready to go. The one caveat would be the need for a pocket full of batteries but I really don't fear the generics so I think I'd be set. I used to think the price was pretty good until I realized what I could get in full frame sensors from Nikon but as a system the benefits of handling and light weight still make it a contender for the guy who dropped in from outer space with no system at all and intergalactic credit cards burning a hole in his pocket...
But if I were sniffing around the Fuji I'd probably be sniffing around the OMD EM-1 as well and it would be a hard choice to decide between the sexier looking XT-1 body and the feature set of the EM-1. Each has available lenses that are great so it really all comes down to things like 5 axis I.S. and handling. Hmm. I'm still resisting and they are both still a toss up in my mind...
I thought I'd be more interested in smaller, one inch sensor cameras by now but nothing seems to be getting my attention at the moment. I think the Sony RX10 pretty much is the final word in that arena and it's so bulletproof in its operation and image quality that it's almost boring. The perfect choice for someone who wants an all-in-one tool for great video and really good stills is one package for under $1000.  Again, get yourself a stack of batteries if you are the kind of shooter who goes out for all day romps through the urban landscape, shooting with reckless abandon...
There's one last thing that has me mulling over the checkbook balance. It's not a camera. It's not a lens. It's a more pedestrian piece of gear that will be as functional in two years as it would be right now and my interest is more piqued by my recent use than anything else. I want another Fiilex P360 variable color temperature LED light. While they don't put out a huge amount of lumens the ones they do deliver are pretty much flawless and the lights work just as I want them to. Wow. A product on my mental shopping list that's actually useful and functional as well as affordable. Zany. 

Of course, the cheapest and most entertaining photo accessory would be a great book. If you're spending a lot of time indoors because of the harsh weather I have a suggestion that will keep you amused and reading, for a few days at least: 


1.13.2015

Tuesday morning random stream of consciousness blog for no good reason.

Lens Portrait.

I didn't want to get up in the cold and the dark this morning to go outside and swim. It was a moist kind of cold that chills you quickly and wraps you in discomfort. But I didn't seem to have a choice. You see, we have new neighbors. The spent enormous amounts of money to scrape an older house off the lot next door and build a new house with lots of big windows and, for some reason, enormous television sets in nearly every room. When I say "big television sets" I mean monstrous ones that are wider than most people are tall. And they are the brightest televisions/monitors I think anyone could buy. Even though their house is two hundred feet from mine when they click on the early morning talk shows in one of the rooms facing my bedroom it's as though a psychedelic lightning storm is occurring right in our own little eco-sphere. 

I don't know what time the neighbor's brilliant television set clicked on this morning but I started responding to the abrupt shift in circadian cues around 6:15 am. Way too early for anyone to be watching cable programming. The "quick cut" editing of the early morning talk shows doesn't help either. It's a series of constant cuts between one bright screen after the other. 

But I was up so I grabbed a clean towel and my car keys and headed to the pool. It was still dark at 7 as I walked gingerly across the pool deck which was awash in the red glow of the digital pace clocks at each end. A puffy blanket of steam floated above the water lit from beneath by the underwater pool lights. I hopped into lane three and began the warm up. The fast lanes filled up quickly. A young woman hopped into my lane and started warming up. I'm always a bit nervous when swimming with college kids because they have boundless energy and love to push the intervals. We made it through the workout and I was satisfied that I had at least kept up with someone a third of my age in what our master's club calls, "The Varsity Practice." 

I would have loved to have stopped by Starbucks for a venti "half-caff" and a warm, chocolate croissant but I wanted to get home. We were scheduled to have a sectional couch delivered in the morning and I wanted to be there to help. We only buy couches once every thirty years so it's a big deal to me. I also wanted to be on hand to slip some money to the guys from the Salvation Army who were coming to take away our old sofa. As I got close to home I could see that Belinda and Studio Dog had just started their morning walk and were halfway around the loop that runs near our house. I had just enough time to hit the kitchen, make coffee in a Keurig machine and head out with a to-go cup and meet them for the next leg of their walk.  Studio Dog was pretty happy to see me. I'm a soft touch when it comes to handing out treats...

The delivery people from the furniture store were here early and did a nice job getting the sections of the couch in, unwrapped and set up. We inspected everything and gave them a "thumbs up." A few minutes later the guys from the Salvation Army came and looked at the old sofa. "Today is your lucky day! We'll take it." they said. We breathed a sigh of relief because who really knows how to get rid of an old sofa in this day and age? Especially a sleeper sofa that weighs too much. Once all the non-family members cleared out Belinda and I took turns making subtle changes in our furniture arrangements. I knew that the couch was just an opening feint in a new acquisition binge as we started talking about new chairs, a new rug and the idea of perhaps refinishing the hardwood floors.

I finally made it out to the studio/office where I was curious to see if I'd gotten any more results from an e-mail marketing campaign I embarked on last week. To date I've gotten three bid requests, one from as far away as Boston, and several dozen, "Beautiful Work!!!!" responses. I did my mailer differently this time. I sent out 500+ messages and each one was sent individually. Personalized notes included, where appropriate. I think bulk e-mails tend to get spam filtered but I have no real data to back up that presumption. I am happy with the initial response and I took a few more minutes to look over a greeting card (physical) mailer that I'm sending off to Overnight Prints later today. I'll have 500 cards printed, we'll stuff them into envelopes and mail them to the same list as the e-mail blast, as a follow up. 

I went back into the house to take another look at the couch and to wake up Ben. He and I are meeting my advertising mentor-friend, Mike, for Chinese food at 1 pm. He's known Ben since forever and he thought it would be nice to have a meal together before we bundle the boy up and send him back to college in the frigid Northeast. Funny, my old sofa is out. My kid is leaving again and I'm going to have to get used to a new piece of furniture. I'm certain Studio Dog will help me break it in. 

Just as in every previous year I am in the danger zone when it comes to gear. A year has come and gone and I spent it mostly doing jobs with the smaller format cameras. For the most part they worked well. Especially for video. But while I sit here and wait for clients to get fired up again after a long holiday of non-work I wonder if I should change everything up again and dive head first into something crazy like the Pentax 645Z or the Nikon D810. It's dangerous to be adrift for too long. I start over analyzing everything and making all kinds of photographic contingency plans. 

I'm just back from lunch and I've already been on phone to Precision Camera to talk about trade ins. Here's the root of today's first world problem: I can't find anything in the drawers that I dislike enough to trade in. I was thinking about the Panasonic GH4 system till I watched some 4K test footage earlier. That stuff is too good to lose money on. The EM-5's? Now way. They're going too cheap and they are too much fun to have into the bargain. 

I guess I'll have to do this the old fashioned way and just buy new stuff when the old stuff breaks. It could take a while. I'll think about the 2015 gear inventory later, right now Studio Dog has made the brilliant suggestion that I join her on the new couch for a nap. Now that seems like an intelligent priority.  I guess nothing gets traded or acquired today. 



1.12.2015

While not earth shattering news, it's fun to see that one of my favorite lens makers, Samyang, is bringing two versions of the 135mm f2.0 lens to market.

I couldn't find an official image of the new lens so I am using this photograph of
Lou as a place holder. It's not retouched or "PhotoShopped."
It wasn't done with a 135mm lens, it's a 250mm lens
but it's on a medium format camera so the angle of 
view is close.

I was happy to read in my Google+ feed, a comment from VSL reader and web friend, Mohammad Shafik, who let me know that Samyang (aka: Rokinon, Bower, etc.) has announced the introduction of yet another in their series of quirky but serious manual focus lenses. This one is a 135mm f2.0 lens that features a more complex optical formula than similar lenses from past decades. It is being released in both a photographic style with a large, comfortable focusing ring, and in a "Cine" style with geared focus and aperture rings that can mesh with follow focus mechanisms for----cine use.

I am a big fan of many of the Samyang lens creations, having owned some of their more popular lenses (the 85mm) more than once. While the 135mm focal length is a bit long for m4:3 and APS-C users for most portrait use (especially in the studio) it's a nice and classic focal length for full frame shooters.

When I was a beginner photographer I spent time with a fixed lens camera. It had a 40mm lens on the front of it and shot 35mm film. I "graduated" to an interchangeable lens SLR and for nearly a year the only lens I had for it was the 50mm f1.8 lens that came with the camera at the time of purchase. Once I saved up enough money the very first lens I wanted (and could afford) was a used Vivitar 135mm f2.8 lens. I thought I was in heaven. It was so much fun to compress distance and decimate backgrounds into blurry soup. I used the lens for a long time and took many images that I still like with it.  All the images below are from that lens and some old camera.


Romy's Feet at Dance Class.

Woman eating ice cream in Paris.

A casual snap from a few tables over. 
At Les Amies CafĂ© in old Austin. 
Long since torn down and now 
a thriving----Starbucks.

At a point in the early 1990s photographers became convinced that zoom lenses were the panacea for everything and, en masse, abandoned the fixed focal length lenses that had served them so well. Flexibility was the watch word of the new age. For a while the used shelves of camera stores were littered with 135mmm and later 180mm lenses that could hardly be given away. Every once in a while a new 135mm design would surface, mostly aimed at portrait photographers. Canon had a variable soft focus design which is actually the lens I used to take the image of Renee Zellweger that I showed in yesterday's blog post. Nikon still has the 135mm f2.0 defocus coupling lens around and it's supposed to be fantastic. Infinitely sharper than anyone's 70-200mm f2.8 zoom at the same focal length but a lens used only by a tiny group of very knowledgeable photographers. The Nikon 135mm DF lens has a feature that allows one to manipulate the apparent distance of the background edges which adds a spherical distortion softening to the edges of the frames and is a cool visual effect for fashion and portrait work----if you aren't one of the folks who believe that every frame must be pin sharp from edge to edge....

But the lowly and inexpensive 135mm f2.8's have largely vanished and been replaced by their multi-focal length, slow, tromboning brethren. And it's a real pity because there was a lot to like about those older lenses.

At any rate, I am delighted to know that Samyang is releasing this new lens. Because it's a manual focus lens, made by a smaller and, in some circles, less respected maker it means I will probably be able to afford to buy one brand new. I'm pretty sure I'll opt for the one in still photography dress so I can get the focus confirmation chip that comes along with the Nikon version. 

Do I have any worries about focusing this one? Have you looked through a 135mm f2.0? The depth of field is so small the image snaps into sharp focus on just about any focusing screen in an almost binary way. I can't imagine that even the most feeble practitioner will have difficulty focusing this one. 

As I look through the equipment drawers lately I am struck by the realization that I am turning into both a single focal length fan and also a manual focus lens fan. I am tickled with the performance of the Rokinon 16mm f2.0 lens. I love the portraits I've been shooting with the Rokinon 85mm 1.4 lens. I begin to salivate just pulling the old 25-50mm Nikon f4 lens from the drawer and putting it on my full frame camera and I keep the Nikon 55mm f2.8 bolted onto the front of a convenient D7000 camera at all times. 

The story isn't much different in the m4:3 drawer where the 7-14mm, 12-35mm and 35-100mm Panasonic super deluxe zoom lenses routinely take a back seat to the three Sigma DN art lenses (the 19mm, 30mm and 60mm < which is stunning) but usually those lenses are sitting in idle jealousy because I keep being fascinated (and pleased) with the results I routinely get from the 40mm f1.4 and 60mm f1.5 Old Pen Lenses. 

It must be the formal boundaries to seeing created by the fixed focal length that appeals to me. It's something I work with rather than being coddled by the choice of zooms. Conscious thought while shooting? Who would have thought that could be a benefit to creative camera use? I wouldn't be surprised if after that we actually started metering manually. 

At any rate I am looking forward to the newest 135mm lens. I can hardly wait to see how it performs when used wide open in a dark theatre from the center of the house. Thanks Mohammad. I appreciated the "heads up." 

Marketing Note: All the cool kids are reading "The Lisbon Portfolio" this year. Be sure to get yours.