A good, small working system. Right under my nose.

In the 1990s I spent a great deal of time shooting with a small Leica system. Usually a couple of M6 cameras (the .72 and .85) as well as the 24mm, the 50mm and 90mm focal lengths. All five items fit into a small, Domke shoulder bag and were never the kind of burden I've since experienced with a couple of full sized DSLRs and the usual "Holy Trinity" of zoom lenses: The 17-35mm f2.8, 24-70mm f2.8 and the monstrous 70-200mm f2.8. Those five pieces in a bag would quickly make one's spine lopsided or the small of one's back a war zone.

It's seems like all but most dense or the most physically courageous have left the punishing load of cameras behind and embraced some of the smaller systems. A good idea unless someone is paying you thousands of dollars per day to haul the freight. As a (hard) working professional who carries his own bags I'm still a bit stuck. I'm using the Sony full frame A7 series and while the two bodies I use are lighter and smaller than my previous gear I would not be gaining much (or, indeed, any) advantage once I added in Sony's gargantuan, fast zoom optics. Their 16-35mm, 24-70mm and 70-200mm f2.8 lenses are no smaller or lighter than anyone else's and, in most cases are a bit more weighty.

My workaround for the Sony system is the same one I used for the previous Canon system: get better optical performance and less of a physical workout by purchasing and using the same basic lenses but choose the ones with the f4.0 aperture instead of the prestige f-stops. In nearly every system the pro lenses that are one stop slower are sharper, contrastier and better corrected. I won't find out if that's true in the Sony system because I never intend to drop the money (or suffer the burden of carrying them long enough) to find out.

This past week I shot a couple of dress rehearsals for Zach Theatre. We did one for Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and we did one for a children's play, Charlotte's Web. In both cases I wanted to use cameras that were silent. At Priscilla we had a full audience and I was positioned near the videographer who was recording theater sound in addition to having a patch from the main sound board. At Charlotte I was surrounded by kids and parents and the space we were shooting in was more intimate than the main, Topfer stage.

I have two cameras that feature the option to use the shutter in a silent mode (just counting interchangeable lens models; both of my RX10ixx models have the same silent abilities), the A7Rii and the a6300. During Priscilla I shot with the 70-200mm on the A7Rii and used the 18-105mm f4.0 G lens on the a6300. They were quite silent, but here I also have a tip for people just starting out in theatrical photography or performance work: Turn off the review screen on the back. If there is an audience then chimping on a brightly illuminated screen is sure to piss off everyone behind you... Suck it up and buy a camera with an EVF and then select EVF-only for your review options. When you stop to chimp during a performance you'll just look like a guy in a partial coma instead of an indifferent asshole.

As you probably expect, the performance from the A7Rii and the big zoom lens is pretty great. Wonderful detail and the ability to be used at ISO 6400 with no worries. But the camera that made me smile both times was the a6300. It's small and light and resembles my old and nostalgically remembered Leicas. I use it mostly with fun little primes but the 18-105mm is sharp and lightweight. It's the perfect selection of focal lengths for the work I've been doing and the handing is straightforward --- at least if feels like it now that I've been using it for a good while....

Though small and light the EVF is very good and the overall response of the camera: focus, zooming, viewing and taking, is very good as well. After looking through several thousand images shot in the space of a week I can honestly say I'd feel confident going out with just that camera and lens to shoot just about anything; from a conference to a portrait session. Of course, I am "old school" so I'd want an extra body in the bag as a back-up, and while I'm taking up space with back up bodies I guess I'd also toss in a similar lens as well. No sense traveling across town or half way around the world and then suffering through a camera accident or failure.

Sony has packed a lot of capability into a very small package. One that can almost keep up with the full frame flagship from that company. I'm carrying it with me to San Antonio tomorrow. I've got meetings and obligations but what a perfect tool for pulling out of the messenger bag just to snap a few shots between the endless cups of coffee and the sometimes false camaraderie of commerce.

What has changed in LED lighting technology?

RPS Dotline, 50 watt SMD LED.

When I started working on my book about LED lights for photographers there were limited choices in the general configurations of LED lights that were affordable for most hobbyists (and pros buying a second or third lighting system) to choose from. Nearly all LEDs aimed at photographers and videographers were small, rectangular constructions that depending on grouping dozens or hundreds of small, low powered, individual bulbs. Cost effective bulbs were small and low powered and so, to get enough lumens on a subject to be effective, the designers depended on strength in numbers. At one time I owned several panels that had 1,000 individual bulbs. 

These panels worked. They were especially useful in situations that required soft light since they were necessarily large in size and could be easily diffused. The granddaddy of the multiple bulbed panels was LitePanels. At the time of my book publication one 1 foot by 1 foot LitePanel was around $1800. If all you wanted  from your light was a biggish, diffused source then these were very practical. But most videographers, directors of photography on TV and movie sets and photographers wanted more flexibility. We wanted to be able to use LEDs the same way we used to use flash and tungsten. We wanted to have strong, highly collimated light if we wanted to create hard shadows or place a shaft of light with any sort of precision. 

While the price of multi-bulb panels dropped and became more and more widespread in the field higher end light manufacturers started working with a new technology: High Density, Surface Mount Device (SMD) LEDs. This technology allowed LED makers to radically shrink the surface area required for the LEDs down to the basic area of a traditional bulb. Or smaller. The first applications came at the high end as lighitng manufacturers for film and stage started engineering fresnel spot lights with the new SMDs. 

About three years ago Fiilex and several other light makers started introducing what we used to call "open face" instruments. These were smallish lights with high output SMDs. The advantages were all about controlling the character of light. A smaller source gives you the ability to have either a hard light or a softlight by using the lights bare or with various softening modifiers. The advantage beyond lighting character was portability. The lights could be made smaller and in more practical shapes and that meant we could toss three or four Fiilex 360s into a small case and light in lots of different locations. 

I got samples of the Fiilex units early on and I was very impressed with the light quality the created. The one thing I was unsatisfied with was their output. It was hard to use them in some situations because they would be overpowered by ambient lighting in industrial and office environments. There were more powerful SMD LEDs available but at the time the pricing for those upgrades was staggering. For example, Fiilex makes and markets a unit with the same output as a traditional 1K (thousand watt tungsten) for around $2500. Given that you need three or four matched units in a kit and the pricing for an individual photographer (who must still have a strobe system....) becomes unworkable. 

But around two years ago I happened upon a boxed product at my local retailer. They'd done a poor job at displaying the product and I had never heard of it before. It was an RPS product. In the box was a 100 watt (500 tungsten equivalent) SMD LED configured like a monolight. It uses a Bowens mount for speedrings and reflectors and has simple power level controls in the back. The price at the time was $299, which is a relatively painless "toe in the water." I bought one to test. With a simple custom white balance it was good. And bright. And (with a whisper fan) pretty quiet. 

The ability to use these lights with soft boxes, umbrellas, shoots, grids and all the usual cinematic modifiers quickly sold me on the concept and I purchased two more of the big units and two of the lower power (50W) units. Each light came with a standard, bowens reflector, a set of barn doors and a diffusion "sock" that fits over the front of the reflector. 

Since the electronics and the light source of an SMD LED light are more concentrated heat management becomes part of the engineering equation and all of the SMD lights (cheap and dear) that I have played with come with cooling fans. The RPS versions are very, very quiet and, in all but the most anechoic environments, would be okay for shooting video interviews with sound. 

I have used the SMD LEDs to light lots of food, products, interviews, portraits and more. I have intermixed them with smaller panels I have in inventory around the studio and I have mixed them with indirect sunlight. They have worked well. In particularly light being able to use them in medium sized soft boxes since I can now light portrait set ups with half the number of stands I needed when using large, multi-bulb LED panels. I would need one stand for the panel light and one more stand at each station to hold the modifier. My total investment in SMD LED lights is about $1200 for five instruments. 

While I'm talking about RPS product here I want to quickly say that it appears the same basic SMD LED light source is being used in quite a number of inexpensive units that come from China. Godox, Fotodiox, and Alzo all seem to use the same basic form factors and the same Bowens mount fitting which leads me to believe that all the units start life at the same factory but have the option of customizing the casing, features, etc. 

Anecdotally, the 100 watt units seem to garner the highest number of good reviews and a lower number of instances of failure then do the newer, 200 watt versions. While the extra one stop of output would be nice, I think I'll err on the side of reliability for now. 

The shift from big panels to compact, flash-like, lighting configurations (made possible by the SMD tech) is changing the market. I'm pretty certain we'll see a shift away from the multi-bulb panels except for permanent installations (TV studios, etc.) as the newer form factor, made possible by the concentration of light power, makes these units easier to transport and much more versatile as lighting instruments. Given how clean middle ISOs (400-1600) are in the newest cameras and you can see that the combination of technical advances leverages in both directions. 

There are plenty of instance in which I still depend on electronic flash. When I fly out of town on jobs I tend to take multiple smaller flashes and radio triggers because they travel well and can be massed if I need to mix with sunlight. In some very critical instances the more balanced spectrum of flash can be discernible on projects where flesh tone rendering (skin) it critical. 

The one Achiiles heel (only for photographers) is that in order to match the power of sun light with continuous lighting you need sources that are very strong. If you put people in front of these lights you will invariably get squinting and blinking. This application; matching the power of sunlight, will be the provence of short duration flash for the foreseeable future. 

In the studio, shooting product, I can't imagine a nicer lighting tool than an open face SMD LED light that takes popular flash modifiers. For travel on small planes to remote locations I can't imagine a better set of tools than a rolling case filled with 120 watt second, battery powered flashes and a bunch of high capacity batteries. As usual, it's a case of choosing "the right tool for the job." 

If you are running out to buy some SMD LEDs you probably should be aware that the current "budget" lights, like the ones I've been using, are not as highly corrected, color wise, as the more expensive models. While it's hard to find real numbers you want to look for a CRI (color rendering index) of over 91 and preferably over 95. Don't expect to find this in any of the under $500 units. 

It's an issue if you must correctly match daylight but in most cases, working in controllable studio settings, custom white balancing your camera will give you files that are pretty close to perfect. I found great value in using continuous light sources like the SMD LEDs in a recent assignment we did shooting small, glass ampoules for a client. I was able to work at 1:1 with a macro lens and instantly choose an aperture/shutter speed ratio that worked for required depth of field with various sized objects. I was able to use the lights in close and not worry about heat or the optical aggravation of intermittent pops of bright light (flash). It's a calm and relaxing way to work. 

I'd love to say that a generalist could make a career with just LEDs as his or her lighting tools but we still need a good combination of tools. LEDs can be a much more efficient and easy to use source but flash still has mission critical features in lots of situations. It's good to have access to both. 

An example of a primitive and very inexpensive multi-bulb panel from yesteryear. 

The diffusion cone helps to emulate the character of a classic bulb.

Old, 500 bulb panels. Perfect for shooting food...

New SMD LED in softbox. Less stand clutter.


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.