The Blanton Museum opened a new exhibit in their main, downstairs, space this week so I pointed my car once again in the direction of the UT campus and headed over. I have been working pretty seriously with the new (to me) Panasonic fz 1000 so I thought I'd bring it along and put it through its steps in a low light scenario. The exhibit is entitled, Moderno, and is a look at 20th century furniture and industrial design in Mexico, Brazil and other south American countries.
The last show I saw at the Blanton was set with more open space while this exhibit was chopped into a series of mini-galleries that effectively created a maze. Since the museum is generally a Minotaur-free zone I plunged into their elegant and austere labyrinth and emerged at the other end, unscathed.
But while I was on the path I stopped to take images of constructions and wall intersections that caught my eye and appealed to my sense of clean aesthetics.
As the fz 1000 is a pre-chimp, versus post-chimp, camera I was happy to see the quality of the automatic color balance and the accuracy of the camera's automatic exposure. I've stopped even bothering to stop down the one inch sensor cameras so I shot all my images at the widest aperture available. Most of the gallery images that I'm showing here are shot between 1,000 and 1,600 ISO and the camera chose 1/60th to 1/80th of a second, when it could. Occasionally, as in the tiny sculpture gallery (where half the lights were out and the shades were drawn) the camera chose to drop the shutter speed down to 1/10th of a second at ISO 1600. Fine by me, since the image stabilization in this camera seems to be a good match for my EM-5.2 cameras.
When I finished walking through the galleries and looking at the new offerings I headed back home and, after retouching four really nice portraits (taken with a different camera, under different circumstances) I pulled the memory card from the fz 1000 and ingested the images into Lightroom CC (pre-rampant destruction of usefulness upgrade...) and took a look. What I saw surprised me more than a little bit.
Here's why: The images are crisp and relatively noise free. I had been given to believe that the images would be too noisy to use when shot over 800 ISO but that was clearly not the case (click on one to enlarge). It was the combination of crispy rendered files at the widest focal length, wide open, at ISOs around 1600 that made me stop and do a double take because the results repudiated the pervasive mythology about the camera I'd read in various reviews on the web. It's getting to the point where I don't really trust any of the reviewers and I think each generation of cameras is now so good that there's really very little differences that can't be tagged right back to the geometry of the sensors and the effect of the geometry on focus ramping and other issues that are completely separate from the old considerations of noise and inadequate sharpness and resolution.
The next two surprises for me were the neutral color balance and the accurate exposure. The files are uniformly about 1/3 stop dark for my taste but I actually prefer that because the camera rarely puts me in danger of blown highlights. The one, small nick I have with the camera, when shot at its widest focal length, is that even with in camera correction of lens distortion there is still a bit of bowing outward on the edges of the frames. It's a mild correction in the Len Correction panel in Lightroom but it's there all the same and the correction probably has some effect on sharpness in the corners --- which I rarely worry about....
I'm starting to feel that this camera is being overlooked precisely because it is so good. The still image files are very neutral. There's no big, bright processing being done and there's nothing to really call attention to the work the camera is doing. There just seems to be a general ignoring of this little niche of sophisticated "bridge" cameras that is a bit irrational. If we put this camera (with its fine lens) into a time machine and sent it back to 2007 to compete directly with the $5995 Nikon D2x, a couple of serious Nikon zoom lenses, like the 70-200mm f2.8 and the 24-70mm f2.8 this $750 bridge camera would seriously kick the Nikon system's ass one just about every level I can think of, with the sole exception of putting stuff in the background quickly out of focus.
In every other regard the results are highly superior. Better noise handling, better high ISO performance, faster frame rates, better corrected lens, smaller, lighter, more controls and more customization (not that this parameter is always a benefit), better color, better AWB, better exposure and everything else. All for a tiny fraction of the Nikon system price.
I understand that we have a raft of alternate choices now but still, where else does one turn to get a 24-400mm equivalent lens (designed by Leica) along with great sensor performance and great I.Q. for less than a thousand bucks? Nowhere that I know of...
The final thing that has me mystified as to why these things aren't in everyones' hands is the stellar performance of the 4K (well, UHD) video. I haven't really spent much time with the camera on video projects but I started on two days ago for my kid. After swim practice I pulled aside a friend (who is also Ben's favorite chef) and did a quick, handheld interview. The camera nailed everything perfectly; even though I was using it in a fully automatic mode. When I looked at the video just now in Lightroom I had to close my mouth before the gnats flew in. The files are much sharper even in just a casual review, than anything I've seen from the 1080p files from any of my Nikons or Olympus cameras and the moving images were pretty much on par with the output I used to get when using the GH4 in 4K. My only griped about the fz 1000 as a video camera is the parsimonious attitude of Panasonic in not putting a headphone jack on it. That's it. I can and will use this for video production (MOS) at every opportunity. Why? Because it's really good and it's really easy to use.
After making these little files for your consideration I picked up my aging phone and called me sales associate at Precision Camera to make sure they had more of the cameras in stock. Why? Because I think cameras should travel in matched pairs. Whether I'm heading out for a job or a personal art shooting experience I want my back up camera to match the main camera, from the menus to the batteries to the position of the switches and buttons. And I generally go to great lengths to make sure my shooting cameras are set up identically.
I have some travel plans in mind for the end of the year and the beginning of next year and right now this is the camera I am considering taking along.
I have one more test to do before a big project next week. That's to grab the Olympus flash that works on this camera (the Olympus FL600R) and put it through its paces. If it comes up golden I'll be pressing this camera into service for my biggest job of the quarter. But I'm not altogether crazy...I'll have some of my regular cameras riding along as "lifeguards" for my bold experiment.
I'm pretty impressed at how useable and comfortable this camera is. The bulk of the body comes without the usual, commensurate weight and that means a good amount of hand space to get comfortable with but none of the shoulder drag we begin to dreads as the days go long.
24-400. f2.8-4.0, 4K video, killer EVF, outrageous Image Stabilization, a well thought out menu. What the heck is there not to love? Why didn't I buy one last year? Mysteries of the photographic universe, indeed.
Golly jeepers!!!! I forgot to tell you that the camera can also show and shoot square. You get a 13+ megapixel file and all the squareness you deserve. Now I'm considering this one as a portrait camera too. Where will it end?
ISO 1600. No color correction. No noise reduction other than what was provided in Jpeg.
I certainly didn't think I'd find a yoga class right in the middle of the upstairs gallery. Surprise.
Square documentation of Vincent Valdez's work. Wonderful and powerful, life-size paintings.
Always good to go to museums and see new work.
Moderno will appeal very much to graphic designers.
I was more enchanted with the configuration and colors of the space.
See? Something for everyone.
I was invited to speak to a small photography class at the University of Texas at Austin on Tues. The class was composed of some undergraduates, a person working on his MA and another person working toward his doctorate. The general discussion revolved around e-publications but after a while spun off into a general discussion about the future of photography.
Twenty years ago, when I was invited to speak in the same department, classes overflowed with eager students, cameras were slung over their shoulders, hung from backpacks and bravado was everywhere. It was tough to get into the photography classes and often there were waiting lists. If you were a Photojournalism major you still had to learn to write, scan and send your images, etc. But the main point is that the classes were full and the mood generally very positive. The future of photography seemed, as usual, in flux and unsettled, but it's always been that way.
When I went to the Belo New Media Center to speak this time I found a building that looked nothing like the academic halls of just a decade or so ago. The buildings have taken on a shiny, contemporary, corporate sleekness that reminds me of a cross between an upscale hotel lobby and an Ikea furnishing store. The lobby area, with plenty of tables and chairs, was filled with students at work --- which seemed to revolve solely around looking at laptop screens, texting on phones and chatting up the people across the table. Something was unsettling to me. Oh yes, it was the total absence of any camera of any type (still or video) other than the potential cameras resident in every phone. How vastly different from my last visit to the halls of photojournalism.
When I met with my friend and tenured professor, Dennis Darling, he explained that the discreet silos of speciality: photography, videography, graphic design, writing, etc. were crumbling and now students were able to put together their degree plans like selecting from a Chinese menu. One from each column in any order you like. Most classes now were multimedia classes with an emphasis (big emphasis) on mastering -------(get ready to be disappointed) social media! As if social media was not as natural as falling off a log for this generation...
We headed up to a small conference room on one of the palatial floors of the building and I was introduced to the students. They all seemed earnest.
At the end of the long evening, while sitting in Kerbey Lane cafe, eating chicken verde enchiladas, I mentally conjoined the things I thought were true with the opinions and observations of the much younger generation I'd just met with and came up with exactly the concept that drove my essay, The Graying of Traditional Photography. Photography, while a vital component of advertising, marketing and even social media conversations has shifted from a series of images meant to hold their value and knowledge over time to a series of consumables that are meant to more or less be emotional inflections and ephemeral memes in service of very temporary themes or subjects. The photo opens the blog (any blog) because it is more visually exciting than straight type. The image holds the eye long enough for the headline to engage the viewer. It's best if there is a tangent or connection between the narrative message and its visual accomplice but it's not always necessary and usually an image is chosen for its relative intersection with the text, and also for the universality and homogeneity of its appeal. The photo is the appetizer course for a fast food menu of various social media genres, and traditional media struggling to disguise itself as socially relevant, but with a whiff of hard news and purpose.
As with music the great majority of photography has been flattened and delivered as a commodity. The saddest thing though is that the delivery, unlike music, comes without any monetization for the vast majority of practitioners. It just exists naked on the web, waiting for the casual "right click" that will repurpose it, mostly without permission, in infinite numbers of micro-uses.
The great University, by conjoining and blending all the ingredients of journalism and communication in one stew gives credence and stature to the idea that everything is in service of the melange of sights, sounds and copy blending into a different recipe altogether, which they call new media.
There is still hope. Even these wet-behind-the-ears students each had a project they were pursuing and most of the projects were centered around a series of still images. We may yet see the emergence of a new generation of image creators who value the single image, and the collection of images within a theme, as art that is still relevant. But we're sure distilling down the numbers of dedicated participants as fast as we can.