2.22.2018

The black backpack is packed. I'm heading down to Sixth St. in Austin, Texas to photograph the show at Esther's Follies.

From a "Wendy Davis" skit a few years back.

Esther's Follies is a live theater that's been dishing up satiric political humor, topical celebrity craziness and magic acts for as long as I can remember. For years I've been trundling down there with a box full of studio flashes to make marketing images for them before and after rehearsals. Last year we changed gears a bit and decided to shoot an actual show from within the audience; just to see what we got. 

As usual, I overshot and we ended up with over a thousand images. Some of them pretty decent. A handful really good. It was a good idea and so earlier in the week I got an e-mail requesting a new round of "action" photographs. There are some caveats....

The stage is smaller than the one's I shoot on a couple times a month at Zach Theatre and the lighting isn't quite state of the art. The audience is a paying audience and, since there is a full bar in the lobby, they can sometimes be.... unpredictable. This is a situation that calls for a silent shutter and the ability to scope out a location where I will be surrounded by happy and cooperative people. 

I'm taking two cameras and four lenses. I anticipate doing the entire show with the Olympus 40-140mm f2.8 Pro lens and the Olympus 12-100mm f4.0 Pro lens but I am bringing along the Panasonic 25mm f1.7 and the 42.5mm f1.7 just in case. Sometimes the magic act uses lower light levels. I might have time to switch to the 42.5 to capture that but we'll see. There's no intermission, the program is fast and furious, and I don't have the advantage of having seen this particular show in advance. 

I'll be using the GH5's in their silent/electronic shutter mode. Everything will be, by necessity, handheld. The theater still uses tungsten stage lights so my WB selection will be a straightforward 3,000K but I'll hedge my bets by setting the camera to make raw files. 

At least I know what I'll be doing tomorrow morning after swim practice; I'll be post processing a ton of live theater files. I only hope I can get them done by 2pm because I have another theater shoot tomorrow afternoon. 

It's 3 p.m. at Zach Theatre. Another dress rehearsal for another play on one of the smaller stages. But those files might have to wait until Sunday for their author's meticulous attention. I've got a solemn family event in San Antonio to attend on Saturday.

I like the m4:3 system because everything I need fits into one convenient backpack. I never know where I'll find parking in downtown Austin so it's good to have a comfortable way to carry the tools of the trade. 

Have you had one of those months when all the work seems to be crammed into the last ten days of the month? That's the way it feels to me.

Well, time to head downtown. I want to get there before the theater fills up. My one regret? No dogs allowed in the theater. Studio Dog will just have to sit this one out. 

"Forgive me fellow photographers for I have sinned and fallen short. I confess to having used the latest rev. of Portrait Professional software to help in the retouching of my portraits today. My process is now artistically impure."


Yesterday I was looking at a folder filled with files that needed to be retouched. They were all portraits and most of them were shot against the same gray background and with the same lighting. I confess to being severely unmotivated to go in to each file and meticulously work on skin tone, brightening eyes, cleaning up teeth, getting the skin to look nice and all the rest.

I remembered that I'd used Portrait Professional in the past. One iteration from 2011 and one from 2014, but I'd found both of them, at the defaults, were too heavy handed and obvious. I sighed and made coffee. Then I took another stab at creating multiple layers, smoothing skin via masking and blending the uneven skin tones of middle-aged men who spend too much time golfing.

In a moment of bore-stration (boredom and frustration) I clicked on Anthropic's website to see what, if any, changes had been made to their software package. It turns out that they've fine-tuned and automated a bunch more stuff, including automatic masking for backgrounds, and a panel of controls for picture-wide brightness, contrast, saturation, brightness, clarity, etc. With a much enlarged range of controls it seemed to me that one might be able to do most of the retouching necessary for many portrait files without ever firing up an Adobe product in anger.

There's always a sale going on for previous customers so I plunked down my $29 for the upgrade, loaded the app and took a look around. It was un-buggy this time. No support needed.

Portrait Professional automatically finds the important features on a face and, after asking you if the subject is female, male or a child, it automatically makes a series of corrections which include skin smoothing, face sculpting, and general (but this time much more subtle) image flattery.

I pre-processed my selected raw files in Lightroom CC Classic, matching exposures and colors. I exported the resulting files as 8-bit Tiffs (raws not welcome in PortraitPro...standard edition) and tossed them in a folder. Then, one by one, I loaded them and let the program do its stuff. All but 2 of 21 files were imminently usable without any further intervention. The two questionable files were of a fellow with lots of freckles --- always a judgement call.

I'll estimate that the program saved me about an hour and a half of repetitive work today and also provided (probably) better consistency between skin tones than I would have gotten working in my manual, hands on method.

For the $29 upgrade I felt like I'd just secured another bargain. Wow. First a cheap D2XS and now a cheap software upgrade. The week is looking up for me... It's Portrait Professional 17. No link here, that's what Google is for.....when they aren't busy spying on us all.

The depth of field is so thin on my m4:3 camera that I'm having trouble getting everything in focus....

micro four-thirds camera with Sigma 30mm lens....

I never seem to have this "problem" with my iPhone....

2.21.2018

It is impossible to do professional work with cameras having less than 12 megapixels of resolution. We all know that. Just impossible. It never happened. Ever.

Kodak DCS 760C. 6 megapixels
Sony R1. 10 megapixels
Kodak SLR/n. 14 megapixels. Shot in the 6 MP mode.
Kodak DCS 760C. 6 Megapixels.
Fuji S5. 6 megapixels.
Kodak DCS 760C. 6 megapixels.
Fuji S3. 6 megapixels. (Shot in 2006, still in use by client).
Kodak DCS SLR/n at 9 megapixels in square crop.
Kodak DCS 760C. 6 Megapixels.
Kodak DCS 760C. 6 Megapixels.
Kodak DCS 760C. 6 Megapixels.
Kodak DCS 760C. 6 Megapixels.
Kodak DCS 760C. 6 Megapixels.
Kodak SLR/n. 6 megapixel mode.
Canon 1D mk2. 8 Megapixels.

Nikon D700. 12 Megapixels.
Nikon D700. 12 Megapixels.
Nikon D700. 12 Megapixels.
Nikon D700. 12 Megapixels.
Kodak DCS 760C. 6 megapixels. 

Re-learning the joys of a "Beater" camera. Who cares if it gets wet? Exploring the urban landscape with a twelve year old camera...

I wasn't sure what to expect when I twisted a 55mm macro lens onto the front of my newly acquired, ancient D2XS camera and steered my car toward the my familiar stomping grounds. If the mainstream photo press (incuding bloggers, v-loggers, gear review sites and more) are to be believed then any camera older than a year is so fraught with technical deficiencies that it's mostly unusable for any photographic work more demanding than a quick social media post but I wanted to see for myself just how atrocious the files might look --- especially since I've had the opportunity to use much more modern cameras, like the Sony A7Rii and A7Riii as well as the Nikon D810. I was prepared for devastating disappointment. 

As I left my car a light rain started falling but I decided to believe all the reviews I'd read in the distant past and left the camera and lens exposed to the elements to see if all the talk about "weather resistance" was bogus or an actual thing. By the time I'd walked the first mile a steady rain was being propelled toward me and my unprotected camera by a zippy north wind. Every once in a while I'd brush the accumulated water off the camera with my gloved hand and wipe my glasses clean with the front of my sweatshirt. 

It was a dim and contrast deficient day. At ISO 200, using the lens at f4.0 and f2.8 the shutter speed mostly hovered around 1/125th. Sometimes higher, sometimes lower. The rain and cold were good disincentives for sidewalk traffic so downtown looked a bit deserted. A few brave food trailer operators were open for business but as I walked by there wasn't a customer in sight. 

So, what did I find out about the decrepit and obsolete camera during and after my two hour long, outdoor adventure? 

Well, first of all, I have to give credit to the camera and lens for not giving up the ghost because of the rain. Neither of them seemed worse for wear and when I removed the lens back at the studio there was no sign of water intrusion into the camera body or into the workings of the lens. 

The two important controls on the camera; the exposure metering and the focusing screen passed all my tests. The meter seemed to accurately nail every situation I threw at it while the screen had enough bite to it to allow me to manually focus the lens, at wider apertures, with no front or back focused images. I didn't really test the camera's ability to do white balance as I used the "cloudy" preset and also because I used the raw file format. 

During the course of my soggy walk I shot about 150 images and chimped a little bit but the battery indicator didn't budge from 100%. After years of using Sony's dwarfish batteries I'd forgotten just how efficient the old DSLR cameras are with batteries; and also how big the batteries in the old pro cameras were. 

The camera is hefty but as I'm generally only carrying one body, one lens and my favorite credit card (for necessary coffee and potential, emergency camera equipment purchases...) it was hardly overwhelming or overly burdensome.

The most pleasant part of the adventure was my triumphant return home with a still functional camera. I rarely subject my cameras to a couple hours of rain without some sort of protection since I actually buy my own cameras and can't just return them to a promoter or P.R. person with a shrug...

I plugged in a USB3 card reader and ingested the files I liked into Lightroom. Of course I was expecting them to be an unholy mess. I mean, really, the camera's sensor score didn't even top 60 on the DXO site!!! But surprise, surprise! The files were nice and rich. Detailed and sharp. Color neutral and tonally virtuous. It's almost like I shot everything with a current APS-C camera. 

While I didn't test it today I am sure that modern cameras will outperform this old professional tool as soon as the ISO starts to rise. But, to my eye, keeping the camera between 100 and 320 ISO means getting files that rival current higher end tools in everything but sheer resolution. 

This revelation, that ancient top-of-the-line cameras can be as effective (in a smaller operational envelope) as current cameras is dangerous. Dangerous for me and, I think, dangerous to the camera makers. 

The danger to me is that my wily brain will now start to fabricate reasons to buy alternate lenses so I can "explore the vast potential of old tech..." I'm already unearthing stuff from the cabinets that I overlooked in the last giant Nikon purge. I'm already scrubbing through the Precision-Camera.com website, looking for locally available bargain glass (after all, if the old cameras are this good how might the older lenses fair?).

The danger to camera makers might be an wider awakening to the idea that (other than lower high ISO noise) not much has really fundamentally changed in camera I.Q. over the last five or seven or ten years and maybe it makes more sense for cash strapped, potential professionals to mine the junk yards of the retail camera world to find that cast-offs from that coterie of buyers who have an insatiable need for the newest and greatest stuff. 

As someone who until recently made most of my income taking portraits the thought had crossed my mind that a couple of these old D2XS cameras and some select older glass would be more than adequate for just about any real business need. And would be available for a song... I'd miss things like eye detection AF, and, of course all the art modes but if push came to shove you could make the old stuff work for just about anything the newer cameras can do. Need bigger files? There's a menu item in PhotoShop for that...... For now I think I'll just be happy with the new toy and stop wasting money on these kinds of nostalgic adventures....... But I did happen to see a copy of my very first Nikon interchangeable lens digital camera on a used shelf. It was a D100 for about $95. I wonder how that one is holding up?
















2.20.2018

A camera buyer's antidote for keeping up with the Joneses. Get a $5495 digital camera for only $250. I'm reviewing mine.

If you're tired of the equipment rat race and frustrated with the demands of trying to stay "current" in the fast moving world of cameras you might be ready to step off the ever accelerating, new introduction carrousel and try an alternate method of assuaging your deep hunger for acquiring cameras. It came to me just a day or so ago as I was sitting around trying to "decide" which camera I "needed" to get next. I've been shooting with Panasonic GH5's and have been very happy with them but then Panasonic went and introduced two new models and the lust for a new camera welled up strong and quick like blood from a fresh knife wound.

I read the same bubbly reviews in the style that I recently decried. I watched poorly done videos of other peoples' renditions of creative spec sheet reading.  I looked in my check register, trying to see where the cash might come from to pay for my obsessive compulsive need for the latest and greatest in camera gear. And then I hit the wall...

It dawned on me that I've been engaged in the new gear dance for well over a decade now and have precious little to show for it. We had a good time deducting the wretched excess from our taxes and we had many a good discussion about the merits of various new models while saluting photography with frosty and salty margaritas but it's hard not to feel

2.19.2018

OT: NSFSP. Sometimes a hat is just a hat. But not always....

The disheveled cotton candy of the linear mind. 

I wrote a piece a couple of days ago that was, on the surface, a critique of the latest Fuji camera. It was, of course, a tongue-in-cheek critique of the current photographic press, many of whom are making an entire career of endless junketeering tours, hosted by the makers and marketers of the cameras about which they write. That content being the "product" they use to lure readers and advertisers to their sites. The new generation of professional reviewers are just like the writers of columns about automobiles who are often flown to wonderful locations, housed for a while in five star hotels, and feted like princes and dukes, who get to drive the latest cars on wonderful winding roads and then, ostensibly, write unbiased reviews for their hosts.

And we now have a coterie of likable, affable and effusive video bloggers, review sites and old fashion typed-blog site writers who live anchored to the nurturing breasts of the camera makers' P.R. teams in much the same way as their car loving cousins. I find it amusing (and depressing) that we've gone from having online sites where an expert, deeply involved in his or her preferred camera system, wrote from hard-won experience,  about nuts and bolts of the system they knew, with the benefit of long experience and laser like focus, and we have now moved to a frenzied and unregulated market place where the process of reviewing extends to the products and models of any and all systems makers who are willing and ready to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to extend "courtesies" including: air fare to fun locations, copious alcohol, shooting opportunities and prime lodging to our industry's blogger celebs so those writers can be spoon fed tailored "experiences" that form the homogenous bedrock of hundreds of near simultaneous and transparently similar camera "reviews". Even the images (since they were all generated at the same event) are interchangeable. All just so positive and sparkly. 

A few of my readers didn't seem to get the "inside joke"; that I was using the Fuji marque as nothing but a foil of my (obvious) target, the ersatz press sales process. Several denounced my "hatred" of Fuji or my fanboy attack on Fuji. In the past I would gloss over all of this but it's been a tough quarter so far and I'm loathe to accommodate painfully literal thinking and obtuseness, and even less inclined to give it power or public voice. 


OT: An observation about political observations. A very short blog.



For many years I have listened to people refer to the ebb and flow of partisan politics as akin the swinging of pendulum where one side or party, having secured the right kind of leverage, takes their pet policies and runs with them, outpacing the general electorate which eventually reacts to the lopsidedness of the new paradigm and pulls the whole process back to the other side. More or less analogous to a sine wave. At some point we conjecture that there is a stable middle ground which is largely logical but never attainable. One theory is that the amplitude of the changes will eventually become smaller and smaller and somehow logic and reason will have us all meeting closer and closer to this theoretical middle ground.

In capitalism we often talk about cycles. In commercial real estate, in which I have some long experience, the accepted wisdom is that we tend to overbuild, panic and then overcorrect, which leads to a shortage of inventory which then leads to overbuilding, followed by surpluses and panic and then the inevitable overcorrection. General consensus is that this is a seven to ten year cycle in most parts fo the U.S.

Cycles, Sine Waves, Pendular Swings. This all makes our politics sound like an arena where the majority of Americans are making changes to their own perspectives and changing their point of view on issues with a degree of flexibility and open-mindedness that I have rarely seen in "the real world."

It dawned on me yesterday that, where politics is concerned, the model of the constituent swing is just wrong. The real model is a giant 24/7 tug of war over an open pit of hot lava. Each side straining and pulling to gain ground and capture territory, inch by inch. One side gets ahead and, perhaps in a celebratory moment, is distracted for a small fraction of time. This gives the other side an advantage which they press with vigor. A big victory makes one side feel as though momentum has arrived as an ally and they can now coast a bit. The sting of a big defeat galvanizes the other side to pull harder to capture back lost territory. People on either side either let go of the rope in a play for self-preservation or are pulled into the lava and die a quick and excruciating death.

But the real point is that the opposing teams rarely loss their team members to the other side. Defections are rare. Minds are not changed. The rope, the struggles is the only thing that energizes each side. The struggle is continually energized by millions on either side.

In the theory that there is a natural ebb and flow there is effort followed by a period in which the fruits of one's labor (or ideology) can be savored with a respite from the process. The wave will continue, supposedly, until it hits its natural peak and then ebb back. The pendulum will swing too far, slow toward its furthest travel in one direction and then accelerate back in the other direction.

But in the tug of war lava pit theory there is no real respite only the struggle and the commensurate balancing of two divergent views on either side of the philosophical lava pit.

That's all I was thinking about today.

2.16.2018

"Best Ever!" "Breathtaking" "The new Fuji camera has finally arrived". The line for the newest Fuji camera starts .... right behind me. Gotta be an X-H1 or I'll go to the floor right now and throw a tantrum.

Here's my breathtaking and highly original announcement. You heard it here on the VSL blog. This may be one of many decent cameras to be announced in 2018. It may be even better for some uses than other cameras which will also be announced. It's possible that some people will take good photographs with it.

so. Where's my "real world" "hands on first impression" "what you need to know" review?  Okay, I've got this. Here's my "I've read the same press release as everyone else so I'll take a stab at summarizing how I feel about a camera I've never seen" journalism:

Here's what I was working on at the studio 14 years ago. They are semiconductor chip dies. They're about an eighth of an inch across. Sneeze too close to the set and you'll lose one...


Are you looking for a good test of your patience, you lighting skills, your manual dexterity and you photographic technique? You might want to try your hand at the devilishly hard process of photographing the innards of microprocessor and micro controller chips. If they are lit correctly you can get some interesting patterns and colors. But you'll need to get a lot more magnification than you'll get out of that 50mm macro lens attached directly to your DSLR camera....

At one point back in 2004 we were photographing eight or ten sets of chip dies a month for the folks at Motorola. They had two big fabs in Austin and it was a time in which the hardware side of the tech business was booming. 

I'd get a phone call from someone in marketing and I'd head over an pick up a heavy duty plastic container with tiny, tiny little squares of silicon with even tinier photo etched circuits on them. The clients needed clean, colorful photographs that they could blow up big and use in printed brochures and magazines, and it was always a bonus if we could make them high enough resolution to print onto 4x4 foot wall posters. It was always a big "ask" with a miniature deadline. 

I'd haul the little squares back to the studio and start assembling the macro rig. A very rigid copy stand with a camera holder on rails so that one had two levels of control of lowering the camera toward the subject. But between the camera and the subject was a bellow that sometimes extended nearly twelve inches along with a specialized macro lens that was optimized for magnifications between 3x and 8x life-size. 

There were three hellacious speed bumps we had to deal with on almost every job. One was getting hard light onto the subject from just the right angle to create a visual representation of the information on the surface (actually, several layers of surface). The second challenge was to keep the small (and very light) wafer in place and plano-parallel to the lens stage and the "film" stage of the camera. We cheated and used a little bit of spray mount painted on a holder surface with a toothpick. 

We had to secure the chip so we could "puff" it with compressed air just before shooting so we could make sure that we didn't get giant piles of dust in the photo. Retouching was out of the question. Too much fine detail. 

If we used compressed air on an un-anchored die it would go flying off into the infinite clutter of the studio.

The colors and the details were dependent not just on the angle of the lights but also on the aperture of the lens. Diffraction and fall off limited anything smaller than f5.6 and sometimes our best shots were at the widest aperture of f2.8. Changing apertures meant that the focus changed and that meant a whole new round of re-focusing. 

The final challenge was vibration and movement from the camera shutter. When the chip sizes went under a certain size we started to depend on opening the shutter with a black card under the lens, moving the black card and counting out "one elephant, two elephant...." and then replacing the card. No vibration --- as long as we didn't touch anything. 

If I was lucky I could get a good shot in a couple of hours. All of these images are from the same chip product. They are a result of changing the light angles, changing the elevation of the lights and changing the size of the light surface. The experiments (and re-focusing would go on until I got a handful of successful images and then it would be another hour in post processing. 

We started doing this kind of work back in the film days. A really good chip die shot could take a day to get just right because every bout of trial and error required Polaroid testing and then more testing. 

Our first foray into chip shooting was for the Apple/IBM/Motorola consortium that came together to create the RISC based PowerPC chip family. The last Motorola conference I attended was still using an 8x8 foot blow up of the original PowerPC chip I had taken (on large format film) nearly a decade earlier... 

A bigger challenge was getting a good die shot of the first IBM multi-core processor. Security in the pre-announcement stage was so high I had to take all my stuff and head over to their offices where I juggled a full sized 12 inch wafer filled with the little squares while a marketing person hovered close by. We processed the images on site and then they "helped" me to erase my CF card just in case....

Makes for a pretty iron clad NDA. 





2.15.2018

Large product shot. Very large product shot.


I'm a fan of using cameras correctly. In many instances a really cheap camera, use right, can create files that look much, much better than a very expensive, state-of-the-art camera. If you take a decent camera, get the white balance zero'd in correctly, figure out exactly where you want to place the depth of field and then put the whole shebang on a sturdy tripod you'd be hard pressed to tell the difference between a Phase One medium format camera and, well, a micro-four thirds camera.

This is, ostensibly, a simple shot. Just hang out about three feet outside the door of the room (the powerful magnetic field created by the newest generation of MRI machines can turn innocent cameras and tripods into deadly, high speed projectiles.... think: rail gun. Also, subject to the inverse square law....) and shoot to your heart's content.

Except... the machine and the room are only illuminated by relatively few compact fluorescent bulbs stuck in ceiling cans and distributed around the room just where you don't want them... The room had deep, dark shadows and areas of burnt out highlights. This became apparent when I shot my first test frame.

Without being able to light the room we needed to work with what we had and what the camera could supply us for leverage.

I switched from my usual RAW file camera setting to the finest Jpeg setting so I could take advantage of the Panasonic GH5's built-in HDR setting. Then I took a series of exposures at different starting settings so I could evaluate the sweet spot (or sweet frame) where the highest resisted burn-out but the shadow were opened up enough so that, with a little more boost in PhotoShop, I'd be able to create files that we liked.

I used the camera on a smaller Gitzo tripod about two and a half feet off the floor. I originally composed the shot a bit wider than shown here so I could crop and correct perspective. I used the Panasonic/Leica 8-18mm lens because I depended on its ability to help me fine tune final composition. The built-in level helped me keep the shot from being too wacky.

For safety's sake I also shot a bracket of RAW shots with the idea that I could blend them in post production if my in camera HDR didn't make the grade.

At f5.6 and an ISO of 200 all of the parts of the machine that I think should be sharply focused are. The lower ISO goes a long way to equalizing the quality between a shot in this format and an equivalent shot done with a full frame camera in that the full frame system would require me to stop down two more stop in order to get the same depth of field. Probably not critical in this show as we could have dragged the shutter on the full frame camera to make the exposures equal. But nice to be able to use a lens in its optimum aperture range and still get the deep focus required without worrying about the effects of diffraction.

This was the first of many shots we did that day. Some with people and some without.

This shot prompted me to go back and look at a shot we'd done back in 1988 for Central Texas Medical Center. They had just gotten a CT Scanner (no magnetic/kinetic danger...) and part of a brochure assignment was to take a sexy photo of that machine. It was the age of color filters and 4x5 sheet film.

CT Scanner. Circa 1988.

I was working with art director, Belinda Yarritu, on a brochure project for a new hospital in central Texas. It was located in San Marcos, Texas. During the course of the day we shot a beautiful mom and baby in a maternity room setting, nurses with geriatric patients, earnest looking doctors, spiffy looking lobbies and much more. But the most technical shot we did that day was in the CT Scanner area you see above. 

We shot everything that day on 4x5 transparency sheet film because, well, that's just the way advertising shots that might end up as double truck spreads were done back then. We were also hauling around 2 Norman 2,000 watt second power packs and a box full of flash heads. 

The shot above was done on a Linhof 4x5 using a 90mm lens stopped down to about f32. I wanted to get as much in focus as I could. We used four flash heads running off two 30 pound power packs and, as you can see, we used a mess of filters. 

We were shooting ISO 64 sheet film and my meter reading told me we'd need to turn out the room lights and modeling lights and hit the power packs for four separate exposures to get enough light onto the film; we were battling reciprocity failure at the f-stop I wanted to use. We also had to put black velvet over the computer screen for the flash shots and then do a separate exposure for the actual screen information (screen on the right, just to the right of the phone...). So, four pops for the room and about 10 seconds for the screen. Sadly, Polaroid had much quicker reciprocity failure and wasn't as useful as an exposure tool for lighting situations like this. 

The shot at the top of the blog took about three minutes. Lighting and testing a shooting the shot on film, just above, was probably 45 minutes to an hour of time. A lot has changed. 

It's fun to see the difference over 30 years... It was a different and less sophisticated market back then.