With all the trauma and anguish of the past three weeks I entirely missed noting a small but important-to-me milestone. About three posts ago I put up the 3500th post since the birth of the Visual Science Lab blog. If you figure that the average length of a typical blog here is about 2,000 works then I've bashed out some 7,000,000 million words, reviewed a lot of gear, and tried my best to piss off the entrenched photo community.
If nothing else the blog has given me the opportunity to improve my skills as a typist...
If you enjoy the blog please take time to comment from time to time so I know that I'm not writing into a vacuum. Of course any contribution is totally voluntary but let's not waste each other's time; checks or cash in thousand dollar increments are the most efficient wealth transfer for both of us....
If you are feeling particularly charitable, and are so inclined, I could really use a new Bentley automobile in order to more efficiently do my writing research in far flung locales. Should a Bentley prove too dear one of the S class Mercedes cars would suffice. We all need to make adjustments....
I think I'll write a few thousand more blogs. Some routines are hard to break.
Assembling a set of prime lenses for a Panasonic G series camera that will see a lot of action in both the video and photography camps...
One of my friends who is a professional videographer is thinking seriously of supplementing his Sony FS7 dedicated video camera with the new Panasonic GH5S. He's looked closely at the files and finds a lot to like about them. We were sitting around having coffee and he asked me for recommendations of lenses to use with the new camera. His requirements (or strong preferences) are to have lenses that have apertures of f1.8 and faster for each lens. He would also like to keep cost down; if possible.
My first suggestion was that he consider the three new f1.2 Pro lenses from Olympus. All three have been well reviewed and seem to have superior imaging characteristics as well as the ability to move into a manual focusing mode that has hard stops for minimum and maximum focusing distances. We both are on the fence about this family of lenses, we love the "idea" of them but also feel that there are more cost effective options in the overall m4:3 universe which might not be the highest performance where high resolution still photography files are wanted but which would definitely do justice to the 4K video files he (and I ) will likely shoot.
Now, this is a topic I like to sink my teeth into. He also stated that he was more interested in using lenses specifically designed for the format instead of trying to match lenses from other systems via various mechanical adapters.
I started making a list. The first lens on my notepad was the Panasonic 42.5mm f1.7 short telephoto. It fills an important slot as a perfect focal length for intimate video interviews. It's also fast enough that when used close in allows for dropping backgrounds out of focus in a very nice way. I bought my second copy several months back and, in the past, found this lens model to be a bit sharper, wide open, than the Olympus 45mm and it also features lens based image stabilization. It's a solid recommendation for a low cost video centric kit. We wish the focusing ring had hard stops in manual focus but you can't always get what you want at the price you're happy to pay. If you want good, sharp performance at a bargain price then this is the system lens I start with.
My next suggestion is a cheat because it violates his first preference of only considering lenses faster than f1.8. I'm suggesting that everyone who shoots longer focal lengths with the m4:3 cameras get their hands on the Sigma 60mm f2.8 DN Art lens. Of course I understand that it's a stop and a third slower than my friend's limit but it's so sharp and so inexpensive that you just can't go wrong. This is a lens that you can set at its widest aperture of f2.8 and never have a moment's hesitation about its optical performance. At an equivalent of a 120mm lens in the full frame world its a focal length that's almost perfect for classical, tight head shots. Sorry, no built in image stabilization so it's either no coffee or a tripod if you want those frames to be nice and sharp. I love the sleek and minimalist lens body design but it's not everyone's cup of tea. Especially those who shoot year round with soft wool gloves. Not enough grippiness to make those folks happy...
Next up on my list of really good and really well priced fast(er) primes is the universally well-reviewed Sigma 30mm f1.4 DC DN Contemporary lens. It's priced at $339 (or close by) and this will be the second time I've owned this product (albeit in a different mount: I had it for the Sony a6300). On the APS-C frame of the Sony it's the equivalent (FF) of a 45mm lens but on the m4:3 it's closer to 60mm and that's a focal length of happiness for me. I ordered the m4:3 model last week and it came this Tues. Today is the first time I've had enough free schedule to walk around and shoot with it but the first few hundred frames I shot today reminded me what I like about this lens: the center of the frame is nicely sharp and contrasty at f1.4. The lens is a bit bigger than other m4:3 lenses but it's not nearly as big or heavy as the Olympus Pro series primes. If you like slightly long normal lenses this might be a lens you put on the front of your camera and never take off. I recommend it whole-heartedly.
Heading down to the wider focal lengths puts me into territory that I only care about when clients request it. The shortest lens I would work with for my personal work would be the 25mm focal lengths for this format which, of course, yield an angle of view like a 50mm lens on full frame. My first choice here (at prices much lower than the Pro series) would be the Panasonic-Leica 25mm f1.4 which is getting long in the tooth but is also a very well made and good performing lens. It's a classic fast lens with the best performance at wider apertures being in the center 2/3rds of the frame. It's not a lens for flat field macro work but if you like shooting fast and you're working in the video world the performance will exceed the resolution the video files well past 4K. So, it's my first choice in this focal length range for the Panasonic cameras. Important to note that this lens does not offer image stabilization either so it's best used on the latest cameras (G9, GH5) for stills or on a tripod or gimbal if paired with the new GH5S.
If price is an object (and of course it is since we've rejected the budget busting territory of our first choice of the Pro series lenses) then there is one more normal lens that I can recommend with no trepidation or hesitation and that is the Panasonic 25mm f1.7. It's exactly what you might think of as the system version of the Canon or Nikon "nifty-fifty" lenses for full frame bodies. It's decent wide open and then sharpens up very nicely so that by f4.0 and above it's almost on par with the pricier options. This lens is priced at around $250+ but it goes on sale with clock-setting regularity for the blow-out price of $159 and I think it's well worth that price. You can use it wide open and get most of the frame into the very good to excellent category or you can stop it down to f4.5 and get sparkly sharpness throughout.
As we move down into wider lens territory I can only parrot what I hear from my experienced users and take my cues from them. If I were not content with my Olympus 12-100mm Pro lens and I wanted to stay away from zoom lenses with slower maximum apertures the one additional prime I am actively considering buying is the Panasonic-Leica 15mm f1.7 lens. It seems well made, gets high marks across the reviewing world and seems affordable for 28-30mm equivalent users at around $549.
I'd suggest lenses wider than 15mm if I knew of any that were really any better than the zooms that cover the wider ranges (Olympus Pro 7-14mm, Panasonic-Leica 8-18mm) but I think when you get into focal lengths under 15mm the inherent depth of field of any of the available primes is no smaller than that of slower zooms; in a practical sense. I can't think that an 8mm f1.8 would have that much less depth of field that the 8mm end of a zoom at f2.8. The zooms I mentioned both have high optical quality; especially near their wider ends so it's not really a question of the primes delivering better image quality. In the end, the flexibility and quality of the two wide zooms wins out in the actual world of making photographs or videos. An added note: I bought (and am happy with...) the Panasonic 8-18mm zoom specifically because it is capable of taking filters directly on the front of the lens. The Olympus Pro and the older Panasonic 7-14 both have bulbous front elements which make it impossible to use conventional, screw-in filters on them. This will be more important to people who want to make video outside and less important to those who dismiss video entirely.
My ideal kit for the m4:3 cameras would include the three fast Olympus Pro Primes, the Olympus 40-150mm f2.8 Pro and the (incredibly flexible) 12-100mm lens and all of these would be supplemented by wider zoom options (the Panasonic-Leica gets my cash because it has filter threads and I can use variable ND filters on it).
I haven't covered long, fast lenses because I just don't think you can do better than the 40-150mm f2.8. If you need longer or faster you'll probably head into adaptations. The 75mm Olympus f1.8 gets very high marks and I consider it somewhat of a speciality lens. One I'd like to own but one that I have to work hard to justify.
Everyone's choices will be different. I'd opt for different lenses if I were photographing solely for my own pleasure. I'd be happy with a 25 and a 45 and I'd be opting out of the buying cycle after locking down those two models. But here I am on the cusp of a week long shoot for a large medical practice that will call for very wide shots, very tight shots, large depth of field and shallow depth of field in a random pattern throughout each day of the assignment. It helps me to justify the choices I've made!
To my videographer friend: I hope this is helpful.
Have I left any good lenses out of the mix that I should know about or learn about? Let me know!
Irrational purchases versus marketing strength.
(new camera of the moment)
A piazza in Rome.
Street shooting in Rome.
I love cameras as much as the next guy. Maybe even more. But, at some point the mania of researching, buying, testing, trading and selling off cameras, and then wading through the next generation of offerings seems...over the top. This isn't really me talking, it's my book on Commercial Photography. I re-read it last night after having coffee with a pragmatic gentleman yesterday who mentioned the book.
I get that it took a number of years and a number of tries for camera makers to get digital cameras back to the same level of working transparency that they'd achieved decades ago in film cameras. Up until the time of the Canon 5D2 and the Nikon D3 we could easily rationalize that we "needed" to upgrade our camera to take advantage of the curve that was still grasping for true "holistic" usability in our professional tools. But boy did we sacrifice some hard earned money, time and mental rigor.
Around 2009 all of the pieces were firmly in place. Any of the top cameras on the market that year are totally satisfactory for the function of creating great images and mastering the needs of the mainstream commercial marketplace. My Olympus EP2 was a perfect camera for the leisurely hobby of shooting fun stuff while on a walk or road trip. And it still is.
My Canon 5Dmk2 is a perfected working tool for what I need to do to keep my clients happy. In fact, the 1DS mk2 from 2004 was just about there as well. When you think about it, just about every camera with delusions of professional competency made since 2008 or 2009 is probably better, overall, than us operators. And in point of hard fact most professional assignments are usually done either on a stout tripod (at a reasonably low ISO) or in complicity with electronic flash or other supplemental lighting (also at a reasonably low ISO) and can be handled with a wide range of cameras and lenses. Including (when stopped down) most recent zoom lenses.
What's fueling the race to make every camera full frame? What's the cattle prod that keeps the herd begging for higher and higher pixel counts? And what's the new fascination with the new "rangefinder" styled cameras.....that are anything but? Desire and marketing?
It's fun to buy new cameras but even I have limits. I was drooling over the Fuji X pro camera shown on Michael Johnston's blog and all over the web when my inner business guy (deeply repressed during most camera buying escapades) emerged, beating me about the head and shoulders with a rolled up copy of my own business book.
He had a couple of questions. But first he looked around the studio and started counting cameras and lenses and lights and gadgets. He was still counting an hour later when I came back from lunch.... and then he turned on me like a spreadsheet badger and demanded to know what the hell I was thinking.
"I see enough cameras to re-brick a wall." He shouted. "But I don't see any new promotional mailers. I don't see a revised contact list. I don't see any work being done on adding to the e-mail lists. Where the hell is the new portfolio of people we've been talking about, ad nauseum? And why am I stepping over three or four different camera systems here? Are you fucking nuts? Or did you just win the lottery?"
(My inner business guy can really get in my face...)
But he had a point. And I could see it pretty clearly. And so can my bank account.
"Hey, Photo-Punk." My inner business guy taunted. "Let me give you a quick lesson on asset allocation." I slunk down in my chair and got ready for the lecture I knew I deserved...
He began: "I see you have the Canon 1DX on order already. Pretty sweet. But dude (he calls me that when he's really pissed...) we're talking seven large ($7,000) for that one camera body. And how often, when making one of your executive photos or your product shots of electronic toys do you actually need like, 10 frames per second? Or more throughput? (said with a vicious sneer...) What you really need are more new clients and more return visits from old clients and, guess what? They like the gear you're shooting with right now just fine."
I reached for my cup of coffee and he slapped my hand with a ruler, hard. Then he looked at the Starbucks label and just shook his head. "We'll deal with that money leak in another conversation..."
Back to business: "For the same $7,000 you could finance a coherent, effective direct mail campaign to every art buyer and worthwhile art director in Texas. One thousand postcards, printed, would run you around $200. One thousand stamps for said will run you another $430. A little more elbow grease and a little less time haunting the Photo Equipment Porno sites and you'd have your mailing list in good shape. Throw some cash at a good graphic designer and for less than $1,000 you can reach a pretty well defined list of potential, check writing clients. And you could do that seven times in one year for the price of that one camera body!!!!!" He was screaming and foaming at the mouth by this point...
"If you get a handful of new clients from just that advertising it would return a zillion times more cash to your pocket than a camera that you'll be convinced is obsolete by the time the next big photo trade show rolls around." (Then he muttered something unflattering under his breath. Very much a hard nosed business guy....not a marketing guy. A marketing guy can insult you and smile at the same time.)
I decided to stand up for my inner artist. I said that I needed the tools that would make my inner artist happy. That was the argument I trotted out. Bad move.
"Your inner-f-ing artist???? You gotta be kidding me. That guy was happy shooting on the streets with an old Hasselblad, a used lens and a pocket full of slow film. I haven't seen anything from these profit vampire digital cameras that looks any better. And do you know why? Because you keep spending all your money on toys. Back when a camera would last you longer than indigestion you could put money aside for travel and adventure. Remember travel and adventure? A hell of a lot more fun to do, and write about, than the buttons on the lastest f-ing point and shoot cameras. Wouldn't you agree?"
I looked back down at my shoes and tried to remember the last time I got on an airplane and left town to shoot art for myself.....
"Let's take that same $7,000 and see what you could do if you were smart enough to use if for a trip. Shall we?"
"Hey look! Here on Expedia. You could get a round trip ticket and ten nights at a decent hotel in Tokyo for less than $2,800 bucks. But wait, don't you have a friend with an extra room in Paris? And a couple million frequent flier miles? So all you'd have to pay for is.....film? No, not even that? Just food? And you're standing around your office, getting older and slower and looking at dinky ass digital cameras? Just grab one out of the drawer, throw a couple of lenses in a bag and get your sad butt in gear. What the hell are you waiting for? Or take the $7,000 and go to Rome for a month. Maybe you could even write a book about it. Where's your old penchant for blue sky? Have you turned into a photo pussy?"
He was right. Where was my inner business guy as we got all wrapped up in the digital marketplace? Now that we've got cameras that are more or less as transparent as the film cameras they replaced what was my excuse to buy more? Was it the habit we got into as we feverishly tried to master early digital? Or was it just resistance and the thinly disguised belief that we "techie" photographers have that the newest camera is like a magic talisman that will give us power over our competitors? According to my inner business guy the only real magic is the work you do on your marketing to clients.
Everything else is just addiction to the "new car smell."
1DX order cancelled. Passport renewed. Cards in process. How's that for a kick in the ass for the New Year?