Sometimes the sky just looks so good you have to go out with a camera and make photographs...

Every square inch of downtown Austin is under construction. It's getting to be bizarre. It's almost as if the real estate investors have forgotten a simple rule, "whatever goes up must come down..." But that's a story for another blog post. 

Austin is currently experiencing the lowest temperatures we've seen in over a year. When I woke up this morning the thermometer on the outside of the house said it was 25 degrees (f). I made a cup of Irish breakfast tea, with milk and a little sugar, and then I grabbed a fresh towel and headed to the pool. As you know, if you read the VSL blog on a regular basis, my masters team swims year round in an outdoor pool. It's heated but still, on days like today there's a huge psychological barrier involved in making if from the nice, warm locker room to the pool about 100 yards away.

We have insulated covers on the pool at night to retain heat so the first arrivals at the pool help our coach pull off the covers and roll them onto their carrier. When the covers come off clouds of steam roll across the pool like a fog in the background of a 1950's werewolf movie. It's a leap of faith to plunge in but we do it every morning. I am cautious and wait for the first person to make a move. Once I see that he or she suffered no hypothermic shock I'm ready to plunge in. 

It was cloudy this morning and the low temperatures (you have to remember that we are in no way acclimated for this!) were exacerbated by a gusty, 30 mph, north wind. It's the kind of Sunday morning that one just puts one's head down and pounds through the workout for an hour and a half; not much chit chat since surfacing to talk is almost painful. 

Today we did a bunch of individual medley sets to start. Nothing like swimming some butterfly to really engage with your body on an early Sunday morning...

The most painful part of today's aquatic adventure was exiting the pool and making it back to the locker room while soaking wet and being pummeled by the north wind. Coffee never tastes better than it does after the swim+chill combination. I didn't keep track of the yardage today but I'd say we got in our 4500 to 4800 typical yards. Maybe a bit less since so much of it was breaststroke, backstroke and butterfly. It's always easier to rack up the yards if you are doing distance freestyle sets but, hey! what's the fun in that?

Since it was a typical Sunday I had breakfast, read the NYT, and then headed to the studio/office to meticulously retouch ten rush portraits and then bill for four different jobs, spread across three different clients. No one seems to have gotten the message that we just happen to be in the middle of the end of year, holiday season! But that's okay because I really enjoy the billing...

Once I got the important stuff out of the way I checked the weather again and was pleased to see that the temperature had climbed to 30 degrees by 2:30pm. Perfect for a long walk through the city. 

I layered up, found my Craftsy "swag" hat and grabbed my favorite camera of the week; the Sony a6300. I vacillated between taking the 18-105mm or the little, Sigma 60mm f2.8 Art lens. In the end the Sigma won. I'm loving the a6300 these days because I am finally intimately familiar with the menu and loving the quality of the files I've been getting from that little camera; both in stills and in video. 

I wondered around for the better part of two hours with the camera and lens and only gave up shooting when the failing light pushed me past ISO 6400. I'd shot about 200 frames, and even in the freezing temperatures the battery indicator was showing 80% full at the end. Certainly not reflecting the hysteria about Sony batteries that I routinely read on the web...

As I come to grips with the demise of traditional photography and wrap my head around a more software, firmware, hardware combination of stills and video I am less and less attracted to the "nods" to yesteryear in camera interfaces and more interested in exactly how much the camera can do for me. The flexibility of the RX10 series is probably a major reason I like them so much. They cross over between the disciplines well. As does the a6300. 

I shot the a6300 as still camera today but left the SmallRig video cage on the body. It handles a bit better for me that way. More surface area for my hands. More to hold onto. My one compromise for still imaging was to take the (for stills) vestigial handle off the top of the rig. 

I got home as the last light faded from the sky and I could just make out the giant Christmas "tree" and its hundred foot strands of light from Zilker Park. I put the camera battery on the charge and started playing with the files. There's nothing earth shattering in the folder. Just fun juxtapositions of color and hard angles. I'll more than likely erase the whole folder in the next day or so. The idea is really never to go out and find a masterpiece for all eternity. No, the real plan is to go out and look at the world and just marvel at how different it is every single day. The camera is a basic foil that lends the pretension of an artist at work. It gives me grown up permission to do something ultimately non-productively fun and joyful. The camera gives me the cover of somehow being at work while hiding the fact that I'm really just soaking it all in. 

The things I find interesting are probably droll to most readers. Old machines, painted a hundred times. A dress in a window. A building framed against an abstract sky. Meaningless on one level and yet as meaningful as anything else humans do in their short lives. Walking around in the cold, looking for nuance and warm coffee beats the hell out of "getting a jump on those first quarter tax estimates!" 

Don't ever forget that we are all entitled to have down time and fun in as wonderful a proportion as we desire. Screw being a serious adult. That way lies madness...

This dress in the window of this shop reminding me of a time long past. 
Interesting that the shop has several windows displaying much larger sized mannequins, wearing much bigger dresses. I guess it makes sense but what happened to "aspirational" fashion?

Custom cup holders for a bicycle.

Austin based Vodka company. "Shovel ready" for heavy drinking...

There's that sky I referenced. It looked pretty astounding this evening. 

I finally found a cost effective speedlight that works as a dedicated, TTL flash for current Sony cameras.

I've owned lots of different "on camera" flashes and flash "systems" over the past few years. I even wrote a boot about them back in 2007. I had things pretty well figured out when I was using Nikon Speedlights with Nikon cameras but I never really got the hang of using dedicated flashes with any of the mirrorless cameras I have owned...until now. The issue in the past always revolved around getting consistent exposures in TTL. I can get all the consistency I want if I shoot in manual mode settings but nearly every third party flash I've tried with Sonys denies me the use of HSS (high speed sync) and good, repeatable results with automatic flash metering.

When I owned the a99 and the a77 cameras I went ahead and purchased their top of the line flash only to have it repeatedly shut down after 15 or 20 leisurely paced pops due to an overly cautious heat/panic threshold setting. It made the flash useless for event work or social documentation.

I've tested some of the newer Sony flashes but just didn't want to bite the bullet at the prices being asked and risk yet another sissy flash that can't be used for real work.

I did a recent event using only manual flashes on camera and we (the camera, flash and I) nailed about 490 out of 520 exposures. The remaining 30 could be saved with judicious use of post processing. But I had to think about exposure all evening and it made my brain tired. It made me long for the bomb proof flash systems we enjoyed in the heyday of the Nikon F5 film cameras. The mental sweat of a long, flash-ridden event pushed me to do some research.

I found the Godox Ring 860ii flash and an identical unit under another brand called, Neewer. Since the specs, battery, charger and appearance were identical I saved about $40 by ordering the Neewer version.
Why did I buy this? Well, it has a healthy guide number but it also has two features that I am delighted with. First, it has a whopping big Lithium Ion battery that charges quickly in a very nice charger, clicks into place in the side of the flash and provides about 600 full power flashes with one charge. Buy an extra battery just for peace of mind and you are ready to shoot all day long. Even if you are a promiscuous shooter like me. Charge time is something like 2 hours.

The second feature that makes me smile is that the flash incorporates the new multifunction flash foot that interfaces with the same multifunction flash shoe found on all the newer Sony cameras. It is compatible with all six Sony cameras that I own. The flash provides full TTL automation and it also provides HSS for syncing out in the sun. Going a step further, you get a simple optical slave capability, built in. Set the camera to S1 or S2 and you are ready to use this flash as a slave with ANY other flash.
It also can be used as a master flash to trigger other flashes in it's family.

The proof of the pudding is in the eating so the day I got it I charged the battery, tossed the flash on top of an A7Rii, set it to TTL and started going around the house scaring Studio Dog by shooting everything in sight. Every exposure was on the money. Right on the money.

For about one third the cost of a comparably capable Sony model I now have the rock solid flash performance, in full auto, that I've been looking for in the Sony system. Every camera flash I own now is some new brand built in China. Not that the Sony flashes aren't built in China as well. All the flashes have two features that allow me to use them as a system in the same way we used to use our monolights and "pack and head" systems. One feature is the power ratio control. I can dial the power on any of six flashes from full to at least 1/64th power.  I can also set every flash to optical slave and use them together regardless of which radio trigger they want to answer to. It makes for a highly portable and mostly interchangeable system.

So many Sony peripherals are priced insanely. It's nice to find options that do a great job at much lower prices. I am happy with my purchase and recommend these flashes to other Sony shooters.

Many photographers are torn between spending on one camera or another. My decisions generally boil down to "new camera or new light?"


Camera reviewers love writing about cameras because it's like holding fresh meat out in front of hungry dogs. It's an easy sell. And, at times, I'm in the middle of the dog pack trying to snap at the bait. Most photographers have only two cruel mistresses; ever newer cameras and ever cooler lenses. 
I am one of the unfortunate photographers who also has a penchant for wanting new lights. In fact, I go months without thinking about which camera I'll use on a commercial job but almost every day I'm busy considering how I'm going to light the next job and with what sort of equipment. 

I'll be quick to say that in the present time of nearly perfect cameras (across formats and brands) lighting makes a much more profound difference in the way a photograph looks than your choice of camera. From small flashes to large banks of fluorescents the different ways of lighting and modifying lights are, to my mind, where most of the magic resides. And yet, except for a handful of electronic flash brands, the lights rarely get their due.

In the last week, on paying jobs, I have used several Profoto mono-lights, a big, battery powered Elinchrom Ranger flash system, five SMD LED lights, several TTL hot shoe flashes and even two Lowell tungsten fixtures. I used them in soft boxes, umbrellas, bounced off foam core, bounced off a white ceiling in a giant atrium and even direct. 

While I have six Sony cameras in my equipment cases I have far more lights and even more lighting modifiers. Why? Because the quality of light you can create from each source is unique and expressive, and matching the light to the emotions you are trying to convey in an image is a vital part of what photographers, who can light, do to make their images work.

If I want an amazingly soft source with a fast fall off to black shadows I can use a giant light source (like the 6x6 foot silk scrim I love) as close to a person's face as possible. Depending on the thickness and opacity of the diffusion material and the light source I chose I can get a wide palette of possible looks, textures and variations. It will always look different from a hard light or a smaller soft box. 

And yet I can shoot a portrait in the light created by the giant scrim with just about any one of the cameras currently in favor (D810, Olympus EM-1, Fuji XT-2, Sony A7Rii, Canon 5Dmk6, etc.) and, with the right lens, get pretty much the same kind and quality of image. It's almost like the camera doesn't really matter if you know how to light and how to do the camera basics. 

I've pulled files from the Sony, the Nikon, the Canon and the Olympus cameras that I've shot in similar light over the years and, after I equalize for minor color, contrast and saturation differences in post processing I would be hard pressed to tell the difference, even over generations, between any of the cameras. One reason for this is that lights allow a photographer to work at optimum apertures and optimum ISOs, which goes a long way toward minimizing advantages of less noisy sensors. 
Sure, there are differences in dynamic range but at ISO 100 those differences aren't as apparent in the final medium as many might think. But the lighting.... that makes huge differences.

I know many of you will read this and dismiss what I'm saying because you don't work commercially and spend most of your time photographing with natural light. You are, of course right, for your work. But even when I am off the clock I prefer the look of portraits and other images in which I have total control of the quality, direction and intensity of the light. 

Sadly, this means I rarely meet a lighting modifier I don't really like or have a curiosity about. It may be a worse addiction than yours just because it is in addition to the camera buying addiction. 

But in the beginning I seem to remember someone saying, "Let there be light." Except for my bouts of introspective street photography I hardly ever leave home without the lights and nearly always I end up using them. Light em up and you'll be working at a level most people don't bother with. It can be a wonderful component of your photographic vision. But every high end flash or deluxe modifier you choose to buy is one less camera body or lens buying opportunity ahead. It may be opportunity loss but the lighting gear tends to stick around longer and go out of fashion much more slowly. 

And, as ring lights repeatedly show us, lighting trends come back in to fashion faster than you can imagine. Lighting trends are the Groundhog Day of the photographic world. Hold on to your old modifiers, I can almost guarantee they will be cool and trendy again soon. 

Six cameras versus 25 light fixtures and instruments. It's hardly fair.