1.25.2016

By reader request: The Battle Royale Between the Sony RX10 and the Panasonic fz 1000.

The two bad boys of bridge cameras....

I wasn't going to write about gear today but really, I had to. One of my readers wrote me to ask which of the two top bridge cameras I prefer and, for once, I have enough data points on both to answer him. Here's the lay of the land: When it first came out I rushed to buy a Sony RX10 camera, convinced that it might be the "holy grail" of fixed lens cameras. That's a category that's had a soft spot in my heart since the introduction of the Sony R1 about ten years ago. The Sony R1 spoiled me for compact cameras and for other bridge cameras. How could it not? It was the first camera with a nearly APS-C sensor in a fixed lens body whose fixed lens was a crazy good, 24-120mm equivalent Zeiss branded zoom lens, custom matched to the sensor. I finally passed that camera on to a good friend last year because I felt that it needed more love and attention than I was giving it. 

But for a couple of years I shot almost everything with a pair of the R1s. Everything from portraits to theater to architecture. The lens really was amazing. My commercial interest waned when we finally got 24 megapixel cameras that could see in the dark. Then I thought my clients might snub the 10 megapixels in the R1. How foolish was that?

But let me backtrack and tell you why I was (and am) interested in "bridge cameras" to begin with. First of all there is the attraction in, first the Sony R1, and then in the Sony RX10 and the Panasonic, of a bigger than average sensor (compared with most compacts) coupled with a very, very high quality lens. In the case of the Sony it is a Zeiss

Assistant standing in so I can see how the out of focus background looks. Cool.



I don't spend as much time as I should here talking about style. Style is the photographic manifestation of your unique vision. Or, at least it should be. I've been working on my portrait style for executive portraits for about a year. Much of it surrounds giving the photograph a suggestion of authenticity by visually implying that the image is "available light," and for the most part the construction of the images does depend on an available light source.

Ben and I went on location last week to make portraits for a client who likes this style. As with any job we got to our shooting spot about an hour before our first executive was slated to arrive. There is a floor to ceiling window that extends along the wall to the left of Ben at least 50 feet. The first thing I do is to look at the light mix to see what needs to be changed. In this case there are lights that hang down to about 12 feet from the 15 foot ceiling. These are strong compact fluorescent or high density LED light sources. Tests show me that they are much greener and more yellow than the light that's coming through the windows. While the window light is stronger overall the hanging lights cause color casts in hair (or on bald heads) and on the tops of jackets or the parts of the face on which that light strikes. Once you have a mix of two different light sources in an image your ability to color correct convincingly is much diminished and you'll spend a lot of time doing spot color retouching.

We use circular, pop-up reflectors with black and silver sides to kill the overhead lights (which invariably are on switches that effect large areas of the workspace and cannot be turned off during work hours...). The reflectors are used on arms and "float" between the subject and the lights. I use the black side toward the light to kill as much of the artificial light as possible and the silver side toward the subject to reflect and enhance the natural light.

Behind the camera position I use a very large, white umbrella with either a small flash or an LED fixture pointing into it so I can add front fill light to control ratios. The fill light is usually tiny. Infinitesimal. Subtle. Vague.

I also use a subtractive panel over to the right of Ben to pull some light from the side, and sources just behind Ben, down. Finally, in a situation where a subject comes to me in a white shirt I'll grab a net on a frame to pull down the exposure on his right shoulder (closest to the light) so the cotton broadcloth doesn't burn out beyond 250 in a histogram. I want to be able to recover real detail.

I have two favorite lenses to use in shooting this style and, to some extent, the one I use depends on how "intimate" I want the portrait to feel. For a very close portrait I'll use the 135mm and for the version with a little "air" around it I'll use the 105mm. I've been using both of the lenses at f4.0 lately because I don't want to go over the top on the whole out of focus look. I want more than eyelashes and nose hairs in sharp focus. But, used close in like this at f4.0 both lenses do a good job rendering the background nicely out of focus and with commendable bokeh (the quality of the out of focus area image).

This is just a test so I didn't work very hard on the most important part of the portrait process; my rapport with my subject. That's why Ben looks very serious and borderline mean. I don't blame him, I had just sent him to the car which was in the parking garage to fetch a piece of gear that I then decided not to use. And I made him "stand in" for a long, long time while I fussed around with live view.

Our executive arrived one half hour earlier than scheduled. That's okay. We were ready and tested. The subject was in and gone in ten minutes; not because he was temporally demanding but because we were tested, set and ready. He was easy going and genuinely good natured and we were able to work together to get some great frames quickly.

In a way it is sad. The set up and tear down always seems to take much longer than the actual "hands on camera" time these days. It just goes with the territory.

Discounting the expression of my subject (above) what do you think of this portrait style? 

Back from Denver with lots of ideas and even more "writer's block."

The Berlin Wall and Beyond.

I have to confess that I haven't taken many trips in the last few years just for the hell of it. I've gone on many corporate event projects that are anything but relaxing. On those trips I'm along to document...everything. From the great revelations of the engaging CEO's to the wry smiles of the audiences, and a lot of stuff in between. And I approach each of those engagements with my usual anxiety and trepidation. I try to make each working event pretty much bullet proof. By that I mean that I take along duplicate/redundant gear, I leave a lot slop in my travel schedule and I bring a first aid kit filled with various quick cures; from antihistamines to antacids to aspirin. 

In fact, I think it's largely because of my almost unrelenting anxiety that I had never tried Uber or gotten to an airport less than two hours before my flights. I'm certain the same need to perform without hiccups is the magic ingredient that makes most business oriented travel very stressful for me. I don't mean to say that I'm a quivering mess for the entire time I'm gone, in fact, I feel pretty darn relaxed and happy when I'm in the air on the final leg of a flight home. It's just the rest of the time that I could be a walking advertisement for Xanax. 

So imagine if, after hundreds of corporate shows, conventions and forums, at which I was working and creating externally focused content for client, I actually got invited to go to a show as an attendee? How would that play out? 

I found out this past weekend. I am an instructor for the premier online learning channel for arts, crafts and photography. I've created three classes with Craftsy's talented teams of producers and videographer, and I've had fun doing it. Even more fun is feeling like a celebrity when I meet a student out "in the wild" and they tell me how much they love the course. To an artist with a fragile ego (are there any other kinds???) it's like pure gold. I got a taste of that a week ago when I was working on location at an international company's north American headquarters and one of their people came walking across the room towards me, excited to tell me that he'd taken one of my Craftsy photography course over the holidays and had, "Loved it!!!"

So a month of so ago the folks at Craftsy decided to bring together their instructors in one place to have a retreat/forum/learning experience wrapped around our involvement with teaching our Craftsy courses online. We got to meet our counterparts across all the categories of courses that Craftsy offers. They generously offered to pay for our food, our bar tabs and our rooms for the weekend and they brought in lots of great speakers to help make us smarter about social media and marketing. 

This is the first time in ages that I've been invited just to be an attendee. No obligation to speak or do a demo. No required attendance and no schedule parsed out in five minute intervals. As a bonus (at least for sports fans) we were put up at the Inverness Conference Resort just south of Denver and shared the hotel this weekend with the home team, the Denver Broncos! (They were sequestered at the resort before the AFC championship on Sunday --- some of those guys are enormous!). 

I packed one carry-on and then I went into the studio to try and figure out what camera to take. In the end I turned around, closed and locked the studio door and decided that, since I wasn't required to take a camera this might also be a mini-vacation from my almost obsessive need to photograph things. That attitude of non-responsibility carried through to everything...

I had ridden in Ubers summoned by others but had not downloaded the app and tried it myself. If I were heading out on a paying gig I might not have tried it but the downside of a failed Uber experiment was minimal in this case and I figured that if a car didn't materialize Ben could drive me to the airport. No need. Everything worked like a charm and the coupon I had downloaded to my phone paid for my trip to the airport. One more anxiety trigger cured.

Now I feel comfortable using ride sharing services without reservation. 

I usually get to the airport way, way too early. It's a knee-jerk reaction to all those times we've had to return rental cars, check in overweight and oversized equipment cases and be on guard for airline induced schedule changes that might jeopardize our first day of work in another city. This time, flying for fun I headed to the airport and arrived about 45 minutes before my flight. Jeepers. Never done that before. At least not willingly. And I had a revelation: It's nice not to spend time fretting in the waiting area at the gate any longer than one has to. 

I made my own reservations so I wasn't at the mercy of someone else's travel department. I chose to fly Southwest and, of course, it was great. 

The weekend was incredible and the input from so many different sources has had me questioning and examining all of my preconceptions about everything from direct mail (good stuff) to my blogging.  I'm working through it now. 

One of the things that disturbed me and is causing me some marketing soul searching this morning as I sat down to start writing was looking over to the right of my blog at the list of followers. A couple of weeks ago we had about 1525. Since then we've lost about 40. In my years of blogging the number has always gone up and never gone down. And now (fragile ego) I want to know why. I also want to know if what I am writing is relevant to any but a tiny contingent and, if that's the case, should I abandon the way I've traditionally approached the blog (I've written what I wanted to)  and default to the more profitable, and marketing driven engagement, wrapped around selling more courses, linking to more products and writing to a wider (and less educated) audience. Which would entail writing shorter articles with more superficial dives.

The marketing people who spoke this weekend were uniform in two things. One is that they exhorted people to be "genuine" and to "tell their own stories" but on the immediate flip side they pushed us to see what is trending on Facebook and Google and customize our content for that. It's an approach that builds audience but, I think, in my case, is antithetical to my authentic nature and also to what I think makes this blog functional and meaningful. It would be nice to have it both ways but I'm not sure I want to change my "voice" to fit a marketing template. By the same token I'm not enthused about "building a following" on Facebook. Might be good for some people but I can't write with a fake smile plastered across my face. Just can't do it. 

So, let me ask you guys (and it is mostly guys) a few questions about the blog and maybe you can help me out a bit by giving me some feedback and direction. 

1. What is it about the VSL blog that you like? What brings you back?

2. If you "unfollowed" the blog (and succeeded in breaking my heart, one small fiber at a time) can you tell me why you decided to do that? Seems to me that unfollowing is an act of sending a message since it requires and action which doesn't really effect/benefit you one way or the other. Was it a lack of content? A point of view? Too much rumination about swimming and the meaning of life?

3. Are you here mostly to read what I write about gear? Cumulatively you say "No!" but your collective page view numbers say otherwise....

4. What kind of articles (in the spectrum about which I have written in the past) do you really, really enjoy reading?

5. Are you here to garner a sense of community? Or do you just want to read some free content?

6. Why are people mostly reticent to comment on anything? 

I could go on and on but I really am at an impasse where I feel like, just as with camera sales, I am speaking to a shrinking audience and not getting the return engagement I'd really like to see. 

I don't want to turn this blog into a sales tent. I don't want to change my subject matter to go off in pursuit of some mythic audience. But, if it's no longer relevant for most people to read blogs from photographers, or to read blogs specifically from me, I'd really like to know. 

I would ask, again just for the sake of my own ego, that if you enjoy the blog please become a follower. It serves no other purpose but to make me feel good. To make me think that people get something of value here in the mix. 

Over the next few days I'll be talking about some trends in marketing that I'm sensing (and which, surprisingly, are supported by metrics). It could be interesting. I'm also even more interested in video, and video as a new modality of "snapshot" aesthetic. And I still like to talk about cameras. 

I guess, for a guy with writer's block, I'm navigating my keyboard and my brain pretty well for right now. Sorry for sharing too deeply but I don't want to do the blog in a total vacuum and I think you can help. 

I'm back from out of town and I had a great trip. Let's get this week started.