The lure of the medium telephoto lens.

There was a period, in the 1990s, when the only lens I really shot with was the Hasselblad, Zeiss 180mm f4.0. It was an exquisite lens and I felt, through most of the early digital years, that I would never discover a lens I liked as much, in the smaller format. And, for the most part I have been right. There are a lot of lenses that come close but few that I can honestly say "make the grade."

Then along comes an inexpensive, manual focus lens that seems to give me the same feel on my full frame, digital camera. It's the Rokinon 100mm f2.8 Macro lens.

I originally bought it to use with the A7Rii on an assignment to shoot tiny glass ampoules for a chemical testing laboratory. It worked incredibly well in that application and so I've continued to press it into any situations where outrageous resolution, coupled with a mellow attitude, is the preferred look.

The lens, available in most popular lens mounts, including the Sony E mount, is a gem. It's big and rock solid and uses one aspheric element and one high refraction element in a fairly complex design. As I mentioned, it is manual focus and has no electronic communication with whatever body it's riding upon. It has the classic, 9 bladed aperture for smooth bokeh.

There isn't much more to say about it other than it is a happy, mellow and well behaved lens with the potential for snappy contrast and very high resolution.  I don't really care what system you put it on, I think it's a great lens at a very, very fair price. It makes me want to experiment with other Rokinon lenses....

The downtime. How to keep from losing your focus.

Sony A7Rii+ Contax 50mm f1.7

Every business seems to go through cycles. My business started the year off slowly then steamrolled through July with record breaking budgets before coming to a screeching halt in September. Now, before you start in, I know that photographers who blog are never supposed to talk about slow times, lack of billing, or any other chinks in our fictitious commercial armor but really, how honest would that be? We all go through the peaks and valleys of commerce. It's always been that way in the business, even though some of those valleys in this century were quite breathtaking....

The first few times the rug gets pulled out from under your feet can be panic inducing. If you've been growing your business year after year and suddenly you hit a dry spot where the e-mail is filled with spam but no missives from clients, and your phone only rings when your spouse calls to see if you can pick up some dog food on the way home from wherever you are, it seems the popular thing is to panic and expect the worst. If you react with panic you'll certainly not be able to enjoy the (unwanted) downtime that's been thrust upon you.

The logical thing to do (assuming your last five or six clients aren't suing you, didn't fire you from the project, or ask you to delete their names from your phone...) is to immediately catch up on all that marketing you thought you would never actually have to do. Send the cards and letters, create a well considered e-mail campaign and work hard on conjuring up some smart and effective content. That's the smart play. But once you've done that you need to consider whether the slow times are about your offerings (probably not if you have a consistent track record) or part of a bigger trend.

Right now we're in the middle of one of the most contentious and binary election cycles I have ever witnessed. Battle lines are drawn. Each side is anticipating some sort of apocalypse if their chosen candidate(s) lose. And my experience  in business over the years is that business hates ambiguity almost as much as it hates the unknown. In every situation I can remember, when something horrible and unexpected happens, the CFOs of most companies circle up the wagons, bury the gold in their own backyard and start paring away at external costs. The companies are waiting to see how everything is going to turn out. Will a new set of hands on the steering wheel cause a change in tax law? In international trade? In the making of war? How will those companies be affected? Who will win and who will lose financially?

With this in mind my gut tells me that big companies have taken their marbles off the table and are in a self-induced expenditure coma. Now, most people (those who have real jobs) will probably not feel any effect and whatever effect there is we can hope that it is short lived and will remediate itself after Nov. 8th. One way or another. But to the average art worker it means a bit of belt tightening as we are the first layer of the onion to be put on "hold" when sentiment turns fearful or confused.

I'm not particularly worried about the current slowdown.... yet. We've still got several big jobs slated for October and we'v still got some buffer from earlier. But I have learned that there's not a lot I can do to move people to buy when they are disposed to save. So, I try to remind myself to enjoy the downtime and not despair.

Here's my list of things I do, in no particular order, when I am becalmed on the seas of work:

Have lunch with all the friends I've missed having lunch with. Get more reading done. Walk the dog more. Finally memorize those dreaded Sony or Olympus menus. Visit the kid at college (I'm sure he'll love  that.....). Start visualizing your new career; complete with a regular paycheck. Work on your personal project. No personal project? Figure out what you really, really want to shoot.

Then shoot it.

In the end, if you have done your marketing and the world doesn't collapse under the stress of the American democratic process, this slowing will resolve (like 90% of the stuff people visit their doctors for...) and we'll be back at work in no time. If you spent the downtime in the corner of a dark room, rocking back and for and shaking nervously you might want to rethink your "small financial disaster" strategy.

According to everything I've read these slow downs happen a lot during periods of change. The people steering the boats stop more frequently to make sure they are on course. A bit choppy in the short run, clear sailing ahead.

(Please, I know we are all passionate about our politics but this isn't the place to go all partisan in the comments. The election will come to an end. Ambiguity will subside. Life will go on. Now, if only those black helicopters filled with fluoride and vaccines would stop circling my neighborhood. It's crowded in that airspace since I am also certain aliens from Alpha Promixa are also floating around up there with the ghost of Elvis). 

One sage person told me that all anxiety is caused by three things: Ambiguity, Indecision and Loneliness. Make sure you know what you are doing and then do it with friends. 


The season opener at Zach Theatre is hilarious and a visual color riot. I laughed and cried and thought about buying season tickets even though I get in for free. Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.

A VSL reader actually asked why he hadn't seen any dress rehearsal photos lately. I thought I would attempt to accommodate him. Late Summer is a slow season for live theater but by the end of September Zach Theatre is in full swing and we're back at work. I've been doing something different for the big, blockbuster opening play of our season this time around. I've been going almost weekly to the rehearsals of Priscilla, leading up to the dress rehearsal, to see what the evolution of a musical looks like. 

Seeing choreography rehearsals and blocking rehearsals means I'm not walking in cold on the night of the big shoot and hoping I'm smart enough to stay up with the flow of the show. My early involvement was strictly as a volunteer but it worked so well for me because I really got to know a lot of the cast members and they, in turn, had a palpable comfort level with me as we neared the big night. 

And the BIG NIGHT was last night. I knew Belinda would love the show so I asked her to come with me. We had a row of seats reserved so I could move around to shoot at various angles during the show. Even with a "friends and family" audience in the house. The row is right in middle of the house. Perfect for a big, wide show like this one. We had an early dinner in a local restaurant and then got back about 30 minutes before the doors opened to double check

Valuable tools for doing business as a photographer.

I'm a big believer in marketing. My years chained to a desk at an advertising agency taught me that you just can't talk to current and prospective clients often enough; and with as many methods as you'd like. One of my marketing goals is to reach out to my existing clients with some sort of message at least once a month. I don't always hit the goal, sometimes life gets in the way, but when I know I'm banking business for the future.

Many photographers and creative people make the mistake of trusting too much to e-mail blasts. I'm not sure if they know it but many people have their e-mails set up to NOT load images. Messages with photos are often a trigger for provider's spam filters as well. So, unless you are only e-mailing to people who already know and love you (Mom? Family? Your girlfriend) you may not be anywhere near hitting the targets you think you are with your messaging intact. The best method for e-mail might be making sure your written message and attendant graphics are compelling and then providing a link to see the actual images online. I like to provide links to tightly curated web galleries aimed at specific industries. But even with the best methodologies you'll still have to contend with many, many people who have not yet given you permission to send them advertising. People who could add profits to your business. And, at some point you need to confront the reality of having get your foot in their door (metaphorically).

My experiences in advertising and marketing, spending media money for clients, showed me that direct mail is an extremely powerful way to get in touch with new prospects. It can also be a crucial way to cut through the daily clutter and stay connected to people you've worked with in the past and want to work with again. There are several reasons I think direct (physical) mailers are effective. First, you will find that while people's e-mail boxes are crammed full of mostly unwanted messages about everything from high powered flash lights to penis enlargement. Few busy marketing professionals have the time to wade through unknown and unsolicited e-mails to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Friends who are on the art direction side of the desk tell me that they still receive between 50 and 100 spam e-mails per day. And if you are sending e-mails to a blind list you are basically spamming. Not a nice way to start a relationship. By contrast, most of my agency friends tell me that printed postcards or folded mailers, sent directly to them via U.S. post, have fallen off in numbers every year to the point where they may be receiving only one or two per week. That's a much less competitive and crowded "pond" in which to fish. Right?

While it costs time and money to make and send good post cards there is a benefit to your investment.  Your clients probably do the same kind of marketing and understand the commitment you've made to reach them. They now understand that you have real "skin" in the game as opposed to the hordes of mouse clickers who have the mindset that they can blanket the landscape with electronic messages because, well, their messages are essentially free.

A third benefit is in the longevity of a printed card or mailer. The recipient of an e-mail might open an   e-mail and take cursory look. They might invest five seconds to quell their curiosity. Then the e-mail is closed, never to be seen again, and automatically gets tossed in the trash with all the other orphaned electrons. By contrast the mailer gets delivered to the client's desk, usually in a stack of correspondence and bills. Each piece is examined. They hold the card in their hands. They have a tactile sensation that creates a sense of the piece being more real. On some level the client understands that we've spent maybe one dollar in printing costs, per large card (we're printing these in small batches on an inkjet printer using premium Hahnemuhle card stock) and another half dollar in postage. We've made a material investment in order to reach them. It may be subliminal but it serves to separate  you from the pack.

Finally, if the content of the card is superior and resonates in some way with the recipient it might end up being pinned to the wall of a cubicle or to a cork board in an office. Now your work has real legs. And everyone who visits that office and sees the work also understands that the creative person they are visiting has curated the work and chosen it to be displayed. In a way, it has their stamp of approval. 

We could print a thousand cards at a time and realize a huge savings on printing and production and I've done that in the past but I've come to realize that my potential markets have become more and more specialized and granular. I'm now carefully choosing and sending out small batches of 10 to 20 cards with a particular image that is aimed directly at the niche the prospective client serves.

I have a list of 30-40 clients who are in healthcare. I send them images related to healthcare and patient experience. I have a couple dozen clients involved in the food service industry and they love to see food and food styling. Another group are large law practices and I faithfully send them my best portraits as cards, since their need is generally  for great portraits as content for their websites and other marketing.

Sending shots of cute, twenty-something models to forty year old marketing professionals who service industrial, construction or technology clients is worse than just a waste of money, it's a quick way to show that you have no idea of what these clients do and what they need from photographers.

My favorite lens might be a new G series 70-200mm for my full frame Sony. Great lens and it allows me to work quickly and with high quality results. It costs $1500. But it won't get me in a single door to bid on a job. Not like that $1.50, 5.8 by 8.4 inch, lustre surface postcard. While it's more fun for most of us to talk about the gear it's most fun to get those purchase orders from clients who were reminded about how much fun you are to work with by a succession of targeted, mailed cards that have come across their desks over the course of several months.

Just a few marketing thoughts to chew on. I sent out ten cards to law firms last week. I booked a day of work from one of the firms yesterday. Only a ten percent response (so far) but I'll take a day of billing from a $15 investment any time it's offered.

Next up we might want to consider just how important cumulative impressions are to making a marketing campaign work.


OT: Another Austin Music Venue Bites the Dust.

This is all that's left of the Austin Music Hall. Future site of some soaring, anonymous residential tower for people desperate to live downtown.

The Austin Music Hall was originally built in 1995 and then almost completely re-built in a remodel in 2007. What they ended up with was a building with pretty miserable acoustics but a huge bar and a convenient venue for lots of downtown shows. A cheaper alternative to the ACL stage at the W Hotel. 

Now, less than ten years after the multi-million dollar remodel, the building is just a pile of twisted metal and semi-powdered cement. Another downtown half acre sold for enormous amounts of money and ready to host yet another too tall residence town. Kinda sad, kinda not. It was never a great venue  in which to actually "hear" music. The square main hall was an audio nightmare (as we found out early on when staging a musical there) and the parking in the area was/is pretty bad. But president Obama visited here last year and I can't count how many corporations used the venue, in conjunction with then popular, Lyle Lovett, for their celebrations of success in the late 1990's and again, more recently. Hapless photographer with ear plugs in tow...

Just noting the passing as part of yet another Austin transition: from tradition and music to just profit. 
Could be worse. We could be mired in a great depression. I guess we've got to count our lucky stars. 

Here is what the Austin Music Hall looked like just before it came tumbling down.

Dogs at the Pecan Street Festival. Just taking in the smells...

 I love dogs. They are always on alert. Always hyper vigilant. Then able to take a nap at the drop of a hat.


Sony point and shoot camera as "street photography instrument."

I went for a walk downtown this afternoon. The city was hosting the annual Pecan Street Festival. Free and open to the public. Blocks and blocks of vendors and non-profit organizations selling everything from custom T-shirts to dark chocolate. It was fun to walk through the crowd at a leisurely pace, stopping to snap the flow of people going by like a lively river. 

I was going to take a full frame camera and a 50mm lens but I read something recently that more or less said we tend to become prisoners to our past habits, so I put down the cliché rig and grabbed my trusty Sony RX10iii. I set the camera to "A" and walked along taking in the ambiance and the energy of families and singles walking, some with their dogs, along a long line of booths and tents. It was fun, relaxing and the first afternoon the temperature hasn't hit the 90's in a good long while. Here is some of what I saw..


Sony's answer to Nikon and Canon's "Nifty Fifty."

A Rehearsal Photo from Zach's upcoming production of: Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. The Musical.

In the distant past cameras did not come with nasty little "standard zoom" lenses as part of their cost effective package, they came with a 50mm f1.8 or f2.0 normal lens. The benefits are legion. Even the most pedestrian 50mm lens handily outperformed the plastic zooms when it came to sharpness and clarity. The zooms were preferred only for their focal length flexibility which, unfortunately, was only deliver along with a big helping of slow aperture. Over time the general public became less and less discriminating (or less well educated) and chose to think that the zoom gave them more stuff for their money. Now cameras no longer come packaged with normal, prime lenses. 

Nikon and Canon continued to make small, light, fast and inexpensive 50mm lenses and, as trends go through cycles, the benefits of the single focal length lens have been rediscovered. Hundreds of thousands of "Nifty Fifties" have been sold over the last decade and photography is better for it. But if you chose to live your photographic life in the Sony mirrorless camp you had few low priced options in that focal length range. Sony introduced one lens, the 55mm f1.8 that cost about $900 and, while it is very, very good, it seems almost churlish to have the ambition to be a big camera company if your customers don't have a cost effective choice in this realm. No, the Zeiss Loxias don't count as cost effective.

The faithful waited three years from the launch of the original A7 series cameras in order to see the introduction of a cost effective alternative to the super lens. It comes to us in the form of a 50mm f1.8 FE lens at a list price of $249 and a current street price of $199. It comes to us with six elements and, in a departure from Nikon and Canon, one of the elements is an aspherical. There are seven aperture blades and it's touted as a high resolution lens solution. According to the test hungry technicians at DXOMark.com it tests out very, very well. It out resolves 24megapixel, full frame sensors and deliver a score of 36, which is a big bump up from most standard zoom lenses --- even the Zeiss 24-70mm f4.0.

I had read the reviews of the lens at DPReview.com and understood that it had some handling issues that might ---- make a lot of users unhappy. The biggest issue is that this is one of the few Sony lenses that does not autofocus at the wide open aperture and then stop down. Nope, when put onto a camera the camera tries (some times desperately) to focus at the set aperture. If you've set f2.0 or f4.0 it generally doesn't present much of a problem. If you set f11 and you are in a dim setting you are in for a world of focusing hurt as your state of the art camera hunts and hunts. The flip side is that focusing at the taking aperture (especially at f4.0 and f5.6) does away with the effects of focus shift which plague even the priciest of lenses. That's a good thing.  But it's a good thing (accuracy) mixed with a big dose of bad thing (slow focusing acquisition). It's a compromise. And each user has to decide if the compromise is worth it to him/her. 

I bought the lens fully aware of this issue. The lens also has an interesting/annoying characteristic that makes it feel like it's part of a point a shoot camera. It doesn't just acquire focus and stop, the lens goes to either side of sharp focus before stopping. It introduces a bit of delay. I'm not sure if it's fixable with a firmware update but I'm using 3.10 in the camera and it should be working in full phase detection AF mode, so I don't get the compact camera hunt motif...

All of this is critical to know if your intention is to use the 50mm as a convenient AF lens. I had other plans. I love the manual focus action of my existing choice of lens for the A7ii. It's a Contax/Yashica Zeiss 50mm f1,7 that is very sharp and contrasty. It works well with the one button focus magnification of the A7 camera series. It's also quite usable with focus peaking. It's more accurate with the magnification but it's an extra step to push a button to engage the magnification and then push a button again to go back to the normal view in the viewfinder. Too many steps for stuff that moves quickly or erratically.  I wanted an inexpensive lens with good optical quality that would also trigger the focusing magnification with a touch on the focusing ring. You grab the ring to focus, the magnification engages and shows you a big, crisp image (with focus peaking intact) in the viewfinder and the second you stop turning the ring the image snaps back to showing the full frame. 

I didn't know how well this would work but having spent decades using my hands, in conjunction with my brain, to focus any number of cameras, I thought I would give it a try. What better place to try than on a stage production rehearsal, under mixed light at my local, regional theater?

I had already done some casual images just walking around and came to the conclusion that the lens was terrifically sharp across the center almost wide open. I've been shooting it at f2.5 and f3.5 and have been very, very satisfied by the optical quality. The optical design and the construction of my sample is top notch. But stationary objects are like shooting fish in a barrel, it's easy to get a nice sharp frame that way. 

While it took a bit of practice I was comfortable with the manual focusing routine I've described above: grab the ring, focus with magnification, let go and shoot. The results were gratifying; my images are impressively sharp.  As sharp as I need them to be. When the camera gave me an enlarged image I could easily focus on skin texture or eyelashes, even the weave of fabric. Once I released the lens I obviously didn't have to mess with focus hold buttons as the focus remain fixed until I changed it. 

My takeaway from the 400 images I shot in a preliminary rehearsal yesterday is that the lens is quite sharp and the manual focusing, with the A7ii body, is easy and quick. The lens may, in fact, be no better than its Nikon and Canon counterparts but the focusing method I've described might just be more accurate and allow exacting focusing position and acquisition a much higher percentage of times giving me the perception that the lens performs better. And if the images look better then who is to argue? I will keep this one on the front of my A7ii as daily user and look forward to some sort of firmware update that makes AF a more transparent transaction. Until then I'll count on the manual focus to do my heavy lifting. 

A lot of words for a cheap lens but in the end I am glad I bought this one and put the left over $700 into my retirement account. I might need that cash some time in the future. You never know. 

Nice resistance to flare. 

Enjoy the book. Get one now.

OT: Post Swim Croissant Tasting at Cantine Italian Cafe and Grill in Austin, Texas. Post workout fun.

Croissant Trio from Pieous, Dripping Springs, Texas.

I woke up this morning, gulped down a cup of hot Irish Breakfast tea with milk and a tiny bit of sugar and headed out the door for the 8:30-10:00 a.m. Masters Swim Practice. I was a few minutes late getting to the deck and when I got there all the medium pace lanes were filled up. I ended up sharing a lane with a notoriously dedicated triathlete whose workout philosophy is harder, faster, better. She dragged me through 4800 yards and I was spent by the end. Feeling virtuous but physically spent.

Afterward fellow swimmer, Emmett Fox, asked me if I had my camera (yes, always) and reminded me that we'd be forsaking our mundane local Starbucks for after-swim coffee in preference for a morning at Cantine Italian Cafe And Grill. Emmett and swimming spouse ( partner of one who swims... ) Dr. Jim Grubbs were going to host a tasting event to decide, once and for all, which bakery had the best croissants in all of Austin. No burnt coffee and refrigerated pastries at Starbucks this week!

Cantine, the restaurant, is closed on Saturday morning so we had the entire place to ourselves. Jim and Emmett had put together a selection of eight candidates from favorite local bakeries, as well as one mystery entry, the identity of which we discovered at the end. They put out three each of the croissants on nine plates and numbered the plates. No one was told the provenance of the pastries until the tasting was over and the scores tabulated. The eight local candidates for butter and flour supremacy were from: 

Baguette et Chocolat, Texas French Bread, Sweetish Hill Bakery, Easy Tiger Bakery, Cafe No Sé (S. Congress Hotel), La Patisserie, Elizabeth Street Cafe, and a bakery near chef Emmett's home in Dripping Springs --- Pieous. 

We tasted in small amounts, clearing our palettes with wonderful, stout coffee (thanks Cantine!) and we made notes and rated each entry on a scale of 1 to 5. The results were tabulated and the winner (by consensus) was Pieous Bakery from Dripping Springs. The very, very close second was the entry from Café No Se. 

I brought a Sony RX10iii camera along and made images of our encounter with good food. It was a fun way to spend a toasty and humid Saturday morning; swilling coffee in the air conditioned comfort of one of Austin's best restaurants while chewing on croissants. Especially fun for me as I had my camera in my hand. 

So, the surprise inclusion, made, I am sure, tongue-in-cheek, was three croissants that Jim bought in the frozen section at the local Trader Joe's Market. He took them home, followed the baking instructions and included them in the artisanal mix. Anonymity didn't matter, even the least discerning in the group was able to understand the difference in texture and overall taste. Like one other in the group the Trader Joe's version had added sugar, which we believe D.Q.'s it from being "authentic." 

We disbanded and went our separate ways, planning to meet for next week's coffee at Cafe No Se.
An earlier motion to move to McDonalds was roundly vetoed.

Why the move from Starbucks after 15 or so years? Easy, they remodeled the local store and did an incredibly bad job with the remodel. It is much louder, the overall seating was reduced and the seating that is left is almost impossible to configure for any group of more than four. The final straw is the chain's new devotion to costumer confusion. They changed the flow and now no one knows how or where to line up to order their stuff. Instead of a line you get a confused group of people who would dearly love to get coffee but have no idea of who is next or why. No signage. No stantions. No directional supports. It's very sad when companies make customer experiences meaner and dowdier. And whoever sold them the pin spot LEDs that shine in everyone's eyes, no matter where they sit, did no favors to people who are sensitive to good lighting and/or good design. Next time they remodel they might consider hiring architects, or at least consider keeping the ones they use (if they did) sober and rational. So there is a basket of good reasons to shun this member of the chain and search out better. local providers. My advice? Short the stock...especially if all their remodels turn out as poorly as this one did...

#5. My personal favorites for flavor and texture. From No Sé at the South Congress Hotel.

The overall winner.

The runner up. By a nanometer.

Our host was Cantine; my favorite South Austin restaurant. Renowned for their great pizzas. 

Emmett preparing the blind taste test. 

Martha takes notes.

Rating for appearance. 

Incidentally, Pieous wins for best appearance. 

discussing the fine points of baked goods. 

The Co-Captains: Dr. Jim Grubbs and Restauranteur, Emmett Fox.

Lisa Fox (co-owner, Cantine) slices croissants into sample sized servings. 

Patty and Jim get serious with their evaluations.

Stout and virtuous, free flowing coffee to cleanse our palettes between samples...

We rated on both texture and taste.