I watched a remastered version of the movie, Casablanca, last night and was amazed at how much better the black and white imaging was versus anything I see today....
Belinda, Circa 1980.
I get it but I don't get it. We were home. We had a copy of the movie, Casablanca, on DVD. We tossed it into the player and sat back to watch. We've both seen the movie maybe a dozen times. Together at a theater, on VHS, on broadcast TV---in the cathode ray tube days, and also recently on a DVD and a 50 inch flat screen. But last night I was paying attention and really watching not only the pacing and editing but also the amazing quality of the lighting and the wonderfully translated range of tones rendered by the black and white film of 1942. If you've never seen the movie you might want to stop reading right here and get a copy to watch. It's one of the best movies to come out of the Hollywood studio system---ever.
There's a scene in Casablana, in a marketplace (I'm sure it was filmed on a set), in which Ingrid Bergman is wearing a wide brimmed hat and there is wonderful detail in her eyes even though they are in shadow. At the same time nothing burns out in the areas lit by full, direct light. The tonality of the movie in general is really amazing.
So I'm sitting here doing the math and best as I can calculate that movie was made, in a rush, over 73 years ago. So why is it that with all our technological advances nothing I see in magazines, on websites or up on the modern movie screens comes anywhere close to the image quality of this movie? They didn't have the ability to post process in the ways that we do. They didn't have miraculous computer designed optics with Nano Crystal coatings. No Arriflex Alexa or Red Dragon cameras. No video assist. No on set monitors. No digital techs. Just light, film and a measuring tape with which to check focus. And that film? Research says it was probably panchromatic Kodak ASA (ISO) 50 or slower.
Makes me wonder if technology as it relates to real visual craft has been going through a de-evolution over the past 70 years with people willing to trade for explosions and special effects instead of flat out quality and professional attention to detail and workmanship. Besides the time and cost savings have we gained anything of real value (visually) in our madcap rush to digital imaging and digital movie making? A quick comparison between Casablanca and just about anything out there on prints or on the screen today says, "No. You've been had. Suckers."
It's instructive to look at what brilliant visual artists were able to construct in the past. And we do need to look at it and become more aware of these treasures before each successive generation sweeps the real magic under the rug in an attempt to make audiences believe that what we're getting right now is the best that can be done. Tragic.
American photographers---commercial and hobbyists, by and large, have always had a tradition of owning the gear that they shoot with and with which they use to make a living. In the old days this made sense. A Hasselblad and a couple of lenses could comprise the primary (or only) shooting tools in the inventory of business portrait photographers and, once purchased, had a useful life measured in decades.
While we are slow learners it is becoming more and more apparent that during the age of digital it would have been smarter in many instances to rent the gear we use sporadically instead of splashing out for the full purchase price.
While still cameras are pretty mature at this point and a Nikon D810 or a Canon 5D.3 can conceivably be kept around for daily use for three or four years the same in NOT true in the current video equipment space. Even if that video gear is resident in your still camera.
I bought a Panasonic GH4 over a year ago and used it in dozens and dozens of profitable projects. At the time the purchase may have made sense because the camera was not appreciably bettered by anything even near its price in the ensuing year. But locking into one camera for its video capabilities while shooting with other cameras for stills doesn't make sense to me now.
Every project we bid on these days is different. The look I want is usually different. I learned that when testing the Nikon D810 next to the GH4. The Panasonic is demonstrably sharper than the D810 and it features 4K video while the Nikon does not. The Nikon, on the other hand, has less noise in the darker areas of the frames, a bit better color (especially with flesh tones) and the ability to control depth of field to a much greater degree (at least in one direction....).
But there are times when image stabilization trumps everything else and then I want to use an EM5.2 (even if the video files are technically inferior to the other cameras) and on the next assignment I need to use a video camera with a huge zoom range with a lens that doesn't shift apertures as it's zoomed. I have another project coming up (all exterior) and for that one I'd love to use a camera with built in neutral density filters.
When I bought my GH4 they were in very limited supply and buying one meant having access to it when I needed it. But now they are more readily available and I have multiple local sources for the body when needed. I chose to sell mine in order not to see the entire video world through one piece of gear. If you own the gear there is always the tendency to use it exclusively in order to get the value of your investment----even when it's not the best choice. The tired old saying is somewhat true: "When you have a hammer everything looks like a nail."
My recent rationalizations of gear inventory don't necessarily reflect my opinions about the value of gear but instead about the best way to acquire and use gear. We only really used the GH4 on video intensive projects and those were/are more sporadic than regular photography assignments. Some video is perfectly well done with our daily beater camera, the D810. In fact, on people shoots I prefer the overall rendition. Other jobs are just right for the GH4 but it doesn't make good sense to keep one in a drawer for what might be a monthly or even bi-monthly creative exercise. We can rent or borrow one as needed, paying a rental fee that's ultimately charged to the client and then returning the camera after the final day of shooting.
If you don't think this is smart just think how the current owners of Canon's $13,995 C300 camera feel. A new flurry of much improved Canon dedicated video cameras is about to hit the market at NAB's show and in anticipation Canon has dropped the new price of the existing C300's to $6,500.
I'm sure the current owners believed that they'd be able to sell their existing rigs into the used market to defray the cost of new gear but a $6500 new, new price brings their possible value down to around $4,000 in the used markets. That's a big overnight hit to take if a good trade-in value is part of your procurement strategy.
The Samsung NX1 is a pretty darn good 4K camera (with a few operating glitches and a weird and scary codec) and it's been actively on the market for less than four months but it's price just dropped by 20% almost overnight. Is it because a new model is coming along behind it or does Samsung have advanced information about more competitive products coming from more established camera makers at more competitive price points?
With a market that's moving quickly and is in a fluid pricing environment renting is the strategy du jour. Marry the lenses, date the cameras.
I think the GH4 is the best value proposition of all the 4K video cameras currently on the market. But that particular market is an active, moving target. It was time to move some inventory while the camera was still selling for its introductory pricing. Once things gel in 4K we'll see who is standing and what new technology came galloping onto the scene. Then maybe we'll buy again----unless 8K is starting to warm up. Then all bets are off.
Our friends who shoot commercial video do things in a totally different way than traditional photographers. They rent everything and they customize the rental according to what they need for the concept and the anticipated production. They don't buy many lights. Instead they rent trucks full of lights for the day. They don't buy jibs or automated sliders. They rent them as needed. Most camera operators own a really, really nice video tripod and fluid head, and maybe a little case of specialty lenses with PL mounts. They might have an inexpensive video camera for quicky jobs and personal work but when push comes to shove it's all rental and all billed to the client. Their inventory is very temporary and cost neutral. That sounds like a good model to me.
They laughed when I said I was downsizing the inventory of cameras, until I sat down to play the piano...
Contax RTS III. 50mm f1.4.
I have a well deserved reputation as a person who changes cameras as often as most people change the filters in their coffee machines. I've owned a lot of different systems, cameras and lenses and at one point could probably count twenty four different digital camera bodies in the studio environs at one time. But I seem to have turned over a new leaf. Right now (not counting old film cameras that are not worth selling) I have the fewest number of cameras (and systems) that I've owned in at least two decades.
Occasionally a camera will float in from a manufacturer for review but we can't really count these because they are temporary and have to be returned at the end of a specified trial time.
Since the beginning of this year I've been on a camera purge of sorts. I decided to only keep the camera around that I want to use, like to use and enjoy the images from. I stopped letting nostalgia push me to keep older, more unusual and large numbers of duplicate camera bodies around.
In just the past two weeks I've sold two Nikon D7000s, one Nikon D7100, all the Nikon APS-C lenses and four Olympus EM-5 bodies. Lots of accessories left along with the bigger ticket items. All the small, compact, fixed lens cameras that I imagined I'd love to carry everywhere and shoot with are gone. That includes some that I love in theory and in the quality of the files but just felt awkward with.
Some I got rid of stuff out of superstition. Once a camera develops a fault, no matter how minor, I seem to no longer trust it and it either gets sidelined or I get rid of it. The Sony RX10 is a case in point. I loved that camera until the little switch that enables clickless aperture setting broke. The camera would only stay in the "click" mode if I taped the switch in place. Within a few weeks the camera was gone (yes, the switch was fully disclosed...).
So what's left? What am I shooting my jobs with? Which cameras have made the latest cut? And why?
Starting at the top is the Nikon D810. It's hard to argue with this choice for a working professional photographer on two levels. First, it is arguably the best image producing (affordable) camera in the world. I can't image there are many situations in which 36 very, very good megapixels are not enough. And the camera handles very, very well for day in and day out photography. Couple that with sheer number of great manual focus and recent model used AF lenses that are available at very economical prices and it's easy to wrap a very workable system around this body.
On a different level the Nikon D810 is rapidly distinguishing itself at a very, very good 2K video camera with really good color science and a nicely detailed image on the screen. As I get more serious about video it's nice to know that the camera will output clean, uncompressed video files to digital video recorders. The first two jobs I did with the camera paid for it and it works with no "gotchas" that I've encountered. Can't ask for more than that in a professional tool.
Since no good photographer goes on assignment without a same system back up camera I have to say that I am very happy with the Nikon D610 that I picked up last December. The video isn't in the same ballpark but the image files are just as good (though a bit smaller) and the camera comes closer to remind my (with pleasure) of the film SLRs from my early days in the business. It's a no nonsense tool without too many bells and whistles that was cheap to buy, easy to use and nicely robust.
The one area where it actually bests the D810 is in high ISO/Low illumination environments. It's got a sensor that's nice and clean up to at least 6400 ISO and at ISO 100 the dynamic range just goes on and on.
I've got a drawer full of Nikon lenses that covers focal lengths from 14mm to 300mm and I rarely have ever wanted anything outside this range. If I get the hankering to use a long, fast telephoto lens with either of the two bodies I'll be happy to rent.
My Nikon working system all fits nicely into a Think Tank Airport Security roller case (original model) and with it I feel as though I can shoot just about anything.
Those two cameras are the only digital Nikons I own right now. Eventually I will replace the D610 with a D750 but only because the D750 is a much more capable video production camera and works almost identically in video modes as the D810. The faster I move through jobs the more I appreciate cameras that have similar or almost identical methods of operation and menus.
I have one lens of the system on my wish list but I really don't need it. It's the Sigma 50mm f1.4 Art Lens. But every time I shoot with the new 50mm f1.8 G lens I stick my credit card back in my wallet because I end up being so happy with the $229 alternative...
Two cameras. That's hardly overkill for a business that revolves around the almost daily use of cameras.
The second system is the Olympus OMD family. Until last week I had four of the original EM5 cameras. I like using the for personal work because they are small and light and capable. The image quality is really good for the size and price of the camera bodies and they worked well with the manual focus Pen F len collection (1970's vintage) I've amassed over the years. They also work very well with the Sigma Art Lens trio, the 19mm, the 30mm and the (amazing) 60mm (all f2.8). I have the same Micro Four Thirds lenses as most people which include the 17mm f1.8, the 25mm Summilux, the 45mm f1.8 and the Panasonic 12-35mm X lens.
Last week all four EM5 bodies were liquidated. I had to make room for a couple of the newer EM-5.2 cameras. And why not? The EM-5.2s have much nicer EVFs, better image stabilization and improved (but hardly perfect) video features. The addition of a headphone jack on the accessory grip which allows me to monitor audio during video shooting alone makes the upgrade worthwhile.
I started with a black body but I loved the look of the knurled knobs on the silver version so I chose one in that color as a back up. I've been walking around shooting the black version with a wonderful, sharp, dense, solid Pen F 40mm f1.4 and I couldn't be happier with the results. The focus peaking works well and is a most welcome addition when shooting with the older Pen lenses and their "manual only" focusing systems.
My wish list of the Olympus system (besides a firmware upgrade for the video files) is to get my hands on the new 40-150mm f2.8 zoom lens. But we'll see how tax season treats me first...
By my count that's a total of four cameras. All of which have now been used on successful, paying projects. Narrowing down to two systems helps me cope with the different menus and gives me the ability to alternate between the two different styles of camera and attendant differences in shooting styles which keeps me from getting bored.
I'm actively decluttering the rest of the studio as well. In the last two weeks we filtered out four tripods and five tripod heads. I tossed out all the "broken but still usable" light modifers (umbrellas and soft boxes) including two enormous beauty dishes that had been gathering dust. I guess I'm just not a beauty dish kind of guy.
Let's see if I can hold the line. The only things on my acceptable list at this point are new lenses. But that's not a bad thing. The lenses are the gateway to the vision. Everything else changes too often to be considered collectible.
And that's how the downsizing is going. Thanks for asking. Oh, you didn't ask? Well then, thank you for letting me share.
Contax RTS III, 85mm f1.4.