Are you rushing through life doing what makes you happy and fulfilled?

Life in a rush. 
The Rome Termini Station. 

Lately I seem to have come across a bevy of 55-63 year old men who are having some regrets about the trajectory of their lives. They are affluent, well educated and have spent the last twenty-five to thirty-five years of their lives pursuing safe, secure and financially rewarding careers in jobs that they essentially find boring and mundane. Routine is another word that often comes up in conversation. 

They would like to have been photographers, writers or film makers. They made a different choice and now they are confronting the realization that they missed the right opportunity to jump off the train before it got up to speed and made jumping unsafe; even dangerous. 

In most cases their kids are grown and they have put away enough money to survive for the rest of their lives. But in the course of having real careers they have also come to crave not only the security of a daily, weekly, monthly, yearly job but also the money that comes attached to the deal. 

While they might take a leap into the unknown and leave work to pursue their life long passions most will chaff at the idea of not "retiring well" and will keep working until they burn out entirely or retire for health issues. Shot knees. Bad backs. High blood pressure. Exhaustion. 

I'd like to be able to make some little homily to make it all seem like a worthy and elegant trade-off but I can't and I won't. Everyone gets to make their choice. Everyone has to live with their choices. And the grass always seems greener on the other side. 

I've tried to have it both ways but that doesn't really work either. 

At some point you move in one direction or the other. For the artist it always seems too late to change gears and find a way to quickly make enough money to offset the perilous and ill paying journey of a life time of experimentation and risk taking before old age sets in with a vengeance. Poor artists. 

On the other hand the late 50's seems too late to leave the routine of a job and paycheck behind in order to embrace the uncertainty of an artistic calling that seems ever aimed at youngsters and madmen. Could you give up the Mercedes in the driveway and the charge cards for the spouse? Are you willing to be considered "eccentric" by society in general?

I have advice for you if you are younger and on the cusp of making these sorts of life altering choices. Don't believe that security trumps excitement, passion, power and purpose. If nothing else, accepting the challenge of doing your own art on your terms will give you stories to tell long after the rest of the nursing home residents have taken their medications and fallen into a fitful sleep. Waking from time to time to regret that life was short and they traded the spice for pablum. 

I know a film maker who is constantly on the edge of financial dissolution but he's making his work and plying his craft and he's still having a blast at 55. His credo? "I'll do this right up until the day I die!" What employee would say the same thing about their job?

It's not too late to save yourself. Drop the spreadsheets into the trash can on your way out the door, grab your camera (or pen or paintbrush) and live. Everything else is peppered with regret.

Why have I written this? Because I've been on the other side of the table having coffee with at least a dozen different people in my age cohort who agonize over their choices and include me in their introspective conversation. What can I offer with authenticity but my own journey?

And no, it does not matter which brand of camera you pick up....

Innovation good? Innovation bad? Or is endlessly coming up with new ways to do the same old thing just and exercise in futility?

Portrait of Anna. Old camera. Same old lighting. 
At lest I took the time to use some lights...

I've got a bone to pick with CBS. Yes, the broadcast company that distributes television programming. That's the one. For about eight years now they've produced a show called, "The Big Bang Theory." I don't care if you like it or hate it (but I'll question your taste if you truly hate the show....) but for all its years as one of the top ranked shows on network television they've shot it in the accepted situation comedy format. Bright and ample lighting that's well designed and unambiguous, simple sets and conventional camera shots with nice reaction shots. I would't swear to it in a court of law but I'd bet the style was set in the first season by a DP who shot film.

The show never varied its formula until they slipped, tripped and pissed me off last night. In one foul/fell swoop they ditched their lighting formula and replaced it with the dreariest light imaginable. I can just see the meeting where this happened. It was probably a network executive's nephew, right out of film school on the West Coast, who started the meeting with something along the lines of: "Why are we still lighting the shit out of this show? With all the superb low light cameras on the market right now we could be shooting this almost available light and it would be really cool." The selling implication being that they could lay off most of the lighting crew, sell off the fixtures and shoot the whole thing at ISO 10,000 on a Sony A7S2  and not lose a single audience member. It's the same argument I hear over and over again from photographers who are afraid to light and don't understand the value of creating a lighting design. 

So what started out as lazy practice (not learning how to light) which was then made "acceptable" by the introduction of cameras that could make noisy-less photos at really high sensitivities. Never mind that the light was orange on one side of the face and green on the other, or that the lighting was ugly or misrepresented the acting talents. It didn't require work or knowledge or good taste and nearly all of those things cost money. 

But the director or producer of the Big Bang Theory took the whole imbroglio one step further and presented the flattest, darkest footage I've seen on TV. Even worse than House of Cards!!!  It was like the whole episode was shot in S-Log something and never color graded. Heads merged into underlit backgrounds arms merged, tonally, with furniture and the whole thing looked like a turgid mess. 

Much as I love the writing on the show, and the character of Sheldon Cooper (whom I seem to have met over and over again while attending the University of Texas College of Electrical Engineering) I was ready to turn the show off entirely. Instead, in a state of quasi surrender, I just closed my eyes and listened to the dialog (which was also comparatively overcooked --- probably by the same film school wizard...). 

If anyone who reads this knows anyone at CBS, please send them this blog post so they will know that doing away with good lighting is like doing away with oxygen, ketchup for french fries, cream for coffee, music in cars, five pocket jeans, and icing on cake. They should wake up from their stupor, walk down the hall and have the young snot that perpetrated this disaster caned in the traditional Singaporean style. Then they should make him watch his own dreck-y concoctions over and over again (ala A Clockwork Orange)  until he (or she) understands the flattened and undifferentiated nastiness of their parsimonious decision making and repent. 

When laziness becomes a codified style it's time for a nasty little revolution. 

Funny, today I heard a story from a film maker whose client took them to task for delivering noisy night time footage. I asked why it was noisy and, with no sense of irony or absurdity, my storyteller mentioned that the particular footage in question was shot at 5,000 ISO. Didn't anyone think to rent some god damned lights? You don't need stuff to "look" lit in order to raise the lux levels. But since you are already doing some work would it kill you to give your light a little direction? Aid with some nice modeling? Create some texture? Etc. I didn't think so. 

Something does not become "art" just because you've become too lazy to do your job right. Grab that little snot at CBS and rap him on the knuckles with a mean nun's ruler ----- because he's doing the same thing to your tender eyeballs. 

Sometimes it's just fun to rant.

Starting a project with one camera and one mind but finishing up the project with a whole different species of camera and outlooks...

This image was taken in the very first Half Priced Bookstore in
central Austin. It was taken 36 years ago with a
Canonet QL17iii. It is attached, tangentially, to this blog
because it is of a child surrounded by books. 

I've been taking photographs at a school nearby for the last three days. It's a client I've worked with for four or five years now. I like them. They have a good way of working; at least as far as I am concerned. We have a conversation about what they would like to end up with (nothing too specific) and after we talk they give me a badge and leave me to my own devices. So, I'd like to discuss the whole idea of devices and how they (cameras) get selected and used for projects like these.

What we're basically doing is providing fresh visual content for the school's website, annual report and basic marketing media. The school needs images of students from kindergarten to eighth grade, and they would love to have a wide range of student situations. Everything from group participation in robotics to basketballs games at recess. From fingerpainting to classes in Mandarin Chinese. 

This year also marked the completion of a new wing of the main school building which added about 32,000 square feet of classroom and library space. So, of course, the school wanted images of the interiors, complete with students in place.

Part of the assignment was to be aware of the need for some of the images to go up large. Like four feet by six feet large for wall mounting in the new addition. And at first it was this parameter that led me to initially choose to work with bigger, Nikon D750 cameras and a smattering of high performance lenses, including the 24-35mm and 50mm Sigma Art lenses.  As an afterthought I tossed the Sony RX10ii into the bag and dropped an extra battery for that camera into my pocket. The bag was heavier than my last time out during which I had used the Olympus EM-5 cameras and lenses.

When I got to the school on Monday morning I started shooting with the Nikons and the 24/35mm and a Nikon 24/120mm lens. I chose the Nikon 24/120 as my primary shooting lens partially for the range but also for the image stabilization as well as the high central sharpness of that lens. I used the 24/35mm in a more immersive way by getting closer to the people I was photographing and shooting wider.

The days were partially unstructured because that's the nature of photographing in a school. I would drop into classes; from kindergarten to eighth grade, wait for the initial furor of something new (me) to die down and then shoot like a fly on the wall --- or a roving surveillance camera. I tried to isolate small groups of students from their cluttered backgrounds and to generally get images that were upbeat and positive. Images that expressed the comfortable and professional ethos of the school.

At times when the situation was right I would dip into the camera bag and pull out the Sigma 50mm 1.4 Art lens and use it for a series of shots. I also pushed myself to try and get closer with the 24-35mm Art lens to get a more immersive feel. But, to be honest, I'm not there yet with wide angles for freeform documentation and I ended up defaulting to the wide ranging zoom lens, and then the Nikon 85mm. The 85mm 1.8 was my comfort zone because I could isolate one student, drop out annoying backgrounds and also have vague shapes of other students in the backgrounds.

But for all my good and intellectual intentions in using the big, full frame cameras, something odd started to happen in about the middle of the second day of shooting. I would look down at my hands and find that the little Sony RX10ii had snuck in and displaced the bigger cameras. I could almost swear it was a subconscious series of choices. But, however it happened, I would find myself staring through the (very nice) finder of an EVF camera and having more fun.

I didn't mean for it to happen. I had packed along the small camera just for grins. Perhaps to shoot a personal shot or two as I spent the day going up and down stairs and in and out of classroom. I fully intended to "lean on" the prodigious low light capability of the D750s and the razor sharpness of the Art lenses (which I have paid dearly for --- but not as dearly as older Leica lenses...). I intellectually understand the benefit of the bigger pixel wells on the bigger cameras and the boost to quality that they theoretically provide. And it's not like I'm rationalizing out of a deficit of real choices. But, if we are to face facts (for me) then I must admit that the Sony RX10ii is just a heck of a lot more fun (for me) to shoot with.

I've said it many times before but it's the tight link between what I see in the electronic viewfinder and what I eventually have to work with on the screen of my computer that makes the camera so useful. That, along with a flexible and fast lens, and very good image stabilization, make the camera quite fluid to use. And here's a point that's a bit more complicated to make but I will try to make it nonetheless....

For some reason the review images that come up on the Sony's two screens are more accurate as a measure of what color and, even more importantly, what exposures I can expect from the files after I've shot them. Many, many times, with a wide range of traditional DSLR cameras, I've shot images and reviewed the results on the rear screen and found them to be right on the money when viewed on camera. The happiness seeps away quickly, however, when I load the same files into my very well calibrated computer and review them in Bridge or Lightroom. When I do this the images can be all over the underexposure map. Some are delicately underexposed while others are massively underexposed. You can tell me till you are blue in the face that it's because the camera is showing me "protected" Jpegs but that the Raw files have more headroom, etc. etc. but the cold, hard truth is that when I pull in files from images made with the Sony RX10ii (reviewed on either the back panel or the EVF) the exposures are a much closer match between camera and monitor. Much closer.

Once a camera proves itself to be a nice match (review wise) for your post processing system you logically have more trust in the overall system and that trust enables you to shoot in a much more fluid manner. If you can see through a trusted EVF that an image will be darker or lighter than you intended then you can correct it as you are shooting. Even at times when I've stopped shooting to review images on the DSLR cameras there is still the frustration of not knowing exactly how much darker an image will be in real life.

Just my observation here but I think people are NOT embracing mirrorless cameras just because they are SMALLER but because they get better exposure and color results from having monitors and cameras that represent more of a closed and harmonious system. The general shooter may not even realize the reason for their preferences, at first blush. But after shooting with the constant pre-review of their images for several months few, if any, are willing to give up an EVF for the dubious pleasures of the traditional camera system.

With files from the Sony RX10ii I found myself applying plus corrections of about 1/3 to 1/2 stop to achieve a bright and well balanced final photograph. This is from initial exposures based on the camera's review images or preview images. On the same job, in the same light, with the same subjects, I found myself having to apply nearly a full stop of plus compensation in Lightroom to match the same results with photographs from the DSLR cameras. And while both the RX10 and its newer sibling, the RX10ii seem to agree on the various screens, as far as color and exposure are concerning, each of the three Nikon cameras I used had its own particular exposure bias. The worst being the most expensive and the best being the older, used D610 I've held on to.

It's embarrassing to have been a photographer for as long as I have practiced the profession and not be able to predict, effectively, how the image, which looks so good on the back panel of various DSLR cameras, can be so different and variable when translated onto the screen of a 27 inch monitor.

Whatever the cause I found myself making more and more images on the Sony than on the Nikons. At the end of three days I'd logged about 2600 frames on the two Nikon cameras and about 1700 frames on the new Sony. When I got into post processing the amount of time I spent correcting Sony images was roughly half (per image) compared to the Nikon images.

Now, I won't argue that an optimally exposed, full frame image from any of the Nikon cameras I own will have somewhat better tonality and less noise than the files coming from the camera with the much smaller sensor. I only wish there was a logical way to give a numeric measure to the difference in quality and, even more importantly, some way of estimating if the percentage of difference in final use was even worthwhile.

I am sure that the well exposed images from the Nikons will make more convincing wall size posters but I am equally sure that more people won't really see the difference at the proper viewing distance. I'm just as sure that the use of the images on the website, and in a printed annual report, will not show much difference in overall quality either. These are no longer the days in which the cheaper, smaller cameras are plagued with poor fine detail, ratty color and very limited dynamic range. In fact, the sensor in the Sony might be the most advanced technology among the sensors in all three Nikon cameras and the ONLY differentiation in quality is due COMPLETELY to the actual size of the imager and the quality of the lenses (and their tight tolerances in relation to the sensor...).

I'm not in the business of delivering the best of the technically best images to my clients. I am in the business of translating marketing ideas into photographs. If one camera makes the process easier, more fluid and more transparent, it goes a long way to mitigating the technical supremacy of another (less facile) camera choice.

There are two advantages I saw in using the Nikon D750 for this sort of work: One is the absolutely superior depth of field control ---- in one direction. That direction being the amelioration of background detail. The second is the smoother and more detailed way the files handle higher ISO situations.

The disadvantages of the D750 are more plentiful in comparison to the Sony RX10ii: The cameras with their attendant lenses are much, much bigger and heavier. The focus accuracy is not always ---- optimal and I'm getting a bit tired of AF fine tuning thousand dollar lenses. The visual feedback loop (on camera file review) is medieval, at best. The need to either change lenses often or work with multiple cameras; each with its own lens, is a cumbersome burden and one best left back in the 20th century.

This is not Kirk saying that the Nikons are gone, banished, and traded. Not yet. Not by a long shot. As long as there are clients who want big files and all the attendant quality I'll be holding on to what I've got now. As long as I enjoy making and looking at portraits with sharp eyes, soft ears and unidentifiable backgrounds I'll keep shooting with fast, long lenses on full frame cameras. But I can only think that Nikon and Canon are insane for not offering all of the benefits of electronic viewfinders and accurate review mechanisms. I'd buy a D5 in a heart beat if it sported Leica's SL EVF. You can give me all kinds of reasons why an EVF will never work for you, ever, but for me it's a great tool that aids in providing massive gains in imaging productivity.

Jobs like this, where I experiment to a larger degree with different cameras, are a win-win for clients because we come back with more content, more choices and more photographic differentiation. They are a net lose for me since I am able to see, first hand, the foibles of the tools and also endure the sheer quantity to images I end up processing.

I am beginning to expect that I am, at heart, an image hoarder since I hate to throw away various iterations of a file. This is the first job in a while on which I shot more than 100 GB of raw files and then sat down and processed the majority of them. I hope my next job is all about getting one perfect image. Yeah, right.......

One of the original Craftsy Photo Classes and 
still one of the best! 

I met Lance a couple of weeks ago in Denver
and found him to be really fun and knowledgeable 
this class reflects what he teaches in hands-on
workshops in Ireland and Iceland, as well as 
cool places around the U.S.

How to make what we shoot into a cohesive
train of visual thought.