A writer at Petapixel recently wrote a column and strongly suggested that we no longer talk about gear. From now on, only about the art of photography....hmmm.

When I first became interested in photography there were only several ways to learn about how to do it and who was doing it well, or had done it well in the past. You could look at books about photography or you could read magazines. If you were inclined to do photography for a living you could go to school or attempt to find a good photographer to assist. Since gear turned over much less frequently pretty much by the third or fourth year that a Nikon F2 was on the market we all were pretty familiar with the concept and the various methods of use. For us, the real discussions were about famous photographers, how famous photographers lit, and why famous photographers chose to photograph something in the style or in the conceptual approach they used.  Since all the cameras of the time were focused by hand, metered by match needle and possessed of the same three controls there sure wasn't much to say about the differences between them. It was big news if a new finder had a new kind of metering cell that allowed accurate center weighted metering at one EV less light level that is predecessor. And most of us could read the light anyway and didn't really need the meter.

While magazines dutifully reviewed camera body after camera body they saved the big guns for reviews of the new lenses. Which also were released much less frequently. A good review could cause a run on a spectacular lens. Maybe the maker would sell a couple hundred more in a year than they had predicted. Nothing like the insane backorders we are seeing today for mid brow cameras and lenses. 

It's been said many times before that the real focus, in addition to the long and detailed photographer profiles that graced nearly every photography magazine, was on new films and new ways to use the films, along with interesting articles about how people lit. Not what they lit with. Just how they lit. 

Now, for the most part, we've lost those wonderful, long form profiles of those who would be our current "famous photographers." Instead we reward mediocre hacks who recycle techniques that have been around for years but who have mastered social media and the art of being famous in their fields for doing pretty much nothing great. There is a side industry in photography of worshipping the Paris Hilton's of our business for their fame and NOT for their work. 

I think Petapixel has it all wrong. The average digital camera user is no longer an informed liberal arts graduate who can overlay ideas and concepts popular in the realm of fine art to photography, they are people trained in linear, literal technical skill sets that are trained for no other reason than to be useful and profitable for big corporations. That demographic seems only interested in the gear. Petapixel and DP Review, and many others have built a reader market for people who are serial equipment review readers, technical review consumers and ardent members of forums where the discussions are never about allusions to action painting or conceptual art, or the resonance of J. Koudelka in modern street photography but are always about shutter shock or the moronic explanations of equivalency, or about the mushiness of control buttons. Nobody gives a rat's ass about the art of photography or the motivations of artistically inclined photography practitioners. 

Except that's not really true. There are pockets of people who are interested and do care. There are niche blogsites like theonlinephotographer.com who try hard to be intellectually relevant and engage in spirited discussions about the art instead of the constant tool chatter. But if people really cared to learn anything at all about the art of creating work instead of chattering about equipment then these niche sites would be exploding with readers while sites like Ken Rockwell and DP Review would suffer the web equivalent of tumbleweeds and lone coyote howls. 

I'm sad when I remember the 1978 issue American Photographer which profiled Richard Avedon. Page after beautiful page of his work with thoughtful and chewy captions. Lengthy interviews about purpose and vision --- and a one third of one page sidebar about the tools that he used to do the work. A throw away set of paragraphs about shooting with an 8x10 view camera. No sales potential for Deardorf; the average photographer would never embrace a tool that was so costly to produce with or which demanded so much discipline and knowledge. I'm sad that the journalism and literature of photography has become so diminished. The last refuge seems to be Photo District News. And that's quickly slimming down and now rushing to save subscriptions by beefing up the technical (gear review) sections. 

While the writer at Petapixel was probably just responding to writer's block, or maybe incrementally improved equipment boredom, and needs a break, the great band of photo "enthusiasts" vote with their page views. As do I, and as do our VSL readers. Some suffer through rants like this to get to the equipment reviews that they know are coming, just like the third quarter door buster sales at major department stores. I don't have an excuse for any gear reviews I write. I rarely monetize them anymore and my turn over of gear has slowed down to a viscous trickle. I have just started to write about how I use the stuff instead of obsessing over newly added gimmicks.

I'd write more about the art of photography if I were an artist but, essentially, I am just a tradesman and all I can write about with any accuracy and passion is how I handle the work I do to keep bread on the table and electrons running through the wiring to power my various toys. 

No, I think the writer was writing his retirement article. Petapixel was publishing his time out. We're addicted now to the endless flow of decent writers pumping out glowing or critical-but-compelling reviews of cameras that really don't amount to much in terms of breaking news. And I have to stop for a moment and say that money is the driving force for the content on almost every photo blog and web site. If there was a way to monetize the sites without having to help sell gear I am certain that discussions would change direction and assume a broader perspective. But it seems as though the only way the photo sites large and small make enough money to keep the doors open is by including ads for dealers, ads for gear and links for the latest products. I applaud sites that try to make money by selling prints from well known and respected photographers. I cheer when sites have book sales. I used to click through the (non-gear) ads to read about workshops and learning opportunities but those kinds of promotions have become limited to just a handful of the more elite sites. 

If DPReview talked only about the art and use of the tools on the site I predict that Barney and his gang would be out of work in a matter of weeks. Trapped as they are into the paradigm they have helped create. 

I'll admit I was a bit chagrined at Michael Johnston over at theonlinephotographer.com. He recently claimed to have committed to pre-ordering the Sony a6500 camera, emotionally claiming that it was everything he ever hoped for in a camera. I think he'll find his enthusiasm misplaced after a bit of use.  The a6x00 line from Sony is quite decent, nothing to slag, but there is room for improvement in any camera that was not named Leica M3. Only a month of so ago MJ was in love with the Fuji products. Somehow I think we've switched universes; I haven't been interested in any new cameras since my purchases (and extensive use of) the Sony RX10iii and the A7Rii. I'm content just to shoot with them. But I'm using them for commercial work so I keep running out of cogent stuff to write about anyway. Other than how I use it.

No, the Petapixel writer's angst showed through but he blamed all the photographers who obsessed about the gear instead of pointing back to the site that trained them and addicted them to love the technical aspects of photography over photography itself. Petapixel can aggregate artful content if they really want to try and drive the market that way...

Here's what I think an interesting challenge to other bloggers and blog sites might be: Can we all go through the month of November writing our usual prodigious output without any unnecessary mention of gear. We could talk about the  kind of gear  we used to create images or the kind of gear we used on a job, if the type of gear we used was germane, but in doing so we'd all make a pact to disregard the brand names or specific models. What an interesting way that would be to ascertain what people really want from we writers instead of just what they say they want from the sources they follow. And imagine the chaos that would confront camera users who are used to getting so many miles of free and nearly free marketing hype type for their products; especially right after Photo Expo. Wouldn't it be like armageddon for them if the source of "previews", "hands-on assessments", "first looks", etc. of the newly announced gear just......stopped. Gone on vacation for the month of November? We might then understand our cumulative power as writers and market makers while manufacturer might come to a new appreciation of the marketing "free ride" they've gotten for a decade or so. I'm game to give it a try. I wonder if anyone else would come aboard. Can we go a month without gushing about the latest Sony or Fuji? Can we give the "game changer" narrative a 30 day rest? Probably not. We might all end up with readers and followers in the single digits....

on another note: 

One other thing that's bothering me lately is the endless repetition of the idea that the best camera is the one you have with you. What a bunch of phony baloney bullshit meant to rationalize dumbing down our vision and cramming it into a wide angle cell phone camera. If you are an artist with a point of view and a style, and you are out doing more than just gratuitous social media documentation, you need to use the tools that create your style without compromise. You don't need to worry over the exact brand of camera but if your style is wonderful portraits with optical compression and narrow depth of field and that's what you want to see in the final images you work to create then stop making puerile excuses and just put your damn camera over one shoulder when you go out to shoot. The pull of laziness and the disheartening effects of entropy will have you heading down that slippery slope to mediocrity in a heartbeat if you don't. A little discipline and forethought means that the best camera is the one you selected, practiced with, developed a style with and had the fortitude to bring with you.... just in case you saw something you wanted to shoot without compromise. It's only a couple extra pounds at most, right?

I've tossed in some photographs just for fun. It's stuff I like and if I have the energy I might circle back around and talk about why I like them. That would be talking about actual photography, right?

Going small and light at Esther's Follies. Two cameras, two lenses. Both APS-C Sonys.

Ellen Kelter. Esther's Follies. 

The fun photographic assignments for me are the ones we do for theaters. There is something really exhilarating about being around talented actors and the idea that they routinely work live; without a safety net. I am under no illusion that my photography has to hit the mark every single time I work with clients. Sometimes I try something outside my comfort zone and get bit. I know the times when the client and I can get away with experimenting. For something like last Friday's shoot at the theatrical temple of political satire, Esther's Follies, I knew that I could try shooting a live show, and some behind the scenes images, with a couple of Sony a6X00 cameras and, if things hadn't worked out I could come back and reshoot the live show the next day.

For the last few theatrical documentations  I've done at Zach Theatre I've used a combination of cameras. Usually the a6300 and the A7Rii. My choice of these two cameras comes from the fact that when I shoot dress rehearsals of plays at Zach Theatre I am usually working around an audience and I think the ability to select the silent shutter option is comfortable for everyone. I tend to shoot a lot with the smaller format camera because I get a bit of extra reach from my lenses and I'll end up post processing files that are less than half the size of the A7Rii's huge raw files. 

The theater space at Esther's Follies is much smaller and so I don't really need the reach of something like the 70-200mm lens. I knew I could sit about ten rows into the audience and get both tight and wide shots with the very flexible 18-105mm f4.0 G lens on the a6300. When shooting a show with a full, paying audience I don't get to move around from side to side to get various angles, and being stationary also limits the lens choices I make. Action moves very fast at Esther's Follies. Skits can be as short as a couple of minutes which makes a wide ranging zoom much preferable to prime lenses. 

I was asked to come early for the first Friday night show so I could see a loose rehearsal, get a feel for the blocking and then hang out with the cast and shoot some shots behind the scenes, behind the curtains. I've shot at Esther's Follies for many years but in the past we always brought along studio electronic flash units and shot set-up poses on the stage. The images were good but lacked the kind of energy and verisimilitude we can get if we shoot images under actual stage lighting, during a live performance with an audience. Those kinds of shot were my main goal for the evening. 

The theater is down on Sixth St. and this weekend the city of Austin played host to the Austin City Limits Music Festival, so we had an extra 100,000 people in town. I wasn't sure about parking downtown. I thought I might end up far from the theater so I came prepared. I selected the a6000 and the a6300 as my cameras. I paired the a6300 with the 18-105mm f4.0 and decided that camera and lens would be my primary stage shooting camera. I gambled that I'd be able to keep the ISO around 1600 and the shutter speed up near 1/160 - 1/250th in spite of the lens having a maximum aperture of f4.0. The main reason for selecting it over the a6000 for shooting the show was that I would be sitting right next to (and in front and behind) patrons and I wanted to make sure I was using a silent camera. I also wanted to take advantage of that lens's image stabilization since I planned on spending time shooting at the long end of the lens and having the electronic tripod could make a quality difference. 

The two cameras, two main lenses (I tossed in the 50mm f1.8 OSS just for fun --- unused) a sack of batteries, my phone and a "just in case" electronic flash all fit into my little Tenba photo backpack. A perfect traveling case for practicing minimal gear photography. 

I paired the a6000 with the Sigma 30mm f1.4 DN lens for all of my "back of house" images, including actors in their dressing rooms and various views from backstage. The 30mm Sigma has the same angle of view on an APS-C camera as a 50mm lens does on a full frame camera and that just happens to be my absolute angle of view to shoot reportage with. It's has an unforced, lifelike view and it's a real chameleon of a focal length. While it would be even better with image stabilization either in the camera or the lens I felt like my handholding technique would be good enough to make the combo work.

I set both cameras to shoot raw. On the backstage camera (a6000) I used AWB because there was a mix of low level lighting that ranged from the greenish tinge of compact florescent lights to the orange warmth of incandescent, as well as a few LED bulbs in a fixture here and there. I knew I'd be individually correcting most of the back stage files but that was fine since I didn't shoot an enormous number. In situations like this I prefer to shoot with the camera set to manual. I can set a handhold able shutter speed, use the lens close to wide open (I seemed to prefer shooting at f2.5) and using ISO to fine tune exposures. Having a live histogram and live view in an EVF made it easy to zero in on the best exposures (but not always the most objectively accurate exposures). 

The a6000 does not have a silent shutter feature but it didn't matter since the actors and crew were all well aware that I was in the house and shooting.  I was actually pleasantly surprised by the a6000. I hadn't picked it up recently and I didn't remember it being so small and light. It felt almost transparent in its weightlessness. Even though it is an older model it's very close to the a6300 in handling and even low light, single frame AF. The main benefits of the a6300 in this kind of shooting, besides the silent shutter, are mostly that the newer camera has more phase detection AF points and AF seems zipper. The camera's EVF also seems a bit better (10%) at tracking color and exposure --- at least getting pretty close to what I would eventually see on my monitor when I transferred the raw files into Lightroom. 

I found the raw files to be quite malleable and I was happy to find that the latest rev. of Lightroom has  a profile built in for correction of the Sigma 30mm. It works very well and makes that lens shine. 

The stars in the Tenba bag were the a6300 and the sometimes maligned 18-105mm f4.0. I was able to sit in the middle of an audience and shoot at 5 or so frames per second without any noise at all. I elected to set the viewing controls to activate only the EVF so there was no distraction from a bright, rear camera screen. The image stabilization in the lens is good and probably buys me between two and a half or three stops of handhold-ability. There are few things I don't like about the two cameras but neither has anything to do with the menus or the image quality. I'm not even fazed by battery life. No, the one thing that I don't like about either camera is that they are just about half an inch to an inch too small. Not in ever direction, only in their height. Even though I have medium to small size hands the camera is so short that my pinky finger and the adjacent finger have no purchase on the camera. Making the camera a bit taller would make all the difference in the world to many users; myself in the forefront.

I have crested 10,000 actuations on each camera. This gives one much practice in holding and operating the cameras. Since I am shooting (in rotation it seems) with six different Sony cameras I have come to grips with the general layout of the menus and the familiarity is finally giving me comfort and confidence that I will be able to quickly find what I need. But the 20,000 combined exposures have made me realize that this could have been the perfect camera with just three ergonomic changes. First, as I just stated, the camera needs to be taller. Judging from the images of the new a6500 it seems that Sony does not believe this. Having finally understood this short coming I am researching the availability of battery grips or add on grips for the cameras. That would quickly solve my main problem but might introduce a secondary issue given that both cameras load their memory cards from the bottom. A grip might interfere with access. The secondary workaround is, I guess, to start with bigger memory cards so they need to be changed less often...

The second handling issue is the EVF finder area. This needs to have more relief for one's eye and more standoff. I feel as though I need to press my eye right into the finder to block reflections and see the image properly. The image in the finder is great but the mechanics of viewing need to be finessed. I can't imagine any add-on could fix this so I'll live with it....grudgingly. 

The third aspect is minor but annoying. I want the control dial on the back of the camera to be more tactile and much more robust feeling. The touch aspect of the rotating dial with four "button" points is so light that it lacks the tactile feedback to give me confidence in the control. This is important to shooting satisfaction as this control dial sets shutter speeds when I have the camera in manual exposure. I wish it were even half as good as the top mounted aperture control.

Once the a6300 is set up with the most used settings in the function menu, and once you've practiced 10,000 shots with it, the camera becomes highly responsive and quick to use. The size, when coupled with a lens like the Sigma 30mm, is a wonderfully light touch for just walking around and, when used in a non-intense shooting regime everything is comfortable. I've been noticing the things that bother me more because I've been using the camera more for longer shoots where I may end up shooting 500 to 1,000 shots in a day. You learn a lot more about a camera when you have it in your hands and in front of your face for hours at a time.

While the image quality in fringe situations (lowest light) might not be exactly as good as the A7ii or A7Rii cameras it is very, very close and a really great tool for most kinds of photography. The silent shutter is also "physically silent" so you won't worry about "shutter shock"  when trying to handhold the camera at slower shutter speeds. You could do a good business for 95% of the work in the market with these two cameras and an assortment of really good lenses. The Sigma is highly recommended. Even wide open I think it is capable of superb results. With the automated geometric corrections in Lightroom or Photoshop it becomes nearly perfect --- or as perfect as a $350 has any hope to be. 

The 18-105mm f4.0 G lens is currently my favorite event and "quick work" lens. It covers such  good range for me that I am tickled every time I use it. From a wide establishing shot to a tight head shot in the flick of a zoom ring. While reviews point to less sharpness in the corners I haven't really found that to be the case in these higher resolution cameras. I think what early reviewers were seeing was the results of "stretched pixels" in lower res cameras when the camera auto corrected the pretty big inherent distortion of the lens at the extremes. If you have fewer pixels to distribute into the corners then sharpness suffers. If you have bountiful pixels then the effect is much reduced. For the kind of work I do, with the subject of interest largely positioned away from the corners, these shortcomings are something that just doesn't affect me. 

I shot a lot of frames at Esther's Follies on Friday and paid for my exuberance on Saturday as I tried to coax myself to edit down 2300 images (total between the two cameras) down to about 600. I finally gave up and just tossed out images with technical faults or blinks and bad expressions. I'll end up delivering around 1200-1500 images later today. They start life as raw file and eventually find their practical stride as minimally compressed, full size Jpegs. 

Of all the files I've processed this weekend I am happy to say that they hold together very well. As to dynamic range I have "rescued" a few darker images by pushing the exposure slider in Lightroom by up to three stops with very little destructive effect. The shadows become a little noisier but an application of a small bit of noise reduction cleans them right up without visible damage to the sharpness and detail. Altogether an impressive show for me from both cameras. And a workable system with back up for about $2,000. Interesting. I had not given these cameras the credit they deserve. I wrongly judged them by their size (at least subconsciously), and that was a big mistake. They play in the big leagues. 

Final note, the only real difference I experience between the a6000 and the a6300 is with the shutter and the lack of a silent option on the a6000. That, and a lower resolution in the EVF, are the only things that differentiate the two bodies for my use. The phase detection point increase is welcome but not critical. The a6000 was itself a very nice shooting tool. Now if I can just find a decent grip.....