One of the many things I like about Austin is the willingness of people here to come outside in all kinds of weather. It was hot today. The "heat index" hovered around 106 or 107. The air was still and moist, but people still came out. There was a crowd down near the Convention Center and, at the other end of downtown, the Graffiti Wall was packed with people posing and spraying.
I walked for a long time today, looking for fun stuff to see and photograph. I thought I would see lots more evidence of Americana given the big holiday tomorrow, but no. I usually make my passagio a non-stop circuit but it was so hot today that I stopped at LaVazza Cafe on Congress Ave. for a glass of hibiscus mint iced tea, a prosciutto and brie panini, and a really fine cappuccino. It was a good midpoint on a three hour tour. I wore a hat, applied my sunscreen and wore a long sleeve, tech fabric shirt that blocks UV while wicking away moisture to facilitate evaporative cooling. But one must drink enough fluid to fuel the evaporation...
At the "Wall" I was looking for scenes that fit into the constraints of the lens I'd brought. Nothing too wildly wide and nothing too surreptitiously long. Just 28-85mm. I was also on a search for images that were layered. By layered I mean that you can see things on multiple planes. I'm practicing trying to see those situations quickly enough so that I can capture them before they dissolve...
I am currently being mystified by the food truck culture of Austin. I get that it's a bootstrap way to start a food service business around a new concept or new foods but I don't understand the economics of paying the same amount for food off a truck as one would in a restaurant. If the food is equivalent you are giving up a nicely air conditioned environment, bath rooms and, in some cases, good atmosphere for the privilege of eating food with your dirty hands while squatting on a rock wall or drain pipe on one of the muggiest and most uncomfortable days I can imagine on which to eat anything. But then I also came across two of my good friends having lunch at an outdoor table at a downtown restaurant. What the heck? 105 degrees and fifteen feet from a busy street. Did they imagine they were on the Via Veneto in the Spring? At least this truck is product logical. Cold drinks for a hot day. And at least the product is actually meant to be portable.
When I finally got back to the house I was sweaty and parched. Now that I've had some Gatorade, another glass of iced tea, some water and a IPA beer I am most happy and comfortable to be sitting in front of the computer looking at images and having fun writing about photography. Hope your day is also interesting and satisfying. We are officially deep into Summer in Austin.
I sure liked the color I was getting out of my new, old, used but "like new" Contax C/Y 28-85mm f3.3-4, Zeiss Vario Sonnar zoom lens the other day, but I wasn't too thrilled with the apparent sharpness (or subtle lack thereof) when I really dove in and examined the frames at 1:1 in Lightroom. Even though I am just a humble artist I tried real hard to figure out what an engineer or other technically adept person might do by way of more rigorous testing. I wanted to see if the lens was at fault or if I had mis-set something on the camera to cause an issue. But gosh golly! That kind of analytical thinking comes hard to flighty arts and crafts people so I called to see if there was a "genius bar" at the local camera store, you know, to see if any one had some ideas about, you know, sharpness.
That didn't work out but I was lucky enough to meet some young geniuses up at the swimming pool when the lifeguards cleared the pool of kids at the top of the hour (to do a body count? To let adult swim laps for ten minutes?) I turned to a couple of the five year old dudes who were sitting next to me on the deck and asked their opinions about the whole lens sharpness issue. One of the kids told me he just didn't keep up with the mirrorless products but the other kid, right off the bat, asked me if I'd had the Super Steady Shot feature of the A7ii engaged. I told him that I had. He just shook his head and chuckled. "Look." he said, "I know everyone loves Image Stabilization but it's really a mixed blessing with those old legacy lenses. Especially zooms."
"But why?" I asked.
"Well, because you can't lock in a single appropriate focal length setting for the zooms in the camera menu and that means you are always either over compensating or under compensating with lenses that have no data sharing." The kid adjusted his goggles and snuck another look at the Rolex Submariner Jr. on his wrist. He was anxious to get back in the water.
His friend chimed in: "You also have to consider that with the 4x size of the sensor, compared to smaller sensor cameras, the mass of the moving assembly is harder to control. You'll never get the same results as you would with a smaller format camera; especially one with 5 axis image stabilization." The kids started fidgeting as the clock counted down the seconds till the pool re-opened. I was about to ask about nano acuity (always puzzling for artists but never for engineers and the technically blessed) but the lifeguard blew his whistle and the two kids jumped back into the swimming pool and sped away.
I got up to leave and the lifeguard leaned down toward me from his perch on the lifeguard chair and said, "Sir, I really wouldn't worry about the idea of perfect sharpness, it's an oversold idea in photography, and so much more depends on your focusing technique anyway..." I nodded and grabbed my towel, and I looked for my flip flops because the deck had gotten hot.
As I walked away one of the mom's supervising some of the smaller children in the kiddie pool walked over and said, "I'm sorry to eavesdrop but I had the same problem with a Noctilux and an adapter on an A7sii. You really can't fully trust focus peaking either. Especially with higher res files. Be sure to try punching in the magnification and fine focusing at 10X or more. Then you'll know if it's the lens or your technique. But really, the kids were right about the compromises with legacy lenses and Super Steady Shot. Sometimes I'm just tempted to go back to my Mamiya RZ67..." She gave a little laugh and turned back to smear sunscreen on one of her kiddos.
I'm a bit slow to understand lofty technical ideas so I sat in my car in the parking lot for a few minutes and wrote down what I thought I had learned on an index card. When I got back to the studio I asked a teenager to Google the owner's manual for my camera and read, several times, about how to turn on and off the SSShot. Then I got the teenager to help me set the control to "off" on the camera.
I went out today and tried my whole test over again and I was amazed. The five year old swimmers were right. Turning off the Super Steady Shot was just the ticket. When I look at these images on my monitor, even at 100%, they are just as sharp as they can be.
I hope those two kids are at the pool again some time this week, I have some tax questions I want to run by them.
I wrote a piece yesterday concerning the loss of hands-on craft in our commercial business of photography and what I think we have lost as a result of pulling back from a real immersion in the pursuit of our art. After talking to an old friend yesterday, who works in the retail camera industry, I thought I would turn my ire toward one more pernicious aspect of "modern" photography, and that is the desire on the part of camera makers, and perhaps their target audiences, to make everything easier.
There are two things that camera makers like to add to their cameras to increase their appeal to the mass market: One is any gizmo or techie sounding feature that promises to do something that might otherwise require, taste, skill, time, discipline etc. Over the years these "improvements" have included all kinds of crap that most people use once or twice before going right back to the way they have been using cameras for many years. I include in this list: Scene modes (fireworks, baby's first vomit, sports, sunsets, autumn, kaleidoscope and countless others), the much despised auto HDR mode and the even more hated, Effects (miniature trains, grunge, super vivid, fractal-ated, ultra-grainy, old fashioned and, my favorite, the boring picture setting). I would also include the "features" that one percent or fewer of people use on their cameras such as wi-fi and GPS. (Yes, I know you can control your camera via wi-fi, save yourself a lot of aggravation and get a $25 remote...works every time).
The other stuff that cameras makers tout and camera buyers buy is anything that reduces the customer's need for any kind of skill or discipline, or learning of the actual craft. Fool proof auto focus modes, fool proof exposure modes and faster and faster frame rates. The idea being that if one just holds down that shutter button long enough.....
There are camera trends I can't really argue with. Those would include anything that gives the user the potential to exceed the image quality of previous generations of cameras with meaningful improvements like increased dynamic range, more bit depth and lower noise.
One trend I am ambivalent about is size and weight. And the orientation or flexibility of rear screens.
My friend's pet peeve, especially acute when he teaches photo classes, is that everyone is looking for the quickest and easiest way to do something. Along the lines of: "I saw this photo by Richard Avedon that was really cool. Is there a filter on my Canon Rebel that will get me the same look?"
The current state of the industry is such that almost every camera buyer believes that it is no longer necessary at all to have a learning curve beyond finding out where the button lies that will automatically do Scavllo, Penn, Edward Weston, Ansel Adams, or even the Joel Grimes or Joey Lawrence looks. The customer belief is that the difference between what they've been able to achieve and what famous photographers have been able to achieve lies solely in a filter that can be enabled on demand.
I'm amazed at regression toward apathy but even more amazed at people's sense of automatic technology entitlement. A case in point, some moron was going on and on, in a photography forum, about the Sony RX10iii. He was complaining about the sorry state of that camera's image stabilization when shooting 4K video, handheld at 600mm PLUS the full digital zoom. He was blaming the camera for not being rock solid while hand held at 1200mm. In video! Because, with the right button, no one should ever need to buy a tripod again. Right? (The reality is that most competing cameras don't even offer real (non-electronic) image stabilization in 4k and, if image stabilization is critical, dropping into 1080p will allow RX10ii and iii users some of the very best video image stabilization on the market today). I was stunned at the writer's misguided assumptions.
The magic filter. The infallible camera. The automated settings for volcano eruptions or pub crawling. They all exist so camera makers can convince most consumers that ANY knowledge is absolutely unnecessary in the making of "great" photographs....and videos.
The end result of all this is very, very interesting. By eliminating the need, the want, or the chance to make meaningful use of good cameras' underlying strengths (bigger sensors, high speed shutters, low noise, fast apertures, etc.) the camera makers, by relentlessly pushing simplification and automation, are pushing potential buyers right into the waiting and gloriously uncluttered arms of the iPhones, Galaxy Phones, iPads and Surface tablets as the preferred imaging tools of choice. And why not? If you convince a consumer that simplicity and/or automation is the name of the game then what could be simpler than using the phone? It makes life easy. It eliminates the need to make choices. And you can apply all the filters you might ever want, after the fact, right there on the phone. (I guess that's another bonus...).
Is it any wonder that sales of traditional cameras have fallen from a high of nearly 10 million per year in 2010 to barely more than 2 million, per year, this year?
If our own writing (the photo blogger community) constantly emphasizes the ease with which a new camera can be used, and we emphasize as important the ability of a camera to fit into one's pockets, and we emphasize in our writing how "retro" a camera is, and we talk about how cool it is to have NFC, GPS and filter modes, then it's little wonder that the camera makers bend over backwards to make those features universally available. And little wonder the makers don't feel the need to make real strides in parameters that actually make pictures better.
The boys at DP Review aren't doing anyone favors by focusing on trivial crap like touch screens and in-camera raw processing instead of a camera's core performance. They are essentially signaling to a whole generation of buyers that gimmicks trump performance in the camera market. The analogy being the way minivans are sold: How many cup holders and how many DVD screens for the kids? Not gas mileage, safety, resale value, or even necessary performance to drive on the highway.
I buy cameras in spite of the gimmicks and not because of them. I think most of my readers do the same. But eventually, if the camera makers follow Apple down the rabbit hole of design and features we'll all be left with nothing to shoot with but our phones ---- or weak imitations of the phones. And that would be sad.
Finally, can we just stop using the phrase: "It's a deal killer for me." As in the nearly universal: Well, it had the highest resolution sensor, the best high ISO noise numbers, the best optics, the best AF system, and the best dynamic range, but....the screen on the back of the camera only rotates through 180 degrees; not 360 degrees, and that's just a deal killer for me.
Another variation: "I needed a camera with perfect 4K video, super high resolutions, Zeiss lenses, microphone input, headphone jack, phase detection on the sensor, great still image performance, lightweight, great handling and an EVF. I looked at the XXXXX, and the YYYYY but they both had only one SD card slot and that was a deal killer for me..." Must have been that guy who learned how to load two rolls of film in the same camera at the same time to shoot back up film in the film days. Critical. Right? (Slow film goes first in the film gate and then the faster film fits in behind it....).
In my mind there are only two "deal killers." One is that you just can't afford the tool you want to buy. The second is that the camera lacks a integral imaging feature you desperately need to do your work. Everything else is just a dilettante's way of saying, "Since I don't really use my camera for anything meaningful I can wait forever for all the stars to line up and the camera makers to exhaust every possible combination of good and bad crap until I see just what I want."
I don't think people who are immersed in their art have the luxury of waiting around for "the perfect list of features." They need a camera that is close enough right now...
Spinning rims, cupholders, voice activated tray tables, etc. Yawn. Panorama mode, auto HDR, Smile detection, etc. Yuck.